More Recent Comments

Friday, January 24, 2014

Territorial demarcation and the meaning of science

Massimo Pigliucci doesn't get enough respect. He's upset by the "New Atheists" who place a great deal of emphasis on the scientific way of knowing and demand evidence that any other way of knowing is successful. These mean New Atheists (I count myself as one of them) use a very broad definition of science that includes most of the admirable activities of philosophers. Pigliucci is mostly a philosopher and he doesn't think that philosophy is getting enough respect from the New Atheists.

Here's the cartoon he published on his blog to illustrate the problem [see Rationally Speaking cartoon: Sam Harris].

Pigliucci is right. Many of us use a broad definition of science that cuts across all disciplines. Anyone who uses rationality and evidence to arrive at knowledge is using the scientific way of knowing. That includes philosophers as long as they are following that method.

Pigliucci thinks that the New Atheists are guilty of "scientism." Here's how he puts in in a recently published article in a philosophy jounral: New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement.

... the New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more forcefully on science than on philosophy. Indeed, a good number of New Atheists (the notable exception being, of course, Daniel Dennett) is on record explicitly belittling philosophy as a source of knowledge or insight. Dawkins says that the “God hypothesis” should be treated as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis; Stenger explicitly—in the very subtitle of his book—states that “Science shows that God does not exist” (my emphasis); and Harris later on writes a whole book in which he pointedly ignores two and a half millennia of moral philosophy in an attempt to convince his readers that moral questions are best answered by science (more on this below). All of these are, to my way of seeing things, standard examples of scientism. Scientism here is defined as a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding.
That's pretty accurate as far as it goes. Many of us do, in fact, believe that the scientific way of knowing is pervasive and all disciplines that seek knowledge use it. We believe that there's no other way of knowing that has been successful.

Apparently, Pigliucci thinks that philosophers are in possession of another way of knowing that's different from the rational, evidence-based, way of science. He thinks that the New Atheists haven't bothered to read any books or papers by philosophers because, if we had, we would see right away that philosophers are generating true knowledge using this different way of knowing. Presumably, it doesn't rely on evidence and it isn't rational.
Moreover, it seems clear to me that most of the New Atheists (except for the professional philosophers among them) pontificate about philosophy very likely without having read a single professional paper in that field. If they had, they would have no trouble recognizing philosophy as a distinct (and, I maintain, useful) academic discipline from science: read side by side, science and philosophy papers have precious little to do with each other, in terms not just of style, but of structure, scope, and range of concerns. I would actually go so far as to charge many of the leaders of the New Atheism movement (and, by implication, a good number of their followers) with anti-intellectualism, one mark of which is a lack of respect for the proper significance, value, and methods of another field of intellectual endeavor.
Jerry Coyne has dissected and diced this argument. Please read what he says on his blog website: Pigliucci to all New Atheists: we’re doing it wrong.

Like Jerry and many of my New Atheist friends, I have read a lot of philosophy papers and books. Many of them are written by theologians who call themselves philosophers and publish in philosophical journals. There's no question that their way of arriving at their conclusions is quite distinct and looks nothing like science. If anti-intellectualism is defined as lacking respect for those types of philosophers then count me in.

I'd like to add something about defining science. Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry have edited an excellent book entitled Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. The book is highly relevant to this discussion since the demarcation problem is all about defining science. Most of the book concerns how to distinguish science from things that pretend to be science (pseudoscience) but it also covers the demarcation between science and other ways of knowing.

Maarten Boudry describes this as "territorial demarcation" in his chapter on "Loki's Wager and Laudan's Error."
The genuine demarcation problem as I see it—the one with real teeth—deals with distinguishing bona fide science from pseduoscience. The second brand of demarcation concerns the territorial boundaries separating science from such epistemic endeavors as philosophy, history, metaphysics, and even everyday reasoning.
Boudry isn't very interested in the territorial demarcation problem because he doesn't see much difference in the way scientists and philosophers go about doing their business. He's much more worried about postmodernist philosophy, theology, and other forms of pseudophilosophy.
These discussions illustrate that philosophers are facing a normative demarcation task in their own discipline. Indeed, the fuzzy boundaries bewteen philosophy and science, and the commonalities of their respective pseudo-counterparts, further downplay the territorial demarcation problem. Philosophers and scientists alike should join efforts to separate the wheat from the chaff in both domains rather than staking their own territorial boundaries.
So, Maarten Boudry has a rather broad view of science that isn't clearly separated from what philosophers do. I wonder if he talks to Massimo Pigliucci?

Boudry suggests that we use the word "scientia" to describe "empirically informed knowledge" of the sort that encompasses both science and philosophy. It's probably a good idea. It would mean we're all supposed to be supporters of scientiaism and that's not a bad thing.

Ironically, Massimo Pigliucci makes a similar suggestion ....
Assuming my critique of what is actually new about the New Atheism hits the mark, one can still pose the reasonable question of what might be the most constructive way for atheists of the new generations to look upon their metaphysical position, and in particular upon how it relates to both sound philosophical and scientific notions. I think that atheists need to seriously reconsider how they think of human knowledge in general, perhaps arching back to the classic concept of “scientia,” the Latin word from which “science” derives, but that has a broader connotation of (rationally arrived at) knowledge. Scientia includes science sensu stricto, philosophy, mathematics, and logic—that is, all the reliable sources of thirdperson knowledge that humanity has successfully experimented with so far.
So far so good.

But then Pigliucci blows it with his next sentence as Jerry Coyne already noted. Here's the conclusion that makes the whole Pigliucci comment look ridiculous.
In turn, when scientia is combined with input from other humanistic disciplines, the arts, and first-person experience it yields understanding.
What the heck does that mean? What aspect of "first-person experience" can be coupled with "rationally arrived at knowledge" or "empirically informed knowledge" that scientia itself couldn't have achieved? What non-scientia way of knowing can contribute to understanding (=knowledge)? This sounds like gobbledygook and it's part of what leads many of us to be suspicious about philosophers.
What the atheist movement needs, therefore, is not a brute force turn toward science at the expense of everything else, but rather a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways—intellectual as well as experiential—in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world. A healthy respect for, and cooperation with, other disciplines should be the hallmark of the twenty-first century atheist, and this is precisely the direction toward which some post–New Atheism writers, such as De Botton and Grayling (not at all coincidentally, both philosophers) have been pushing most recently. That path, rather than the one attempted by the New Atheists, is the one that I think has the most potential to lead to a long-standing rational and persuasive case for atheism.
There is no "case for atheism" other than refuting claims of the existence of supernatural beings. All those claims can be challenged on the basis that they lack evidence for the god(s) they are proposing. If you don't have evidence, then your gods are imaginary.

The examination of evidence falls entirely within the realm of science or "scientia." What "intellectual" or "experiential" way of acquiring knowledge does Pigliucci think will add to the lack of evidence for gods and support of atheism?


Alex SL said...

Many of us do, in fact, believe that the scientific way of knowing is pervasive and all disciplines that seek knowledge use it. We believe that there's no other way of knowing that has been successful.

Again, in what sense does mathematics (or pure logic, for that matter) involve evidence? Those are bona fide methods of generating knowledge that are not scientific unless science is deliberately defined to include every form of thinking.

It seems to me that science would be well circumscribed as those knowledge generating activities that describe our specific, actually existing instance of the world using empirical evidence. Obviously that still means that pixies, demons, souls and gods fall under the domain of science because they are claims about the world. But mathematics still doesn't because its conclusions are independent of what the world actually looks like, and evidence does not ever enter into mathematics.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

"evidence does not ever enter into mathematics". Sure it does. I speak about "evidence in favor of this conjecture" or "evidence against that conjecture" all the time. Here's a master's thesis: . Look at the title of chapter 4.

Iain said...

I've argued with you about this before, Larry, so I'll restrict myself to a few quick observations.
"Presumably, it doesn't rely on evidence and it isn't rational"
This begs the question, as Pigliucci rejects precisely this overly-broad definition of science.
"Like Jerry and many of my New Atheist friends, I have read a lot of philosophy papers and books. Many of them are written by theologians who call themselves philosophers..."
This seems a bit like saying you've read a lot of science papers and books by creationists, who call themselves scientists. A tiny percentage of professional philosophers could, by any stretch, be called theologians, and most of the rest hold as dim a view of their work as you do.
"There's no question that their way of arriving at their conclusions is quite distinct and looks nothing like science."
If you look at the work produced by the majority of philosophers, rather than the dismal few, you'd see how obvious the difference between philosophy and the sciences really is. Scientists start with empirical evidence - experimental results; philosophers may consult empirical evidence, but are mostly concerned with conceptual analysis and other non-empirical evidence. Scientists seek contingent truths about this world; philosophers seek necessary truths about all possible worlds. Philosophers, unlike scientists, address the normative: not just what our moral beliefs are, and how they came about, but what they should be, and whether they are justified. If you simply look and see what philosophers do, you'll see that it is simply not the same activity as that which goes on in the sciences. And that will show you that your definition of science, which swallows not just philosophy but mathematics and most of the humanities, is unhelpful - it blurs distinctions, and blinds you to the different contributions different disciplines can make.

Iain said...

The difference is that the evidence in mathematics is a priori evidence, not empirical evidence. No possible empirical observation could overturn 2+2=4.

Anonymous said...

@Alex SL:

The whole "mathematics ought to be completely divorced from the physical world" idea came from Plato, who was (a) a mediocre thinker in many ways (Socrates' "logic" involves false dilemmas left and right, and less-commonly-but-still-frequent other fallacies which others already knew enough to avoid), (b) a terrible snob (grew up rich and idle and was related to a lot of politically connected people), and (c) not actually a mathematician himself. If you consider the really great and famous mathematicians of history, not a single one was contemptuous of using physical phenomena as a wellspring of mathematical inspiration; we actually have a letter from Archimedes to a student, usually known as "the method", which says that studying the physical world is a great way to discover mathematical truths. Newton, Euler, and Gauss said similar things.

Furthermore, mathematical proof often involves experiment. The 4-color conjecture, for example, was proved by having a computer examine all the possible categories and see if the conjecture was false. Any proof which involves reductio ad absurdam is one which is examining evidence, and the idea that a single counterexample disproves a theorem is, likewise. (If you could find a single very large even number which could not be represented as the sum of two primes, for example, every mathematician in the world who was thinking about the problem would stop working on the Goldbach Conjecture.)

And before you say "that's a different kind of evidence", you're really reaching. The basic mathematical operations and the integers are things which were defined in terms of the physical world, and which continue to be thought of (on a very basic level) in that way. The construction of a logical system where numbers and addition and subtraction and multiplication and division were transformed from physical things into an abstracted logical system was a post facto artifact of relatively recent history (late 1800s) and came just before Godel proved that any system which could encompass those things, but had a finite number of axioms, was necessarily either incomplete or self-contradictory.

Learn some of the history of the field before you pontificate!

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

How is, say, the calculation of the first ten trillion non-trivial zeros of the Riemann function (to check if they all lie on the critical line) different from empirical evidence? Of course it doesn't prove the hypothesis, but it strengthens its plausibility and convinces mathematicians that it's worth trying to prove.

Anders Eg said...

As a former plumber and now a retired orthopaedic surgion I shall mention that the approach to a leak of a plumber if often more scientic than the approach of of an surgeon of my kind. As a plumber you have to find the origin of the leak and do something about it. As an orthopaedic you first apply more heavy dressing of the wound and hope for the best which thanks to body functions which with the aid of blood transfusions often works very well and often makes the problem go away in twelwe hours or less. A plumber with that approch would most often be a failure and have his leak remaning with sometimes substantial collateral damage.
Remaining plumber habits finds me often quite intoxicated Friday nights therefore all language and logic inconsistences in this post.
Anders Eg

Anonymous said...

And this rarified Courtier's Reply uber-philosophy which somehow depends on something other than empirical evidence: has it, even once, produced a single conclusion which could not be produced by "scientific" means, which turned out to be true in practice? In fact, does it produce conclusions which even can be said to be true or false? Or is it only useful for building castles in the air for other philosophers to use as PhD fodder? If all it does is build up constructs made of words which have no practical application, then not only is it useless, but the world would actually have been a better place if those who practice it had done something useful instead.

For that matter, what difference is there between your uber-philosophers and the theologians you're so contemptuous of? If your uber-philosophy consists of nothing but systems of thought which have no actual relation to reality and can't be tested, then it certainly LOOKS like the only difference is that your uber-philosophers don't mention god. Well, who cares what words you moan as you masturbate?

Iain said...

And this is precisely the kind of contemptuous ignorant crap, demonstrating a complete lack of knowledge or understanding of the discipline being dismissed, that Pigliucci is railing against. Thank you, v1car, you are now Exhibit A.

Alex SL said...


That is precisely my point: math isn't empirical, science is.


Generally scientists don't prove anything but as you point out mathematicians do. The two approaches are too different to be subsumed under one concept.

Alex SL said...

Okay, let's try something that everybody should understand: using the scientific methodology of testing claims against empirical data, how do you:

a. Figure out the value of Pi?

b. Demonstrate that the circle cannot be squared?

c. Demonstrate that there are no married bachelors?

d. Since you brought it up yourself, arrive at Godel's conclusion?

For a and b, please remember that due to the graininess of reality and the curvature of space-time there are no actual perfect circles in existence anywhere in the universe, only things that are vague approximations of circles. For c, please remember that doing a survey and finding to married bachelors does not demonstrate that there aren't any, merely that you haven't found any so far.

Note also that if you reply with the idea of using non-empirical, purely mathematical or philosophical methodology ("of course married bachelors don't exist, that term is a self-contradiction") you are begging the question.

Alex SL said...

'finding no married bachelors', of course...

Jonathan Badger said...

The problem with saying every (non-mystical, at least) way of generating knowledge is "science" is it confuses the real debate over scientism. Yes, I know "scientism" is a much abused word and is often used my theists as a meaningless insult against science, but it really does have a real meaning -- basically, are the natural sciences a superset of all fields of knowledge or not? Some biologists such as E.O. Wilson have said that the social sciences will eventually die because biology will explain everything interesting about human behavior and there will be nothing left for social scientists to do. I don't agree with it, but it is an interesting debate that is impossible to conduct if the definitions of science get blurred.

Jonathan Badger said...

There's a joke out there about treating finding prime numbers as if it were science and not math that really shows the difference in methodology: "1 is prime, 3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime". Okay, odd numbers are prime. 9 is ... well not prime, but that's probably just experimental error. But 11 is prime and so is 13, so scientifically, the theory that odd numbers are prime seems to hold up. But obviously such empirical evidence isn't how math works.

John Harshman said...

Should we point out here that 1 is not prime?

Robert Byers said...

At this point in history wHY is there a fight about what evidence or science is??
Its all about conclusions in the universe. What is the truth of reality.
Then methodology is claimed as legitimate or illegitimate by opposing sides.
Is evolution based on scientific biological evidence? or just a hunch trumping other hunches?
Saying its just the facts ma'am doesn't work if the facts are in question.
Its a fact to me and many the bible is true. Its a claimed witness.
Saying it doesn't count as evidence is a imposition of what evidence is.
There is problem in discovering the truth if all evidence is viable.
Discrediting what counts as evidence is discrediting the source of the evidence.
The source, as in the bible case, is evidence in good standing until proven otherwise.
Folks are trying to eliminate revelation as a option for truth just by decree.
Unless you prove revelation is wrong its still a option for evidence.

Nullifidian said...

And that 2 is prime?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

math isn't empirical, science is.

It's not so black and white. A lot of the mathematical "evidence" collected these days is done on computers, whose reliability is largely dependent on certain physical theories. The line is blurred.

" No possible empirical observation could overturn 2+2=4."

But - if you grant me that running a computer program and looking at the result constitutes an empirical observation - it could overturn the claim that exp(Pi*sqrt(163)) is an integer.

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

But obviously such empirical evidence isn't how math works.

Leaving aside the fact that 1 and 2 don't fit the hypothesis, mathematicians often work just like that. You look at some examples, formulate an initial hypothesis (say, an empirical formula), test it against further examples, and if you can't falsify it at once, you know that it's something worth further effort. If mathematics was all about publishing proven results, there would be no famous unsolved problems. They are known to be "empirically" true (computationally tested and not yet falsified), or supported by some other kind of "evidence".

O the other hand, theoretical physicists are just like mathematicians -- they prove things within the model they work with, and sometimes have their own challenges -- hypotheses believed to be true but not yet rigorously demonstrated for all conditions (e.g. Wheeler's "no-hair theorem" for black holes).

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Your question (1) is too vague to merit an answer. "Figure out" in what sense? Computer a decimal approximation to it? Then you're welcome to come to my study and we can do the Buffon needle experiment together on my floor, which was designed with that in mind.

steve oberski said...

Ah, the "no true scotsman" argument. How refreshing.

Where is this list of the "dismal few" (and by corollary the non-dismal complement) ?

How do I sign up as Exhibit B (damn you v1car for edging me out on the coveted A spot) ?

Larry Moran said...


Allow me to be exhibit B.

Answer his question ... and mine. Give me a concrete example of true knowledge arrived at by philosophers without using the broad definition of science (scientia) as a way of knowing. I'm specifically interested in something that we all consider to be true (knowledge) but for which there is no evidence.

As for bad philosophers (e.g. theologians) and bad biologists (e.g. creationists), I appreciate your analogy but there does seem to bo one crucial difference. With only a few minor exceptions, there aren't many creationists promoting their religious views in the respectable biological literature. And there aren't any departments of biology dominated by creationists at any major university.

What's your view of Pigliucci's paper? It was published in a philosophical journal. Have there been a number of philosphers who have criticized it in the blogosphere or is it only scientists and New Atheists who point out the obvious logical errors and misconceptions?

Do you find it embarrassing that people from outside the discipline of philosophy find it so easy to recognize major flaws in the work of a prominent philosopher? Or, do you think we are wrong?

Larry Moran said...

If "scientism" is defined as the belief that "the natural sciences are a superset of all fields or knowledge" then it deserves to be a derogatory term. Problem is, the number of respectable scientists who believe that is miniscule.

Jonathan, that is not the "real meaning" of scientism. That's what this post is all about. It may be one possible meaning but there are others and that's the problem.

If I admit to being guilty of scientism by one broad definition it does not mean that I'll admit to it using your definition.

The whole point of this discussion is that the definition of science IS blurred and we have to deal with it.

Alex SL said...

I know that we use computers to do the approximation for us these days. But what is the experimental setup they are using? Where does the empirical data collection come in? I just don't see it as science.

Seriously, it is obviously a definitional issue. One can 'win' the demarcation issue by default by declaring every way of figuring things out to be science. But then the word is so vague as to be meaningless. The other side can 'win' the demarcation issue by default by declaring only stuff that is done while wearing lab coats to be science. But then the definition is so narrow that there are methodologically indistinguishable parts of the 'humanities'.

I find it helpful to distinguish empirical research that deals with how our universe is instantiated (science, broadly construed to include history, economics, psychology, etc to the degree that those are done well) from research that deals with things that are this or that way utterly regardless of what the universe looks like (math, logic, perhaps some other parts of philosophy).

This is also how I would answer Larry Moran's question. Philosophy is not in the business of collecting information about the specifics of the world we find ourselves in but it can help us clarify how to think about certain issues. In addition, it can definitely show that some things, even empirical claims, are incoherent or self-contradictory, saving us the bother of even starting to search for evidence. A married bachelor or an omnipotent god are self-contradictory concepts; we don't need to do a scientific study to search for evidence for either of them. And figuring out why, for example, omnipotence is a non-starter without having collected any observations is doing philosophy.

Iain said...

Jeffrey, the use of computers as part of mathematical proofs is an interesting case, but it does not make mathematics empirical. The reason a computer running a program can be accepted as mathematical evidence is that it can be mathematically shown that, assuming the computer makes no mistakes in carrying out its program, the results are reliable. The empirical part (that computers work as designed) is presupposed. The computer is merely an extension of the mathematician's brain, not an experimental apparatus.

Alex SL said...

Please note carefully that I am not arguing for Pigliucci's narrow demarcation of science or for the non-applicability of science to supernatural claims or anything like that.

I merely find it distressing when I read the claim that no knowledge is being produced by anything except science. If science is construed so broadly that it includes the kind of deductive reasoning that shows positivism to be self-defeating or develops set theory then the term does not mean anything any more.

Iain said...

Larry, I see the demand for specific pieces of "true knowledge" as a trap, as any item provided will immediately be distorted, dismissed, and trivialized, with all of philosophy dismissed along with it.

If you look at the history of philosophy, what you see is that great debates rage until some conceptual clarification is reached. At that point, some of the problem being addressed is recognized as an empirical matter; with the new conceptual framework provided by philosophy, a new science can be formed to further investigate it. Other parts of the problem are seen to have been based on a confusion, and discarded. And the core of the problem may continue to be debated for centuries, with different schools of thought holding opposing views. (Even within those schools, though, progress is made, as the position is refined and clarified, and new arguments formulated.) So if you take a single moment in time (now, say), and demand a list of philosophically established truths, the answers will seem either controversial, trivial, or a part of science. But, if you look at the same issue from a historical perspective, you will see the contribution made by philosophy.

It's true that there are theologians in philosophy departments, and some of them are bad philosophers (there are also good philosophers who are not always so good when it comes to religion - e.g., Plantinga is respected for his work on modality). There are obvious historical reasons for this - since many universities have religious origins, and theology and philosophy have deep connections. But it is an irrelevance for the work of most philosophers. (only 15% of professional philosophers are theists)

I've just read Pigliucci's paper. It's more of an editorial than your standard piece of analytic philosophy, and falls more into "history of ideas". It's in a special issue (in a journal that specializes in special issues) devoted to New Atheism, so this is appropriate. I don't know how many philosophers have commented on the paper, but it's a niche area, and Pigliucci is far better known in your circles than in academic philosophy, so I doubt it's too many. But I don't see the "obvious logical errors and misconceptions" you claim. Coyne's response seems to be a petulant rant about the tone of the paper, which I found far more guilty of the emotional crimes Coyne criticizes Pigliucci for. And your response strawmans his position by invoking the very definition of science he rejects.

I thought he made several good points. In particular: many of the treatments of traditional arguments for the existence of God given by New Atheists are poor rehashes of centuries of philosophical work; and Harris' contempt for philosophy and attempt to found morality on science without any reference to the philosophical literature is embarrassingly shoddy and anti-intellectual.

S Johnson said...

Philosophy is that part of rhetoric devoted to the appeal to reason. As such, it is a branch of the humanities. I think it was Descartes who talked of philosophy as the justification of what gentlemen believed (a class-definition of conventional wisdom, still useful I think.) Scientific rhetoric, whether used in controversies amongst researchers or in popularizations, will therefore use philosophy. As necessary as this is, I don't think that means science is rhetoric.

It's true that philosophers seem often to talk as if anything in science that involves anything other than experimental results or observations and measurements, such as concepts or critical reflections upon the coherence of theories. This is an extraordinarily narrow view of science. It's like saying that it's only scientific if you can do controlled experiments. By this logic, much of geology, biology and astronomy are not science. And "social science" is an oxymoron. (Actually, the desire to define away any possibility of a social science appears to be the motive for all this.)

Insofar as there is a real issue, it appears to be resistance to the notion that we can only know things by testing them against experience. The obvious counterexamples are mathematics and logic. The odd thing is, I'm not sure what we know when we know a mathematical truth. An example above is 2+2=4. I counter, 1+1=10. Also, 11+2=1.
All three statements are equally true. What do we then know? As for logic, formal logic is mathematics and informal logic is the part of philosophy that pretty much everyone can agree is rhetoric. Historically, philosophical speculations have inspired scientists. But all kinds of speculation are part of the scientific process. Other sources of speculative ideas, such as religion, has driven individual scientists without people attributing some sort of validating power to them. Who would claim Kekule's dream was a way of knowing?

To repeat, I find unpleasantly ironic when philosophers claim conceptual analysis is a path to knowledge without clarifying what knowledge of this kind even means.

Larry Moran said...

Iain says,

Larry, I see the demand for specific pieces of "true knowledge" as a trap, as any item provided will immediately be distorted, dismissed, and trivialized, with all of philosophy dismissed along with it.

I understand your fear but I don't mean it as a trap. If you had a clear example then I'm sure you would present it and defend it. I supsect you don't.

And your response strawmans his position by invoking the very definition of science he rejects.

I don't think it's correct to say that I "strawman" his position. I understand his position. He thinks that "science" is something that only scientists do. It's restricted to the traditional fields like biology, chemistry, physics, geology etc. He attacks the New Atheists for trying to dismiss philosophy because it's not one of those disciplines.

But that's not the definition the New Atheists are using. They are using the broad definition of science and it's perfectly reasonable to include history and philosophy under science (or scientia). I attack Pigliucci for not recognizing the HE is attacking a strawman.

Then at the end of his essay he tosses out the view that "science" needs to cooperate with other ways of knowing but he never tells us how those other ways of knowing actually work to generate knowledge.

You haven't told us either. You say that's because you're afraid that any examples you give will be refuted and you might have to spend some effort defending them. Forgive me if I seem reluctant to accept that as a legitimate argument.

Larry Moran said...

Alex SL says,

Philosophy is not in the business of collecting information about the specifics of the world we find ourselves in but it can help us clarify how to think about certain issues. In addition, it can definitely show that some things, even empirical claims, are incoherent or self-contradictory, saving us the bother of even starting to search for evidence.

That's correct. It's why everyone needs to take philosophy courses and it's why I support my philosopher friend, Chris DiCarlo, in his efforts to get logic and critical thinking into high school courses.

If philosophers don't claim to be producing knowledge then they shouldn't be the least bit concerned about any conflict between their discipline and science. On the other hand, when they do make claims about the existence of supernatural beings or whether science can or cannot investigate certain things (e.g. the supernatural) then we have a right to ask for evidence.

Many philosophers are very interested in questions of ethics and morality. When they make claims about moral laws and ethical standards they go beyond simple logic and enter the real world where those claims have consequences. That's when evidence becomes important and science takes an interest.

I merely find it distressing when I read the claim that no knowledge is being produced by anything except science.

I'm sorry you find it distressing to read about this hypothesis. Are you distressed because you're worried that it's true, or are you distressed because you're certain it's not? If it's the latter, then there's a very simple way to show that the hypothesis has been falsified.

Go for it. Give us examples of true knowledge that is not supported by evidence. Is mathematics your best shot? Have you convinced many mathematicians to support you?

chemicalscum said...

Interestingly Lenny Susskind the theoretical physicist started of as a plumber too.

Alex SL said...

The latter, of course.

> Go for it. Give us examples of true knowledge that is not supported by evidence.

I had assumed I already did. Take set theory, for example.

Or for something simpler: We know that ethics cannot come from god(s) (Euthyphro dilemma). What is the evidence there?

Or do you consider deductive reasoning to be 'evidence'? That would be another interesting case of making a term so fuzzy that it becomes meaningless.

Science includes the use of tools that would not be, in isolation and by themselves, already be science, such as statistics or Occam's Razor. Pigliucci's mistake is to say that science isn't doing science whenever it is making use of one of those tools, because then there is no way of concluding anything scientifically.

But we should avoid making the opposite mistake to claim that one of these cognitive tools in isolation must already be science because scientists also use it. In that case, we would make science merely a synonym for 'thinking'.

Larry Moran said...

Alex SL gives two examples of true knowledge that is not supported by evidence.

Take set theory, for example.

I don't know about you but I'm interested in knowing whether set theory is merely some abstract theoretical construct or whether it actually works to solve real problems. As far as I know, the evidence suggests that it's a good model for how some things work.

We know that ethics cannot come from god(s) (Euthyphro dilemma). What is the evidence there?

I don't know for certain that ethics cannot come from god(s). However, I do know that science requires evidence and there's no evidence that god(s) exist. Hence, it is not scientific to believe in god(s) and not scientific to believe that they are responsible for ethics.

Or do you consider deductive reasoning to be 'evidence'?

No, I don't.

Anonymous said...

How about love, justice, freedom....etc...? How and why did they evolve?
Larry, your blindness is pathetic.... but not unexpected,....hihihih

Rolf Aalberg said...

What aspect of "first-person experience" can be coupled with "rationally arrived at knowledge" or "empirically informed knowledge" that scientia itself couldn't have achieved?
IMHO, none. That's one of the conclusions I drew from my own first-person experience.

Lyndon Page said...

Alex and others,

It is a fact that there are 3 outs in a half inning of a major league baseball game. Most people arrive at this knowledge not through “science.” But, instead, by asking the person next to them, who respond, “that it has long been agreed upon by human beings that there will be 3 outs.” The fact that we ascertain most our knowledge not through science or science like activities, unless we want to include intersubjective discourse, creation, and explanation as science activities, does not mean we need philosophy to swoop in and demarcates such an area to be beyond science. And, as well, we constantly create “facts” and knowledge. Mary desires ice cream can be a true statement that we find out by asking Mary. This is empirical but probably not scientific, until we get some better brain scanners and understand how to read thoughts from charts.

The question of mathematical truths or ways of knowing is blurrier, given that they are necessitated relational truths. But when we go simple enough, say on logical necessities that we intuitively accept early on, we can place some of these recognitions of relational truths very early into cognition. It becomes difficult to make any claim about “how we learn such things” (I am thinking of some of the claims from developmental psychology, Alison Gopnik, e.g.). Are these “learned” facts of relational necessity outside science? Yes. But many of them are outside math and philosophy. I see what mathematicians (and maybe philosophers) as doing is extending these relational truths. They are also finding specific truths within different logic systems and mathematical systems, only a small portion of that is probably going to be useful in building a theory about most physical systems. Such things are true and they are facts, and it feels mathematicians can go on into perpetuity discovering more relational truths. Many of the relational necessities that apply to scientific experiments and theory making are already well within the hands of scientists, and those which are not are quickly attained when needed, for the most part.

Think of how science and scientists are still coming to grips with the double slit experiment or with Libet’s experiment. These questions span science and philosophy, which are essentially worrying about the same problems. The scientists are going to go broad enough (if they are good scientists) to ask about the conceptual and definitional problems associated with their bizarre works, and philosophers and theorizers are going to take in these experiments to make sense of them and help to rethink conceptual and definitional demarcations. Scientists will make some conceptual mistakes that some philosophers will be able to point to, but these are usually quickly absorbed into further hypothesis making and new experiments. But, for the most part, philosophers plowing into these problems do not seem to be conceptually superior or deductively superior as regards the problem as compared to the “scientists’” reflections, which admittedly, since it is in the realm of the conceptual, looks a lot like what philosophers are doing regarding these issues. A lot of brain research, such as Libet, has no choice but to touch the same places that philosophy of mind focuses on.

Alex SL said...

> I don't know for certain that ethics cannot come from god(s).

Personal unwillingness to understand the Euthyphro dilemma is not really an argument.

If, hypothetically, you were to say "we know (from science) that most of the genome is junk DNA" to demonstrate that science can generate knowledge you would probably not consider "I don't know for certain that most of the genome is junk DNA" to be a particularly good rejoinder either.

The lack of evidence for the existence of gods is orthogonal to the question at hand because the conclusion is regardless of whether gods exist or not, morals would not come from them either way.

Basically what you are implying then is that only science can produce knowledge because you are personally unwilling to recognize any of the knowledge philosophy has produced as knowledge. And you are unwilling to do so because it is not empirical, scientific knowledge.

I have to admit, circular reasoning can sometimes be quite beautiful.

Alex SL said...

Examples like your three outs and Mary's preferences are also Massimo Pigliucci's favoured arguments to show that not all empirical questions are scientific. Still, my point is that it is virtually impossible to draw a reasonable line between cases like those and the ones that everybody would agree are scientific. As a European I, for example, am so unfamiliar with the bizarre games enjoyed in North America that I could consider the rules of Baseball a question of ethnology, and that is clearly a branch of science.

On the other hand, I see an extremely clear line between non-empirical questions and empirical ones. Either something is logically true or false regardless of the state of the universe or we actually need to check the universe to figure out what is the case. The latter is what science is about, the former is the realm of pure mathematics and the more useful branches of philosophy, such as formal logic.

Ellen Clarke said...

"What "intellectual" or "experiential" way of acquiring knowledge does Pigliucci think will add to the lack of evidence for gods and support of atheism?"

Isn't this just rationalism versus empricism all over again? It sounds rather like you are trying to claim that empiricism is all we need. But many people have shown that no pure empiricist strategy is possible. Quine and Kuhn give the arguments viewed as most conclusive. Empirical evidence, observation, data, whatever you wanto call it.....these can never inform us about normative questions such as 'what is rational?' We can only do science with the help of rationalist principles concerning what we OUGHT to believe, what extra-empirical properties a GOOD theory should have, what are good norms of reasoning when we choose which part of a theory to take some evidence as having confirmed, and so on. Science is in the business of hypothesizing counterfactuals - 'what would happen if i were to do this or that...' and to make sense of these, of what it means for something to follow necessarily......there is no way that empirical evidence can ever help us understand necessity, lawfulness.
Lots of philosophy does a bad job of explaining why non-philosophers should care about it, because they spend all their time talking only to other philosophers and developing lots of cliquey jargon. but there is no such thing as science without philosophy, as Daniel Dennet once said. only science whose philosophical assumptions have not been spelled out.

ScienceAvenger said...

I would find it easier to accept that philosophy is a relevant intellectual exercise if philosophers would stop implying that theology is.

Konrad said...

Since the advent of automated computation, there has been no clear dividing line between mathematical reasoning and empiricism. E.g. the 1976 proof of the four color theorem by making a computer work through 1,936 cases (more than was possible for a human) - this is mathematical proof by setting up an experiment and observing the outcome.

You can think of any mathematical result this way - at the beginning, you don't know what you will find. Then you perform the experiment of thinking through it, and observe the outcome of this process.

Jem said...

"I'm specifically interested in something that we all consider to be true (knowledge) but for which there is no evidence."

'The Godfather Part II is better than The Godfather Part III'

There's no scientific way to determine that's the case. But among people with enough knowledge to understand the statement, it's less controversial or open to challenge, and held by a higher percentage of people than any scientific statement of similar length. It is held to be true, almost axiomatic. A higher percentage of film fans agree that than Christians agree the Resurrection was a literal event.

We can come up with a compelling argument that God's a nonsensical idea this way ... here's a question for Iain: if God's opinion was that Part III was better than Part II, would he be right?

Jem said...

"Folks are trying to eliminate revelation as a option for truth just by decree.
Unless you prove revelation is wrong its still a option for evidence."

You presumably don't believe that every time someone has heard a god's voice in their head that it's really that god talking to them.

So, how can you distinguish between messages from god and interference with the smooth running of an individual brain? How is divine revelation testable or falsifiable?

There are things that would be good evidence, although never conclusive. And they'd be trivially easy for God. If, say, the scientific consensus at the time incorrectly believed that bats were types of birds, or that the smallest seed was the mustard seed, then if he were incarnated in human form, but was incapable of error, then he would not say that they were.

You can possibly see where this is going if you're the sort of Christian who's read the Bible.

Faizal Ali said...

I dont find those two examples particularly compelling, at least in light of the broader definition of "science" that Larry is using.

If we start from the knowledge that baseball is a game that has been devised by humans and has a number of rules that have been determined by consensus agreement, then we could determine the number of outs in an inning by simply reading the rule book. Or we could observe a game and notice that the team at bat changes every time the 3rd out has been recorded. It seems to me that is employing evidence and rational thought to answer the question.

Similarly, if Mary says that she prefers vanilla ice cream to chocolate, we are using the evidence that is before us and analyzing it rationally in the context of deciding whether when a person says they prefer a flavour of ice cream they should be believed. And if we observe that every time she has the opportunity to choose between the two flavours she chooses chocolate, we can use evidence and rational thought to conclude that Mary has lied to us.