Wednesday, August 14, 2013

This 'scientism' thing...

I can't really keep up with the lengths of the posts over at rants within the undead god. Not that that means much, but for context its worth noting.

But there's this recurring notion of 'scientism'. Quoting the article:

“Scientism” has a nonpejorative core meaning, but also pejorative connotations. According to the core definition, scientism is the belief that the sciences are the only disciplines that supply us with knowledge. Scott says that “humans are theoretically incompetent, and that science is the one institutional prosthetic that clearly affords them some competence.” This seems scientistic in the core sense, although he also says that true claims can “drift about” in nonscientific philosophy. So if “scientism” is tweaked to mean that science is the only reliable source of knowledge, Scott’s view is scientistic, for whatever that nonpejorative characterization is worth.

The reason the word is usually read as pejorative, though, is that philosophers have reached some consensus that scientism refutes itself. After all, scientism is a philosophical rather than a scientific proposition. Just ask yourself, then, whether the claim that science is the only reliable source of knowledge is itself reliable. If not, we needn’t trust that all knowledge comes from the sciences, and if so, we have the paradox of knowledge that comes reliably from a nonscientific discipline (philosophy). Either way, scientism is unstable.
Sound neat and tidy?

I'd swear this is a functional limitation of the human mind in general. The fact that as soon as we take any skin out of the argument, we get to here - philosophy central, where suddenly things are utterly self cancelling.

But the fact is, take a basic science experiment, like some sort of test of whether there is a capillary motion that occurs when fabric is dipped in fluid. Now lets put in the skin - if it does occur but you don't agree it will, you get smacked over the back of your hand with a ruler (or lose $50, if you prefer).

Are you going to say it wont occur? Are you going to say 'Well, that's scientism. And scientism is a philosophical rather than a scientific proposition. And that's just the paradox of knowledge that comes reliably from a nonscientific discipline!'

But see, really that is the theoretical incompetence itself! Once we retract skin, we can talk like that all day long - because were theoretically incompetent in that way! Once were away from the outside world, once were away from having skin in the game, our wheels spin in the air, perpetuallyy. Neither making contact with anything, nor being contacted by anything.

No matter how many nukes or literal scientific raising from the dead (people who are legally dead are revived), it this very theoretical incompetence that lets us, sans anything to lose, go right back to complete indifference or refusal.

Or, from the alternate side of the fence position, I guess its all actually very self conflicting as science isn't proven, etc - all said from the non risk of an arm chair.

It may even indicate a dread dichotomy in the brain - perhaps even supporting the notion of there simply being a rationalisation module in the brain, itself fairly distinct from the rest of the brain. Because basically where there is nothing to lose, the arguments against 'scientism' just flow. But when there IS something to lose, suddenly that dries up! It suggests that the part that is talking is not in charge and that the rest of the brain, when it detects it could lose something, literally cuts the crap! The practical brain and the rationalising brain. The former lets the latter off the leash when the latter might vaguely benefit. But when you stand to lose something by letting the latter off the leash - zip!

I speak from the notion that this might aid in navigating the world. A practical concern. Skin involved.

Or we can recede to the skinless world.

Empty bones.


  1. I hate to present you with more long posts on my blog, Callan, but you might be interested in the long dialogue with Scott Bakker I just posted. We had that dialogue in response to my recent article on mechanists and transcendentalists and we talk more about scientism. Most importantly, though, I think we really clarify each other's views and their relations to each other.

    As for your point here, that those who speak of scientism are trying to muzzle science when they have too much to lose to let science do its work, I'm struck by the similarity between this defense of naturalism and the postmodern style of criticism. The postmodernist says that every statement is just an expression of political or gender bias, that even scientific theories can be reduced to cultural biases, power games, and so forth. You're implying, in turn, that something which science can figure out is responsible for absolutely everything, that all legitimate questions reduce to scientific issues. In each case, we seem to have a very reductive view of the questions we can ask.

    You make it a little too easy for yourself when you ask whether it would be wise to bet against a *scientific experiment* about the capillary motion. You're sort of begging the question here by calling the issue a scientific one. Of course science can handle scientific issues. The question is whether science can prove that science is the only reliable source of knowledge. Is reliability a scientific issue or a cultural and a normative one? There are primitive societies that rely on nonscientific myths. So what are the criteria for reliability and can we arrive at them by doing scientific experiments? If reliability isn't entirely scientific, what do we mean when we say that science best answers all legitimate questions?

  2. Hi Benjamin,

    I should have explicitly said it's not you, it's me - I have an issue with the post length. It was supposed to mostly be a disclaimer for anyone reading 'I can't keep up with the length of the post'. I am going to read that back and forth with Scott - though many of Scott's sentences have me reeling. Not that that means much, but for context its worth noting.

    I'm not sure I understand your second paragraph, but I think the third gets into the subject. But again, at the skinless level! What's at risk - yes, exactly some primitive societies can perform actions based on myth - when/while there's nothing at risk if they do so. I can think pixies are responsibile for lighting up traffic lights if I want - will that get in the way of regular traffic flow? Of course not (as far as we can tell for the time being)! Ie, nothing at risk! All sorts of notions can bloom when there is no risk of ruler coming down over knuckles, and yet the basic actions of them can still work out in a predetermined way.

    I would say in regard to 'what do we mean when we say that science best answers all legitimate questions?' that there is no 'we', when one side has no skin in the game but the other side does. I could say one sports team will win - you could argue that for eternity. But if you were to place a bet on one of the teams, I imagine the discussion will be considerably shorter. And mostly likely ending on less discussion and more a focus on 'lets see how the match/the test resolves itself'