Boudry on scientism and “ways of knowing”

July 27, 2020 • 10:30 am

It’s been a while since we’ve discussed either scientism or “ways of knowing” on this site (the two ideas are connected). I’ll reiterate my views very briefly. “Scientism” has two meanings, as Maarten Boudry notes in his piece below, but the most common non-pejorative meaning is that of science making claims outside of its ambit, something that almost never happens these days.

I’m more interested in the idea whether there are “ways of knowing” beyond those involving science or “science broadly construed” (“SBC”, i.e., any profession, including plumbing and car mechanics, that uses the empirical method and relies on hypotheses, tests, and confirmation as ways of understanding the cosmos). As far as I can see—and I’ve asked readers about this—I’ve found no way beyond SBC to ascertain what’s true about our universe.

The most common area to claim that there are ways of knowing beyond the empirical is of course religion, but theology has never found a single ascertainable truth about the Universe that hasn’t been confirmed (or disconfirmed, as in the Exodus) by empirical research. You can’t find out what’s true about the Universe by reading scripture or waiting for a revelation. Even “scientific revelations” like Kekulé’s dream of a snake biting its own tail, which supposedly gave rise to the ring structure of benzene with alternative single and double bonds, had to be confirmed empirically.

Maarten Boudy has a new blog piece that discusses these ideas, but also highlights a new paper that, he says, puts paid to the notion that there are ways of knowing beyond science. Click on the screenshot to read it. (His piece has a good Jewish title though Boudry is a goy.) As you can see from the title, Maarten tells it as it is:

Boudry, by the way, is co-author of this collection of essays, which, though mixed in quality, is generally good and gives a good overview of the “scientism” controversy. (Click screenshot for Amazon link.) The co-author, Massimo Pigliucci, absolutely despises my including stuff like plumbing in “science construed broadly,” and has said so many times. Massimo is deeply preoccupied with demarcating “science” from “nonscience,” and sees me as having messed up that distinction.

Here’s Maarten’s link to the new paper and a useful classification of four flavors of scientism:

Now yesterday I read a clever new paper in Metaphilosophy – yes, there really is a journal by that name – in defense of scientism, which follows the second strategy. The Finnish authors, known as the Helsinki Circle, present a neutral definition of “scientism”, distinguishing between four different flavors represented by the quadrant below. The four positions follow from two simple choices: either you adopt a narrow or a broad definition of science, and either you believe that science is the only valid source of knowledge or that it is simply the best one available.

The differences between “natural sciences” and “sciences” here, as Maarten wrote me, is this:

“Natural sciences” is just physics, chemistry, biology, etc.

“Sciences” includes the human and social sciences, (like “Wissenschaft” in German).

But I’d prefer the distinction to be between “science” (what is practiced by scientists proper) and “SCB”, or the use of the empirical method to ascertain truth (SCB includes the human and social sciences). Given that slight change, I’d fall into the lower-left square. The upper left square, says Maarten, is occupied only by the hard-liner Alex Rosenberg.

But never mind. Boudy and I are more concerned with the criticisms of science that fall under the rubric of “non-pejorative scientism”, and he mentions two:

The authors want to draw attention to the other three versions of “scientism”, which are more defensible but nonetheless interesting and non-trivial. In the rest of the paper, they discuss how the different interpretations of scientism fare under two lines of criticism: (a) that scientism is self-defeating because the thesis itself cannot be demonstrated by scientific means; (b) that science inevitably relies on non-scientific sources of knowledge, such as metaphysical assumptions or data from our senses.

I’ve addressed both of these, but Maarten concentrates on the second. (My criticism of [a] is that you don’t need to demonstrate a philosophical or scientific underpinning of the methods of science to accept it, because science works—it enables us to understand the Universe in ways that both enable us to do things like cure smallpox and send rovers to Mars, and to make verified predictions, like when an eclipse will occur or the light from stars might bend around the Sun). Justification of science by some extra-scientific method is not only futile, but unnecessary.

Maarten refutes (b) handily:

Here I want to focus on the second objection. Does science “presuppose” the existence of an external world, or lawful regularities, or the truth of naturalism, or other metaphysical notions? No it doesn’t. These are merely working hypotheses that are being tested as we go along. I’ve argued for this position at length myself, in a paper with the neurologist Yon Fishman and earlier with my Ghent colleagues. As the authors write:

“One does not have to assume that science can achieve knowledge of the external world. Science can merely start with the hypothesis that some kind of knowledge could be achievable. For all practical purposes, this hypothesis would merely state that there are at least some regularities to be found. This hypothesis could be tested by simply attempting to obtain empirical knowledge with scientific means. If it is impossible to achieve this kind of knowledge, then the efforts would just be in vain. But hoping that something is the case is not the same as believing that it is the case.”

Second, does the fact that scientists rely on their sense organs invalidate scientism? No, because that’s a trivial point. It’s obviously true that science could not even get off the ground without sensory data, but this input too is being refined and corrected as we go along.

All these arguments about science being “based” on some extra-scientific assumption or source of knowledge are guilty of what I call the “foundationalist fallacy”. The mistake is to think that knowledge is something that needs to be “grounded” in some solid foundation, and that if this foundation is not completely secure, the whole edifice will collapse. But this metaphor is deeply misguided, and it inevitably leads to infinite regress. Whatever ultimate foundation you come up with, you can always ask the question: what is that foundation based on? It cannot be self-evident, floating in mid-air. This reminds one of the old Hindu cosmology according to which we live on a flat earth supported by four big elephants. Pretty solid, but what are the elephants standing on? On the back of a giant turtle. And that turtle? On the back of an even larger turtle. And so it’s turtles all the way down, ad infinitum.

Boudry’s Argument from Turtles also goes, I think, for (a): if you must justify using scientific methods through philosophy, how do you justify the value of philosophy in settling such a question? But never mind. If people dismiss science as an activity because philosophy (or science itself) provides no foundation for the empirical method, I’ll just ask them, “Have you ever been vaccinated or taken antibiotics?” If they say “yes,” then they already trust in science regardless of where the method came from. (It comes, by the way, not from a priori justification, but through a five-century refinement of methods to hone them down to a toolkit that works. Remember, science used to include aspects of the Divine, as in creationism as an explanation for life on Earth or Newton’s view that God tweaked the orbits of the planets to keep them stable.)

I’ll be reading the Metaphilosophy paper (click on screenshot below to access and download it), but let me finish by self-aggrandizingly saying that Boudry does agree that SCB is part of the nexus of empirical methodology that includes “real science”

For me, an essential part of scientism is the belief in one unified, overarching web of knowledge, which was defended most famously by the philosopher Willard V.O. Quine. Take an everyday form of knowledge acquisition such as a plumber trying to locate a leak (I believe this analogy is due to the biologist Jerry Coyne). Now plumbing is not usually regarded as a “science”, but that doesn’t mean that my plumber is engaged in some “different way of knowing”. He’s also making observations, testing out different hypotheses, using logical inferences, and so on. The main difference is that he is working on a relatively mundane and isolated problem (my sink), which is both simple enough to solve on his own, and parochial enough not be of any interest to academic journals. Plumbing is not a science, but it is continuous with science, because it makes use of similar methods (observation and logical inference) and is connected with scientific knowledge, for example about fluid dynamics. The plumber or detective or car mechanic is not doing anything radically different from what the scientist is doing.

Take that, Massimo!

And here’s a reading assignment:


63 thoughts on “Boudry on scientism and “ways of knowing”

  1. I don’t understand Pigliucci’s complaint about your plumber angle. When I first came across that idea of yours — I can’t remember now if you first mentioned somewhere on this site or in the book — I realized right away that it’s correct, no question about it.

    Sorry, Massimo. You are WRONG. (Sorry for the shouty all caps.)

    1. Massimo wants a much narrower definition of “science” along the lines of “what professional scientists do”.

      I think that’s partly because he wants philosophy to be distinct from science, and also for it to be a valid “way of knowing”.

      (My personal take is that philosophy, when done well, is best thought of as a particular *style* of doing “science broadly construed”, and thus it does not make sense to find a clear demarcation between them.)

      1. I agree about philosophy. In as much as any particular philosophy is useful it almost certainly falls under SBC. And philosophy that does not fall under SBC, that is not continuous with observing, hypothesizing, testing and the other features of SBC, then it is very unlikely to be useful.

      2. Philosophy is empirically empty, so I don’t see how it can be useful or knowledge. [I write it that way since I’m not sure if it makes sense to say non-quantified empiricism is science even if “broadly constructed”.]

        1. Philosophy can be useful if done in close conjunction with empirical enquiry (thus it is one of a number of “roles” that can usefully contribute to the whole).

    2. My layman’s two cents. In a way much of plumbing is applying some learned rules of the thumb, without much attention as to why it works that way. I agree that that maybe underestimating the explorative side of plumbing, but I guess that it is the kind of area where ‘Mr Pigliucci’s complaint’ comes from.

      1. I think that’s a bit unfair to plumbers. After all, most scientists use instruments in their work for which they probably know little of their internal workings. They are also famous for building on the work of others (“standing on the shoulders of giants”). Are plumbers’ rules of thumb really much different? On the other hand, plumbers don’t really break new ground, except when they need to of course.

  2. Very interesting.

    Some raw, unrefined thoughts on this topic:

    1. Science frequently makes use of indirect measurement. This can be unsettling because the individual is observing one thing while something possibly unrelated is going on – or not – obscured by limitations of technology or knowledge. Example : a leaking pipe behind a wall. Why am I mentioning this? Because I wonder if something about it’s effectiveness is an excuse used by faith to make the complete lack of evidence of supernatural forces by definition outside of observation (sound familiar? ) but therefore the explanation for things we can observe like natural catastrophes, babies being born, etc.

    2. Plumbing featured prominently in the foundational text of the science of chemistry- De Re Metallica. There was intense interest in removing water from mines. Perhaps plumbing is a “closed” science – I’ve heard of “closed” sciences, but I’m not sure I understand the idea. Because there’s always new things cropping up even in plumbing.

    1. Plumbing is Technology – look it up. As for Massimo, really! people are still taking him seriously? Philosophy – setting problems for 2500 years without a single solution. Grrrr!

      1. Plumbers solve problems using scientific and quantitative reasoning. It’s very clear when discussing a problem with a plumber.

        I suppose MIT isn’t scientific either because the T in the name stands for “technology” when I looked it up?

          1. The question is if plumbing is scientific. I have made a case that suggests it is.

            I have made no argument nor have I raised the question about personally, professionally, how one individual can be identified.

          2. They are certainly technicians, as you say, but how does that make truth not an end? They don’t generally make new scientific truths but certainly truth is a goal (an end).

            1. Basic scientific question: “Can organism X survive without oxygen for duration Y?”

              Applied science question: “Now that we know that X can survive Y without oxygen, can we find a way to do so S that might be compatible with keeping it as a food source.”

              Technology question: How do we design a preservation mechanism W based on S that will preserve X in a cost effective, culturally sensitive way for people P to eat?

              Technic question: implement mechanism W.

              Marketing question: design an advertising campaign, support network, etc. for W.

              I’ve oversimplified, but you can see the trend from “how does the world work” to “let’s use this knowledge to change it”. Truth matters in the latter too, but the goal is different.

  3. For (a), I think the objections arise from a sort of “but what about” for the cited examples. A rover collects data on Mars, yes, but what about all this other stuff that is being ignored along the way?

    Light bends around a star, yes, but what about some deeper meaning that might be missed because of a laser-sharp focus on _only_ the light bending around the star?

    Of course, my reply might be “so what ?”, or “then go find out yourself.”.

  4. I really like this:
    “ A better metaphor of human knowledge is that of a large web with many interconnected strands that mutually reinforce each other. The more connections, the more reliable our knowledge. ”

    1. This is important – or Haack’s crossword – because people forget sometimes that there really are well established (even if partial in many cases) truths. Any one of them *could* be wrong, but many are so well “entrenched” that they cannot be easily dislodged. The crossword analogy shows how one can be *partially* right and how mutual support works. (Ironically, in the first case, because IMO one of Haack’s biggest mistakes is not realizing the merits to the partial truth idea.)

  5. Now plumbing is not usually regarded as a “science”,…

    The only reason it’s not is it doesn’t justify the expense. You could do plumbing more formally, carefully measuring everything to do with the dripping sink, and perhaps publish papers if you discovered an unusual situation. So, yes, it is continuous with science.

  6. “One does not have to assume that science can achieve knowledge of the external world.”

    I have made this point many times over the years and have always gotten push back to one degree or another from scientists.

    This is why the processes themselves are the most important thing about science. Humans, all of us, are fault prone and even many scientists don’t seem to understand science very well.

    1. I would go even further. There are only processes. Objects are an artifact of how humans think. We delineate an object from everything else so we can associate properties with it. And, of course, the properties are objects as well.

      1. Spoken like a true computer expert! 🙂

        That’s deeper than I was attempting to go. I merely meant to distinguish between relying on a group of humans to hold to some particular ideals vs training people to do things in particular ways. I’d say that any good system relies on both of those things but that the training part is more important. The more robust the training part is the more tolerant the system is of people not holding to the ideals or not understanding them.

      2. My understanding of a process is that there is change with time, or conservation in time.
        Now, unless time doesn’t exist (and as far a I know, no one proved this), something is changing or something is conserved.
        ‘There are no things, only processes’ seems to me a bit vacuous if you don’t add something to it.
        My two cents!

        1. I agree that time exists and something must be changing but that doesn’t demand the existence of objects. Time and change are certainly concepts but not objects since both could be continuous. I am no physicist but, AFAIK, there’s no proof of the discrete nature of anything. In fact, we have found that every time we think we have reached the smallest bit of something, we then find something smaller. Even now, the smallest things we have end up being described by fields and probabilities. What if it is turtles interacting fields all the way down?

          1. ”… no proof of the discrete nature of anything”

            In science we generally speak of evidence not proof.

            I’ve got plenty of evidence for the discrete nature of the chair I’m seated in.

            1. Yes, ok. I obviously meant proof in the common usage, not in its mathematical sense. Still, evidence is better.

              You were probably being sarcastic but the chair you are sitting on is good example of what I’m talking about. It’s really just a collection of atoms with some consistency in space and time. We attach importance to its spatial boundaries but physics doesn’t really care about them. There could be surface effects, such as rust, surface tension (or its solid equivalent), electrostatics, etc. but they all can be explained in terms of fundamental physics with no reference to a boundary. The boundary is something that really only matters to our brains and its perceptual apparatus.

              1. You’re bordering on being nonsensical, or at least self-invalidating. Telling me that the chair is “only matters to my brain” relies on the discreetness of brains to be a remotely meaningful statement. Seriously, Paul, you’re sounding just a bit woo-fillled.

              2. No woo! That I promise! I oppose all woo! All I’m saying is that the objectness of the chair is a mental construct, a useful abstraction, and has no existence beyond that. I don’t know what you mean by “the discreteness of brains” but it doesn’t sound like anything I’m proposing.

              3. “there’s no proof of the discrete nature of anything”

                Pan Am flight 103 crashed into Lockerbie Scotland. 259 discrete humans were killed. Plenty of evidence exists to “prove” this fact.

                “physics doesn’t really care about them”

                Newtonian physics has disappeared?

                “The boundary is something that really only matters to our brains and its perceptual apparatus.”

                Your case that discrete objects don’t exist relies on the existence of discrete brains and perceptual apparatus existing.

              4. I have no idea what you mean by “discrete brains” or why you think it matters. The objectness of the 747 and the individuals who died at Lockerbie are labels we apply to collections of atoms, or quarks if you prefer. Physics has no record of any such thing. As far as physics is concerned they are all arbitrary collections of atoms. Similarly for Newton. He gave us laws that describe motions of objects but the definition of what is an object or, more properly, which atoms we assign to which object, is ours. The are very useful abstractions, nothing more.

                I find I’m repeating myself and that you aren’t really engaging so let’s just end it here.

              5. Fair enough. Process is the change in fields over time based on the laws of physics. Physical laws describe how change occurs from moment to moment.

                In the object-less conception of the universe there are only fluctuating fields. What we perceive as objects are just mental abstractions that make it easier to describe what is happening in the universe. Our brains process perceptual input (fields impinging on our eyes, for example) by attempting to group things together into objects, collections of fields whose spatial and temporal positions correlate to a sufficient extent. Our brains leverage this ability to break the world into objects far beyond what is taken in by our senses. It colors all our thinking. We tend to find objects everywhere, even in time (ie, events). It’s an evolutionary hack that works (like all such hacks).

            1. Sure. I didn’t say what I was describing was uniquely my idea. I’m more interested here in what it means for our brains. Even though quantum mechanics says that everything is changing fields, we still think that objects have physical existence rather than only mental existence.

              I’m sure that there are subtleties here. It is very hard to imagine a universe with no objects. Perhaps people that work in quantum mechanics can do it better than I can but obviously they can’t escape thinking in terms of objects as we really have no choice in everyday life.

  7. (His piece has a good Jewish title though Boudry is a goy.)

    I’ve heard tell there’re goyim who try to toss around a bit of Yiddish — not that I know bupkes about it.

  8. Massimo is an interesting cat. He comes down like a sledgehammer on anything “pseudoscience” and yet seems to think that philosophy can tell us things about morality that science can not. In this sense he seems to support “other ways of knowing” whilst simultaneously being down on pseudoscience. He is also one of the worst offenders in the use of the term SCIENTISM!!! (I always imagine him saying it in all caps with three exclamation points) He seems to thinks that scientism causes more problems than religion.

    In general, philosophers are in a panic right now because science is shedding more light on human morality than philosophy ever has and this of course is philosophy’s last area of so called “expertise.” The transfer of funding from the humanities to the sciences is the biggest cause of this panic.

    The good news for philosophers is that science is confirming what many philosophers (Plato, Socrates) have posited about morality but that doesn’t seem to be good enough for some philosophers. They don’t like their “moral theories” needing to be confirmed by science. They prefer it the other way around. They want to be seen as the ones who confirm science. Unfortunately that has never been, and never will be true.

    Indeed, take that, Massimo! Scientism Sscmientism!

    1. Speaking of objective morality, Sean Carroll’s new podcast interview is “Russ Shafer-Landau on the Reality of Morality”. In the intro, Sean says:

      Philosopher Russ Shafer-Landau is one of the leading proponents of moral realism — the view that objective moral truths exist independently of human choices. That’s not my own view, but ethics and meta-ethics are areas in which I think it’s wise to keep an open mind and listen to smart people who disagree. This conversation offers food for thought for people on either side of this debate.

      1. Thanks, I will check out that podcast. I don’t consider myself a “moral realist” but I enjoy hearing the various arguments for it.

  9. I feel the ‘other ways of knowing debate’ is primarily semantic. There is really no proposed way of knowing, that I can think of, that can’t be framed in scientific terms, in that it can’t be framed as a hypothesis that can be proven or disproved. Say a person says “I just get this feeling in my gut when someone is upset.” Say, for the purposes of this hypothetical, that they are 100% right on that – there is nothing anti-scientific about such a proposition. In fact it would be incredibly easy to put together an experiment to see if “feeling in gut” actually corresponded to “something wrong”.

  10. A nice point in the Metaphilosophy article’s introduction about the definition and discussion of scientism: “If the opponents of a view are its main theoreticians, then it is rather probable that the principle of charity will be violated at some point.”

    1. It’s well above my paygrade, but I enjoyed the Metaphilosphy paper, especially the response to de Ridder’s “garbage in, garbage out” criticism of epistemology. (I also always laugh when a journal article cites a classical source and refers to it using the date of an incongruous modern edition, in this case “Aristotle, 1984”, but that’s just my childish sense of humour.) And I see that our esteemed host got mentioned in passing.

  11. “Ways of knowing” is one of those phrases that nearly every time I’ve heard it, it was to sneak in something unscientific as being equivalent to the established science on the topic at hand. That said, even broadly construed I can’t get behind scientism being the only way of knowing.
    1. Logical inference – there are certain things were able to deduce from the definitions of things. The use of reason and logic don’t require anything observational.
    2. Mathematical truths – perhaps a subset of (1), but again it’s to use of reason and inference outside of observation to come to conclusions.
    3. Everyday experience – some of how we know fits the science broadly construed pattern, but it would be hard to take all experience this way.

    Perhaps we could stretch the definition of science enough to encompass all that, but I think it would be a mistake. Because those ways have circumstances under which they’re reliable, and circumstances under which they fail and scientific inquiry works better. Understanding which to use at any given circumstance is the key.

    1. That is an interesting take. Typically I have heard “other ways of knowing” used to describe things such as emotions, implying that emotions are some sort of mystic realm, so that if someone says “music is deeply moving”, they are making a claim that is outside the realm of science. I think this is just confusing “difficult to describe” with “outside of science”. Emotions such as “deeply moved” can be quantified, in my opinion, either by detailed self-description or by things like neural or chemical correlates.

      I hadn’t thought of this in realms such as inference and common sense, however. Inference, in particular, may well represent an area outside the usual methods of observation in science. It is true that there are observable things we would expect to follow from inferences, which I believe is how theories are tested – but the act of inferring itself is still somewhat different than reaching knowledge by direct observation or the hypothetical possibility of direct observation. It is more an act of moving the ‘direct observation’ to a simulator in one’s mind, and then drawing conclusions from said simulator.

      1. Emotions are a case where IMO a weaker version of the thesis may be defensible: emotions as a *nonscientific* (because nonpropositional) judgement. It does not follow from this (nor do I believe) that they are thereby mysterious, infallible, “better”, or unevaluatable by scientific means.

    2. The Metaphilosophy paper doesn’t directly address mathematical truths, but I think it does the other points that you raise.

    3. You beat me to it! Logical inference is not an “empirical method”, which is the definition Jerry (or Boudry) rightly uses for science. Modus tollens, for example, is not an empirical discovery, but is in the background every time we test a hypothesis: If hypothesis H were true, we’d see observation O. We don’t see O. So H is not true.

      I view myself as a borderline case of the very weakest form of scientism (lower right corner of the table). Empirical research can help as a check on logic. Not every logical principle that is intuitively appealing is actually correct, and experiments can help us detect the problem children. Similarly with math, and with everyday experience. Science always helps, but you can still prove a tautology with logic alone, no empirical support required.

      1. Reading the paper, I also see myself as supporting what it called the weak-broad position, at least in the sense that where science (in the broad sense – what Massimo Pigliucci calls scientia) is a better option than its alternatives. Bad science tends to get corrected by doing better science, not by discarding the science and relying on the non-scientific “ways of knowing”.

        I think a case for the weak-narrow position could be made in the sense that the hard sciences should be preferred to the humanities when they are in conflict, though I wouldn’t think that’s always the case.

        The broad-strong position would rely on a semantic argument over the word knowledge, that those non-scientific ways of knowing either either subsets of science already, or that those things that fall outside science aren’t really knowledge. Perhaps this case could be made, but I think it would confuse things for the reasons above.

  12. The etymology, not unsurprisingly, seems to derive from the ‘science is induction’ apologist William Whewell [ ; ; ].

    And that is all I need to know on that subject.

    Regarding the science on science, I think there is very little done so far. There are statistical models of observation, testing and robustness, of course – as well as the track record of science being a useful tool (vaccination is a good example!) – it’s a start.

    The co-author, Massimo Pigliucci, absolutely despises my including stuff like plumbing in “science construed broadly,”

    One of the leading theoretical cosmologists, Leonard Susskind, began working as a plumber [ ].

    Leonard Susskind was born to a Jewish family from the South Bronx in New York City.[14] He began working as a plumber at the age of 16, taking over from his father who had become ill.[14] Later, he enrolled in the City College of New York as an engineering student, graduating with a B.S. in physics in 1962.[5] In an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Susskind recalls the moment he discussed with his father that changed his career path: “When I told my father I wanted to be a physicist, he said, ‘Hell no, you ain’t going to work in a drug store.’ I said, ‘No, not a pharmacist.’ I said, ‘Like Einstein.’ He poked me in the chest with a piece of plumbing pipe. ‘You ain’t going to be no engineer,’ he said. ‘You’re going to be Einstein.'”[14] Susskind then studied at Cornell University under Peter A. Carruthers where he earned his Ph.D. in 1965.

    Seamless sciencing.

  13. What a great post. Another 10! Thanks.

    Every time I read your comment on plumbing I think of how Steven Jay Gould closed an essay in the Atlantic (September 1982.) He made some remarks, less explicit than you, on plumbing and science.

    “As I prepared to leave Little Rock last December (Gould was a witness in the balanced treatment trial which led to the Overton decision). I went to my hotel room to gather my belongings and found a man sitting backward on my commode, pulling it apart with a plumber’s wrench. He explained to me that a leak in the room below had caused part of the ceiling to collapse and he was seeking the source of the water. My commode, located just above, was the obvious candidate, but his hypothesis had failed, for my equipment was working perfectly. The plumber then proceeded to give me a fascinating disquisition on how a professional traces the pathways of water through hotel pipes and walls. The account was perfectly logical and mechanistic: it can come only from here, here, or there, flow this way or that way, and end up there, there, or here. I then asked him what he thought of the trial across the street, and he confessed his staunch creationism, including his firm belief in the miracle of Noah’s flood.

    “As a professional, this man never doubted that water has a physical source and a mechanically constrained path of motion—and that he could use the principles of his trade to identify causes. It would be a poor (and unemployed) plumber indeed who suspected that the laws of engineering had been suspended whenever a puddle and cracked plaster bewildered him. Why should we approach the physical history of our earth any differently?”

  14. Boudry writes:

    It would be lame to then say: “Scientism is still correct because reading tea leaves is now part of science!”

    I disagree. If reading tea leaves worked, science would not be content to know simply that it works; we would want to know how it works, i.e. what sort of regularities it exhibits. What parts of the tea ritual are essential to a successful reading, and what parts are superfluous? Do different varieties of tea yield different success rates? What about herbal tea? Coffee grounds? Cocoa? Is a human reader necessary, or can it be done by a trained monkey sitting at a computer terminal? Can we perhaps dispense with the monkey and the terminal and have the computer read it directly via some deep-learning algorithm?

    These are the kinds of questions we would want answered, and in the course of answering them, tea-leaf reading would be transformed from an arcane art to a rigorous practical discipline. Theorists would then be in a position to propose coherent, testable hypotheses about why it exhibits the regularities that it does. At that point I think it would be perfectly reasonable to say that tea-leaf reading has been subsumed into the body of scientific knowledge, even if its theoretical connections to the rest of that body remain obscure.

    After all, physics has room for both general relativity and quantum mechanics, two famously irreconcilable theories.

    1. Indeed – the scope of science is itself a scientific question. That includes the question of whether tea leaves have any non-obvious predictive power.

      1. Metascience gives a good argument for why the general philosophical principles behind science are now “working hypotheses” that are too enthroned to easily get rid of.

        (And falsify the views of “disunity of science” partisans.)

  15. “The upper left square, says Maarten, is occupied only by the hard-liner Alex Rosenberg.”

    Actually, Rosenberg doesn’t say that that natural sciences are the *only* way to justify rational beliefs.

    He is a reductionist; and he explicitly states that “you don’t have to start at the bottom”; social sciences can be, at least in principal, a source of knowledge. However when facts on a higher level contradict facts on a lower (physical) level, one of them has to be wrong.

    Rosenberg sits in the lower or upper right corner. I don’t know anyone who occupies the upper left square.

  16. What, precisely, science is and is not is one thing. But science is nothing unless there’s individuals to whom it means something, and leads to discovery.

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