Science or scientism?

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If scientists knew everything about our genes, our neurophysiology, about the environment in which we develop, would they then be able to give a completely scientific explanation of our aesthetic preferences?

The presumption that they would I call the ‘god argument,’ since what it implies is that ‘once we attain (god-like) knowledge of everything, all our questions will be answered.’ This argument appears in a number of philosophies and ideologies, including some religions. My favorite such argument is Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind (through the crucible of the dialectic we attain Absolute Knowledge), because Hegel implies that the science and philosophy of his day had already achieved this. He thought the historical process of discovery, debate, synthesis, as well as development of new interests to explore, was completed. He was wrong.

I know that no one is, any longer, arguing that history is over and there is no new knowledge to acquire. But that was only the most obvious evidence of Hegel’s real problem. The god argument itself is wrong, because we are historically and empirically contingent knowers. Even if I grant the claim that science will someday explain everything (and I don’t), the explanation science could give for my aesthetic preferences could very well be right today and wrong tomorrow, dependent largely on contingencies the explanation couldn’t predict. Some of the possible changes could have scientific explanation – e.g., alterations in neurotransmitters in the brain. But others would not – e.g., hearing that a loved one died while listening to a certain song. How that would change my response to the song would depend on a number of factors, having to do with previous experience, previous value choices, contextual relationships (e.g, whether I like my loved one’s family, and cultural codes of showing them sympathy; mutual friends we had and my perceived responsibilities to these; not to mention issues concerning children if there are any involved), as well as dealing with whatever emotions (or other internal responses) I would be feeling (also partly culturally coded); and there would obviously be practical matters to take care of, e.g., going to the hospital, and so on.

Sorry for the run on sentence! But such listings of possible issues to confront in a moment of crisis do all finally form the whole of the experience.

And yes, if all of these contingencies could be accounted for, then how I would afterwards respond to the song I was listening to at the time could be fully explained – possibly scientifically, or perhaps, per Hegel, dialectically.

But only a god could know all this about me; and I don’t believe in god.

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‘Literary Darwinism’ is the recent development in literary theory of a notion borrowed from evolutionary psychology, that literature and the tastes we have for it are expressions of evolutionary imperatives toward increased fitness. Some time ago, I did some research on the supposed ‘father of literary Darwinism’ (as some call him), Joseph Carroll. I was able to read some of his theoretical writings online but found very little literary criticism by him. Basically his main interest is promoting a modification of Pinker’s theory that artistic forms are side effects of the evolutionary development of language. Does this tell us anything about literature? Well – no. It’s an argument concerning evolutionary psychology. At one point in an interview (http://neuronarrative.wordpress.com/2009/02/27/what-is-literary-darwinism-an-interview-with-joseph-carroll/), Carroll says: “Identifying adaptive functions for the arts need not detract from the richness and complexity of the arts.” But he’s supposedly a literary theorist! He has to argue how his theory *enhances* our appreciation of “the richness and complexity of the arts.” (Instead he goes on to describe an online psychology quiz to find out what readers think about characters in Victorian novels!)

When I finally got to snippets of Carroll’s literary criticism in reviews of his texts, I found it read – well, like literary criticism: aesthetic exhortation about appreciating the fascinating characters in great novels doing interesting things; explanations of why he thinks certain novels are worth reading and what we can learn from them. Pretty much what literary critics have been doing since long before ‘literary Darwinism.’

Finally, note: Although readers and writers have discussed fiction and verse for many centuries, what we now call “Literature” as an academic study is an invention of the mid-19th century. There would be no “Literature,” no canon of “Literary texts”, except that educators 150 years ago agreed it might be a good idea to have one (see, for instance, Graff’s “Professing Literature,” http://www.amazon.com/Professing-Literature-Institutional-Twentieth-Anniversary/dp/0226305597). Complex social issues brought this about, complex social values have changed around it, driving conflict and debate. The literary cannon has undergone ongoing revision in response to these changes. What we see here is a morass of conflicting philosophical, social, and political conflicts. Nothing gives us reason to think the matter will be settled scientifically; exactly because the matter concerns something we value, and not just ‘what is.’

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Here, briefly, I should also question the notion that the common methodology of acquiring reliable knowledge, that we widely accept today – experience, hypothesis, testing, inductive analysis, deduction – as a specifically scientific methodology. This methodology was practiced, after a fashion, by the Greeks, 2500 years ago. Are we saying they were practicing science? 2500 years before the practice of what we now commonly call science? Are we then appropriating the history of Western philosophy to the project of “scientization?”

I’m sorry, but this is really starting to sound like ideology. The Christians also appropriated the Greeks, as somehow proto-Christian theorists arguing for the existence of god. I could never accept that (even when I was a christian!), so I don’t see myself accepting Greeks as proto-scientists (in the modern sense, as studying the ‘natural sciences’), except in the loosest of terms. *

It is indeed arguable that we use some variant of this methodology in many realms of experience. It is far, far less clear that we are engaging in science when we do so.  Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes use this methodology to solve his mysteries – do we really agree to call him a scientist?  Do we need to, in order to enjoy those mysteries?

This is really causing problems for the argument that science does or can totalize knowledge. If it is agreed that this methodology is not specifically scientific, then the argument deflates rapidly into speculation. If it is argued that it has always been scientific, then the argument is open to critique from outside – obviously an effort to colonize other ways of developing knowledge about the wide range of complex and diverse human interests, with the project of reducing all that knowledge, all such experience, to scientific explanation – the project popularly known as scientism. In which case the position is open to all the criticisms of scientism as an ideological project of imperialistic totalization of knowledge.

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*  Conceiving certain of the ancient Greeks as mathematicians in the modern sense, is a different matter – and one doesn’t even need to prefix the conception with the cautionary “proto.”  That raises some very interesting questions concerning maths and their epistemology.  But while some argue that math is a science, and no one denies how dependent modern science is on mathematics, the fact remains that its epistemology still follows effectively deductive practice, and so is not relevant to the methodology of experience, hypothesis, testing, induction and deduction that we have discussed here.  I suppose everything hinges on the question of how sensory the experiences we are talking about are, and how empirical the testing.  However, for the purposes of this essay, the methodology assumed is understood in the common sensory, empirical sense of the terms, and clearly most mathematics is directed along other pathways, as I discussed briefly in a previous essay.

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12 thoughts on “Science or scientism?

    • I long ago surrendered myself to a universe that is so vast that we puny beings here on earth can only know a minute chunk of it; and to a universe that operates on principles that include randomness and chance in a way that we can only understand statistically.

      But I think many are horrified by this possibility and both the freedom (not in the sense of ‘free will,’ but certainly in the sense of opportunity for change’) and responsibility, and the openness to experience, this involves. “All men love to know,” wrote Aristotle; and the bright side of this has been the curiosity generating knowledge in many fields.

      But there is a dark side to this – the will to certainty, to know all that can be known, and know it to be true absolutely.

      Since this is not really possible (given the contingent nature of human experience), many seek the ‘final answer’ in some set of ideological principles, or in divine interdiction. ‘God knows’ and ‘he has spoken’ – that settles everything.

      Another way to think on this question: At some point if we wish to mature, we must decide that we simply don’t need to defer to our parents. That’s actually very hard for many. So we postulate either what our parents would say to us, or submit to a divinity who would say everything our parents would say.

      I suppose that I was, in this sense, fortunate; my father was absent, and my mother was rarely home. And after some thirty years seeking their replacement, I finally realized I was on my own, and got on with it.

      That’s the prescription I have for the human condition – realize we are on our own and get on with it. Unfortunately, most people are still looking for mom and dad – or their ideological or ‘spiritual’ replacements.

      Really, none such exist. And it is always better to ‘know’ (in the contingent sense) then to have ‘absolute certainty.’

      The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine. But it is the only universe we have – and we are set out in it, whether we like it or not.

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  1. Your post has given me some food for thought, though perhaps some of that thought is a long way from what you were mainly arguing. Perhaps it will inspire a post or two on my own blog.

    Your opening question:

    If scientists knew everything about our genes, our neurophysiology, about the environment in which we develop, would they then be able to give a completely scientific explanation of our aesthetic preferences?

    Of course not. That’s my initial reaction.

    My first reaction to the question is that it is reminiscent if Mary the color scientist, in Frank Jackson’s argument for dualism. My understanding is that Jackson has since decided against dualism. This sort of argument seems to be based on a very extreme form of reductionism, and I’m a skeptic of that.

    I agree with you on the role of contingency. However, given the way that you stated this question, wouldn’t knowing everything about the environment include a knowledge of contingencies that will occur?

    My own example would be to point out that people drive on the left in Britain, and on the right in the USA. This looks like a case where a purely arbitrary decision was made, because there are circumstances where it is better to make an arbitrary decision than to not decide at all.

    Presumably, an extreme reductionist could claim that the apparently random and arbitrary decision on which side of the road we should drive, was actually completely determined by environmental and biological facts.

    On another issue that you raised — no, Sherlock Holmes was not a scientist. Many folk do seem to identify science with (to use your words) experience, hypothesis, testing, inductive analysis, deduction. But I think that misunderstands science. That does not adequately distinguish between science and journalism, while I see those as very different. But I would say the same about mathematics. What distinguises mathematics from the use of deduction is about the same as what distinguishes science from that string of words (roughly empiricism). In both cases, what distinguishes them is invention. And here, I mean something that perhaps could be called “intellectual invention” to distinguish it from mechanical invention.

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    • My argument is against extreme reductionism, which I believe is headed into cul-de-sacs, and hence actually distracts from useful inquiry. BTW, there’s an odd but interesting conversation between Alex Rosenberg and John Dupre available at Youtube that I recommend – odd, because Rosenberg is so convinced that he understands Dupre’s arguments against reductionism, that he tries dominating the conversation by telling Dupre what his (Dupre’s) arguments are and how he’s prepared a defense against them! When it’s quite obvious that he doesn’t really get Dupre at all.

      I’m not sure that all possible contingencies can be known in a quantum indeterminant universe, and probably not in the domain of human activity and experience. Look at economics; economists and business people speak and write as if they have such a good grasp on the contingent that positive outcomes are assured; then the unforeseen happens, and – crash! My guess is that contingencies can be known in local domains only. And, again, I also believe the universe capable of not only chance, but the occasional randomness.

      I used a string of words to describe the methodology to avoid labels. Labels tend to invoke structural models; whereas I think the interplay between the various components of the methodology is actually quite varied and involves other components, dependent on the type of inquiry.

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  2. Another reply on a different aspect of your post.

    Even if I grant the claim that science will someday explain everything (and I don’t), the explanation science could give for my aesthetic preferences could very well be right today and wrong tomorrow, dependent largely on contingencies the explanation couldn’t predict.

    I think that’s the wrong way to look at scientific change. You might do better to talk in terms of “accepted as right today, but rejected tomorrow.” Science really does not deal with metaphysical truth (if there is such a thing, which I doubt). It is more a matter of science depending on conventional truth, but changing its conventions from time to time. For example, there are plenty of people (self included) who will tell you that there was a lot that was right about J.B. Priestley’s work with phlogiston. It’s just that today we have far better ways of studying, describing and explaining combustion.

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  3. Hi EJ,

    You said:
    >Nothing gives us reason to think the matter will be settled scientifically; exactly because the matter concerns something we value, and not just ‘what is.’

    Yes I’m sure you’re right about this, and it does seem pointless for philosophers to spend so much time speculating what it would take for us to have such “god-like” understandings. I’d settle for ANY accepted understandings in philosophy regarding the nature of reality, since we still have none. But might we ever come to an agreement regarding the principals which create “value”? I believe that we not only can, but must do so.

    I’d love to talk with you further if you do have some time for me, since I suspect that our ideas would work well together.

    Eric
    Email: thephilosophereric@gmail.com

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    • I do lack time – my employment is not in a writing field. I certainly hope that we can find common ground.

      As to the question of whether there can be any accepted understandings in philosophy on the nature of reality, my own feelings are that the pluralism of philosophy is one of its strengths – assertoric declamations of final truths are largely ideological.

      But see my post of 4/28/15.

      I just don’t see the need to have a final, accepted understanding of reality. It is what it is, and we try to make sense of it. Reality always changes; we are always trying to make sense of it. And that’s a good thing, in my book.

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  4. Thought provoking post indeed. I have a few comments and I tend to be verbose, so I apologize in advance.

    “If scientists knew everything about our genes, our neurophysiology, about the environment in which we develop, would they then be able to give a completely scientific explanation of our aesthetic preferences?”

    I would argue that all that would be needed (technically) is knowledge regarding how your brain changes over time, that is, the configuration/activity of neurons and synapses over time. If you truncated your explanatory view to just the brain and how it evolves over time (since your brain produces/represents all your experiences and preferences), it seems that you’d have all you need. However, I would say that this would depend on what KIND of scientific explanation you are after, and at what scale/level of causality.

    “The presumption that they would I call the ‘god argument,’ since what it implies is that ‘once we attain (god-like) knowledge of everything, all our questions will be answered.’ ”

    I agree this would be the case, if the questions that we ask are coherent and sensible given that knowledge. For example, if we determined that the universe didn’t technically “begin” but rather just had a first moment in time (say within the framework of a tenseless B-theory of time), then we couldn’t sensibly answer the question, “When did the universe begin?”, since it would be an unanswerable question for lack of making any sense within the framework of our knowledge. In other words, not all questions we may pose are necessarily answerable (even in principle) because not all questions are correct or sensible in the first place. Just a cautionary note regarding that.

    “The god argument itself is wrong, because we are historically and empirically contingent knowers.”

    The former doesn’t necessarily follow from the latter. All this says is that because we are historically and empirically contingent knowers, we don’t have “God-like” knowledge. The god argument as you put it assumes that we would in fact have that level of knowledge.

    “Even if I grant the claim that science will someday explain everything (and I don’t), the explanation science could give for my aesthetic preferences could very well be right today and wrong tomorrow, dependent largely on contingencies the explanation couldn’t predict.”

    That would simply imply that the explanation wasn’t based on the God-like level of knowledge that was assumed in the god argument. To add to this as it may be relevant to what you’re getting at, if quantum uncertainty was ontologically real (if there are no non-local hidden variables for instance and quantum randomness is truly acausal and random), and was thus a fundamental part of “God-like” knowledge, then one could still give a scientific explanation for your aesthetic preferences that would simply produce an answer that involved a probability distribution of predicted future states rather than a simple unitary or binary answer. In theory, with God-like knowledge, one would have all the contingencies you mentioned in their knowledge base.

    “Some of the possible changes could have scientific explanation – e.g., alterations in neurotransmitters in the brain. But others would not – e.g., hearing that a loved one died while listening to a certain song. How that would change my response to the song would depend on a number of factors, having to do with previous experience, previous value choices, contextual relationships (e.g, whether I like my loved one’s family, and cultural codes of showing them sympathy; mutual friends we had and my perceived responsibilities to these; not to mention issues concerning children if there are any involved), as well as dealing with whatever emotions (or other internal responses) I would be feeling (also partly culturally coded); and there would obviously be practical matters to take care of, e.g., going to the hospital, and so on.”

    In theory, all of these contingencies responsible for changing your aesthetic preferences are ultimately translatable to activity in the brain (after all that’s what you do when you experience and then form memories of those experiences). The brain is the only configuration of matter (so far demonstrated) that produces all of your feelings, preferences, experiences, etc. Hearing that a loved one died while listening to a certain song for example produces the effect it does because of the changes to our neuronal networks and the electrochemical activity contained therein which are externally influenced by incoming energy via our sensory organs. Based on the current configuration/activity of neurons and synapses in the brain (which includes all existent memories of previous experiences that could in principle modulate this preference), you hearing a particular song would affect that configuration/activity in theoretically measurable and predictable ways. The incoming sensory stimulation would produce predictable neural/synaptic changes to the brain over time. The subsequent change to your aesthetic preferences (if that resulted) would likewise be accounted for with knowledge of how the configuration/activity changes over time in response to new electro-chemical stimuli acting on the initial brain configuration while abiding by naturalistic patterns/laws.

    “And yes, if all of these contingencies could be accounted for, then how I would afterwards respond to the song I was listening to at the time could be fully explained – possibly scientifically, or perhaps, per Hegel, dialectically. But only a god could know all this about me; and I don’t believe in god.”

    Exactly. If all the contingencies were known, as per the God argument, then it seems reasonable to conclude that we could explain aesthetic preferences scientifically, though once again, I don’t think that level of knowledge is needed unless you want a certain type of scientific description/explanation operating at a less fundamental/simplistic scale.

    As for your comment that “only a god could know all this about you”, I’m not sure that’s true. I’ve not yet seen an argument that demonstrates that to be true, that is, that only a supernatural entity could know enough to scientifically explain something, such as your aesthetic preferences. If you wanted the infinite number of possible causal DESCRIPTIONS relating to explaining how your aesthetic preferences arise (for example at different levels/scales, not just what’s happening in the brain itself which produces and mediates all your preferences), then I’ll concede to the point. However, if you simply want ONE scientific explanation of how your aesthetic preferences arise in terms of the context of your brain (which produces all experience, memories, preferences, etc.), then all you need is information about how your brain works and how it changes over time. This is a finite amount of information needed and would account for not only your aesthetic preferences, but anything relating to your consciousness and experience — all in terms of brain configuration states. You may not like or be satisfied with that explanation, as you may want a different type of explanation operating at a different level or scale (different hierarchies of description), but that would nevertheless illustrate the physical processes that lead to everything you experience, including your aesthetic preferences.

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