More Thoughts on Scientism

Since I enjoyed Ian Hutchinson’s essay so much, I decided to skip ahead and offer some more commentary.

Hutchinson writes:

Many of life’s most important matters simply do not possess reproducibility. History, for example, cannot be understood by appeal to reproducibility. Its most significant events are often unique, never to be repeated. There is no way to experiment on history, and no way to repeat the observations. Some parts of historical study benefit from scientific techniques, but the main mission of history cannot be addressed through reproducibility; its methods are not those of science. Yet history possesses real knowledge.

Here people will quibble about whether or not history is science (it is not).  So let’s pick another example that cannot be disputed – memory.

My brain is filled with many, many memories of my life.  Such memories constitute real knowledge about my life and those with whom I have interacted.  They help to define who I am.  Anyone who would doubt that last statement might consider the ravaging effects of Alzheimers Disease.

Yet these memories do not exist as results of scientific inquiry.  They were not generated by science.  So no one can say that their memories constitute science or scientific evidence.  For even memories of doing an experiment do not qualify as scientific evidence.  Yet each one us treats, and must treat, our memories as real knowledge.  And while there are plenty examples of faulty memory, it is safe to say that for most of us, our memories ARE real knowledge of what has happened on this planet.  I don’t know of a single person willing to disavow all their memories because they are not science.

Thus, it is simply false to declare that only science can deliver real knowledge.  Just because science can deliver real knowledge does not mean all real knowledge must have come from science.

Hutchinson continues:

Or in respect of Clarity, consider the beauty of a sunset, the justice of a verdict, the compassion of a nurse, the drama of a play, the depth of a poem, the terror of a war, the excitement of a symphony, the love of a woman. Which of these can be reduced to the Clarity of a scientific description? Yes, a sunset can be described in terms of the spectral analysis of the light, the causes of the coloration arising from light scattering by particles and molecules, and their arrangement and gradient in the sky. But when all the scientific details of such a description are done, has that explained, or even conveyed, its beauty? Hardly. In fact it has missed the point. Many-layered connections and implications are intrinsically part of the significance of these subjects. We appreciate and understand them, we know them, through sharing conceptually in the interwoven fabric of their often only evocative allusions.

Even Richard Dawkins acknowledges this is true.  For example, Dawkins once wrote:

Scientific theories are not prescriptions for how we should behave. I have many times written (for example in the first chapter of A Devil’s Chaplain) that I am a passionate Darwinian when it comes to the science of how life has actually evolved, but a passionate ANTI-Darwinian when it comes to the politics of how humans ought to behave. I have several times said that a society based on Darwinian principles would be a very unpleasant society in which to live. I have several times said, starting at the beginning of my very first book, The Selfish Gene, that we should learn to understand natural selection, so that we can oppose any tendency to apply it to human politics.

Clearly Dawkins is trying to convey some sort of knowledge here.  Yet it is a knowledge that not only comes from outside of science, but stands in opposition to science.  Dawkins appeals to some sense, some power, to overcome our biological conditioning and urges – the ability to be anti-Darwinian.

When you consider what both Hutchinson and Dawkins are saying, it should become apparent that not only is science limited in its ability to deliver knowledge, the knowledge that it delivers is incomplete.  In essence, science can only deliver a two-dimensional description of a three-dimensional world.

To bring this discussion more in line with the topics we discuss here, this analysis is yet another road that leads us to realize that the “detection” of design beyond the reach of science.  If the ability to detect design is part of the reality that Hutchinson invokes when talking about a sunset, or Dawkins invokes when arguing how we should then live, then it is beyond the reach of science.  But it is also no less important or meaningful for being beyond the reach of science.  For this observation says more about science itself than it does about design.  Which is why the advocates for scientism will resist this insight.

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14 responses to “More Thoughts on Scientism

  1. I’m wondering if there is a continuum with objectivity at one end and subjectivity at the other. It seems to me that there are some very objective shared properties one can observe about many designed objects that would count for or against the conclusion of design in biology. If so, would this mean that the question of design is under the domain of science? I’ll let others decide that.

  2. Is our knowledge of cause and effect relationships, built on years of observations and experiences, objective or subjective?

    “Thus, Behe concludes on the basis of our knowledge of present cause-and-effect relationships (in accord with the standard uniformitarian method employed in the historical sciences) that the molecular machines and complex systems we observe in cells can be best explained as the result of an intelligent cause.

    In brief, molecular motors appear designed because they were designed” Pg. 72 of Darwinism, Design and Public Education

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  4. Hi Michael,

    Forgive me for another long comment, but you raise several really interesting points.

    I think this post touches on many aspects of epistemology that cloud this issue. I disagree with Hutchinson when he says, “Yet history possesses real knowledge.” Actual history (the past) contains facts about what actually happened (and philosophically this might be disputed). Human knowledge of history is our understanding of those actual facts, which may be wrong, but may be recorded as our facts. Humans that contain knowledge of those latter facts, encoded in memory, and processed in consciousness. But even then not only in consciousness, since unconscious parts of the brain can (or appear to) have a life of their own – e.g. split brain. It is this personal experience of knowledge that we recognise as being both extremely reliable, as a day-to-day tool that helps some evolved animals to survive, and extremely flawed when applying it to new or difficult experiences. Isn’t that why we do science?

    “My brain is filled…” – I agree. But knowledge is one person’s collection of information about the world; their particular perspective on the world. It is not facts about the world, but an incomplete and often flawed representation of them. And, we know we can memorise a fact, think we have it, regurgitate it sometime later, and find the memory is incorrect. Personally we can’t then tell if we had it wrong on first acquisition, or whether we just mis-recalled it. But experimentally it can be show that we can record and recall correctly in the short term, and yet still recall incorrectly in the long term – we had the correct knowledge at one point, but lost it or corrupted it. That’s how hopeless human knowledge is in extreme endeavours of knowledge, and one reason we do science.

    If we are not prepared to the use of the word ‘science’ to express the breadth and messiness of human knowledge acquisition, then at least we need to acknowledge that our methods of acquisition of knowledge in different fields overlap, that every area of human knowledge relies on so many aspects of knowledge acquisition, and that the distinction between science and non-science is irrelevant, particularly at the boundaries of our understanding.

    And particularly when so many disciplines use science. To say that history is not science does not say that history does not or cannot use science. And so to say that science can’t be used in the consideration of ID, or even theism, seems to be to exclude many of the benefits of the methods of science for some ulterior purpose. If science can be used in history, why can’t it be used elsewhere beyond the ‘hard sciences’? This seems to be the main use of the charge of scientism – to prevent scientists using science or the methods of science in areas to which they are opposed. Or even more specifically, to discredit the comments by non-design scientists in this case, or non-ID scientists or atheist scientists, when they object to some aspect of these other areas.

    “So no one can say that their memories constitute science or scientific evidence.” – Who does? They don’t constitute the whole of science but they play a significant part. If a scientist reads and understands a paper that would falsify his own future work, then later in doing his work fails to recall that paper, or find it through research, then his memory has contributed to his science – for good or bad.

    “Yet each one us treats, and must treat, our memories as real knowledge.” – We have a tendency to, but I don’t think we ‘must’, and in fact a lot of the time we ‘must not’. But then what does ‘real knowledge’ mean? When exploring new or uncertain phenomena we go to great lengths to make sure we don’t misconstrue our knowledge to be necessarily fact. Isn’t that the purpose of your post on disconfirmation bias? Our personal knowledge is regularly inadequate – so much so that this fact, about our knowledge, is a piece of knowledge itself. We have to be knowledgeable about the limits of our knowledge in order to do better at acquiring knowledge. This is a very tricky area, and our confidence in epistemology should be qquite low.

    This is so much so that, as exemplified by your post and links on the ‘decline effect’, our very best efforts to control these problems are still not pinned down to any degree of satisfaction. The New Yoker article, ‘The Truth Wears Off’, comments, “We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us.” – But I don’t think any respectable scientist thinks that – though some non-scientists might, and some non-scientists might think scientists do. But what these problems illustrate, with regard to science in particular, is that we need to do science better.

    Personally, when it comes to difficult areas, I think we need to apply as much of the methodologies of science as we can, as inadequate as they are, because whatever else we think we’ve got, it’s no better.

    … ctd …

  5. … ctd …

    I think we can take two points from the Dawkins comments you quote. The first is that when applying science we need to be careful we don’t make the mistakes in using it that have been made, with regard to human sociological affairs, because it doesn’t relate to that. But that doesn’t stop other sciences commenting on and being applied to human affairs. Darwinism isn’t all of science. The point isn’t, as the charge of scientism suggests, that we don’t use science, but that we use the right science. “Clearly Dawkins is trying to convey some sort of knowledge here.” – I think the point he is conveying is just that it’s bad science to use Darwinism inappropriately – he was talking about Darwinism in a specific context, not about science generally.

    But to go on to the second point from Dawkins, the appreciation of life by individual humans, or, our personal appreciation of beauty, as described by Hutchinson, then it may be that we don’t want to use science to analyse every personal experience we have while we are having it. But that doesn’t exclude science from commenting on the nature of those experiences or the phenomena being experienced. This is a particularly important distinction when we try to use our personal appreciative experience of a phenomenon to determine the actual cause of the phenomenon – e.g. apparent design. We may not be able to avoid carrying this inner appreciative experiences to any investigation, but the problems caused by doing so are what sciences is trying to overcome.

    So, for example, to say something like, “The appearance of a rainbow fills me with awe and wonder at the beauty of the world and is a sure sign of the wonders of the works of God”, is to make a statement about what is the case (that the phenomenon is a sign), based on a psychological emotional feeling. But we know psychological and emotional feelings can be misleading and often plain wrong; and science does give us a clearer verifiable explanation for a rainbow. So it’s fine to let our psychological appreciation loose on the world, as long as we understand that this is what it is, and not think that it’s some distinct way of acquiring knowledge, or that it’s reliable. We may want to call it knowledge, and in the sense that it’s something in the human experience is fine; but what indication is there that such appreciative experiences tell us any facts, other than the facts of how the experience makes us feel?

    Science can’t convey the ‘beauty’ of a an experience of a phenomenon, but it can, at least in principle, explain the phenomenon. But in metaphysical terms that’s like saying a glass bulb spirit thermometer can’t ‘experience’ the electrical current in an electrical circuit the way an ammeter can. For human appreciation of phenomena, use personal experience; to explain phenomena, use science (or if science is too broad a term, use science-like methods).

    …ctd…

  6. …ctd…

    “…it should become apparent that not only is science limited in its ability to deliver knowledge, the knowledge that it delivers is incomplete.” – Incomplete for what purpose? For the purpose of a personal experience, or the purpose of explaining the cause of a particular experience? I accept that it may be incomplete in both. I think science may be destined to always be incomplete in explaining phenomena, but that doesn’t stop us doing science and using it to explain our experiences, or to extend our knowledge far more than personal experience alone can. But we can turn this round. Personal experience, or any other personal way of knowing, should there be any, are far less complete at explaining the world than is science (or, again, science-like methods).

    “In essence, science can only deliver a two-dimensional description of a three-dimensional world.” – I realise that this is a metaphor, but the literal sense makes the fault of the metaphor sort of hit home for me. Science does give (or is in the very early stages of giving) a ‘description’ of the third dimension – the human experience. And it is already doing a good job of demonstrating the flaws of human experience in the acquisition of knowledge, and the recollection of knowledge, and the coincidence of knowledge and fact. It is, after all, the science of psychology that you cite with regard to disconfirmation bias that illustrates one of these flaws.

    The human senses and the thinking mind are just some of the tools used in science (for science is itself a human experience). And just like the thermometer and ammeter, we choose to use them appropriately for acquiring knowledge, and evaluating the knowledge. But note that we could rig a thermometer to read off electrical current, by using transducers to convert current to heat. And this is how all our instruments in science act as transducers for our main and most common instruments, our senses and our thinking brains.

    The problem with personal knowledge, besides being flawed in it’s interpretation and processing of data, is it’s capacity to hold information reliably, and it’s capacity to perform experiments over time – we each have a short lifetime. So, human knowledge is recorded in all sorts of repositories outside the individual human, and so is accessible to all of us in a far more reliable form. And it’s this long term multiple-access nature of the whole of human knowledge that really does highlight the insignificance of any one person’s personal interpretation of what is – ‘on the shoulders of giants’ doesn’t even cut it; our accumulation of knowledge and it’s global verification over generations is so expansive, and goes way beyond even the odd giant genius.

    “To bring this discussion more in line with the topics we discuss here, this analysis is yet another road that leads us to realize that the “detection” of design beyond the reach of science.” – Then it’s beyond the reach of humans.

    “If the ability to detect design is part of the reality that Hutchinson invokes when talking about a sunset…” – First, why would you think design detection is part of that? But also, the notion of reality used here is the reality of humans having and perceiving an experience, beauty, which is not the reality that we are talking about when trying to identify design – i.e. the historical factual reality about the origins of life, which we are unable to experience.

    Or to repeat? You raise this point with regard to historical events. But doesn’t that problem exist anyway? We can’t repeat Newton’s actual experiments, because each was a one-off performed by Newton; but we can duplicate them to a sufficient extent, and don’t require Newton to do it. In fact it’s better if they can be duplicated by someone other than Newton, isn’t it? So, it would be unreasonable to say that science can’t ‘repeat’ the actual events that occurred that began life on earth, because that isn’t to say that they can’t be repeated in the sense of being duplicated. If one day it can be shown that certain chemicals left to their own devices under conditions that we think existed on the early earth do in fact self-generate ‘life’, then this duplication is a strong inference for abiogenesis having occurred. But not proof. No more that Newton’s claims that his actual experiments proved what they claimed – maybe he faked them, which isn’t an unknown phenomena in human exploration.

    I think science has a lot more to say on design than your statement suggests. In fact you use the results of science for the case for design: in The Archaean Expansion, you say “This new research strengthens the case for the design of evolution.” – So I’m puzzled that detection of design is beyond the reach of science, yet science can be used to strengthen the case for design.

    …ctd…

  7. …ctd…

    To pick up the point made by Bilbo, “I’m wondering if there is a continuum with objectivity at one end and subjectivity at the other.”, it seems to me that this is the case. But more than that, this range of objectivity plays out in the multiple dimensions that are the many tools and methods of science – each tool or method being used independently to some degree subjectively or objectively. And it all comes back to the subjective nature of humans interpreting the science, and our attempts to make it all as objective as we can.

    So in the experiments of Physics there’s a great deal of objectivity, while in the interpretation of results at the boundaries there’s more subjectivity in interpretation and even speculation, and subjectivity in the use of logic and reasoning. In History subjectivity plays a far greater role overall, because there is far less access to data; but documents can be assessed more or less objectively, and science can be applied to the validation of artifacts introducing even more objectivity.

    But having said all that, even our most objective efforts still result in messy science. That’s just the human condition. And to exclude ‘science’ from some areas of discovery with the charge of scientism seems to be indulging in disconfirmation bias.

  8. Ron,

    Like I mentioned, I’ve become quite busy again, so it will be some time before I comb through your very lengthy comment. I can comment on your concluding sentence, however.

    And to exclude ‘science’ from some areas of discovery with the charge of scientism seems to be indulging in disconfirmation bias.

    You make it sound like Myers, Dawkins, and Coyne have all the equipment/funding set up to finally make some experimental measurements that will verify/falsify the existence of design, God, and the resurrection of Jesus, but some pesky theists have tied their hands. Sorry, but no one has tied their hands. If they want to generate the hypothesis, do the experiments, analyze the data, and publish their results, nothing is stopping them. There are plenty of journals out there that would salivate over those studies. So how many experiments/papers have Myers, Dawkins, and Coyne published about these topics? Zero. Zilch. Nada. I guess I’m old fashioned, but if someone is going to talk the talk, then I wanna see them walk the walk. If science can be used to discover whether or not God exists or Jesus rose from the dead, then do the science.

    BTW, out of curiosity, do you consider my Design Matrix blog to be science?

  9. Hi Michael,

    The God hypothesis isn’t theirs. The hypothesis is one from theists, that there is a God. A comment by Myers and others that there’s no evidence to support that, or what has been offered doesn’t support that, seems quite reasonable. Just as a philosopher might comment that there’s no reasoning to support the God hypothesis, so scientists might comment that there’s no evidence to support it either. Why is this ‘scientism’?

    We can’t go back and test that actual event of the resurrection, no more than we can go back and watch Newton carrying out his experiments. But we can duplicate Newton’s experiments and through induction conclude he was right. Since the resurrection of Jesus wasn’t an actual well document experiment we can’t duplicate it anyway. I suppose we could scour the nut-houses for people claiming to be the son of God, crucify them, verify they’re dead, wait a few days and see if they rise. Would that do as a test?

    But still, all medical evidence on resuscitation fails to support the resurrection hypothesis. So far the resurrection claims don’t constitute a reasonable hypothesis; it stands as just a story. And given much of the debate within theistic circles over the literal status of many biblical stories, again, it seems reasonable to claim that it remains unsupported by evidence, because the only evidence for the resurrection is that it is one of many such claims made in a book.

    On top of that, for there to be anything in the resurrection story requires the presupposition that there is a God – for there to be a son of God, for the bible to contain any revealed truth whatsoever (irrespective of the variation it being literal), for the resurrection to be possible.

    That doesn’t amount to much.

  10. “BTW, out of curiosity, do you consider my Design Matrix blog to be science?”

    Good question. Under what you seem to classify as science, then maybe not. Then a lot of what we consider science wouldn’t pass that test either. I see science as much wider endeavour; and more to the point I don’t see any clear boundary between what we might think of as science and non-science. I see it more in terms of more or less thorough or more or less rigorous science. I don’t know to what extent you ‘do’ any science yourself. But your blog is a valid comment on science, given your apparent depth of knowledge. Is your blog ‘scientism’ in your view?

    I’ve seen your comments on what you think constitutes science. But starting with what you think of as science, what has to be removed to make it non-science?

  11. Ron,

    I read your reply, but I still can’t figure out whether or not you think my blog is science.

    You write, “I don’t know to what extent you ‘do’ any science yourself.” But why should that matter? I do have a brain and eyes and I use them to write this blog. I thought you thought that was sufficient to classify an inquiry as science. You also write, “But your blog is a valid comment on science, given your apparent depth of knowledge.” Commenting on science is not science itself. So the question remains: do you consider my Design Matrix blog to be science?

  12. Hi Ron,
    We can’t go back and test that actual event of the resurrection, no more than we can go back and watch Newton carrying out his experiments. But we can duplicate Newton’s experiments and through induction conclude he was right. Since the resurrection of Jesus wasn’t an actual well document experiment we can’t duplicate it anyway. I suppose we could scour the nut-houses for people claiming to be the son of God, crucify them, verify they’re dead, wait a few days and see if they rise. Would that do as a test?

    But still, all medical evidence on resuscitation fails to support the resurrection hypothesis. So far the resurrection claims don’t constitute a reasonable hypothesis; it stands as just a story. And given much of the debate within theistic circles over the literal status of many biblical stories, again, it seems reasonable to claim that it remains unsupported by evidence, because the only evidence for the resurrection is that it is one of many such claims made in a book.

    I see. So if Jesus rose from the dead, then it would follow that lots and lots of other people would likewise have risen from the dead. In fact, enough people would have risen such that we would have medical evidence on resuscitation to support the claim. But why think that?

    This is also where you also need to come to terms with Christian theology. I have always recognized the resurrection of Jesus as something that is inconsistent with the body of common knowledge. I have always recognized it, if true, as a miracle. If the dead commonly came back to life, there would be no significance to the event. It would be just another piece of historical trivia.

    Trivia? I can envision a situation where the first Christians preached, “He is Risen!” only to have someone in the crowd shout out, “Hey, that happened to my Aunt Rebecca last week!” Someone else in the crowd would add, “So? I rose from the dead two years ago.” What’s so special about rising from the dead if it happens often enough to be studied by science?

    From the other side, we can indeed say there is nothing inconsistent with science about Jesus eating fish. But then again, the disciples did not run about preaching, “He ate fish!”

    In the end, you are free to embrace your skepticism. I simply can’t join in with you because I find it to be rather shallow. It basically says there are only two choices – either Jesus did not rise from the dead because it violates natural law, or Jesus’ resurrection did not violate natural law, as evidenced by all the other people who have risen from the dead, and thus becomes another piece of historical trivia.

    Not true OR trivia strikes me as “heads I win, tails you lose.” And it certainly sidesteps Christian theology.

  13. Ron,

    The God hypothesis isn’t theirs. The hypothesis is one from theists, that there is a God. A comment by Myers and others that there’s no evidence to support that, or what has been offered doesn’t support that, seems quite reasonable. Just as a philosopher might comment that there’s no reasoning to support the God hypothesis, so scientists might comment that there’s no evidence to support it either. Why is this ‘scientism’?

    If a scientist wants to claim there is no evidence for God, then the honest thing to do is to make it crystal clear to people that he is not speaking as a scientist.

    Richard Feynmann essentially makes this point:

    I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you’re not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We’ll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

    When a scientist makes a “no evidence” claim that has meaning as a function of the context of doing science – experimentation. It means the controlled experiments have failed to generate the positive result. If the scientist just means “no evidence” in the same mushy sense that a talking head political consultant might use it on the TV screen then it doesn’t carry the same meaning.

    Look, neither Myers nor others have ever conducted a single experiment to determine there is no evidence for God. So there is no scientific context to their assertions. Instead, they are speaking as armchair philosophers. It turns out that Myers uses philosophy to argue that nothing could ever count as evidence for the existence of God and Coyne means he has never seen a 900 foot tall Jesus. Their disagreement alone shows us that evidence is in the eye of the beholder. When you realize that THIS is what they mean by “no evidence,” it becomes clear what the “no evidence” claim really is – AN OPINION. They are entitled to their opinions, but it would be wrong and misleading to treat them as having the authority of science.

    And if they try to dress up their opinion by making it look like it is science-in-action, then yes, they are engaged in scientism. For what motivates someone to inflate their opinions by representing them as science? And are we to really believe such motivation has nothing to do with their roles as activists?

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