Thursday, 17 December 2015

Estranged Notions: Is Real Knowledge Only Scientific Knowledge?

Today's post (well, yesterday's by the time I'm done):

Is Real Knowledge Only Scientific Knowledge?

The basic problem with this article is that all of its important premises are literally, simply false.


First, scientism is self-refuting. The statement “Scientific knowledge is the only legitimate form of knowledge” cannot be verified by scientific methods.

Who says? Broussard offers only bare assertions:

It’s a metaphysical proposition and thus not subject to scientific inquiry. There are obvious ways to treat the question empirically, for example by studying groups that use alternative views of knowledge and evaluating their success.
It is restricted to physical reality. What is an ‘unphysical’ reality, and how could it affect anything at all without becoming subject to scientific investigation?
Foundational truths about reality go beyond the merely physical (e.g., questions about existence itself, time, space, etc.) Science has already overturned metaphysical assumptions about such ‘foundational’ truths and will likely continue to do so.
Science can never go beyond the boundaries of its data source. Where are those boundaries? How can you show that they exist without exhibiting something beyond them, without that in turn becoming a new ‘data source’ for scientific investigation?

Broussard continues:

Moreover, scientism is self-refuting because it undermines science as a rational form of inquiry. Consider that science presupposes various philosophical assumptions that are not subject to scientific verification—e.g., there is an external world outside the minds of scientists, the world is governed by causal regularities, and the human intellect is capable of uncovering these regularities.

Science does not ‘presuppose’ any of these things. Successful practice of science is conditional on some of them—if there were no causal regularities then we would fail to predict the outcome of any experiment—but what that implies is that “the world is governed by causal regularities” is a testable hypothesis and therefore within the scope of science.

In short, none of these claims of self-refutation stand up to even the most trivial scrutiny.

Sciences of the Mind

One of the problems with ‘scientism’ as a term is that it is frequently straw-manned by those attacking it; they take the most extreme (and hence weakest) position they can imagine and attack that. Broussard does this to an even greater extent than Feser does in the article Broussard is linking to; in search of the kind of jejune self-refutation argument already deployed above, he asserts that scientism “denies the reality of the human mind”.

It is hard to overstate how wrong-headed this position is. Even the most extreme eliminative materialist position does not deny that there is a whole lot of activity going on inside human brains, and that it is this activity which is responsible for the phenomena which we label “mind” or “mental”. The claim that many of the labels of folk-psychology (and na├»ve philosophy of mind) may turn out not to refer to real things is not in any way irrational; it may be awkward to frame a theory in which the concept of “belief” is eliminated before pinning down what replacement concepts are to be used instead, but to the scientismist, it is perfectly legitimate to explore such parts of theory-space as long as one doesn't get too far ahead of the data.

But we don't need to defend eliminative materialism; it suffices to note that physicalism is a rational position, indeed the dominant one in philosophy of mind, and that this implies that mind can be scientifically studied at all levels (at least in principle; there are obvious practical problems).

Broussard adds some more specific howlers:

The mental activities in the practice of science such as the formulation of hypotheses, the weighing of evidence, technical concepts, and the construction of causal chains cannot be described in the language of mathematics.

The Reverend Thomas Bayes begs to differ.

There is no microscope or telescope that can show us the existence of mental beliefs.

... yet.

On Method

Broussard's final argument is that scientism confuses method and reality; an assertion which he repeats verbatim in three out of six paragraphs without apparently noticing that he has failed to support it. What does it mean for something not to be measurable? How would you know that something exists outside of some “domain of science” if it did not participate in cause-and-effect, and how can something participate in cause-and-effect without being measurable?