Defending Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s Arguments for Weak Scientism, Part 3, Christopher Brown

SERRC —  February 6, 2018 — Leave a comment

Author Information: Christopher M. Brown, University of Tennessee, Martin, chrisb@utm.edu

Brown, Christopher M. “Defending Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s Arguments for Weak Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 1-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references, and contains the article’s complete text. Due to its length, we have split the online publication of Brown’s reply into three segments. The first was published 30 January, and the second 1 February. Shortlink for part three: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3TQ

Please refer to:

Image by Chase Elliott Clark via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Revisiting an Objection to Mizrahi’s Attempt to Defeat Objection O2

Recall that Mizrahi thinks Mizrahi’s Argument is a scientific argument. Furthermore, in 2017a he thinks he needs to defend Weak Scientism against objection O2. He does so by arguing that: (a) if O2 is true, then all knowledge by inference would be viciously circular; but the consequent of (a) is false, and, therefore, the antecedent of (a) is false.

In my 2017 response to Mizrahi 2017a, I argued that Mizrahi’s attempt to defeat objection O2 fails since he assumes, citing Ladyman, that “‘deductive inference is only defensible by appeal to deductive inference’ (Ladyman 2002, 49)” (Mizrahi 2017a, 362) whereas it is reasonable to think that the rules of deductive inference are defensible by noting we believe them by the same sort of power we believe propositions such as ‘1+1=2’ and ‘a whole is greater than one its parts’, namely, some non-inferential mode of knowing (see, e.g., Feldman 2003, 3-4). So there is no inconsistency in affirming both a scientific argument for Weak Scientism is a circular argument and knowledge of the rules of deductive inference is defensible.

Now, in responding to my comment in 2017, Mizrahi misconstrues my comment by rendering it as the following question: “why think that deductive rules of inference cannot be proved valid in a non-circular way?” (2017b, 9; emphasis mine). But as should be clear from the above, this is not my objection, since I never talk about “proving in a valid way” deductive rules of inference. Mizrahi seems to think that the only way to show deductive inference is defensible is by way of a circular proof of them. But why think a thing like that? Rather, as Aristotle famously points out, good deductive arguments have to start from premises that we know with certainty by way of some non-deductive means (Posterior Analytics, Book II, ch. 19, see esp. 100a14-100b18). Again, Mizrahi has not shown there is an inconsistency in affirming both a scientific argument for Weak Scientism is a circular argument and knowledge of the rules of deductive inference is defensible.

Against Mizrahi’s Claim that Philosophers Should Not Use Persuasive Definitions of Scientism.

In 2017a, Mizrahi claims that persuasive definitions of scientism, e.g., “scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture” (Sorrell 1994, x) or “scientism is an exaggerated deference towards science, an excessive readiness to accept as authoritative any claim made by the sciences, and to dismiss every kind of criticism of science or its practitioners as anti-scientific prejudice” (Haack 2007, 17-18), are problematic because they beg the question against the scientistic stance (Mizrahi 2017a, 351; 352), or otherwise err by not “show[ing] precisely what is wrong with scientism” (2017a, 352).

In my 2017 response to Mizrahi’s claim that philosophers should not use persuasive definitions of scientism, I do two things. First, I offer a counter-example to Mizrahi’s view by showing that one can give a logically valid argument for the “persuasive” description, ‘abortion is murder’, an argument that does not beg questions against those who deny the conclusion and also explains why some folks accept the conclusion. Second, I attempted to offer a non-question begging argument for a persuasive description of scientism, one which offers an explanation—by way of its premises—why someone may accept that definition as true.

Mizrahi offers some objections to my 2017 response on this score. First, Mizrahi objects that my sample argument for the conclusion, abortion is murder, is invalid. He next posits that one of the premises of my sample argument for the conclusion, abortion is murder, is such that “the emotionally charged term ‘innocent’ is smuggled into [it]” (2017b, 18). Finally, he gives a reason why one may think the premise, the human fetus is an innocent person, is false.

Mizrahi thinks my argument for a persuasive definition of scientism “suffers from the same problems as [my] abortion argument” (2017b, 18). More specifically, he thinks the argument is “misleading” since it treats Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism in one argument and Mizrahi does not advocate for Strong Scientism, but for Weak Scientism. In addition, he notes I assume “without argument that there is some item of knowledge . . . that is both non-scientific and better than scientific knowledge. Given that the scientism debate is precisely about whether scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge, one cannot simply assume that non-scientific knowledge is better than scientific knowledge without begging the question” (2017b, 19).

In responding to these objections, I begin with Mizrahi’s analysis of my sample argument for the conclusion, abortion is murder. The first thing to say is that Mizrahi criticizes an argument different from the one I give in my 2017 response. The sample argument I offer in 2017 is as follows:

14. Abortion is the direct killing of a human fetus.
15. The human fetus is an innocent person.
16. Therefore, abortion is the direct killing of an innocent person [from 14 and 15].
17. The direct killing of an innocent person is murder.
18. Therefore, abortion is murder [from 16 and 17].

For some reason, Mizrahi renders premise 14 as

14a. Abortion is the direct killing of a human being (2017b, 17).

Mizrahi then accuses me of offering an invalid argument. Now, I agree that an argument the conclusion of which is proposition 16 and the premises of which are 14a and 15 is a logically invalid argument. But my argument has 16 as its conclusion and 14 and 15 as its premises, and that argument is logically valid.

As for Mizrahi’s next objection to my sample argument for the conclusion, abortion is murder, just because a person S finds a premise “emotionally charged” does not mean a person S1 can’t properly use that premise in an argument; that is to say, just because some person S doesn’t like to consider whether a premise is true, or doesn’t like to think about the implications of a premise’s being true, it does not follow that the use of such a premise is somehow dialectically improper.

If it were the case that emotionally laden or emotionally charged premises are off-limits, then just about all arguments in applied ethics (about topics such as the morality of the death penalty, eating meat, factory farming, gun-control, etc.) would be problematic since such arguments regularly employ premises that advocates and opponents alike will find emotionally laden or emotionally charged. The claim that a premise is dialectically improper because it is emotionally laden or emotionally charged is a non-starter.

Perhaps Mizrahi would counter by saying premise 15 is itself a persuasive definition or description, and so to use it as a premise in an argument that is supposed to be a counter-example to the view that the use of persuasive definitions is question-begging is itself question-begging. In that case, one may add the following premises to my sample argument for a non-question-begging argument that explains why someone may think abortion is murder:

15a. If a human person has not committed any crimes and is not intentionally attacking a human person, then that human person is an innocent person [assumption].

15b. A human being is a human person [assumption].

15c. A human fetus is a human being [assumption].

15d. Therefore, a human fetus is a human person [from 15b and 15c]

15e. Therefore, if a human fetus has not committed any crimes and is not intentionally attacking a human person, then a human fetus is an innocent person [from 15a and 15d].

15f. A human fetus has not committed any crimes and is not intentionally attacking a human person [assumption].

15g. Therefore, a human fetus is an innocent person [from 15e and 15f, MP].

Now, it may be that Mizrahi will offer reasons for rejecting some of the premises in the argument above, just as he offers a reason in 2017a for thinking 15 is false in the argument consisting of propositions 14-18. But all that would be beside the point. For the goal was not to produce a sample argument whose conclusion was a persuasive definition or description that any philosopher would think is sound—good luck with that project!—but rather to produce a logically valid argument for a persuasive definition of a term that both (a) does not beg any questions against those who reject the conclusion and (b) provides reasons for thinking the conclusion is true. But both the argument consisting of propositions 14-18 and the argument consisting of propositions 15a-15g do just that. Therefore, these arguments constitute good counter-examples to Mizrahi’s claim that persuasive definitions are always dialectally pernicious.

Turning to my argument in defense of a persuasive definition of scientism, I grant that my attempt in 2017 to offer one argument in defense of a persuasive definition of scientism that makes reference both to Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism is misleading. I therefore offer here an argument for a persuasive definition of Weak Scientism.
Also, rather than using variables in my sample argument, which I thought sufficient in my 2017 response (for the simple reason I thought a sample schema for a non-question begging argument in defense of a persuasive definition of scientism is what was called for), I also offer a possible example of a piece of philosophical knowledge that is better than scientific knowledge in my argument here. In my view, the following logically valid argument both offers an explanation for accepting its conclusion and does not beg any questions against those who reject its conclusion:

  1. Weak Scientism is the view that, of the various kinds of knowledge, scientific knowledge is the best [assumption].
  2. If scientific knowledge is the best kind of knowledge, then scientific knowledge is better than all forms of non-scientific knowledge [self-evident].
  3. Weak Scientism implies scientific knowledge is better than all forms of non-scientific knowledge [from 28 and 29].
  4. If position P1 implies that x is better than all forms of non-x, then P1 implies x is more valuable than all forms of non-x [assumption].[1]
  5. Therefore, Weak Scientism implies scientific knowledge is more valuable than all forms of non-scientific knowledge [from 30 and 31].
  6. If position P1 implies that x is more valuable than all forms of non-x, but x is not more valuable than all forms of non-x, then P1 is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on x [assumption].
  7. Therefore, if Weak Scientism implies that scientific knowledge is more valuable than all forms of non-scientific knowledge and scientific knowledge is not more valuable than all forms of non-scientific knowledge, then Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge [from 33].
  8. Some philosophers qua philosophers know that (a) true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing and (b) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for true friendship and (c) (therefore) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for human flourishing (see, e.g., the argument in Plato’s Gorgias[2]) and knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge (see, e.g., St. Augustine’s Confessions, book five, chapters iii and iv), then there is a non-scientific form of knowledge better than scientific knowledge [self-evident].
  9. Some philosophers qua philosophers know that (a) true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing and (b) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for true friendship and (c) (therefore) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for human flourishing (see, e.g., the argument in Plato’s Gorgias) and knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge (see, e.g., St. Augustine’s Confessions, book five, chapters iii and iv) [assumption].
  10. Therefore, there is a form of non-scientific knowledge better than scientific knowledge [from 35 and 36, MP].
  11. If knowing some form of non-x is better than knowing x, then knowing some form of non-x is more valuable than knowing x [assumption].
  12. Therefore, there is a form of non-scientific knowledge that is more valuable than scientific knowledge [from 37 and 38].
  13. Therefore, scientific knowledge is not more valuable than all forms of non-scientific knowledge [from 39].
  14. Therefore, Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge [from 34, 32, and 40, MP].

In my view, the argument above both offers an explanation for accepting its conclusion and does not beg any questions against those who reject the conclusion. Someone may think one of the premises is false, e.g., 36. But that is beside the point at issue here. For Mizrahi claims the use of persuasive definitions always involves begging the question or a failure to support the persuasive definition with reasons.

But the argument above does not beg the question; someone may think Weak Scientism is true, become acquainted with the claim in premise 36, and then, realizing the error of his ways by way of the argument above, reject Weak Scientism. The argument above also provides a set of reasons for the conclusion, which is a persuasive description of Weak Scientism. It therefore constitutes a good counter-example to Mizrahi’s claim that the use of a persuasive definition of scientism is always problematic.

Contact details: chrisb@utm.edu

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[1] The proposition S’s preferring x to y is logically distinct from the proposition, x’s being more valuable than y. For S may prefer x to y even though y is, in fact, more valuable than x.

[2] See Gorgias 507a-508a.

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