February 12, 2009

Science versus philosophy? (Part 1)

APOLOGIA
By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, February 12, 2009)

Science versus philosophy? (Part 1)
Some folks subscribe to the following statement: A claim is reasonable to believe only if it is a claim of science—so philosophical (and theological) claims should be dismissed.

The above view is known as strong scientism (hereafter, scientism). Here is one reason (of three) for not believing scientism: it’s a classic example of a self-refuting statement.

First, some clarifications.

A statement or claim has a field of reference: it’s about something. For example, the statement, “Cats are furry creatures,” is about cats.

Some statements include themselves in their field of reference. For example, the statement, “All printed English sentences contain letters of the alphabet,” refers to itself as well as other English sentences.

A self-refuting statement includes itself in its own field of reference but fails to satisfy its own criteria of truthfulness or rational acceptability. Consider these claims as examples: "All English sentences are less than three words long" (yes, count'em); "There are no truths" (an alleged truth); “Language can never communicate ideas” (think about it).

So far, so good.

Now, here are some claims of science: Each molecule of water consists of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen; energy equals mass times the speed of light squared; gold is soluble in aqua regia; the universe began 13.7 billion years ago; after 1,620 years approximately half the radium atoms in a given quantity of radium will have transmuted into radon atoms.

Okay, now consider scientism, the claim that, of all claims, only the claims of science are reasonable to believe.

Notice that the scientism claim includes itself in its own field of reference (because it’s a claim about claims). Notice, too, that this claim isn’t a claim of science per se (such as those in the list above having to do with H2O, E=mc2, etc.); rather, it’s a claim of a different order—it’s a claim about scientific claims.

But (and this is the crucial point), because scientism isn’t a claim of science—instead, it’s a claim about the claims of science—scientism isn’t reasonable. After all, scientism asserts that claims other than the claims of science are not reasonable. Hence, scientism self-refutes.

What, then, is scientism? Scientism is a philosophical claim. It’s a claim about what constitutes knowledge (in philosophical parlance, it’s an epistemological claim).

Think of it this way. Scientism asserts that the set of reasonable claims is exhausted by non-philosophical claims of the sort in the above-listed claims of science (the scientific findings); however, because scientism is not a member of the set of claims of science—i.e., scientism describes this set philosophically/abstractly "from the outside” (it is about/above the set, not in it)—scientism is, by its own criteria, not reasonable.

The upshot: As truly important and wonderful as science is, the realm of good reasoning and knowledge is not exhausted by it.

[Stay tuned for reasons 2 and 3.]

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba.)

18 comments:

Christopher said...

The claim of scientism about itself fails to make sense of itself by the standards of scientism. Interesting point.

Your point, Dr. V., is very much like Michael Polanyi's point against the early 20th century logical positivists: if only phyisical data is valid evidence, then where's the physical data for that claim?

Also, it seems that Hegel encountered the same difficulty in his dialectic system. That is, the only way to verify that history tapers in a massive convergence of thesis-antithesis-synthesis is to stand outside that system and look in on it. Hegel's dialectic system, symmetrical as it was, could not actually account for itself.

Dr. V said...

Christopher: Thanks for your excellent insights.

Pvblivs (if you're still reading this blog): I have finally responded to your puzzle on omniscience. See the fourth comment at the first installment of Apologia. I'm definitely not sure that my answer is correct, but I gave it a shot.

Cheers,
Hendrik

Paul C said...

Can you give us some examples of the folks who subscribe to this view?

Dr. V said...

Hello Paul,

Here are some examples of people who subscribe to (strong) scientism of whom I am aware: An outspoken high school science teacher of some of my Sunday school students in Waterloo, Ontario; at least a few of my fellow students in my 15 years or so of study at 3 different universities; an engineer with a Ph.D. in physics who is an acquaintance of the philosopher J. P. Moreland (as reported in Moreland’s book, Love Your God with All Your Mind, pp. 148-149); the early logical positivists with their verificationist criterion of meaning (probably better classified as a strong, strong scientism); one of my professors at my undergraduate alma mater who claimed to be a verificationist (and I suspect he influenced quite a few students).

From what I can gather of the contemporary popular mindset (to which my newspaper column is primarily directed), I believe that scientism, or at least a version of scientism, is widely held. The idea for many persons today, it seems to me, is that only the claims of science are reasonable and true and that the claims of religion and ethics belong to another realm, outside of reason. I want readers of my column to realize that good reasoning and truth aren’t exhausted by science, though at the same time I wish to emphasize (and strongly believe) that science is very good at reasoning and discerning truth.

In Apologia I hope to promote the application of careful reasoning and truth-seeking into the realms of faith and ethics, as well as science. It’s a tall order, I know, but I would like to give it a shot. And I would like to take this shot in a way that isn’t insulting or disrespectful to anyone, even when I make mistakes (or even when some readers think I make mistakes, when I think I don’t).

Cheers,
Hendrik

Dr. V said...

Dear readers of Apologia,

You may have noticed that I have changed my blog profile picture from the brain in a vat to the letter “V”. Yes, I’ve been viewing too many movies lately, and, yes, I like the movie V for Vendetta. I quickly add, however, that instead of V’s violent ways to make the world a better place, I think it’s a much better idea to promote civil and careful discussion in our common endeavors—and especially in our search for truth, or veritas.

(Note: I’m not a pacifist. I think there are some very limited but appropriate places for violence; e.g., police work, just war. But I think too that we should also work very, very hard via non-violent ways to promote civil and just societies. Respectful and careful discussion is one of those ways, it seems to me.)

V… I like it. Okay, okay, so maybe I’ve got too much time on my hands…

Cheers,
Hendrik

Christopher said...

A few popular scientism scientists would include:

Richard Dawkins
P.Z. Meyers
Victor Stenger

get_education said...

Christopher said...

A few popular scientism scientists would include:

Richard Dawkins
P.Z. Meyers
Victor Stenger


No Christopher, these guys accept philosophical "claims." They just reject beliefs in gods, and, by extension, theological claims.

Perhaps Hendrik, you should not have mixed the words "theological" and "philosophical" in your first paragraph without making it clear that the two are not necessarily the same. I understood what you were saying, but you know, easy for people to get mixed or read too much into things.

G.E.

get_education said...

Hendrik,

Let us see, I would like to understand a bit better, so here it goes:

Okay, now consider scientism, the claim that, of all claims, only the claims of science are reasonable to believe.

So, let us say this is not a claim, but rather a conclusion. Let us say that a person goes deep into science and so goes in life, and this person is lead, by the witnessing of the power of science, that maybe only scientific claims are reasonable to believe. Since this would be something of a scientific conclusion (given the evidence of how science helps understand and do, and whatever), wouldn't it now be a scientific claim of sorts?

Also, isn't science a philosophical thingie? If so, does "scientism" really really exist as such? I mean, I have always thought that I adhere to a philosophy, that of scientific thinking. That has never meant, in my mind, that philosophical "claims" are not to be accepted. Science is a philosophy itself. So, where did I get lost? I never heard of any person rejecting philosophy on the basis of only scientific "claims" being reasonable. That would require the person to be a very "cheap" thinker who has not even thought of why those degrees are called "Ph.D."

So, perhaps finally. Isn't this "science vs philosophy" some kind of manufactured argument against non-believers? You know, something of a strawman? Something exaggerating some line of thought, naming it (scientism), then attacking it? This would explain why it was so easy for Christopher to think that Dawkins and those guys were "scientism" adherents.

I am just trying to understand better.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

G.E.,

It’s good to hear from you again.

G.E. wrote:

Christopher said...

A few popular scientism scientists would include:

Richard Dawkins
P.Z. Meyers
Victor Stenger


No Christopher, these guys accept philosophical "claims." They just reject beliefs in gods, and, by extension, theological claims.

Perhaps Hendrik, you should not have mixed the words "theological" and "philosophical" in your first paragraph without making it clear that the two are not necessarily the same. I understood what you were saying, but you know, easy for people to get mixed or read too much into things.

Hendrik’s reply:

Yes, G.E., I think that you’re right on both of your points.

Dawkins and the above company should not be classified under the strong sense of scientism that I set out in my column. The philosopher J. P. Moreland, in the book I mentioned in a comment above, makes a helpful distinction between strong scientism and weak scientism. Strong scientism is what I set out in my column: A claim is reasonable to believe only if it is a claim of science—so philosophical (and theological) claims should be dismissed. However, according to Moreland, “Advocates of weak scientism allow for the existence of truths apart from science and are even willing to grant that they can have some minimal, positive rationality status without the support of science. But advocates of weak scientism still hold that science is the most valuable, most serious, and most authoritative sector of human learning.” (J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind, p. 145.) Now, because I know more about Dawkins’ work than that of Meyers and Stenger (though I have looked at some of Stenger’s work), I’ll just talk about Dawkins. If we were to classify Dawkins, I think it would be reasonable place Dawkins in a category that leans somewhat towards weak scientism—so, Christopher, I think that your comment is not completely off target. Nevertheless, I appreciate G.E.’s insight here.

G.E., I also take your point about my having the word “theological” so close (in parentheses) to the word “philosophical.” They are different, and some people may mix them up. In my defence, though, I would like to point out that my column usually appears on the faith page of the newspaper for which it is written, so I was trying to connect my column to theology, which is connected to faith. Also in my defence, I have to keep everything that I’m trying to do in my column within a 400 word limit, so I have to make judgments about what I can and cannot thoroughly explain (it feels like I’m doing triage sometimes). I’m sure that my judgments will be mistaken from time to time. I apologize for that. (Happily, the editor of my newspaper has been giving me some leeway on the word limit, so hopefully the columns will get better.)

Again, G.E., it’s good to hear from you. I hope that your semester is going well. It’s hard to believe that midterms will soon be upon us.

Best regards,
Hendrik

Dr. V said...

Hello again G.E.,

I barely have a chance to respond to your first comment, and I see you’ve sent a couple more. I appreciate your interest in my column.

G.E. wrote:

[Quoting Hendrik] Okay, now consider scientism, the claim that, of all claims, only the claims of science are reasonable to believe.

So, let us say this is not a claim, but rather a conclusion. Let us say that a person goes deep into science and so goes in life, and this person is lead, by the witnessing of the power of science, that maybe only scientific claims are reasonable to believe. Since this would be something of a scientific conclusion (given the evidence of how science helps understand and do, and whatever), wouldn't it now be a scientific claim of sorts?

Hendrik’s reply:

Yes, I think that this would be a scientific claim of sorts. I think too that it would fit under what Moreland calls weak scientism.

G.E. wrote:

Also, isn't science a philosophical thingie? If so, does "scientism" really really exist as such? I mean, I have always thought that I adhere to a philosophy, that of scientific thinking. That has never meant, in my mind, that philosophical "claims" are not to be accepted. Science is a philosophy itself. So, where did I get lost?

Hendrik’s reply:

I think that the “philosophical thingie” that you describe would be weak scientism. So I don’t think you got lost.

G.E. wrote:

I never heard of any person rejecting philosophy on the basis of only scientific "claims" being reasonable. That would require the person to be a very "cheap" thinker who has not even thought of why those degrees are called "Ph.D."

Hendrik’s reply:

As I mentioned above in an earlier comment (to Paul), Moreland has heard of such persons. Also, I have heard such persons (see again my comment to Paul). Indeed, last year a letter writer to my local newspaper was dismissive of philosophy for the very reason you cite. (I’ll try to find the letter; the letter writer belonged to a Canadian humanist society.) Also, the logical positivists that Christopher mentioned in his first comment were in fact notorious for rejecting philosophical claims on the basis of only scientific “claims” being reasonable. According to their verificationist criterion of meaning, anything that couldn’t be verified through the five senses—that is, through science—was deemed meaningless.

G.E. wrote:

So, perhaps finally. Isn't this "science vs philosophy" some kind of manufactured argument against non-believers? You know, something of a strawman? Something exaggerating some line of thought, naming it (scientism), then attacking it? This would explain why it was so easy for Christopher to think that Dawkins and those guys were "scientism" adherents.

Hendrik’s reply:

No, it’s not a straw man at all, as I’ve argued above. There are some real-life “non-believers” who hold to this view. I don’t mean to sound harsh or disrespectful here, G.E., but I’m surprised that someone who goes by the handle “Get Education” wouldn’t know about the logical positivists. I learned about them in an undergraduate course on the history and philosophy of science.

G.E. wrote:

I am just trying to understand better.

Hendrik’s reply:

I’m glad. And I hope that the above is helpful. Again, I hope that I haven’t come across sounding harsh or disrespectful in any of my replies. I’m trying my best to argue reasonably and respectfully. But I know that I have my rough edges….

Best wishes only,
Hendrik

get_education said...

Hi Hendrik,

Thanks for your answers. Funny that I was about to send yet another post saying that I might sound harsh at times, but to please not take it wrong. Just as you said to me.

No, it’s not a straw man at all, as I’ve argued above. There are some real-life “non-believers” who hold to this view.

I see your point. But truly I never heard of such thing. Never heard of anybody saying that only scientific claims were reasonable with the addendum that philosophical ones are not. Never did I hear anybody claiming that science and philosophy were completely separable either.

(Just to be clear, I was not implying that you were consciously constructing a strawman. I was rather pointing to this possibility because lots of arguments from apologists evolve from some previous apologist who constructed some elaborate argument that ends up being a strawman of sorts.)

I don’t mean to sound harsh or disrespectful here, G.E., but I’m surprised that someone who goes by the handle “Get Education” wouldn’t know about the logical positivists. I learned about them in an undergraduate course on the history and philosophy of science.

(I go by "get education" for everybody's "benefit" Mine also.)

I have heard about logical positivism, but never thought of them claiming that only scientific claims are rational AND philosophical ones are not. Logical positivism was/is a philosophical stand, and the proponents knew that. This is why and where we depart, probably. In other words, how you "gain knowledge of the world" is what these guys were about, not that "philosophical claims" are irrational. I do not know if I am clear on this distinction. It might sound like deviating into "semantics," but it seems rather important. I bet you might have heard those exact words from some "scientism adherent." After all, I have made my good deal of exaggerated claims in the heat of arguments. Yet I doubt anybody, come to think properly about it, would say that philosophical "claims" are invalid. Logic is part of philosophy. As I understand it, science is some kind of philosophy too. Thus, philosophy is inescapable.

Best, and best for those middle terms. May your students show a great deal of learning achieved.

G.E.

PS Sorry about so much arguing. Thanks again for explaining, I am still baffled by the separation of science from philosophy. But I will be fine.

Christopher said...

"No Christopher, these guys accept philosophical "claims." They just reject beliefs in gods, and, by extension, theological claims.

Perhaps Hendrik, you should not have mixed the words "theological" and "philosophical" in your first paragraph without making it clear that the two are not necessarily the same. I understood what you were saying, but you know, easy for people to get mixed or read too much into things."


G.E.,

I can accept your correction about those scientists. Thank you for clarifying. I do want to know, however, how you think Dawkins, especially, is not a hard scientist since in The God Delusion he quite adamantly asserts that all religious/theological statements should come under the purview of science? Further to that, that theological/religious perspectives, because they make statements about existence, are logically bound to a submissive place under science. If this does not place Dawkins in the position of a strong scientism perspective, then how is he exhonerated?

Not to beat a dead horse, I think that since Dawkins quite brazenly asserts the subjection of theology to science, that a case can be made by extension that he would most likely agree to philosophical statements coming into submission to science. You?

As to the distinction between theology and philosophy, I'm quite well aware.

Dr. V said...

Dear Apologia readers and commentators,

I want take a moment to emphasize that it's truly important for us to be respectful to those with whom we disagree and argue. I encourage all of us (myself included) to try to be EXTRA courteous. In fact (and I know that this will sound corny, but here goes anyway), I am hereby calling for a reformation of Internet manners.

I believe it can be achieved, one comment at a time.

(Maybe this could fit under President Obama's "time for a change"?)

Respectfully yours,
Hendrik

get_education said...

Hi Christopher,

Thanks for your answer. Sorry if I implied you might not know the distinction between theology and philosophy. That was not my point, but rather that "scientism" seemed to have been mistaken to be the sole rejection of theological claims.

Not to beat a dead horse, I think that since Dawkins quite brazenly asserts the subjection of theology to science, that a case can be made by extension that he would most likely agree to philosophical statements coming into submission to science. You?

The problem, Christopher, is that making the case for Dawkins possibly standing for a submission of philosophy to science requires you to be able to argue first that science is not a philosophical thingie. I doubt Dawkins makes such a strong separation between science and everything else. I bet that he would tell you that science and philosophy are irremediably intertwined, or perhaps tell you that the claim (philosophy submitting to science) does not make sense.

At any rate, maybe Dawkins is a strong materialist, or a strong realist, or a strong atheist, or into strong skepticism. But a strong "scientism" adherent, as defined above, I strongly doubt it. :-)

G.E.

Lindsay said...

Hi Dr. V! Just stopping by to say hello and cool blog! I will definitely come by again for a regular dose of critical realism. I usually don't debate online, so I'll just save up all my comments for when I'm back in the summer ;) Last week I had a chance to go to a lecture by Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne on science and religion, which was really excellent and made me grateful (once again) for my philosophy classes with you!

All the best,
Lindsay

Christopher said...

G.E.,

Thank you for your lucid explanations. I think you are right about Dawkins in that he is a strong atheist, and a strong materialist. But in admitting that, I have to admit what you have noted, and I overlooked: because he is an atheist (a philosophical position), and a materialist (another philosophical position), he cannot logically entertain strong scientism. So, like you implied, science must be a branch of philosophy.

Would that mean then, Professor V., that strong scientism is not so much an abstract/cerebral occupation so much as it is a practical approach to measuring information?

Paul C said...

Here are some examples of people who subscribe to (strong) scientism of whom I am aware: An outspoken high school science teacher of some of my Sunday school students in Waterloo, Ontario; at least a few of my fellow students in my 15 years or so of study at 3 different universities; an engineer with a Ph.D. in physics who is an acquaintance of the philosopher J. P. Moreland (as reported in Moreland’s book, Love Your God with All Your Mind, pp. 148-149); the early logical positivists with their verificationist criterion of meaning (probably better classified as a strong, strong scientism); one of my professors at my undergraduate alma mater who claimed to be a verificationist (and I suspect he influenced quite a few students).

I was hoping for examples that I could actually read for myself, since - due to my lack of experience, which tallies with Get_Education's - I have never actually met anybody who subscribed to the idea as you describe it. I don't find the logical positivists to be a compelling example, since logical positivism was never a widely held position amongst the general public, nor has it been a particularly influential philosophical position since the 1970s (as far as I know). Your personal experiences are of course valid as far as they go, but not accessible to me, so I was hoping for links to people making that argument in print or web form.

From what I can gather of the contemporary popular mindset (to which my newspaper column is primarily directed), I believe that scientism, or at least a version of scientism, is widely held.

Given that in 2001 seven of ten people in Canada claimed to be either Catholic or Protestant, this claim seems extremely unlikely to be true (http://www12.statcan.ca/english/census01/Products/Analytic/companion/rel/canada.cfm).

Dr. V said...

Dear readers of Apologia,

I didn't anticipate that this blog would require so much of my time, so I may not be able to respond to each commentator with the detailed sort of answers that I've been trying to set out. Sorry about that. (It turns out that I also have a life away from this blog.)

Nevertheless, here are a few short replies.

Paul: Thanks for your comment. The statistic on the number of Catholics and Protestants in Canada probably is misleading. It turns out that in the Christian population there are folks who divide the realms of reason and spiritual, and in effect hold to a form of scientism, but take a blind leap of faith into the realm of non-reason. I don't have numbers, but the Christian philosopher/ theologian Francis Schaeffer was quite famous for pointing this out. Also, I think that the positivists have had a trickle down effect into the population at large.

Christopher: Thanks for your insights. I will have to think about your question.

Lindsay: It's great to hear from you! I hope that your graduate studies at U of Chicago are going well. Please feel free to jump into the conversations when you have time. (When you have time -- yeah, right).

I'm going back to my life away from the blog now.

Cheers to you all,
Hendrik