Comment on “The Folly of Scientism”
December 20, 2012 6 Comments
This post is in response to a piece in New Atlantis by Austin L. Hughes:
The central question is something like `can science answer all questions?’, a much discussed topic. Note that it is not the question `is science the best way of answering all questions in its relevant domain?’ a question to which we can be sure the answer is positive. It is more about the scope of that relevant domain, and in particular whether there is anything outside of it. Scientists sometimes confuse the two. A good example of the sort of area where this may be false is ethics. If a scientist holds that only scientific claims are truth evaluable, you can ask him whether it is true or false that it is wrong to torture cats for fun. The choices are to claim that the statement is not truth-evaluable (not in fact a position to be quickly dismissed but unlikely to be chosen) or to allow that it is. If it is, then one can enquire of the scientist what data could be collected to establish the truth of the claim. There seems to be none. Thus we may make out the claim that science, while superb within its relevant domain, does not answer all questions of interest. That result may be confirmed by observing a group of scientists in the pub, and measuring the proportion of the time that they discuss questions which have an empirical answer: not a high proportion. In fact — why discuss such questions at all? Why not go and perform the appropriate measurement?
Hughes notes that science has taken over a lot of territory from philosophy. This is true, but should concern no-one. Philosophy which conflicts with science is valueless. Where it is useful is in the wider domain of non-empirical questions, which is why the domain question above is of such importance. Science will also tend to develop more than philosophy does — parts of philosophy of mind may be resolved by psychology for example. Note again that this is different process to the one where science gradually answers all questions of interest or provides a complete account of everything. How will science answer the question as to why there is something rather than nothing? (A question Hughes later raises.) What would a scientific answer to that question even look like?
Hughes is slightly unfair on scientists when he writes that they “confus[e] correlation and causation, or confus[e] implication with a bi-conditional. The former is barely a confusion, though it is true that some scientists may be unaware that all they can ever measure is correlation and causation is not an observable quantity. The latter error is probably less frequent. In scientific rather than philosophical terms, it means deciding that if A then B and B, A may be concluded when there may be other causes of B. Scientists however are quite good at looking at several possible explanations for their data.
Hughes claims that philosophy can assist science by deciding what are the proper boundaries of science. This as I outline above is true, but I think he weakens his case by introducing Popper’s falsification requirement: only hypotheses which can be falsified are proper science. One problem with this is that it renders much of or many of the string theories non-science which seems like an odd result — but not an impossible one. The worst problem though is that Popper may not be being philosophical. Many scientists would agree with the criterion but also count is as part of science — or at least meta-science, in that it is something that emerges from their general practice even if it cannot itself be subjected to scientific test or subjected to itself. That causes a problem of supportability because if the test of what is scientific is not itself a part of science, then what has been achieved?
Hughes is unfair to Quine in criticising the latter’s use of `nerve endings’ as an explanation for certain biology. This is just a placeholder for the biology that transpires to be true in the relevant domain. Philosophers also speak of `c-fibres firing’ for whatever mechanism transpires to be the physiological underpinning of pain. Philosophers cannot be expected to do the biology better than the biologists, and are interested in different questions, such as: `if we had a complete physiology of pain, would it be sufficient for someone to feel pain that they replicated that physiology?’ Answering these questions does not require a detailed knowledge of the physiology which may not in fact be available.
It is definitely correct, as Hughes says, that assuming that scientists are right on non-scientific questions is a mistake. But plenty of action is still in science — climate change, whether stem cell research will provide useful results, vaccination, radio masts — and the problem here is that the public accords too little weight to the views of scientists, for reasons that escape me, but which may be connected to the difficulties in defining the correct domain for science.
Hughes goes on to challenge Hawkings’s rather poor grasp of philosophical questions in three areas: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics; these are basically the questions `what exists?’; `how do we know anything?’ and `what should we do?’. As he points out, Hawkings’s idea that by positing the multiverse as an explanation for the existence of this and perhaps other universes merely moves the `why is there anything’ question one level back. Hughes is also right to dismiss the idea that evolution explains why we can understand the universe because it does not explain why the universe is governed by stable scientific laws.
Hughes is right to note that the claims that evolution should select us to believe only and always the truth are questionable. He might go further though and note the work of McKay And Dennett in `The Evolution of Misbelief’ on the fitness enhancing nature of certain false beliefs. For example, a healthy level of delusion about one’s own capacities is associated with optimal mental health. Hughes might also consider the extensive work of Gilovich (`How we know what isn’t so’) on the vast amount of things people believe — religions, astrology, tarot, healing power of crystals, interviewing candidates produces better hires — which are simply empirically false. Hughes does note Trivers’s work in this context though.
Hughes is wrong when he says “it is very hard to see such an advantage to DNA sequence analysis or quantum theory”. While he is right strictly speaking that evolution could not possibly have selected us to be good at quantum theory, it is entirely plausible that it could have selected us for ever more and improved information gathering capacities, and that those have after many years led us to quantum theory.
Hughes makes his strongest point when he attacks naturalism, the view that what is natural is right. Why would it be? If what our ancestors did was selfish and driven by natural selection, why would our current views be any less driven by natural selection or any less wrong?
Hughes is wise to challenge utilitarianism, because it tends ti be widespread outside philosophy and especially appealing to scientists, because they think they can measure things to answer the question as to what is the greatest good for the greater number. Anyone in philosophy can provide dozens of fatal counterexamples. One of the simplest ones is the christians and the lions: if the value to each of 100,000 spectators of seeing a christian torn apart by a lion is greater than the disvalue/100,000 to the christian, utilitarianism (in simple versions) supports it. Avoiding that conclusion requires some fancy footwork, particularly when one notes that 100,000 can be made arbitrarily large. Also one can ask utilitarians why they think an infinite number of people is a better result than a smaller number.
There is an immediate counter to Hughes’s claim that “both states and countries with high rates of reported “happiness” also have high rates of suicide suggest that people’s answers to surveys may not always provide a reliable indicator of societal well-being, or even of happiness.” To be sure, he may be right in his premise that high happiness countries are high suicide countries. But is not a more reasonable interpretation of this not that people do not know if they are happy, but to bear in mind that the number of people who commit suicide is very small, and perhaps inequality in societies is a factor? Perhaps a society in which some people are very happy because they are rich, and most people are quite happy because they are quite well off, is very difficult for very poor people to live in?
I do not understand Hughes’s complaint that “Harris seems to think that free will is an illusion but also that our decisions are really driven by thoughts that arise unbidden in our brains.” He seems to think that these claims are in tension when I think they are entirely consistent. Perhaps Hughes thinks that if a decision arises in my brain, then ipso facto I have free will, but that is in need of an argument and contrary to views in which the subconscious is prominent.
Hughes’s conclusions is well made and supported by his arguments. He writes: “Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole.” This is surely true. In fact, would not the credibility of science be enhanced by acknowledging the proper restriction of its domain? Within the empirical arena, it is supreme and unchallenged. But that’s not all there is.