February 26, 2009

Science versus philosophy? (Part 2)


APOLOGIA By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, February 26, 2009)

Science versus philosophy? (Part 2)
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 as unreasonable.

The above view is known as strong scientism (hereafter, scientism). In the previous instalment of Apologia, I argued that scientism is self-refuting. Here are two more reasons for not believing scientism.

First, if scientism is true, then science as a knowledge-seeking discipline lacks rational support, which is very odd, if not absurd.

Consider this. If, as scientism claims, philosophical claims are neither true nor reasonable to believe, then scientism disallows the task of setting out and defending the philosophical presuppositions (assumptions) required for the practice of good science.

What are these presuppositions? Philosopher J. P. Moreland, in his book Christianity and the Nature of Science, sets out the following list: "[1] that the universe is intelligible and not capricious, [2] that the mind and senses inform us about reality, [3] that mathematics and language can be applied to the world, [4] that knowledge is possible, [5] that there is a uniformity in nature that justifies inductive inferences from the past to the future and from examined cases...to unexamined cases.”

Significantly, the setting out and defence of these presuppositions is a philosophical, rational undertaking. But if scientism is true, then these presuppositions cannot be set out or rationally defended. Hence, the practice of science would lose its rational foundations, which is very odd, if not absurd.

At this juncture, one might be tempted simply to ignore the above philosophical assumptions and say, “Well, science works—that’s good enough.” It should be noticed, however, that this pragmatic claim is also a philosophical claim—a claim about science, not of science—which scientism would also disallow (see last week’s column for further argument).

Second, if scientism is true, then no true or reasonable claims outside of science would exist, which is clearly false.

Scientism says a claim is true or reasonable only if it is a claim of science. But the fact of the matter is that truths and reasonable beliefs can be found in disciplines of inquiry outside of science: e.g., history, law, and ethics. Moreover, as Moreland points out in Love Your God With All Your Mind, “some propositions believed outside of science (‘red is a colour,’ ‘torturing babies is wrong,' 'I am now thinking about science') are better justified than some believed within science ('evolution takes place through a series of very small steps')."

Scientism, therefore, is neither true nor reasonable to believe.

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

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

4 comments:

get_education said...

Hi Hendrik,

I already shared with you my opinion about scientism (I doubt it exists, seriously. It may exist as a position, but not possible that someone would stay there after thinking just a little bit), and that science is a philosophy.

I will, again, challenge a few of your words. Please do not take it personally, nor as support for scientism.

You took these "presuppositions" too lightly:

[1] that the universe is intelligible and not capricious,

Well, this could also be a conclusion from the scientific endeavor, and actually be believed for as long as contradictory evidence does not appear.

[2] that the mind and senses inform us about reality,

Same as above, yet, I would claim that they informs us about reality within limits. Otherwise we would not have developed instruments to go beyond our senses. And this would be a scientific (thus philosophical) claim.

[3] that mathematics and language can be applied to the world,

Hum, whose presupposition is this? Mathematics and language were developed after the world, not independently from it and then applied to it. This one seems to be nonsense.

[4] that knowledge is possible, [5] that there is a uniformity in nature that justifies inductive inferences from the past to the future and from examined cases...to unexamined cases.

"Uniformity of nature" is something of a misnomer. The scientific "presupposition", is rather that reality has, at least, reliable properties. This, again, could become a conclusion from science also open to re-evaluation should contradictory evidence appear. Thus escaping the realms of pure experimental thought.

Significantly, the setting out and defence of these presuppositions is a philosophical, rational undertaking.

Even if the defense were doable purely on scientific grounds, it would be a philosophical rational undertaking. Since science is a philosophical rational endeavor.

Scientism says a claim is true or reasonable only if it is a claim of science. But the fact of the matter is that truths and reasonable beliefs can be found in disciplines of inquiry outside of science: e.g., history, law, and ethics. Moreover, as Moreland points out in Love Your God With All Your Mind, “some propositions believed outside of science (‘red is a colour,’

"Red is a color" is not a "proposition believed outside of science." This is a tautology in the fallacious way. Red is a color by definition.

‘torturing babies is wrong,' 'I am now thinking about science')

These two, you are right, are purely philosophical and outside of science. But that does not preclude the possibility of making them science subjects ... hum, they seem to be that too!

are better justified than some believed within science ('evolution takes place through a series of very small steps')."

Do you think there is evidence that evolution takes place in very large steps? (I guess we would have to define what small steps means).

I actually grant you that those things that can be studied by science might have to start as mostly philosophical thingies. Yet, it seems like your choice of examples was not entirely good. And again, even if science alone could explain all of those things, I would venture to say that you are right in one way: Philosophy is inescapable, and thus scientism as defined is a contradictory position.

You seem to assume too that science is not a philosophy. Is this so? If not, maybe you should have said that to begin with. The way you present the argument, it would seem like you truly think that science is not a philosophy.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

Hello G.E.,

It’s good to hear from you once again. I will respond to your comments in piecemeal fashion.

G.E. wrote:

I already shared with you my opinion about scientism (I doubt it exists, seriously. It may exist as a position, but not possible that someone would stay there after thinking just a little bit), and that science is a philosophy.

Hendrik’s reply:

I agree with you that scientism exists as a philosophical position, but, unlike you, I do not doubt that it sometimes exists in the flesh because I have had first-hand experience of such folks and because others (whom I trust) have had experience of such folks too. I also am inclined to agree that it’s, as you say, “not possible that someone would stay there [holding to strong scientism] after thinking just a little bit.” Nevertheless, I do think there are times when a person holds to a philosophical position without being cognizant of the position’s absurd logical consequences. Happily, however, once the person is made aware of the logical consequences (via, say, the application of the Socratic Method), the person moves away from the position. Of course, this is all the more reason that the absurd consequences should be made known by, say, a column like Apologia. (Okay, okay, so I’m sometimes guilty of shameful self-promotion.)

Regarding your claim that science is a philosophy, I think it’s important to bring to light the distinction between first-order disciplines of inquiry (e.g., physics, history, etc.) and second-order disciplines of inquiry (e.g., philosophy of physics, philosophy of history, etc.). Science involves philosophy, to be sure, but I would be reluctant to call science a philosophy. I realize that, historically, philosophy and science were not distinguished: the various sciences were born from the doing of philosophy. However, I think that it’s helpful to make the distinction between philosophy per se and science. They are different disciplines of inquiry. (About the distinction between first- and second-order disciplines, I’m not saying anything controversial or peculiar to me; what I’ve said can be found in probably most introductory philosophy textbooks, like the one I use: Ed Miller and Jon Jensen, Questions That Matter, 5th edition [McGraw-Hill, 2004].) Of course, one might subscribe to a particular philosophy of science, which I think is what you are doing.

G.E. wrote:

I will, again, challenge a few of your words. Please do not take it personally, nor as support for scientism.

Hendrik’s reply:

I sincerely appreciate having my arguments challenged in such a way that my person is not also attacked. As I’ve mentioned previously, I think it’s important that we model this sort of disagreement—i.e., a civil disagreement—especially when so many in our world would rather hurl personal insults or destroy those with whom they disagree via, say, a suicide bombing. I think that we are in a deep agreement here, which is great.

G.E. wrote:

You took these "presuppositions" too lightly:

[1] that the universe is intelligible and not capricious,

Well, this could also be a conclusion from the scientific endeavor, and actually be believed for as long as contradictory evidence does not appear.

Hendrik’s reply:

I think that to make the claim about the intelligibility of the universe requires the assumption that nature is uniform in the following respects: that the future resembles the past, and that observable patterns in nature provide clues for us to understand unobservable patterns or processes. Yes, the universe confirms these assumptions as we engage in science, but they still are assumptions required in the doing of science in the first place.

In other words, I’m talking about what’s famously known (in philosophy) as the problem of induction, made famous by the philosopher David Hume (171-1776). In science we presuppose the uniformity of nature in our inductive inferences from limited samples to larger populations or to unobservable entities, but how can we, without assuming the uniformity of nature, prove the truth of the uniformity of nature? It very much seems that all of our attempts to set out such proofs assume the uniformity of nature, which is to incur the fallacy of question begging. As the philosopher of science Samir Okasha writes, even “to argue that induction is trustworthy because it has worked well up to now is to reason in inductive way” (Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Science [Oxford University Press, 2002], 27). Intelligibility presupposes the legitimacy of inductive argument, which presupposes induction. So, Okasha asks, “what justifies this faith we place in induction?” Significantly, to justify this faith would require philosophical argument, not a scientific argument, because this faith is already embedded in the scientific argument.

So for you to believe in induction as a conclusion from a scientific endeavor until the appearance of contradictory evidence, if it appears at all, would require the faith position/presupposition of induction (and hence intelligibility) in the first place.

G.E. wrote:

[2] that the mind and senses inform us about reality,

Same as above, yet, I would claim that they informs us about reality within limits. Otherwise we would not have developed instruments to go beyond our senses. And this would be a scientific (thus philosophical) claim.

Hendrik’s reply:

I agree that the mind and senses inform us about reality, as you say, “within limits”. That is, I agree with you that we certainly don’t have X-ray vision (etc.), and so we’ve developed instruments to augment our senses. But, I think that, strictly speaking, science as a first-order discipline presupposes the (reasonable and limited) workings of our minds and senses, which is to say that science as a first-order discipline presupposes a second-order, philosophical thesis.

G.E. wrote:

[3] that mathematics and language can be applied to the world,

Hum, whose presupposition is this? Mathematics and language were developed after the world, not independently from it and then applied to it. This one seems to be nonsense.

Hendrik’s reply:

I think that the question of when mathematics and language were developed is not relevant to our discussion. The question is: Do they apply? If I recall my history of geometry correctly, regardless of when the various geometries were developed, not all geometries apply to the world, even though they are internally consistent. Also, if I understand the extreme/radical postmodern critique correctly, no language (it is alleged) really allows us to communicate the world’s contents with accuracy. I think that scientists (insofar as they are realists) do assume/presuppose that language can, and often does, apply to the world. (I agree with the scientists here.)

(Keith DeRose, a highly respected Yale philosopher, has some interesting things to say about postmodernism. See his article here: http://fleetwood.baylor.edu/certain_doubts/index.php?p=453)

G.E. wrote:

[4] that knowledge is possible, [5] that there is a uniformity in nature that justifies inductive inferences from the past to the future and from examined cases...to unexamined cases.

"Uniformity of nature" is something of a misnomer. The scientific "presupposition", is rather that reality has, at least, reliable properties. This, again, could become a conclusion from science also open to re-evaluation should contradictory evidence appear. Thus escaping the realms of pure experimental thought.

Hendrik’s reply:

The claim that reality has “reliable properties” seems to presume the uniformity of nature. Why do we think the properties are reliable? Well, because they can be depended on. Why do we think we can depend on them? Well, because they behave the same way over time… Enter: uniformity of nature.

G.E. wrote:

Significantly, the setting out and defence of these presuppositions is a philosophical, rational undertaking.

Even if the defense were doable purely on scientific grounds, it would be a philosophical rational undertaking. Since science is a philosophical rational endeavor.

Hendrik’s reply:

I think that my previously mentioned distinction between first-order and second-order disciplines may add some clarity here. Having said this, however, I’m not wholly against thinking that science is a philosophical rational endeavor. I would add (as I wrote in my column) that as truly wonderful and important as science is (as a first-order discipline), it doesn’t exhaust the realm of good reasoning and knowledge.

G.E. wrote:

Scientism says a claim is true or reasonable only if it is a claim of science. But the fact of the matter is that truths and reasonable beliefs can be found in disciplines of inquiry outside of science: e.g., history, law, and ethics. Moreover, as Moreland points out in Love Your God With All Your Mind, “some propositions believed outside of science (‘red is a colour,’

"Red is a color" is not a "proposition believed outside of science." This is a tautology in the fallacious way. Red is a color by definition.

Hendrik’s reply:

I beg to differ. The claim that red is a color is surely a claim that’s believed outside of science. As far as I am aware, the claim is believed by all of my fellow philosophers, all theologians, all historians, all English teachers, all theatre majors, all knitting instructors, etc. It’s believed by everyone who understands the words “red”, “is”, “a”, and “color”. So, yes, it’s a tautology in the sense of being true by definition, i.e., a conceptual truth, an analytic proposition. But it’s not fallacious in any way. At least not in the present context.

G.E., I believe that you are a bright person. I suspect that either you’ve simply misspoken here or I’m missing something glaringly obvious.

G.E. wrote:

‘torturing babies is wrong,' 'I am now thinking about science')

These two, you are right, are purely philosophical and outside of science. But that does not preclude the possibility of making them science subjects ... hum, they seem to be that too!

Hendrik’s reply:

I agree that ethics and other philosophical thought are philosophical. But I would advise caution, though, in trying to make ethics and philosophy subjects of science, especially if we try to reduce them to subjects wholly explainable by science. It seems to me that ethics and doing of philosophy have an “aboutness” to them, i.e., they involve thinking about the stuff we do in life, which includes, among other things, the doing of science. And so to think that science can wholly explain them is in some important sense to have our projects backwards.

Some further thought about the claim “I am now thinking about science.” I think it’s actually an introspective claim, a claim having to do with the realm of the subjective—the first person. I think that such first-person subjectivity cannot be scientifically investigated if science always involves public, third-person observation. I think that this is probably why Moreland has this claim on his list.

G.E. wrote:

are better justified than some believed within science ('evolution takes place through a series of very small steps')."

Do you think there is evidence that evolution takes place in very large steps? (I guess we would have to define what small steps means).

Hendrik’s reply:

Yes, I think that when we’re talking about small steps, we should have some sense of what a large step would be, which would require, I suppose, some sense of a medium size step. (To know that X is a big fish would seem to require some knowledge of the size of a small or medium fish.) I am aware that some scientists have argued for larger steps (Stephen Jay Gould, if I recall correctly). My position is this: I think it would be wise for me to let the scientists who specialize in this area figure out the size of the steps.

Big steps or little steps or even medium steps, the issue is beside the point here. The point here, which is truly a modest one, is simply that we know some things outside of science much better than some things within science.

G.E. wrote:

I actually grant you that those things that can be studied by science might have to start as mostly philosophical thingies. Yet, it seems like your choice of examples was not entirely good.

Hendrik’s reply:

I like the words “philosophical thingies.” There’s a fun element to them. However, there’s also a lack of clarity in their use in your sentence. You write: “I actually grant you that those things that can be studied by science might have to start as mostly philosophical thingies.” So the things studied by science are “philosophical thingies”? A water molecule is a philosophical item? I’m not sure what you are meaning here. Or are you granting that there’s a philosophical assumption that’s required in the investigation of a water molecule, like the assumptions I’ve set out? I guess I’m not sure what you mean—and that could very well simply be due to me missing (perhaps again) something obvious.

G.E. wrote:

And again, even if science alone could explain all of those things, I would venture to say that you are right in one way: Philosophy is inescapable, and thus scientism as defined is a contradictory position.

Hendrik’s reply:

A loud but philosophical “Amen” to that!

G.E. wrote:

You seem to assume too that science is not a philosophy. Is this so? If not, maybe you should have said that to begin with. The way you present the argument, it would seem like you truly think that science is not a philosophy.

Hendrik’s reply:

I think that (as I’ve mentioned above) science can be understood as a first-order discipline of inquiry whereas philosophy of science can be understood as a second-order discipline of inquiry. The first-order vs. second-order distinction is a distinction that’s often made in philosophy: education is a first-order discipline and philosophy of education is a second-order discipline; history is a first-order discipline and philosophy of history is a second-order discipline; etc.

I think, too, that (as I’ve mentioned in the commentary for the previous column) science can be understood as a philosophy when it is understood as strong scientism or as weak scientism. There are probably variations of these available too.

Thanks again, G.E., for your comments. I think that you’ve helped me bring to the fore the notion of first- and second-orders of inquiry, which did need some clarification. (Not everyone who reads this column is a philosopher, I’m sure.)

In closing, I would like to emphasize that my main project in writing the two Apologia columns titled “Science versus philosophy?” has been to make the point with which I ended both columns (but now with an important clarification added parenthetically, thanks to G.E.). Here is my point: As truly important and wonderful as science is (as a first-order discipline of inquiry), the realm of good reasoning and knowledge is not exhausted by it.

With best regards,

Hendrik

P.S. If it’s not too personal, G.E., I have some questions for you: What subject(s) do you teach? At what level do you teach (undergraduate, graduate)? What’s the name of your school? What’s your real name? I’m asking these questions because, recently, the more I think about blogs and the Internet in general, the more I think that anonymity tends to weaken civil discussion. Not that I think that you’ve been uncivil; rather, it seems to me that, in general, by maintaining anonymity we do not make ourselves “vulnerable” and so we tend not to take others as seriously as persons and we encourage others not to take us seriously as persons. I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that much disrespect and uncivil discourse on the Internet occurs because one is not really in some sense accountable for one’s words. Anonymity seems to weaken personal stakeholding. And I suspect that this spills out into other areas of life. I realize that there’s a freedom in this, of course. But it seems to me, too, that there’s something profound that’s getting lost. I think that what’s getting lost is called friendship. Or at least the ability to develop friendship. Maybe I’m simply getting old and belong to another age….

get_education said...

Hi Hendrik,

Thanks for the long answer. Seems like we get somewhere, even when we do not agree.

Seems also like there is only one clarification to make, and it was not obvious. When I said:

things that can be studied by science might have to start as mostly philosophical thingies.

I was thinking about questions. If we decide to study water, we start by thinking about a problem with water. That thinking process, I would think, starts as a philosophical thingie. You think and think and reformulate the question until you get something you can "scientize." Or you put together data from lots of previous works about water, then formulate a question. I would say that such formulation often starts as a philosophical thingie, even if later it becomes "purely" scientific.

I was also thinking about your examples, such as ethics. Pure ethics might not be a good subject of science (who knows, perhaps I just lack the imagination), but doing lots of thinking you might conclude that you can study the biological origins of ethical behavior, and such.

Clearer?

As for the personal stuff. A few things are fine to say: my science is genomics, I teach at both undergrad and graduate levels, and I enjoy a good debate.

If I visit your city I will call you and give you my real name (and invite you a coffee). In the web I rather stay a bit anonymous.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

G.E.,

Thanks for the clarification -- yes, it's much clearer now.

Also, thanks for sharing a bit of information about yourself. Whenever I think of genomics, I will think of you! (Maybe you should change your handle to "G.E. Nomics"?)

Also, I would be delighted that if ever you are in the neighbourhood, you would invite me out for a coffee. That would be great.

Best regards,
Hendrik