I had thought that perhaps Jerry Coyne had tired of the issue of scientism, and could not be lured onto the field, but I was wrong. So much for that theory! For now he has put up on his website (Erinnern Sie sich! Es ist nicht einen Blog!) a new post entitled “Uncle Eric on Scientism,” which, in its quite evident challenge, reminds me of the lists, where one knight throws down his gage as a challenge to another, and then dares him to pick it up, and fight him in single combat. So here I am on my charger, having taking up the gauntlet, charging towards my opponent, my castellated keep looming ominously in the background.
Let’s get something clear at the outset. There is a tendency, in these arguments, simply to assume that science is the only form of inquiry that produces objective facts or truths, and if that assumption is the basis for the claim, and no evidence for it is provided, then the scientistic argument is circular. I am challenged to come up with other forms of knowledge or domains of knowledge, but my opponent, in this case Sir Jerry Coyne, has not yet provided conclusive demonstration that there are none. What the person who advocates what has come to be known as scientism seems to be claiming (I say “seems” because I don’t think this has ever been clearly defined) is that everything that constitutes knowledge is scientific, and all that remains is opinion. I’m not yet convinced, as I say, that a demonstration has been provided, and so far it looks suspiciously circular to me. Nevertheless, here I go, back onto the field, hooves pounding, my lance at the ready, the plumes on my helm streaming out behind me! Tally Ho!
Let’s look at Jerry’s definition of science:
I’m defining “science” as the combination of empirical observation, reason, and (usually) replicated observation and prediction that investigates what exists in the universe.
And as a first go, that’s not too bad. What he doesn’t say here, and what he must show, is that only what is arrived at by means of this methodology constitutes knowledge. He would also need to firm up what is meant by terms involved: ’empirical observation’ (for what constitutes observation is not obvious, for example, when we are talking about the “observation” of the Higgs Boson), ‘reason’, and even the terms ‘investigation’ (or ‘inquiry’), ‘prediction’, and ‘exists’, and so on. I don’t want to make this too complex, but there is a lot that is in need explication here, perhaps especially the terms ‘reason’ and ‘exists’ which are very contested concepts indeed. Now, my question is, once we have done this conceptual work, which is not a “combination of empirical observation, reason, and … replicated observation and prediction,” what is the result, knowledge or opinion? And notice, if we do not have some such account of what is going on here, it seems pointless to try to divide up the field in terms of knowledge and opinion.
For example, some conclusions in science are less well grounded than others. Some have not even been revisited for years, and much work is based on them. As new work is done, as Susan Haack points out in her book Evidence and Inquiry, there is shifting of the values of other things that are taken to be known. Some may even be subjected to radical revision, based on new information, and what “reason” is doing in this context is not altogether clear. Is it the case, as has been supposed, that reason here is deductive? We have an hypothesis. The hypothesis makes certain predictions that should occur when there is a specific relationship between other things. relationships that can be set up in an experimental setting, or can be observed under special conditions — as when Einstein’s prediction of the deflection of light because of the warping of space-time around a large mass (such as the sun) was confirmed in 1919 by two expeditions, one to West Africa, and another to Brazil, to observe light from a star during a solar eclipse. Do we now have undisputed knowledge?
Well, yes and no. It certainly gave the theory greater credibility; but the observations did not prove that Einstein’s theory was true, and could henceforth be accepted as a definitive piece of knowledge. The reason for this is quite simple. The confirmation of a prediction in fact depends on a logical fallacy, the fallacy of affirming the consequent, which means that nothing empirical is ever confirmed absolutely, as Hume had already pointed out in eighteenth century. But a theory can be disproved absolutely, for if a prediction made by a theory does not occur, then the theory is disproved.* Both of these can be shown by means of simple forms of the propositional calculus. Now, the question arises, if the propositional calculus can tell us that, does this telling constitute knowledge? It seems to me that it does. Not empirical knowledge, mind, but none the worse for that. And this is something that we can know before observation of any kind is made.
Perhaps I could just stop there, since this piece of knowledge about the propositional calculus and its application is an important aspect of scientific methodology. Mind you, it does not advert to anything which exists in an empirical sense, though as physics begins to map equations onto “reality” without any idea of how that reality “looks” — that is, without the clear possibility of empirical observation — Hawking and Mlodinow refer to ”model-dependent reality” – this seems less and less crucial to bare claims to possess knowledge. (All this, I’m afraid, is a bit rusty, since I haven’t done any philosophy of science or epistemology with serious intent for nearly forty years!)
So, lets go on to other types of knowledge besides scientific knowledge, remembering as we do, that scientific knowledge, although often very well founded indeed, does not achieve the kinds of absoluteness that guarantees any kind of timeless truth. That’s where the evolution (history) of science itself comes into play, for as our knowledge expands, what was once thought to be knowledge sometimes gets knocked off the shelf, to be replaced by a more complete or accurate account than was accessible before. Thus Darwin was wrong about a number of things, as was Newton, because they did not have the tradition or the technology that stands behind the biologists and physicists of today, which tends to relativise the scientific knowledge of the past. However, this should be an object lesson for us: that we should expect only as much certainty as the domain of inquiry allows. If we expected absolute, unrevisable knowledge from science, as Descartes did, then we would be disappointed, and might, in fact, despair of ever achieving knowledge at all.
But this is just where, it seems to me, my nephew Jerry goes astray, for he is using the word “truths” in a very different way than a scientist should. He is also forgetting that some kinds of knowledge are less certain than others. Also forgotten are kinds of knowledge that have greater certainty than the “truths” of science, namely the propositions of mathematics and logic. So when Jerry says, of moral knowledge, that this does not constitute knowledge, but mere dicta, we need to ask ourselves on what basis this claim is made. The word ‘dictum’ (of which ‘dicta’ is the plural) is an interesting one. It can mean either a saying, with emphasis on the fact that it is merely a saying, or it may indicate of some claim that it is a declaration having authority. I suspect Jerry meant it in the first, with the suggestion that I was using it in the second, way, with the additional point that saying something about value, while at the same time trying to give it the edge of authority, doesn’t give it any more truth value.
Let’s leave this aside for the moment, while my opponent’s horse takes a distinctly erratic course. Let me quote from my jousting opponent:
The problem with “objective” moral truths is much clearer in less clear-cut cases. Is it objectively true that abortion is wrong, or that a moral society must give everyone health care? You can’t ascertain these “truths” by observation; you deduce them from some general principles of right and wrong that are, at bottom, opinion. (Of course, some opinions are more well-founded than others, and that’s what philosophy is good for.)
In other words, Eric is committing here the very sin he decried (as I recall) in Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: he is saying that there are scientifically establishable truths about ethics. And if that’s true, then let Eric tell us what those truths are—without first defining, based on his taste, what is “moral” and “immoral.” Let him give us a list of all the behaviors he considers objectively immoral.
Now, the second paragraph simply jumps to a conclusion — the horse has the staggers, perhaps. It is, in short, a non sequitur, since it does not follow, from anything that I have said, that an ought can be derived from an is. To oversimplify, Harris thinks he can jump from facts about human neurophysiology to facts about what we ought to do, and I don’t think we can make this jump. It does not follow that we cannot, however (though with less definiteness than either mathematics or the physical or biological sciences), determine what things are or are not good or bad, right or wrong. But I certainly did not say, and do not say, that “there are scientifically establishable truths about ethics,” though, clearly, what makes an act right or wrong is related to, though not reducible to, states of human beings or animals, or to things that are related to such states. It does not follow from this that there will be disagreements about what is or is not true in morality.
Let’s take the question that is asked: “ Is it objectively true that abortion is wrong, or that a moral society must give everyone health care?” First, let me say that I think there is something objective about our beliefs about what is right or wrong in the cases mentioned, though I would have spoken about a just society, not a moral one. Second, I think it is odd to focus on the fact that the objectivity of moral truths is less obvious in less clear-cut cases, for, after all, the objectivity of scientific findings is less obvious where there is disagreement too. However, to start with social justice, I would say that a society is more just when it more equitably provides conditions so that the life chances of individuals within that society are not hindered by disadvantages or improved by advantages for which individuals alone are not themselves responsible. I don’t think there’s much question about that. That does not spell out an entire social programme, but it does at least provide the skeleton of one. So, in fact, a more just society would provide public health care, though public health care might reasonably say, of someone who smokes, for example, that they are responsible for the likely outcomes of so doing. A more just society would not privilege rich kids over poor kids, as well. (I think Philip Kitcher makes such a proposal, that is, to even out the life-chances of individuals in every generation, so that no one is unjustly privileged or disadvantaged, in his book, The Ethical Project, which I have read but once, so far, and have not yet had time to reflect on more substantially. But such a system would, I think, make societies more just.)
Abortion raises some difficulties, but not so many as is often supposed. While the religious value human life equally, no matter what its kind or quality, or at least claim to do so, they do this on insufficient, or, one might justly claim, bogus grounds, based largely on their belief in an infinitely wise and powerful valuer. Other than that, it seems to me, there is only one person who counts with respect to decisions regarding the continuation of a pregnancy, and that is the pregnant woman. No one should have veto power over a woman’s decision in this matter, for this is a life decision for a person, and no one should be able to decide, irrevocably, for another person, regarding the course of her life. Of course, once the foetus is viable, the moral ground may reasonably be thought to shift, at least slightly, but not, for example, if the only way to save the woman’s life is to destroy the foetus.
Having said this, however, it seems to me that there are, quite objectively, reasons for action, or reasons which should deter us from action. Certainly, gratuitous harm to another person is simply wrong, and it sounds odd to me to have this dismissed as simply a subjective belief or opinion. The same goes for the contrary. An act of gratuitous kindness, other things being equal, is a good. That some people do not live according to reasonably based moral principles does not reduce those principles to subjective opinion. Some people, for example, many Muslims, as well as some Christians, value women less than they value men, believe that women are in need of male control and invigilation, and deserve to be physically assaulted if they do not act as they are required to by the men who control them. This is either a cultural practice with a history, but no obvious moral foundation, or it is based, more likely, in religious beliefs for which unsubstantiated claims are made. In either case, the lives of both men and women in those societies could be improved by the application of a few rules concerning respect for human rights. And if it is said that rights are simply social creations, I have no problem with that, but it makes them no less real, nor does it show that they are just a matter of opinion. After all, institutions like armies are social creations, but it would be foolish not to recognise their reality.
In addition to this there are other kinds of knowledge claims that are not based upon theory construction, experiment and observation and confirmation or falsification, that is, that knowledge claims that do not constitute scientific knowledge. There is knowledge of art and the effects of different techniques and materials. There is cultural understanding of the part that art and architecture, literature and music play in the life and vitality of a society, that are is not based simply on observation and confirmation, but more broadly on what may be called interpretation. But it seems odd to say that none of this can constitute knowledge, even though it is not the kind of knowledge that science provides. This is why Kitcher began his New Republic essay on scientism, “The Trouble with Scientism,” with precisely this kind of cultural understanding and knowledge, by invoking the example of the commemoration of the bombing of Coventry and Dresden. Simply to deny that there is knowledge involved here is to make the scientistic claim circular, unless a non-circular reason can be given for dismissing such knowledge claims.
Now I have given examples of several types of knowledge, scientific, mathematical, logical, moral, cultural, etc., and we could add more, including the kind of knowledge involved in knowing a language, knowing a person, knowing how to ride a bike, knowing music theory and performance, knowing what it is like to climb Everest, knowing what it is like to be in love, and we could go on and on, obviously. The verb ‘to know’ has a multitude of uses, and some of it constitutes quite straightforward examples of knowing something about the world, including the social/cultural world, literature, music, music theory, art, art theory and history, history itself, and on and on through all sorts of domains of knowledge, of which it cannot be said that empirical evidence alone would be sufficient warrant for the claim to know. Which leaves me with the question: Why is it thought so important to confine the words ‘knowledge’ and ‘know’ to scientific ways of knowing alone, important as, in very truth, that way of knowing is? It seems to me that this would impoverish us intolerably, and I wonder why anyone wants to do it?
*This, by the way, is why Karl Popper used falsification as the basis of marking off meaningful empirical statements from nonsense, instead of using the idea of inductive confirmation, for nothing is absolutely confirmed, but it can be absolutely disconfirmed or falsified. What we consider to be the most reliable scientific knowledge are theories and hypotheses that we have repeatedly tried to falsify, and which have withstood those tests.