Philip Kitcher has just published an article in the Atlantic about the relationships amongst different ways of apprehending reality, and the overemphasis that he thinks is being placed on scientific methodology in defining what it means to know something. Entitled “The Trouble with Scientism,” Kitcher explores what he thinks of as a mistaken concentration on scientific methodology to the exclusion of other approaches to an understanding of the human condition. You may notice that I am carefully trying to steer clear, as much as I can, of the expression ‘ways of knowing,’ for that has been a misleading way of speaking about the disagreements here, and it is the one that is most often turned to in the response of those whom Kitcher would call the acolytes of “scientism”. Taking my cue from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy I have usually taken it for granted that there is no substance to the claim that anyone takes scientism seriously — that it is, in effect, a pejorative way of speaking about those with whom you disagree, even though no one actually holds the position. According to the Companion:
In philosophy, a commitment to one or more of the following lays one open to the charge of scientism.
- The sciences are more important than the arts for an understanding of the world in which we live, or, even, all we need to understand it.
- Only a scientific methodology is intellectually acceptable. Therefore, if the arts are to be a genuine part of human knowledge they must adopt it.
- Philosophical problems are scientific problems and should only be dealt with as such. [814, qv. scientism]
I am now increasingly of the opinion, however, that there is a streak of scientism running through the gnu atheism, and that a number of gnu atheists whom I respect highly have adopted this position, committed to one or more of the above conditions.
This seems to be the case with Jerry Coyne. For example, in his response to Kitcher, “The trouble with “The Trouble with Scientism“,” Jerry quite explicitly says that all that is worthwhile in the humanities is what can be assimilated to the scientific method. All else is feeling. He puts it very clearly:
Who can look at a lily pond the same way if you’ve seen Monet’s renditions? And many of us are moved by Bach or Coltrane. But those aren’t ways of knowing — they’re ways of feeling.
And, although Kitcher does not really mention religion as a way of knowing in this context, Jerry makes use of the analogy, on a number of occasions saying things like:
I still maintain that real understanding of our universe can come only from using crude versions of methods that have been so exquisitely refined by science: reason combined with doubt, observation, and replication. As one of my commenters said last week, “there are not different ways of knowing. There is only knowing and not knowing.” I would add that there is also feeling, which is the purview of art. But none of this gives the slightest credibility to religion as a way of finding truth.
In general I agree with that sentiment. However, there is every reason to believe that something important is being left out. Not that people’s feelings can give us accurate accounts of what is “out there,” and possibly not that feelings can give us an accurate picture of what is “in here.” If I tell you what I am feeling, there is a sense in which you cannot correct me, even though you may suspect that my feelings are quite other than I claim. Crocodile tears are all too common a phenomenon to doubt that people frequently do deceive us about their feelings, or are themselves deceived.
However, there is a sense in which it would be wrong for us to exclude feelings from our knowledge of the world. This is probably why Richard Holloway, in that wonderfully weird and expressive book, Leaving Alexandria, in the end feels he has to retain something of the reality of religious feeling and its sequelae, expressing the conviction that those who miss out on what religious people are saying are missing out on something important about the human experience which, while it may not achieve the level of scientific knowledge, is still important for an understanding of being human. I know that a number of people who read this blog feel that I sometimes ride this particular hobby-horse a bit too much, perhaps out of an inertial sense that my life in religion was not wholly wasted, and that religion may still have much to teach us, much that, while it cannot be accommodated to scientific ways of knowing, nevertheless achieves the dignity of knowledge.
I think here of Hume, for example, who said that:
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. [A Treatise of Human Nature, 2.3.3 para 4]
In view of the close interconnexion between reason and feeling (passion) it would be surprising indeed if feeling provided no insight into (and therefore knowledge of) human nature. To take an oversimple example of the kind of thing I have in mind here, the following is a footnote about the role that emotion plays in knowledge, whether as biasing effect, or as possession of built-in knowledge (the quote comes from Robert Nozick’s Invariances):
… emotional responses may have knowledge built into them, knowledge we do not explicitly possess. Random variation over stable evolutionary time, which exceeds the lifetimes of many individual organisms, can produce emotion-behavior combinations that are advantageous (on average) for reasons that we could not have learned on the basis of our own evidence and experiences. 
The point here is that there are ways of understanding our humanity that are stored up in things like plays and novels, music and painting, sculpture and even, perhaps, in religion, without which we would be the poorer. Of course, none of this goes towards supporting religious beliefs, but it may have something to say about the value of some of the things that have been created by religion, traditions of thought and feeling without which we might well be poorer. This, certainly, is Richard Holloway’s point in a number of books since he has come to the point of finding himself unable any longer to consider himself a Christian (he calls himself a post-Christian). It has also been my point in a number of posts over the past year or more on this blog, where I have ridden my hobby-horse from time to time insisting that, while we cannot take theology seriously as a way of knowing, there is a residuum of knowledge in theology and religious practice that we ought not to lose simply because the conclusions of theology are one and all fictive.
And this, so far as I can make out, is precisely what Philip Kitcher is trying to say. For example, he begins his Atlantic article with the following words, which, I take it, are supposed to illustrate the kind of “knowledge” that is not accessible to someone making enquiries using scientific methodology:
There are two cathedrals in Coventry. The newer on, consecrated on May 25, 1962, stands beside the remains of the older one, which dates from the fourteenth century, a ruin testifying to the bombardment of the Blitz. Three years before the consecration, in one of the earliest ventures in the twinning of towns, Coventry had paired itself with Dresden. That gesture of reconciliation was recapitulated in 1962, when Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem received its first performance at the ceremony. …
Since the 1960s, historians have worked — and debated — to bring into focus the events of the night of February 13, 1945, in which an Allied bombing attack devastated the strategically irrelevant city of Dresden. An increased understanding of the decisions that led to the fire-bombing, and of the composition of the Dresden population that suffered the consequences, have altered subsequent judgments about the conduct of war. The critical light of history has been reflected in the contributions of novelists and critics, and of theorists of human rights. Social and political changes, in other words, followed the results of humanistic inquiry, and were intertwined with th reconciliatory efforts of the citizens of Coventry and Dresden.
It must not be thought that this humanistic inquiry is the same as scientific inquiry, for it includes so much more than just the bare facts that can be verified by historians. It includes a deep emotional and moral understanding, a deep human understanding — and, yes, I would like to add, knowledge — of what Wilfred Owen called the pity of war, and how this affects those who are caught up in its unforgiving clutches. This is why I continue to say, despite some criticism, that there is more to things like religion and poetry than meets the eye, and that we will be poorer if we do not examine religion for those deeply human things that can be found there — things both good and evil. For though theology may be largely fictive, it does not for that reason fail of humanity. Religion is an entirely human creation, as Christopher Hitchens never tired of telling us, and one of the most notable things about Hitchens’ god is not Great is simply that the humanity of religion and its role in human life and society stands out boldly on every page. Hitchens mentions somewhere in the book that when he visits the holy places of the religions he shows respect. Entering a mosque he removes his shoes. This is a kind of respect that, despite his stringent criticisms of religion, he maintains even in the midst of his critique, for Hitchens took religion seriously as a human pursuit and creation. As a consequence, he realised that religions know a lot about being human, despite their failure to understand the very human origin of their beliefs. It would be a pity, as I have said before, and will no doubt say again, if we did not learn what the religions have to teach us about being human, in the course of which, allied to scientific ways of knowing, we should be able to devise much more human ways of living together than either religion alone or science alone can manage to accomplish. What we need is a new synthesis, one that accepts both the limitations of science and the fictive (yet deeply human) nature of religion, a synthesis in terms of which we can, perhaps at last, create a way of living that is focused where it should be, on this world, but one which, in being focused there, recognises that, for all its pretensions, religion was focused there all along, and did not know it. I think Kitcher’s concerns are real ones, and should be attended to with some care. The scientistic reductionism that is becoming more common amongst those who rejection religious forms of believing and life will, in the end, produce a warped vision of what it means to be human. We must be much more willing to listen to the ghosts of the past, and efforts that were made, misdirected as they may have been, to live life in prospect of a life to come, but were as concerned with life right here and now as any secular humanist could hope to be. Religion needs, as religion, to be defeated, but its insights into the human character (theological anthropology) and into ways of life coordinate with that character, biased as they may be, still, I suspect, have more to teach us than we are often ready to acknowledge.