On Scientism

I created and regularly teach the upper-division course on “Science Fiction in Literature and Film” at SUNY Oswego, under the aegis of the English Department.  My approach to the genre is that, so to speak, everything one thinks he knows about it is wrong, beginning with the supposition that SF functions as the propaganda arm of established science.  On the contrary, the most intellectually developed SF of the twentieth century seems to me to be quite critical of the scientific establishment.  Thus, far from being generically “propaganda for science,” SF is one of the prime loci of the critique of scientism.  I wrote the following paragraphs for the students in my class, in an attempt to explain the term scientism and to suggest why the authors whom we study in the course address scientism with a cocked eye.

The essence of scientism – which, as the -ism” in its name suggests, is an ideology – lies in a grand narrative.  That narrative presents an account of how the present moment of modernity, defined in a certain prejudicial way, came to be.  According to that narrative, a conflict has always existed between reason on the one hand and superstition on the other.  Reason investigates nature methodically under the canons of logic and through the rigors of experimental procedure; reason subordinates itself to purely positive criteria and defines reality according to a naturalistic hypothesis (that is, there is nothing that is not nature).  Superstition, according to the scientistic narrative, acts through fear (of natural phenomena, of the certainty of death) to preserve archaic (that is, pre-scientific) social arrangements and world-explanations.  The scientistic narrative would assimilate religion and revelation, and even a highly developed theology, under the single term superstition.  Such an assimilation already looks quite suspect merely as a rhetorical gesture, as the distance between, say, a tribal taboo and Aristotelian ethics is too great to permit their conflation under a single category – and never mind that the category is markedly pejorative.  According to the scientistic narrative, however, in the Greek awakening, reason began to debate with and to assert itself against superstition.  This debate, often fierce, went on, with gaps, for two thousand years.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t until a cumulus of factual discovery, sorted out and codified in the Eighteenth Century, provided overwhelming evidence for the validity of the naturalistic theory of existence that superstition found itself at last out-debated.  At that point, superstition could no longer effectively contradict the cold, hard hypotheses of the scientists; all that superstition could do was gainsay.  Naturalism and science had won out, but a troubling dénouement followed.

In alliance with the ancien régime – so says scientistic narrative – superstition reorganized itself in defeat and tried to suppress science, as in the clerical structures against Galileo or, centuries later, in the legal penalties stemming from the Scopes Trial over the teaching of evolution in the American South in the early 1920s.  While in these instances, superstition only made itself look foolish, and positive reason again prevailed, superstition nevertheless demonstrated an alarming regenerative capacity.  But Science could draw on reserves of fortitude to match those of superstition.  Thus gradually in the Twentieth Century, the scientific view took hold and extended its purview, aided by a “progressive” politics, which, once in power, actively and justifiably validated and propagated the positive or naturalistic – what I am here calling the scientistic – view.

Note that scientism never sees itself as an ism, but as a truth, dissent from which is aprioristically irrational.

Like any ideology, scientism always perceives itself as threatened by its enemy, “superstition.”  It can never rest on its laurels but always sees devils popping up in the garden of its utopia.  Exponents of the scientistic view in the first decade of the Twenty-First Century are, as they must inevitably be, quite as nervous as ever over the prospect that non-scientistic views will gain an audience and prevail over science itself.  Indeed, some exponents of the scientistic view declare that this insurgency has lately actually constituted itself as a threat to science – and the threat, in their view, is gaining ground.  The alarmists among the devotees of the scientistic worldview point to any public discussion of “Intelligent Design” or any criticism of standard Darwinian evolutionary theory as representing an intolerable offense by the forces of untruth against truth.  Thus according to the scientistic narrative, the present moment, because it includes such developments, would represent an alarming lapse from a state-of-affairs in which naturalism predominates and has decisively suppressed its rival.  Dissent from scientistic orthodoxy would be no less than the recrudescence of a formerly nearly suppressed view, that of superstition, which the same narrative reflexively links to a putatively obnoxious and benighted past before the salvific light of science shown into the pit of intellectual darkness.  Again, according to the scientistic worldview, certain positions have an automatic and unquestionable status: for example, “religion [qua superstition] is the cause of wars” or “any non-scientific perspective must by definition be intolerant and oppressive.”

Perhaps more importantly, scientistic narrative attributes to its own perspective a uniquely liberating or redeeming power, just as it attributes to (what it calls) superstition an enslaving power; indeed, the scientistic narrative claims for science the Promethean role of a dispeller of woes and a teacher of humanity.  In the view of scientistic narrative, the “enlightened man,” conforming his thought to positive criteria exclusively, carries on the work of a saint whereas his fideistic opponent dedicates himself perversely to obscurantism and deviltry.

Scientistic narrative is always implicitly utopian, holding out the prospect of humanity’s complete control over nature and over itself, through the application of reason, narrowly defined, as a soon-to-be-realized goal inevitable if only the naturalistic hypothesis becomes a universal basis of thought.

The critique of scientism, on the other hand, whether implicitly in fiction or explicitly in philosophical discourse, points out the limits of science.  It remarks that science has not and probably cannot produce moral order; the critique of scientism points out that the moral order, indeed, has historically had a religious and revelatory, not a logical or empirical, pedigree.  Moses, for example, did not deduce the injustice of the Hebrew bondage in Egypt by a series of propositions, nor did he work it out inductively by experiment.  He simply saw an Egyptian soldier beating a Hebrew laborer and intuited the absolute intolerability of it; and then later the Being whom Moses claimed to be God (Yahweh) affirmed and guaranteed this same moral intuition.

The moral insight remains valid even should some procedure “prove” that Yahweh does not “really” exist.  The non-existence of the deity does not invalidate moral insights attributed to the deity, nor does it explain how one might arrive at them by the “positive” method.  Similarly, Jesus was not a logician – he spoke in parables and he claimed to articulate for a divinely ordained morality.  Jesus’ declaration that people should love one another has no logical or empirical status and yet, along with Mosaic revelation, it has yielded much of what is decent in the Western world.

The critique of scientism points out that to exclude revelation simply because it cannot be reduced to something rational is to exclude the probable source of decency in the community.  The term superstition has a shifty function in scientistic narrative considered as rhetoric.  By collapsing terms like intuition and revelation into the term superstition, the subject of scientistic narrative avoids having to deal with either a gross distinction or any associated subtleties.  History provides a laboratory for some scientistic assertions – for example, the assertion that the naturalistic hypothesis is liberating.  Political regimes that have acted on the scientistic recommendation to banish “superstition” (that is, religion), as the critique of scientism would also point out, have not been conspicuously decent.  Far from it: They have been conspicuously homicidal – like the French révolutionnaires of 1789 and the Marxist and National-Socialist regimes of the mid-Twentieth Century.

The critique of scientism has an epistemological as well as a moral component.  The critique of scientism would point out that some, at least, of our knowledge of nature derives neither from deduction nor induction but rather from something like intuition or inspired guesswork.  See for example, Kepler’s intuition of the ellipse as the true shape of the planetary orbits.  It is also the case that in reifying itself and endowing its own current view with the character of orthodoxy, scientism is betraying the one of the most brilliant features of science, which it claims to represent – namely science’s commitment to tentativity.   The historical record of science is, after all, a record of constant disproof and re-hypothesis.  If therefore much of the “science” of the Seventeenth Century looked today inadequate (for example, the “Phlogiston” theory of combustion), then it would seem likely that positions passionately advanced today might have a similar inadequate appearance three hundred years from now.

Scientism is therefore a type of complacency, although it would be more accurate to say that it is a type of aggressive, rigid complacency.  The critique of scientism therefore qualifies also as a careful refutation of complacency.

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62 thoughts on “On Scientism

  1. I really recommend Rupert Sheldrake’s book “The Science Delusion” that examines 10 false assumptions of scientism.

  2. Thank you, Mimi. I shall look at Sheldrake. The critique of scientism begins with science. Thus as soon as there is Descartes, there is also Pascal.

  3. Excellent post, Dr. Bertonneau. I appreciate the critique of scientism, the assumptions of which are taken for granted by so many. I am curious as to what you consider to be “the most intellectually developed SF of the twentieth century”? C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy is an obvious example of science fiction that contains a critique of scientism. What would be some other examples?

  4. Dear Gerry: Lewis’s Trilogy, certainly. Poe. The entire oeuvre of W. Olaf Stapledon, whose Last and First Men I regularly assign. H. G. Wells, whom I like to describe as “the socialist whom reactionaries should like.” Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Clifford Simak. Stanislaw Lem, who claimed to be entirely agnostic but who obviously is not. Poul Anderson, especially the work of his last decade. Cordwainer Smith. James Blish, especially Cities in Flight.

    These might surprise you: H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Catherine L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Stanley G. Weinbaum. (The “pulps” published many stylistically refined and well-educated writers. I propose a new feature for The Orthosphere: Reactionary Writer of the Week. Brackett would be first up. In addition to terrific Mars and Venus stories, she also wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep and those for all the Howard Hawks/John Wayne movies.)

    The genre is huge. You will have nominees that I haven’t mentioned, of course.

    Best,

    TFB

  5. Your list is getting old.

    Charles Stross — Laundry Triology.

    Ian M Banks — Player of Games.

    And, if you really want to annoy them, anything by Travis Taylor, who is a physicist.

  6. Dear “60”: Fifteen years ago in Chronicles magazine, I published an article entitled “Science Fiction: RIP.” I see the genre as having been creative until about 1970, after which it became increasingly accented by the same political correctness that wrecked everything else. I grant exceptions, of course. There is Phil Dick and there is Kim Stanley Robinson, whose achievement is magnificent. I shall investigate Stross and Banks. Thank you for the recommendation.

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  8. Speaking of “Chronicles” and Phillip K. Dick, the June 2012 issue of that magazine included an excellent account from Thomas Fleming of Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Fleming also had this to say about the implicit traditionalism of Dick’s oeuvre:

    Dick understood the implications of our programmed dehumanization. When Roe v. Wade gave American mothers the legal right to kill their children, he wrote ‘The Pre-Persons,’ in which humans could be terminated at any time before they could understand simple algebra. Many of the hip and avant-garde people who had professed to admire his work turned against the writer, and some feminists, he claimed, threatened him with death. Of the many things Phil Dick had to apologize for, this story, he said, was not one of them.

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  10. Thank you for this, Thomas. You’ve wrapped eloquent words around a concept I’ve had a hard time verbalizing.

    My one critique in your argument is in regards to the inability of scientism to produce a “moral order” — to explain the altruism of Moses or the charity of Jesus, for example. Quite the contrary. Scientism (through its “sunday school course” on natural selection) indeed has a very air tight explanation of altruism and other moral emotions. Though note the reduction at work in scientism’s framing of “morality” as an “emotion,” a biochemically-driven reflex or instinct (where “instinct” invokes yet a further parallel with the animal kingdom in general).

    Like all “isms”, scientism beholds its justifications as self-evident axioms. The indoctrinated are not easily swayed.

  11. All moral statements uttered by “scienticians” are based on “borrowed premises,” to borrow a premise from the scientician Ayn Rand. Scienticians “just know things.” That is, they are Gnostics of the first water. The rest of us “just don’t get it,” as all those Gnostic scienticians like to say.

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  13. Thomas,

    You really cannot see you are creating a straw man here?

    For example, you wrote, “The critique of scientism would point out that some, at least, of our knowledge of nature derives neither from deduction nor induction but rather from something like intuition or inspired guesswork. See for example, Kepler’s intuition of the ellipse as the true shape of the planetary orbits.”

    I’m a physicist (Ph.D. from Stanford), and I am also a fierce opponent of religion and an advocate of the superstition-to-science view of human history which you deride.

    But, your point about scientific ideas coming from inspired guesswork is, and for a long time has been, the conventional wisdom among scientists and writers on the scientific method — at least since Popper and Kuhn. Good heavens — go back to Kekule and the dream that suggested the structure of benzene!

    The issue for science is not where the idea comes from but rather that guesses and intuitions must be rigorously and brutally confronted with empirical data, with the goal (usually successful) of proving them wrong.

    *That* is what we defenders of “scientism” are advocating: unfortunately, it is certainly not the case that most religions urge their followers to try to prove their religion false.

    Yes, I can indeed come up with numerous examples of “physics envy” in social science and the humane studies in which people ignorant of science naively try to imitate the procedures of physics without actually understanding the substance of the scientific method. But, again, the greatest critics of this sort of “cargo-cult ‘science'” have been we scientists — see, e.g., the Sokal hoax or Dick Feynman’s essay on “cargo-cult science,” available on the Web.

    Incidentally, I knew Feynman quite well, and his views, like mine, fit nicely into your general description of “scientism.” Alas, when you start giving details trying to flesh out the views of those of us who differ radically from you, well, you are horribly wrong factually.

    In short, your critique only seems credible because you are fudging the details.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • “Physicist Dave” writes: “The issue for science is not where the idea comes from but rather that guesses and intuitions must be rigorously and brutally confronted with empirical data, with the goal (usually successful) of proving them wrong.”

      Exactly! And the “scienticians” are the people (they are legion and I know many of them personally) who vigilantly and militantly guard certain notions against testing by brutal empirical data. The “global warming” people, who now call themselves the “climate change” people, offer a stunning case in point. Darwinism became an ideology before Darwin himself died. Is Richard Dawkins not a pontificating self-parody?

      Some years ago at the institution where I teach the philosophy department invited Barbara Forrest to give public lecture. Forrest and Paul R. Gross had just written Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. The two authors told the story of how they litigated to get a book on intelligent-design theory removed from a campus library, in the process of which their lawyers persuaded a judge that he should legislate concerning what is science and what is not. During the presentation, as Forest described the triumphs of her crusade, there were loud outbursts of applause from the audience. I thought quietly to myself: “Wow – these people, who all regard themselves as supremely rational and scientific in their attitudes, are working themselves into a lather over a woman whose accomplishment consists of banning a book from a library and getting a judge to validate scientific positions.” O Reason! O Progress! There were visual aids. One was a large map of the United States across which little fires began bursting out until in each state there were large conflagrations. This is what would happen, Forest claimed, if she and her allies failed to remain vigilant. We would descend into witch burning on a continental scale. That is what I mean by scientism.

      Invoking the positivistic discourse on morality (for example, Adam Smith), as “Physicist Dave” does, simply begs the question. It is not in debate that naturalists and positivists and their issue claim to be able explain morality without revelation. What is in debate is whether they do so persuasively or not. Perhaps “Physicist Dave” finds Smith’s case convincing. I do not, but a reply to a comment on an article is not the place to set out the details.

      Despite a flavor of intemperate lese-majesté in his rhetoric, I suspect that “Physicist Dave” is not a “scientician,” but that he is deeply invested in a professional image of science and the scientist. He has let his emotions trick him into reading my modest essay as an attack on science, which it is far, far from being.

      • Thomas wrote:

        And the “scienticians” are the people (they are legion and I know many of them personally) who vigilantly and militantly guard certain notions against testing by brutal empirical data. The “global warming” people, who now call themselves the “climate change” people, offer a stunning case in point.

        There is nothing wrong in principle with climate science. The main problem is the publicists and media flacks who make claims not yet firmly supported by empirical data. I and many other scientists (including people on the “inside” such as Richard Lindzen and Judith Curry) have been making this point for a long time.

        Anthropogenic CO2 almost certainly does warm the globe. How much? That is the difficult question, and only rigorous empirical testing can tell us if existing climate models are any good or not.

        Thomas also wrote:

        Despite a flavor of intemperate lese-majesté in his rhetoric, I suspect that “Physicist Dave” is not a “scientician,” but that he is deeply invested in a professional image of science and the scientist. He has let his emotions trick him into reading my modest essay as an attack on science, which it is far, far from being.

        Well, no. Yes, you and I agree that some prominent climate scientists should be more honest about the great uncertainties in their models.

        But my own views really are pretty much those that you summarize as “scientism”: viz –

        The essence of scientism – which, as the “-ism” in its name suggests, is an ideology – lies in a grand narrative. That narrative presents an account of how the present moment of modernity, defined in a certain prejudicial way, came to be. According to that narrative, a conflict has always existed between reason on the one hand and superstition on the other. Reason investigates nature methodically under the canons of logic and through the rigors of experimental procedure; reason subordinates itself to purely positive criteria and defines reality according to a naturalistic hypothesis (that is, there is nothing that is not nature). Superstition, according to the scientistic narrative, acts through fear (of natural phenomena, of the certainty of death) to preserve archaic (that is, pre-scientific) social arrangements and world-explanations. The scientistic narrative would assimilate religion and revelation, and even a highly developed theology, under the single term superstition.

        I do think there is an obvious and irreconcilable conflict between science and religion, as everyone is aware (the Six Days of Creation, the Virgin Birth, etc.), and that the Scientific Revolution was indeed a dramatic turning point in human history that spells the death knell for traditionalist ways of thinking, most especially religion.

        So, for better or for worse, I do seem to be, by your definition, a “scientician.”

        Dave

        P.S. Yes, of course, they should not have taken the book out of the library!

      • I do think there is an obvious and irreconcilable conflict between science and religion, as everyone is aware (the Six Days of Creation, the Virgin Birth, etc.),

        Only if one presupposes naturalism or materialism, which is not “science.”

      • pb wrote:

        Only if one presupposes naturalism or materialism, which is not “science.”

        Nope, not at all.

        *I* do not presuppose materialism or naturalism: indeed, I think materialism is probably false (see McGinn’s “The Mysterious Flame”), and, while I think naturalism in some form is probably true, I think that because of my study of religion and of science, not because I presupposed it.

        As a child, I thought supernaturalism was true, and only gradually realized it was not. No “presupposition” at all. Indeed, precisely the opposite – I started with a presupposition of supernaturalism which turned out to be unsupported by reality.

        No, just an honest attempt to look at the data, without “naturalist” presuppositions. For example, a Jewish girl gets pregnant out-of-wedlock but supposedly claims it is not what it seems to be: No, it is a virginal conception!

        You do not need “naturalist” presuppositions to conclude that the most likely explanation is simply that someone is not telling the truth. Indeed, that is what almost everyone would and does think in almost all situations like this, including almost all religious believers. It is only when specific religious commitments demand otherwise that some individuals manage to park their common sense at the door (note that even Paul of Tarsus made no reference to a virginal conception).

        The “presupposition of naturalism” ploy is just a red herring to hide the fact that, on the face of it, religion is not true.

        Dave

      • No, just an honest attempt to look at the data, without “naturalist” presuppositions. For example, a Jewish girl gets pregnant out-of-wedlock but supposedly claims it is not what it seems to be: No, it is a virginal conception!

        You do not need “naturalist” presuppositions to conclude that the most likely explanation is simply that someone is not telling the truth. Indeed, that is what almost everyone would and does think in almost all situations like this, including almost all religious believers. It is only when specific religious commitments demand otherwise that some individuals manage to park their common sense at the door (note that even Paul of Tarsus made no reference to a virginal conception).

        BS. “Most likely” counts for squat if you are unable to exclude the possibility of another explanation. To call this common sense is to overstate your position.

      • pb wrote to me:

        BS. “Most likely” counts for squat if you are unable to exclude the possibility of another explanation.

        Silly person (note: I am not so crude as to say “BS”):

        Of course, you can *never* completely “exclude the possibility of another explanation.”

        You are being disingenuous: you know as well as I that if the nice young girl who lives down the street made such a claim, you would not believe it. No sane person would.

        How would the Evangelists even have found out such a story? Would Mary have told them that she conceived the child out-of-wedlock but tried to palm off on them the bizarre Virgin Birth story? Do you know any woman foolish enough to sully her reputation with a stunt like that?

        Or would Jesus have tried to convince his working-class pals of such a story? Go into a working-class bar someday and try telling the guys that you were conceived out of wedlock but here’s the real scoop. See how they react!

        Of the twenty-seven books in the NT, only two present this tall tale, and their details differ wildly. It’s clear what happened: some Hellenizer took the “Son of God” honorific, applied it literally as in the Hellenistic pagan religions, and, through the twists and turns of history, it eventually became a required belief to prove your loyalty to the Church.

        I suppose it worked pretty well as a proof of loyalty too: why would any adult male assent to such a bizarrely outrageous story except to prove his loyalty?

        And, some of you here are still proving that you can pass that loyalty test, eh?

        Dave

  14. MNL wrote:

    Scientism (through its “sunday school course” on natural selection) indeed has a very air tight explanation of altruism and other moral emotions. Though note the reduction at work in scientism’s framing of “morality” as an “emotion,” a biochemically-driven reflex or instinct (where “instinct” invokes yet a further parallel with the animal kingdom in general).

    You do know you’re over-simplifying more than a little, don’t you?

    Yes, evolutionary psychology does shed some light on the development of morality. But, well over two centuries ago, Adam Smith wrote “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” in which he took a largely “naturalistic” approach to morality. Understand human psychology, human sociality, etc., and morality is hardly a deep mystery.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • Of course! Psychology. Sociology. Psssshhh! Easy peasy, child’s play stuff. Morality? Just the next tiny little baby step. Everybody knows this. Someone’s got it all wrapped up somewhere, I’m sure.

  15. Thomas wrote:

    All moral statements uttered by “scienticians” are based on “borrowed premises,” to borrow a premise from the scientician Ayn Rand. Scienticians “just know things.”

    Not at all. As a certified “scientician” (and a real physicist), I’m not borrowing a premise from you or Rand.

    I know perfectly good and well that moral judgments are based on certain presupposed goals and values – valuing rationality, human well-being, etc. No one *has* to value those things, and an unfortunate number of people actually do not.

    But, if you do hold those values, then morality is a good way of advancing those values.

    It’s like being a civil engineer: There is no logical requirement to build bridges that do not fall down. But, if you do have the goal of building a bridge that will stay standing, there are certain rules and maxims of civil engineering that will help you attain that goal.

    What do we do with people who happen not to share the goals that make up the foundations of morality? Be careful around them, be very careful.

    Just as you would be around bridges built by civil engineers who do not care if their bridges fall down!

    Dave

    • Dave, quit pretending. You are a scientist. I am the philosopher. You are my tool; you’re my assistant; you’re inferior. I created you, and your discipline, for my work and purposes. Stop pretending you are superior, or even equal to me. You’re not.

      • Good parody of the attitude that is indeed all too common among philosophers!

        Fortunately, some contemporary philosophers (I have in mind Colin McGinn, for example) are actually sensible enough to know that those ignorant of science are simply ignorant.

        Dave

      • We’re not ignorant of science. Instead, we understand its limits. We also understand that the belief (common among scientists) that science is the highest form of knowledge is mistaken.

      • Except, Alan, those “higher forms” of knowledge always turn out to simply be nonsense – the wine and the wafer “really” being blood and body or whatever.

        The surest sign is that the nonsense peddlers themselves can never agree on the nonsense: get ten theologians in a room and you’ll have eleven different theologies. Get ten philosophers in a room, and it’s even worse.

        “By their fruits shall ye know them.” Many millennia of delivering the “higher truths” and the theologians and philosophers still cannot even convince each other.

        Time to tell the truth: the emperor is naked.

        Dave

      • The “higher forms” I was referring to are mathematics, logic, basic metaphysical principles (e.g., cause and effect), and such. Science is dependent on the validity of these forms of knowledge, but they are not verified scientifically (or, if you like, empirically.) Science is not the highest form of knowledge.

      • Alan wrote to me:

        The “higher forms” I was referring to are mathematics, logic, basic metaphysical principles (e.g., cause and effect), and such.

        Well… if you actually knew anything about modern science, you would know that “cause and effect” are very much an *empirical* issue in modern quantum mechanics, my own area of expertise. And, of course, whether or not a mathematical model applies to nature has always been very much an empirical issue.

        As to logic, I assume you know that there is a long-standing debate as to whether logic is anything more than following through on the logical definitions of the logical connectives. (Personally, I lean a bit towards Quine’s view that logic is, in some sense, ultimately empirical.)

        You have nicely illustrated my point about philosophers and would-be philosophers pontificating about science without actually learning real science. No one fully conversant with modern science would dare have the certainty you seem to have about “basic metaphysical principles”!

        Dave

  16. Scientism is the belief that science is the most certain form of knowledge. In other words, scientism says that the so-called scientific method (really a group of related scientific methods) is the best method for attaining knowledge.

    But science is obviously dependent on forms of knowledge that are not verified scientifically. Scientific knowledge, for example, depends on mathematical knowledge, logical knowledge, moral knowledge (e.g, you should report your results honestly), knowledge of the validity of sense perception, philosophical knowledge (especially metaphysics and epistemology), and probably other forms of knowledge not listed above.

    Scientism thus makes the absurd claim that scientific knowledge is more certain than the forms of knowledge that support it.

    Furthermore, science cannot answer the most important human questions, such as questions about what one ought to do, or what the ultimate nature of reality is. Science, at best, can say what to do IF you want to achieve result X, but it cannot say whether or not you should want result X. But the question of whether result X is desirable is more important that the question of how to achieve it. Scientism therefore has no choice but to declare that there are no answers to the most important questions.

    • Yup. Science as a methodology works just fine. Science as an epistemology unto itself doesn’t; it’s self-refuting, and a thing that refutes itself cannot possibly be true.

      Ed Feser made a useful analogy on his blog. Metal detectors are good at detecting metal. It doesn’t follow that metal is all there is. Anyone making that claim might be given approximately eight seconds to say goodbye to his wife and kids before he gets carted off to the booby-hatch. Yet this is precisely the claim “scienticians” make: science is good at describing the natural world; therefore all knowledge is scientific (in the narrow naturalistic sense). Profoundly stupid stuff, and a perfect example of the abject nonsense intelligent people can talk themselves into believing.

    • To see this clearly, all that we need to do is recognize that the hypothesis, “empirical knowledge is the only sort of knowledge there is” cannot be verified empirically. To verify — or falsify — that hypothesis, we have no alternative but to resort to meta-empirical forms of discourse. Empiricism, then, is a non-empiricist doctrine.

      NB that this is not to say that no knowledge may be gained empirically.

      • kristor wrote:

        To see this clearly, all that we need to do is recognize that the hypothesis, “empirical knowledge is the only sort of knowledge there is” cannot be verified empirically.

        Indeed. But the claim “we have some specific knowledge of the external world that is non-empirical” can be tested empirically. And such claims pretty much always turn out to be con games at best.

        I don’t claim I can prove apodictically that there can never be non-empirical knowledge of the external world. I merely claim that, repeatedly, it has been found that claims of such non-empirical knowledge of the external world are hogwash.

        And everyone knows this. After all, everyone can see that all the religions except his own are nonsense. You just need to see your own religion from an external perspective and you can be free.

        Dave

      • …it has been found that claims of such non-empirical knowledge of the external world are hogwash.

        No, it has been assumed that the empirical is all there is, and then, based on this assumption, the non-empirical has been found to be nonsense by definition.

        This is not valid reasoning. You cannot assume your results ahead of time and expect to be respected.

      • Alan wrote to me:

        No, it has been assumed that the empirical is all there is, and then, based on this assumption, the non-empirical has been found to be nonsense by definition.

        Nope. Not at all. As I said, I myself initially leaned towards supernaturalism, not naturalism. And, I also leaned towards Platonism, not empiricism.

        Reality, alas, disagreed.

        Anyway, as fun as your and my dispute about the metaphysical status of mathematics and logic may be, we are rather off-topic, don’t you think? The real point of Thomas’s post and my disagreement with it is that he wants to deny the science vs. religion dichotomy, and I wish to affirm it. And, most of the claims of religion are not about logic or mathematics but about supposed facts about the real world. So, unless you think Fermat’s Last Theorem proves the Virgin Birth, I fear our larger metaphysical debate is moot.

        Dave

      • Dave, I’m not quite sure, but it seems to me that you have misread me here. I didn’t say, “we have some specific knowledge of the external world that is non-empirical.” That sentence seems to me to be contradictory on its face, for knowledge of the external world just is empirical knowledge, by definition. It is knowledge that arises from experience.

        But in order to make sense of experience one is first forced to presuppose the truth of a huge array of propositions that cannot, in principle, be tested empirically, precisely because the very procedure of empirical testing rests on those presuppositions. E.g., one cannot empirically verify that the form of a syllogism is valid; ergo, one cannot empirically verify that the truths of mathematics are in fact true, in the sense that they validly follow from one another. Likewise, it is not possible to design an experiment to verify the reliability of experimentation itself; this reliability is presupposed by the very process of experimentation. To treat experience as generally reliable is a huge philosophical leap — a leap we all feel quite comfortable taking, and which indeed we must take if we are to get along in the world, but a leap nonetheless.

        The whole edifice of science is founded upon numerous metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions, such as that there is an external world, that our senses give us reliable indications of its character, that the world is intelligible, that we are truly intelligent, and so forth. Eliminate any one of them, and the whole thing comes crashing down. In order to know anything about the external world, we must first know that there are such things as truths, that we can know them, and that we can reason our way reliably to that knowledge. Empirical knowledge, then, simply cannot be the only sort of knowledge one can have –- a moment’s reflection on the notion of mathematical knowledge should convince all but the most determined, hard-bitten materialist ideologue of this truth.

        Scientific verification cannot therefore be our sole criterion of knowledge, as scientism generally claims it is. So scientism is false. There is more to reality than it can comprehend. And this is all I intended to argue.

      • Kristor wrote to me:

        The whole edifice of science is founded upon numerous metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions, such as that there is an external world, that our senses give us reliable indications of its character, that the world is intelligible, that we are truly intelligent, and so forth.

        I disagree that those are presuppositions: I think they are empirical discoveries.

        If they were simply “presuppositions,” how could we have any reason for thinking they were true? Why not just arbitrarily make the opposite presuppositions?

        It is by their empirical, pragmatic confirmation that we conclude those principles have some validity.

        Empirical reality rules. As it should.

        And rightly so: as the man said,“By their fruits, shall ye know them.”

        Dave

      • Kristor wrote to me:

        a moment’s reflection on the notion of mathematical knowledge should convince all but the most determined, hard-bitten materialist ideologue of this truth.

        Oh, Great Gödel! You really think a “moment’s reflection” is enough to settle the status of mathematical statements?!

        Do you know *anything* about the technical work on the foundations of mathematics during the last century? Do you understand how the downward Löwhenheim-Skolem theorem shows that any theory that is countably describable must have a finite or countable elementarily equivalent submodel? (I hear that that really depressed poor Skolem precisely because it cast grave doubt on the traditional Platonic notion of mathematical truth.) Do you understand Gödel’s proof of the consistency of GCH (not just CH) with ZFC and Cohen’s subsequent proof that not-GCH is also consistent with ZFC?

        Do you understand why people who do understand those results have grave doubts about the concept of mathematical truth that you think is so obvious upon a “moment’s reflection”?

        I’m trying not to be “strident” here, but have you considered that just maybe you need to get out of the “Orthosphere” more often and learn some things about the real world, such as the huge discoveries and controversies on the foundations of mathematics that require far, far, far more than a mere “moment’s reflection”?

        Dave

      • Dave, I freely admit that I am not a mathematician, or a philosopher of math. I appear to have read even less in that area than you have in metaphysics! Nevertheless it takes even less than a moment of thought respecting the arguments you adduce for me to understand that they are precisely *not* empirical in nature. If they hold any water at all, then, scientism is false.

        It is easy also however to see that if the discoveries of math and logic are nothing more than tentative, as-yet-unfalsified asymptotic approaches to a notional but unreachable accurate model of the structure of reality as it is in itself – if, that is to say, they are false – then the Löwehenheim-Skolem theorem, being just such a discovery, is likewise false.

      • Kristor wrote to me:

        Nevertheless it takes even less than a moment of thought respecting the arguments you adduce for me to understand that they are precisely *not* empirical in nature.

        Well, I am afraid you don’t get it: it’s not my or your fault that you cannot grasp complicated issues in logic and math from my brief description in this thread. My point is to try to get you to understand that if you or anyone else here actually wants to have any credibility talking about the philosophical relevance of truth claims in math, you need to actually learn the known results in math and logic that have such relevance. I realize that is hard work (having done it myself), but if you do not want to bother to learn it, then you do not know it.

        Kristor also wrote:

        It is easy also however to see that if the discoveries of math and logic are nothing more than tentative, as-yet-unfalsified asymptotic approaches to a notional but unreachable accurate model of the structure of reality as it is in itself – if, that is to say, they are false – then the Löwehenheim-Skolem theorem, being just such a discovery, is likewise false.

        Again, you do not get it, and I think this point does connect with the larger issue of why philosophy per se is a fallacy. Your description of math and logic as “tentative, as-yet-unfalsified asymptotic approaches to a notional but unreachable accurate model of the structure of reality” is not too bad, not quite right but not too bad.

        But your rewording “that is to say, they are false” is the big problem. After all, the fact that the earth is round is also “tentative, as-yet-unfalsified asymptotic approaches to a notional but unreachable accurate model of the structure of reality.” But that does not mean it is false. It just means we do not know with absolutely one hundred percent certainty that it is true.

        And, that is, after all, true for *everything*. Even if one accepted the pre-twentieth-century view of mathematical proofs as providing absolute certainty, that, of course, assumes a *valid* proof. And, there is always a chance, however small, that we have erred, that what we think of as a valid proof is not.

        This is true of many of Euclid’s proofs, by the way. His conclusions are all correct (the old boy had, of course, great mathematical intuition), but his reasoning often requires repairing before it is truly logically valid.

        I think we are starting to get to your and most philosophers’ fundamental mistake – i.e., this confusion you have between “tentative” and “false.” *Everything* is tentative (vide Descartes’ demon, which no one has ever been able to definitively exorcise); it does not follow that everything is false.

        I find it especially ironic that religious true believers make this error: after all, given the lack of empirical support for religious truth claims and the obvious disagreements among different religions, if “tentative” means “false,” then all religions are trivially false.

        All religions are false of course, but surely it is not quite that easy to prove the point!

        Dave

  17. Kristor wrote to me:

    E.g., one cannot empirically verify that the form of a syllogism is valid; ergo, one cannot empirically verify that the truths of mathematics are in fact true, in the sense that they validly follow from one another.

    Well, as I am sure you know, the truth status of mathematical propositions is highly debatable, and has been for a long time. The view of scientists tends to be that checking that the mathematical propositions validly follow from each other is merely playing a sort of board game, like Candyland, and that those propositions only become relevant if and when they are empirically tested. I myself dissent a bit from that perspective: I incline more towards a Quinean view that math and logic are confirmed by their broad and many connections with empirical experience.

    In any case, assuming that math is true independent of empirical reality is very much begging the philosophical question.

    Kristor also said:

    Likewise, it is not possible to design an experiment to verify the reliability of experimentation itself; this reliability is presupposed by the very process of experimentation.

    On the contrary, the last five centuries of scientific endeavour constitute one huge experiment testing the validity of the scientific method. There are very, very few people who really find that experiment unconvincing.

    And it *was* an experiment – that is my primary point: On the face of it, the idea that carefully fitting the orbit of Mars (Brahe/Kepler), carefully measuring the motion of pendula (Galileo), carefully mapping out sedimentary strata across Europe, etc. would yield important knowledge about the real world seems on the face of it unpromising. Personally, I would have bet against it and would have supposed that the early scientists were just obsessive-compulsive weirdos who were looking at pointless details and ignoring the Big Picture.

    But, I would have been wrong.

    I know that this point is rarely made – philosophers would, understandably, rather continue their interminable hair-splitting than consider the breath-taking evidence from the last five centuries that shows that the method of philosophy is a failure.

    Incidentally, while this point is rarely made, it is not original with me. The best source I know for developing all this in detail is Ernest Gellner’s writings, especially his “The Legitimation of Belief.”

    I do think that it is this five-century long historical experiment with the scientific method that explains why not just scientists but also ordinary people across the world are abandoning philosophy and religion in droves in favor of science. For better or worse, the traditional culture you folks worship is dying.

    Personally, I think that is a good thing.

    Dave

    • @Dave

      I used to accept this ‘pragmatic’ argument – that ‘science’ (whatever it is) ‘obviously works’ – as evidenced by the history of the scientific part of the world of the past 300 (surely not 500?) years.

      But on that basis, science doesn’t work very well *now* (science has been declining for some decades despite doubling in size every 15 years – there are virtually no geniuses alive anymore);

      and what ‘obviously works’ nowadays is Islam – which has grown from 4 percent of the world’s population to about 20 percent in about the last 100 years with considerable further growth projected.

      http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1872/muslim-population-projections-worldwide-fast-growth

      So, if ‘success’ is the criterion – then maybe ‘science’ used to be valid, but isn’t any more.

      • Bruce wrote to me:

        But on that basis, science doesn’t work very well *now* (science has been declining for some decades despite doubling in size every 15 years…

        So… it’s declining but doubling in size every 15 years??

        Interesting use of the word “declining”!

        And, I agree with what seems to be your implication that Islam is superior to Christianity.

        Dave

    • The view of scientists tends to be that checking that the mathematical propositions validly follow from each other is merely playing a sort of board game, like Candyland

      So do they make up the rules of logic, the way that the rules of Candyland are made up? If they simply made up those rules, then why on earth should they waste their time checking to see if their reasoning is valid under those rules? I mean, if the rules are just *made up,* then science is just gussied up magical thinking: “eye of newt worked to cure cancer 3,000 times – or at least, that’s what I think happened – and here’s my totally fictitious reason for why that happened, which justifies my future use of eye of newt in cases of cancer.”

      I incline more towards a Quinean view that math and logic are confirmed by their broad and many connections with empirical experience.

      Did you arrive at that view via logical inference? If so, then in using logical inference you presupposed its a priori reliability to argue that it is reliable only a posteriori. So that can’t be how you did it. Perhaps, then, you arrived at that view via experience. But in that case, how could you tell when the connections existed in the first place? How could you tell when you had apprehended enough connections to suffice as confirmation?

      Kristor also said:

      Likewise, it is not possible to design an experiment to verify the reliability of experimentation itself; this reliability is presupposed by the very process of experimentation.

      On the contrary, the last five centuries of scientific endeavour constitute one huge experiment testing the validity of the scientific method. There are very, very few people who really find that experiment unconvincing.

      Dave, I find science very convincing. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether there is any other way than science to obtain knowledge. Now think about what you’ve written here. You’ve written that it is possible to perform an experiment that will verify experimentation. Do you really not see the circularity at work in this assertion?

      • Kristor wrote to me:

        Did you arrive at that view via logical inference?

        Ah, surely you know the answer, youngster!

        Empirically.

        You just don’t like the answer.

        Really: try reading Quine.

        Dave

      • Dave, I have to thank you, because I am indeed enjoying this.

        Let me ask you, not at all adversarially: given that by your own account the only thing you have to go on is a soup of random experiences, how do you get around Hume’s objections to reasoning from experience to general principles? Do you not find yourself stuck, as he was, with saying simply, “well, there is no way to justify an inference from one experience to another, on the basis of sheer experience and nothing else; but since it seems that I must make such inferences in order to get along in life, I shall have to act as if I could make them in the first place, and leave it at that. I shall have to pretend that I know something about the world, when I know that really I don’t.” How do you get around that, without any a priori principles?

        And, if you know that in reality you don’t know anything, how do you muster the confidence to argue to someone else that he errs in his beliefs? If your epistemology were correct, how could you possibly tell? If it’s all just one experience or another, what is your basis of judgement between experiences – a basis that is not itself nothing more than an experience, and therefore in no privileged position, vis-a-vis other experiences (i.e., not a principle at all)?

      • Kristor wrote to me:

        Let me ask you, not at all adversarially: given that by your own account the only thing you have to go on is a soup of random experiences, how do you get around Hume’s objections to reasoning from experience to general principles?

        Kristor, part of what I am trying to point out – which I think almost all normal human beings already know, except for those who have been infected with the virus of traditional philosophy – is that, as Hume showed, human thought does *not* start with trying to prove or justify our experience from some a priori first principles.

        And, I really doubt that anyone seriously thinks it does: does an infant carefully think, “How can I adequately justify the existence of the external world?” Seems rather implausible, eh?

        No: in fact an infant is confronted with that famous buzzing, whirling chaos of sensory input and has to deal with it, somehow. The brain, and even the sense organs, are of course pre-wired to organize the sensory input somewhat, but the various experiments in infant psychology shows that, by and large, the kid has to gradually work out how to make sense of the world for herself.

        She does the best she can, trial and error. Eventually, having expectations of object permanence prove to be useful (usually) even when the object disappears from view temporarily. Applying ideas of agency to objects around the kid proves useful, usually (though kids, and even adults, tend to grossly over-apply the concept of agency). And so on.

        I can’t very well write a textbook on infant psychology on this thread, but an enormous amount of work has been done on all this, and a great deal is understood.

        There is no point at which the child (i.e., any of us ourselves when we were kids) has to suddenly say, “Oh my golly! How do I justify what I am doing to Mr. Descartes, Plato, etc.?”

        The kid just does the best she can, tries lots of things that do not work out, and some things that do work out.

        Surely, everyone knows that this is what really happens!

        Indeed, this is mainly what adults, even scientists and mathematicians do: e.g., Frege’s logical system seemed self-evidently true… until Bertrand Russell pointed out a contradiction and then it was back to square one.

        The fly in the ointment comes when some, usually dishonest and manipulative, people start using language to spread ideas not based on empirical exploration – ideas usually involving philosophy, politics, and religion. At that point, many people, including, alas, many children are intimidated socially and emotionally and learn not to apply the usual exploratory process to such areas.

        A few people are not successfully or permanently intimidated, they start similarly probing the ideas in philosophy, religion, and politics, and they realize that the hypothesis that these are lies used to manipulate, deceive, and control other human beings fits the empirical facts like a glove.

        Again, it is easy enough for Americans to see this when they look at indoctrination into Islam or Communism or whatever, but most Americans have been trained to stay away from the idea that the same process of indoctrination explains Christianity, liberal democracy, etc.

        The whole Cartesian enterprise of modern philosophy rested on an illusion, that some of the ideas Descartes had imbibed as a child, about God, the soul, etc., could somehow be made certain. They cannot be made certain, simply because they are just lies used by con artists and crooks to deceive their fellow human beings.

        Hume put paid to the whole nonsensical effort, though philosophers manage to continue to rip off their fellow citizens, often the taxpaying public, to this day in pursuit of a fruitless and pointless exercise.

        Give up on intellectually saving religion, give up on finding a non-empirical basis for logic and mathematics, give up on some a priori justification for some system of morality separate from human goals and needs, and just accept the actual empirical world and live in it, and the questions you keep asking just fade away.

        Just as physicists stopped asking pointless questions about which state of motion was “really” at rest after Einstein developed relativity or people stopped asking what the weight of phlogiston was after the kinetic theory of heat was developed.

        I realize that it is hard, maybe effectively impossible, for you to do this because you are socially and emotionally invested in systems of thought that you know will simply fade away if you make the “Humean leap.”

        But try it on for size: you might find that the real world is enough.

        Dave

      • Kristor wrote to me:

        >So do they make up the rules of logic, the way that the rules of Candyland are made up? If they simply made up those rules, then why on earth should they waste their time checking to see if their reasoning is valid under those rules?

        Are you really, truly unaware that, yes indeed, mathematicians have simply made up alternative rules of logic and tried them out?

        Empirically, they have found out that most such rules lead to boring results: a logical system in which all propositions are true is not very entertaining.

        But, some alternative logics have produced very interesting results and have therefore absorbed a lot of effort from mathematicians.

        The most famous is so-called “intuitionistic logic” (probably better dubbed “constructivist logic”) which eschews the law of excluded middle. It turns out that most of the useful results of classical mathematics can indeed be reconstructed without the law of excluded middle.

        (In truth, constructivist logic is closer to that used by the mathematicians before David Hilbert than modern math is. When Hilbert employed the law of excluded middle in a fundamental way to prove the famous Basis Theorem, one of the leaders of the field, Gordan, exclaimed, “This is not mathematics; this is theology!” It was not intended as a compliment.)

        Even more radical are logics that reject the law of non-contradiction: to avoid every proposition being provably true and false, you also have to modify some other aspects of the logic: see, e.g., Mortensen’s book “Inconsistent Mathematics.”

        In truth, even the traditional foundations of modern mathematics rest very, very much on tentative, empiricist foundations – the axioms of Zermelo-Frankel set theory with the axiom of choice (always called “ZFC”).

        There is no proof that ZFC is consistent, and there never will be (as a result of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, any internal proof of ZFC’s consistency could be used to prove a contradiction) except via a higher-order system which itself cannot be proven consistent except by a higher-order system and so on to an infinite regress.

        ZFC is used as a reasonably solid basis for contemporary math for a simple, empirical reason: after a century or so of fooling around with ZFC, no one has yet managed to find a contradiction, so, empirically, mathematicians feel they are on fairly safe ground.

        Personally, I have a few doubts: the construction of the hierarchy of transfinite ordinals via the “replacement axiom,” which is at the heart of the system, seems to me very dicey.

        But who knows?

        You see why I urge all of you to get outside your little “Orthosphere” and explore what has actually been done in the foundations of logic and math during the last century? The logicist certainty you crave is dead; empiricism reigns.

        Your friendly neighborhood “scientician,”

        Dave

  18. In my first reply to Physicist Dave, I gave him a rhetorical opportunity to seek common ground by saying explicitly that I thought him not a “scientician.” He chose not to take that opportunity, but instead increased the stridency of his prose. Now PD proposes that it would be a good thing for Western Civilization (i.e., the Christian Civilization that produced science) to perish. So much for Enlightenment. Given all that, it strikes me that the debate (assuming that that is what it is – and maybe not) between Physicist Dave and the Traditionalists has exhausted its usefulness. I propose that we close this thread.

    • It’s not just that Dave wants the West – Christianity, Enlightenment, Science, the whole shooting match – to die. He is not willing to admit that 2 + 2 = 4 is true, or that modus ponens is valid. I therefore don’t see how any argument whatsoever can reach him – or, for that matter, how he can hold to these views *and* think he actually knows anything at all.

      Dave, do you agree with the principle of non-contradiction?

      • Kristor wrote:

        Dave, do you agree with the principle of non-contradiction?

        Well, if someone asserts both A and not-A, it is indeed a bit difficult to understand exactly what he is saying! So, I would say that acceptance of non-contradiction as a pragmatic rule of speech does tend to be helpful. (Of course, that is what the word actually means etymologically: “contradict” is literally to “speak against.”)

        As to any higher meaning than a simple convenience of speech pragmatics, I think that requires studying carefully how we, empirically, come to the conclusion that there is an external world. At a very early age, we seem to empirically discover an external world describable in terms of entities to which properties can be ascribed in a non-contradictory way. So, perhaps in that sense, non-contradiction is an empirical discovery made by young children.

        Modern physics does, empirically, cast some doubt on that entities-properties ontology: in relativity, for example, an event ontology seems, empirically, to work better.

        And, in quantum theory…. well, in quantum theory it does seem as if the law of the excluded middle slithers away. We physicists are still debating this, and, personally, I am somewhat resistant to “quantum logic,” but, in the end, it does seem as if it is an empirical issue.

        I take it you have not studied Quine’s “From a Logical Point of View”? Ah, you young folks, no respect for the classics!

        The metaphysical debate has been a bit wider than you Orthospherists seem to realize. You all seem shocked, truly shocked, that I espouse a mildly Quinean perspective.

        Dave

        P.S. You lied, obviously and blatantly so, when you said of me, “It’s not just that Dave wants the West – Christianity, Enlightenment, Science, the whole shooting match – to die.” My previous posts made abundantly clear that I wish to see Christianity die but that I am a fervent advocate for science and the Enlightenment. A blatant and very, very unethical lie on your part.

      • I apologize for offending you by saying that you wanted the West to die. That was inept. Not a lie, at all, I assure you; just an unjustified leap, based on an inference.

        The inference in question: I cannot but think that the scientistic eradication of meta-empirical forms of knowledge would if successful over the long run have the ultimate effect of eliminating the West, including all the products of the Enlightenment.

      • Kristor wrote to me:

        I cannot but think that the scientistic eradication of meta-empirical forms of knowledge would if successful over the long run have the ultimate effect of eliminating the West, including all the products of the Enlightenment.

        But it was surely obvious from my posts that *I* did not think that! It’s dishonest to attribute your views to someone else who has explicitly rejected those views.

      • No, not dishonest; rather, an honest mistake. I do apologize for erring – for sloppiness. But not for dishonesty or lying.

    • Thomas wrote of me:

      In my first reply to Physicist Dave, I gave him a rhetorical opportunity to seek common ground by saying explicitly that I thought him not a “scientician.” He chose not to take that opportunity, but instead increased the stridency of his prose. Now PD proposes that it would be a good thing for Western Civilization (i.e., the Christian Civilization that produced science) to perish.

      Ah, Thomas! It is not polite to falsely put words in people’s mouths! That is not what I said.

      *You* may think that “Western civilization” and “Christian Civilization” are the same thing, but that is your opinion and *I* said nothing of the sort. Not polite at all to ascribe your views to someone else.

      In fact, prior to the Enlightenment, certainly prior to 1500, your “Christian Civilization” was a pretty nauseating story, wasn’t it? Was there any other civilization on earth as willing to burn people at the stake for merely holding the wrong opinion as your “Christian Civilization”? (Yeah,. the Aztecs were pretty nauseating, too, but they murdered for rather different, if equally bizarre, reasons!)

      The Albigensian Crusade, the Inquisition, the witch trials, on and on and on. I realize that the total numbers were not as big as the modern mass murders carried out by European countries, but the total numbers were really not the point of it all: the point was to so intimidate the populace as to annihilate free speech and free thought. A thousand years of tyranny due to Christianity!

      And, it only ended when that crotchety, stubborn German monk broke the unity of Western Christendom and free thinkers were able to emerge through the cracks.

      The apocryphal story goes that when asked his opinion about Western Civilization, Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” An awfully good case can be made that there was no real civilization in the West until the Enlightenment.

      As to the obvious death of Christianity leading to the death of Western civilization, the true civilizational achievements of the West – science, technology, classical music, industrialism, etc. – these are obviously being eagerly adopted by Asians, regardless of what happens to Europe and the USA. The greatest achievements of Western civilization will live on, maybe just not in the West.

      And as to the increased “stridency of [my] prose,” all I have done, as anyone can see, is to honestly and forthrightly present a different view from your own and my reasons for holding that view. You call that “stridency”: I would think that “honesty” would be a better term. I would also think you would welcome the confirmation that there are indeed people willing to confidently defend the views that you find anathema.

      Dave

  19. Hello all. Physicistdave has been banished on my own initiative. There’s lots of little reasons for this unilateral decision. In ascending order of importance:

    1. Personal animus. I don’t like atheists and I don’t want them commenting on my blog. (Technically Svein’s blog, but I feel empowered to call it “mine” on the grounds that I’m a co-editor.) Plus his constant credentials-dropping was getting on my nerves. We get it, dude, you’re a physicist from Stanford.

    2. For the good of his own soul. Of course he’ll continue to blaspheme Christ, the Blessed Virgin, et al., elsewhere, but he can damn well do it on someone else’s domain. Addendum: I don’t like or believe in free speech and occasionally feel a thrill of delight denying someone else the delusion of it.

    3. Mainly because these discussions are fruitless and we all know it. No sense wasting time and bruising egos in a massive race to nowhere. The values disconnect alone is substantive (e.g., Dave at one point trumpeted the Enlightenment as good because it resulted in the end of executions of blasphemers. I’m fairly sure most of us don’t think that was a good development, so this winds up, for us, at least, a massive exercise in circular reasoning).

    But there’s something else that makes these discussions pointless which I can’t quite put a finger on. A different kind of disconnect. Trying to apprehend what the hell Dave actually thinks or why was like trying to scoop up mercury with your bare hands. Reminds me of a spat I had at C:TB with some other atheist who’s name I can’t now remember. Lots of words with no apparent connection to the point he seemed to think he was making, but it never seemed to occur to him that there was no connection (and as a result, the point he seemed to think he was making was unclear). Same thing here; bizarre stuff, but I suppose this is what happens you subscribe to an obviously bogus and radically amputated view of knowledge. For instance, Dave says at one point that he began with supernaturalist presuppositions but then abandoned them on the grounds that they were not ratified by his experience of the natural world. Presumably he said this to demonstrate his impartial bona fides, but clearly it demonstrates he was never a “supernaturalist” at all, and any idiot should be able to realize this with, like, three minutes’ reflection. It doesn’t make sense. It *obviously* doesn’t make sense. There is no point wasting time dialoguing with someone who is not even trying to make sense.

    So, down the rathole he goes. Perhaps presumptuous of me to make this decision for other bloggers, and if folks want to raise a big stink about it, it’s easily reversed. But I suspect that won’t happen.

    • I’ll back you up on this one, Proph. Physicist Dave didn’t contribute anything except to demonstrate the foolishness and bad manners of some atheists.

    • You guys have mishandled this one. Here is a tip: people like this are good at bitching about your beliefs, but awful at sharing their own. In the future, stop debating, and start asking single questions that cut immediately to the presuppositions he holds. Remember? We discussed this. Socratic dialogue.

      I noticed Dave had the least to say when I undermined his views of morality. He is perhaps a nihilist. This would have been a great way to cut through his endless whining and get to common ground.

      I thought Dave’s analogy of child like ignorance and foolish pride being the way adults empirically gather information about the world was another good route to cut thru the BS. Is that really how he sees himself?! Lol.

      • Possibly that would’ve been a “great way to … get to common ground.” In fact, I’m almost certain it would have been. But the Orthosphere doesn’t exist to establish common ground with atheists.

        I thought Dave’s analogy of child like ignorance and foolish pride being the way adults empirically gather information about the world was another good route to cut thru th BS. Is that really how he sees himself?! Lol.

        It’s the kind of hubris every atheist and his mother exhibits, another reason why fruitful dialogue is impossible with these types. We have something like 5-10 Ph.D or Ph.D-equivalent holders either posting or regularly commenting here, and that’s just the ones I know of. (This includes an astrophysicist!) We’re not idiots, we didn’t inherit our beliefs from our parents unexamined (another favorite trope of theirs). We’re nerds who sit around thinking about these things all day. So coming in here and saying things like “*Obviously* the Virgin Birth is impossible — it never happens in nature!” is pointless. Well, no shit it’s impossible by nature, Holmes; got any other timeless insights to share? That’s why everyone for ever has regarded such as a “miracle.” When you have always been disposed in such a way as to reject miracles out of hand, you don’t get to say this (somehow) proves you were a supernaturalist. That’s literally the opposite of supernaturalism. Again, any idiot can see this. You don’t get anywhere dialoguing with such people. You just make them mad, and get yourself mad.

        I know all this because I used to be someone just like physicistdave. Very, very much like him. It wasn’t talking to anyone that changed my mind. It wasn’t even reading a book. Humility started the process, and that was a gift from outside myself.

      • I used to be like physicistdave, too. In fact, I was a fairly sophisticated (if I do say so myself) advocate of Pragmatism’s doctrine of truth, as he seems to be. My faith in empiricism was punctured by … experience. Sort of a Gödelian comeuppance, as it were: the formal system of which the world is an expression expressed some truths to me, in that portion of the world I call “my life,” that it was not itself capable of demonstrating. It comprehended them not.

        While I respect Dave, and indeed enjoyed my bouts with him, I don’t think he could ever have brought himself to say, “touché.” Why do I say this? Because when I asked him whether he believed in the principle of non-contradiction, he said:

        Well, if someone asserts both A and not-A, it is indeed a bit difficult to understand exactly what he is saying! So, I would say that acceptance of non-contradiction as a pragmatic rule of speech does tend to be helpful. (Of course, that is what the word actually means etymologically: “contradict” is literally to “speak against.”)

        As to any higher meaning than a simple convenience of speech pragmatics, I think that requires studying carefully how we, empirically, come to the conclusion that there is an external world.

        So far as I can tell, this is a roundabout way of saying, “No, I don’t believe in the principle of non-contradiction, except as a form of courtesy in speech.” Well, how can you reason with someone who thinks contradiction is within the pale? Indeed, how can such a man reason with himself? Dave as much as insists that he knows – knows for certain – that he cannot in principle know anything for certain.

        We can pray for Dave – that he will be provided with a Gödelian comeuppance of his own, that is not tragic in nature – but I don’t think we can provide it to him through discourse. With his rejection of logic, he has prevented the entry of any light from that quarter.

        I think Earl is right that we mishandled him. I sure did. Far better to have employed the Socratic method that I myself have advocated. Closest I got to that was in my question about the principle of non-contradiction.

  20. The “exchange” began when PD responded to the “Scientism” essay by claiming that no such thing as scientism existed. I replied with an instance: Forest’s visit to SUNY Oswego, after which PD spent thousands of words changing the subject. It’s dishonest. Good riddance to him.

  21. My name is Joshua Scott Hotchkin and I maintain a blog about Scientism.

    http://scientismcentral.com/

    I have linked to your website because you have been a resource for articles pertaining directly or peripherally to the problem of scientism. If for any reason you would like to be removed from my link listing please reply to me at this email and I will do so immediately. Thank you for your contributions through wonderful links and/or original content. If you wish to add us in your own links I would appreciate it greatly. Or if you ever wish to suggest an article or submit original work, we would love to hear from you. Stay strange!

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