Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Philip Kitcher on the trouble with scientism

Philip Kitcher at the New Republic has a magnificent essay on The Trouble with Scientism.


There are two cathedrals in Coventry. The newer one, consecrated on May 25, 1962, stands beside the remains of the older one, which dates from the fourteenth century, a ruin testifying to the bombardment of the Blitz. Three years before the consecration, in one of the earliest ventures in the twinning of towns, Coventry had paired itself with Dresden. That gesture of reconciliation was recapitulated in 1962, when Benjamin Britten’sWar Requiem received its first performance at the ceremony. The three soloists were an English tenor (Peter Pears), a German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), and a Russian soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya). 
Since the 1960s, historians have worked—and debated—to bring into focus the events of the night of February 13, 1945, in which an Allied bombing attack devastated the strategically irrelevant city of Dresden. An increased understanding of the decisions that led to the fire-bombing, and of the composition of the Dresden population that suffered the consequences, have altered subsequent judgments about the conduct of war. The critical light of history has been reflected in the contributions of novelists and critics, and of theorists of human rights. Social and political changes, in other words, followed the results of humanistic inquiry, and were intertwined with the reconciliatory efforts of the citizens of Coventry and Dresden. Even music and poetry played roles in this process: what history has taught us is reinforced by the lines from Wilfred Owen that Britten chose as the epigraph for his score—“My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn.”It is so easy to underrate the impact of the humanities and of the arts. Too many people, some of whom should know better, do it all the time. But understanding why the natural sciences are regarded as the gold standard for human knowledge is not hard. When molecular biologists are able to insert fragments of DNA into bacteria and turn the organisms into factories for churning out medically valuable substances, and when fundamental physics can predict the results of experiments with a precision comparable to measuring the distance across North America to within the thickness of a human hair, their achievements compel respect, and even awe. To derive one’s notion of human knowledge from the most striking accomplishments of the natural sciences easily generates a conviction that other forms of inquiry simply do not measure up. Their accomplishments can come to seem inferior, even worthless, at least until the day when these domains are absorbed within the scope of “real science.” 
The conflict between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften goes back at least two centuries, and became intensified as ambitious, sometimes impatient researchers proposed to introduce natural scientific concepts and methods into the study of human psychology and human social behavior. Their efforts, and the attitudes of unconcealed disdain that often inspired them, prompted a reaction, from Vico to Dilthey and into our own time: the insistence that some questions are beyond the scope of natural scientific inquiry, too large, too complex, too imprecise, and too important to be addressed by blundering over-simplifications. From the nineteenth-century ventures in mechanistic psychology to contemporary attempts to introduce evolutionary concepts into the social sciences, “scientism” has been criticized for its “mutilation” (Verst├╝mmelung, in Dilthey’s memorable term) of the phenomena to be explained.
Scientism is emerging as one of the greatest threats to humanity in the 21st century. It is a crass mistake-- a logical mistake-- but it has an appeal to a broad spectrum of disingenuous power-seekers, ideologues, and commonplace crooks. Scientism is the antithesis of democracy-- it rationalizes rule by unaccountable elites-- and it denies all reality but mere material reality, thereby eroding respect for natural law, which is the basis for human rights.

The scientistic hoaxes of the past century-- eugenics, pesticide hysteria, population-explosion junk science, global cooling, global warming, the looming... acidification of the oceans!, along with the sputtering New Atheist ignorance that has infested our public discourse-- are but a taste of the boot-print of scientism that we are yet to bear.

I'll post in several installments on Kitcher's brilliant essay. 


  1. Michael,

    I can hardly wait for you to comment on Philip Kitcher's 'magnificent' essay where he writes 'although it should be uncontroversial that the Earth's mean temperature is increasing, and that the warming trend is caused by human activities, and that a lower bound for the rise in temperature by 2200 (even if immediate action is taken) is two degrees Celcius, and that the frequency of extreme weather events will continue to rise ...'

    Kitcher is an optimist, but at least he 'gets it', unlike you, who persistently takes an antiscience viewpoint every time. I will be interested in your comments about Kitcher's discussion of evolution.

    Of course, there are two methods of gaining knowledge. One involves looking for evidence, developing theories and making predictions of what we should find if we look elsewhere. This includes the sciences and history. Scientific theories and historical accounts may turn out to be incorrect or incomplete, but at least they can be corrected with more data.

    The other method is the one you prefer; theology and minority philosophy, which involves just thinking about something and coming to a conclusion based merely on the fact that it feels good to you and also that some long dead authority thought so too.

    A gentle hint; in science and history, no theory or account is regarded as sacrosanct, just because an authority, no matter how eminent, thinks.

    I had a quick look at some of your links. Al Gore might be on the verge of becoming a billionaire, but according to the article it's because he invested in a company making hard- and software for smart electricity meters - which is vital to have anyway, global warming or not, because of the increasing demand for energy and the need for electricity companies to manage supply and demand and encourage use of electricity to shift towards off peak periods.

  2. Kitcher is careful to define what he means by "scientism." His five points are listed on the first page of the article. Crudely speaking, it is the tendency to think of physics as the only science and label the less rigorous disciplines such as biology and social sciences as stamp collecting.

    What Christian conservatives mean by "scientism" is something else entirely. They dislike what some of the sciences are telling us. (Egnor helpfully provides two examples: climate change and biological evolution.) They would love to see these branches of science killed one way or another. In their view, relying on scientific knowledge they dislike amounts to scientism.

    Anyone reading further installments should keep this in mind. It will be easy to see the sleight of the hand.

  3. Oleg,

    I predict that Michael will very quickly drop his project of commenting on Philip Kitcher's article, or at least take small parts completely out of context.

    From what I've read so far, Philip Kitcher's seems entirely sensible and sane (unlike ....). He has written a recent book 'the Ethical Project', which I'm thinking of purchasing, despite it being fairly expensive, even for the Kindle version. He states from the beginning that human ethics evolved in a Darwinian process, and had nothing to do with a deity, if one exists.

    I wonder what Michael will make of his new ally?

  4. I agree. It should be fun watching the contortions Egnor goes through in order to get from Kitcher's criticism of reductionism to his own denial of evolution and global warming.

  5. Oleg,

    Particularly when Michael realizes that Philip Kitcher's is an out and out Darwinian (I use it in the only way I accept; not as someone who subscribes to everything that Darwin wrote, and nothing else, but rather one who insists that natural events and phenomena must have natural causes).

    Philip Kitcher's has also written a book 'Living with Darwin' demolishing Intelligent Design.

    This should be fun ...

    1. Kitcher is a well-known alpha Darwinist, and that's even more devastating for scientism. Even someone credulous enough to believe Darwinian fairy tales can't swallow scientism.

      "More ridiculous than Darwinism" is quite an indictment of an ideology.

    2. Scientism is not an ideology. At least not according to Kitcher's definition. He basically equates it with reductionism. It is a philosophical position, but not an ideology.

      "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

    3. Michael,

      Where did you get your quote 'more ridiculous than Darwinism'? I read the article twice, and I can't find it. It might be there, because people see what they expect to see and read what they expect to read (it's a basic fact of neuroscience) and I've googled the quote, with no exact hits. You aren't fabricating quotes again, are you?

      Kitcher certainly doesn't come over as an alpha Darwinian. He concedes correctly that culture determines a lot of human behavior. It's the old argument about nature versus nurture. Genes versus environment. The answer is that both are important. For whatever psychological trait one is considering, roughly 50% of variation is due to nature and roughly 50% to nurture. This has been pointed out in such books as Steven Pinker's 'the Blank Slate', which has been regarded by too many illinformed critics as being 100% on the nature end of the spectrum.

      The fact remains. With regard to questions that science (and history) has the tools to answer, science will eventually yield the answers. And if they're the wrong answers, because we don't have adequate data, then we will discover that too as we acquire more information.

      That's much better than your approach. How can you know that hylemorphic dualism or that God maintains the existence of each and every elementary particle in the Universe are true? They're not even indirectly testable. They don't make predictions that are even remotely testable. Just because they feel good (to you) and explain the world (to you) doesn't make them true. In fact, they're just highly subjective and not at all objective.

    4. Michael,

      Where did you get your quote 'more ridiculous than Darwinism?'. You're not fabricating quotes again?

      I suspect that you didn't realize that Kitcher is a 'Darwinian'. Otherwise, you wouldn't have described his essay as 'magnificent' and 'brilliant'. Instead you would have written something along the lines of notorious Darwinist atheist scores own goal ...

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  7. A picture is worth a thousand words

    Oleg and his followers should pray before this image and draw the appropriate conclusions!

    1. Pepe,

      Yes, we have. The next few headstones have inscriptions reading 'no longer a theist', 'no longer a Christian', 'no longer a Muslim' and 'just dead and buried'.

    2. Show me a picture of these headstones!

  8. Pepe,

    An idiotic demand as usual. Your headstone was obviously a fabrication. You don't have a real one to point to. I was just fabricating headstones to go along with yours.

  9. Pepe,

    Idiot. The full quote was 'We are longer JUST a Christian nation. We are a nation of many faiths ...'

    It didn't take me long to find it. Leaving out the 'just' and the explanatory continuation changes the meaning completely.

    But then again, dishonest quote mining is what I'd expect from people of your ilk. To actually have people spending money to propagate a lie on a billboard is amazing, and also worrying.