Said Simon

My thoughts as a Secular Humanist and student of politics

Scientism and its Problems

Scientism is, more or less, the position that all important questions of meaning, morality, and knowledge can be solved best through scientific methods. According to it, science has increasingly colonised those areas of enquiry that were once the preserve of philosophers and theologians, and that this trend will continue until the point where philosophy and theology have basically nothing left to contribute.

In this post I will discuss several problems with this position, and propose some possible solutions to those problems that may satisfy those who find scientism appealing.

The first problem with scientism is that there appear to be questions of value that are essentially unanswerable by any enquiry into facts. Consider what may be the bible of scientism, at least of the ethical variety, Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape. In it, Harris proposes that it is possible to use neuroscience to determine, as a matter of fact, what states of affairs produce the maximum amount of ‘wellbeing’ for human beings. Setting aside the exegetical question of what Harris really means to say, I have seen many people interpret his work as demonstrating that there is no longer a need, or at least, there is an ever-diminishing need, for moral philosophy.

Yet there are several questions that need answering here for this to make sense:

  • How do we define wellbeing and why is this particular definition better than another? Put differently, why should we care about wellbeing of one type over another?
  • How do we deal with distributional issues? Consider the ‘utility monster‘ problem, or the ‘organ donor‘ problem?

These are strong challenges against utilitarianism, which appears to generally be the position that follows from this brand of scientism. Curiously enough, it is philosophers who try to answer these challenges. Perhaps there is at least an interim need for moral philosophy after all?

The second problem of scientism is that scientific enquiry itself involves all sorts of philosophical assumptions, and scientists themselves are usually unprepared and uninterested in discussing them. As the meta-methodological turn in the philosophy of science has shown [1], scientific research is only possible within methodological packages; that is, scientists do research on the basis of assumptions about what kinds of things exist (i.e., on the ontological status of the objects of enquiry) and how knowledge about them is possible (i.e., on the epistemological status of claims about the world). There is also the apparent fact that certain commitments are bound up in scientific practice, such as a commitment to establishing an open discourse on theories and to diligence in evaluating all claims. As Popper discussed, there is an affinity between the ideals of scientific enquiry and those of a liberal democracy. This doesn’t mean that such commitments cannot ultimately be justified with reference to their efficiency in truth-seeking, but the process by which scientists are socialised into their disciplines leads most to hold commitments as moral obligations rather than only as means to ends.

Oddly enough, many advocates of scientism I encounter still operate from the view that science either does or should proceed through naive falsificationism. This speaks volumes about their philosophical literacy, but also about the extent to which such people are actually themselves engaged in any form of scientific practice.

Nevertheless, there is a strong argument to be made that scientists do not have to think about their own philosophical assumptions – or at least not in the natural sciences [2] – because at a meta level, their methodological packages will emerge, transform, and be selected-for based entirely on how much empirical or cognitive traction they bring in studying the world. In other words, while philosophers of science may be interested in the metaphysics and epistemology of science, these interests bring no value-added to the actual process and progress of science. Hence the dreadful refrain, ‘philosophy has had two thousand years to progress, and I defy you to name a single major discovery in philosophy in the last two decades’. Or something along those lines.

This is simply false, as a survey of journals in such fields as cognitive science, computer science, biology, and physics shows active engagement by scientists with these assumptions and also, often, collaboration with scholars whose disciplinary background lies in philosophy. [3]

But also, and perhaps most importantly, it proceeds from a misunderstanding of what philosophy is for – indeed, what knowledge is for. This is the third problem. Philosophers are not in the business of progressively accumulating facts about the natural world. Rather, philosophers are in the business of developing sophisticated and critical instruments for analysing concepts and methods. Moral philosophy, for example, grapples with many of the same problems that it has for millennia because these problems are not solvable in any simple sense. Instead, philosophers have accumulated bodies of scholarship that allow us to explore the problems, complexities, and implications of our ethical stances, developing methods for interrogating our and others’ views, and in some cases putting the nail in the coffin on views that once had currency but are now known to be terrible, or for demolishing popular but philosophically bankrupt ideologies.

We need ideology. We need morality. We cannot go about our lives without some idea, even if often implicit, of what the good life is and how society should be organised – what sort of deeds should be subject to sanction, how violence should be used, and so on. And while empirical input from the sciences is incredibly useful for resolving questions about these sorts of things, ultimately, empirical input only helps us undermine empirical premises or instruct us on efficient means to ends. What ends we choose and how we go about conceiving of them and their validity as such is not, in the end, amenable to empirical confirmation and disconfirmation.

Does scientism therefore have absolutely no leg to stand on? Is it irredeemably ignorant, arrogant, and smug? Well, mostly. Even usually. But there is perhaps one small way in which it captures an approach to the world that I find helpful.

I like to take a problem-driven approach to enquiry. What this means is that I do not see it as some attempt to find ultimate truth, but rather to solve pressing dilemmas in accomplishing whatever it is I feel like doing. This sounds prosaic, but it has significant implications. When I am going about doing science, for example, what I feel like doing is making claims about the world that satisfy my standards for descriptive accuracy. And this is a dilemma, in that I can’t just say anything, but rather have to follow certain procedures and engage in certain kinds of directed research. When I am doing ethics, I am recognising that I can’t just do anything to anyone, but rather have to find ways of juggling competing or mutually exclusive obligations, desires, and courses of action that have interpersonal significance. Proponents of scientism often seem interested in the practical nature of science: scientists don’t spend aeons debating whether the smallest things are made of substances or processes, for example, but just get on with finding stuff out about the world so that it’s less confusing and so that we can do new things. This is certainly a problem-driven view of enquiry, even if we recognise that many of the problems that scientists want to solve are influenced not just by method [4] but also by social concerns [5].

According to the above view, there is actually a way to view philosophy as a kind of science, and a progressive one at that. The pragmatist philosopher of science Larry Laudan argues that science consists of attempts to solve conceptual and empirical problems occurs within ‘research traditions':

A set of beliefs about what sorts of entities and processes make up the domain of inquiry [and] a set of epistemic and methodological norms about how the domain is to be investigated, how theories are to be tested, how data are to be collected, etc.

As Laudan explains:

A theory solves an empirical problem when it entails, along with appropriate initial and boundary conditions, a statement of the problem [and] a theory solves a conceptual problem when it fails to exhibit a conceptual difficulty of its predecessor.

In an important way, philosophy as it is done by academic philosophers also conforms to this model. As you will see from a quick scan of philosophy journals, philosophers are responding to current problems and debating matters of method and concept in a way that cumulatively sorts good solutions to philosophical problems from bad ones and leaves a body of accepted knowledge in its wake, albeit one that is confined to particular research traditions. If we set aside for a moment the term ‘science’ and think instead about ‘enquiry’, we find common ground in the epistemic nature of what chemists do and what moral philosophers do. This doesn’t exactly vindicate the scientistic notion that all research should be ‘scientific’, but it does suggest that there is something deeper about what scientists do that makes their enquiries into the world especially conducive to the production of good knowledge, and that one doesn’t need to use special instruments or mathematics to follow their lead on many issues not typically thought of as falling within the domain of science.

In other words, the notion that science will bring us all the answers is unforgivably ignorant and daft. But thoroughgoing, self-conscious, critical problem-solving carried out within a community of investigators committed to producing a kind of public knowledge need not be the sole province of STEM practitioners, but can provide a model for tackling all sorts of puzzles and dilemmas, including those that cannot be resolved in any final sense by reference to empirical fact.

[1]As exemplified by Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, and Larry Laudan, who all wrote extensively on the nature of scientific practice.

[2] In the social sciences, where theorising does not take place entirely within one settled paradigm or tradition, but rather features multiple competing, contrasting, and often non-interacting modes of enquiry, active reflection upon fundamental assumptions happens more frequently. Probably not frequently enough though.

[3] Indeed, Sam Harris’s own modest publication shows just such an engagement.

[4] For example, by the appearance an anomaly in the course of research that needs to be investigated and theorised.

[5] For example, enquiries into gender or welfare or climate change that are driven by political or moral concerns related to society as a broader whole, but are still conducted ‘scientifically’ rather than, say, polemically.

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One response to “Scientism and its Problems

  1. Joshua Scott Hotchkin June 28, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    Great post, Simon.
    I linked to it over at my website.
    Stop by and check it out if you so wish. The problem of scientism is addressed from many angles there.
    -Joshua

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