Abstracts

Descartes
Below are the provisional abstracts of the presentations by the invited speakers at the workshop.

Crazy little thing called scientism
by Maarten Boudry, Ghent University

Many of our best attempts to gather knowledge about the world are designated as “science”. In part, these are accidents of history and etymology: the German term Wissenschaft, for instance, is considerably broader, encompassing what in English are known as the humanities. The very existence a convenient word  for grouping related epistemic endeavors has tempted people to reify Science as a particular “way of knowing”, among other, equally valid ones.  If there is a sin called “scientism”, there is no agreed upon definition about what it amounts to. Some (not coincidentally, those who are accused of it) even doubt that there is any such thing. In an ironic twist, the term has been embraced as a nom de plume by some philosophers, in defiance of its negative connotation. As all normative concepts, the charge of scientism carries the potential for abuse. In many cases, it is a disguised (or openly avowed) attempt to shield some claims or mode of inquiry (e.g. revelation, clinical expertise, art, personal experience) from scientific scrutiny altogether. Erecting such fences, however, has no epistemological justification. Susan Haack has argued that one the main symptoms of “scientism” is a preoccupation with demarcating the boundaries of science and the scientific method. This is problematic for several reasons. First, those who stand accused of scientism, often show little or no interest in carving out the precise boundaries of science. Indeed, their cavalier attitude toward the proper limits of science is precisely what is regarded as a form of scientific imperialism in the eyes of critics. Second, the normative version of the demarcation problem in philosophy (the science/pseudoscience distinction) deserves our full philosophical attention, because of its practical import and huge impact on society. Third, distinguishing between proper deference towards and overweening enthusiasm for science is itself an exercise in demarcation (and not necessarily a bad one). I will defend two applications of the term “scientism” that even a philosophical naturalist, who believes that science and philosophy are cut from the same cloth, should be willing to accept. First, to claim the total dominion of science over some problem, to the exclusion of other approaches (such as philosophy or metaphysics) that science is continuous with, is a form of “scientism.” If one insists, for example, that the origin of the universe is a strictly scientific question, i.e. where philosophical issues can be totally disregarded, or on which philosophers should remain silent, then one is guilty of “scientism”. It is exactly the kind of fence-building that a philosophical naturalist cannot accept. Second, the charge may be used to characterize the confident pronouncements that science is capable of solving a type of problem that, in fact, cannot be solved by any method of inquiry (including science). In other words, one is guilty of "scientism" if one believes that somehow science can achieve the impossible. For example, people who believe that science can establish objective moral facts, i.e. bridge the is/ought gap (Sam Harris, Alex Rosenberg). If the concept of “scientism” is to be useful, we need to carefully distinguish between proper and improper usage. That is, pace Haack, we have a demarcation job on our hands.

Scientism and the Curious Case of Possible Worlds Semantics
by Carol Cleland, University of Colorado-Boulder

Scientism is commonly characterized as the belief that the scientific method is epistemically superior to other methods of intellectual inquiry or perhaps even the only legitimate method for obtaining knowledge. In recent decades, however, philosophers of science have moved away from the idea of a one-size-fits-all account of scientific methodology. As is well known, traditional justificationist and falsificationist analyses of the scientific method face serious problems.  Moreover, there are striking difference in patterns of evidential reasoning among researchers from different areas of science (e.g., historical vs. experimental natural science) and different fields of science (e.g., biology vs. physics).  This raises the question of whether there truly is a distinctive mode of scientific reasoning, and if so what it might be. This talk explores this issue through an intriguing case study from analytic metaphysics, namely, possible worlds semantics, by comparing it to a case from non-experimental natural science, viz., the meteorite impact “theory” of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. The best explanation for the remarkably diverse body of otherwise puzzling traces (iridium anomaly, shocked quartz, etc.) discovered in K-Pg (Cretaceous-Paleogene) boundary sediments is a massive meteorite impact.  Analogously, I suggest, inference to possible worlds is the best explanation for a pervasive and diverse body of “facts” about ways in which we speak and think, e.g., assignments of truth conditions to counterfactual conditionals and the puzzling distinction among modes of truth (necessary vs. contingent, de re vs. de dicto).  Without recourse to unactualized possibilities (of some sort) these and other patterns of speech and thought seem inexplicable; the challenge of course is figuring out the minimal concept of “possibilia” required to do the job while minimizing logical problems. Moreover, attempts to theoretically “reduce” these puzzling patterns of thought and language to cognitive science or neurophysiology are just as unlikely to be successful as attempts to reduce high-level special sciences, e.g., psychology or economics, to fundamental physics; the theoretical categories involved will almost certainly cross-cut each other. Indeed, the central difference between the scientific and metaphysical patterns of abductive reasoning in question seems to devolve upon the character of the evidence: It is empirical (in a hard core sense) in the former but not the latter case. Is this enough for a principled distinction of the sweeping sort being promoted by fans of scientism? Even in physics conceptual factors sometimes play the crucial evidential role. A salient illustration is string theory; the case for string theory is conceptual, based solely upon its capacity to unify Einstein's theory of gravity with quantum theory.   

Two Cheers for Scientism
by Taner Edis, Truman State University

I most often encounter “scientism” as a term of abuse—much like “reductionism.” Indeed, the two accusations seem closely related. I don’t think reductionism is inherently intellectual malpractice—it depends. Similarly, there can be better and worse ways to insert science into debates that traditionally have been seen as nonscientific territory. My background is physics, I have described myself as a “physics chauvinist,” and I have taken a number of positions that can attract a charge of scientism. So examining some of my hobbyhorses might bring some focus on what is at stake. i) I like to distinguish science from pseudoscience. I doubt this can be done through a list of logical criteria—on behalf of scientists, I should apologize to philosophers for our tendency to naively use dubious demarcation schemes such as falsificationism. Nonetheless, there are patterns of intellectual pathology best seen at the fringes of science. “Pseudoscience” is sometimes a good label for institutionalized bad cognitive practices. ii) I favor physicalism, both in the sense of everything we observe being made up of physical objects and interactions, and a chance-and-necessity version of physicalism that emphasizes randomness. But physicalism does not mean that physics is very useful in studying sociology or epistemology. iii) I occasionally take pot shots at certain intellectual traditions—philosophy of religion, for example—that I think could be improved by adopting a broadly scientific approach. However, I urge continuity with science, not a hostile takeover of philosophy by science. iv) Sometimes, I agree that injecting more science into a field will not be as helpful as promised, but this is because of misconceptions about what is to be investigated. For example, claims that science can provide hard moral facts can be subjected to criticism informed by science that suggests no such facts are available to anyone. I see “scientism,” then, as an approach or attitude that can succeed or fail, depending on what we are trying to achieve. If we are interested in explanations, a broadly scientific perspective has good prospects. If we want to shape our character according to a set of religious ideals, science may have very little relevance. If scientism is a term of abuse, however, there will be a tendency to defend religious ideals by discounting naturalistic explanations of religion as “scientism.” I don’t think such defenses succeed.

Scientism and the Is/Ought Gap

by Justin Kalef, Rutgers University

If scientism is true, and if there is anything anyone should do or should believe, then it must be legitimate to derive a normative (‘ought’) statement from a non-normative (‘is’) statement. However, a generally accepted philosophical view is that one cannot legitimately derive an ought from an is. After briefly reviewing a few case studies in which the is/ought gap is crossed, I will consider the common philosophical justifications of the ‘can’t get an ought from an is’ principle and show how devotees of scientism have attempted, or could attempt, to bypass those philosophical arguments. My conclusion is that these responses to the ‘is from an ought’ problem might yet succeed. Even if they do, however, scientism will only have won a pyrrhic victory: the cost of justifying the gap-crossing is that a new and more serious problem for scientism arises. For any principled rejection of the is/ought distinction must, I will argue, depend on one or more philosophical principles that cannot ultimately be fully grounded in empirical science.

Scientism and the Role of Philosophers of Science

by Noretta Koertge, Indiana University

In coffee shops and common rooms today, I hear academic colleagues talking about the problems of climate change skepticism, the continued resistance to teaching evolution in public schools, and the surprising popularity of alternative health regimes. It sometimes seems that the public is becoming increasingly reluctant to employ even the simplest principles of scientific reasoning. On the other hand, there are philosophers and other intellectuals who are concerned about what they see as a rise in what they call scientism or scientific fundamentalism. In a recent book Susan Haack lists six signs of scientism. This essay will look briefly at each purported indicator of scientism and then ask how philosophers of science might contribute to a better understanding of the appropriate role of science in society today. I will argue that although we usually think of philosophy of science as primarily related to epistemology, there are also important ethical dimensions to our studies. Haack begins her symptomatology with two common rhetorical devices: inappropriately using scientific as an honorific and adopting the technical trappings of science irrespective of their usefulness. I agree that we should call out false advertising of any kind, but this practice reveals more about marketing techniques than it does about an overly deferential attitude towards science. Some of Haack’s examples of inappropriate borrowing are also odd. She even finds the adoption of peer review and scientific citation styles by philosophy journals to be an indication of scientism at work. Items 3 and 4 on the list look more promising as signs of scientism: the philosophical “preoccupation” with the problems of demarcation and characterizing scientific method. This certainly rings true for Logical Positivists and to a certain extent Popper. But in recent decades philosophers of science have been “preoccupied” with analyzing differences in the structures and reasoning processes typical of the physical sciences, historical sciences, and social sciences. Instead of focusing on the old question of whether chemistry can be reduced to physics, philosophers are now exploring the role of contingency in chemical explanations. As a result there is no longer any pretense of laying down a single criterion or recipe for scientific inquiry. Discussion of Haack’s last two signs would require an analysis of each individual case that is purported to involve looking for answers beyond the scope of science or denigrating non-scientific disciplines and practices. Suffice it to say, the onus would be on critics to argue that a particular problem lies beyond the scope of science. As for denigration, welcome to the academy!  However, these concerns about scientism can serve as a wake-up call to philosophers of science. We do need to call out those who make selective use of scientific studies in order to defend a preordained conclusion. We do need to help protect and strengthen the integrity of scientific institutions. And as teachers, we need to convey to our students what science at its best is like.

The Science Wars and the Statistics Wars: scientism, popular statistics, and the philosophers
by Deborah Mayo, Virginia Tech

I will explore the extent to which concerns about ‘scientism’– an unwarranted obeisance to scientific over other methods of inquiry – are intertwined with issues in the foundations of the statistical data analyses on which (social, behavioral, medical and physical) science increasingly depends. The rise of big data, machine learning, and high-powered computer programs have extended statistical methods and modeling across the landscape of science, law and evidence-based policy, but this has been accompanied by enormous hand wringing as to the reliability, replicability, and valid use of statistics. Legitimate criticisms of scientism often stem from insufficiently self-critical uses of statistical methodology, broadly construed — i.e., from what might be called “statisticism”-- particularly when those methods are applied to matters of controversy.

Cargo Cult Scientism
by Lee McIntyre, Boston University

In 1974, Richard Feynman gave a commencement address entitled “Cargo Cult Science,” in which he pursued an analogy between those who misunderstand science and the cargo cults of the South Pacific, in which some indigenous people so enjoyed the cargo brought by foreign planes during World War II that, once the war was over, they built dummies of airplanes, runways, control towers, etc., in hope of bringing the planes (and cargo) back. In “Six Signs of Scientism,” Susan Haack picks up the thread by describing those would-be scientists who are “adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness.” But does the analogy hold? Are some social scientists, for instance, engaged in pure “physics envy,” whereby they emulate the tools of science–high theory, equations, and predictions–in the false belief that this will somehow create good science? The charge is a strong one and, at least in the case of modern empirical social science, also unfair. But the underlying criticism is a deep one, based on a commitment shared by many philosophers, qualitative social scientists (and the physicists who despise them) that human behavior is just not the kind of thing about which one could have a science. In the end I will suggest that what saves science from scientism may not be a subject or method so much as a set of dispositions toward not allowing oneself to be fooled by our desires or hoodwinked by our ideologies.

What’s so bad about scientism?

by Moti Mizrahi, St. John’s University 

Many have warned about the dangers of scientism. Some have gone so far as to  say that “scientism leads to nihilism.” For example, according to Massimo Pigliucci: ‘Taken to its logical extreme, scientism leads to nihilism, and as such is both scientifically untenable (nihilism is a philosophical position, not an empirical one) and philosophically sterile.’ In this paper, I consider two interpretations of scientism as an epistemological position. According to the first, scientism is the view that scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge we have about the world. According to the second, scientism is the view that scientific knowledge is the best kind of knowledge we have about the world. I then consider whether these two interpretations of scientism lead to radical skepticism about values (i.e., nihilism). I argue that they do not. Even if they did, it would be a mistake to confuse the allegedly bad consequences of scientism (on either interpretation) with whether or not it is true. Finally, since some might be tempted to ask what is the scientific evidence for scientism, or whether we can know scientifically that scientism is true, I put forth an argument from success for scientism.

Strong Realism as Scientism: Are We at the End of History?
by Tom Nickles, University of Nevada-Reno

The strand of scientism that I plan to discuss is exaggerated scientific realism.  A spotty realist / spotty nonrealist of a pragmatist persuasion myself, I plan to criticize overly strong realists for adopting what amounts to an “end-of-history” position—in short, one dimension of scientism as hubris, scientism as hype.  Strong realist claims are implicit end-of-history claims, and such claims are insupportable (or so I shall maintain).  Everyone these days is a fallibilist, but there are fallibilists . . . and then there are fallibilists.  Strong realists are broadly cartesian in implying the existence of something close to a methodological detachment rule that enables quasi-absolute, path-independent, context-free conclusions—as if really successful research enables scientists to achieve “escape velocity” from human culture and history.  Exaggerated realist claims may even encourage bad science and technology policy for funding agencies.  For why fund research that can no longer be “transformative.” Although a great fan of the sciences and technologies, I seek a balance in academe and in life between the sciences and the arts.  My preferred way of doing that is via historical perspective, an approach that seems to have lost salience since the heady 1960s and ‘70s.  For some people at least, the concreteness of historical cases is more intellectually and emotionally engaging as regards fallibilism and the horizons of imagination in a given historical-cultural context than are abstract logical arguments from underdetermination.  The history of science and technology is a story, in part, of remarkable achievements.  However, among these achievements is the fact that even the natural sciences have transformed themselves several times since 1600 (or since 1800 or 1900 or 1950 or 1980).  Isn’t it likely that such transformations will continue to occur, at least in many fields, in the future?  (In this respect strong realists can be seen, ironically, as regarding scientific progress as limited, the end of a finite game that has already mostly played out.)  400 years may seem like a long time, but it provides a relatively short time-series of data on the macrodynamics of scientific fields as compared to, say, 4,000 or 40,000 years.  “The future” is a long time! One problem is how to extend the historical perspective to include (oxymoronically for some people) future history without totally losing the sense of historical concreteness, given that nearly all of the future surely lies well beyond our current conceptual and practical horizons.  Another is how to discriminate those fields that are indeed basically finished (central problems solved, extensive empirical access achieved, etc.) from those still susceptible to major transformation—and within what sort of timeframe. A partial answer to the first problem is to recognize that our scientific and technological products are human designs somewhat akin to technological innovation on the one hand and to biological evolution on the other.  Many such innovations are somewhat deliberate at local levels, while most are unexpectedly emergent in highly nonlinear ways at a historical distance.  So my pragmatic-historical perspective regards even the basic sciences as complex adaptive systems that can be modeled more closely on biological and technological evolution than allowed by traditional pure-applied and internal-external distinctions.  Human innovation is not as “blind” as biological evolution, but it is blinder than most people think.  And, like technological evolution, the problem agendas of the basic sciences reflect changing human interests (including political, economic, and moral interests) as well as upon changing appreciation for what might be conceptually and technically possible.

Scientism and Empirical Arguments against the Reliability of Introspection
by Rik Peels, Utrecht University

One important variety of scientism, often called ‘epistemological scientism’, says that only the natural sciences can reliably provide us with knowledge. This view is rejected by common sense philosophers, who claim that doxastic mechanisms like memory, belief formation on the basis of moral intuitions, and introspection are reliable sources of knowledge. This paper focuses on empirical arguments that are meant to show that introspection is not a reliable source of knowledge about ourselves. Among others, the following empirical arguments are discussed: arguments to the effect that one’s introspective judgement depends on the method of reporting, that emotions too often distort one’s introspective judgments, and that, upon replication, there are many introspective disagreements about standard phenomenal experience. I argue that none of these arguments are sound and that we even have reason to think that, in general, introspection is a reliable source of knowledge about ourselves. If this is correct, then epistemological scientism about introspection as a common sense source of knowledge should be rejected.

In defense of demarcation projects
by Massimo Pigliucci, CUNY-City College

One of Susan Haack’s “signs of scientism” is a preoccupation with demarcation problems, such as drawing lines between science and pseudoscience (or, I would add, science and philosophy). I will argue instead that demarcation projects can, and in fact should, be pursued, if by that we mean attempts at reasonably delineating the admittedly fuzzy, even porous, and often inter-fertile boundaries between different human intellectual activities. Indeed, I will go as far as to suggest that dismissing demarcation projects is a typical scientistic move in the interest of what I see as a tendency toward epistemic imperialism in certain quarters. Popper-style demarcation between science and non-science is no longer a sensible project, and has been abandoned by philosophers in great part due to the influence of a critical paper by Larry Laudan published in 1983 (and which originated in a dispute between Laudan and Michael Ruse after the latter testified in a trial about the teaching of creationism in American high schools). But Maarten Boudry and I (2013) have recently edited a collection of essays by a number of philosophers and other scholars interested in pseudoscience that forcefully argues for a new, post-Quine if one wishes, conception of demarcation projects; a conception that is more in tune with the complexities of science, pseudoscience, and a number of cases in between, as well as that acknowledges that both the methods and the very concept of science has evolved over the centuries. In this paper I will briefly discuss two demarcation projects, the science-pseudoscience one and the science-philosophy one, focusing on some specific examples that aim at showing both that the projects are viable and why they are important. For instance, concerning the science-pseudoscience continuum, we can see how initial skepticism toward the notion of anthropogenically driven climate change was indeed reasonable, but that it has now clearly shifted into the territory of ideologically motivated (and money-interested) advocacy. Or take the assault on the philosophical discipline of ethics recently attempted by some neuroscientists (Sam Harris) and social psychologists (Jonathan Haidt). I will argue that these authors dismiss Hume’s is/ought distinction far too quickly (pace Quine), and that while their empirical research is indeed pertinent to moral reasoning, the latter cannot and should not be reduced to the former.

Is “Is economics a science?” a good question? A case study in the institutional dynamics of demarcation
by Don Ross, University of Cape Town

Philosophers have generated an extensive literature on candidate principles for demarcating science from pseudoscience, science from ideology, and science from philosophy. Most of these debates treat physics, chemistry and biology as paradigmatic sciences, from which the essential characteristics of proper science, if there are any such characteristics, can be inferred inductively. The tangle of issues around demarcation have not, however, been systematically addressed with reference to disciplines in which mainstream participants rhetorically disagree with one another over whether what they do, or should do, is science, or should aim for the status of science. In my paper I make a beginning at filling this gap by reviewing allegedly scientistic rhetoric, and the rhetoric that has resisted it, in economics. In the 1950s and 1960s it was common for economists to claim, following Paul Samuelson, that the mathematicization of economic theory, along with the commitment to econometric estimation of models of empirical data, had turned economics into a bona fide science. It was common then to understand the relationship between ‘pure’ economic theory, on one hand, and applications aimed at policy development and assessment, on the other hand, as analogous to the relationship between physics and engineering. Economists who resisted this rhetoric during those decades were mainly heterodox, anti-establishment figures who regarded attempts to don the mantle of science as conditioned by pressures to disguise free market ideology as objective and politically neutral. However, over the past three decades, it has become increasingly common for leading mainstream economists to eschew claims to scientific authority or status, even as they have continued to infuse their practice with ever more sophisticated mathematics and more complex econometric instruments. Lately statements such as the following have taken on the status of after-dinner boilerplate: ‘economics is not a science, but a policy-driven technical art’. In the paper I argue that this new rhetoric of modesty is driven by the objective of deflecting populist criticisms of economic theory that emphasize the fact that economists do not produce timeless generalizations with universal or very wide scope that are routinely applied to and confirmed by empirical data. The objective is problematic because the populist criticisms are based on a false conception of the paradigmatic sciences such as physics. That is, the modest rhetoric is motivated by fear of the consequences of being labeled as ‘scientistic’. This fear would better be confronted than sublimated. Fear of scientism is populist and conservative, and best-practice economics disdains both populism and conservatism. What physicists do and what economists do are more profoundly similar than dissimilar. This is not surprising because there is no such thing as a distinctive scientific method that physicists might follow but economists disregard. There are, instead, simply errant ways of relating theories to evidence, and of basing practice on theory and evidence together, that both physicists and economists have become steadily better at identifying and avoiding. (Most of these are context-specific rather than generic, which frustrates philosophers of science.) The common basis for progress has pragmatic origins, but is stabilized and reproduced by shared institutional structures. These structures, and not any abstract principles of methodology or epistemology, are what demarcate science from non-science. ‘Bad’ scientism would involve advocating the use of scientific institutions to govern processes not mainly aimed at growing objective knowledge. But there are almost no such advocates.

Does Science leave any knowledge area untouched?
by Mariam Thalos, University of Utah

“Science is neither a philosophy nor a belief system.  It is a combination of mental operations that has become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations hit upon by a fortunate turn of history that yielded the most effective way of learning about the real world ever conceived.”  -- EO Wilson (Consilience, 45)

If we conceive of science the way that Wilson does in this passage—or, in more academic terms, as theoretical reasoning, a conception that is very close to that put forward by Paul Huyningen-Huene in a recent and very closely argued treatise (Oxford 2013)—we should find no faulty in the idea that science is to be called upon in treatment of all questions of fact.  In that instance there should be no question of over-enthusiasm for science, no uncritical deference to it, no concern for policing its borders and no worries over its unwillingness to acknowledge its limitations (such concerns as feature in a recent article by Susan Haack, decrying so-called “scientism”). For according to such a conception, science simply has no boundaries.  If, on the other hand, we should define science more narrowly (ghettoize it, if you will), as that which is typified in the activities or products of physicists, chemists and maybe also biologists—the so-called natural scientists­—then obviously there should be great concern for ensuring that the hobgoblin does not emerge uncritically from its ghettos to infiltrate where it has no proprietary business.  Then, and only then, should we be concerned about so-called “scientism.”  Obviously, then, a great deal hangs on how we conceive of science.  And the fact that so much depends on the choice of conception is reason enough to engage the old “problem of demarcation”—reason enough for those who are concerned about “scientism” to concern themselves about demarcation.  For there can be no serious worry about scientism, if the demarcation issue is itself of no concern.  It is a simple philosophical mistake, for those who worry about science overstepping its boundaries, to proclaim that identifying those boundaries is of no moment.  My vote is in favor of a conception of science roughly like that of EO Wilson’s.  Hence I brook no concept that includes over-enthusiasm for or unwarranted deference to science.