Uncle Eric on scientism and ways of knowing

September 11, 2012 • 5:36 am

UPDATE:  Eric has begun to respond to my comments in a preliminary post at Choice in Dying, and promises to provide a more thorough analysis later. He also called me “nephew”! I’m honored. But the example he uses is not a “fact” (the notion that WWII would have ended by Christmas of 1944 had Montgomery been allowed to be Supreme Commander in Europe rather than Eisenhower).  I’m not sure what this has to do with knowing anything true about the world, since it’s just a speculative scenario about what might have happened had things been different. There’s no way of knowing for sure.

____________

I have officially withdrawn the affectionate sobriquet of “Uncle” from Karl Giberson, since he’s been acting too religious lately, and bestowed it for the nonce on Eric MacDonald, who is also avuncular but never turns weird.

Eric has just finished a three-part series on “other ways of knowing,” taking issue with the assertion that science (which I construe broadly as “using a combination of empiricism, reason, replication, and doubt to find truths about the universe”) is the only way of apprehending truth. This is one of the few issues on which Eric and I part company, since he sees my scientism as badly misguided.

You can find the first two parts here and here, but I want to briefly take up the third, “Evidence, interpretation, and scientism,” posted at his site Choice in Dying three days ago.  Here’s his claim:

What I have been trying to claim is that there is another dimension of human knowledge, and that knowledge itself cannot be wholly accounted for by referring to empirical evidence and the natural sciences.

While I agree that the natural sciences aren’t our sole source of knowledge (how could they be, given archaeology, historical studies, and the like?), I don’t agree that we can get knowledge without referring to empirical evidence. What would knowledge mean if there’s no referent to reality, unless you could count revelation and intuition as knowledge? Knowledge must be verified, and that means by another observer and that means science.

Eric sees the scientific method itself as something developed without empirical foundation: that is, there is a philosophical context in which science is done, and that means that philosophy must be taken into account when determining whether something counts as knowledge:

In the first place, as I have already pointed out, science itself is, to a larger degree than most people, even scientists, seem to recognise, a theory-laden activity. In other words, in order to derive scientific knowledge from the evidence, there must be a context in terms of which the evidence can be held to be evidence. When Hawking and Mlodinow proclaim the death of philosophy, and then go on to do philosophy a few pages later, it is as though the interpretive model in terms of which they understand evidence is purely transparent to the evidence, so that they do not need at any point to slow down and consider whether, in fact, model-dependent realism either makes sense of the evidence, or is philosophically robust enough to provide the evidence with a theoretical foundation. That they may have already done so unconsciously, or because it is included within the scientific consensus within which they work, means that the interpretive framework has simply gone unacknowledged. So, even at the level of science, there is an interpretive process at work without which science itself would be largely helpless.

Well, not all science has much to do with theory at all. If you’re simply enumerating the species present in a given area, trying to see which is common and which rare, there’s no theory involved in that.  Some theory does come into play if you want to see how to save the rare species, but I would claim that much of that doesn’t have anything to do with philosophy, at least philosophy as most people conceive it.  Suppose you decide to save the rare species by conserving its habitat. That, of course, involves the supposition that decreased habitat means fewer individuals for a species, but is that really philosophy?

I really don’t see—and maybe I’m just naive here—how making a model is necessarily a form of philosophy.  When Darwin put his observations of biogeography together to posit that endemic species on islands were those that got there by rare dispersal events, and subsequently evolved into new species, is that philosophy? In what sense?  And when he tested that theory by putting plant seeds in salt water to see if they could survive a long sea voyage, in what sense is that driven by philosophy?  To construe “philosophy” in this way seems to me to make it meaningless, just one part of the way we find out stuff.

Now I’ll grant that we have to make an a priori assumption that the scientific method tells us truths about the world, and perhaps that’s philosophy.  But of course even that assumption is justified empirically: using it allows us to make interventions and predictions that work. The assumption is justified by its results.

The problem with Eric’s three pieces, I think, is that they suffer from two problems:

  • The absence obvious questions that, according to Eric, can’t be answered by science but only by other “ways of knowing.”  This is a flaw of many similar accusations of scientism.  They make nebulous accusations and never get specific.
  • Eric’s failure to not only provide questions, but to give examples of the kind of “non-scientistic” answers he envisions.

In part 3 of his series, he gives three examples of work that he says provides answers but not through science.  The first involves Biblical scholarship:

Take, for example, the whole business of biblical and textual studies. One of the most fascinating aspects of critical historical biblical studies is that it is indeed critical, but that it grew, in origin, out of a context of religious believing. One would expect, as a result, that some of its practitioners, if it were a truly critical discipline, would eventually abandon the beliefs which prompted the study in the first place, or at least that they would hold those beliefs in a highly qualified way. And this is precisely what we do find. Julius Wellhausen, David Strauss, Jack Spong, Don Cupitt, Graham Shaw, Gerd Lüdemann, Bart Ehrman, and many others have been forced to this conclusion by the interpretive results of their study of Christian and other scriptures. But simply forcing biblical criticism into the scientific paradigm is unhelpful in providing some understanding of what such critical historical scholarship consists in. These are studies carried out within the humanities, and the point that philosophers like Philip Kitcher are trying to make is that they are as worthy to be recognised as ways to the achievement of knowledge as are the natural sciences, even though, given their subject matter, the kinds of certainties achieved in the humanities are not as reliable or as stable as scientific knowledge achieved at the core of those scientific disciplines that are favoured when scientists speak in terms of how we know what is really true.

My response here is short: real Biblical scholarship, the kind that actually works out the sources of the Bible, when they were written, and so on, is similar to all good studies of history, in that it uses empirical methods, testability, hypotheses, and so on to understand where scripture came from.  This is science broadly conceived, and is hardly “another way of knowing”. The reason certainty is harder to achieve is because this (like evolution) is a form of inquiry resting on historical reconstruction, which is more difficult than, say, science based on lab experiments.  But it’s still science as I conceive of it broadly, and it is certainly, contra Eric, based on “empirical evidence.”

His second example is morality:

Morality, as I suggested before, is such a discipline, and there is interpretive truth to be achieved in morality (and ethics more generally), just as there is observational truth to be attained by science. . . (I will return to morality on another day). .

I look forward to that day and to Eric’s presentation of what he considers to be the “interpretive truths” to be found in morality.

Eric’s third example involves a book he just read, John Gray’s Black Mass: How Religion Led the world into Crisis. Eric describes Gray’s thesis in great detail, which is that modern revolutionary movements have taken over the features and strategies of older religious millenarian movements. Gray sees this as a bad development because he doesn’t see that political action can actually change the human condition.

Eric disagrees with Gray on points of fact, for example, on whether the features of millenarian movements really are shared by modern revolutionary movements.  And this is something susceptible to empirical study.  But that of course doesn’t answer the question of to what extent millenarianism influences modern ideology. That seems to be a matter for subjective interpretation that may not be settled, just as we can’t settle to what extent, exactly, impressionists were influenced by Turner. But Eric sees this as a question that does have an answer, and one not approachable by science:

The question as to the accuracy of Gray’s diagnosis and prognosis will be left aside for the moment. What I want the reader to see is that what Gray is saying here is not something that can be settled by the methods of science. What is at issue is the interpretation of historical movements and their culmination. The evidence, such as it is, is interpretive.

. . . Scientific studies of politics, society and economics are obviously essential if our understanding is to be well grounded, but what Gray’s work demonstrates is the importance of interpretive evidence in historical understanding, just as it is in our understanding of morality as well as in other aspects of the humanities. Trying to reduce our ability to know to the propositions and techniques of science — a growing tendency which Pigliucci and Kitcher deprecate as scientism — is to leave out too much knowledge that is of great importance to us. If the new atheism is going to have anything of enduring value to contribute to the ongoing project of improving the quality of human life by insisting upon the need for us rationally to understand ourselves and the world, room must be made for the humanities, like history, and the interpretive techniques that lie at the heart of their practice.

I am not sure what Eric means by “interpretive evidence”.  There is either evidence or no evidence, for all scientific evidence involves interpretation to some extent. Can we have “interpretive evidence” that it is wrong to torture someone? Is there “interpretive evidence” that most modern revolutionary ideology comes from millenarianism? To the extent that these questions can be settled at all, they must be settled by appeal to facts, and facts that scholars agree on. If there is no agreement, then there is no answer, just as if most scientists don’t agree that water has two hydrogen and one oxygen atom, that is not a scientific fact either.

I am not sure what kind of “interpretive evidence” Eric sees that doesn’t involve what he considers an important aspect of the scientific approach, “referring to empirical evidence.”

So I pose these two questions to Uncle Eric (I’ll email him about this post):

1.  What questions do you think can be answered pretty definitively, or what facts and truths can be established, without referring to empirical evidence?

2.  What are the answers to those questions that have been derived from “other ways of knowing”?

170 thoughts on “Uncle Eric on scientism and ways of knowing

  1. You’re right Jerry, it’s empirical evidence all the way down. Yes, science does use a philosophical framework, but that framework is verified empirically by the fact that science works, it is not untestable assumptions.

    1. But anyone who is objecting to scientism can say that you can’t prove it’s true, just that it works.

      See for example, the empirically determined “Everything has a cause” that was later disproven (by empirical data).

      That disproof of science is going to show up Real Soon Now(tm). I’m not sure how to defend against that assertion.

      1. But anyone who is objecting to scientism can say that you can’t prove it’s true, just that it works.

        But those are the same thing in the sense that by “it’s true” we mean only that “it works”, namely that the ideas, claims and predictions of science do indeed match empirical reality.

        What else is there? If there is anything else, and any “other ways of knowing”, then it is up those who make such claims to support them.

        1. That’s one of those “yes, but” answers that doesn’t really help.

          Newtonian mechanics works. Is it true? How do we get rid of that type of wiggle room?

          It may be moot though, since you’re right about the burden of evidence. I’d like to avoid a “God of the Gaps” situation if at all possible, but I’m not sure that it’s avoidable.

          1. Newtonian mechanics works. Is it true? How do we get rid of that type of wiggle room?

            I don’t understand the distinction you are making between something working and something being “true”. What else can we mean by a claim being “true” other than “it works”, aka “it matches empirical reality”?

            If some physical theory worked (=matched reality) in all circumstances then in what way could it possibly fall short of being “true”?

            Also, if some theory never worked, then in what way could it be called “true”? It seems to me that the concepts are synonyms.

            To answer about Newtonian mechanics, it is nearly true (it closely matches empirical reality over a wide range of parameter space) but it is not fully true (there are regimes where it doesn’t match reality).

            1. There’s one phrase in there that’s your problem – “In All Circumstances”.

              Newtonian Mechanics was empirically derived, works in most cases, but was displaced by Relativity.

              Cause and Effect was empirically derived works in the vast majority of cases but was displaced by Quantum Mechanics.

              Disprove this statement: Scientism was empirically derived works in most cases but will be replaced by “Uncle Karlism”

              1. I agree with you: in science/scientism truth is always provisional and open to being overturned by new and better evidence.

                Thus if fans of “other ways of knowing” ever produce evidence that overturns scientism then it could indeed be replaced by Uncle Karlism.

                So far that hasn’t happened; I’m not aware of anyone demonstrating any way in which scientism is inadequate (so long as one interprets “scientism” broadly as evidence-based investigation).

              2. Don’t need to disprove your last statement. The answer to “This Will Happen Some Day” is “Let me know when it does”.

              3. @coelsblog / @Juggler_Dave

                I agree with both of you. But if burden of proof worked as a rhetorical device, we wouldn’t repeatedly be stomping creationists. Heck, religion would’ve been dead long before I was born.

              4. Rob,

                It seems to me that what your line of argument here really comes down to is trying to figure our just exactly what we mean by the term “true”. Or rather, what the term “true” should mean.

                Thinking of “true” as a spectrum more accurately matches observed reality. Do you think it is better to reserve the term “true” for a philosophical absolute? I don’t think that is necessary. Scientists, the majority anyway, understand that the truths revealed by science are not absolute. But they also understand that the percentage of attempted empirical verifications that fail to support those truths is statistically insignificant.

                For some people that will never be enough. I don’t think those people have a valid point. I think they want something that just isn’t possible to have in the reality we exist in.

          2. The good news is, the gaps are shrinking —

            “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance, that gets smaller and smaller as time goes on.”
            — Neil Degrasse Tyson —

            1. Unfortunately, I’m worried that rationality and irrationality may be apportioned like rational and irrational numbers – no matter how many rational signposts we find and no matter how small the gaps are, people will still seek out the infinite number of irrational beliefs that lie in the gaps.

          3. Newton’s mechanics is nomothetic* and ideographic* in its context, and that’s all that really matters. Asking for a de-contextualized Truth is a fools game. Einstein’s relativity is not ‘more true’ than Newton’s mechanics. Each is true in its context.

            *I just learned these big words today, and couldn’t resist using them. 🙂

            1. Actually, you can calculate (at least sometimes) how more true GR is over Newtonian gravitation – for example. That’s simply a way of saying it (to use the famous example) fits the orbit of Mercury better.

              We can get away with the larger falsehood because of errors in measurement, or in the case of the lauded space exploration and other things, the safety factors as well.

              1. Relativity is more precise in this circumstance. But I think there is a discontinuity between “more precise” and “more true”. We learn in first year chemistry to limit observations to significant digits. More precision doesn’t add knowledge in circumstances where less precision is adequate. Yes, we colloquially tend to ignore the distinction, and I’m not prepared to defend it rigorously, but I think there is some relationship between precision and truth other than the identity relationship.

      2. But anyone who is objecting to scientism can say that you can’t prove it’s true, just that it works.

        The results of science are provisional. Things that do not work are definitely false. Things that work might be true, approximately true, or simply convenient.

        After barely more than a century after the first powered flight, science put a nuclear-powered mobile robotic science laboratory on what other ways of knowing told us was a god. After thousands of years, other ways of knowing still can’t give us a definitive answer on what kind of meat we should put on a sandwich.

        OK, most religions would say that a bacon cheeseburger and a side of fried clams is a no-no. Science agrees but gives better reasons for not eating it.

      3. But anyone who is objecting to scientism can say that you can’t prove it’s true, just that it works.

        All claims of knowledge ultimately rest on axioms that are taken to be self-evidently true.

    2. We can test Newtonian mechanics.
      We cannot test Occams Razor or Poppers Falsifiability. Thus they are philosophical ideas – we only can argue that they are useful.

      1. We cannot test Occams Razor or Poppers Falsifiability. Thus they are philosophical ideas – we only can argue that they are useful.

        We can test Occam’s Razor because we can test the basic ideas of probability from which it follows. The number of things that actually exist or are true is very much less than the number of conceptually possible things or false statements (for example “2+2=4” is heavily outnumbered by false statements “2+2=5”, “2+2=6” …).

        Therefore, the chances of something unsupported by evidence being true are very low. Which is Occam’s Razor.

      2. Actually, Occam’s Razor (or rather, a more rigorous formulation) can be derived as a theorem from more basic propositions; from this vantage, Popper’s Falsification may be viewed as merely a special case of Popper’s Simplicity, which in turn is merely another approximation to the rigorous form.

      3. Science doesn’t use those ideas as stated though. The nearest equivalents that are actually used is parsimony and testability.

        Testability uses statistical hypothesis testing, You can go meta on that and use hypothesis testing to test if it works. And it does.

        Where it parts ways with falsifiability is IMO a longer story, but the core is that falsifiability alone isn’t sufficient for elimination of theory alternatives. You need the convergence of the elimination process.

        Parsimony is a research strategy to provisionally choose between theories that are incompletely tested or otherwise equally predictive. You can test if it works as advertised (choosing potentially useful theories). And it does.

        The difference to parsimony is that Occam’s Razor is prescientific and doesn’t describe which “entities” should be minimized.

      4. Oh, I forgot about “only can argue … useful”.

        Testing has a basis in statistical theory.

        Parsimony on the other hand has a more fuzzy basis in that it tends to align with physics (simple laws from simple symmetries, so complex applications instead), it minimizes the basis for errors, and above all it minimizes work of course.

    3. Wasn’t the whole point of the Baconian scientific method the rejection of philosophy as a way of obtaining knowledge about the natural world? What is meant by “philosophical underpinnings”?

  2. These are two good questions, but at their heart is the essential philosophical question, what constitutes “knowledge”. Jerry, now that you’ve finished your reading of the sophisticated theologians, you can start reading some epistemology.

  3. I haven’t gotten to Eric’s essays yet, but just from reading your post here I suspect that a lot of the disagreement is going to come down to how you’re each defining words like “philosophy,” “science,” and “empirical evidence.”

    That last term, for example, is confused and confusing. Could one really think about something which was not in any sense “based on observation or experience?” Even one’s own private internal states are experiences. And what could be known or inferred which is not ultimately derived from observation and experience? Methinks this might be an argument similar to the arguments on reductionism.

    Someone once defined ‘science’ as “respect for the critical opinions of other people.” You could say then that what separates science from non-science is the attempt to make discoveries and conclusions about the objective world objective enough to be inter-subjective. Including and persuading others means that fooling oneself is going to be harder to do. We are all much better at catching other people’s mistakes than we are at catching our own.

    1. You beat me to it. Jerry consistently says “science broadly defined” whereas Eric seems to be using a narrower definition, maybe more along the lines of “what people who call themselves scientists do”.

    2. I don’t think the qualitative difference between science and other forms of empiricism is in the elitism of the market of ideas.

      The difference, which shows up as an ability to observe universal regularities with science but context dependent regularities with learning, comes out of making prediction and testing. I.e. learning through theory vs learning through context.

  4. “That they may have already done so unconsciously, or because it is included within the scientific consensus within which they work, means that the interpretive framework has simply gone unacknowledged.”

    It has not gone unacknowledged. They have spent a good deal of their lives learning what has been discovered by others before them. That is the framework. And that framework is all verified by empirical observation. That is the reason they rely on it. Because it has been empirically verified. If you want to claim that “reasoning that empirically verified models can lead to a useful representation of reality” is philosophy, okay. But this seems to be a quibble on the order of “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

      1. There is a huge data set accumulated just within the history of modern scientific investigation that shows that Occam’s Razor is correct in a high enough percentage of cases that your odds are better if you abide by it. Occam’s Razor is based on just such observations.

        For a more rigorous answer see coelsblog’s and abb3w’s responses to your comment under the 1 thread above.

    1. There just can’t be objectivity without subjectivity. This is a fact. It is obvious but also taken for granted. You need a subject to make a measurement. The idea of measuring can only come out of a mind that has subjective, not measurable, creative attributes that makes it think, invent and learn.

      That matter came to live and then think is still a mystery.

      But just like you can’t have good without evil, or night without day, it looks that you can’t have objectivity without subjectivity. They co-exist and give meaning to each other.

      1. Sorry, I rather think that objectivity stands alone with no problem. I don’t need some subjective opinion to know that a white hot bar of steel will hurt a carbon based life form such as myself very badly if I grasp it with bare hands.

  5. As often as I am in violent agreement with Eric, I too find myself parting ways with him on this. Perhaps it is my own shortcoming that I find it difficult to keep up with what exactly he is proposing, but it seems to be that there is a special kind of intuition that can answer questions that science and empirical evidence cannot.

    This is the kind of justification I often hear from theists, and I have to reject Eric’s idea on the same grounds. I still do not understand how one view can be called correct and another incorrect without an appeal to objective evidence. The only good option is to admit ignorance when no empirical evidence can be gathered; otherwise we end up in the realm of pure conjecture and imagination.

  6. I think what it boils down to is that the religious and their ilk want to include “NOT knowing” as another way of knowing.

    This includes “not knowing” due to personal ignorance (e.g. about scientific facts), “not knowing” because some things are matters of interpretation (and so cannot be “known” definitively), and simply just “not knowing” in general, because so many people are too woolly minded to be able to know anything definite at all. About anything. Rowan Williams comes to mind here. 😉

  7. Eric is making a distinction without a difference. “Interpretive evidence” is really all we ever have. And one has to decide what the probability is that the interpretation is good. The Higgs boson is six sigma, which makes to quite probable. Julius Caesar is pretty good, as we have physical evidence. Jesus, not so much. It’s all interpreted based on the best model we think we have (But the map is not the territory).

    Eric is offering a cautionary tale on overestimating the probability of our interpretations, but I would also like to see his answers to the two questions.

  8. “Suppose you decide to save the rare species by conserving its habitat.”
    There are some underlying philosophical ideas. You assume that rare, species and habitat are meaningful notions which somehow describe the observed reality.

    “when he tested ….”
    The idea that you can learn about reality by testing is a philosophical idea.
    The fact that we have gotten so used to these ideas and that they are hardly controversial anymore doesn’t mean they are any less philosophical.

    “real Biblical scholarship … is similar to all good studies of history”
    That’s also a philosophical remark.

    None of this affects your criticism of MacDonald though. My point is that your philosophical standpoint differs from his. The last 200 years have shown that yours works better.
    Your final two questions are philosophical ones too. My answers:
    1. None.
    2. Doesn’t apply.

    1. “The idea that you can learn about reality by testing is a philosophical idea.”

      I don’t know, perhaps in the context of philosophy it is. I don’t see, however, that philosophy is necessary to conceive of that idea, or to validate confidence that it will render useful and accurate information about reality.

      At a very basic level it does not even require the ability to reason in order to test models against reality. In the case of biology it just happens, no reason or even awareness necessary.

      1. Wow, I’d like to see a scientific model that doesn’t appeal to reason one way or another. And to test a model against empirical data without understanding it (thus using reason) seems impossible to me.
        Natural selection? Reason.
        Mutation? Reason.
        Counting species? Double reason (counting plus defining species).
        I object to “necessary”. It implies that philosophy comes first and science follows. It’s usually the other way round. Philosophy describes what science does. There is nothing wrong with that. For one thing it helps us to distinguish science from pseudo-science.

        1. Wow, I’d like to see a scientific model that doesn’t appeal to reason one way or another.

          Of course science appeals to reason as one of its tools. But those tools are then empirically verified by the fact that science works.

          For example, if reason is one of the tools that I use to predict solar eclipses, then if those predictions prove accurate then I have verified my tools.

        2. I am not sure what you are saying here, or maybe why you are saying it. Probably because it was not clear to you what I was trying to express. So, I’ll limit my response to a couple of simple points.

          I never claimed, as you seem to think, that any aspect of scientific investigation can be done without using reason. I was attempting to point out that life via the phenomena of random mutation, drift, etc. and natural selection, “tests” “models” against reality. Since we are talking about getting useful results by empirical testing this seems like a valid point to make.

          If you object to “necessary” then I don’t understand your insistence that “The idea that you can learn about reality by testing is a philosophical idea.”

  9. I think that Eric finds himself in a difficult place. He acknowledges the value of the scientific method, decries the Absolute Morality of religion, but wants to privilege ‘other ways of knowing’ for the insights they produce.

    Unfortunately the insights of ‘other ways of knowing’ are individual insights.

    If you call the insights of other ways of knowing ‘opinions’ or ‘wisdom’ then that is a more accurate description. Each person’s opinions are very important, probably as important to their behaviour as any other knowledge, but they are relative and often unsupported by fact. Different people hold different moral certainties. Eric does not like the thought that his moral certainties are opinions and dresses them up as interpretations.

    1. Well, that is partly my responsibility, because I did push the subject to the limit, however it was an important thing to do, and now Eric is in a difficult place, but then so is the entire atheist/sceptic movement.

      1. Its so nice to find out that the weight of the universe is upon your shoulders. Let us be endowed from the holder of all knowledge what it is that has the entire atheist/sceptic movement in a difficult place? Is that movement in a more difficult or less difficult place than contrasting movements?

  10. Jerry,

    I want to focus on some of your philosophical claims. You write,

    I don’t agree that we can get knowledge without referring to empirical evidence. What would knowledge mean if there’s no referent to reality, unless you could count revelation and intuition as knowledge? [Emph. orig.]

    I, and other rationalists, reject your philosophical premise,

    Knowledge of reality is all and only empirical knowledge,

    so it’s a bit of a straw person to refer to non-empirical knowledge as without reference to reality. And, yes, we, like most people, treat intuitions as at least prima facie justified. (More on rationalist and empiricism here. Similarly,

    Knowledge must be verified, and that means by another observer and that means science.

    is another substantive philosophical claim, one it’s hard to find direct empirical evidence for. It seems to depend upon having an analysis of ‘knowledge,’ and that’s probably a philosophical task. If, in contrast, you think it’s simply part of your definition of ‘knowledge’ that it’s empirical, then I’m happy to pursue ‘knowledge*,’ which is like knowledge except that it can also be a priori.

    Now I’ll grant that we have to make an a priori assumption that the scientific method tells us truths about the world, and perhaps that’s philosophy. But of course even that assumption is justified empirically …

    Right, exactly. We can adduce some empirical evidence for the reliability of science, as long as we have some basic a priori reason to trust empirical evidence in the first place, and that reason is unavailable from science on pain of circularity.

    Finally, as for your two questions at the end (I’ll boldface the answers as you did the questions):

    (1) (A) Basic normative principles: What sorts of beliefs are justified; what sorts of events or things are (ethically) good or bad; what sorts of actions are (morally) right or wrong. In addition, (B) beliefs about de re metaphysically necessary objects, such as numbers and propositions, and (C) modal truths in general, such as truths about necessity and impossibility.

    (2) (A) Beliefs derived from (certain subtypes of) intuition or from observation or from (some) testimony or from (some) memories are at least prima facie justified; happiness is pro tanto good; suffering is pro tanto bad; helping people is pro tanto right; harming people is pro tanto wrong; and so on. (B) Numbers and propositions exist. (C) Nothing can be both square and circular; no one can be taller than herself; necessarily, 2+2=4.

      1. Rob,

        Here is the claim I made: Necessarily, 2+2=4.

        What is the wholly empirical proof for that?

        (I don’t just mean that there is a sound and complete logical system in which 2+2=4 is a theorem. I mean that in real life, necessarily, 2+2=4. For example, necessarily, if you hold exactly one apple in one hand and exactly one apple in the other, and you are holding no other apples, you are holding exactly two apples.)

        1. I mean that in real life, necessarily, 2+2=4.

          Are you saying that in our universe it is always (as far as we know) the case that 2+2=4? If so, then that is an empirical claim.

          Or are you saing the above but dropping the “as far as we know” and substituting “necessarily”? If that is your claim then please prove it.

          Or are you saying that it is necessarily the case that in all possible universes that 2+2=4? If that is your claim then, again, please prove it.

          As far as I’m aware, only the first of these three is “known”, and that is known empirically.

          1. coelsblog,

            The last. I am saying that it is literally impossible for you to have one apple in one hand and one apple in the other hand (and no other apples), and have anything other than two apples in your hands.

            If you deny this, then it seems to me that empiricist leads to a very deep skepticism. For example, it seems to make mathematics depend on induction, which leads to a problem for which empiricists have no solution.

            1. I am saying that it is literally impossible for you to have one apple in one hand and one apple in the other hand (and no other apples), and have anything other than two apples in your hands.

              While your claim seems entirely sensible to me, my assent derives from my empirical experience of this universe, and I don’t see any evidence for the claim beyond that.

              For example I’m not aware of any proof that there is no possible self-contained “other universe” in which that is not the case.

        2. The claim “Necessarily 2+2=4” is incorrect, as there exists a sound (if incapable of self-representation) system where 2+2=0. The catch is that this does not have correspondence to the real life relationships commonly associated with addition, such as putting apples in piles. (It does, however, have some relationship to giving apples one-quarter turns about a coordinate axis.)

          Contrariwise, the proof of abstract mathematical propositions is indeed non-empirical. An empirical failure of a mathematical model does not make the model mathematically false, but rather makes it a model that does not correspond to the particular set of phenomena in question. Euclidean geometry remains “true” under it’s axioms, even though Einstein showed those axioms do not correspond to our space-time.

          Nohow, the additive behavior associated with apples results from inductive assessment of the experienced properties of apples — which basis in experience makes the nature of the proof as “wholly” empirical as possible. (The actual derivation of Occam’s Razor from more basic assumptions is mathematical, rather than empirical; but it may be treated as a minor lemma, necessary to any empirical proof.)

          1. I have studied enough math to know that proofs are not based in testable proof theory, that program failed, but in mutually agreed on simple enough heuristics steps. These heuristics can be wrong (see Newton’s form of calculus) and the proofs can be wrong (see retracted proofs).

            Also, proofs today can be explicitly empirical, for example the computer proof of the 4-color theorem. Mathematical objects or measures can be empirical, see realizations of Chaitins’ constant or Kolmogorov complexity.

            Math, and the more fruitful math that is actually used, is both pathway (eg historically) dependent and empirically constrained.

            1. …er, I’m not sure what you mean by “that program failed”. If you’re referring to Gödel’s effectively terminating the Russel/Whitehead program, you’re grossly misunderstanding the end result. That merely showed that you couldn’t prove everything that way, not that there was nothing that could be proven that way.

              I’d disagree with the computer-generated proof being “explicitly empirical”. Mechanically discovered, yes; but that’s not quite the same thing, philosophically.

              Also, as far as I know there’s no empirical realization of the full of Chaitins’ constant.

          2. By the way, I would be interested in the proof of Occam’s Razor.

            I know I have seen a proof of how the scientific form, parsimony, minimize reversal of theory. (Though I seem to have lost the reference. IIRC Keith Douglas gave it to me once.) It would be interesting to see if the scientific and pre-scientific form is somehow related.

            1. I have forgotten which reference I mentioned, but there is work relating notions like Occam’s Razor to the methods and tools of computational learning theory. This is primarily these days being done by people like Kevin Kelly (not the Wired guy!) at CMU and his students.

              As for mathematical proof, etc. In my view, and this is contentious, “truth” applies to mathematical statements only by tradition. This is precisely for the reasons given: it means something like satisfiability, not a notion of factual truth.

            2. What I was referring to was (doi:10.1109/18.825807).

              A prior assumption is required. The proof in that paper takes that limit of RE-computability, equivalent to a zero degree Turing hypercomputation; however, it appears to generalize to ordinal degrees (using appropriate degree hypercomputer programs). Something resembling the scientific method results as a greedy-search pseudo-algorithm interpretation. (An imperfect greedy search; and pseudo, because generating conjectures and filtering of non-halting hypotheses are non-algorithmic.)

              Such axiomative-level assumption can be taken in refutation, with no loss philosophical validity; the alternative is that any local appearance of order is akin to a Boltzmann brain in a sufficiently large Ramsey Theory sea of chaos.

          3. abb3w,

            I’m talking about real-life relationships. Necessarily, if you hold one apple in one hand, and one apple in the other hand, and no other apples, you’re holding two apples.

            I don’t think induction provides evidence that this is a necessary truth, only that it’s always true in the actual world. And since there is no wholly empirical justification of induction (as Hume pointed out), induction is doubly inapplicable.

            I agree that Occam’s Razor can’t be derived empirically, and that’s necessary for many arguments that empiricists make. This is another case where empiricism alone is pretty toothless.

            1. First, the “real-life relationships” implicitly assumes a correspondence to the abstract relationship.

              Second, the justification is mostly mathematical, resulting from an axiomatic assumption about experience.

              Third, while it can’t be derived empirically, it results as a consequence from a very basic and highly general assumption about experience… which, if one insists, can be made fully general by exclusive logical disjunction to the consequent implication of the refutation of said assumption. Which boils down to “either Occam’s Razor, or you can’t tell a hawk from a handsaw”.

              Finally, I was talking about induction sufficient to get to the “you hold one apple” stage, and to conclude that one apple held in one hand and another apple in another hand does not merely mean you’re holding one apple in two places… which might be analogous to some of the weirder situations in QM.

    1. Right, exactly. We can adduce some empirical evidence for the reliability of science, as long as we have some basic a priori reason to trust empirical evidence in the first place, and that reason is unavailable from science on pain of circularity.

      If by “reliability” of science we mean only that it matches empirical evidence, then we do not need a reason for trusting empirical evidence in the first place.

      We can test whether science does or does not match empirical reality without making any meta-physical statement about that empirical reality. I don’t see that that is circular.

      Nothing can be both square and circular; no one can be taller than herself; necessarily, 2+2=4.

      I submit that the only way you know that those statements are true are because they correspond to the physical reality of our universe. I challenge you to deduce them ex nihilo without using anything that has been empirically verified.

      1. coelsblog,

        I’m suggesting there’s a claim here, that

        we are justified in trusting science,

        or

        we are justified in trusting empirical observation,

        that I can’t imagine verifying purely empirically, except on pain of circularity.

        I don’t propose to justify ‘nothing can be both square and circular’ ex nihilo. It’s justified by intuition; it strongly seems to be true.

        In turn, I challenge you to justify that statement purely empirically. (Note, crucially, the presence of ‘can be’ instead of ‘is.’) If mere empirical observation justified necessity claims such as that one, then ‘nothing can exist in 2013’ would be justified.

        1. I’m suggesting there’s a claim here, that “we are justified in trusting science” …

          Yes, if by “trusting science” we mean “trust it to accord with empirical reality”, and our evidence for that is that it does accord with empirical reality. (Whenever it doesn’t we update science.) I don’t see that as circular.

          … or “we are justified in trusting empirical observation”

          Trust it in what sense? We can trust empirical reality to be empirical reality. We don’t need to “trust” it beyond that, nor make any metaphysical statement about it.

          I don’t propose to justify ‘nothing can be both square and circular’ ex nihilo. It’s justified by intuition; it strongly seems to be true.

          But our intuition is something programmed into us by evolution as a result of empirical reality over evolutionary time. Thus “intuition” is simply stored up empirical evidence (though it is imperfect because evolution is “blind” and doesn’t get things right, it just gets things pretty good in the sort of situations we’ve encountered in our evolutionary past).

          In turn, I challenge you to justify that statement purely empirically.

          So long as we accept that scientific/empirical knowledge is provisional and never absolute, there is no difficulty in justifying that statement empirically, beyond any reasonable confidence level. And I don’t see that any non-empirical method can do better.

          1. coelsblog,

            By “trust” I mean ‘trust.’ That is, I mean what everyone means when they say, ‘I trust the news’ or ‘I trust the Bible’ or ‘I trust science’ or ‘I trust the President.’ I don’t just mean trusting science to be science. Are you justified in taking scientific claims to be true? If so, what supports that trust? If it’s observation alone, that’s a circular argument.

            Even if intuition has some empirical source, if you admit that we in general should trust it in some area, without offering an independent empirical argument for it, then that seems to be a non-empirical way of knowing.

            As for ‘nothing can be square and circular,’ I’m not asking for mere provisional knowledge, that (e.g.) so far as we know, or so far as we’ve observed, nothing is square and circular. I mean nothing can be square and circular. If this knowledge is unavailable to empiricists, then they lack some widely-possessed knowledge. (But of course no one, including empiricists, has ever empirically observed an impossible square circle.)

            1. By “trust” I mean ‘trust.’ That is, I mean what everyone means when they say, ‘I trust the news’ …

              When you say “I trust the news” that is shorthand for “I trust the news to accurately reflect reality” or something similar. When you ask me whether I trust empirical reality, what is that shorthand for? If the long-hand form is “I trust empirical reality to {something here}” then what explicitly are you asking?

              If you are asking me “do I trust empirical reality to be empirical reality?” then my answer is “yes”. If you’re asking me “do I trust empirical reality to be {some metaphysical thing}”, then my answer is no, and I’ve not made any such claim and nor do I need to make such a claim.

              I don’t just mean trusting science to be science. Are you justified in taking scientific claims to be true?

              I’m taking “science” to mean investigation of empirical reality, and I’m taking “true” to mean “matches empirical reality”. So, yes, I do trust empirical reality to match empirical reality.

              Now, if by “true” you instead mean {some metaphysical claim} that you haven’t specified, then, no, I do not trust science to be {some metaphysical claim}, but then I don’t see why that matters to me. And, no, I don’t see that any of the above is circular.

              Even if intuition has some empirical source, if you admit that we in general should trust it in some area, without offering an independent empirical argument for it, then that seems to be a non-empirical way of knowing.

              I don’t think one should trust intuition without it being empirically verified, since intuition is often wrong. But, anyhow, as I said, I don’t regard intuition as different from empirical means since our intuition is the product of empiricism.

              Consulting our intuition is no different from, for example, consulting the rings of an old tree to obtain information about past weather — both are products of past empirical reality.

              I mean nothing can be square and circular. If this knowledge is unavailable to empiricists, then they lack some widely-possessed knowledge.

              Here you are asserting that there is “widely-possessed” actual knowledge (not just opinion) of that “fact”, and you are asserting that this “widely-possessed knowledge” goes beyond “at least, that’s how it seems to me, based on my life-long experience of how the world is”.

              You have not actually presented evidence for either of those assertions.

      2. The proofs are not done “ex nihilo”; all three require axioms. Contrariwise, axioms of pure mathematics (such as Euclid’s or the Zermelo-Fraenkel) are not “empirically verified”; they’re simply taken as truth.

        Given those axioms, however, they follow from the definition of squares and circles, the definition of a strict (partial) ordering relationship, and the construction of the Von Neumann integers, without reference to empirical verification.

    2. And, yes, we, like most people, treat intuitions as at least prima facie justified

      The problem is that intuitions are not prima facie justified. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in the cognitive science literature over the past 30 years.

      1. (forgot to add) Cognitive science is essential because the tool that we use to philosophize is the brain. If you don’t know how your tool works you’ll use it poorly.

      2. J. Quinton,

        The ‘prima facie‘ qualification is important. We know from cognitive science that there are some predictable ways that some intuitions go astray. However, that does not say anything about whether intuition is at least prima facie justified.

        It’s arguable–although probably not in the space we have here–that if we don’t at least prima facie trust intuition, we end up with global skepticism. If we do, then in turn, we should be skeptical of all cognitive science.

        1. Tom is quite right on this point. It is amazing to me how much mileage various critics around this website get out of the confusion Tom points out. That some intuitions go astray does not imply they are all unreliable.

      1. What you seem to be arguing there is not that “moral truths” can be known by science but that there’s no such thing as moral truths. There are truths about moral beliefs. There are truths about the effects of moral beliefs on behavior. There are truths about the effects of behavior on people and other things. But moral propositions themselves are neither true nor false. They’re just expressions of values or preferences.

      2. coelsblog,

        Indeed, as Gary W. points out, your position looks much closer to ethical nihilism than to anything else. Does that mean you think the arguments for ethical nihilism have more plausible premises than the claim that (e.g.) molesting children is objectively, unavoidably morally wrong?

        1. You’re right that I’m arguing that there are no such things as objective, absolute moral values. Indeed I don’t even conceive of what such “absolute” values would be or mean.

          Moral judgements, like aesthetic judgements, are judgements and feelings that we humans make, and I don’t see how one can abstract and divorce them from the person doing the judging.

          I also think that the attempt to do so is a complete red herring and leads most moral philosophy astray.

        2. Does that mean you think the arguments for ethical nihilism have more plausible premises than the claim that (e.g.) molesting children is objectively, unavoidably morally wrong?

          I wouldn’t call the position that there are no such things as moral truths “ethical nihilism,” but my answer to your question is yes. Like coelsblog, I think the idea that there are such things as moral truths is not simply false, but hard to conceive at all.

    3. @1: How definitively established are those principles, beliefs and truths?
      They are always based on assumptions in the end. Question those and there you go.

    4. Tom,

      So how do you operationalize ‘intuition’? What steps do you take to ensure that when you discuss ‘intuition’ with your fellow philosophers you are all talking about the same thing? Aren’t you just defining ‘intuition’ as that which justifies whatever I feel strongly about but can’t justify in any other way?—creating a metaphysical entity to serve a particular purpose? How do you achieve any intersubjective agreements about this (un-operationalized) concept?

      I remain skeptical of your evident idealism, but must admit I find you post very provocative and your linked article challenging to my naive materialism. I am happy to see smarter folks than me have challenged you back. Hope you’ll forgive me for saying so. 🙂

      1. Jamie,

        Thanks for your reply.

        Philosophers have largely settled on an operational definition of intuition as an ‘intellectual seeming.’ There’s further debate here, more than we can cover in this forum, but that works for many of us.

        In turn, if it seems very strongly to you that necessarily, no squares are circular, then you’ve had an intuition that no squares are circular.

        1. I don’t recognize any strong feelings I have about square circles. It seems to me that the properties of squares and the properties of circular things are mutually exclusive as a matter of definition. But if one considers non-euclidean geometry, a square drawn on the surface of a sphere, for instance, the ‘straight’ lines making up the square’s sides take on a certain kind of circularity in the third dimension. I don’t think this makes ‘a circular square’, but one could argue that this is a square with at least some degree of circularity in at least one dimension, and so it might justifiably be called a circular square or at least a square with circular potential.

          Moreover, it allows one to imagine the possibility of discovering a ‘space’ in which an object could be drawn that fits the definition of a circular square, even though I can’t describe such a space at the moment.

          In order to assert the truth of the proposition, “necessarily, no squares are circular,” one needs to restrict the definitions of ‘square’ and ‘circular’ appropriately. And one needs to specify the context.

          But let’s not get to wrapped up in that specific example. I think I see where you’re coming from there. If we push it back to the source… is it intuition that tells me *not* “A and not A”? Let’s say it is. We may achieve some intersubjective agreement that this particular intuition exists. We may even find some agreement about its reliability. That is a far cry from achieving intersubjective agreement on the reliability of intuitions in general. The experience of the scientific community is that, in general, intuitions are not reliable.

          I don’t see that you have properly operationalized ‘intuition.’ You have merely replaced the term with another term “intellectual seeming.” The process of operationalizing an entity (or a class of entities), in science, entails setting out the explicit steps required to identify it uniquely in order to ensure that all parties referring to an entity by the same name, are actually referring to the same thing and not just using the same name to refer to different things. This is necessary to make measurements possible and to make discussions of objects meaningful (within the epistemology of science).

          It seems to me that intellectual seemings that are open to intersubjective discussion cannot be divorced from their specific contents. We may have the ‘same’ intuitions about the axioms of logic (for example that we can’t imagine them not being true in the real world) but our agreement about the reliability (or truth) of a set of specified axioms, does not automatically confer reliability (or truth) onto the intuitions we have about those axioms. We may feel that they are reliable just because we feel that they must be true, but their actual reliability resides in the way they work in the wider world, not our feelings about them.

          Agreement on the reliability of specific sets of ‘intuited’ axioms doesn’t get us to an agreement about the reliability of intuitions or the ‘intuiting process’ in general. At least, I don’t see how it can. Also, agreeing that a certain set of intuited axioms is reliable doesn’t mean we feel the same about them or take their reliability a priori. This is especially so in light of strong convictions having been shown to be wrong in our experiential past.

          I don’t think I’m telling you anything you haven’t already considered. I’m just still puzzled why you think this is all wrong somehow. I guess I’m not hearing you properly.

    5. We can adduce some empirical evidence for the reliability of science, as long as we have some basic a priori reason to trust empirical evidence in the first place, and that reason is unavailable from science on pain of circularity.

      We trust it because it’s the only way to make sense of the world. Your own argument above relies on reason. If you don’t trust reason you don’t trust your own argument. Except that what I’m writing here is itself an argument that relies on reason. So you don’t trust that either. So what are you to believe? Either you commit to reason or you can’t say anything meaningful at all.

      1. Gary W.,

        I hope I haven’t expressed any skepticism about reason anywhere in my replies. If I have, I retract it.

        I don’t think science is the only way to make sense of the world. It might be the only way to make sense of the empirical, contingent, physical world, but science alone seems necessarily silent on whether the world includes other kinds of things in general.

        1. If science doesn’t tell us “whether the world includes other kinds of things in general,” what does tell us that? What “other kinds of things,” if any, does it tell us that the world includes? And how does it tell us this?

          If you think there are questions that science and reason cannot answer but something else can answer, what is that something else? How does it answer the questions that science cannot answer? And what are its answers? Give us some examples.

  11. Sometimes a rather small body of evidence is capable of multiple interpretations. When you judge one interpretation to be the more probable that is using “interpretative evidence”. Which you pick is often based on underlying subhypotheses and principles of (comparative) judgment!! In criminology, there’s a distinction between various forms of evidence, circumstantial, conclusive, hearsay (always bad), and “interpretive”. There’s a long section on this in “Validity in Interpretation” by E. Hirsch p. 180. At least to some (perhaps not evolutionary biologists), this is often seen as something distinct from “scientific evidence”

    Intuition may be a “way of knowing”, but its results need to be tested by non-intuitive methods. Rationality doesn’t always !*generate*! hypotheses, but is needed to test them.

  12. Humans have evolved to a capacity for holding beliefs for good reasons that are unrelated to whether or not those beliefs are true. If those reasons are important enough to the believer, there is no evidence or logic you can offer to induce her to give up that belief. In such a case, truth is of secondary importance to the believer.

    Since science shows us that there are no moral truths, we can make no normative judgment about such a believer.

    To be scientistic, is to value the truth of a belief above any possible utility offered by holding the belief.

    Since science shows us that there are no moral truths, we can make no normative judgment about scientism.

    It’s only ever just a question of what one values most.

    It seems to be the case that most of the time, most of us value truth the most in forming beliefs important to our ability to thrive. I’m going to speculate wildly that that’s not a random feature of nature, but a feature in some way brought about by the Second Law.

    1. To be scientistic, is to value the truth of a belief above any possible utility offered by holding the belief.

      What is the utility of holding beliefs that evidence and reason show to be false?

      “Faith is believing something you know ain’t true” — Mark Twain

      1. One reason might be death denial. Another might be to attain and preserve group inclusion, trust and solidarity. Another might be to preserve high perception of self.

        1. One reason might be death denial. Another might be to attain and preserve group inclusion, trust and solidarity. Another might be to preserve high perception of self.

          What beliefs that science and reason show to be false have utility for any of those reasons? How do you know they have utility?

          1. The belief in an immortal soul has the utility of death denial.

            The belief in Mormon dogma has the utility of inclusion in a cohesive and prosperous group.

            The belief in counter-causal free will has the utility of justifying self-righteousness.

            Belief described by the Dunning Kruger effect has the utility of enhancing self-image.

            1. I don’t know why you think any of beliefs you list actually “have utility.” How do you know that their benefits, if any, outweigh their costs? For example, even if it’s true that “the belief in Mormon dogma has the utility of inclusion in a cohesive and prosperous group” (do you have any evidence for this?), that belief may also have many adverse effects that outweigh the benefit, and hence have “negative utility.”

              1. Thank you for engaging me on this point Gary. I enjoy it very much.

                I’m referring to the subjective judgment of the believer in the utility of her belief, not to some objective standard of utility.

                I didn’t consider it tendentious to assert that Mormon’s were cohesive or prosperous. Aren’t they? Or that a condition of membership in the Mormon religion was belief in Mormon dogma. Isn’t it? You’ve caught me empty handed, without my evidence.

                May I ask as to your beliefs? How would you describe your philosophy? Are you for example, a reductionist materialist?

              2. I’m referring to the subjective judgment of the believer in the utility of her belief, not to some objective standard of utility.

                Then I would say that even if the belief has subjective utility for the believer, that doesn’t mean it has objective utility. The believer could be mistaken about the effects of his beliefs. I think this is especially likely for religious beliefs. So I don’t think this is an argument against what you are calling “scientism.”

                I didn’t consider it tendentious to assert that Mormon’s were cohesive or prosperous. Aren’t they?

                “Cohesive,” perhaps. But again, it’s not at all clear that that has utility. Another word for it might be “parochial.” I don’t think there’s a serious case that Mormonism promotes prosperity, either. For one thing, the religion seems to promote large families, which isn’t really conducive to prosperity.

                Or that a condition of membership in the Mormon religion was belief in Mormon dogma. Isn’t it?

                I wasn’t questioning that belief in Mormon dogma is a condition of membership. I was questioning that belief in Mormon dogma has utility. I don’t think it does.

                May I ask as to your beliefs?

                I would describe myself as an atheist and skeptic.

              3. Now I get it! You think I’m arguing against scientism.

                Au contraire, mon ami. I consider Rosenberg’s defense of scientism to be very strong. A refrain made against it that it’s incoherent insofar as it appears to assert an intrinsic value in truth, and thereby in the best means of finding truth.

                I was merely pointing out that this attack misunderstands scientism. It’s nihilistic about objective meaning, and makes no normative judgment about scientism or superstition.

      2. Mark Twain’s definition seems more like hypocrisy than faith. I don’t doubt the sincerity of William Lane Craig, for example, or, for that matter, of Tom Cruise. If you enjoy morbid fascination, check out the appalling video on YouTube of Tom Cruise promoting Scientology.

  13. I think that the basic claim MacDonald makes in his articles is right, and that the appropriate way to understand subjects like history is to see them as “interpretive disciplines.” You’ll see that this is not a new point, in fact, but one I argued for before in response to an earlier post from Jerry. See Jerry’s previous discussion, “Are Humanities Scientific?”, where I make essentially the same argument being presented by MacDonald (see entry #6). As I argued there, the attempt to characterize history as a narrowly scientific, observation based discipline wrongly ignores the interpretive dimension involved. So the point has been made before but it appears not to have been appreciated.

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/08/14/a-sci-am-essay-are-humanities-scientific/

    (For what it’s worth, Jerry is still committing the fallacy of explaining the whole in terms of a part, as I previously noted: the fact that history includes making observations does NOT imply history can be completely understood as an empirical discipline. That’s a fallacy.)

    1. As I argued there, the attempt to characterize history as a narrowly scientific, observation based discipline wrongly ignores the interpretive dimension involved.

      To re-cap the argument there:

      Historical inquiry is believed by many people to require a method of interpretation where the investigator creates a “narrative” among the phenomena discovered.

      So does all science; we call the narratives “theories”.

      This method is unlike anything found in the natural sciences because it involves subjective interpretation.

      If the interpretations are supported by evidence then that is exactly what happens in the rest of science. And if the interpretations are not supported by evidence then they’re just empty claims that are unlikely to be true, and so can be disregarded.

      1. Thanks for this. Two replies:

        (1) “So does all science; we call the narratives ‘theories’.”

        I already addressed this sort of response in my previous post. You are committing an equivocation. What you are calling “an interpretation or narrative” is not the same thing the historians are talking about. An interpretation in history requires “making meaningful sense of” the beliefs, intentions, values, etc. of the individuals under study, and this notion is not found in the natural sciences. Nobody denies the role of theories in both cases.

        (2) “if the interpretations are not supported by evidence then they’re just empty claims….”

        I don’t understand this claim really. Nobody is arguing (not MacDonald, not me, not any historian I’ve ever met) that history doesn’t make appeals to evidence. History appeals to evidence. The claim is that one cannot understand the distinctive features of history by describing it solely in terms of appeal to empirical evidence. In addition, there are “interpretive explanations” that are very different than other areas.

        1. An interpretation in history requires “making meaningful sense of” the beliefs, intentions, values, etc. of the individuals under study, and this notion is not found in the natural sciences.

          I still don’t see any real distinction here. How would you, for example, study the social interactions of chimpanzees without “making meaningful sense of the beliefs, intentions, values, etc. of the individual chimps under study”?

          Natural science does indeed take account of such things when dealing with subjects that have “beliefs, intentions, values, etc”, such as chimps, dolphins, humans or whatever.

          1. I would disagree with you here. For one, it’s entirely controversial that the notions of “belief,” “intention,” and “value” make any sense in the context of animal behavior. Research on animal cognition is still very controversial and many animal psychologists remain bound to behaviorist approaches. (Read your Chomsky on this.) So I think you’re not really entitled to make use of this point in this context. And, secondly, even if there’s a simpler sense in which nonhuman animals (certain species?) have beliefs and desires, the way psychologists characterize their mental states lacks the sort of rich relations to social and personal context that make for the complexity of meaningful human behavior. So I would deny that the same issues arise in the areas you mention in the natural sciences. Historians are concerned with social phenomena that are permeated by complex, linguistic forms of communication and there’s no real analogue of this elsewhere. It is these meaningful social practices that are distinctive to the historian’s focus.

            1. All human capabilities descended and were inherited from earlier animals, of course. Nothing controversial there.

              Animals models are well founded. They are the basis for most medical treatments. Mouse models of addiction are predictive of human behaviors, the list is long.

              Bacteria make group behavior and have “economic” behaviors that mirror multi-cellular animals. Fruit fly models of biological systems are universally accepted based on predictability to human usage.

              Claims of human exceptionalism have no factual basis.

              1. “Bacteria make group behavior and have
                ‘economic’ behaviors that mirror multi-cellular animals.”

                When you can write this sentence and remove the quotes from the term “economics” then we can talk.

        2. I may be misunderstanding you also… but, “An interpretation in history requires ‘making meaningful sense of’ the beliefs, intentions, values, etc. of the individuals under study, and this notion is not found in the natural sciences.” I believe this is precisely the notion of contrasting emic and etic descriptions of cultural events in anthropology. Do you exclude anthropology from the natural sciences?

          1. I don’t know these terms. Anthropology is tricky. Physical anthropology is part of natural science. Cultural anthropology not so much (it uses interpretive methods too).

            1. Anthropology is an example of what Bunge helpfully calls a “mixed” science (which also includes sciences like psychology and linguistics). The very existence of mixed sciences (esp. more specific areas like physiological social psychology) shows that the natural and social sciences are linked.

        3. couchloc,

          An interpretation in history requires “making meaningful sense of” the beliefs, intentions, values, etc. of the individuals under study, and this notion is not found in the natural sciences. Nobody denies the role of theories in both cases.

          “Making meaningful sense of” beliefs, intentions, values, etc., is routine in the *social* sciences (psychology, anthropology, economics, etc.).

          And just like those sciences, if history is to produce *knowledge* it must apply the scientific method to its study of beliefs, intentions, etc.

          If “interpretation,” as you are using that word here, refers to some other kind of process, then whatever it is that comes out of that process, it’s not knowledge.

          1. As I already said, history appeals to empirical evidence in part. But it also makes use of interpretive explanations that don’t occur in the natural sciences. You can’t explain how history provides understanding by characterizing it merely in terms of the methods of the natural sciences.

            1. “You can’t explain how history provides understanding by characterizing it merely in terms of the methods of the natural sciences.”

              I suppose in terms of the discussion on “other ways of knowing” it is important to show how history provides understanding. But all the disagreement seems to be focused on the epistemic status of the “understanding” gained, not the means to achieve it.

              1. You’re right about this. You can find an answer to your concern by going to the link mentioned in my first post in this thread above. See the entry I linked to in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on narrative explanations in the social sciences, where you’ll find some examples.

            2. But it also makes use of interpretive explanations that don’t occur in the natural sciences. You can’t explain how history provides understanding

              I don’t know what you mean by “provides understanding.” What is the nature of this “understanding” if it’s not knowledge? What knowledge do you claim these “interpretive explanations” provide? Not hypotheses, guesses, possibilities, etc., but knowledge. Give us some examples.

      2. The reliability of the interpretations is directly related to the strength of scrutiny the interpretations can withstand from scientifically based methods. Which leads to how much knowledge is contained in the interpretations as opposed to how much opinion is contained in the interpretations.

        If any aspect of a historical interpretation is based on opinion not backed up by some scientifically based information then any other equally deficient interpretation will do just as well; that is not knowledge. The opinions may be good or bad but should be noted as opinions not facts of history. That sloppiness is what enables regimes such as that directed by the christian UU Shrub to rewrite history to their convenience.

  14. 1. What questions do you think can be answered pretty definitively, or what facts and truths can be established, without referring to empirical evidence?

    Most of mathematics would fit nicely there.

    1. I’ve gone on at some length elsewhere why I disagree with that statement, but will try to be brief here. Math started with arithmetic, which started (as mentioned above), with the empirical observation that if I have four goats and sell two of them, I always have two left. It proceeds from empirical observations (such as the Nakamura-Tamagawa Conjecture) via trial-and-error and steps of logic (whose rules are also based on empirical observations – try to teach someone logic without resorting to real, observable examples) to general results (such as Wile’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem).

      Since our minds are just biological machines, how could it be otherwise?

      1. It proceeds from empirical observations (such as the Nakamura-Tamagawa Conjecture)

        In what sense is the Nakamura-Tamagawa Conjecture based on empirical observations?

    2. Agreed. Uncle Jerry seems regularly careless about the non-empirical character of abstract mathematics. Thus, “Can an arbitrary angle be trisected using a finite sequence of Euclidean constructions” is answerable — “No.”

      That said, having to add the qualifier “Aside from propositions of pure mathematics…” to both of Uncle Jerry’s questions does not help Sophisticated Theology™ all that much.

      1. I’m not a fan of sophistic theology, either. However, it isn’t just mathematics. Our knowledge of traffic laws did not come from empirical study, it came from legislative edict.

          1. More to the point, you have no knowledge of the edict without some empirical observation of it in either written or spoken form.

        1. Well, the legislative edict is an exercise of politics; politics implicitly corresponds to “sociological engineering”, in that it involves making design choices about the nature of society; and design involves ordering of choices as “better” and “worse” than another. (EG, considering laws which result in fewer car crashes “better” than those resulting in more, rather than the other way around… which would result in rather different traffic laws.) This transition for such “good”-ordering is essentially Hume’s is-ought divide.

          Contrariwise, if the ordering is anything less than purely deontological (based on rules), and is at all consequentialist (IE, preferring choices based on consequences, such as lower numbers of car crashes), then in so far as lawmakers use empirical facts (such as “two cars driving head-on into each other will crash”), the traffic laws are not facts and truths […] established without referring to empirical evidence. Nohow, the ultimate ought-ordering relationship basis is an additional premise that is ultimately non-empirical.

          But overall, I’d somewhat agree. It’s not just mathematics, but also various forms of engineering — though “facts” of engineering are contingent on the ought-ordering design basis that bridges the is-ought divide.

          Those cases seem to about cover it, though.

      2. That said, having to add the qualifier “Aside from propositions of pure mathematics…” to both of Uncle Jerry’s questions …

        A better qualifier would be “… about the real world …”. If any pure maths has relevance to the real world, then we know that empirically. If, on the other hand, there are self-contained logical systems that have no relevance whatsoever to the real world, then, yes, knowledge of them could be non-empirical.

        Having said that, I’m dubious that anyone ever has gained knowledge of any such system without involving empiricism. Yes, you can reason from axioms, but most of the axioms of maths and the rules of logic are adopted precisely because they derive from empirical reality.

        Hence my above request for deriving knowledge ex nihilo. Sure you can start from axioms, but where did you get those axioms? They came from empirical observation.

        1. I’m dubious that anyone ever has gained knowledge of any such system without involving empiricism.

          […]

          Sure you can start from axioms, but where did you get those axioms?

          You might care to look through Steven Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science”. In a couple cases (though looking for some with particular properties), he gets the axioms by (in effect) enumerating possible abstract axiom schema, and starting to look at each in turn. Since this starts off with a countably infinite set of schema, full exploration obviously can take a while.

          Some of the work on identifying small Universal Turing Machines is similar, due to the correspondence between Turing machines and unrestricted grammars, and between unrestricted grammars and axiom schema.

  15. Well, not all science has much to do with theory at all. If you’re simply enumerating the species present in a given area, trying to see which is common and which rare, there’s no theory involved in that.

    The classification scheme, whereby we have species, is theoretical. Granted, it is not a highly mathematical theory such as is seen in physics. But it is theoretical, nonetheless.

    1. I think the quoted statement was intended to emphasize the act of counting sufficiently identical creatures not intended to emphasize the difficulty of classification naturally inherent in the process of evolution.

        1. So simplify it. Would counting the number of red or blue balls in a group containing red, green, and blue balls still require your definition of a theoretical framework?

          If the theoretical framework that you want to emphasize contingent on the difficulty of defining species?

          1. Red, blue, green are ordinary folk concepts and are used rather unsystematically. By contrast, species come from attempts by scientists to engage in a systematic study of the biosphere. Systematizing is a form of theorizing.

            1. The same thing can be done with colors. When exactly along the spectrum of color does yellow change to green?

              It isn’t theorizing to notice that there are changes in the spectrum of animals. The categorization of animals is a convenience so that humans can communicate about which area of the animal spectrum is being considered.

              The theorizing that you seem to be pointing to is where to draw the lines, be it for colors or animals. But, that’s why I claimed that Jerry was concerned with the counting process in the statement that you quoted, not with the specific place where the lines were drawn which I suspected was the focus of your comment.

              1. All the theorizing is post hoc and word play. It is not causal.

                If bench scientists needed a theory to take action, nothing would get done.

                No animal needs a theory to act. That’s a philosopher’s conceit.

  16. JC: I don’t agree that we can get knowledge without referring to empirical evidence.

    This really is begging the question. If the only knowledge that you are willing to admit is knowledge is empirical knowledge, then of course science will be the only way of acquiring knowledge.

    1. If you have a different way of acquiring knowledge then you should present it and of course differentiate it from opinion.

      1. A simple example is the fact that the real numbers are uncountable. This follows from the axioms describing the real numbers and a proof by contradiction. However, this is in no way an empirically testable fact–the very fact that the real numbers are uncountable prevents any empirical verification!

          1. Well, empirical includes *both* experience/observation and logical reasoning. Check the definition: you need both elements for something to be empirical. Otherwise, logical is the term you are looking for.

  17. Pardon me if this is a bit of a sloppy response, I was intrigued so I’m trying to rush this in before my lunch hour ends. First of all, I’m sorry to hear about Karl Giberson, because weird people are awesome, but I suspect he was not weird in a ‘good’ sort of way, so fair enough.

    But Jerry, much as I typically agree with what you say, I’m not following you here. You say yourself that most everything that is not entirely descriptive involves interpretation. So what is interpretation, if not intuition? You observe A happening and B happening shortly after. Is it cause and effect? Does it appear to be cause and effect for a long time before some other previously unseen factor is discovered (and then possibly another after that, and that, and so on)? Is it coincidence? Correlation but not causation? Then look at how exponentially more complex it becomes when there are a multitude of factors and you want to predict which one affects what in what way / proportion / frequency, etc. If you had to write an essay on “how” you come up with these interpretations, is it possible to do it without appealing to “that just makes no sense”. Perhaps it is, I honestly don’t know. But if it isn’t, how does that really differ from findings you call subjective? Maybe our brains are designed to use sophisticated algorithms for probability, I don’t know, but how, if you had to define it explicitly, would you differentiate a Stupid Interpretation from a Good Interpretation, again, without ‘that makes no sense’? Isn’t it just a matter of some intuitions being much easier than others?

    1. But that’s the whole point of needing scientific methods to attain knowledge, that is, something that can be known to be true instead of simply believed to be true. That is, if I understand correctly what you have written.

      The quality of the intuition needs to come into play. The christian religion employs exorcists who’s intuition specifies that spooky ghosts inhabit bodies and that their incantations are able to cast out those spooky ghosts, sometimes. That is not knowledge, it is based only on belief without the benefit of knowledge.

      1. Thanks for responding Notagod. I get frustrated with this concept because it’s so difficult for me to express, but I actually really would like to know. Above, you say something “can be known to be true”, and that “quality of the intuition comes into play.” I guess that’s what I’m getting at – ‘how’ and ‘what defines quality’?

        I guess the clearest I can make my question is this: once you go beyond pure description, I don’t see how you can interpret anything, ever, science or no, without resorting to intuition and subjectivity. So what are the standards for ‘good’ intuition and subjectivity, other than ‘it appears more correct to us humans’? Or is that a question without an answer?

        1. Interpretation doesn’t mean selecting an arbitrary conclusion from a list of equiprobable explanations. Eco did some interesting work on this in his, “The Limits of Interpretation.” Facts can be interpreted because they stand in relationship to one another (in the real world, not just imagined or invented relationships). Interpreting a description means to draw attention to its implications and list its entailments. Some implications/entailments might be highlighted as “more important” within the theoretical framework of the interpretation than others, which is why scholars argue so much over “correct” interpretations (each wants to highlight the implications/entailments most supportive of his own pet theoretical framework). But barring intellectual dishonesty and sloppy mistakes, interpretation doesn’t mean making stuff up. the relationships entailed; the implications noted, are real and substantive. That is what gives them the power to elicit feelings of understanding. A good interpretation links things previously known but not previously (consciously) linked.

  18. “Some theory does come into play if you want to see how to save the rare species, but I would claim that much of that doesn’t have anything to do with philosophy”

    I think the reasons that you’re considering “saving” the rare species is where philosophy comes in. Is it because every species has an innate value and is worth preserving, or because losing this species would have an impact on other species, the environment, economics, etc.? These are philosophical considerations.

      1. What do you mean by the environment suffers? It does not have a nervous system, it does not feel pain. Perhaps we could end its suffering by eliminating all living things from the environment? That’s where philosophy comes in: questions about what is the right thing to do have long been the subject of philosophical discourse.

      2. Take one piece out the environment suffers demonstrably e.g. in reality.

        I don’t think that’s necessarily true, and in any case, just because some change damages “the environment” doesn’t mean it isn’t in the interests of human beings. Human beings necessarily compete with other species for land and food and other resources. What’s bad for them may be good for us.

        I’m not trying to justify every kind of action that benefits humans at the expense of the environment. Just pointing out that the mere fact that an act harms the environment doesn’t mean it’s unjustified.

          1. What’s wrong with “anthropocentric?” I care about the welfare of a human being more than I care about the welfare of, say, a tree.

  19. For me, empirical methods result in ways of knowing while non-empirical studies result in ways of perceiving. Both can result in codified behaviors but only one is firmly grounded in objective reality.

  20. Hoping this hasn’t already been posted, but Jerry wrote: “To construe “philosophy” in this way seems to me to make it meaningless, just one part of the way we find out stuff.”

    …or, Jerry, perhaps construing philosophy this way ushers it under the protective umbrella of science precisely so, in a later rhetorical maneuver, someone can claim that religious thinking is indeed a way of knowing… just like science.

    Your interpretation is charitable, but perhaps too generous?

  21. At last, proof! These are exactly the issues I raised on EMD’s site months ago that got me censored then banned from the site.

    That makes sense because he has his orthodoxy he is supporting. Fair enough.

    If critics and philosophers were serious about debate they would stop rhetorical the trick of name calling, reductionism, materialism, etc and talk about specific studies and specific data analysis. They won’t.

    I don’t think anyone should accept use of those labels. Doing so concedes the point that science is just another ideology. That point is the crux of the dispute and should not be surrendered.

    Plus, it’s dishonest to say so. It needs to be proven, right up front by those who claim it.

    The claim that because empirical, like conceptual work, uses abstract words it shares the presuppositions of conceptual-only work is false as well. Science work always ties to measurable data — conceptual work does not. Big difference.

    Data makes science work (very) different.

    On the point about marketing and sales points in religion to politics, well sure. There are only so many successful sales “hooks” that ideologies of any stripe can use.

    Generally they relate to the hot button family/mating and survival, in-group/out-group reflexive biological imperatives.

    All magical thinking is pretty much the same ingredients — mind over matter + primacy of immediate felt experience, etc.

    Eric et al need to be honest. By other ways of knowing they are just talking about their own, immediate strong emotional sensations/feelings.

    Guess what? It looks like emotions are a false construct as well!! Sharing THAT research will get me kicked off of a whole lot of sites!! lol

    1. Look, it’s not appropriate here to bring up how, whether, and when you were banned from Eric’s site. That is pure petulance and not relevant to the topic.

  22. This is from Eric MacDonald’s reply, that Jerry links to in his update:

    This is all interpretation, based on the documentary and other evidence that is available to us. I may be wrong, but if I am, it is because my interpretation is wrong, not because the facts are other than they are. It is not a question, as Jerry supposes, of not having to refer to empirical evidence. Of course we have to do that. However, there are circumstances other than the sciences in which what we do with the evidence is very different, and that happens when the issue is one of interpretation, as it almost always is in the case of the humanities, and not of direct confirmation or disconfirmation, as in the sciences.

    I’m baffled by this argument, and can only think that Eric doesn’t really understand science. Here has makes an “interpretation based on the documentary and other evidence”, and he admits that the evidence is not fully conclusive, and thus he accepts that his interpretation might be wrong.

    So, what does he think happens in science when the evidence is inconclusive and not sufficient to say for sure one way or the other — and that is most of the time at the cutting edge of science? Why, we make an interpretation, of course! We do our best to interpret the data, to construct a “narrative” out of it (aka “theory”), but if the evidence is inconclusive then we accept that our interpretation might be wrong.

    I am genuinely baffled why Eric or others think that the sort of interpretation of evidence that he discusses about history is any different from the sort of interpretation of evidence that is entirely routine in natural science.

    I can only think, based on his last line of that quote, that he has a simplistic comic-book view of science in which one can always and straightforwardly get “direct confirmation or disconfirmation” of an idea. Wow, wouldn’t science be nice and easy were that the case!

  23. I think it is too late to present an idea of “a theory-laden” science. It will soon become intellectually infeasible to do this.

    The reason I think this, and I know I’m returning to this too often but it is the only clear description out there, is because we have converged on a complete understanding of the laws underlying everyday physics.

    Of course we have arrived there on a unique pathway of historical reasons, ending up using our own particular arithmetic and analysis tools. There are alternatives for the tools, but they are more cumbersome and the results would still be the same modulo the descriptions.

    That means that, observably, constraints such as initial conditions and historical outcome influence the pathway but not the theoretical result. The strawman of “assumptions” (here as “theory-laden”) when we face modifiable and testable constraints is an egregious business, and it is popular among religious and philosophers especially. But then we can also reject the description because of the strawman, it observably doesn’t work that way.

    All of this is an empirical testable tool package, no different from testing if a hammer, nails and planks works for driving nails into planks to build furniture. The constraints are planks and nails, and details of the hammer and the furniture. But nothing of it is ephemeral “assumptions” after they are tested.

  24. Jerry, Alonzo Fyfe has a post up Morality and Questions Belonging to Science at his blog The Atheist Ethicist.

    He concludes, among other thinks, that there are at least two questions that belong to Philosphy and not to Science:

    1. Do all answerable questions belong to science, or is there room for philosophy?”

    2. Is Morality a question that belongs to Science?”

    As regards number 1:

    This implies that the question is an answerable question that belongs to philosophy, or it is not an answerable question. If it is the former, then Krauss is wrong. If it is the latter, then Krauss is wrong. Either way, Krauss is wrong.

    As for number 2, Fyfe answers that morality is a question for science.

  25. “What questions do you think can be answered pretty definitively, or what facts and truths can be established, without referring to empirical evidence?” – J. Coyne

    Many will answer: logical and mathematical facts/truths.

  26. 1. What questions do you think can be answered pretty definitively, or what facts and truths can be established, without referring to empirical evidence?

    Subjectivity, meaning, beauty, love are all “truths” that exist without empirical evidence. By truth I mean that they exist for real since I was truly moved by this movie which I wouldn’t be able to understand if I hadn’t been in love before. And just like this discussion, this movie wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t of our subjectivity. Science neither.

    2. What are the answers to those questions that have been derived from “other ways of knowing”?

    We may not be able to know these answers since they belong to other ways of knowing that can’t be tested or measured. That is precisely why they are labeled as such. Unless you believe that everything needs a material basis, you’ll hardly accept that answer, even if it could be just a fact. But it would be logic that what is not material is not reachable through the scientific method, specially if this is echoing, or hidden in “things” like meaning, beauty, love and ultimately our subjectivity (and objectivity).

  27. Look, if there were really other ways of knowing:
    – Nature would have evolved them a long time ago
    – We would see evidence in other species

    Why would evolution wait over a billion years to come up with modern philosophical and theological ways of knowing?

    1. Subjectivity, which lead to meaning, beauty, science, objectivity or love to name a few, are other ways of knowing that nature produced through evolution.

      So, it’s been a while that nature make them evolved.

      But that requires a certain quality of self-awareness that only humans are capable of. That is why it is not found in other species.

      1. Why? If it’s so valuable in the billions years of life evolution, why not in other animals?

        Why would any useful way of knowing take a billion years to surface and only available through philosophers and the religious?

        1. As far as I know, you can experience subjectivity, meaning and beauty. Don’t need to be a philosopher or religious for that.

          But it looks like the conditions required for these ways of knowing to appear aren’t met in other species, just like bipedalism if you bring this to amore mechanical level.

          From a human perspective, bipedalism is for sure valuable and we are the only species that walks this way.

  28. Groan! My alma mater:

    “Wisdom Research at the University of Chicago

    By Howard C. Nusbaum

    On the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama stated that Barack Obama, President of the United States has wisdom. While it may not be surprising for a First Lady to praise the qualities of the President, it is unusual in public discourse to hear wisdom named. After a long hiatus from public speech, wisdom is beginning to be discussed once more. Although more typically associated with mythic or historical figures like Confucius or Yoda or King Solomon, to identify wisdom with the President is to frame the potential achievement of wisdom as within the reach of the American dream. However, understanding wisdom only in terms of its exemplification in larger-than-life figures like the President keeps it out of the grasp of many people. While people can intuitively distinguish between being smart and being wise, a more detailed and specific understanding is elusive.

    From 2007 to 2011, the John Templeton Foundation funded a research project that provided $2,000,000 in funding to 23 scholars and researchers to study wisdom from the perspective of many disciplines from classics and philosophy to economics and psychology. The Defining Wisdom project was administered by the University of Chicago to support a broad set of research projects and to begin to develop discussions about wisdom research that would go beyond the specific research projects funded. Defining Wisdom succeeded producing a number of intellectual products including 5 books, 26 articles, 12 chapters, and over 90 presentations, with another 10 books and 34 articles in preparation. In addition, investigators proposed a working definition that could serve to guide future wisdom research:

    We distinguish wisdom from intelligence, cleverness, knowledge, and expertise.Wisdom requires moral grounding, but is not identical to it (i.e., wisdom must be moral but morality need not be wise). Wisdom can be observed in individual or collective wise action or counsel. Action or counsel is perceived as wise when a successful outcome is obtained in situations involving risk, uncertainty, and the welfare of the group. (We recognize that understanding the definition of a successful outcome is a substantial problem on its own.) Wisdom flexibly integrates cognitive, affective, and social considerations, but can be studied profitably by understanding its constituent elements. Because of the fundamentally multifaceted nature of wisdom, interdisciplinary discourse is extremely useful in advancing the research.

    Given that this definition distinguishes wisdom from intelligence, knowledge, and expertise, it is worth pointing out that wisdom is not found absent these things. The definition emphasizes that wisdom is more than these things. The importance of the distinction is that good decisions are sometimes confused (in vernacular descriptions) with wise decisions. This raises a fundamental research question about whether wise decisions, actions, and counsel can be understood as arising from different processes (or combinations of processes) from those that would be called smart. To address this question we need research on wisdom that expands upon the Defining Wisdom project.

    A group of researchers at the University of Chicago has now been funded by the John Templeton Foundation to study wisdom and to open discussions about how wisdom can play a role in the professions and public life. The Wisdom Research project will specifically focus on studying the role of expertise in wisdom and the kinds of experiences that can lead to wisdom. In particular, three projects will investigate how medical expertise (Jean Decety, Psychology), financial expertise (Ali Hortacsu, Economics, and John List, Economics), and expertise with language (Boaz Keysar, Psychology) affect wise decisions, action and counsel. Another three projects will investigate how specific types of experiences such as language use (Anne Henly, Psychology, and Clark Gilpin, Divinity School), the experience of making certain kinds of decisions (Howard Nusbaum, Psychology), and different kinds of somatic and mental training disciplines (Berthold Hoeckner, Music, and Howard Nusbaum) can affect wisdom.

    Wisdom Research at The University of Chicago will go beyond these research projects to consider what kind of impact an understanding of wisdom may have on society. We will examine how to teach undergraduates about wisdom and wisdom research, and begin to develop interdisciplinary training for graduate students and postdoctoral students to become wisdom researchers. As part of the Wisdom Research project, we are launching a new website that will serve to open communications about wisdom and wisdom research. We will post relevant news, and encourage discussions about specific aspects of wisdom and how these aspects shed light on wisdom and its role in society. “

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