Thursday, October 03, 2013

Science Doesn't Have All the Answers but Does It Have All the Questions?

Jerry Coyne has been following the debate between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier on the topic of scientism [see The final round: Pinker vs. Wieseltier on scientism]. Jerry seems to agree with both Pinker and Wieseltier that there are "two magisteria" (science and humanities) ...
[Wieseltier] calls for a “two magisteria” solution, with science and humanities kept separate, but with “porous boundaries.” But that is exactly what Pinker called for, too! Wieseltier claims that Pinker and other advocates of scientism advocate “totalistic aspirations,” i.e., the complete takeover of humanities by the sciences (“unified field theories,” Wieseltier calls them), but Pinker explicitly said that he wasn’t calling for that.

...

As you can see above, Steve never argued that science is, or should be, supreme in all the contexts. Indeed, in his earlier piece he noted that art and literature, while they might be informed in some ways by science, nevertheless have benefits independent of science. To me, those benefits include affirming our common humanity, being moved by the plight of others, even if fictional, and luxuriating in the sheer beauty of music, words, or painting. (Note, though, that one day science might at least explain why we apprehend that beauty.)
I'm not sure how Pinker, Wieseltier, and Coyne are defining science but it's clear that they aren't using the same definition I use.

I think that science is a way of knowing based on evidence and logic and healthy skepticism. I think that all disciplines seeking knowledge use the scientific approach. This is the broad definition of science used by many philosophers and scientists.

Maarten Boudry discusses, and accepts, this definition in his chapter on "Loki's Wager and Lauden's Error" in Philosophy of Pseudescience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. Boudry says that the distinction between the ways of knowing used by biologists, philosophers, and historians are meaningless and there's no easy way to distinguish them (territorial demarcation). On the other hand, there is a way to distinguish between good scientific reasoning and bad scientific reasoning like Holocaust denial.
I have expressed little confidence in the viability of the territorial demarcation problem, and even less interest in solving it. Not only is there no clear-cut way to disentangle epistemic domains like science and philosophy, but such a distinction carries little epistemic weight. The demarcation problem that deserves our attention is the one between science and pseudoscience (and the analogous ones between philosophy and pseudophilosophy and between history and pseudohistory).
Sven Ove Hanson is more specific because he actually defines "science in a broad sense" in a way that I have been using it for several decades. This is from his chapter on "Defining Pseudoscience and Science" in Philosophy of Pseudescience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem.
Unfortunately neither "science" nor any other established term in the English language covers all the disciplines that are parts of this community of knowledge disciplines. For lack of a better term, I will call them "science(s) in the broad sense." (The German word "Wissenschaft," the closest translation of "science" into that language, has this wider meaning; that is, it includes all the academic specialties, including the humanities. So does the Latin "scientia.") Science in a broad sense seeks knowledge about nature (natural science), about ourselves (psychology and medicine), about our societies (social science and history), about our physical constructions (technological science), and about our thought construction (linguistics, literary studies, mathematics, and philosophy). (Philosophy, of course, is a science in this broad sense of the word.)
If this is what we mean by science" then there's no difference between the ways we try to acquire knowledge in the humanities or the natural sciences and the debate between Pinker and Wieseltier takes on an entirely different meaning.

There aren't "two magisteria" but only one. Unless, of course, someone is willing to propose a successful non-scientific way of knowing. I have asked repeatedly for examples of knowledge ("truth") that have been successfully acquired by any other way of knowing. So far, nobody has come up with an answer so we can tentatively conclude that science (in the broad sense) is the only valid way of acquiring true knowledge.

Clearly we don't have all the answers to everything so it's clear that neither science nor anything else has all the answers. What about the questions? Are there any knowledge questions that science (in the broad sense) can't address? I don't think there are. I think "science" covers all the questions even though it doesn't (yet) have all the answers.

If this is "scientism" then I'm guilty. What is the alternative? Is it revelation (revealed truth)? Or is there some other way of knowing that I haven't heard about?


12 comments :

  1. Obviously if you redefine the definition of "science" to mean "all academic fields", then no question is outside of it other than supernatural ones. And I'm sure you'll find people who claim to talk to angels and what not. But this misses the *real* debate over scientism.

    A non-trivial number of scientists (using the standard English meaning of natural scientists) believe that they are superior to researchers in the humanities. E.O. Wilson has claimed that things like sociology will disappear once everyone accepts sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology, or whatever bottle the old wine is poured into this week).

    Redefining words to your convenience is dangerous. Recently you mentioned that you are a fan of Orwell. Have you read "Animal Farm"? The dangers of non-standard definitions is quite well demonstrated by the slogan "Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad". The intent was to express displeasure about humans -- and the chickens were reassured that that their wings counted as legs in the loose definition -- but later on this little exception was forgotten. That's the danger of defining "science" to mean more than is generally understood by the term.

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    1. It's not a redefinition. It's the traditional and commonly used sense in several languages other than English, including the above mentioned Latin and German, both major languages in the history of science. But this shouldn't be an issue. It's not unusual that a word can be used in more than one sense. What's important is not to find one definition to rule them all, but to know and explain which sense you are using and to avoid uncontrolled leaps from one sense to another. I think a lot of the brouhaha about scientism is a result of mixing up the broad and narrow senses of "science", although that is not all there is to it, as you correctly point out.

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  2. There is another way of knowing. God telling us stuff as in the bible.
    Its a witness until you prove it ain't a truthful witness.

    All these things are the old game of these, what have they done, commentators to try to make superior and inferior grades of intelligent investigation.
    So they are forced to say these subjects are not as smart and so not as demanding of smartness before they reach their completion.
    Music is intellectually inferior to physics is what they are trying to settle once and for all.
    The actual true mechanism for intellect is discovery of principals as the bible says.


    By the way. There is no future discovery of what beauty is because there is no such thing as beauty.
    All there is IS accuracy in symmetry and drift from that.
    Beautiful women are just correct symmetry and since most are not incoorect its politically correct to give the top a special category called beauty.
    Christianity can't accept beauty as real. God made everything perfect or accurate and later it became inaccurate.
    WE just are used to inaccurate shape so much that the tiny minority of accuracy makes us invent a special category.
    Beauty ie evidence for God. Evidence for a original right answer to everything.

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  3. I think that revealed truth (revelation) is the only alternative to science in its broadest sense. Knowledge and truth of the kind associated with science requires work (it is not simply revealed to us) and it is the same sort of work whether we are talking about chemistry and biology or history and sociology.
    All else (in the absence of that work) is simply revealed and all revealed knowledge has as its genesis a guess - the guess that "what I think is true may be (or is) in fact true".
    The problem with guesses is that, within a large number of possibilites, they are almost always wrong. Which is why if anyone reading this runs out and buys a lottery ticket tonight using numbers that they "feel" are important, or came to believe are important due to revealed knowledge, they will wake up not a millionaire. Every lottery number is a guess because there is no evidence upon which to pick numbers. The only reason anyone ever wins a lottery is because severe limits are placed upon what any one number must be.
    The word "guess" however does not instill confidence.
    This is why, I think, revealed truth is always wrapped up in supernatural and spiritual trappings.
    A belief is not just a guess if a deity transmitted the thought into your head, or if it emerges from some mysterious and powerful principle of nature that, like a deity, always seems to be invisible and immune to regular investigation.
    Sometimes purveyors of revealed truths (guesses) will cloak their ideas in the language of science (note how many of these charlatans invoke quantum mechanics these days).
    However, these pathways to revealed knowledge always maintain a spiritual and supernatural element as well.

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  4. I've only read the snippet you provided of what Coyne wrote. To me, your criticism isn't relevant to what he said in that snippet. Science is a way of knowing, but my apprehension of a work of fiction or piece of music for me has more to do with *feeling* than *knowing*. The study of works of fiction or pieces of music certainly involves knowing, and can also result in increasing my enjoyment (or perhaps even diminishing it - my pleasure in a piece of music or fiction might conceivably be clouded by knowledge that the artist is a particularly nasty human being, for example).

    Science and personal experiences of works of art can certainly cross-fertilize, but when I find myself transported by a novel or a song I don't think it constitutes doing science.

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    1. Science and personal experiences of works of art can certainly cross-fertilize, but when I find myself transported by a novel or a song I don't think it constitutes doing science.

      I agree and so does everyone else who has ever thought seriously about the problem.

      What's your point?

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    2. That your quote from Jerry Coyne was not apposite to the point you were making about a definition of 'science.'

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    3. Okay. I see your point.

      Coyne is defending the narrow view of science—the one where only "scientists" do science. He is willing to concede that the humanities occupy a separate magisterium. The examples he gives do not qualify as ways of gaining knowledge so, you are correct to say that particular quote does not prove that the humanities have a different way of knowing.

      However. I think the overall context of Coyne's post suggests that Coyne and Pinker do believe that the humanities can achieve knowledge without doing science in the same way that "scientists" do it (i.e math, experiments, and lots of data).

      Thank-you for the clarification. That was helpful.

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  5. Engaging your argument slightly more directly, I suppose one might question the utility of "evidence and logic and healthy skepticism" versus more intuitive and emotionally based ways of proceeding in developing relationships with other people.

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  6. I think there is a difference between "knowledge" and "understanding". I agree that we have yet to uncover an effective alternative to science, as defined here by Larry, as a method of obtaining knowledge. But I think there are questions for which finding the single, correct answer is not only impossible; It is not even the goal in the first place.

    For instance, suppose three literary scholars each have a completely different interpretation of a poem. In the scientific approach, the goal would be to use empirical evidence to determine which, if any, of these interpretations is correct, and then discard the incorrect ones. However, I do not think it invalidates the field of literary criticism to say that all three interpretations could even contradict each other and yet remain equally valid and useful. That's an example of what I mean by "understanding". The goal of the literary scholar is to increase the understanding of the work, even though there may not be objective "knowledge" to be obtained in the process.

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  7. I just watched a TED talk by Stuart Firestein, who chairs the biological sciences department at Columbia University: The pursuit of ignorance, where he says " “Answers create questions, We may commonly think that we begin with ignorance and we gain knowledge [but] the more critical step in the process is the reverse of that.”

    He teaches a course on this topic:

    W3920y IGNORANCE 2 pts, S. Firestein.

    Scientific knowledge increases at an exponential rate. Curiously ignorance does not similarly decrease. The basic activity of science is in fact confronting ignorance, and often producing more of it. In this course we will examine the scientific approach to ignorance, primarily through invited lectures from working scientists. They will discuss the state of ignorance in their field and in their individual laboratories. We hope thereby to gain an understanding of the scientific process by analyzing how it approaches what it doesn’t know.

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  8. I have asked repeatedly for examples of knowledge ("truth") that have been successfully acquired by any other way of knowing. So far, nobody has come up with an answer

    Well, you keep denying that mathematics is 'knowledge'. Do you now also deny that mathematics is "truth"? Lots of people have come up with answers (including the deductive reasoning that characterizes mathematics), so apparently your implied statement is actually "So far, nobody has come up with an answer that has convinced me".

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