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.
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Without taking a stand on the argument–I wonder if one thing she might be referring to is (I think, but am not sure, that most philosophers of science would agree with this description) a sharp rise in narrow (where narrow does not mean uninteresting or anything, just “not general”) philosophy of science that is constrained by a particular discipline of science: things like “how should we interpret this particular issue that comes up in quantum mechanics”; and a corresponding decline in “general’ philosophy of science, that addresses the kinds of big-picture worries that she is talking about. (Though, it’s my impression that as the line between metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science is not a static thing, some of that general work is simply now called “metaphysics’ or “epistemology”, but I still suspect that there is, overall, less of it.)Report
Not taking a stand on the argument either, I also wonder if she is referring to recent trends in some areas of traditional philosophical inquiry to naturalize. For instance, there are increasingly influential, recent accounts of agency and knowledge that “naturalize” philosophy insofar as they refer to the most relevant sciences (i.e., cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience) to constrain their theorizing. Perhaps Dr. Haack is warning against naturalizing too much. For instance, there’s a popular reading of Quine wherein he argues that epistemology should just be reduced to psychology. But the ‘naturalizing’ these accounts have in mind is rather narrow. They still engage in philosophical inquiry; however, they won’t postulate or theorize beyond the limits of what established, respectable findings in the relevant sciences permit. In any event, a “Quinean” naturalizing blatantly supplants philosophy, but a narrow, ‘cooperative’ naturalizing, in my opinion, creates a healthy conversation and mutual exchange of ideas between philosophy and science.Report
I think that “popular” reading of Quine is very misleading (I guess so do you, given that you describe it that way!) Quine’s point (I take it) is that we don’t have any better tools to investigate epistemology (the ‘meta-question’ of how we can gain empirical knowledge) than the tools we have to gain first-order empirical knowledge. So it’s perfectly okay (says Quine) to start with what science tells us about our epistemic capacities when we do epistemology, even though one of epistemology’s goals is to underwrite scientific knowledge and even though it’s possible that we’ll discard some of our first-order empirical “knowledge” once we reflect on its lack of justification.
This is part and parcel of Quine’s Neurathian, “start in the middle” approach to philosophy, and it’s a bit dizzying, but in the absence of some absolutely secure starting point (pace Descartes, pace the positivists) we don’t really have much choice. Interestingly, Haack seems to reject that whole framework: she writes: “none of the sciences could tell us whether, and if so, why, science has a legitimate claim to give us knowledge of the world”, and she doesn’t provide an argument for it so I assume she takes it as self-evident. But – assuming that it’s philosophy that can answer that question – we just have an infinite regress: by parity of reasoning, philosophy presumably couldn’t tell us whether, and if so, why philosophy has a legitimate claim to give us knowledge of the validity of science.Report
There is a certain equivocation in Haack’s article. At times she writes as if “scientism” is the thesis that the ordinary evidence-collecting methods of normal science (in Kuhn’s sense), by themselves, will resolve or dissolve most or all philosophical disputes. That’s an absurd thesis, but I don’t know any serious philosopher of science who actually holds it (I admit that I’m not familiar with Rosenberg’s book).
At other points she seems to be criticising a more reasonable thesis, something like “At least for a large class of philosophical questions, progress cannot be made by philosophy in isolation with science, but rather will have to be thoroughly informed by scientific data and to be continuous with more theoretical/conceptual work in science”. But she doesn’t really flesh out a persuasive criticism of the latter thesis.
Two examples (both from philosophy of mind, where I know the territory adequately to comment):
(1) Haack states that thirty years ago, “Stephen Stich [was] announcing that science… had shown the old folk psychological ontology of beliefs and desires to be as mythical as phlogiston”. But Stich didn’t just “announce” it (if he had, “From folk psychology to Cognitive Science” would have been a much shorter book!) He argued for it, in a book that draws very extensively on cognitive science but is also thoroughly philosophical in its methods: he spends the first half of the book doing conceptual analysis of the folk concept of belief, and the second half arguing that that folk concept has no plausible referent.
(2) Haack states (again without argument) that “neuroscience might tell us a good deal about what goes on in the brain when someone forms a new belief or gives up an old one; but it couldn’t tell us what believing something involves, or what makes a belief the belief that 7+5=12 rather than the belief that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Francis Bacon”. And of course she’s right that no amount of normal science will tell us this: no experiments with subjects and MRI scanners will do more than establish neurological correlates for beliefs. But an 1800 version of Haack could have said, with as much justice, that zoology might tell us a lot about what capabilities animals had and how they used them, but it could not tell us anything about why they had those capabilities; a 1900 version of Haack could have said, with as much justice, that physics might tell us a lot about the strength of the gravitational attraction but it could not tell us why it had the mathematical form it had or how it allowed distant bodies to influence one another. In each case, progress came not simply through normal science but through conceptual – even philosophical – innovation and clarification, enormously informed by science. But equally, little or no progress came on those questions by attempts to solve them within philosophy, disconnected from science and scientific data.
In the case of belief content, progress on the question will require a theory of mental content, that will need to answer both to conceptual/philosophical constraints and to empirical data. Fodor sketches such a theory; so does Dennett; so does Stich; each is philosophical but very thoroughly science-engaged; eventually such theories, if they pass conceptual tests, will need to pass empirical ones. This is how I understand “scientistic” philosophy, and I’m all in favour of it.Report
It seems to be that extreme naturalism/materialism/reductionism peaked in the late 90’s and early 00’s. That certainly hasn’t been the trend that, say, metaphysics and philosophy of mind have been following for the last 15 years.Report
Although I consider myself generally on Haack’s side here, I had a double-take when I heard her argue against scientism. I mean like yeah and also the world is round?
Concerning whether philosophy is too close to science for its own fruitfulness: the closeness is more often in its approach to how one goes about doing philosophy: in the scientific manner of universities, research grants, papers (with abstracts and keywords); or in the artistic manner of poetry and play; or in the political manner of agitating rhetoric; or in some other manner, one that is perhaps even peculiar to philosophy?
The answer, obviously, is that philosophy can be many different things, and that each of these will presumably be appropriate to different subject-matters and contexts. But to list them all as I’ve done does bring to the fore the curiosity that it is rather strange that almost all of the philosophy analytic philosophers do is more akin to science than anything else.
Of course, this may just be that philosophy is often best thought of as akin to the sciences. But it’s peculiar that this question has almost never been seriously asked by analytic philosophers, despite the example of Collingwood’s ‘Essay on Philosophical Method.’ Indeed, given how core self-reflection and assumption-questioning putatively are to philosophers, you might say that there is a dereliction of duty here so profound that it can only be ideological.Report
Actually, re the complaint of philosophers not being self-reflective enough: sorry, that’s unfair. There’re plenty who think philosophy should (sometimes) be sui generis, from MacIntyre to Nehamas in one sense (the ‘banter but bloody good’ sense?), to Cavell and Nussbaum in another (similar: ‘novels but plainer’), to say nothing of Heidegger or Derrida, or of Mills and the wonderful young scholars who treat philosophy as thoroughly political.
Still, though, I’m aware of precious little explicit discussion of the relative merits of these different approaches. Doubtless the fault is mine.Report
While I agree that naturalism does not pose a threat to ‘a priori’ philosophy, I do not think my reasons are entirely alligned with Haack’s. Like many empiricist philosophers (and let us, for now, remember just two of the empiricist camps available to philosophers; naturalism and logical positivism – but there are many more) I take it that there are certain questions philosophers have always liked to ank and then answered, which should be the domain of the empirical sciences. However, here is more my gripe with naturalism and scientistic philosophy of this kind (i.e. such as what Rozenburg, Papineau, Maddy forward); most natiralistic philosophy is nothing like scientific enquiry. It is a delusion naturalists have.
The strongest advancement of naturalism, given its mandate, is not its deference to science. Even some non-naturalistic philosophical positions defer to science in specific regards. Rather it is the naturalist claim that naturalistic philosophy is like science (Papineau), or can be like science (Maddy). If this is correct then the most damning detraction from naturalism is that it is not, nor can it be, like science in a way which simultaneously distinguishes it from other deductive or theoretical a priori philosophy. Despite naturalism’s deference to science, and naturalistic philosophy’s relentless harvesting of scientific claims, its method is not ‘a posteriori’ and its claims are certainly not ‘synthetic’. Not by our best analyses of these terms. This methodological distinction between science and philosophy is one made by Carnap. Despite the role philosophical work might play in scientific endeavour, philosophy, even when naturalistic, is not akin to science. The evident a priori methods employed by philosohers (naturalists and others) gives us conceptual or analytic types of truths. Therefore only threat naturalism, and the specific scientism associated with it, poses to philosophy is the enabling of misconceptions about the work of naturalistic or experimental philosophers.Report
Clarification: When I say, at the beginning of my above comment, that Haack says scientism does not pose a threat, I mean, with her (I think), that there is much that science does not want to nor can address. However, at the end of my above comment, when I say that the only threat posed by naturalism is that it enables misconceptions about what is done by natiralistic and experimental philosophers I am obviously not commenting on Haack’s original claim about the distinct areas of interest philosophers have.
Also (aplogies – there is no editing function for comments) please excuse the many typing errors in my previous comment.Report
Haack argues (quite fervently) against a pair of fallacious but prevalent inferences:
1) Supernaturalism is false, therefore science reigns supreme.
2) Science has explanatory limits, therefore religion reigns supreme.
Both inferences are, she says, rubbish — and I very much agree.
If you agree too, then check out this kindred piece:
This should be of interest to readers of this post:
What’s so bad about scientism?
…beyond singularity…philosophy’s sciences verses observation’s optics…Report
This collection may be of interest: Jeroen de Ridder, Rik Peels, and René van Woudenberg (eds.), Scientism: Prospects and Problems. New York: Oxford University Press. (My paper in it defends a version of scientism.)Report