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BioLogos snares an MIT physicist

Via Sigmund at WEIT, an MIT physicist offers part 1 of a series on “scientism.” Yes really, an MIT physicist. I know, I know.

He (Ian Hutchinson) gives the gist in the first para.

One of the most visible conflicts in current culture is between  “scientism” and religion. Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior. However, there are many other important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific, and therefore marginalized by scientism. And if that is so, then scientism is a ghastly intellectual mistake.

Notice that he carefully leaves out the “true” in “justified true beliefs” – the standard philosophical definition of knowledge. Notice also, of course, that he simply assumes there is such a thing as “religious knowledge.” I hope he plans to back that up in future installments, because it certainly isn’t self-evident.

He goes in for the kill in the third para.

Scientism is, first of all, a philosophy of knowledge. It is an opinion about the way that knowledge can be obtained and justified. However, scientism rapidly becomes much more. It becomes an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined: a grounding presupposition or set of presuppositions which provides the framework by which the world is to be understood. In other words, it is essentially a religious position.

Oh is it? Is that the definition of “a religious position”? Is an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined: a grounding presupposition or set of presuppositions which provides the framework by which the world is to be understood, always and necessarily religious?

No, certainly not. That’s putting the cart before the horse. “Religious” is the smaller category; “world-view” is the larger one; not the other way around. We all get to have a world-view, and there is no law that says it has to be religious, or that having one just is inherently religious. Religious people don’t get to take over our minds that way.

It is fair to say that a certain kind of world-view – one that refuses to be modified and adapted with new knowledge or experience, one that squashes everything to fit, one that is imposed on the world as opposed to receiving it – is religious, although even then it could be other things too. But in any case that’s clearly not the sense of “religious” that Hutchinson had in mind.

 

 

Comments

  1. says

    Notice that he carefully leaves out the “true” in “justified true beliefs” – the standard philosophical definition of knowledge.

    I’m not sure I can disagree with the omission. The standard definition strikes me as problematic, since we have no access to “truth”, and “justification” really is the best we can do (but properly studying epistemology is one of the things that makes me want to retire so I’ll have the time).

    Not that this warrants the claim that all world-views are therefore religion, and feel-good crap someone made up is just as credible as the results of systematic investigation of evidence.

  2. julian says

    Oh is it? Is that the definition of “a religious position”?

    That jumped out at me too.

    It’s probably where one of the biggest predictors of who’ll sign up for things like Templeton and BioLogos. Whether they view all knowledge and philosophy as a subset of religious thought, I mean. You gotta wonder if this isn’t just the modern continuation of the Christian belief that only through Christ (God) could we ‘see.’

  3. says

    Eamon – but then that’s the point, as I understand it. If you don’t know whether the belief is true or not then it’s not knowledge. It’s a priori – it’s definitional, as opposed to depending on what we have access to.

    Saying “we have no access to ‘truth'” is saying a lot. Do you really never know when a claim is true?

  4. Irreverend Bastard says

    Sounds like Hutchinson is trying to (re?)define “scientism” by “elevating” the scientific method to a religion. A faith-based, closed-minds kind of religion.

    Let him have his fun, it’s not as if his opinion really matters.

  5. says

    Ophelia: It’s entirely possible I’m confused (being hampered, as I say, by an almost complete dearth of formal philosophical education). So let me see if I can make an even bigger fool of myself by expanding:

    All human knowledge is fallible. While we can have levels of justification as high as we like (depending on how much effort we care to expend), we have no gods-eye-view that tells us when we’ve indeed got it right. “Truth” then is defined as that which surpasses an arbitrary threshold of justification — but as such, the word adds nothing to the definition.

    (Note: I’m willing to make an exception for the case of simple analytic truths like “All bachelors are unmarried”. Either that or claim that such are not knowledge, just word games.)

  6. Jeremy Shaffer says

    So this is where the debate goes now?

    First it was that science and religion were exactly the same thing. Then it went to they were separate things but one was just a good as the other. After that it became that they were differnet spheres that were equally important and totally compatible.

    Now I guess it’s down to sort of back to acting like religion and science are the same, kinda, but there’s this other belief that is like a religion, only bad and acts like it has science in its corner. In short, it seems that the verbal onanism has just become regular onanism.

  7. says

    Eamon, the problem I have with a statement like, “All human knowledge is fallible,” is that it fails to to distinguish between “knowledge” that is flat-out wrong and knowledge that is provisional but incomplete.

    Take for example the idea that Newtonian laws of motion were wrong. In fact, they were right within one frame of reference and remain that way. We have, however, added to the knowledge that Newton contributed.

    Now contrast that with those who “know” that God intervenes in their lives. They’re just wrong in any frame of reference. These people haven’t given us anything to build on or refine. What they have isn’t knowledge.

    So truth is an important part of the definition. And a physicist should really be able to tell the difference.

  8. says

    Hutchinson says in his new book:

    “My answer is this: the main problem with ‘the study of nature’ as a definition of science is that it simply begs the question: what is nature? We tend to think that “nature” is self-evident; but it isn’t. Prior to the Scientific Revolution, nature was populated with gods and teleological imperatives, with intention and purpose. Even in 1686, Robert Boyle (of Boyles’ Law) identified eight different senses of the word nature4. Boyle’s purpose was to deplore the use of, the semi-deity that underwrote Aristotle’s physics, which the Scientific Revolution was in the process of superceding, and to replace it with the established order or settled course of things. Moreover, even after the Enlightenment, the romantics such as the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that what they were about was the study of nature. Yet no one today would for a moment think to call the poetic understanding of the natural world science. It simply is not adequate to assume that what is meant by nature is obvious.

    “Instead, I believe, we must use a functional definition of science. Once we have a clear view of what science is, we will have a definition of what we here mean by nature. Nature is what we are studying in natural science. The result of this definition, as we’ll see, is entirely consistent with what Boyle was arguing for: the established order or settled course of things.”

    *****************************

    ie ‘Nature’ is that which is studied by ‘science’ – or more accurately by people operating in that intellectual domain. (Reminds me of that classic definition of ‘intelligence': that which is tested by an IQ test. Never caught on for some reason.)

    If a definition of any X is ‘the study of Y’, then the question is automatically ‘begged': what is Y? Y may then be defined in terms of Z. So what is Z? Z is then defined in terms of A, and so on down the alphabet till someone gets to X, yells out ‘bingo!’ and gets the prize. Language is vulnerable to that.

    It simply is not adequate to assume that what is meant by ANYTHING is obvious. But what Hutchinson appears to be working towards is the idea of science being a subset of ‘justified wider knowledge’. And no bookmaker will give you decent odds on this wider field not including ‘theology’. (That after all has to be a science, because it ends in the suffix ‘ology’.)

    Hutchinson is clearly good news for worshippers of the Great Green Tree Frog. And for us polytheists, dwindling in number as we are. But one extra problem: in order to put rationally-based and rationally ordered knowledge in the place he wants to put it, he has to use – wait for it – reason. Those who wish to argue that there is knowledge out there not reachable by reason or based on it are going into an inferno wearing clothes made of paper.

  9. macallan says

    “Religious knowledge” sounds like an oxymoron to me. It never ceases to amuse me how certain believers are trying to pass off a set of superstitions and traditions as an alternative to science. And “Scientism” – Straw Vulcan comes to mind.

  10. sailor1031 says

    The proof of the truth of science is in the technology that is based on science. We know our science is correct when the technology derived from it works. Sometimes technology doesn’t work and then we find that either the underlying science isn’t right or it is fraudulently not right. All technology that we have, whether computers, musical instruments, MRI scanners or whatever, is because someone studied the basic science of it, did the math and then made the results available for others to use.

    Now tell me what working technology we have that is religion-based.

  11. Obscure Tenet says

    I have come across this argument before. The answer is simple. Religion is a faith-based system. You have to believe in something to achieve something. You have to believe stories passed down from generation to generation, and believe no single passer of the knowledge misinterpreted any of the information. You have to believe there have been no translation errors when taking the “word” from its original language to the multiple languages represented today. You have to believe the people interpreting the text and spreading the “word” did so without self-aggrandizing and power-grabbing. You have to believe in the goodness of the belief system, despite the behavior of the Believers from ancient times to the present –taking another human’s life in the name of a deity, lying, cheating, suppressing knowledge, etc.

    Science is not a belief system. Science offers for all…let me repeat that…ALL…people on the face of this Earth to try to disprove that which has been proven. If substantial evidence mounts, the scientific community recognizes the incorrect work and counters with what the multitude of scientists discover through well-documented processes of tests (the Scientific Method). Science seeks knowledge and does not give a fuck about a deity. Any scientist defending religion as equal to a “belief in Science” is out of his or her goddamned mind.

  12. says

    Stephanie @10: Eamon, the problem I have with a statement like, “All human knowledge is fallible,” is that it fails to to distinguish between “knowledge” that is flat-out wrong and knowledge that is provisional but incomplete.

    In my epistemology, there is no ontological distinction, only one of degree. In theory, Newton might in fact be just wrong. Or the earth might be flat. Or only 6000 years old. Or there might be no god but Xenu and Elron is his prophet. In practice I lose exactly zero sleep over such possibilities because I regard the accepted answers to as justified to such a high degree that I cannot even imagine what might constitute respectable evidence to the contrary (since such evidence would also have to explain how we came to get it so wrong).

    I regard science as just a disciplined, rigorized and institutionalized refinement of the same kind of induction we routinely and automatically apply to the mundane business of going about our daily routine.

    And theology fails to meet even that standard.

  13. Liam says

    I think Eamonn does have a point here. The possibility that you are wrong
    Always exists, no matter how much evidence you may have for for a particular proposition. The possibility you are wrong becomes increasingly smaller as evidence accumulates. It may be vanishingly small, but it it ever zero?
    How do you know a belief is justified and true? You justify a belief by pointing to reason and evidence. How to you show it’s true? I may be wrong here, but don’t you do the same?
    Since you can never be absolutely certain, you can’t show something is absolutely true.
    So all we have are beliefs with different degrees of justification. For some, he probability they are wrong is so close to zero, we can ignore it. For others, the probability they are wrong appears to approach 100%.

  14. John Morales says

    Liam,

    Since you can never be absolutely certain, you can’t show something is absolutely true.

    Well, you can in logic or mathematics.

  15. Liam says

    Well, you can in logic or mathematics

    Granted. But even in logic, I think the most you can be sure of is that an argument is valid. Whether it is true or not depends on the premises. And whether they are true or not comes back to evidence again. Usually.

  16. Sastra says

    “However, there are many other important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific, and therefore marginalized by scientism.”

    And what scientist thinks that the emotional experience of regarding a sunset or how one ought to treat others is “marginalized” by science because they’re not objective enough?

    The real argument I think boils down to where you place religious claims like “God exists.” Theists want to place it in the same category as subjective experiences and preferences such as “I love God,” “I feel as if God is present,” “one ought to obey God,” “God is important,” “believing in God helps me believe we are connected,””worshiping God is satisfying,”” fellow churchgoers form a supportive community” and so forth and so on — running the fact claim regarding whether or not God actually exists into all the “important beliefs” about God in hopes that it will melt together and get lost in the warm confusion.

    To be fair, I suspect the believers don’t realize what they’re doing. Faith encourages this sort of fuzzy thinking, a conflation of things in one type of category with things in another very different sort of category. Your love for your mother, say, is not to be confused with your actual mother.

  17. says

    What is one difference between science and religion?

    In religion, when the facts do not agee with the theory, they throw the facts away.

    While in science, when the facts do not agee with the theory, they change the
    theory to fit the facts.

    I live my life by two principals. The first is always do the right thing. the second is to always search for the truth.

    To me, science is the on-going, never-ending, ever-expanding as the self-correcting search for truth.

    And so, I love science.

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