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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, November 13, 2010

A nice para from Harris

For the purposes of this discussion, I do not intend to make a hard distinction between "science" and other intellectual contexts in which we discuss "facts" - e.g. history. For instance, it is a fact that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Facts of this kind fall within the context of "science," broadly construed as our best effort to form a rational account of empirical reality. Granted, one doesn't generally think of events like assassinations as "scientific" facts, but the murder of President Kennedy is as fully corroborated a fact as can be found anywhere, and it would betray a profoundly unscientific frame of mind to deny that it occurred. I think "science," therefore, should be considered a specialized branch of a larger effort to form true beliefs about events in our world.

So, there is science as "broadly construed", which is our best effort to form a rational account of empirical reality, and there is science as "a specialized branch" of that effort. That seems fair enough to me.

We just need to be clear what we're talking about in a given context. E.g., if I ask a friend what she's studying at university, and she says "science", I'll assume with some confidence that she's referring to stuff she's doing in the science faculty - she's probably not, for example, majoring in French literature or in constitutional law. She's doing stuff that falls in the "specialized branch" that Harris refers to (and there's other perfectly good stuff she could be doing which doesn't fall there). In most contexts when we talk about science, this is what we have in mind, and there are historical, pedagogical, etc., reasons for that.

But science in the sense of the specialized branch isn't radically discontinuous from everything else. Though we can point to it as something specialized, we also have to acknowledge that there's no "hard distinction" between it and the rest of rational inquiry. Or as I'd put it, science (the specialised branch of inquiry) is continuous with other branches of rational inquiry.

I think that Harris is pretty much correct on these points. Doubtless y'all can think of some additional subtleties, but Harris seems to get things about right, at least in this quote.


Anonymous said...

Two questions:

1) Why shouldn't that "science, broadly conceived" be replaced simply with "philosophy"?

2) If in almost all cases where we use the term "science" we mean the actual faculty, why would we introduce the possibility of equivocation by using the term science for that broader conception? Why can't we just call it "rational inquiry"?

Ultimately, I agree with the idea that science is in some sense continuous with other forms of rational inquiry. But I fear that this relabelling is done not to allow science to possibly be used or give interesting information to the other fields, but to make it so that people can claim that all the other fields should just do and listen to the FACULTY of science, as opposed to their existing methodologies.

Rieux said...

No, I think both of you are quite clear and correct here.

Gregory C. Mayer said...

As an evolutionary biologist, it is curious to me that history is thought to be only science-like-- it absolutely is science. Most geologists and many astronomers would feel the same way. Biology, geology, and astronomy all have what Whewell called palaetiological divisions. Here's a quote from Whewell, lifted from the OED:

The sciences which treat of causes have sometimes been termed aetiological..; a portion of that science on which we are about to enter, geology, has..been termed paleontology, since it treats of beings which formerly existed. Hence combining these two notions, the term palaetiology appears to be not inappropriate, to describe those speculations which thus refer to actual past events, but attempt to explain them by laws of causation.

Recognition of the methods and possibilities of the historical sciences (the term palaetiological never really caught on) also cuts the Gordian knot of whether science can deal with the supernatural. Although sciences which depend purely on law-like phenomena might be stymied by miracles and omnipotent beings, the historical sciences have the tools for determining what happened, even if no law-like explanation for the events can currently be offered. I've tried to make this point at Why Evolution Is True in some previous posts. My favorite (hypothetical) example is the god-like Q of Star Trek-- his powers cannot be explained (yet), but that he exists and interacts causally with the observable world is beyond reasonable doubt.

ColinGavaghan said...

I agree, that's a good way of expressing it.

Not sure if this advances the discussion or not, but I just came across this from a report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution:

'Trans-scientific questions are those that can be posed in the language of science as questions of fact, but are in practice unanswerable by it. A classic instance is the question "Is it safe?", to which the answer must always be a matter of judgment and not of fact.'

I interpret that as saying that 'is it safe?' isn't a scientific question not because we lack data on which to make that determination, but rather, because the question of what we mean by 'safe' isn't an empirical question.

josef johann said...

It's a little confusing that the "specialized branch" of science would encompass so much more than science "broadly construed"

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I don't find anything objectionable in that paragraph from Harris. However, I seriously doubt that even his "science broadly-construed" will allow him to discover true moral principles. Harris seems, to me, in everything he writes or says, to just assume that moral realism is true.

I find this peculiar, as I think there are, at least, strong arguments against moral realism that should be addressed. As argued by Brian Leiter, for example (http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=3117416) moral facts play no role in our best explanation of the world. Of course, as an error theorist, I would say this, but Garner, Joyce and Greene are more convincing, to me anyway, than Harris.

Richard Wein said...

Russell, based on this and other things you've written in the past, I feel you're a bit too willing to let people redefine words however they like.

Existing words already have meanings, established by past usage. It's not easy to put aside our current feeling for the meaning of a word and fully replace it with a new meaning, let alone switch backwards and forwards between two meanings being used in much the same context. That's why fallacies of equivocation are among the most common of fallacies and the most difficult to see. Redefining words without good reason should be discouraged.

The case in question is by no means the most harmful case of redefinition. It's nowhere near as destructive to clear thinking as some redefinitions we often see (such as those of "supernatural" and "moral"). But does it really serve any constructive purpose? What good reasons are there for saying "science" when "empirical enquiry" would express his meaning without the ambiguity? It's a little shorter, but not by much. And it may serve some useful role in drawing attention to the continuity of all areas of empirical enquiry. But I think that can be done in ways that don't contaminate our discourse with needless ambiguity.

It may be that Harris is not committing any outright fallacy of equivocation over this. (Though in my view he commits serious fallacies of equivocation elsewhere in his arguments.) But I think he is helping himself to some of the desirable connotations of the word "science", such as its authority, which are less applicable to broader empirical enquiry.

Richard Wein said...

P.S. I should add that I myself went through a phase of defining "science" in Harris's broad sense. I can see the appeal, as it saves us from having to recognise that the distinction between science and non-science is an extremely fuzzy one. People don't like fuzzy distinctions. But I think they are ubiquitous, and good philosophy depends on learning to live with them.

Russell Blackford said...

On definitions - I'm not that big on them, usually, because I think the concepts that many important terms refer to are indeed fuzzy. Natural languages are full of this fuzziness (English certainly is). But we can at least give some kind of description or other reasonably helpful indication of what concept we have in mind when we use a term - and stick with it in the context.

Too often I see people defining a term a certain way while covertly or overtly employing some concept that goes beyond the definition given. I like to think that this is usually done innocently, but it's something to guard against.

In some cases, it means that people end up being unfair whether they mean to be or not, such as when someone uses a word that has pejorative connotations while claiming to use it in a non-pejorative sense that they proceed to define. They can't have it both ways.

But I'm mostly interested in asking people to think about the implications of consistently using a term in a certain way that they've chosen. If they adopt an unusual or technical definition of a word, or a non-standard description of the relevant concept, that's not necessarily terrible, and it may sometimes help them make a legitimate point.

But what they can't do is run an argument using a term in some sense that they've adopted and defined, then think that they've proved something about whatever is denoted by the term in some other more familiar sense.

With "science" my own preferences are much like verbosestoic's, but if someone uses the word in another way that they've made reasonably clear, and sticks with that way in the context concerned, it's not going to bother me too much. What will bother me will be if they draw illegitimate conclusions by equivocating.

What I say about "science" can also apply to "scientism", "supernatural", "morality", and lots of other terms that get debated on this blog.

Russell Blackford said...

Science broadly construed would include such things as reputable scholarship in French literature. Its methodologies would include such things as learning medieval French (or mastering Shakespearian English). It is potentially very broad and covers most of what happens in a university faculty of arts and humanities - and just about every other faculty (law for example).

Science narrowly construed really is much narrower. It's limited the sort of thing that is done by people conducting research in the sorts of areas that fall within a typical science faculty. It's a much narrower concept, as I say, but I think it's what most people think of when they think of "science".

Once again, if your neighbour's daughter tells you she's studying "science" you can be pretty sure she's not majoring in French literature. You can narrow down the possibilities.

Richard Wein said...

On reflection, I think I may have been unfairly critical of Harris on this point. The quoted passage is unobjectionable, and not having read the book, I don't know whether he actually goes on to use the word "science" in a counter-productive way.

I don't have much problem with the claim that science can tell us how to maximise well-being. I think this can be taken as approximately true on a reasonable construal of "science". The alternative to the excessively broad sense doesn't have to be the narrowest possible sense.

I disagree with Harris that facts about how to maximise well-being are moral facts, and therefore I don't agree that science can tell us moral facts. But that's a disagreement over whether there are any moral facts at all, not over the meaning or nature of science.

godsbelow said...

I'm with Russell on this. As an historian, I must disagree with Gregory C. Mayer over defining history as a science.

History is certainly an empirical field - we historians have been gathering evidence and drawing conclusions from it since our field was founded by Herodotos in the middle of the fifth century B.C.. But the quality of the evidence most fields of history have to rely on is pretty poor; in many cases, the data we historians base our conclusions on wouldn't meet modern scientific standards.

Harris' example of a historical question being "scientific" is relevant only to the study of the most recent times, say the last 100 to 150 years, for which there is fairly concrete data still available. We have genuinely incontrovertible evidence that Kennedy was assassinated. But the same cannot be said of Alexander the Great, for example: he may well have been assassinated, but we have only third-hand evidence about his death, sources written hundreds of years after the fact, by authors whose own opinions and biases influenced what information they selected from other secondary or primary sources, now lost. I doubt that many scientists would think much of the conclusions historians draw on such flimsy evidence, but it's all we have to go on.

Historians acknowlege the difficulties of evidence we use, and for this reason historical analyses are always open to debate, to alteration and refutation, for the majority of historical fields. This is why history is better defined as an empirical discourse, rather than a science. The same might apply to other empirical fields in the humanities, as Russell suggests.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't have much problem with the claim that science can tell us how to maximise well-being. I think this can be taken as approximately true on a reasonable construal of "science".

Yeah, sounds about right. Of course, there's then the question of whether we're under any obligation to maximise well-being, and if so what the nature of that "obligation" might be. I could quibble by putting "(whatever that is)" after the word "well-being" each time, but I do think we have some agreement about what counts, so I'm not going to do that.

I certainly think that science, even quite narrowly conceived, can give us lots of useful information about what is needed to achieve such goals as reducing suffering and maintaining social harmony.

josef johann said...


I realized I was mistaken after submitting my comment for approval. No way to redact I guess, but the next best thing is posting a comment acknowledging my misunderstanding.

Speaking of moderation... is the coast clear now? It may be that you only needed to temporarily raise the gates.

Russell Blackford said...

Unfortunately the coast isn't clear. I still get nutcases, trolling, and blatant spam. It's when the nutcases threaten my loved ones that I worry most, but all in all I'm happier this way. I'll continue to do my best in moderating in a timely way.

Sigmund said...

The scientific method, as understood by the general public, is a collection of techniques designed to tell you whether an idea about the natural world is correct.
The scientific method, as used by scientists, differs in that it's primary purpose is to determine whether an idea about the natural world is incorrect.
I think this difference in emphasis (telling what is right or telling what is wrong) is the major factor in differentiating whether we are 'doing science' or not.

Kirth Gersen said...

"Once again, if your neighbour's daughter tells you she's studying 'science' you can be pretty sure she's not majoring in French literature. You can narrow down the possibilities."

While this is true to an extent, there's a vast difference in skills between someone with "B.S., Environmental Geochemistry" on a CV, vs. "B.A., Environmental Science." The former actually has a background in science; the latter has taken some intro-level courses and a bunch of policy and management-type fluff.

Aphan said...

In and of itself, I see nothing inherently problematic with the act of Harris construing science however he likes within the context of his own discussion, provided that he explains the construction he intends to place on that term (which he has) and that he uses that construction consistently (as Blackford insists). The ultimate justification for any semantic construction of that sort is the use to which it is put in its proper context.

I would like to see Blackford elaborate more on the use to which Harris puts science "broadly construed."

When your average non-scientist invokes "science," it may be that they think of it primarily in terms of intellectual authority. That connotation is not far removed from Harris' treatment of the term here, since science "broadly construed" ultimately becomes an appeal to fact. (There is, it should be noted, some potential for internal contradiction there, since Harris' own research, as described in The Moral Landscape, indicates that there may be no grounds for distinguishing between facts and values "at the level of the brain.") But in discussions of this sort, "science" is generally understood to refer to a field of related meanings clustered around a specific methodology. Even when the non-scientist invokes science as an appeal to authory, she indirectly evokes that association, since it is on the strength of its method that science has built its authority.

Which is not to say that Harris cannot provide his own context-sensitive construction, but understanding how that differs from the ways in which we usually employ the term helps us understand the use to which he puts it.

In context, he invokes "science" in two different ways. Despite the qualifying end note quoted above, it seems to me that the bulk of the book is dominated by the methodological sense of the term, as when Harris goes out of his way to assert the priority of "science in the sense of the specialized branch" like neuroscience, over the self-reported "facts" of psychopaths.

In fact, science in the "broadly construed" sense is called upon to do very little in The Moral Landscape, but all of it heavy lifting. It establishes a degree of contiguity between the scope of Hume's is-ought problem, such that Harris' Moral Landscape theory can be taken as a direct response to the assertion (never quite made by Hume) that moral imperatives cannot be derived from empirical facts.

But more importantly, that broad construction allows Harris to treat "well-being" as conformable to methodological science, when, in fact, he has done practically nothing in order to render it suitable for methodological work. Once he has established the validity of "well-being" to his own satisfaction, science "broadly construed" melts away, allowing him to concentrate on the methodological sense.

On those grounds, you would be justified in feeling a touch of skepticism at the end note's ecumenical approach to "science." Harris seems to have insisted on not making a "hard distinction" specifically for the purpose of transferring "well-being," without fanfare, to the realm of scientific method -- and, by that move, invests it with the authority that the non-scientist often feels to be the sine non qua of science.

March Hare said...

I quite agree with Sam and yourself on this, but we must be very careful with other words in this context:

When I talk of having a theory of how the Romans lived in Britain it is not the same as having a theory that the moon impacts the tides more in salt water than fresh water. Only one is a scientific theory, and it's not the Roman one - even if both theories are ultimately wrong.

Russell Blackford said...

MH, that's true - but notice that it's not intrinsic to the subject matter. A theory about how people lived in 100,000 BC probably would be considered a scientific one. The humanities as we know them depend on such things as examining written records, comparing them, and interpreting them (and reconstructing and learning the appropriate languages to do all this in specific cases). Those approaches won't be much use for 100-odd thousand years ago.

It's mainly a matter of what kind of expertise will make most progress, and of course there's no reason why scientists and humanities scholars can't work together in a specific case, or why someone can't have a mix of, say, linguistic and mathematical skills.

Scientific approaches and humanistic approaches are continuous with each other, but some problems lend themselves very much to one rather than the other. Some need a mix.

March Hare said...

Russel, I guess I left my comment a little open (I was rushed...) I agree with what you say but...

The point I was making was that when we (rightly imo) ascribe other fields the confidence of science we have to be aware that many people in those fields, even the professionals, often slip into common usage of the language and we should be aware that science has its own vocabulary and make sure we know when we are using that and when we are using common verbiage.

Theory, hypothesis, proof, falsifiability and even evidence can all take on different meanings in different contexts and if certain fields are not used to the words they may be slightly cavalier in their use of them, as well as people describing the findings of those fields.

btw. there is nothing stopping theology being scientific. I can't imagine anything more beautiful than Theology using the scientific method...