Blackford on scientism: what questions defeat science?

November 9, 2010 • 8:46 pm

Over at Metamagician, Brother Blackford discusses the diverse meanings of that term so readily and perjoratively applied to the Gnu Atheists: scientism.

The idea that science (defined narrowly in contradistinction to humanistic forms of inquiry) could answer every question would, in my view at least, be untenable. I don’t see how science, narrowly defined, can tell you how sympathetic you should be to Macbeth when he learns of his wife’s death and replies, “She should have died hereafter.” The distinctive techniques of narrowly-defined science are not going to tell a literary scholar, an actor, or a director how that line should be spoken.

. . . The thing is, if you’re going to denounce someone for “scientism” or complain that her ideas lead to “scientism”, or are somehow reliant on “scientism” – and if this is meant to be a serious criticism – you must be using the word “scientism” in a sense that denotes something horrible or foolish or otherwise worthy of denunciation. It’s no use denouncing someone for “scientism” and then, when called on it, explain that you were using the word in some other, more technical, non-pejorative sense (perhaps that the person takes a logical empiricist approach to philosophy). That’s equivocation. It’s cheating to apply the word in some non-pejorative sense that you secretly have in mind while at the very same time trying to get the pejorative connotations of other senses of the word.

A word like “scientism” lends itself too readily to this kind of argumentative cheating. So much so that I think that intellectually honest people should stop using the word; and, frankly, when I see people using it in current debates I am automatically suspicious of their intellectual honesty. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

I’m not sure whether I agree with Russell that there are disciplines outside of science (and I use the term “science” broadly here as “rational and empirical investigation”) that can answer meaningful questions.  He uses the example of “how sympathetic one should be to Macbeth?”, but can literature really answer that question for us? Or is it an empirical question based on psychology and sociology, sussing out what effects one’s actions have on others?  Even deciding how a line should be spoken presupposes knowledge about how an audience might psychologically react to a line of dialogue. But of course Russell adds that his brand of science is “narrowly defined.”

It’s late and I’m full of churrasco, so I want to just raise the issue of a serious lacuna in all of our discussions of scientism.  Where, exactly, is a list of questions that can be answered by methods not falling under my broad definition of science?  I’m not resistant to the idea, though I still maintain that every question about how things really are in the universe is a question that demands a science-based answer.

This is the place where readers should weigh in with the questions that science can’t answer, but other disciplines, or ways of thought, can.

112 thoughts on “Blackford on scientism: what questions defeat science?

  1. I’m not sure whether I agree with Russell that there are disciplines outside of science (and I use the term “science” broadly here as “rational and empirical investigation”) that can answer meaningful questions. He uses the example of “how sympathetic one should be to Macbeth?”, but can literature really answer that question for us? Or is it an empirical question based on psychology and sociology, sussing out what effects one’s actions have on others? Even deciding how a line should be spoken presupposes knowledge about how an audience might psychologically react to a line of dialogue.

    I dunno about you, but if I were trying to make a theater production that people would want to see, I would take one decent actor over the entire scientific analysis that all of the world’s psychologists and sociologists and any other related sciences could produce on questions such as this.

    In other words, art isn’t a science.

    1. In other words, art isn’t a science.

      Every time someone criticizes scientism, they give poor examples, such as the one you gave. Whether someone is a good actor or not lends itself to scientific evaluation, as soon as you define “good”. I think the same thing could be trivially shown to be true about every form of art.

      I agree with Jerry’s inclination that it isn’t meaningful to call something “true” that isn’t subject to empirical verification.

      1. And obviously, whether or not Macbeth is a good play is open to rational evaluation, empirical study and so on.

        But opinions can still differ; and rational claims can be put on both sides. (If you don’t like Macbeth as an example, try, say, Avatar). What purpose would it serve to claim there was an ultimate empirical answer to this question?

        1. “What purpose would it serve to claim there was an ultimate empirical answer to this question?”

          That particular question isn’t important, but its use in attempting to pop the science balloon is annoying and just plain wrong.

      2. Whether someone is a good actor or not lends itself to scientific evaluation, as soon as you define “good”.

        Could you be more specific about what you mean by scientific evaluation in this example. I agree, that there are things that can be “measured”, but once you have two excellent actors playing the same part, and one person says “I prefer A’s interpretation, he made a greater emotional impact on me, and I felt more enthralled by his performance”. The other person prefers B’s performance for other reasons. How are you scientifically going to find out if one is better than the other? And is it relevant at all? (I don’t think it’s relevant to bring science into a discussion about artistic performance)

        1. We are talking about preferences here. Preference of actor A over B is the value judgement. Similar to preference of colors. If in the future we collect sufficient empirical evidence about certain individual preferences we might discover certain associations or patterns in them and then use them to determine what will be the preference for previously unknown information.
          Similar approach is currently in use by Netflix and their suggestion system. They collect your preferences and then according to certain predictions from bulk population data they may predict what movie will be interesting for you. This existing example of using science to predict preferences invalidates baseless claim that science cannot say or improve anything in area of preferences, values or ‘art’.

          Besides ‘art’ is product of our brains and it would not exist without them. assuming we may one day have perfect tools to peek inside our brains we may start to understand how ‘art’ is working and what kind of perception every individual brain may perceive as most stimulating (or ‘art’).

        2. Note that in your example, the non-scientists can’t decide which actor is better either. That’s an important point. The claim is not that science can answer every question, just those with answers.

          1. My point, but said much more precisely 😉
            I think one aspect is that I kind of like these situations where there is no possible “answer”, where you just have to take a deep breath and stay in that grey, twilight-zone of no specific answers.

        3. “The other person prefers B’s performance for other reasons. How are you scientifically going to find out if one is better than the other?”

          The problem with “better” is that it’s a vague term, so from the very beginning, it’s a poor question.

          If we were to define “better” as being able to connect emotionally with the audience, the question is answerable on a statistical basis. A simply voting would show which actor was better. Or, even better, connect each person up to an MRI and watch their brain activity while watching the acting performances.

          In the end, every criticism I’ve seen of scientism has thrown out a challenge based on a fuzzy word, such as love, beauty, honor, etc. When the challenge is rephrased in more precise terms, it turns out that science as some way of addressing the issue, at least in principle.

    2. A experienced professional actor gets that way by experimentation with what works and what doesn’t work in engaging the audience.
      Basically he is a scientist in a loose sense.

      1. Excellent focus on experimentation, which is a part of the scientific method.

        Science harnesses its method tightly while art has it snug reins on subjective elements over the method, though the method underlies the spontaneous interactivity of art which often bypasses an analytical focus.

        Recurring, iconic themes in art are repackaged endlessly but are anchored through our evolutionary development. Science and art overlap, while religion and science never do.

        1. Just throwing some connections out here, have not really thought it through. Does religion and art overlap? I think so.

          Modern science does not overlap with religion though, even if religion started out as a means to answer questions and solve problems.

            1. Actually, I think religion did start as a way to answer questions (unless some anthropologist can show me another cause). Why is the sky blue? God like blue. Oh, what else does God like? He likes circumcision.
              Viola, religion.

    3. How do beginning artists develop their own style and become great artists?

      Experimentation. And I’m not being flip. An artist has to develop a good taste for her medium, which is a process of exposing oneself to quality examples of the medium and thinking (and talking to other artists) about why they work as well as they do.

      And then when the artist has a sense of taste (an implicit hypothesis about what constitutes good art) she develops a personal style by working in her medium using her sense of taste to determines what works and doesn’t.

      What makes it non-scientific is only that senses of taste can diverge — they’ll vary according to the intended audience and a lot of other loose variables. But when that happens, it usually happens in clumps and you get a whole school of new artists working in a similar style. Compare to the idea of Kuhnian paradigms.

      And science can study aesthetics — there’s already lots of research being done on the neurology of music and other fine arts. I saw some paper in which some mathematicians demonstrated that Pollock’s paintings are statistical fractals (not all drip paintings are) and that the dimension of the paintings increased gradually over his career. I would certainly consider that science telling us something about quality in art.

    4. I and a number of my actor colleagues, friends, and acquaintances suggest that you stick to opining on subjects you know about, Nick.

    5. if I were trying to make a theater production that people would want to see, I would take one decent actor over the entire scientific analysis that all of the world’s psychologists and sociologists and any other related sciences could produce on questions such as this.

      Of course you would. Knowing how actors do what they do doesn’t mean that I can do what they do. If you want to be moved, you need someone who can move you. If you want to know how it was accomplished, you need science. Your conclusion should be, “performance isn’t science,” which is completely obvious. But art is science, in the sense that all of it can be explained.

      1. So art is a science, and performance isn’t a science, and I guess that means performance isn’t art, now? What?

        Anyway, I’m pretty sure if it had been me instead of you who said “performance isn’t a science”, a coupla dozen commentators would have given a shot at various strained rationalizations to argue that it is… 😉

    1. …showing that a REALLY good actor is one who can play a role while wearing a powder-blue body suit, without cracking up…or play a role with an actor wearing a…

  2. Brave challenge there, Prof Coyne!

    Of course, discovering why and how art affects people would be a fascinating application of science. And I can’t imagine another way of working that out other than through scientific techniques.

    That said, at an individual level for the average person, the answer to that question might neither be important nor interesting. And so they might find their own internal way to explain it all to themselves. They might just ‘be content’ with the affect. In that they will have their answer, and this is perhaps why the scientific explanation is not always the one enjoyed by people.

    Still, that doesn’t change the fact that there is something to be learnt for human kind through deploying science at the human-arts interface. A percieved lack of “charisma” in a scientific explanation does not make it any less important or beautiful.

    I agree with the above comment though, I’d hire a good actor not a scientist to do a play! But that’s just the application, not the science behind it – which makes acting a little more like engineering in a quirky way!!

      1. What if the interpretation is a logically coherent explanation of the artwork that fits a larger narrative of the artist’s and the genre’s past themes?

        When does this become a “scientific explanation”?

        INLAND EMPIRE is a good candidate for questions like these because many critics and many people, including me, say that the film doesn’t make sense. Lynch responded that INLAND EMPIRE “makes perfect sense”, and I believe that there is a sensical explanation. How do we decide what this is? Certainly some subjective opinions are more equal than others.

    1. I basically agree with you, but the “only” before opinions does irritate my slightly. Opinions about art/music/performance/architecture can be very well informed. With years of experience as a music journalist, studies in musicology and heaps and hours of interviews with artists, musicians and composers I have a lot of “opinions” about contemporary classical music. But you are right – most of them are “only” opinions, not scientific proofs or answers.

    2. The neuroscience and mathematics of opinions are, no doubt, fascinating. Apparently stochastic, but can certain outcomes be maximized?

    3. I think you have nailed it. Some opinions are more well-founded than others but never attain the status of objective truth, which requires the use of science.

    4. Of course there are questions “rational and empirical investigation” can’t answer.

      There are events in the past that have left no trace in the present. Science cannot answer questions about them.

      There are events in the future whose outcome is genuinely indeterministic. We are limited to guessing what will occur.

      There are quite potentially things so small as to be inaccessible to us and our tools. Atoms are made of nucleons; nucleons of quarks; quarks perhaps of Xs; Xs perhaps of Ys, etc. At a certain point, we’re too big to answer certain questions.

      There are empirically equivalent theories that aren’t distinguishable in terms of other theoretical virtues (like simplicity or coherence). I’m thinking of the different interpretations of quantum mechanics– Bohmian, Everettian, GRW, many minds, etc. “Which one is true?” is then a question that is unanswerable.

      This is the same point as the one about deism. Science and reason can’t show that a deistic god doesn’t exist. That doesn’t mean there’s no fact of the matter.

      There are provably unprovable mathematical statements, like the continuum hypothesis and Goldbach’s conjecture.

      I can provide more examples, if anyone cares, but this should be obvious. Unless you’re a pragmatist about truth (truth = what is verified by a complete inquiry), then you recognize that there can be true things that aren’t verified by a complete inquiry. That’s like 4th grade philosophy.

      1. Before you make the “4th grade philosophy” quips, why not re-read what Jerry is asking. It’s not for a list of questions science can’t answer, but for “a list of questions that can be answered by methods not falling under my broad definition of science?”

        Yes there are questions science can’t answer but can anything else? Nothing you’ve shown seems to be tractable by any other system.

      2. “Unless you’re a pragmatist about truth…”

        What is the word for someone who isn’t a pragmatist about truth?

        And if it’s something like “nonpragmatist,” would you define that, please?

  3. Science can’t answer subjective questions. That’s the extent of its limitations. But subjective feelings are just opinions and not “truths” anyway. So science can’t tell you how to feel about something because there is no single correct answer. It should be noted, however, there there is no other epistemology which can do this either.

    What science can do is answer questions about objective reality (which includes such things as whether or not gods exist in reality), and it can inform subjective opinions. It should also be noted that no other epistemology has been found which can do this much.

    So science is the only game in town. It’s the only method of truth-finding we have that works. It doesn’t work in the realm of the subjective because there are no truths, only opinions.

    1. Science can not answer these or it does not currently answer them?

      Since our minds are products of our brains, there may a time when we are capable of analysing brains well enough to provide answers to these questions. It’s not definitely impossible, it may even happen within a couple generations. When these answers are given, wouldn’t they be scientific ones?

      It’s like Sam Harris’s example – the number of birds flying right now has an answer and it would certainly be a scientific one, but we lack any means of getting the answer. Are these subjective answers like this?

  4. “every question about how things really are in the universe is a question that demands a science-based answer”. Clearly how things are demands observations and experimentation as well as thought, which is the process of science. One cannot find out how things are by mere imagination, without reference to reality.

  5. I don’t see how science, narrowly defined, can tell you how sympathetic you should be to Macbeth when he learns of his wife’s death and replies, “She should have died hereafter.” The distinctive techniques of narrowly-defined science are not going to tell a literary scholar, an actor, or a director how that line should be spoken.

    Then what, pray tell, does inform those people how that line should be spoken?

    If there is some quantitative measurement (or heck, even a consistent qualitative measurement) we can do science to it. No buts – if it can be measured, it can be scienced.

    Or do you think that acting instructors are just making shit up as they go along? They know what consistently works to move audiences, so they teach people how to do that. It is a science, even if you can’t take a pair of calipers to it.

    1. Maybe, but with the arts there is no right or wrong answer – you can perform Macbeth in any number of ways – it is not quantifiable. It might move you & leave me cold. Art relies on emotions, which certainly are biological phenomena, but yes the are totally subjective. Art is an emergent property of biological beings, so you can explore its origins & its process with science but the product – the art itself…?

      1. Art, emotions, values – yes they are subjective – that means they are product of the (biological) subject in response to certain external stimulation (usually). Ultimately they are product of our brains. If we sufficiently understand our brains – we may ultimately understand how our emotional and value judgement systems work on the level of each individual. Using that knowledge we will be able to predict what will please or distaste or even maybe create simulation in the computer to generate artificial ‘art’ as if it was produced by the individual etc. I do no see why science would have limits here. The only basis to claim that science cannot say much about emotions or art is lack of our knowledge about brain and better tools to acquire such knowledge. But it does not mean that we have nothing to say about how brain works. It is similarly baseless as when the popular past claims that people will never fly because we did not have yet theoretical knowledge and production means etc. I do not see fundamental barrier to apply science to emotions, art and values. If we want to probe subjective opinions we should study subject’s brain better. Then we will be able to answer questions of what is right or wrong (assuming we define by these vague terms in given context).

    2. This is the kind of equivocation that causes confusion. If I say that science, narrowly defined, can’t do X it’s no good replying that I’m wrong because science, broadly defined, may be able to do X at some future date. The latter may or may not be true but it’s pretty illogical to claim that it’s inconsistent with the former. Sheesh!

  6. Heh. John touches on a good point.

    Just because we can give an answer doesn’t mean that the answer is neccesarily any good, or even coherent.

    We could answer any question with the phrase: “Mexican food!”

    How should we feel about Hamlet in MacBeth? Easy: Mexican food!

    It doesn’t make any sense – but it’s an answer.

    That’s a trivial example, but there’s a point to be made.

    Before we can provide a list of questions that can be answered by something beyond science, we have to already have some kind of idea about what kind of answers make sense and qualify as good answers.

    In other words – we need to have some rational and empirical approach at the start in order to answer Jerry’s question in the first place.

    Blegh. I hope that made sense. I think my brain just snapped.

    1. OH F YEAH! I find myself expressing the same point whenever someone says “religion provides an answer to big/why/deep questions.” Yeah, but so what? Like you said, it’s not impressive to provide an answer to a question. It really is more important to provide correct answers, and even more important to use a reliable framework so your answers can be VERIFIED.

      Lauding someone or something for being able to provide an answer is sort of like giving every participant in a marathon a trophy because they took the time to lace up their shoes.

    2. Yup.

      I say that religion don’t have answers, it has responses. And scientists (“science”) can give the same answers if they were freed from any interest in intellectual honesty and clarity of communication.

      I don’t see much virtue in giving answers to questions when you’re just making it up.

  7. Every high0level language is, in principle, reducible to a low-level language. That doesn’t mean we want to reduce them all, or need to, or have the man-hours to spare. The belief that we want to, or need to, or can, is scientism, and it’s a belief that nobody really holds.

    The belief we actually hold is that certain popular scripts in the high-level languages are, in light of some sound guidelines from the low-level languages, stupid.

  8. Thanks for taking on the unenviable task of arguing that only the scientific enterprise can establish anything that can meaningfully be called truth. Even Dawkins shies away from that.

    (I don’t mean people in white coats, of course, but the empiricism that all of us engage in from the moment of birth.)

  9. Maybe the domain of sports provides a window into a class of events that science can’t answer. For instance, let’s say a baseball batter has swung and missed the ball three times. Question: is the batter out? Answer: yes, the batter is out. But the question and answer only make sense within the arbitrary framework of the rules of baseball.

    Is it an objective fact that the guy is out? I would argue that it is: that fact has predictable further effects on the world (the batter goes back to the bench and the next batter comes up). Someone who knows that fact has predictive power over what will happen next.

    It seems to me that questions about whether the bat hit the ball or not, etc., are of course scientific questions, but no scientists who knew all the facts about what happened would know whether the guy was out or not unless they knew the arbitrary rules of baseball.

    (Now replace sports with morals and you have my take on Sam Harris’s ideas on morality.)

    1. The rules of the game are indeed arbitrary human customs subject to change. They are pre-agreed-upon opinions. Incidentally, you could make that argument about a lot of things (e.g., is it an “objective” fact that witchcraft is illegal?) Yes, in Nigeria for instance. Basically, I think you’re using the word “objective” in two different ways depending upon context.

  10. Some questions will have no answer other than “I don’t know”. Other questions can be answered by mere observation: what’s the weather like outside? Some questions have no (true) answers because they are nonsensical: why did god create the aquatic animals on the fifth day rather than the sixth?

  11. I adhere to the (apparently) quaint notion that science has no answers to any questions, only provisional conclusions based on evidence garnered through experiment and (repeated) observations. From that perspective, it seems reasonable to me that a scientific way of knowing (i.e., evidence- and experience-based) could propose an answer to the question of Hamlet’s emotional reaction. Debate could ensue regarding the adequacy of evidences proffered in support of that answer, but isn’t that how Science works?

  12. Everything people typically place out of the reach of science is something going on in human brains, and human brains are physical objects that can be subject to scientific investigation.

    In other words, nothing is outside the purview of science, in principle. Practicality is another matter. Can we model the relevant aspects of the brain to improve art, or will we perpetually hit a wall when attempting to removed levels of reduction? Clearly, very much in art already uses scientific methods to winnow out what works from what doesn’t, even though few would recognize that fact.

      1. Taste is a response of the process in your brain. Why is that outside the realm of science?

        Outside the current ability? Yes, at least partially (maybe not possible on individuals, but it is on populations. How do you think modern popular music is made?)

        1. Yes, but when we talk about quantifying art appreciation, we are generally talking about some sort of majority agreement…

          I can easily see that an individual’s ultimate opinion–his/her “taste”–could be predicted scientifically with enough knowledge of that individual–but an answer that varies by individual is not particularly meaningful…

          In answer to your last question–like sausage?

  13. Using logic to undermine the functionality of logic is a pretty weak argument.

    Scientism is a type of branding placed undeservedly on science — because it suggests that the overall methodology is both inflexible and absolute.

    Yet science remains open to change in light of new evidence: a self-correcting mechanism that trumps many unjustified philosophies and irrational, too-often dogmatic belief systems.

    It’s a false equivalency and a profoundly pathetic attempt to undermine the greatest tool to emerge from humanity.

    Asking even a single question without presupposing an answer is science. And I can’t imagine a better way when it comes to seeking truth, no matter the problem or present mystery.

  14. I, for one, am all for seizing the word “scientism” and using it in such a way as to make its connotations wholly positive, for many of the reasons already posted here. Not all ‘isms are negative, after all…feminism, environmentalism, atheism…

    And if that doesn’t work, let’s come up with, oh, “philosophism,” say, and use it just as pejoratively.

  15. ”How sympathetic one should be to Macbeth?”

    On a scale of 1-10,1 lowest, 10 highest, you should be sympathetic to a scale of 7.6

    This is the answer that literary scholars have come up with.

    Some people might say there is no answer to the question ‘how sympathetic one should be to Macbeth?

    This shows just how poor science is as a way of finding out truth.

    It cannot answer questions for which there are no answers.

    For that you need a priest, who will happily tell you the answers to questions which do not have an answer.

    That is why priests should be revered as a source of knowledge.

    1. You’re right. The question “how sympathetic should you be” is ill-posed because there is no objective standard of should-ness.

      For the question to make sense, you need to reference “how should?” to some aim or purpose. And much moral philosophy goes wrong through not understanding that basic point.

  16. How sympathetic should we be with Macbeth based on that line? Just check the Cliff Notes and it looks pretty straight-forward to me. 🙂

    Out of the possible set of questions (which is infinite in size?), there are an infinite number of questions that science cannot answer, but I suspect that they are mostly nonsense questions (Eg: how many pages of WEIT can a typical crocoduck read in a day?) or subjective one-off instances. (Eg: How am I feeling right now?)

    Dr Coyne asked what questions science cannot answer, but another form of thinking, approach or reasoning could. I can’t think of one, as I have difficulty in thinking in a way that relies on revelation. It seems that typical answers to this that have been given are ones that are to do with art (or Art?) appreciation, subjective opinions and other personal value-judgements. These questions become, as others have pointed out, just opinions. They are aesthetic preferences, and tied to emotional responses. Not coincidentally, religions firmly press the buttons in the aesthetic and emotional places of our minds, and it is in these places that they have the most power.

    For unanswerable questions, I have to guess that Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem plays a big part in the set of questions that are not nonsense, and not subjective, and science cannot answer. However I lack the mental/mathematical training to be able to examine the problem in that way. Having said that, I don’t think other ways of finding answers such as divine revelation or guessing would have more success.

  17. All the world’s a laboratory.
    And all the men and women merely fruiting bodies;
    They have their genetic output and their genetic inheritance;

    1. Very good.

      How many scientists does it take to change a lightbulb? 6 – one to change the bulb & 5 to produce a valid theory for the behavioural rectification of interrupted illumination.

  18. ‘ “how sympathetic one should be to Macbeth?”, but can literature really answer that question for us?’

    The difference between a thought & thinking – thinking is something science can approach, the thought itself is nothing more than chemistry & electrical activity in the brain, but we give it meaning because we think it. I know, that is not a very satifactory way of putting it. The question reminds me of the old joke –
    Q: What is the difference between a duck?
    A: One of its legs is both the same.

    Nothing has any inherent meaning other than that which we give to it.

  19. The problem with the word “scientism” is that people tend to fail to define what science is.

    Surely one can use standard behavioral science methods to gauge the impact of a certain McBeth performance and even try to find a local maximum with respect to emotional impact on the audience (or discover that no such maximum exists).

    Popper would not have consider this science because behavioral science methods, even though clearly structurally “science” often tend to fail or have a hard time formulating a falsification test. And hence for him there was “scientism” at play in such a case.

    But no theological apologist I know uses Popper’s definition because it implies a bad position for theism as well.

    I think Russell is right on the point that scientism tends to be misused. It’s more a dismissal than an argument against science in some areas of experience.

    But I’d agree with Jerry that scientific methods in principle can be applied to all areas of experience, even subjective ones and that one shouldn’t be too hasty to concede that nothing scientific can be done about the emotional impact of McBeth.

  20. Jerry said:
    “I’m not sure whether I agree with Russell that there are disciplines outside of science … that can answer meaningful questions.”
    I think this statement is much less clear and more open to accusations of vulcanism than some of the subsequent answers in this thread. As others have mentioned there are many questions that produce subjective answers. Questions of the sort that Jerry has been asking over the last week (best ending in literature, best rock song (Layla? really?) etc are not answerable by science (or at least are not answerable in a definitive manner) and yet they are clearly “meaningful” to both Jerry and many of those who contributed to those threads.
    That said I have never heard scientism used in a discussion as anything other than a dismissive insult.

  21. Jerry: “Where, exactly, is a list of questions that *can* be answered by methods not falling under my broad definition of science? I’m not resistant to the idea, though I still maintain that every question about how things *really are* in the universe is a question that demands a science-based answer.”

    Agreed that science rules when it comes to factual questions. But there are domains of human knowledge and know-how – ethical, aesthetic and political, among others – that are obviously not science-based. Such domains aren’t primarily in the business of explaining or describing, science’s specialty, but rather doing, deciding and enjoying. This is not to say science can’t describe (or attempt to describe) regularities of human behavior in these domains, or that it can’t help settle empirical questions raised within them; it can, at least to some extent, if it suits our purposes. But deciding questions about ethical and aesthetic principles, and deciding between competing political agendas, are not empirical projects since they essentially involve normative considerations about values, not matters of fact.

    Science can help to tell us how things work or might turn out, e.g., what the economic ramifications are of adopting a flat tax, but it can’t tell us what’s fundamentally right, good or desirable, e.g., whether a flat tax is fair. And indeed, science and scientists generally have no such ambitions, although E.O. Wilson sometimes seem to verge on scientism in his claims about the scope of science, as does Sam Harris in trying to appropriate ethics as a branch of empirical inquiry.

    Of course just because science can’t decide basic questions about values doesn’t mean that faith is better qualified to do so.

  22. ‘How sympathetic should one be to Macbeth?’ is a very stupid question that has no intelligent answer. What one can say, is that what makes Macbeth so painful a play is watching someone, who might in other circumstances have turned out well, describing, with terrifying acuity, what has happened and is happening to him and his world as a result of his original ill deed. Shakespeare’s greatness lies in his creating a man who becomes a monster and yet whose feelings we can enter into and even share. As for speaking the line ‘She should have died hereafter’, there is obviously no ‘method’ that if followed will infallibly result in anyone being able to speak that line in a supposedly ‘correct’ way. To begin with, in order to speak that line well, you need to be able to speak all of Macbeth’s lines well, and in order to speak those lines well you need to have understood and interpreted them all, and to have established a sense, for yourself, of who Macbeth is. And to do this, you will need to have been through some rigorous training and to have refined your imaginative ability to enter into a character’s life and to create him or her on stage. You need a bit more than a reliance on Cliff’s Notes, as some, I suspect, rather philistine commentator has suggested above. Science presses always, and rightly, towards publicly testable truths; the art of acting presses towards a performance, in public, that possesses a conviction that is in the end personal: different actors give us different insights (and this has nothing whatsoever to do with a callow desire to be ‘new’ at any cost). And this conviction has nothing to do with the sort of manipulative approach suggested by another commentator who, despite, I suspect, never having undergone any acting training himself,informs us that acting teachers know what consistently moves audiences and teach would-be actors to do that. Would it were that easy! (Actually, I’m damned glad it is not that easy.) Any good work of art – Joyce’s The Dead, for example, since that was much talked about in an earlier post – works not by simple manipulation or pushing emotional buttons,as yet another commentator has it (Hitler was bloody good at pushing emotional buttons in his speeches: it seems to me to be an odd and insensitiveb person who cannot distinguish between demagoguery and works of art), but by allowing the reader (if it is a novel), the viewer (if it is a painting), the listener (if it is a piece of music), or the audience in the case of a good play or film (I say ‘good’ because most Hollywood films are grossly manipulative – their makers have been to the sort of school of which at least one commentator seems to approve), to enter into and share an imaginative experience, and perhaps to grow as a result of it. No, no ‘truths’ in the scientific sense result from this. But why should they? Most sensible scientists don’t go through life applying the scientific method to their personal lives and trying to live their lives accordingly (‘Now, how can I find a way of testing whether I’m really in love with Mary?’). And so what if opinions about works of art are ‘opinions’ and not ‘truths’? And so what if art, since it does not deal in scientific truth, deals in ‘opinion’? Does that make ‘King Lear’ a lesser play? Does that make Shakespeare’s or Tolstoy’s or Checkhov’s insights any less acute?

    Of course, science can help us to understand why human beings like art (people like Ellen Disayanake are already working on it), but it is not going to provide a method that will allow any Tom, Dick or Harry to compose a great piece of music, to write a great novel, play or poem, to paint a great paining, or to speak Macbeth’s lines well.

    1. We’re talking here not about methods to produce great art, but about answering questions. Certainly taste is such a subjective and scientifically enigmatic topic (at this time, at least) that the answer to a question like, “Is Faulkner a better writer than Joyce?” is one that science can’t answer. But it doesn’t HAVE a correct answer. Neither does “how should I live my life,” though science can certainly inform you about the likely consequences of living your life in different ways. But if there is a RIGHT answer, science can, in principle, find it. And religion can’t.

      1. a question like, “Is Faulkner a better writer than Joyce?” is one that science can’t answer.

        I’d like to disagree. As soon as you define what you mean by “better,” it becomes possible to answer the question. Are you asking if Faulkner’s writing stimulates Tim Martin’s mind more than Joyce’s? There’s an answer to that. Or are you asking if Joyce’s sentences have a rhythm that English speakers tend to find more pleasing than the rhythm of Faulkner’s? There’s an answer to that.

        The traditional inability to objectively answer questions about “which is better” comes from nothing other than the nebulousness of the question. Once you tell me what you mean by “better,” the question becomes answerable.

        1. But, put in those terms, the question satisfies Jerry’s broad conception of what is scientific. In a sense, this is what literary criticism is all about. There may be a lot of play in interpretations, but it is not the case that anything at all could be considered to be an answer to the question about style, nuance, emotional depth, etc. All of these things, in terms that most people who talk about literature with some sensitivity would acknowledge, admit at least a range of reasonable answers. Some things would simply be off the charts.

          Take the idea of the best endings ever, whether that happens to be Gatsby or The Dead. One has to be able to give reasons for preferring one to another, or at least for thinking that one or the other or both rank somewhere at the top of the pops. It’s one thing to simply put the text out there, and say: “See! Told you so!” It’s quite another to say: “Here’s why it’s so great.”

          As to religion. Of course, religion can’t find the answer, if the answer has to do with either supernatural entities, or subjective experiences. But if, for instance, the answer to religious questions had to do with human flourishing, say, to use Sam Harris’s key word, then there might be an answer. Then, in Tillich’s terms, you might ask whether living within broken myth A or broken myth B contributed more to human flourishing that living without myth at all. And that might, in empirical terms, have an answer.

          (This, by the way, is a trial balloon, not a belief. However, since we are speaking about literature and experience…..)

          1. Yes, if we are taking science as a synonym for rational enquiry, and not in the narrow sense proposed by Blackford, then of course good literary critics (as opposed to those infected by Lacan), as well as actors and directors, are as much involved in rational enquiry as scientists and are not just plucking insights out of the air or out of some mystical realm; it is just that there are often, as Jerry Coyne says, no single correct answers. Sill, although Faulkner versus Joyce may be left to the fans of each writer to battle out, it is surely true, for a number of good and non-nebulous reasons, and not merely a matter of opinion, to assert that Shakespeare is a greater writer than, say, Thomas Campion, a minor figure whom I hugely admire because of his acute sensitivity to the qualities of vowels and consonants. Incidentally, there’s an excellent book by the literary scholar and cognitive scientist Mark Turner called ‘The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language’ that addresses a great many issues that come up on this blog.

            1. it is just that there are often, as Jerry Coyne says, no single correct answers.

              What I’m saying is that there are. How could a well-formed question not have a correct answer? The problem is that the questions are often ill-formed. If you ask me which piece of art is better, without telling me what criteria one is to judge based on, then of course I either cannot answer or I have to supply criteria of my own. But as soon as you specify exactly what it is you’re asking, I can answer the question, as least in theory (I would have to understand all of the science involved to answer correctly).

  23. Well, you’re making things pretty easy on yourself with this stipulation: “I use the term “science” broadly here as “rational and empirical investigation”.

    This makes it tautologous that there is no rational way to investigate that isn’t science (as you define it). But this really doesn’t tell us much, does it?

    On your criterion, a rationally pursued literary study is science. Mast philosophy (and all good philosophy) is science. Perhaps even a fair bit of theology is “science.”

    It seems to me that a much more relevant question is whether there are questions that can be rationally answered without significant appeal to experiment or observation. Here it seems that we often do get positive answers from the humanities, from mathematics, and elsewhere.

    1. Mathematics may be the only exception. For example, C. S. Peirce points out that even metaphysics (in the properly philosophical sense) makes use of observation, just of an extremely general kind and not necessarily on it own.

  24. I think the problem lies in not fully understanding what a ‘question’ really is.

    If you can ask a question about something, then doesn’t it automatically mean that the thing is open to rational disputation? If the question has meaning, then there must be an answer – or at least a ‘best-supported guess so far’.

    To claim that some things don’t have answers is tantamount to claiming that you can’t ask any questions about it. Likewise, if you ask vague, unfocused questions, then the answers can be correspondingly vague and unfocused.

  25. To me, all these proposed questions (I admit to not reading every post on this discussion) all come down to aesthetic judgments. This presents a dilemma:

    1. You must define your aesthetic terms (e.g. good for what, or good in a defined scale of existing works, or some such.) The instant you do that, science becomes applicable and can give interesting and useful data (I don’t think anyone, including the artists themselves (Hank forbid!) claims that any final and complete judgment is possible except in trivial cases of comparisons between works/instances).

    2. You refuse to define the aesthetic terms. In which case, “good” (choose your term) means whatever any individual likes it to mean. In that case, then the terms literally become meaningless because one cannot communicate such undefined values between indivudals. You are left with no meaning or a meaning that is, by definition, of the least possible interest to people. And nothing can be learned: It’s useless.

    Which comes around to Sam Harris’s point that a question that is useful and/or intersting is one that science can add useful indformation to.

    IMO. Not being a ‘phisticated philosopher and all.

    1. Not to answer for Dr. Coyne, but I do think mathematics easily qualifies as “rational and empirical investigation.” The “empirical” part might not seem quite right, but the fact that there is no greatest prime is true for reasons having nothing to do with taste or preference. In a weird way, the proof is very, very convincing empirical evidence that there is no greatest prime.

      One of the best definitions for mathematics I’ve ever seen is “the science of patterns” (actually, it was “the study of patterns,” c/o Rudy Rucker IIRC).

        1. Idle speculation. Hygiene rituals. Observing etiquette. Eating (usually). Driving a car (usually). Operating machinery (assuming you already know how).

          Obviously a very incomplete list.

        2. My point is that the only notion doing any work here is the notion of what is “rational.”

          If one believes that there are good reasons to think that some number of angels could share a single location (say one from each species of angel), then one should say that the question can be answered “scientifically” if we use Coyne’s criterion.

          Likewise, we can only rule out faith and tradition as “scientific” sources of knowledge after we conclude that there’s no rational reason to accept them.

          Coyne is taking an extremely broad notion of science (so broad that it merely amounts to being rational). Blackford, however, is discussing science “defined narrowly in contradistinction to humanistic forms of inquiry.”

          1. I think I agree with you that “empirical” isn’t doing any work, but that’s partially because I don’t really think “a priori” is a valid concept. I find it difficult to conceive of any rational form of inquiry that isn’t in some sense empirical.

            But “investigation” is doing some work. For example, see the discussion above regarding performance not being a science. Performance can be rational, but since it’s not investigation, it’s not science even under the broad definition.

            1. Dan:
              Mathematics is certainly rational, but I don’t see how it is empirical.

              Which aspects of mathematics apply to the universe we live in is absolutely empirical, but mathematics itself….
              Maybe you’re just cleverer than me though.

              Essentially I’m trying to get at whether “rational and empirical” would include purely rational pursuits like math. “Rational and empirical” as opposed to “rational and/or empirical”.

  26. Science attempts to explain the way the world *IS*, not how it *ought* to be, or how something *should* behave or what is or is not appropriate. Thus, science can’t give an objective answer to the question of how one should react to some situation. But OTOH, it is the best method for accounting for why a particular person reacted the way they did.

    But, that does not mean that science cannot inform the discussion. When we ask the question “how should one behave” in a particular situation, the implication is that we are seeking an answer that is most consonant with human social nature, and science as a method of discovery is the best at describing what that nature is. Given that the answer would be heavily influenced by the environmental and cultural context of the situation, certainly a set of guidelines written long ago for a different culture would be deficient.

    1. Science attempts to explain the way the world *IS*, not how it *ought* to be, or how something *should* behave or what is or is not appropriate.

      Yes, but what is the field that provides a systematic way for determining the ‘ought’ then? Religion declares oughts by fiat, which is hardly systematic. Ethics is systematic, but how does it make the leap from ‘is’ to ‘ought’?

  27. There is a complex debate going on among the naturalistic philosophers, between the scientistic/scientific (* naturalists and the nonscientistic/liberal naturalists.
    (* “Scientistic naturalism” is more adequate than “scientific naturalism”, because “anti-/nonscientistic” is not synonymous with “antiscientific”. The liberal naturalists certainly aren’t enemies of science.)


    * De Caro, Mario, and David Macarthur, eds. /Naturalism in Question/. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    * De Caro, Mario, and David Macarthur, eds. /Naturalism and Normativity/. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    “1. The ONTOLOGICAL SCIENTIFIC NATURALIST holds that the entities posited by acceptable scientific explanations are the only genuine entities that there are. A weaker version holds that scientific posits are the only unproblematic (or nonqueer) entities that there are.

    2. The METHODOLOGICAL (OR EPISTEMOLOGICAL) SCIENTIFIC NATURALIST holds that it is only by following the methods of the natural sciences—or, at a minimum, the empirical methods of a posteriori inquiry—that one arrives at genuine knowledge. A weaker version holds that the methods of the natural sciences are the only unproblematic methods of inquiry. On this view scientific knowledge is the only unproblematic (or unmysterious) kind of knowledge that there is, thus provisionally allowing for nonscientific knowledge in some loose or practical sense.

    3. The SEMANTIC SCIENTIFIC NATURALIST holds that the concepts employed by the natural sciences are the only genuine concepts we have and that other concepts can only be retained if we can find an interpretation of them in terms of scientifically acceptable concepts. A weaker version holds that such concepts are the only unproblematic concepts we have. (Note that this kind of naturalism might be defended on a priori conceptual grounds, although it will be under considerable internal pressure to abandon such methodology.)”

    (De Caro, Mario, and David Macarthur. “The Nature of Naturalism.” In /Naturalism in Question/, edited by Mario de Caro and David Macarthur, 1-17. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. p. 7)

  28. “In one sense [naturalism] is simply a euphemism for scientism, the idea being that science—and natural science above all—has all the answers, so that if there is going to be any answer to a question about reality, it will be forthcoming from science. The stance of this mode of naturalism is effectively that of a science-geared reductionism that sees the key to understanding reality as being provided by the instrumentalities that account for the fundamental processes of observable phenomena.”

    (Rescher, Nicholas. “The Future of Naturalism: Nature and Culture in Perspectival Duality.” In /The Future of Naturalism/, edited by John R. Shook and Paul Kurtz, 15-23. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books/Prometheus, 2009. p. 15)

    Rescher is right, many naturalists read “naturalism” as “natural-science-ism”, following the reductionist tradition of scientific empiricism and logical positivism: what cannot be tackled by means of systematically controlled observation or experimentation is not part of reality.

  29. As with unicorns, I refuse to believe in the existence of questions that can’t be answered rationally until someone shows me one.

    Assuming that there are such questions is rather a bold and unsupported assumption to use as a foundation for the question we’re asking here: what is the nature of such questions?

  30. I would like to rephrase Professor Coyne’s closing comment “the questions that science can’t answer, but other disciplines, or ways of thought, can” to “are there facts, truths and realities that lie outside of science?” which if found to be true, would imply that yes there are questions that science cannot answer but do have answers. Let’s look at Coyne’s October 30 statement that Layla is the greatest rock song of all time. It is indeed a fact that he believes that, his statement is presumably true, and it is reality. Although this is subjective and opinion, it is fact, truth and reality. As we read, there are lots of folks who agree and many more who do not agree with his claim, but this does not invalidate his claim. I beleive that there are many good objective reasons to “falsify” his opinion, but again that would not change anything. The main point is that science is a communal enterprise in which we can all come to the same common conclusions regarding specific questions, whereas there are many important questions that are only answered at the level of the individual. And they are also true, factual and reality

    Now the question of what rocker song is the greatest is probably not a particularly important question, so let’s just expand it to “what brings you joy?” My guess is that cowboy boots, fine cuisine and churrasco are among the things that bring joy to Dr. Coyne. It surely is an important question, and the answers are not generally science-based. I suspect that many of us indeed find joy in what science tells us about the universe, but we also find unexplained joy in things like campfires, four-part harmony, basketball, ad infinitum.

  31. My question to challenge the scope of science: “What is the pitch of a tubular bell“? Humans answer this question with consistent agreement by using their hearing (ironically though, hearing is called “subjective”). No rational inquiry is required, you simply hear it, and what you hear is real knowledge. (Italics in this post highlight perception.)

    Galileo established a relationship between pitch and the speed of a coin rotating with a nail held to the serrated edge of the coin. And Fourier gave us harmonic analysis, so we can see a periodic waveform as a harmonic series. But musical instruments that are struck (like bells, and piano strings) typically involve inharmonicity, even when we perceive the instrument having pitch. Tubular bells are the most blatant example I know in Western music, where the frequencies on the bell don’t line up with the harmonics of a pitch pipe you might use to check the pitch.

    Examples like bells and pianos remind us why the Acoustical Society of America’s Standards on Acoustics maintain a clear distinction between definitions of pitch (a human perception) versus fundamental frequency (a thing you can measure or quantify). So a pitch detection algorithm” is a misnomer (or a category error), because an algorithm processing acoustical data is not detecting your perception. I’m not advocating mysticism, or revelation as a method — I’m adhering to American National Standard Acoustical Terminology [ANSI S1.1-1994 (R2004)].

    Someone might differ, and say psychology and brain science will model and understand our hearing better to the point we eventually “understand everything”. That would be fine with me, I just want to keep this organized: 1) You know pitch without rational inquiry on your part, 2) Those sciences are rational inquiries about how you know pitch without rational inquiry on your part.

    tl;dr: By definition (and by ANSI standard!) the “way of knowing” pitch is your perception, not rational inquiry (about your perception).

  32. That’s a splendid and illuminating example, if anyone reads it – I have the sense that people quite quickly give up reading older posts on Why Evolution is True, which is a pity, so that I wish you could find a way of jiggling it in as a perhaps off-topic comment to a newer posting.

Leave a Reply