Sunday, June 14, 2015

Coyne and Scientism

In his Faith vs Fact, Jerry Coyne in passing gives us his definition of "scientism":
In a debate with Steven Pinker about "scientism" - the notion that science often intrudes into areas where it doesn't belong - the New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier...

Of course science can intrude wherever it likes. The problem - the problem of scientism - comes up when scientists (or anyone else) thinks they are drawing a scientific conclusion when in fact they are expressing a philosophical prejudice. An example of this was given in one of my earlier posts on Coyne, where Coyne defines science as involving the exclusion of purpose in its explanatory framework, then later concludes that there is no ultimate purpose in the universe because science has not discovered any.

In his book Coyne often expresses frustration that the average man does not always accept conclusions that are presented to him by the consensus of the scientific community. He cites climate change and evolution among the topics on which there is resistance. The average person - Kierkegaard's "plain man" - is wiser than Coyne gives him credit for. For the average man may not be able to define "scientism", or describe with precision what is going on, but he sometimes rightly senses something amiss in the pronouncements he hears from the scientific community. When he is told that science demands that he accept that evolution has proven that man is purely the creation of blind, material forces, he rebels because he is skeptical that the most important things about man - his mind, his rationality, his ability to love, come immediately to mind - are things that can even in principle be explained by purely material forces. And he is right about that - for the ability to explain the mind in purely material terms is a notoriously difficult, and, in my opinion, impossible philosophical problem.

The standard response to this point is that, while it has not yet been demonstrated how evolution can account for the mind, we can have confidence there will be an explanation sometime in the future. The "god of the gaps" and all that. In other words, the scientist writes the plain man a check he promises can be cashed someday, although the scientist does not yet have the funds in his account to cover it. And the plain man is perfectly within his rights to reject that check until he knows it won't bounce.

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