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Monday, March 15, 2021

Is science the only way of knowing?

Most of us learned that science provides good answers to all sort of questions ranging from whether a certain drug is useful in treating COVID-19 to whether humans evolved from primitive apes. A more interesting question is whether there are any limitations to science or whether there are any other effective ways of knowing. The question is related to the charge of "scientism," which is often used as a pejorative term to describe those of us who think that science is the only way of knowing.

I've discussed these issue many times of this blog so I won't rehash all the arguments. Suffice to say that there are two definitions of science; the broad definition and the narrow one. The narrow definition says that science is merely the activity carried out by geologists, chemists, physicists, and biologists. Using this definition it would be silly to say that science is the only way of knowing. The broad definition can be roughly described as: science is a way of knowing that relies on evidence, logic (rationality), and healthy skepticism.

The broad definition is the one preferred by many philosophers and it goes something like this ...

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.)

Sven Ove Hanson "Defining Pseudoscience and Science" in Philosophy of Pseudescience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem.

Clearly, scientific education ought to mean the implanting of a rational, sceptical, experimental habit of mind. It ought to mean acquiring a method – a method that can be used on any problem that one meets – and not simply piling up a lot of facts.

George Orwell

Using the broad definition, one can make a strong case that science is the only proven way of gaining knowledge. All other contenders are either trivial (mathematics), wrong (religion) or misguided (philosophy). So far, nobody that I know has been able to make a convincing case for any non-scientific way of knowing. Thus, I adopt as my working hypothesis the view that science is the only way of knowing.

Last year, Jerry Coyne revived the debate by posting an article about our favorite philosopher Maarten Boudry.1 Boudry also adopts the broad definition of science and agrees that there are no other ways of knowing [Scientism schmientism! Why there are no other ways of knowing apart from science (broadly construed)]. As I mentioned above, the debate is related to the charge of "scientism," which is often levelled against people like Boudry and Coyne (and me).

The debate over science as a way of knowing hasn't been settled. There are still lots of philosphers fighting a rearguard action to save philosophy and the humanities from the science invasion. Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci have put together a series of papers on the debate and it's a must-read for anyone who participates in this war. One of the defenders of philosophy in this book is Stephen Law, who is active on Facebook so you can engage in the debate there.

Stephen claims that there are two kinds of questions to which science cannot supply answers: moral questions and philosophical questions. Neither of those make any sense to me. Moral questions are essentially questions about the best way for societies to behave and the answers to those questions clearly depend on evidence and on observations about existing societies. As for philosophical questions, Law describes them like this,

On my view, philosophical questions are, for the most part, conceptual rather than scientific or empirical, and the methods of philosophy are, broadly speaking, conceptual rather than scientific or empirical.

Stephen Law recognizes the distinction between "questions" and "knowledge" and, while he defends philosophy as "valuable exercise," he admits that pure reason alone can't reveal reality.

So perhaps, there's at least this much right about scientism: armchair philosophical reflection alone can't reveal anything about reality outside of our own minds. However, as I say, that doesn't mean such methods are without value.

If you've read this far, then good for you! Read the ongoing debate between Jerry Coyne and Adam Gopnik [Are The Methods Used By Science The Only Ways Of Knowing?]. Now watch this lecture given by Jerry Coyne in India a few years ago to see if you can refute the idea that science is the only way of knowing.

1. That's Boudry on the right in a photo taken back in 2010 when he was just a graduate student attending a conference at the University of Toronto. He's with Stefaan Blanke. I also visited Maarten in Gent, Belgium a few years later.


  1. Discussions on this topic often seem to get bogged down in picayune debates over questions like whether to define "science" broadly or narrowly. It seems beside the point to question whether we should divide things up along lines between the "hard" sciences, math, logic, history, engineering, plumbing, ethics, etc. or just group them all together under "science broadly construed". I've yet to have anyone provide a specific example of something we KNOW thru anything other science in the broad sense.

  2. "Moral questions are essentially questions about the best way for societies to behave..."

    Ah, but are you claiming to know what are the "best" ways for society to behave? If so, then how did you come by that knowledge? ;-)

    (I'm a metaethical non-cognitivist, i.e. there is no fact there to know).

    1. I don't claim to know what are the "best" ways for societies to behave but I am familiar with the debates within the society that I happen to be in. My society has reached certain conclusions about what's best and what's not but that in no way constitutes "knowledge." Other societies reach different conclusions.

      It's only philosophers who get hung up on "moral questions" as though there was something profound about those kind of questions. I suspect this is a hangover from the influence of religion on philosophy because religious people think that the answers to moral questions come from their god(s).

      The consensus answers to several important moral questions have changed during my lifetime. That doesn't say much for the success of philosophy but at least it provides philosophers with more gist for writing papers. :-)

    2. I see that ethics has spawned another small industry within philosophy. Not content with deciding that moral questions can't be answered, they have now concentrated on splitting hairs over exactly what reasons you use to reject morality.

      One branch is called metaethical non-cognitivism and it's possible to publish several papers on the various strains of non-cognitivist (Two Negative Constitutive Non-cognitivist Claims).

      None of this counts as science and much of it doesn't count as anything useful. :-)

    3. The best way for societies to behave would depend on the criteria you adopt for "best", and I don't see how science could provide those criteria. So how do we know what "best" means? If we do, there must be another way of knowing. Or perhaps we need another word than "know", because we don't know what "best" means. We decide. How do you decide what axioms to use?

    4. We don't know what's best for each society. The members of that society decide for themselves and it's different for each society. Not only that, but "best" changes over the years.

      Science can provide knowledge that may or may not, inform that decision.

    5. Larry, yes, the consensus answers to several important moral questions have changed during your lifetime, but so have the consensus answers to many scientific questions. That isn't a failure, but a sign of a successful intellectual endeavor. It's things like religion that claim the correct answers were found thousands of years ago that are the problem.

    6. Science can provide knowledge that may or may not, inform that decision.

      How would science do that? If we first establish, say, greater human happiness as a criterion for "best", science could advise on whether particular practices promote greater happiness. But how could it advise on whether greater happiness is a proper criterion? That's arbitrary.

    7. @John Harshman

      I was thinking of specific moral questions such as whether we should ban capital punishment or allow gays to marry. We have evidence from other cultures to inform us whether these decisions have bad consequences.

      I'm not saying that science is going to provide a definitive answer to moral questions. I'm saying that the answers we choose aren't knowledge in any meaningful sense of the word.

      That's the answer to Jonathan Badger's comment as well. Knowledge acquired by the scientific way of knowing can change as new facts and evidence arise but we are still confident that this knowledge is a kind of "truth" that's universal. Answers to moral questions can also change but it's silly (IMHO) to think of them as anything other than subjective decisions that just happen to fit the times.

    8. But don't you see that answers to moral questions changing to "fit the times" is based on knowledge we've accrued? For example, the standard argument for not accepting gays was that they were thought to be "unnatural". But discovering examples of same-sex mating in other animals (as people have in recent decades) shows that it is in fact part of nature.

    9. @Jonathan Badger

      Why don't you go to Saudi Arabia and explain that bit of scientific knowledge to the Shah and his religious supporters? I'm sure that once they understand that other animals engage in same-sex sexual behavior they will immediately put a stop to stoning gays to death.

      I said that scientific knowledge can inform debates on morality but that, ultimately, the decision on what's moral and what isn't is not knowledge.

    10. It seems doubtful that you would ever find the Shah in Saudi Arabia, and at any rate he's been dead for quite a long time.

    11. @John Harshman

      Point taken. I know better. I should have said King.

  3. Saying any arbitrary conclusion about Knowing is just saying it. Its not proof. revealed religion is a way of knowing until proved wrong.
    Its not democratic for sure.
    As said before. Its all just about people figuring out whats true.
    So it must finally be a accumulation of evidence that people can not disagree with. SO it must be about evidence and the methodology on how it was got. Quality and quantity. Indeed like in court cases dealing with important/criminal cases. Not civill ones. So everybody can complain the othjer side has just done the evidence worthy of a civil case but not a criminal. evidence issues was settled in courts hundreds of years ago, For english civilization, or thousands in most civilizations.
    Science is not science but merely quality and quantity of evidence for conclusions/rejection of conclusions.
    In origin matters creationists or many thoughtful people question the q and q or establishment conclusions.

  4. "revealed religion is a way of knowing until proved wrong."

    About 5000 religions that agree on little to nothing that has been revealed by their particular god(s) prove each other wrong.

    Either all of them are right or none is.

    If you have to interpret the revelations to make sense and make them applicable to society - you already lost because each interpretation is formed by the biases of the interpreter.