About Me

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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).

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Scientism - Jerry Coyne nails it

I don't report as often as I could on goings on over at Why Evolution Is True, since I expect that most of my readers are also among Jerry Coyne's readers. But I do particularly want to point out this great post on scientism. It's not that I necessarily agree with every word: in particular, I suspect that there are motivations for blathering on about "scientism" that don't have much to do with religion (fear of encroachments on the turf of the humanities, post-colonial shame and anxiety about Western power, and Zeus knows what else).

But Jerry has been on a roll of late - really, he usually is - and this post is a gem. He nails it when talking about the absurd double standards that are applied to scientists, who are often called "arrogant" despite showing considerable epistemic humility, as opposed to religious leaders, who are allowed to get away with the most breathtaking (and dogmatic) claims to extraordinary knowledge.

Religionists’ claim that scientists are arrogant always amuses me.  Really, who are the arrogant ones?  Scientists are nearly always tentative in their conclusions. Lately I’ve been reading a bunch of papers on evolution, and was struck by how often conclusions are qualified by words like “this suggests that” or “this conclusion should be regarded as provisional”.  Many papers suggest additional lines of research that could support or falsify their conclusions. In the end, it is religious people who are the certain ones, the overbearing ones.  How often do you hear, in religious discourse, that “my conclusion that there is god should, of course, be seen as provisional, subject to refutation by findings of unjustifiable evil,” or “maybe there’s a heaven, but maybe not; I don’t have much evidence.”  If they relied at all on evidence, the faithful wouldn’t be able to say anything.


David M said...

(you assume rightly, Russell, but I'm glad you linked to it anyway.)

I did particularly like the part you quoted as well. And there's an obvious bonus to the humility that scientists do show.

If I were to rattle off the books that have most engaged me in the last few years and given me a real understanding of some big picture stuff, I would list Pinker's The Language Instinct, Houser's Moral Minds, Dawkin's Greatest Show and Dimaond's Guns Germs and Steel. To a man, they show the same humility that Coyne is referring to. Houser, despite his recent issues, is particularly upfront about where his arguments need more empirical back up.

But all of them freely admit when they're out on a limb, or when they're clear that more research needs to be done, which has the effect of making the claims they make with less reservations seem even stronger.

Marshall said...

Marilynne Robinson, in a book Jerry specifically mentions not reading, points out that an extreme focus on what a hard-nosed scientist will accept as empirical evidence means that reports of internal states tend not to be approved. Some will deny that "mental states" have interesting organizational properties beyond "matter working through available permutations." We might say that "scientism" has the same pejorative sense as "behaviorism". Not all Gnus are scientismists in this sense, of course.

Where a definition of religion is attempted in this literature, it tends to be of the kind tentatively proposed by Daniel Dennett, who describes religions as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought." [Breaking the Spell.] Dennett says his definition of religion is "profoundly at odds with that of William James" ["feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine"]. He rejects the definition on the grounds that it describes "individuals who very sincerely and devoutly take themselves to be the lone communicants of what we might call private religions," and on these grounds "I shall call them spiritual people, but not religious." Note that religion is singular in James's definition and plural in Dennett's. James is describing an experience that he takes to be universal among religions of all descriptions, while Dennett sees religions as distinct "social systems." The insistence in Dennett's writing on the demographics of religion, on what, by his lights, is observable and therefore accessible to science as he understands it, recalls Bertrand Russell's remark that "it is the privacy of introspective data which causes much of the behaviorists' objection to them." Bertrand Russell was writing as a critic of behaviorism in 1921, but behaviorism is a branch of psychology that seems to have passed out of style without taking its major assumptions along with it, so his comment is still to the point.

It seems to me that opposed to such a scientism would be a humanism that tended to believe what people say about themselves. Credulous about feelings if not about the literal reality of experiences reported, and in the usefulness of feelings. Many Gnus are humanists in this sense, including our host, I believe.

(Be it mooted, MR is much weaker on the altruism problem than she gives herself credit for.)