Scientism: The New Orthodoxy
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Scientism: The New Orthodoxy

Richard N. Williams, Daniel N. Robinson, Richard N. Williams, Daniel N. Robinson

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Scientism: The New Orthodoxy

Richard N. Williams, Daniel N. Robinson, Richard N. Williams, Daniel N. Robinson

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Scientism: The New Orthodoxy is a comprehensive philosophical overview of the question of scientism, discussing the role and place of science in the humanities, religion, and the social sciences. Clarifying and defining the key terms in play in discussions of scientism, this collection identifies the dimensions that differentiate science from scientism. Leading scholars appraise the means available to science, covering the impact of the neurosciences and the new challenges it presents for the law and the self. Illustrating the effect of scientism on the social sciences, and the humanities, Scientism: the New Orthodoxy addresses what science is and what it is not. This provocative collection is an important contribution to the social sciences and the humanities in the 21st century. Contributors include: Peter Hacker, Bastiaan van Fraassen, Daniel N. Robinson, Kenneth Schaffner, Roger Scruton, James K.A. Smith, Richard Swinburne, Lawrence Principe and Richard N. Williams.

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Science, Scientism, and Explanation
Daniel N. Robinson
With faith man steps forth into the world. Faith is far ahead of understanding and knowledge; for to understand anything, I must first of all believe something. Faith is the higher basis on which weak understanding rears its first columns of proof; reason is nothing but faith analysed.
Franz Schubert (as cited in Frost 1885, p. 63)
A persistent question raised by schoolchildren and by seasoned scholars asks simply and directly, What is science? Any number of activities and achievements are readily recognized as scientific, but one is hard pressed to identify some shared feature that, when present, renders the adjective apt and informing. One might be tempted to regard measurement as the relevant feature. However, various schemes of classification and identification in the sciences do not depend on quantitative modes of measurement. Similarly, many endeavors that are clearly scientific in nature are not experimental. Astronomy, for example, is a developed but not an experimental science. One is on no firmer ground by taking recourse to consensus. In their own time astrology, alchemy, phrenology, palmistry, and physiognomy were widely regarded as scientific.
The topic of explanation is as vast as the domain in which objects and events seem to call for one. Members of a jury are asked to judge whether a defendant had both opportunity and motive. One cannot judge the defendant as possibly guilty if, in fact, he had no conceivable way of finding an opportunity to commit the crime and if, in fact, the victim was a total stranger. Passengers expect that excessive delays will be accounted for, and students must find an excuse more credible than the dog having eaten their homework. Political leaders, especially during election years, are supposed to be able to make clear why various initiatives have failed and why the more promising ones were never tried. On a larger scale, historians seek to account for the French Revolution or the fall of the Roman Empire. Scientists must greet incredulity as they offer evidence that the universe is or seems to be expanding. At what might be called the metaphysical level, various experts bear the burden of establishing just how the jumble of physical events in a human brain somehow constitute the conditions under which oaths become binding and affections withheld.
In these and myriad other contexts, what are sought are explanations, but it is not clear just what we have when they are found or, for that matter, just how we know that we found one. In scientific contexts, there is general but certainly not total agreement that an object or event has been explained when its cause has been identified. Of course, this simply raises the same question, now in somewhat different terms: How do we explain the fact that some object, event, or state of affairs reliably results in some different object, event, or state of affairs? The cock crows after a clock on a mantle 30 miles away strikes six. It would be nonsense to say that the clock’s chimes caused the cock to crow.
We speak of causal relations as being distinct from coincidences and mere correlations, distinct even from what we take to be necessary conditions, but this, too, is problematic. When Isaac Newton paused to consider gravitational effects, he was clear in distinguishing between knowledge of the effects of gravity and knowledge of just how gravitational forces cause the effects. The distinction is important. A scientific law sets down the interrelationship among different properties of physical bodies. In classical mechanics, it is well established that the force required to impart an acceleration to a body depends up on the mass of the body, with the familiar equation being F = MA. We can say that the equation stands as something of a rule, but it certainly does not explain why the rule is of this form rather than, say, F = log2(MA).
Sometimes, in searching for explanations, we are content to identify factors that are reliably associated with certain events. Not much by way of conjecture is needed to account for persons having umbrellas on days calling for rain. However, the more committed one is to a complete explanation, the more complicated the story would become.
In light of the broad and diverse range of contexts, the impulses behind attempts at explanation are themselves various and often highly individuated. The explanation Jack seeks to account for Jill also going up the hill may be a matter of total indifference to Jeff who had his own pail of water. Granting variety and individuation, one source of the impulse to explain is a state of wonder; a state of perplexity or confusion promising to be relieved by reaching an understanding, itself the result of a successful explanation. Consider young Newton, pondering the mysteries of astrology while shaded by one of his grandparents’ apple trees. Down falls an apple on that head enclosing so fertile a brain. What might Newton have wondered? Alas, “With all those apples falling, why, pray tell, does not the moon?”
There is a typical series of steps launched by a state of wonder; a series that begins with confusion or perplexity soon includes a more careful description, and then daringly or tentatively through various hypotheses and toward a satisfactory explanation. In this way the world becomes less strange, more predictable. Once we can explain the occurrence of “X,” there is the reasonable expectation that future events of type X can now be anticipated and dealt with more effectively. Were this not the case, every nuance at the level of experience would require yet another explanation.
Various accounts of scientific explanation have been offered. One of the most influential was advanced by Carl Hempel: the deductive–nomological model of explanation (nomological from the Greek word nomos for “law”). On Hempel’s account, science is virtually identified by its mode of explanation. A scientific explanation, unlike other forms of explanation, avails itself of general or universal laws known to be true. The process begins with an event calling for an explanation. This is typically in the form of an explanandum statement (e.g., “The apple fell”). To account for or, as it were, explain the explanandum, an explanans statement is advanced, typically in the form of a law (e.g., the universal law of gravitation), which, if true, permits one to deduce the explanandum. Hence, the deductive–nomological model of explanation.1
Little of the process is as cut-and-dry as textbooks tend to suggest. Although the deductive–nomological model is a useful sketch of what is common across a number of scientific explanations, it is porous to counterexamples. Suppose as a general law it is asserted that Men who drink mango juice never have xx-chromosome pairs. Suppose further that this explains why it is that Tom, who consumes mango juice daily, has only xy-chromosome pairs.
As would be expected, Hempel’s account has been subjected to many such critical appraisals over a now long course of time and no longer enjoys the dominant position it once held. Some of the criticism is based on what are clearly the counterintuitive consequences of applying the model across the board. Consider yet another example: The explanandum statement, “John Doe has two legs.” Now the explanans statement: “All chickens have two legs.” Finally, note this fact of direct experience: “John Doe has as many legs as does the chicken standing near the barn.” On Hempel’s account, if we wish to explain John Doe as having two legs, the Hempelian model provides a general law to the effect that all chickens have two legs. Then, there is the empirical fact that John has the same number of legs as the chicken standing near the hen house. However, it would be nothing short of ridiculous to suggest that the right explanation of John Doe having two legs is by way of a deduction from a general law pertaining to the anatomy of chickens! There is simply no coherent or rational connection between the fact needing to be explained and the covering law from which that fact is deduced.
One begins to see that there are whole domains of reliable observations accounted for in a reasonable and practically useful fashion but without the benefit of universal laws or the Hempelian framework. The model advanced by Hempel leads to entirely implausible explanations unless weighty presuppositions are already established. This will be even clearer later in the chapter when considering scientific approaches to explanation in history.
Presuppositions are the rule. The search for explanations begins with events or objects for which an account is needed, but events and objects are chosen, not simply given. The process finds us attending to specific features, more or less disregarding others. Objects and events are seldom static, if only because observers themselves are not static. The famous maxim according to which no one enters the same river twice refers not merely to the ever-changing flow of the river but the never-static condition of the person. This raises interesting questions. Albert Einstein claimed on more than one occasion that his progress toward the General Theory of Relativity owed substantial debts to David Hume and Ernst Mach.2 According to Einstein, what they had made clear to him is that concepts are meaningless unless tied to an actual experience, and that our concepts arise from our experiences or have no real meaning. “Experience,” however, is itself a term that eludes simple definition. To have an experience is to experience something. It is to transform what is otherwise a clutter of sensations into a coherent entity now recognized as a type or kind of thing. To appreciate this is to abandon that philosophical fiction, the tabula rasa.
There has never been a living human being who entered or lived in the world as a “blank sheet.” Immanuel Kant, more than anyone earlier, recognized that our cognitive powers must be assumed if we are to account for the fact that an otherwise indifferent constellation of physical impingements becomes organized into a recognizable “something.” All may begin at the level of a bald sensation, but nothing reaches the level of an experience until these impingements are absorbed into a categorical framework. Kant makes the point in a much-cited passage in his Critique of Pure Reason: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” (Kant A51/B76).)
To think requires content, of course, but the mere engagement of sensory organs can amount to nothing, in the literal sense of no thing. One would see no thing and would, therefore, be essentially blind. It is the conceptual framework that raises a bundle of sensations to the level of experience. On this understanding, the meaningfulness that Einstein would tie to experience is actually a reflection of the ordering principles of the understanding itself.
As noted, the processes leading to explanation require that we select an object or event from a large and shifting pool of candidate objects and events. Identifying something in the environment includes both passive and active selection. The human senses are responsive only to some, not all physical impingements. We hear sounds in the range of frequencies extending from about 20 to about 20,000 hertz. We see light whose wavelengths are longer than about 380 millimicrons and shorter than 760. Thus, even as passive witnesses, we have access only to a defined portion of physical reality. What falls beyond this will be as nothing at the level of experience. Even more pronounced is the active form of selection; the unequal apportionment of attention reflecting what, for the given observer, is important, standing as an interest, carrying special value, bound up with other and highly individuated features of a given life. One hears one’s own name in a noisy room, but not that of others. One finds the face of a loved one in a crowd even as all other faces merge into a homogeneous background.
Years ago, the psychologist Daniel Berlyne, whose writing on this subject still repays close attention, distinguished between perceptual curiosity and epistemic curiosity (Berlyne 1954, p. 180). With human beings, it is epistemic curiosity that is itself so curious. As Berlyne observed, “many of the queries that inspire the most persistent searches for answers and the greatest distress when answers are not forthcoming are of no manifest practical value or urgency” (Berlyne 1954, p. 180). True, there are great gains promised by bold adventure, but few sea captains are more devoted to a search for the elusive than is the hunched figure in the café now attempting to complete the day’s crossword puzzle. The exploration I refer to, then, is of the sort Berlyne dubbed epistemic to distinguish it from an attempt to overcome the monotony of a perceptually static environment.
For an object or event to have saliency, the observer must already be tuned to perceive it; he must also have a framework or set of working assumptions with which to classify it; and, owing to the individuated nature of things, it must be something in which the candidate-observer has some investment of interest. To say, then, that a concept is only meaningful when it arises from experience is, in a way, to put the cart before the horse. As noted, one might say instead with Kant that, for there to be experience as such, sensations must be given organization and structure.3
We begin to see that the ingredients of an explanation are complex and that it is less than clear as to what makes some explanations better than others. Indeed, what, after all, do we have when we have an explanation, and what is it about any declarative sentence—or an entire book of such sentences—that stands as an explanation? Are all explanatory principles drawn from a common stock, or do events of a certain kind call for explanations right for that type but not for other types? Is the best model of explanation that adopted in the developed sciences and, if so, how is that model to be characterized? The theme connecting all chapters in this book is scientism. Perhaps it is past time to indicate how that term itself might best be understood. In my judgment, the most economical summary of the -ism just is an affirmative reply to this last question: The best model of explanation is that found in the developed sciences.
I refer to a model. I might have used the more technical term, algorithm, to refer to a series of steps or rules that culminate in the solution to a problem. Consider a dictionary as a translation algorithm. One enters a German word and out comes the corresponding English word. I submit that scientism is the conviction that every feature of reality can be recast in the language of the developed sciences such that every feature of reality is, in principle, explicable in scientific terms. In the manner of an algorithm, it is by way of the actual and promised laws of science that objects and events at the level of conscious experience are translated into events that are without exception physical. At the most basic level of reality, physics is complete.
The claim that physics is complete is sometimes expressed as the principle of causal closure. At the bottom, the thesis finds reality exhausted by physicality. There are no real objects or events that are in principle nonphysical. Defenders of the thesis are under no illusion that at some distant time history, literature and the arts—let alone law, politics, and human relationships—will be explained by way of the elementary laws of physics. It is in the nature of human nature that it must deal with its own humanity in humanistic terms. However, nothing is conceded here at the level of ontology. The consistent physicalist requires of anything claiming real existence that it be physical. Matters of understanding and explanation may of necessity call for more, but ontology does not.
Surely that nodal point toward which physicalism and humanism are most confrontational is in what are now referred to as the brain sciences. Events in the nervous system are now readily examined in real time and at increasingly detailed levels of analysis. Knowledge of the functional anatomy of the nervous system grows by leaps and bounds. There is growing confidence among scientists that some of the most vexing aspects of human nature can be and perhaps soon will be ...

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