Easter Musings on “Scientism”

We have it on good authority (i.e., Bill Hicks) that in Australia, people celebrate Easter the same way we do here in the U.S. of A.: honoring the death and subsequent resurrection of one-third the Holy Trinity by telling children, ahem, “a giant bunny rabbit left chocolate eggs in the night.”

I think this is as good evidence as we need that we, as a species, are not wired properly, or are being operated far outside of spec. Savannah-optimized, indeed.

Be that as it may, it looks like Russell Blackford is taking an Easter break from the Blagnet, hopefully to eat a great deal of chocolate eggs in a place where philosophy is clear and analytic, far removed from quantum feminism and quantum post-relativistic biocentrism.

Some interesting discussion is going on at his “No Skyhooks” post about moral philosophy, but for my money, this line is even better:

I have learned that when you hear or see the word “scientism” these days you know you are dealing with some kind of irrationalist, or simply with a moron.

Having spent two or three subjective eternities in the wilds of the Net, I can only agree.

It is so easy to provoke a knee-jerk response by waving that magic totem word, scientism. Calling someone a rigid disciple of scientism is almost like accusing them, say, of complicity in the military-industrial complex. Like all the best slogans, it stirs the emotions while erecting a false dichotomy which makes sensible discussion difficult if not impossible. It also lets you equivocate harder, faster and longer than the Three Witches in Macbeth. To see why, consider an illuminating passage in Alan Sokal’s “Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?

The word science, as commonly used, has at least four distinct meanings: it denotes an intellectual endeavor aimed at a rational understanding of the natural and social world; it denotes a corpus of currently accepted substantive knowledge; it denotes the community of scientists, with its mores and its social and economic structure; and, finally, it denotes applied science and technology.

Sokal goes on to point out that it’s trivial to construct bad arguments against “science” (and, therefore, “scientism”) by equivocation. You just have to take a valid critique of one sense and apply it to another. For example, the military (dominated by men) often uses technology for destructive ends. Therefore — sneakily switching from definition 4 to definition 1 — the method of hypothesis, experiment and cross-criticism is nothing but a tool of the phallocentric patriarchy.

Consider the question, “Are there meaningful aspects of the human experience and significant questions we can ask which are not addressable through modern science?” The answer is, I believe, a fairly trivial — and uncontroversial — yes. Dawkins is on record as calling Bach and Beethoven great artists, and few are ready to assert that Beethoven must be “reduced” to elemental constituents. Science can be relevant to the artistic experience, in several obvious ways: delivering Bach to us in MP3 format, for example, or figuring out just what that guitar chord is which opens “A Hard Day’s Night”. How can any urban citizen think science and art conflict — one gives you an iPod, and the other fills it with music! Methinks the “two cultures” divide may be a pathology of the professors. . . .

The assertion that present-day science cannot address some questions about this or that human activity, while true, is not very interesting. A biology lab is not equipped to answer difficult questions of physics or archeology, yet we seldom draw deep philosophical conclusions from this fact. We can pose a more interesting conundrum if we inquire, “Are there questions meaningful to the human experience which the scientific method cannot and will never be able to address?” Turning from the current state of science — a body of knowledge and a community of individuals — to the method used to gain that knowledge adds a new layer of complexity.

The scientific method, so far as one can codify it, requires guessing explanations based on current knowledge, figuring out what those guesses would imply about the world, comparing those implications to observations we make upon the world, and granting provisional acceptance to the ideas which survive rigorous cross-criticism. But this means that on the level of method, “scientism” really translates to “guess-deduce-observe-criticize-ism”. It is much more difficult to have a knee-jerk response to this latter slogan, even though it is an entirely reasonable interpretation of the term “scientism”!

One thought on “Easter Musings on “Scientism””

  1. First, is there an is-ought distinction? (And should there be, or am I just repeating the same question? :p)

    Second, asking how far approach X has come in solving problem Y may be uninteresting philosophically but it can be terribly important practically. Game theorists and historians see nuclear conflict differently. EP and anthropology have different takes on gender roles. How you synthesize the fields’ approaches has real-world implications. Skepticism (external validity, people!) and respect for evidence help–but they may leave you studying history sometimes.

    Anyway, I hope weak anti-science arguments don’t make you any less critical of bad things done in the name of science. Then the terrorists really will’ve won.

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