Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Scientism Summary

I have been very busy with other things and have been unable to blog for these last several months. This unfortunate situation will continue for a little while longer.

But I can't let pass John Derbyshire's neat summary of scientism at the Corner on National Review Online. Like every thinker in the thrall of scientism, Derbyshire can't see that his formulation denies its own possibility. Take the last paragraph:

We don't know much about the natural world; what we don't know is vastly more than what we do know; and there are squishy areas where we aren't sure whether we know or don't know. The things we do know to high probability, though, we know through methodical inquiry, observation, measurement, classification, discussion, comparison of results, consensus — through science. The rest is wishful thinking, power games, social fads, and the sleep of reason.

Let me call the proposition "The things we know to high probability we know through methodical inquiry, observation, measurement, classification, etc.. - through science" proposition S. Now proposition S is not itself known through the methods it specifies, the methods of science. Derbyshire did not go into the lab and measure the molar mass of proposition S vs. the molar mass of some other proposition, say "Truth is best known through philosophical dialog" or "Science can only defend itself through philosophy, and if philosophy is undermined, science inevitably will be as well." No, proposition S is either known philosophically or it is not known at all. But proposition S denies "high probability" to anything other than that which is known through the methods of science; therefore it cannot be known with high probability. We can know it at most with low-probability. In fact, according to Derb's epistemology, it's got to be either wishful thinking, power games, social fads or the sleep of reason. I wonder which he prefers.

We could leave proposition S to its absurd self-destruction, if scientism were the only casualty. Unfortunately Derbyshire's self-contradictory scientism puts science itself in danger; proposition S seems to be the only possible defense of science conceivable to many. But science can only truly be defended through a genuine philosophy of knowledge; a philosophy that explores the ways of knowing and the relationships between them. Such a philosophy would certainly acknowledge the methodical power and certainty of science and provide a philosophical foundation for them (as Kant did in the Critique of Pure Reason.) Defending science by undermining philosophy can't work, anymore than science can be defended by undermining arithmetic.

Beyond all that, I am always fascinated with the man who can tell us about things he himself denies he knows. We know very little about the natural world, Derbyshire says, compared with what we don't know. How does he know how much we don't know? He doesn't say, for the good reason that he doesn't know what he doesn't know. At least I don't know what I don't know and can't say anything about it, including how much of it is lurking out there. Derb, however, can somehow get a quantitative estimate of what he doesn't know, no doubt through the best practices of science - inquiry, observation and measurement and whatnot. Now that's some powerful science.