Scientism’s Threat To Philosophy


So, just as naturalism-as-opposed-to-apriorism succumbs to scientism when it falsely assumes that whatever isn’t a priori must be science, naturalism-as-opposed-to-supernaturalism succumbs to scientism when it falsely assumes that whatever isn’t religion must be science. Granted, theological “explanations” don’t really explain anything; but it doesn’t follow, and it isn’t true, that science can explain everything. The achievements of the sciences certainly deserve our respect and admiration. But, like all human enterprises, science is fallible and incomplete, and there are limits to the scope of even the most advanced and sophisticated future science imaginable…

So writes Susan Haack, professor of philosophy and law at the University of Miami, in “The Real Question: Can Philosophy Be Saved?” in the new issue of Free Inquiry. She discusses some of the questions science cannot answer, and continues:

More generally, none of the sciences could tell us whether, and if so, why, science has a legitimate claim to give us knowledge of the world, or how the world must be, and how we must be, if science is to be even possible.

The rising tide of scientistic philosophy not only threatens to leave the very science to which it appeals adrift with no rational anchoring; it also spells a shipwreck for philosophy itself…

Professor Haack’s example of this “shipwreck” is The Atheist’s Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenberg, professor of philosophy at Duke University, which she describes as putting forth the view that “physics fixes all the facts” and that “this means there is no meaning, no values—moral, social, political, or, apparently, epistemological—and, in effect, no mind.” (I’ve not read the book and can’t comment on the accuracy of this summary.) She then writes:

Answering questions like “What’s distinctive about human mindedness?” “What’s the relation between natural and social reality?” “How does philosophy differ from the sciences?” “What has philosophy to learn from the sciences, and they from it?” etc., requires serious philosophical work. And serious philosophical work, like any serious intellectual work, means making a genuine effort to discover the truth of some question, whatever that truth may be.

I’m curious whether philosophers think that there is in fact a “rising tide of scientistic philosophy” and whether they agree with Professor Haack’s characterization of it.

I’m skeptical that the proportion of philosophical work that Professor Haack would describe as “scientistic” has increased over the past, say, twenty years, but since there is plenty of philosophy I’m ignorant of, I could be mistaken.

I can think of four developments that may give the appearance of supporting Professor Haack’s view—(1) the growth of experimental philosophy, (2) the increased emphasis in philosophy of science of having expert knowledge not just of philosophy but of the particular sciences, (3) the increased visibility in popular culture of philosophical arguments for atheism, and (4) the increased presence of large (“science-sized”) grants in philosophy—but I don’t think they really do.

Regarding (1), a recent study concluded that the extent to which experimental philosophy challenges traditional philosophical methods is highly exaggerated (e.g., only 1.1% of the empirical work in experimental philosophy over the past five years could be construed as taking aim at “conceptual analysis”). Development (2) doesn’t imply increased scientism; my engagement with philosophers of science, though limited and perhaps unrepresentative (let me know), suggests that those more knowledgeable about the special sciences tend to be less scientistic. The pop culture phenomenon described in (3) does not track what’s going on more generally in professional philosophy, and it seems, rather, that the publicity that popular atheistic books are getting (be they by academic philosophers or others) is heightening philosophers’ sensitivity to crude scientism. Lastly, regarding grants (4), as Professor Haack observes elsewhere in her article, the largest ones are from the John Templeton Foundation—and while such grants may be problematic, they aren’t so in virtue of them supporting scientism.

Professor Haack’s article can be found here. Discussion welcome.

(via @J_H0UST0N )

Igor Siwanowicz, “Acilius diving beetle male front tarsus (foot) 100x”

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