Not a fan of Mary Midgley, but even less of a fan of scientism


Even though a philosophy machine would be kind of neat-o, I’m pretty sure it would end up like the one in this comic.

What? You mean philosophy isn’t a mechanism to confirm what I already believe to be true?

Well, then, what good is it?

Comments

  1. khms says

    I strongly suspect the correct answer to the second question should also have been “NO”.

  2. Scientismist says

    “Scientism” is a word loaded with contradictions. As a self-declared scientismist, I must say I rather like this cartoon. Back in my grad school days 50 years ago, scientism was an epithet for the dogmatization of science, for taking a theory or probabilistic result and portraying it as a final truth. The problem with that, as portrayed here, is that it leads the “scientists” to neglect research (the philosophy machine asks no follow-up questions), to obscure their methodology (hiding in the box), and exaggerate their certainty (“Yes.” “No.” “The second one.”)

    But the term “scientism” is also now used largely as a conversation-stopper, dismissing those who, like me, will insist that all human knowledge must come through science. The problem with scientism in this view, (the “sin”, if you will) is that there are (obviously) certain truths which we can know to be true without ever couching them in scientific language or methodology.

    Science is sometimes defined as an ethical position, to act in such a way that what happens to be true might come to be demonstrated to be probably true. Or more simply and minimally, as an agreement to tell each other the truth. So apparently there are Capital T Truths that can be accessed only if we leave room to lie to ourselves, hide our methods, and refrain from asking questions. And this is said to be obvious, aside from the inability of anyone to name such a Truth.

    I became a scientismist (in this sense) when I was told by a very well-known atheistic philosopher that human knowledge must include the truths elucidated by non-scientific methodologies, because nobody wanted to be a scientismist. But I do. I will remain a scientismist until someone can convince me that something can be said to be true (absolutely true — Yes/No — or even probabilistically true), but only if we are allowed to conceal our methodology, ask no questions, and lie about our results.

    On the other hand, if a scientismist is a person calling themselves a scientist while hiding in a box, asking no questions, and giving absolute answers (essentially the older sense of the word), then what is a philosopher? Perhaps they are, at their best, people who make us think by stepping out of the box, by encouraging open inquiry, by asking questions, and by reminding us (even if only by their own disagreement) that our answers are never final. If they sometimes speak in absolutes or other nonsense, that’s just part of the process.

  3. chrislawson says

    Normally I like Existential Comics, and the take-down of the scientific purists who think they know more about philosophy than philosophers is on point…but choosing Mary Midgely as the reporter was a bad choice, especially for a comic criticising scientists who “comment as though they are experts on things they don’t know anything about”. It’s quite clear from reading Midgely that she has extremely limited understanding of the science she attacks and, just like the scientists in this comic, is too arrogant to learn anything that might dispel her prejudices.

  4. chrislawson says

    Scientismist@3–

    I agree that a lot of our current knowledge about the world could only have been provided by scientific investigation, but it’s not true that all knowledge has to come from science. Euclid’s proofs, the Rosetta Stone, the Histories of Herodotus all provide important information about the world and yet none of them were derived from the scientific method.

  5. mnb0 says

    “it’s not true that all knowledge has to come from science”
    I refer to comment 2: define knowledge.
    As for Euclides’ proofs – the conclusions are only are as valid as the five axiomata. By definition we can’t know whether they are correct. As a result it’s as easy to prove for instance Pythagoras’ Theorem as to disprove it (just reject axioma 5 – it’s false on curved surfaces for instance). So with what justification you call this knowledge is totally unclear.
    Also it should be noted that Euclides’ proofs totally depend on deduction. Deduction is part of the scientific method, so if one way or another they provide knowledge it’s because math is half-science.

  6. Scientismist says

    chrislawson @ 5:

    Euclid’s proofs, the Rosetta Stone, the Histories of Herodotus all provide important information about the world and yet none of them were derived from the scientific method.

    Euclid’s proofs show that there are true statements about formal systems (not the world) that are implicit in our (Euclid’s) postulates that are not immediately apparent unless we take care not to lose track and end up essentially lying to ourselves.

    The Rosetta Stone tells us that there is more than one way to symbolically represent human language and convey thoughts, ideas, and historical claims. It also provides some evidence as to the truth of some claims. Alone, it does not represent truth. In combination with other sources, it can lead us to some probable truths, if we don’t end up fooling ourselves.

    The Histories of Herodotus, as I recall, teaches us many things about the human ability to make up stories, some that may bear some resemblance to reality, some that are fantastical fictions. Some of them may even have some probable truth value, if we can find corroboratory evidence.

    I don’t see any of these as providing information about the world while not following a scientific method. What is it about scientific inquiry that you want to get rid of? What is it that you think you know that is not supported by a methodology that serves to lessen the chance of self-deceit?

  7. PaulBC says

    The comics with the long humorless lectures at the end explaining what it was intended to convey are the best ones!

  8. PaulBC says

    BTW, it’s actually the same ship, isn’t it? If not, I have a great way to get a life sentence reduced to 7-10 years (I realize that number is probably not quite right…) I should have been a lawyer.

    When the philosopher in a box is a real thing, it will probably be crowdsourced. Or maybe it is already.

  9. Ed Seedhouse says

    Personally I think philosophy is best used as a method to cure people of making bad metaphysical assumptions. Or perhaps as a method of curing people of doing philosophy.

  10. PaulBC says

    @me
    After following the link, I see that the long lecture I thought was the punchline comes two panels before the long lecture that is actually the punchline.

    I’m not sure it changes my assessment significantly, but I did want to disclose that I jumped to a conclusion. The chyrons are fine, if you’re into that kind of thing. The main point, if there is one, seems built on a straw man. Who really has that much confident in “science”? Definitely not any scientists I know.

  11. robert79 says

    I think I might be able to program that machine, correctly, without requiring a human inside.

    Q: “Is it moral to …”
    A: “That depends, how do you define ‘moral’?”

    Q: “If you replace … is it still the same …”
    A: “That depends, how do you define ‘the same’?”

    Q: “Does … exist?”
    A: “that depends, how do you define ‘exist’?”

  12. answersingenitals says

    Philosophy is what we use to amuse ourselves while waiting for science to figure out what the hell is really going on.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    answersingenitals @16: I’ll just leave this quote from Sean Carroll (my bolding):

    the point of philosophy is not to be “useful” to science, any more than the point of mycology is to be “useful” to fungi. Philosophers of science aren’t trying to do science, they are trying to understand how science works, and how it should work, and to tease out the logic and standards underlying scientific argumentation, and to situate scientific knowledge within a broader epistemological context, and a bunch of other things that can be perfectly interesting without pretending to be science itself. And if you’re not interested, that’s fine. But trying to undermine the legitimacy of the field through a series of wisecracks is kind of lame, and ultimately anti-intellectual — it represents exactly the kind of unwillingness to engage respectfully with careful scholarship in another discipline that we so rightly deplore when people feel that way about science. It’s a shame when smart people who agree about most important things can’t disagree about some other things without throwing around insults. We should strive to be better than that.

  14. PaulBC says

    @answersingenitals “Philosophy is what we use to amuse ourselves while waiting for science to figure out what the hell is really going on.”

    I don’t agree, though I concede that philosophy tells us more about how we conceptualize reality than reality itself. The question of whether a ship or a human being has the same “identity” after all its parts are replaced is not meaningful in a scientific sense. There’s an overall pattern that is conserved with continuity, and in the case of a human being, a consciousness going along with it. But whether we call it the “same” only tells us what we mean by that concept… confusing the map for the territory. Reality exists independent of how we conceptualize it. On the other hand, it is still interesting to human beings to ask these questions and probe the limits of our mental maps from within.

    You can say this is just amusing ourselves, but then so is a lot of science. Science provides a more and more accurate picture of reality over time, but it cannot assign a value to having that accurate picture except in the circular sense that it leads to better science.

    One of my pet peeves is the notion of an ideal. E.g., you could say that a sphere (a continuous surface of points equidistant from the center) is an ideal to which a “spherical” object such as the surface of the earth is a poor and imperfect substitute. (And this comes up a lot in religious, Platonist-inspired thought.) On the other hand, I would say that the jagged surface of a planet in all its complexity is the real thing, and the sphere is the approximation, just a useful cartoon that admits analysis to adequate precision for certain purposes. Science will never decide which is the “right” way to think about it. It seems useful to be able to go through both thought processes. E.g., if I take a car to the shop to remove a dent, I have made the judgment that the “true” surface is something closer to the bezier patch its designer envisioned than the actual surface, carrying a record of its collision history.

    Philosophy would get a lot more interesting if we had extraterrestrials to communicate with. I think there are probably some near universals among sentient creatures (e.g. what makes certain mathematics interesting, what did Erdős mean by “book proofs”–or maybe a different kind of brain would find beauty in a different kind of argument). A lot of other things that mainly tell us how humans adapted to survive in our environment or record some completely random historical preferences.

  15. PaulBC says

    I wrote: “Philosophy would get a lot more interesting if we had extraterrestrials to communicate with.”

    Also if cephalopods could talk, but I’ll leave that to the experts.

  16. John Morales says

    For me, the distinction between science and philosophy is ontological; science is empirical natural philosophy, and therefore philosophy encompasses science, not the other way around.

  17. blf says

    “Philosophy would get a lot more interesting if we had extraterrestrials to communicate with” — Also if cephalopods could talk, but I’ll leave that to the experts.

    Enter teh mildly deranged penguin, wheels of cheese in one wing, barrels of port in another wing, and a self-proclaimed in expertise in whatever subject is or isn’t being discussed or ignored… She says cephalopod talk is mostly gossip about where the best-tasting schools of sperm whales are to be found, and who’s turn it is to sneeze “Boo!” at hair furor in teh Wacko House…

  18. chrislawson says

    mnb0 and Scientismist–

    Did you notice that confronted with some clear examples of important knowledge that was not derived from the scientific principles, you both responded by defining knowledge as that which is derived from scientific principles?

  19. chrislawson says

    As per John Morales: science is a subset of philosophy. In my opinion it is the most important. But it is still a subset. Scientists who say they don’t like philosophy might as well be saying they love dogs but hate mammals.

  20. says

    All these comments, and nobody mentioned the excellent jokes in the newsfeeds in the first and last two panels. “Liebniz admits this isn’t the best of all possible worlds after spending five minutes on Twitter”

  21. consciousness razor says

    The joke about Dasein is a good one too. It doesn’t make any sense, but then again, neither did Heidegger.

    Did you notice that confronted with some clear examples of important knowledge that was not derived from the scientific principles, you both responded by defining knowledge as that which is derived from scientific principles?

    And of course there is no science which backs up their sophistry. So according to their own crap reasoning, they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. That should be where it ends, but of course it never ends….

    As per John Morales: science is a subset of philosophy. In my opinion it is the most important. But it is still a subset.

    It’s kind of funny that the focus is on philosophy here in this thread. The comic presents it that way, obviously, so it’s understable. But if you read what they’re saying, people like Scientismist (and in my experience, quite a few others in the atheist/skeptical community) go a lot farther than that.
    Take any non-scientific part of academia that you like; their bizarre and totally unsubstantiated claim is that this field does not involve or produce knowledge of any kind. That’s what they’re saying, and they seem to mean it. (In case you think that’s a strawman, this isn’t the first time Scientismist has droned on about it here, and the story has not changed, despite all the patently obvious objections people have raised. Just treat them as obtuse as any creationist or flat earther or Trump voter or what have you, and you won’t be disappointed.)
    As if that weren’t enough, you could take any ordinary experience, which isn’t science, from practically any moment in your life … or anyone else’s life. They’re saying that couldn’t involve knowledge either, because it isn’t science. Only science does this magic trick, somehow, in ways they never even try to explain. So, for instance, there is no knowledge pertaining to what (if anything) you had for breakfast yesterday. You might have thought there was, but the definitions they cooked up for you don’t allow for it. Too bad, so sorry: you don’t know shit, yet they somehow know it all. The definitions say so.
    I guess my point is that the really glaring issue here is not just about how philosophy stands in relation to the sciences. That sounds like a fairly obscure point, which may seem unimportant to many, if they don’t have much of a personal stake in it…. And maybe it also sounds like there could be some kind of legitimate argument to make for both sides, like maybe we ought to “teach the controversy” as it were. (One of the many ironies of it is that you can go out and check, empirically. What you’ll find is that philosophers tend to be some of the most rabid defenders of science, atheism, empiricism, and so forth. They’re not typically opponents of any of those things. But if you knew nothing about it or only listened to these people, you’d come away with a very different impression, which of course is just plain false.)
    The bigger issue, like I said, is that according to these people, you can take any statement about anything and it’s either scientific or else it’s false. That’s simply not how it works. If they’ve thought about it for even a minute — it shouldn’t take long — nobody with any sense would believe that bullshit. I guess they might think they’re fighting the good fight, but that doesn’t get my sympathy. They’re clowns.

  22. Curt Sampson says

    mnb0 writes:

    As for Euclides’ proofs – the conclusions are only are as valid as the five axiomata. By definition we can’t know whether they are correct.

    From a mathematical or logical point of view:
    1. The axioms are by definition true, because that’s the definition of an axiom: a statement taken to be true for use in further reasoning.
    2. You can’t ask if the axioms are valid because validity asks if a chain of reasoning is correct, and axioms are not the product of a chain of reasoning.
    3. All Euclid’s proofs are valid.

    As a result it’s as easy to prove for instance Pythagoras’ Theorem as to disprove it (just reject axioma 5 – it’s false on curved surfaces for instance).

    This is incorrect (mathematical) logic: your claim that “if A5 (and some other stuff) then PT” is not valid because “not A5” is the fallacy of denying the antecedent. The former proposition does not deny the existence of the spherical cow you hauled out to try to prove it invalid.

    Deduction is part of the scientific method, so if one way or another they provide knowledge it’s because math is half-science.

    No, math is math. Science uses math as a tool, but that does not make math science, even in part.

    robert79 writes:

    Q: “If you replace … is it still the same …”
    A: “That depends, how do you define ‘the same’?”

    Precisely. “Equality” is not a simple, obvious, single thing; it is what you define it to be within your framework of reasoning. You may even have multiple definitions in use simultaneously; computer programmers do this all the time.

    As for what the original post is getting at, I’m not sure. Of course scientism is a misapplication of science, but as Dennett points out, not everything someone claims is scientism really is:

    It’s an all-purpose, wild-card smear. It’s the last refuge of the sceptic. When someone puts forward a scientific theory that they really don’t like, they just try to discredit it as ‘scientism’. But when it comes to facts, and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town.

    Note carefully that Dennet is not saying here that facts about the universe are the only things that are knowledge. If you accept that a valid chain of reasoning is not (or at least may not be) a fact, it’s clear that there is some knowledge that is not facts.

  23. John Morales says

    Curt to mnb0 (in the third person):

    By definition we can’t know whether they are correct.

    From a mathematical or logical point of view:

    Um, pretty sure means whether they are veridical, not whether they are correct according to their axioms and inferential rules.

    (I think you missed the point, Curt)

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