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Monday, April 07, 2014

Alan Sokal explains the scientific worldview

As most of you know, I prefer a broad definition of science as a way of knowing. I usually refer to it as a way of knowing based on rational thinking, evidence, and healthy skepticism but there are many other ways of expressing the same idea.

However you say it, the broad definition of the scientific way of knowing covers everything, not just physics, biology, chemistry and geology. Not only that, it appears to be the only way of knowing that has proven to be successful. Thus, I can tentatively conclude that it is the only way of knowing until someone provides an example of knowledge obtained by another way of knowing.

Alan Sokel has posted three articles on Massimo Pigliucci new blog, Scientia Salon [What is science and why should we care? — Part III].

Here's how he describes science in Part III.
We have now travelled a long way from “science,” understood narrowly as physics, chemistry, biology and the like. But the whole point is that any such narrow definition of science is misguided. We live in a single real world; the administrative divisions used for convenience in our universities do not in fact correspond to any natural philosophical boundaries. It makes no sense to use one set of standards of evidence in physics, chemistry and biology, and then suddenly relax your standards when it comes to medicine, religion or politics. Lest this sound to you like a scientist’s imperialism, I want to stress that it is exactly the contrary. As the philosopher Susan Haack lucidly observes:

“Our standards of what constitutes good, honest, thorough inquiry and what constitutes good, strong, supportive evidence are not internal to science. In judging where science has succeeded and where it has failed, in what areas and at what times it has done better and in what worse, we are appealing to the standards by which we judge the solidity of empirical beliefs, or the rigor and thoroughness of empirical inquiry, generally.” [21]

The bottom line is that science is not merely a bag of clever tricks that turn out to be useful in investigating some arcane questions about the inanimate and biological worlds. Rather, the natural sciences are nothing more or less than one particular application — albeit an unusually successful one — of a more general rationalist worldview, centered on the modest insistence that empirical claims must be substantiated by empirical evidence.

Conversely, the philosophical lessons learned from four centuries of work in the natural sciences can be of real value — if properly understood — in other domains of human life. Of course, I am not suggesting that historians or policy-makers should use exactly the same methods as physicists — that would be absurd. But neither do biologists use precisely the same methods as physicists; nor, for that matter, do biochemists use the same methods as ecologists, or solid-state physicists as elementary-particle physicists. The detailed methods of inquiry must of course be adapted to the subject matter at hand. What remains unchanged in all areas of life, however, is the underlying philosophy: namely, to constrain our theories as strongly as possible by empirical evidence, and to modify or reject those theories that fail to conform to the evidence. That is what I mean by the scientific worldview.

Hat Tip: Jerry Coyne: Alan Sokal highlights the incompatibility of science and religion


  1. Not so much a world view as an attitude to knowing. The term "worldview" is rather ambiguous, especially when talking about anything related to religion, where it means an encompassing set of core belief about what is real. This does not, I think, apply to science, apart from the presumption that the world is both real and knowable. I prefer to avoid the term altogether.

  2. Egads! You mean that I wrote 411 pages about nothing?

    Borchardt, Glenn, 2007, The Scientific Worldview: Beyond Newton and Einstein: Lincoln, NE, iUniverse, 411 p.

  3. Fine about knowing. BUT very little is known. So within what is not known could be a lot of facts KNOWN from Christian revelation.
    How do you know the bible is not true?
    Man is very persuaded there is a God and so a creator of the universe and many men persuaded Genesis is true.
    We know its true. The witness is Believed.
    Saying the bible is not true is saying one knows the writer is lying.
    How do you know that?
    Einstein constantly stressed old ideas were wrong and new ideas could come along SO knowing anything is not really knowing.
    its just old fashioned weighing the evidence thinking one is right about ones conclusions.

    1. "Saying the bible is not true is saying one knows the writer is lying."

      It's really not. They could have been mad, they could have been conned, they might have consciously been writing fiction, they could have been under the influence of drugs, they could have been just stupid, they might have been writing something meant for particularly slow-witted and easily pleased small children. There are all sorts of options.

  4. So within what is not known could be a lot of facts KNOWN from Christian revelation.

    Interestingly, I just heard a radio interview with the Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman yesterday about his new book, which traces the steps along the way to the Christian doctrine that Jesus is God. (He wasn't uniformly thought of as divine by Christians at the start, partly since like Jesus they began as Jewish monotheists.) At the first Council of Nicaea, the Trinity was chosen from several competing concepts as the one behind which Christianity would unite. Under this concept, three separate and distinct entities - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit - are each divine, but there is only one God, thus preserving the core belief of monotheism. The logical contradiction is explained as a "mystery of faith."

    So one has a clear choice: admittedly self-contradictory core concepts explained (away) as mysteries that one must believe in as a matter of faith; or rationality and logic.

    Now of course attempts to exercise rationality and logic based on evidence have their pitfalls. We never have absolutely all information, so we must be mindful that all conclusions are to some degree provisional (though to quite a small degree about well-examined concepts like evolution). But admitting there are pitfalls about which one must be careful is fundamentally different than simply giving in to White Queen-style thinking, in which it is a point of pride to believe in many impossible things, calling them "miracles," "mysteries of faith," etc.

  5. Saying the bible is true is saying one knows the writer.

  6. It seems to me that defining science as a method of investigation rather overlooks the importance of science as a body of knowledge. Supposed scientific theories that ignore established facts are not often dignified with attention for a reason. There are subtle conceptual difficulties in the notion of a fact and the justification of how we know it to be a fact. But in practice the cracks in the foundation which seem to be present in every field somehow don't present that many problems.

    As near as I can tell though, the notion that every scientific idea can suddenly change and the logical conclusion that you can't rule much, if anything out, raises obstacles to understanding. It is a perpetual invitation to confuse corrigibility, perhaps the fundamental scientific principle, with provisionality. I'm not sure the latter is even definable in a scientific context.

    Further, defining science only as method rather tends to forbid deeming general conclusions from scientific investigation as justified knowledge. It seems to me that the notorious difficulty in the a priori justification of methodological naturalism are a false problem created solely by this narrow definition. Methodological naturalism is wholly justifiable a posteriori. The kind of philosophical reductionism that wants to turn "science" into a self-contained set of logical or mathematical seems to be motivated by something other than an interest in the world around us.

    It's interesting that even for those who wish to define science as a method still wish to quarrel over broad and narrow definitions. Since there was scientific discovery before there were professional scientists and their dedicated laboratories, it just doesn't make any sense in defining science narrowly. Even if you for some reason wish to elevate "modern" science to a status different from the merely empirical lore humanity had somehow collected, it is not at all clear how you can separate "modern" science from modern scientific instruments and materials. Unless you want to talk about something purely abstract? But again that seems to be some sort of strange philosophical reductionism. (This sort of strangeness seems to me to be far, far more common and more deleterious than so-called "scientism.")

    1. If science exists it must be a different species from every other body of knowledge or knowing.
      Therefore it must be about methodology. Its not about a body of knowledge.
      Religions have these bodies of knowledge. Are they science also? No!
      I don't think there is such a species as science however any dealings with it must be about methodology and that must be carefully watched.
      Creationism greatly questions that evolution is doing the scientific method in drawing biological conclusions.
      I say it isn't doing science. Its doing something else in investigation.
      Science only exists in human constructions of knowledge or knowing.
      It doesn't exist in nature.
      To say evolution is science is to say its been proven true by high standards of investigation.
      The fight these days is about whether its proven true. So it includes a scepticism that evolution is scientifically based.
      Its up to evolutionists to not just prove evolution but prove its science based.
      I don't see them doing it.
      The more defeat they get from ID/YEC on the merits also defeats their science claims. it will all crumble in a instant at some threshold crossing to come.

    2. I will persist in shamelessness: Science is the body of knowledge obtained by empirical investigation. "Science," the social institutions that conduct those investigation, entails the practical methods used to correct errors as well as the interpretive framework derived from generalizations from the knowledge accumulated. Science necessarily overlaps with such everyday activities as direct observation, simple inference and pattern recognition. Thus, for expediency, we tend to limit science in most contexts to what professional researchers do.

      The facts prove common descent of organisms. The facts prove an ancient earth. I do not believe anyone has found some abstract "method" that is "scientific," at all. I believe the effort to do so is fundamentally misguided. Yes, I am aware that most, including the scientists here, disagree. So be it.

      Your insistence that science must be about methodology is rather like a defense lawyer who doesn't want evidence against his client admitted into court. Therefore he focuses on the minutiae of the warrant. If he claims a defect in the procedure, he argues the evidence must be excluded. But law and philosophy are not concerned with truth as correspondence to reality. They pursue truth as logical coherence.

      Obviously since I see knowledge as a statement corresponding to reality, I completely disagree that religions have any bodies of knowledge. They have commandments and ordinances, parables and myths, but no knowledge.

    3. But a lot of science is coming up with models that explain what we know, or (in the case of economics) models that would--given assumptions--improve things. The former is backfitting, and with superstring theory it can get very elaborate, but it's hard to say this is really guided by empirical investigation, just weakly constrained. You give a mathematician several new degrees of freedom and old models are now integrated, where the new function form replaces the old force, so really no simplification has occurred. In the econ case, it's easy to come up with assumption where raising or lowering some price/tax makes everyone better off.

      I think a lot of science isn't science, it's sophisticated confabulation (especially sciences with the word 'science' in them).

    4. Well, mathematically speaking, conservation/symmetry is a powerful constraint, Since it is a constraint generalized from empirical study, it is still scientific, if indirectly. Still counts, even as indirect measurements are still empirical.

      But your point about modeling may have a lot of truth to it, and may indicate where the frontiers of science are running into difficulty in ascertaining what is or isn't so. The thing that strikes me, in the context of a post about the nature of science, is that this kind of modeling is the kind of thing you get treating science more as a method.

      It may be frustrating to think that scientific knowledge is corrigible if some part of us yearns for something that is eternal and absolute. It is always consternating to discover that facts were not precisely right and have to be corrected. Science as something perfect and pure is a castle in the air. Don't try to live in it. Shrinks will collect the rent.

  7. The more defeat they get from ID/YEC on the merits

    Hi Robert, quick question about the scientific merits of YEC (Young Earth Creationism):

    If the universe and everything in it was created 6000 years ago, how come we see the light from stars more than 6000 light years away?

    In other words, all you have to do to determine YEC is scientifically false is go outside at night and look up. Not exactly a high standard.

    1. Silly! God created the light already in transit. He's God, he can do stuff like that.

    2. Good question, but not much that you can see with the naked eye is more than 6,000 light years away. A few galaxies, certainly, but you need telescopic evidence to know their distances.

    3. "Silly! God created the light already in transit. He's God, he can do stuff like that."

      This is, as I'm sure lutesuite knows, *the answer creationists genuinely give*. Their God not only lies, he spends far more effort lying than it would to just tell the truth.