All posts filed under: Philosophy

The Philosophical Case Against Scientism

Scientism is the claim that science is the only source of knowledge. This claim has been the subject of intense controversy for years, and it has recently re-emerged in public debate following the publication of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Admittedly, Pinker does not make this claim himself, but those who do are (mis)using his work in support of their claims, and the renewed controversy over the term provides us with an opportunity to revisit its validity. Representatives of the humanities, in particular, have had their feathers ruffled by the notion that empirical observation and hypothesis testing have a monopoly on rational inquiry as tight as that enjoyed by Andrew Carnegie on the steel industry in the 19th century; liberal arts need not apply. Much of the criticism of scientism has focused on the aesthetic poverty of abandoning the contemplation of Shakespeare for the study of synapses in humanity’s quest for knowledge of the world and of ourselves. These criticisms have some merit, but a stronger case against …

The Strange Truth About Alternative Facts

Facts are overrated in political and moral debates. They’re fragile and impotent. They don’t do the work expected of them. What follows is an explanation of why no one should be persuaded by most facts. This is not a rehashing of the well known inability of facts to persuade emotional beings. Nor is it a postmodern denial of truth. My point is that facts which are absolutely true can be absolutely irrelevant in overlooked ways. It’s obvious that facts can be irrelevant; everyone knows that. But some facts which seem relevant are not. For example, let’s say you ask me whether or not women face gender bias in grad school admissions and I tell you that hummingbirds can fly backwards. This is an obviously irrelevant fact. But if I told you that data shows female applicants were significantly less likely than male applicants to be accepted to grad school, that would also be irrelevant. How could that fact possibly be irrelevant? It seems like exactly the kind of fact that could help answer the question. But …

In Defence of Scientism

Nothing provokes widespread horror quite like science trespassing where it is said not to belong. This aversion is so powerful that it can unite the most disparate areas of the sociopolitical spectrum in a righteous fury. The extension of science into other spheres is typically decried as scientism, but the term is so broadly used that it’s often hard to pin down exactly what is being criticized. Applying science ‘out of context’ is too disenchanting, it is complained, too reductionist, too Western, too uncertain, too arrogant. Most of these objections are spurious. Science is not exclusively reductionist, nor uniquely Western, and its notoriety for disillusionment is as overstated as it is perverse. These objections are propped up by a litany of misconceptions about the scientific method and practice, and often make strawmen of themselves by attacking obsolete scientific philosophies. Turning to the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, we find scientism to be an inflated “trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (in philosophy, the social sciences, and the …

The Problem of Credulity

What is credulity, and what – if anything – is wrong with it? And if credulity is a fault, might it be a fault not only of judgment but also of character? These questions strike me as important, in the light of certain recent events, but they are also surprisingly hard to answer. We know roughly what credulity is: a tendency to give too much credence to certain claims or appearances; to be too ready to believe things we should not believe. Hence, someone who is habitually taken in by con-artists is prone to believe the stories used to part him from his money. Someone who tends to believe insincere apologies is too ready to believe that those apologising are sorry for what they have done. We could come up with any number of examples. But is there any more to be said, other than that it is a disposition to be irrational? If we want to be pedantic, we could say that these examples also illustrate incredulity. Being too ready to believe that the …

The Tyranny of the Subjective

We are living in socially and politically bewildering times. One of the reasons for this is the sheer number of other people’s lives we are touched by on account of exponential developments in communications. The early 21st Century – perhaps specifically the second decade of it – will, I suspect, be remembered for the centrality of the subjective narrative, or what has become known as the ‘lived experience.’ There is nothing wrong with a flourishing of narratives, per se. We all have our stories to tell and, now more than ever, the means with which to tell them. We must, however, remain vigilant. The proliferation of this aspect of the social ecosystem impacts other areas, and granting the subjective narrative sacred status diminishes the power of other important ways of understanding the world. In a recent post for Arc Digital, Ryan Huber argued that the emphasis placed on personal experience in political activism, such as the role high school students are playing as commentators in the gun control debate, comes at the expense of an emphasis …

The Wizard and the Prophet: On Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari

In The Wizard and the Prophet (2018), Charles C. Mann maintains that intellectual life in the 21st century is defined by a civil war between Wizards, who believe that technology will save us, and Prophets, who see various kinds of disaster on the horizon: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.” Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), is a Wizard. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), is a Prophet. At its best, Enlightenment Now reads like one of those gratitude journals self-help authors tell us to keep: “Today I am thankful for . …

Our Search for Meaning and the Dangers of Possession

“There is no such thing as not worshipping,” wrote novelist David Foster Wallace. “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” G. Jung would have wholeheartedly agreed. He posited that psychic life is motivated by a religious instinct as fundamental as any other, and that this instinct causes us to seek meaning. “The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not?” Jung wrote in his autobiography. “That is the telling question of his life.”1 There is empirical evidence that backs up Jung’s idea of a religious instinct. Researchers have found that the less religious people are, the more likely they are to believe in UFOs. “The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active,” writes psychology professor Clay Routledge, in The New York Times. He notes that belief in aliens and UFOs appears to be associated with a need to find meaning. Jung felt that traditional religions could provide an adequate means of relating to the infinite where the believer …