About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book review - Everyday Practice of Science

I've been sent a review copy of Frederick Grinnell's Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic (Oxford University Press, 2009). Grinnell is a practising scientist (a cell biologist) and an expert in scientific and medical ethics. That's an impressive combination, so I felt very positive about the book when I opened it. It promised to do a good job of explaining how the practices of working scientists relate to the arguments that are eventually used to support scientific findings.

Grinnell makes a pretty good fist of this - although there is relatively little that would be unfamiliar to philosophers of science or to scientists who reflect on the foundations of the scientific enterprise, it's explained clearly, generally seems plausible, and gives due acknowledgment to both the messy elements of actual scientific practice and the sorts of arguments that are used to support scientific theory. There need not be an easy match - e.g. data obtained from a series of experiments meant to test hypothesis A may, serendipitously, give some help to hypothesis B that the researchers didn't even have in mind. While Popperian arguments based on hypothetico-deductive reasoning may provide powerful support for some body of theory, the actual process that was followed may have been rather different. When scientific papers are published, they may leave out much of the messiness of what actually happened, day-by-day in the lab, and instead describe the experiments in a way that reveals the logic of the argument.

By all means read this for yourself. I have no difficulty with this point, and even Karl Popper realised that something like this is true. He never claimed that hypothetico-deductive reasoning describes the actual process of scientific discovery, only that it is the logic of scientific discovery. Even that may be an exaggeration, as not all scientific arguments are necessarily about how observational data corroborate or falsify hypotheses. Still, these arguments are used, and it is useful to think about how they relate to actual practice.

I'm not sure I agree with all Grinnell's views about research ethics, but let that pass. Well, except for this: I can't help but cavil at a reference to Peter Singer's "moral skepticism", when the views discussed actually have nothing to do with moral scepticism. Singer may, in fact, be committed to a form of moral scepticism, if he's pursued far enough, but he's always been rather ambiguous about that. He is mainly known for his views about normative ethics, not metaethics, and here he does not look like a moral sceptic at all. He does reject many substantive moral positions that he considers wrong, and he is certainly sceptical about the content of traditional morality, but that's a very different point.

Moral scepticism is a metaethical position (or, rather, a cluster of such positions) from which there seems to be something bogus about the whole enterprise of morality or moralising. For a moral sceptic, there's a sense in which morality is bunk, that it can't deliver on what it claims (though there may still be perfectly good reasons for you to act kindly and cooperatively, to encourage others to do so, and so on). None of this has much to do with Singer, and certainly not with the views that Grinnell discusses.

My big problem with the book is rather different, and relates to the never-ending argument about religion and science. Grinnell considers their relationship in a chapter of almost 30 pages in a book of about 200 pages, so it's a good-sized chunk. He argues throughout the chapter that religion and science are "complementary", but his arguments for this are very weak.

The main point seems to be that science and religion cannot conflict if religion minds its place and only talks about matters of purpose, meaning, and an unseen world beyond "shared sensory space". This is, of course, a version of Stephen Jay Gould's principle of non-overlapping magisteria. And I agree that religions can avoid clashing with science if they thin out their truth-claims until they are no longer offering explanations of the way things are in the world that we perceive through the senses. That, however, is a lot to demand of religion.

But even if religion keeps to what Grinnell (like Gould) thinks is its proper turf, it's not at all clear why it is thought to have correct answers to questions about the "meaning" or "purpose" of life, or about the existence or character of any unseen order, or about moral questions. I see absolutely no reason to think that religion is authoritative on any of this, and Grinnell doesn't provide one. On the contrary, he notes that there are many different sets of supposed religious truth about the unseen order, etc. Given this "fragmentation", why assume that any of these sets of "truths" is actually correct?

Grinnell says: "Science provides the technology for doing things. Religion provides the values to do what should be done." But that is false. Some values may come from religion, but others may be innate - I may have an inborn tendency to value my own survival, or to value getting food, water, and sex - while others may be taught by parents or the larger culture, or emerge from reading literature or from a process of philosophical introspection, or from somewhere else again. To suggest that religion is the source of our values, working in a complementary way with science, is nonsense at worst and an extraordinarily controversial claim at best. Inverting a famous statement by Einstein, Grinnell says that "Science without religion is blind," but this is just not right.

There is no reason whatsoever to think that we need religion as our source of guiding values, or to prefer whichever values do come from religion to any others that we might obtain from numerous other sources. There may be good reasons for science to enter into productive relationships with literature, or the law, or secular philosophy, by why should it take any notice of religion? No reason at all that I can see, except a wish to pander to religion's grandiose self-conception as a fount of values and otherworldly knowledge.

What's probably true is that we need affective attitudes (desires, hopes, fears, values, and so on) as well as factual knowledge ... or we will never be motivated to do anything. But no one can seriously maintain that religion is or should be the source of all our affective attitudes. That would be a mad claim. How do intelligent people like Grinnell come to think this sort of stuff, and how do they get away with publishing it?

I don't want to be too hard on Grinnell in particular: he has written an interesting little book. But I'm tired of ill-evidenced claims that religion (or some particular religion) somehow provides an authoritative source of values or moral guidance or knowledge about some hypothetical "unseen world" or ... No, stop - we have no reason to think it provides any of those things. It's time to stop saying this placatory stuff about religion. Religion is something that science can well do without - and so can we all.


NewEnglandBob said...

A wonderful post. I especially enjoyed:

"There may be good reasons for science to enter into productive relationships with literature, or the law, or secular philosophy, by why should it take any notice of religion? No reason at all that I can see, except a wish to pander to religion's grandiose self-conception as a fount of values and otherworldly knowledge."

Anonymous said...

Odd comment to say that Peter Singer is a moral sceptic. I would say that he is as far from that position as you can get-Singer is nearly uncompromising with his ethical standpoints, arguing that we can claim that there is moral vantagepoints and we need to follow them. You did a good job countering this claim from the author.

Greywizard said...

The really strange things in all the books and articles coming out about the compatibility of religion and science is that, on the science side, those who are claiming this seem to know so little about religion, and on the religion side, so little about science. People who are doing really complex work in either field seem to go all soft in the middle when they come to talk about the relations between them, and provide a kind of pious hope that pursuits which occupy such large numbers of people will be found to be not at war with each other. From the scientific point of view the most important aspect is simply missing. Where are the scientists who consider the scientific work that is being done about religion, a la Pascal Boyer, to take only one example? As scientists, shouldn't they at least start there, instead of taking religion at its word as being, in some sense, epistemically related to what the world is really like? While I haven't read Grinnell, it doesn't seem, from your brief review, that he's done this, and this is something that needs to be done if the relationship of science to religion is going to be addressed in a scientific context (and shouldn't scientists be doing this?); otherwise, it's just a comparison of apples and oranges, and the claim of compatibility is simply empty.

Blake Stacey said...

Grinnell says: "Science provides the technology for doing things. Religion provides the values to do what should be done."

The discoveries of science may be value-neutral, in that they can be applied to cause or to alleviate suffering, but the human endeavour of science is an embodiment of our desires. We pursue knowledge because we feel that the way the world is is not the way it ought to be, even if that difference between is and ought refers only to the state of our own minds ("gosh, I wish I understood organic chemistry"). For some people, this feeling might be wrapped up with religious awe, a combination which probably helped science along in its earlier days. However, said combination is entirely superfluous today, on both a personal and a social level: the empirical knowledge we've gained about the Universe and our place in it is more than enough to sustain awe, and you don't need the Vatican's patronage to get funding.

The main point seems to be that science and religion cannot conflict if religion minds its place and only talks about matters of purpose, meaning, and an unseen world beyond "shared sensory space".

So, in other words, no, then. Good to know.

Blake Stacey said...

Typo in post: "and so can we can all."

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks, Blake. Typo fixed.

Russell Blackford said...

Strangely enough, Singer has expressed sympathy for Mackie's metaethical approach in one or two places, and he thinks that the ethical point of view is something we can choose to buy into, rather than being something that's objectively binding on us. He has chapter on this near the end of Practical Ethics. But 1. that doesn't make him a full-blown moral sceptic (he's probably a moral naturalist in his metaethics), 2. he spends very little time in the totality of his work on these metaethical niceties, and 3. this is not the sort of thing that Grinnell is discussing. He really means that Singer, as a utilitarian, thinks that a lot of traditional morality cannot be justified.

Singer has actually said somewhere that traditional morality has been so corrupted by various things - sexism, religion, the ignorance that prevailed when it took shape - that we can almost presume it's wrong on any given issue. I think that's an exaggeration, but one sees his point. Again, though, that is not moral scepticism.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GTChristie said...

Greywizard: Very good points. There is such a thing as secular study of religion. Psychological anthropology and moral psychology in particular are relevant venues and some discussion of "religion's role (or meaning) within cultures" is a viable scientific pursuit, quite independent of any necessary belief in the objects of inquiry. That is the way scientists should discuss religion -- if at all.