Once again: the supposed need for the self-justification of science

September 23, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Reading the latest edition of The Chicago Maroon, our student newspaper, I saw an op-ed about self care by Ada Palmer, an associate professor of History. I’m not going to write about that; her piece is pretty straightforward and empathic towards our students, who will be having a rather stressful semester. Rather, when I looked Palmer up, I saw that she’d written a review two years ago in Harvard Magazine of Steve Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Always interested in how my colleagues regard Pinker, in arguments for empiricism and rationality, and intrigued by the title of her piece, I read her piece. You can, too, by clicking on the screenshot below.

It turns out that Dr. Palmer likes Steve’s book, but has two reservations. The first is that Steve argues that humanism, which is a handmaiden of atheism, is the way forward, and that religion has only been an impediment to moral and material progress. I think he’s pretty much right on that one. But Palmer doesn’t like the atheism bit:

Pinker reviews what he sees as humanism’s intellectual adversaries, such as those who caricature it as cold utilitarianism, those who suggest that humans have an innate need for spiritual beliefs, and the classic accusation, ubiquitous in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, that there cannot be good or virtue without God. For some readers, it will be frustrating that 350 pages of useful and cheering data, the majority of which one could call faith-neutral, culminate in the declaration that only triumphant atheism can ensure that scientific progress will help instead of harm. But Pinker’s secular humanism is less militant than that of many contemporary atheist voices; he focuses on the benefits of caring about the earthly world, rather than on condemning religion. His conclusion, that progress simply requires us to value life over death, health over sickness, abundance over want, freedom over coercion, happiness over suffering, and knowledge over superstition, is one numerous theisms can and have embraced.

Thank God he’s not as militant as Dawkins! God forbid that anyone should condemn religion.

Yes, but of course many theisms have impeded science, reason, and morality, and continue to do so (I’m looking at you, Vatican), while atheism hasn’t impeded those things one bit. After all, atheism is simply lack of belief in gods. The lucubrations above look like either religion osculation or accommodationism. I doubt that anyone could argue cogently that science would be more advanced if everyone became religious. Palmer also mentions “secular evidence” below, as if there was a kind of “nonsecular evidence” for science.

But the main problem with her piece is a recurrent trope that we see among those who wish to minimize the importance of science. It’s the claim that reason itself, or logic, or science itself, cannot prove that science can actually help us understand the universe in a useful way. For philosophers and some in the humanities, the lack of a priori justification that reliance on empirical methods will work is somehow an indictment of science. Here’s how Palmer goes at it:

Pinker briefly reviews efforts to value other factors—love, passions, feeling—above reason, but declares such efforts self-defeating: as soon as they attempt to justify themselves, the very act of providing reasoned arguments for their beliefs admits that reasoned arguments are the strongest grounds for belief. Yet, as I reflect on this argument, I am reminded how science, during a critical moment in its history, was self-defeating in much the same way.

Why was it self-defeating? Because there was no a priori justification for going ahead with empirical observation, hypothesis-making and -testing, and so on as a way to understand nature:

Progress in the modern sense, as an intentional and human-driven process, was first fully articulated by Francis Bacon early in the seventeenth century, when he suggested that a collaborative community of empirical inquiry would uncover useful truths that would radically transform human civilization and make each generation’s experience incrementally better than that of the generation before. This was not the easy sell it seems, since Bacon had no evidence that this unprecedented project could wield such power—and even if he had found evidence, one can’t use reasoned evidence to prove that reasoned evidence can prove things. New discoveries were frequent—the moons of Jupiter, the magnification of insects, the circulation of the blood—but practical benefits were slow in coming.

Well, that’s not exactly true, because people had been using what I call “science broadly construed” to understand nature for millennia. I was impressed, on reading Beryl Markham’s West With the Night, how local trackers used scientific observation to find game: the depth of the tracks, how dry they were, where waterholes were, and so on. There was in fact every reason to think that empirical inquiry would lead to understanding, while prayers and revelation, which any chowderhead would know didn’t help much, weren’t a good way to find animals or decide which plants were edible vs. poisonous.

As for the “practical benefits being slow in coming”, well, I take issue with that. Is improved understanding of the world “practical”. Maybe it won’t make you richer or healthier, but it makes you wiser and more appreciative of the marvels of nature.

In the end, though, I don’t care if you can’t use reason to prove that reason and empiricism “can prove things”. (Actually, they can’t: science doesn’t speak of “proof” but of more or less confirmed hypotheses.) What’s important is that, as Richard Dawkins said pungently, “Science works, bitches!”  The justification of empiricism, reason, and science is in its results: we find out what makes people sick, how to get to the Moon, how to cure disease, and so on. Only somebody hogtied with the strictures of philosophy could see a lack of a priori justification as an argument against the methods and validity of science. Yet we hear this all the time—often from theologians.

Palmer goes on:

 Yet Bacon did succeed in awakening a groundswell of enthusiasm (and funding) for reason and science, through an argument that often surprises my students: he appealed to the personality of God, arguing that a good Maker would not send humans out into the wilderness without the means to achieve the desires implanted in us. Thus, because reason is God’s unique gift to humankind, it must be capable of all we desire.

From time to time, particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution, champions of secularized science have been embarrassed by this comment from Bacon—worrying what would happen if their atheist followers realized that science, at its inception, had no secular evidence to support its own faith in the power of evidence.

Well, the important thing is that nobody’s embarrassed by this argument any more, for the majority of scientists, and nearly all “elite ones” neither believe in gods nor worry about “the lack of secular evidence” to support the power of evidence. As I noted above, long before Bacon we knew that we could understand things without needing “divine evidence.”

Palmer makes one more dig at atheism:

But with Pinker’s entire book in hand, Bacon would also have felt the tension between two arguments running through it: the inclusive argument that reason, science, humanism, and progress have made our present better than our past, and can make our future better still; and the less inclusive argument, however eloquently and intelligently presented, that the humane and empathetic humanism capable of turning our powers to good and away from evil must be secular.

Frankly, I don’t care what Bacon would think about the lack of need for “divine” as opposed to secular evidence for science, or about the power of humanism. There’s not an iota of evidence that religion makes people behave better, and often it makes them behave palpably worse. (Remember Steve Weinberg’s dictum: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”) And of course the more atheistic a country, the better off it is—by nearly any measure: gender equality, happiness, prosperity, well being, and so on.

But it doesn’t matter, for her main argument, which she reprises in her last paragraph, is both philosophical and a non-starter. Note what I see as a snarky bit in the following (I’ve bolded it):

Pinker is no more successful than Bacon at justifying science and reason without a recursive appeal to science and reason. Yet for those already confident in the persuasive force of evidence, it would be hard to imagine a more encouraging defense than Pinker’s of the reality and possibilities of progress.

What? Is there a large segment of humanity that isn’t confident in the persuasive force of evidence? If so, they shouldn’t be trusting any court decisions, or even their own observations, much less taking planes or swallowing antibiotics.  In my view, nearly everyone is confident in the persuasive force of evidence about most things, though some fraction of humans are confident in things that lack evidence. They include religious people, conspiracy theorists, and cranks. (Oh, and Donald Trump.)

Why does this argument against science keep coming up? It’s worthless!

40 thoughts on “Once again: the supposed need for the self-justification of science

  1. “Why does this argument against science keep coming up?”

    It is the best case the theologically inclined have. Worthless, yes, but they keep using their least worst argument.

    1. I think it’s because people don’t intuit how evolution works…and they’re making the same mistake here. And both are related to what philosophers call the ‘small number fallacy.’

      With evolution, nonexperts often wonder how this organism happened to get that beneficial mutation. What are the odds!?! Evolution can’t explain it! But of course, it can – if you remember that there were thousands or millions of organisms, all with different mutations, and what you’re seeing over the decades or centuries is the only a small sample of that wide variety.

      With the small number fallacy, people often see “cancer clusters” that are adequately explained by a similar fallacious process of data selection. What are the odds that Alicetown and Bobville have cancer rates 10x the national answer!?! It can’t be coincidence! But of course it can; there are lots of towns in the US. If you only look at the highest cancer rate ones, you’ll miss the importance of the sample size in explaining those two data points.

      So now let’s talk about the historical ‘evolution’ of the scientific method. According to Ms. Palmer, science early on was “was self-defeating in much the same way”, and yet we stuck with it. Amazing! Counter-intuitive! How lucky we were, to select the one methodology that, while not any better than the others at the time, turned out to be really good in the end! But of course luck had nothing to do with it, for the same reasons given above. What was really going on is that people were trying lots of different methodologies for figuring stuff out. And the methodology we eventually selected (and modified) is merely the “best survivor.” It’s easy enough to post-hoc go back and cite Bacon as some genius, but from the 500s-1700s, he was just one of hundreds if not thousands trying to figure out how to do this well. Philosophers and religionists might look back and think it’s just amazing that he came up with the right idea, but there’s a large sample size here that they’re forgetting. He’s just Bobville, adequately explained by the sample size.

  2. Science works by asking questions and testing hypotheses. Often the questions were the wrong ones to begin with, but the endeavor leads to incrementally better questions. Sometimes this produces useful answers. But if you’re not asking the right questions, you will struggle to find the right answers. If you take knowledge on faith, then you are not asking questions at all. This is the fundamental difference. It should not require a fuller explanation.

  3. This is another example of why religion is harmful and should be railed against — it isn’t personal, the magical thinking it legitimizes gains traction for all other ways of knowing, which are all untethered from reality and lead us astray.

    Militant atheists are just how they should be especially in the face of this dissing of science, the one valid way to understand reality.

  4. “New discoveries were frequent—the moons of Jupiter, the magnification of insects, the circulation of the blood—but practical benefits were slow in coming.” Practical benefits of medieval/Renaissance technology were perfectly obvious by the 1600s. For example: eyeglasses, which became common in the 1400s; water-mills, a late medieval development; the wheelbarrow; and 3-field crop rotation, which markedly increased food production. These were developed by
    empirical thinking similar to what we now call Science (not even broadly construed).
    There are no instructions for lense-grinding, crop rotation, or water-mill construction in any holy books or Papal encyclicals.

    The fallacy is identifying “Science” with the moons of Jupiter, thus missing all the developments that Science had been growing out of for centuries before Bacon verbalized what was happening. I would guess that Ada Palmer does not appreciate or even understand what technology is.

    1. Very true. But even more telling: would Prof. Palmer care to compare the scientific and technological advances of the 400 years before Bacon to those of the 400 years since? That should settle the question for anyone with two brain cells to rub together.

  5. I wonder if other contributors to this site have read Ada Palmer’s ‘Terra Ignota’ trilogy: ‘Too Like the Lightning,’ ‘Seven Surrenders’ and ‘The Will to Battle.’ I found these books wonderfully engaging–science fiction imbued with a strong sense of Western history and a credible, indeed beguiling, vision of what Homo sapiens might be like in a few centuries, as a kind of prolonged ‘Pax Romana’ comes to an end.

    I’m fascinating when I think that Ms. Prof. Palmer writes away in one U of C office and our very own PCCE, Dr. Coyne does the same in another. . . .

  6. “350 pages of useful and cheering data, the majority of which one could call faith-neutral, culminate in the declaration that only triumphant atheism can ensure that scientific progress will help instead of harm.”

    If Ada Palmer thinks the data, even just the majority of it, is faith-neutral, she wasn’t paying attention.

  7. My apologies about comment #4: I meant to end the boldface after “eyeglasses”. It is striking that Ada Palmer’s comment referred to two scientific discoveries based on lenses, but is evidently ignorant of the widespread use of eyeglasses by the time of Bacon’s writing, when she asserts that practical benefits were “slow in coming”.

  8. It interests me that you have mentioned Beryl Markham a couple of times.
    When I lived in Kenya my gf at the time boarded her horse at this nice old lady’s stable down the road. I saw Beryl, sometimes daily for several months with no idea of her history aside from being told she was a horse trainer. When I moved back another horsewoman friend asked if I had read her book. “What book?”.
    An amazing life.

  9. The human mind seems to want a priori justifications. People have attempted it for mathematics, morality, science, etc, and always failed. (As eight-year-olds figure out, asking a sequence of “why?” questions can be endless.)

    1. And yet, a little a priori reflection shows that this path needs premises not themselves justified by a priori reasoning, lest the regress become endless. Moreover, we have no a priori proof that empirical approaches *won’t* work. So, given that we all want to keep trying – even the “doubters”, as Jerry points out – we might as well go ahead.

  10. This is where philosophy has done a grave disservice to modern science. Lending cover to people who think they are on to something serious when saying things like, “You can’t prove that using evidence to figure stuff out is any better than other ways.”

    No matter what fancy terms of art you use, no matter how subtle or convoluted your reasoning, doubting that science is a really good way to figure out real things about the real world is ludicrous in the face of the past 200, or more, years.

    This demand that it must be shown that there is an a priori justification in order to prove that science is reliable and useful is way past its sell-by date and really should be dead by now. Reality simply doesn’t work that way.

  11. … the claim that reason itself, or logic, or science itself, cannot prove that science can actually help us understand the universe in a useful way. For philosophers and some in the humanities, the lack of a priori justification that reliance on empirical methods will work is somehow an indictment of science.

    But I’d say we do have a priori justification for this belief. I’ve copied this quotation on this website before, but it bears repeating (again):

    One should note that even the scientific method itself is an empirically demonstrated normative proposition: from observing the comparative results of following it or not following it, we now know it is an empirical fact of the natural universe that one ought to follow the scientific method as well as one can if one wants to know true facts about the universe (and about us, as occupants of that universe). Science itself is therefore a scientifically proven normative proposition, and that is a natural fact, a fact of the natural universe. Nothing else need be the case but the physical facts of the universe, for that normative proposition to be true.

    — Richard Carrier, Richard Carrier Blogs, February 25, 2016

      1. Indeed, but good reasoning is still good, even when applied to itself. There’s a difference between norms and premises. Scientific reasoning isn’t a premise, it’s a set of norms. All reasoning, including deductive reasoning, relies on norms. Any evaluation of norms must rely in part on checking them against other norms and/or themselves.

  12. “Pinker is no more successful than Bacon at justifying science and reason without a recursive appeal to science and reason. Yet for those already confident in the persuasive force of evidence, it would be hard to imagine a more encouraging defense than Pinker’s of the reality and possibilities of progress.”

    I wonder how much Palmer relies on evidence in arriving at conclusions in her own academic area of research, history.

    1. ‘I wonder how much Palmer relies on evidence in arriving at conclusions in her own academic area of research, history.’

      As I wrote in comment 5 above, Ada Palmer is also a writer of fiction (and I would add here a musician / composer). While I have not read any of her research in her field of professorial expertise, European Renaissance history, I see no reason to doubt that she first does what every good historian (our Historian too), namely, get the facts of what happened right, to the extent possible. This is its foundation, its necessary condition. Only then, I suspect, does she follow with interpretation. Yet is such interpretation ever sufficient: is it science, even science broadly construed?

      Of history generally, I think of Alex Rosenberg’s bald statement that ‘history is bunk.’ I cannot go that far, but I do agree that history qua interpretation results in a ‘story about stories,’ and thus–it follows, to me at least–is akin more to arts and humanities than to the so-called social sciences. This is all to the good when Prof. Palmer writes science fiction, or any fiction; less so in historiography, as the discipline sees itself.

      On the other hand, ‘I gotta use words when I talk to you’–and we to her–and an essay is ‘a try. To respond that Prof. Palmer doesn’t know what she’s talking about is to make an interpretation of her interpretation. Fair enough. But to dismiss her viewpoint as not worthy of anyone ‘with two brain cells’ (not your criticism, Filippo, I know, but rather tat of Peter N)is to ‘cancel’ or ‘erase’ a voice of remarkable abilities.

  13. “…value life over death, health over sickness, abundance over want, freedom over coercion, happiness over suffering, and knowledge over superstition, is one numerous theisms can and have embraced.”

    Yeah, sure, just tell that to Mother Theresa.

  14. I find a statement like this bizarre:

    many theisms have impeded science, reason, and morality, and continue to do so (I’m looking at you, Vatican), while atheism hasn’t impeded those things one bit

    The Soviet Union was an officially atheistic state, and Marxist Leninism is an atheistic ideology. Stalin brutally repressed genetics in his day because it conflicted with the blank slate ideology of Marxist Leninism. Further, its hard to argue that Stalinism did not impede morality while we are at it.

    This is not a defense of theism but rather of the naive belief that atheist ideologies are by nature science-friendly. Truth exists in dichotomy to power precisely because they are not the same, and power suppresses truth when it is deemed expedient.

    1. As apparently isn’t said enough, atheism is a position on a single question: the belief in a god. There is no “atheistic” attitude to any other topic. Atheism doesn’t have to be “science-friendly” but at least it’s not based on fantasies and lies!

      We often hear your objection — what about Stalin? (or Mao, or Pol Pot). Those were not atheistic regimes! Those guys set themselves up as gods, claiming godlike omniscience, asserting godlike authority, and brutally suppressing the worship of competing gods. Exactly like Jehovah as depicted in the Old Testament.

      1. People are by and large conformist fools.

        Power tends to corrupt.

        Tyrants, while rare as a breed, tend to crowd in when things fall apart.

        Geopolitical blocs tend to compete in very vicious terms and constantly fear that the other geopolitical bloc is creating inner subversion.

        This is generally sufficient for impeding “science, reason, and morality” regardless of the ideological construct of a regime.

        Religion may make it worse, but whether they believe in science or not, they mostly take antibiotics if the doctor tells them they have syphilis. Not quite a meta-ontological defense I know.

    2. In those cases it was the Stalinism and the Leninism that impeded science, not the atheism.

      It’s entirely possible for an ideology to: (1) be atheistic, and (2) impede science, without the atheism impeding the science.

      For that to be the case it need only be that it is some other aspect of the ideology that does the impeding.

    3. It is completely possible for an atheist to be immoral just as it is for a cheese-eater to be immoral. But neither atheism nor cheese offer motivation to act immorally. In this regard the differ profoundly from religious faith which is chock-a-block full of divine reasons to do ill to other humans.

      I could be wrong about the cheese. Some well aged specimens might motivate one to…

    4. Atheism as such did not impede science, reason morality as such, but it in the case of the Soviet Union and perhaps China, it did not promote them either.

      That does not mean atheists outside of Soviet Union and perhaps within were not dismayed at the developments there.

  15. Yes, science can justify itself—a posteriori:

    “The substantive picture of nature’s ways that is secured through our empirical inquiries is itself ultimately justified, retrospectively as it were, through validating the presuppositions on whose basis inquiry has proceeded. As we develop science there must come a ‘closing of the circle.’ The world-picture that science delivers into our hands must eventually become such as to explain how it is that creatures such as ourselves, emplaced in the world as we are, investigating it by the processes we actually use, should do fairly well at developing a workable view of that world. The ‘validation of scientific method’ must in the end itself become scientifically validated. Science must (and can) retrovalidate itself by providing the material (in terms of a science-based world-view) for justifying the methods of science.
    The rational structure of the overall process of justification accordingly looks as follows:

    1. We use various sorts of experiential data as evidence for objective fact.
    2. We do this in the first instance for /practical/ reasons, /faute de mieux/, because only by proceeding in this way can we hope to resolve our questions with any degree of rational satisfaction.

    But as we proceed two things happen:

    (i) On the pragmatic side we find that we obtain a world picture on whose basis we can operate effectively. (Pragmatic revalidation.)
    (ii) On the cognitive side we find that we arrive at a picture of the world and our place within it that provides an explanation of how it is that we are enabled to get things (roughly) right—that we are in fact justified in using our phenomenal data as data of objective fact. (Explanatory revalidation.)

    The success at issue here is twofold—both in terms of understanding (cognition) and in terms of application (praxis). And it is this ultimate success that justifies and rationalizes, retrospectively, our evidential proceedings. Though the process is cyclic and circular, there is nothing vicious and vitiating about it. The reasoning at issue is not a matter of linear sequence but of a systemic coherence prepared to accept the circles and cycles of cognitive feedback.
    We thus arrive at the overall situation of a dual ‘retrojustification.’ For all the presuppositions of inquiry are ultimately justified because a ‘wisdom of hindsight’ enables us to see that by their means we have been able to achieve both practical success and a theoretical understanding of our place in the world’s scheme of things.”

    (Rescher, Nicholas. Reality and Its Appearance. New York: Continuum, 2010. pp. 60-62)

  16. Science overturned it’s ‘creation story’ in one generation. The static eternal universe was thrown away for the big bang literally overnight.

    Let’s see any religion do that.

    1. Could you perhaps name the ‘scientists’ who put forth creationism as a scientific theory? I’m thinking particularly of about near 1965 when the so-called big bang became almost universally accepted by cosmologists because of the discovery of the microwave background.

      If you cannot do that convincingly, it is hard to believe you know anything at all about science.

  17. “science, at its inception, had no secular evidence to support its own faith in the power of evidence” I find this a bit strange. Science did not have a discrete beginning. Rationality and empiricism would have been important to humans for many thousands of years, although they were not formalized until more recently. But, the reason people developed science into it’s modern form was because it’s more primitive forms showed results. It was necessary to formalize science and develop technique to make it more efficient at discovering truth. So, it wasn’t faith that drove the development of science, it was that the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.

  18. Hopefully, although this comment addresses more directly the “criticism” that science doesn’t answer the “Why?” questions, rather than the issue of a priori justification, it’s close enough to be relevant or at least useful. From “Babylon’s Ashes,’ the sixth book in the “Expanse” series by James S. A. Corey:

    “Hey,” Holden said. “Do you know what Planck’s constant is?”
    “Six point six two six plus change times ten to the negative thirty-fourth meters squared kilos per second?”
    “Sure, why not,” Holden said, raising one finger. “But do you know why it’s that and not six point seven whatever the rest of it was?”
    Naomi shook her head.
    “Neither does anyone else. They still call it science. Most of what we know isn’t why things are what they are. We just figure out enough about how they work that we can predict the next thing that’s going to happen. That’s what you’ve got. Enough to predict. And if you think you’re right, then I do too. So let’s do this.”

    1. “…Neither does anyone else…” is of course utter nonsense, or else that author’s conception of the word ‘why’ is infantile.

  19. This business of “You haven’t justified the scientific method” has, of course, become a tiresome waste of time.

    Anyway some of the following may be slightly additional to what’s above:

    1/ No one is claiming that never in the future will some new good method occur to humans which is not just one which is a new wrinkle, still ‘the’ scientific method. But in science we’d never say literally never. (Sounds a bit self contradictory there, but hell…!)

    2/ Very particular observed facts about the physical world [no universal (math) quantifiers–‘all’, ‘for all time’, ‘in all places’,…., where complete verification is impossible] do comport with scientific laws except when those laws are replaced by new, more general and accurate ones, of course. It is these universally quantified ones for which (though it’s not so simple) falsification is so effective. It is impossible to falsify, in the usual sense, a single existentially quantified law–‘there exists a winged horse’–but it’s doubtful such a theoretical statement should be called a law e.g. ‘there exist electrons’.

    3/ And mainly, there has been simply no other method to do anything remotely like the successes of 2/. So that needs to be shoved back in the face of theologians etc. who keep blabbing as in the initial sentence above– ‘Shut up if you cannot come up with an alternative of any value. You haven’t and you and your ilk won’t. If you are claiming instead there will never be any method to determine the approximate, but very close to the, truth about the physical world, you are just laughable and not worth talking to. Go tell that to an expert in quantum electrodynamics with her accuracy to one part in 10 billion. She’ll also laugh in your face.’

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