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Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3WS

See also:

Image by Matt via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Moti Mizrahi has been defending something he calls ‘weak scientism’ against Christopher Brown in a series of exchanges in the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. His animus seems to be against philosophy in particular though he asserts that other disciplines in the humanities do not produce knowledge either. He also shows remarkable candor in admitting that it all comes down to money: money spent on philosophy would be better spent on the sciences because scientific knowledge is better qualitatively (i.e. because it makes true predictions) and quantitatively (scientists pump out more stuff than philosophers). (11)

Measuring Success

As he tells us: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.” (Mizrahi; 7). Furthermore: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge- in the form of scholarly publications-than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact)” (7)

The relevance of this latter claim seems to me unclear: surely by a quantitative measure, Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat.[1] A German professor once told me that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone! I will not, however, spend time scratching my head over what seems a tangential point. The quantity of work produced in the sciences would be of little significance were it not valuable by some other measure. No one would think commercials great works of art on the grounds that there are so many of them.

Then again some concerned by the problem of over-specialization might view the sheer quantity of scientific research as a problem not an advantage.  I will focus, then, on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else. I will then consider Mr. Mizrahi’s peculiar version of this claim ‘weak scientism’ which is that while there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences (it is hard, he thinks, to show otherwise) this knowledge is of a qualitatively lesser kind.

He says this is so “in certain relevant aspects”. (10) I’m not sure what he means by this hedge. What makes an aspect relevant in this context? I will proceed though on the assumption that whatever these relevant aspects are they make for an over-all context independent superiority of science over non-science.[2]

Of course, were I a practitioner of the hermeneutic of suspicion I would point out the glaring conflict of interest in Mr. Mizrahi making these claims from the fastness of a technical institute. If someone pops up claiming that only half the university really earns its keep it is a little bit suspect (if not surprising exactly) when that half of the university happens to the very one in which he resides. I might also point out the colonialist and sexist implications of his account, which is so contrived to conveniently exclude all sorts of ‘others’ from the circle of knowledge. Is Mr. Mizrahi producing an argument or a mere rationalization of his privilege?

However, as Mr. Mizrahi seems unlikely to be overly impressed by such an analysis I will stick to something simpler.[3] Does science alone produce knowledge or do other epistemic forms produce knowledge as well? This is the question of whether ‘strong scientism’ is correct. Secondly, if strong scientism is not correct does weak scientism offer a more defensible alternative or does it suffer from the same drawbacks? Accordingly, I will refute strong scientism and then show that weak scientism is vulnerable to precisely the same objections.

Politicized Words and Politicizing Ideas

There are dangers to antagonizing philosophers. We may not be pulling in the big grants, true , but we can do a great deal of damage regardless  for when the ‘scientistic class’ is not accusing philosophy of being useless and ineffectual it is accusing it of corrupting the entire world with its po-mo nonsense.[4] This is because one of the functions of philosophy is the skeptical or critical one. When scientists go on about verification and falsification or claim the principle of induction can be justified by induction philosophers perform the Socratic function of puncturing their hubris. Thus, one of the functions of philosophy is deflationary.

A philosopher of science who makes himself unpopular with scientists by raising questions the scientist is unequipped to answer and has no time for anyway is only doing her job. I think this is a case in point. Since Descartes at least we been fascinated by the idea of the great epistemic purge. There is so much ‘stuff’ out there claiming to be knowledge that we need to light a great bonfire and burn all of it. This bonfire might be Cartesian doubt. It might be ‘scientific method’. Either way all the ‘pretend’ knowledge is burned off leaving the useful core. This may well be a worthwhile endeavour and in the time of Descartes it surely was.

However, I suspect this tradition has created a misleading impression. The real problem is not that we have too little knowledge but too much: as a phenomenologist might say it is a saturated phenomenon. Knowledge is all around us so that like bats our eyes are blinded by the sun. This is why I find the idea that only scientists produce knowledge the very definition of an ivory tower notion that has no basis in experience. To show this let me make a list of the kinds of non-scientific knowledge people have.

As we shall see, the problem is not making this list long but keeping it short. I offer this list to create an overwhelming presumption that strong scientism at very least is not true (I shall then argue that weak scientism is in no better a case).  This procedure may not be decisive in itself but I do think it puts the ball in the court of the ‘strong scientist’ who must show that all the things I (and most everybody else) call knowledge are in fact something else.

What is more, the ‘strong scientist’ must do this without violating the criterion of strong scientism itself: he cannot avail himself of any but scientific arguments. Moreover, he must show that science itself meets the criterion of knowledge he sets out which is not an easy task given such well known difficulties as the problem of induction. At any rate, prima facie, there seems overwhelming empirical evidence that strong scientism is incorrect: a claim so extraordinary should have an unusually strong justification, to paraphrase Hume. Let’s see if the ‘strong scientist’ can produce one.

Making a Problem of “Results”

To begin, I should point out is that there are bodies of knowledge that produce ‘results’ not through scientific method but through analysis and application to cases. Two prominent examples would be Law and Music Theory, practitioners of which use an established body of theory to solve problems like whether Trinity Western should have a law school or how Scriabin invented the ‘Prometheus chord’. What sense of ‘know’ can we appeal to in order to show that my daughter, who is a music theory student, does not ‘know’ that the Prometheus chord was derived from the over-tone series?

Secondly, there is knowledge about the past that historians uncover through the interpretation of primary documents and other evidence. In what sense do we not ‘know’ that the Weimar Republic fell? This claim is even more remarkable given there are sciences that deal with the past, like Paleontology, which ‘interpret’ signs such as fossils or tools in a manner much more like historians (there is hermeneutic judgment in science which functions no differently than hermeneutic judgment elsewhere).

Thirdly, there is first person knowledge which is direct. “Did that hurt?” asks the doctor because without accepting first-person reportage he cannot proceed with treatment. This is a kind of knowledge without which we could not even do science so that if Strong scientism wants to deny this is knowledge science itself will be the primary victim. Again science can go nowhere without direct factual knowledge (the strip turned green when I put it in water) that is not produced by science but which science itself rests upon.

What about know how? Craftsmen and engineers know all kinds of things by accumulated experience. They know how a shoe is made or what makes for good beer. They also built the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What are we to make of disciplines like mathematics, geometry or logic? What about ethical or aesthetic or critical judgments? In what sense does a translator not ‘know’ Japanese? Does anyone really think literature scholars don’t ‘know’ anything about the texts they discuss even on a factual level? What scientific justification does the claim “Marlowe did not write King Lear’ have or even require?  And while we are at it may well be that philosophers do not know much but they do know things like ‘logical positivism fails its own criterion of meaning’ or ‘Berkeley cannot be refuted by kicking a stone’. [5]

It could well be that in regarding all the above as instances of knowledge I am missing something fundamental. If so I wish someone would point it out to me. Let’s take a hypothetical knower, Jill: Jill knows she is feeling cold, knows how to repair watches, knows why the Weimar Republic fell, knows how to speak Portuguese, knows there are 114 Surahs in the Quran, knows how Beethoven transformed the sonata form, has extensive topographical knowledge of places she has travelled, prefers the plays of Shakespeare to those of Thomas Preston, can identify Barbara as valid syllogism, considers racial prejudice indefensible, understands how attorney client privilege applies to the Stormy Daniels affair, can tell an stone age arrowhead from a rock, can comment on the philology of Hebrew, can understand Euclid’s proofs, is engaged in correcting the received text of Finnegans Wake , can explain the Quine/Duhem thesis and its relevance to the question of falsification, has written a commentary on Kant’s third critique and on top of all this is performing experiments in chemistry.

Strong scientism may be correct that only the last endeavour constitutes Jill’s ‘knowledge’ but on what grounds can it defeat what to me looks like the overwhelming presumption that Jill is not just a Chemist who wastes her time at hobbies but a genuine polymath who knows many things in many fields along with all the ordinary knowledge all humans possess?

Problems of Both the Strong and the Weak

The ‘strong scientist’ has surprisingly few options here. Will he point out that science makes true predictions? So have craftsmen for millennia. Further, many of these forms of knowledge do not need to make true predictions: I don’t need to test the hypothesis that there 114 Surahs in the Quran because I know already having checked.[6] Is science more certain of its conclusions? According to the post-Popper consensus at least, scientific statements are always tentative and revisable and in any case first person knowledge so surpasses it in certainty that some of it is arguably infallible. Is science more instrumentally successful?

Craftsmen and hunters kept the species alive for millennia before science even existed in difficult circumstances under which no science would have been possible. What is more some craft knowledge remains instrumentally superior to science to this day: no baseball player chooses a physicist over a batting coach.[7] At any rate success is relative to one’s aims and lawyers successfully produce legal arguments just as philologists successfully solve problems of Homeric grammar.

Now as Aristotle would say science does have the advantage over craft of being explanatory but is explanation unique to science? No; because hermeneutic practices in history, literature, classics and so on also produce explanations of the meaning of things like documents and if the ‘strong scientist’ wants to say that these explanations are tentative and changing (abductions as it were not inductions) then the same is true of a great deal of science. In short, none of the features that supposedly make for the superiority of science are unique to science and some are not even especially exemplified by it. It seems then that there is no criterion by which scientific claims can be shown to be knowledge in a unique and exclusive sense. Until such a criterion is identified it seems to me that my initial presupposition about Jill being a polymath rather than a chemist with distractions stands.   

Perhaps it is the awareness of such difficulties that leads Mizrahi to his stance of ‘Weak Scientism’. It is not a stance he himself entirely sticks to.  Some of his statements imply the strong version of scientism as when he tells us the knowledge is “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields, such as the humanities.” (22)[8] Still, when pushed, he seems content with the position that all the things I mentioned above might count as knowledge in a weaker sense but that scientific knowledge is still better and, presumably, more worthy of grants.

Unfortunately, the exact same objections which tell against strong scientism tell against weak scientism too. It is interesting that at this point Mizrahi employs a kind of knowledge I did not discuss above: to defend weak scientism he appeals to the authority of textbooks! (17) These textbooks tell him that science is instrumentally successful, explanatory and makes true predictions. He then tells us that while other disciplines may also betray these traits they do not do so to the same extent so that any money spent on them would be better spent on science on the maxim of prudence (another knowledge form I did not discuss) that one should seek the most bang for one’s buck.

Mizrahi gains little by this move for the question immediately arises better how and at what? Better in what context? By what standard of value? Just take the example of quantity so favored by Mizrahi. Does science produce more knowledge that anything else? Hardly. As Augustine pointed out I can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of my own existence. (City of God; XI, 26) Indeed, I can do this by reflecting recursively on my knowledge of ANY fact. Similar recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics.

Does science have (taken in bulk) more instrumental success than other knowledge forms? How would you even count given that craft knowledge has a roughly 3 million-year head start? This does not even count the successful record of problem solving in law, politics, or art.[9] Is science more successful at explanation? Hardly, if science could solve problems in literature or history then these fields would not even exist. Science only explains the things it is good at explaining which is no more and no less than one can say of any other discipline. This is why many proponents of scientism tacitly assume that the explanations produced in other disciplines only concern frilly, trivial things that science needn’t bother about anyway.[10]

Does science make more true predictions? Again how would you even count given that for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily? What is more, the inductive procedures of science seem relatively useless in the many endeavours that do not involve true prediction but some other method of justification like deduction or direct observation.

Thus, weak scientism seems in no better a case than strong scientism for the same reasons: there is no clearly applicable, context-independent, criterion that shows the superiority the ‘weak scientist’ claims: certainty, instrumental success, utilitarian value, predictive power and explanation all exist elsewhere in ways that are often not directly commensurable with the way they exist in science. As I told someone once (who asserted the superiority of the French language over all others) French is indeed the best language for speaking French in.[11] Science is the best way to do science.

Why Make Science an Ism at All?

Thus, if Mr. Mizrahi wants a thesis to defend it may well be possible to show that science is at least somewhat better on average at certain things than other approaches. He may call that ‘even weaker’ scientism. This would be to admit after all, that science is superior only in ‘certain relevant aspects’ leaving it to be inferred that it is not superior in others and that the ‘superiority’ that science demonstrates in one context, like particle physics, may vanish in another, like film criticism. If that is what ‘scientism’ amounts to then we are all proponents of it and it is hard to escape the impression that a mountain of argument has given birth to a mouse.

What is more, he informs us: “Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation. To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable.” (17) I suppose then it remains open to say that, after all, Joyce scholars ‘test’ their assertions about Ulysses against the text of Ulysses and are to that extent scientists. Perhaps, craftsmen, music theorists, historians and (gasp!) even philosophers, all in their various ways, do likewise: testing their assertions in the ways peculiar to their disciplines. Perhaps, then, all these endeavors are just iterations of science in which case Mirhazi’s mouse has shrunk to something the size of a pygmy shrew.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Aristotle, Metaphysics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Augustine, The City of God. Trans. H. Bettenson. (Penguin Classics, London, 1984)

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.”  Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no 4 (2018) 7-25.   

Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987) 595-597

[1] Does Mirhazi mean to say that if a particular sub-discipline of English produces more articles in a given year than a small subfield of science then that discipline of English is superior to that subfield of science? I’m sure he does not mean to say this but it seems to follow from his words.

[2] The qualitative superiority of science must be based on the value of its goals firstly (like curing disease or discovering alien life) and, secondly, its superiority in achieving those goals over all other methods. The discussion surely assumes that the things done by science must be worth doing more than their opposites. The question has of necessity an axiological component in spite of Mizrahi’s claim to the contrary (9). This means the values of science must be commensurable with the values of non-science if we are to say one is better overall than the other. Not only must science be instrumentally superior at answering scientific questions it must answer the questions of other disciplines better than those disciplines. Otherwise one is simply making the innocuous claim that science answers scientific questions better than geometry or rhetoric can. Mizrahi marshals only one example here: he tells us that the social sciences produce more knowledge about friendship than philosophy does. (19) Of course this assumes that philosophers and social scientists are asking the same or at least commensurable questions about friendship but even if I grant this there are still a vast multitude of instances where this is manifestly not the case, where non-scientists can produce better explanations on non-trivial questions than scientists can. I shall note some of these below.

[3] Mr. Mizrahi might consider, though, whether ideological self-critique might, after all, be a useful way of acquiring self-knowledge (which may not be so contemptible an attainment after all).

[4] This is the ‘Schrodinger’ phenomenon where an antagonist makes two contradictory accusations at once. (https://davewebster.org/2018/02/28/schrodingers-snowflake/) For what seems to be the fons et origo of this narrative see Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987).

[5] The underlying question here is one of Platonism vs. Aristotelianism. Strong Scientism argues that there is one paradigmatic form of ‘knowledge in itself’. I argue the Aristotelian position that just as ‘being’ is said in many senses (Metaphysics;9, 992b 15) so there are many analogical forms of knowledge. What all the things I have listed have in common is that each in its own peculiar way supports beliefs by appeals to evidence or other forms of justification. Everyday discourse may be wrong to use the word knowledge for these other forms of justified belief but I think the onus is on the ‘strong scientist’ to show this. Another thing I should point out is that I do not confine the word knowledge to beliefs that are indefeasible: a knower might say “to the best of knowledge” and still be a knower. I say this to head off the problem of skepticism which asks whether the criterion of indefeasible knowledge (whatever it is said to be) is ever actually fulfilled. There are valid responses to this problem but consideration of them would take us far afield.

[6] It is silly to imagine me hypothesizing the various numbers of Surahs the Quran could contain before testing my hypothesis by opening the book. Of course, if Mizrahi wishes, I can always put ordinary factual knowledge in the form of a testable proposition. Open War and Peace and you will find it contains an account of the battle of Borodino. Why is a true prediction of this kind any different than a true prediction in science?

[7] Here in fact we get to the nub of the problem. The ultimate problem with scientism weak or strong is that in the real world different knowledge forms interact with each other constantly. Science advances with the help of craftsmen as with the invention of the telescope. Craftsmen make use of science as when a running coach consults a physician. Archeologists and paleontologists employ abduction or hermeneutic reasoning. Art historians call on chemists while biologists call on the local knowledge of indigenous peoples. In a sense there is no such thing as ‘science’ pure and simple as other knowledge forms are inherent to its own structure (even deductive reasoning, the proper province of logicians, is essential to standard accounts of scientific method). This is one reason why, in fact, there is no one superior knowledge form but rather systematic interdependence of ALL knowledge forms.

[8] This is not the only instance of Mizrahi, apparently, trying to use a persuasive definition to win what looks like a mere verbal victory. Of course you can define knowledge as “what the sciences do”, assign another word to “what the humanities do” and go home waving the flag of triumph. But why should any of the rest of take note of such an arbitrary procedure?

[9] Again the problem is that the instrumental success of science rests on the instrumental success of a multitude of other things like the knowledge of bus schedules that gets us to the lab or the social knowledge that allows us to navigate modern institutions. No science tells us how to write a winning grant proposal or informs us that for as longs as Dr. Smith is chief editor of Widgetology the truth about widgets is whatever he says it is. Thus even if we confined the question to the last 50 years it is clear that science cannot claim instrumental superiority over the myriad other anonymous, unmarked processes that make science possible in the first place.

[10] My son, when he was a toddler, ran about the playground proclaiming himself ‘the greatest’. When he failed at any task or challenge he would casually turn to his mother and say “well, the greatest doesn’t do that”! This seems to be the position of many proponents of scientism. If scientists cannot produce good explanations in a field like literature or classics, then it must be that those fields are not really knowledge.

[11] Aristotle made this point ages ago. No inquiry into ethics he tells can have the rigour of geometry any more than the geometer need employ the art of rhetoric. (Nichomachean Ethics; 3, 20,25) Ethics employs phronesis or prudential judgment not logical deduction. Each discipline is answerable to its own internal standards which do not apply outside that discipline. There is, then, no overall ‘super-science’ (like the Platonic dialectic) that embodies a universal method for dealing with all subjects. Aristotle’s world is pluralist, discontinuous and analogical. For this reason, scientists have tended to be Platonists and modern science might be viewed as the revenge of the Platonic/Pythagorean tradition against its wayward pupil. Contemporary philosophy of science, if this author understands it correctly, seems to have restored Aristotelian praxis to the centre of the scientific enterprise. Students of Wittgenstein will no doubt appreciate the point that knowledge comes in as many varieties as games do and there is no more a single account of the first than there is of the second.

Author information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology, mmizrahi@fit.edu

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 7-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3W1

Please refer to:

Image by eltpics via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In my (2017a), I defend a view I call Weak Scientism, which is the view that knowledge produced by scientific disciplines is better than knowledge produced by non-scientific disciplines.[1] Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge–in the form of scholarly publications–than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact). Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.

Brown (2017a) raises several objections against my defense of Weak Scientism and I have replied to his objections (Mizrahi 2017b), thereby showing again that Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Since then, Brown (2017b) has reiterated his objections in another reply on SERRC. Almost unchanged from his previous attack on Weak Scientism (Brown 2017a), Brown’s (2017b) objections are the following:

  1. Weak Scientism is not strong enough to count as scientism.
  2. Advocates of Strong Scientism should not endorse Weak Scientism.
  3. Weak Scientism does not show that philosophy is useless.
  4. My defense of Weak Scientism appeals to controversial philosophical assumptions.
  5. My defense of Weak Scientism is a philosophical argument.
  6. There is nothing wrong with persuasive definitions of scientism.

In what follows, I will respond to these objections, thereby showing once more that Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Since I have been asked to keep this as short as possible, however, I will try to focus on what I take to be new in Brown’s (2017b) latest attack on Weak Scientism.

Is Weak Scientism Strong Enough to Count as Scientism?

Brown (2017b) argues for (1) on the grounds that, on Weak Scientism, “philosophical knowledge may be nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge.” Brown (2017b, 4) goes on to characterize a view he labels “Scientism2,” which he admits is the same view as Strong Scientism, and says that “there is a huge logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Weak Scientism.”

As was the case the first time Brown raised this objection, it is not clear how it is supposed to show that Weak Scientism is not “really” a (weaker) version of scientism (Mizrahi 2017b, 10-11). Of course there is a logical gap between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism; that is why I distinguish between these two epistemological views. If I am right, Strong Scientism is too strong to be a defensible version of scientism, whereas Weak Scientism is a defensible (weaker) version of scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353-354).

Of course Weak Scientism “leaves open the possibility that there is philosophical knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 5). If I am right, such philosophical knowledge would be inferior to scientific knowledge both quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) (Mizrahi 2017a, 358).

Brown (2017b, 5) does try to offer a reason “for thinking it strange that Weak Scientism counts as a species of scientism” in his latest attack on Weak Scientism, which does not appear in his previous attack. He invites us to imagine a theist who believes that “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century” (emphasis in original). Brown then claims that this theist would be an advocate of Weak Scientism because Brown (2017b, 6) takes “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century” to be “(roughly) equivalent to Weak Scientism.” For Brown (2017b, 6), however, “it seems odd, to say the least, that [this theist] should count as an advocate (even roughly) of scientism.”

Unfortunately, Brown’s appeal to intuition is rather difficult to evaluate because his hypothetical case is under-described.[2] First, the key phrase, namely, “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century,” is vague in more ways than one. I have no idea what “greatest” is supposed to mean here. Greatest in what respects? What are the other “intellectual achievements” relative to which science is said to be “the greatest”?

Also, what does “intellectual achievement” mean here? There are multiple accounts and literary traditions in history and philosophy of science, science studies, and the like on what counts as “intellectual achievements” or progress in science (Mizrahi 2013b). Without a clear understanding of what these key phrases mean here, it is difficult to tell how Brown’s intuition about this hypothetical case is supposed to be a reason to think that Weak Scientism is not “really” a (weaker) version of scientism.

Toward the end of his discussion of (1), Brown says something that suggests he actually has an issue with the word ‘scientism’. Brown (2017b, 6) writes, “perhaps Mizrahi should coin a new word for the position with respect to scientific knowledge and non-scientific forms of academic knowledge he wants to talk about” (emphasis in original). It should be clear, of course, that it does not matter what label I use for the view that “Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017a, 354; emphasis in original). What matters is the content of the view, not the label.

Whether Brown likes the label or not, Weak Scientism is a (weaker) version of scientism because it is the view that scientific ways of knowing are superior (in certain relevant respects) to non-scientific ways of knowing, whereas Strong Scientism is the view that scientific ways of knowing are the only ways of knowing. As I have pointed out in my previous reply to Brown, whether scientific ways of knowing are superior to non-scientific ways of knowing is essentially what the scientism debate is all about (Mizrahi 2017b, 13).

Before I conclude this discussion of (1), I would like to point out that Brown seems to have misunderstood Weak Scientism. He (2017b, 3) claims that “Weak Scientism is a normative and not a descriptive claim.” This is a mistake. As a thesis (Peels 2017, 11), Weak Scientism is a descriptive claim about scientific knowledge in comparison to non-scientific knowledge. This should be clear provided that we keep in mind what it means to say that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. As I have argued in my (2017a), to say that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that there is a lot more scientific knowledge than non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research output) and that the impact of scientific knowledge is greater than that of non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research impact).

To say that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that scientific knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge. All these claims about the superiority of scientific knowledge to non-scientific knowledge are descriptive, not normative, claims. That is to say, Weak Scientism is the view that, as a matter of fact, knowledge produced by scientific fields of study is quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) better than knowledge produced by non-scientific fields of study.

Of course, Weak Scientism does have some normative implications. For instance, if scientific knowledge is indeed better than non-scientific knowledge, then, other things being equal, we should give more evidential weight to scientific knowledge than to non-scientific knowledge. For example, suppose that I am considering whether to vaccinate my child or not. On the one hand, I have scientific knowledge in the form of results from clinical trials according to which MMR vaccines are generally safe and effective.

On the other hand, I have knowledge in the form of stories about children who were vaccinated and then began to display symptoms of autism. If Weak Scientism is true, and I want to make a decision based on the best available information, then I should give more evidential weight to the scientific knowledge about MMR vaccines than to the anecdotal knowledge about MMR vaccines simply because the former is scientific (i.e., knowledge obtained by means of the methods of science, such as clinical trials) and the latter is not.

Should Advocates of Strong Scientism Endorse Weak Scientism?

Brown (2017b, 7) argues for (2) on the grounds that “once the advocate of Strong Scientism sees that an advocate of Weak Scientism admits the possibility that there is real knowledge other than what is produced by the natural sciences […] the advocate of Strong Scientism, at least given their philosophical presuppositions, will reject Weak Scientism out of hand.” It is not clear which “philosophical presuppositions” Brown is talking about here. Brown quotes Rosenberg (2011, 20), who claims that physics tells us what reality is like, presumably as an example of a proponent of Strong Scientism who would not endorse Weak Scientism. But it is not clear why Brown thinks that Rosenberg would “reject Weak Scientism out of hand” (Brown 2017d, 7).

Like other proponents of scientism, Rosenberg should endorse Weak Scientism because, unlike Strong Scientism, Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Insofar as we should endorse the view that has the most evidence in its favor, Weak Scientism has more going for it than Strong Scientism does. For to show that Strong Scientism is true, one would have to show that no field of study other than scientific ones can produce knowledge. Of course, that is not easy to show. To show that Weak Scientism is true, one only needs to show that the knowledge produced in scientific fields of study is better (in certain relevant respects) than the knowledge produced in non-scientific fields.

That is precisely what I show in my (2017a). I argue that the knowledge produced in scientific fields is quantitatively better than the knowledge produced in non-scientific fields because there is a lot more scientific knowledge than non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research output) and the former has a greater impact than the latter (as measured by research impact). I also argue that the knowledge produced in scientific fields is qualitatively better than knowledge produced in non-scientific fields because it is more explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively successful.

Contrary to what Brown (2017b, 7) seems to think, I do not have to show “that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge.” To defend Weak Scientism, all I have to show is that scientific knowledge is better (in certain relevant respects) than non-scientific knowledge. If anyone must argue for the claim that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge, it is Brown, for he wants to defend the value or usefulness of non-scientific knowledge, specifically, philosophical knowledge.

It is important to emphasize the point about the ways in which scientific knowledge is quantitatively and qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge because it looks like Brown has confused the two. For he thinks that I justify my quantitative analysis of scholarly publications in scientific and non-scientific fields by “citing the precedent of epistemologists who often treat all items of knowledge as qualitatively the same” (Brown 2017b, 22; emphasis added).

Here Brown fails to carefully distinguish between my claim that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge and my claim that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge. For the purposes of a quantitative study of knowledge, information and data scientists can do precisely what epistemologists do and “abstract from various circumstances (by employing variables)” (Brown 2017b, 22) in order to determine which knowledge is quantitatively better.

How Is Weak Scientism Relevant to the Claim that Philosophy Is Useless?

Brown (2017b, 7-8) argues for (3) on the grounds that “Weak Scientism itself implies nothing about the degree to which philosophical knowledge is valuable or useful other than stating scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge” (emphasis in original).

Strictly speaking, Brown is wrong about this because Weak Scientism does imply something about the degree to which scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge. Recall that to say that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that scientific fields of study publish more research and that scientific research has greater impact than the research published in non-scientific fields of study.

Contrary to what Brown seems to think, we can say to what degree scientific research is superior to non-scientific research in terms of output and impact. That is precisely what bibliometric indicators like h-index and other metrics are for (Rousseau et al. 2018). Such bibliometric indicators allow us to say how many articles are published in a given field, how many of those published articles are cited, and how many times they are cited. For instance, according to Scimago Journal & Country Rank (2018), which contains data from the Scopus database, of the 3,815 Philosophy articles published in the United States in 2016-2017, approximately 14% are cited, and their h-index is approximately 160.

On the other hand, of the 24,378 Psychology articles published in the United States in 2016-2017, approximately 40% are cited, and their h-index is approximately 640. Contrary to what Brown seems to think, then, we can say to what degree research in Psychology is better than research in Philosophy in terms of research output (i.e., number of publications) and research impact (i.e., number of citations). We can use the same bibliometric indicators and metrics to compare research in other scientific and non-scientific fields of study.

As I have already said in my previous reply to Brown, “Weak Scientism does not entail that philosophy is useless” and “I have no interest in defending the charge that philosophy is useless” (Mizrahi 2017b, 11-12). So, I am not sure why Brown brings up (3) again. Since he insists, however, let me explain why philosophers who are concerned about the charge that philosophy is useless should engage with Weak Scientism as well.

Suppose that a foundation or agency is considering whether to give a substantial grant to one of two projects. The first project is that of a philosopher who will sit in her armchair and contemplate the nature of friendship.[3] The second project is that of a team of social scientists who will conduct a longitudinal study of the effects of friendship on human well-being (e.g., Yang et al. 2016).

If Weak Scientism is true, and the foundation or agency wants to fund the project that is likely to yield better results, then it should give the grant to the team of social scientists rather than to the armchair philosopher simply because the former’s project is scientific, whereas the latter’s is not. This is because the scientific project will more likely yield better knowledge than the non-scientific project will. In other words, unlike the project of the armchair philosopher, the scientific project will probably produce more research (i.e., more publications) that will have a greater impact (i.e., more citations) and the knowledge produced will be explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than any knowledge that the philosopher’s project might produce.

This example should really hit home for Brown, since reading his latest attack on Weak Scientism gives one the impression that he thinks of philosophy as a personal, “self-improvement” kind of enterprise, rather than an academic discipline or field of study. For instance, he seems to be saying that philosophy is not in the business of producing “new knowledge” or making “discoveries” (Brown 2017b, 17).

Rather, Brown (2017b, 18) suggests that philosophy “is more about individual intellectual progress rather than collective intellectual progress.” Individual progress or self-improvement is great, of course, but I am not sure that it helps Brown’s case in defense of philosophy against what he sees as “the menace of scientism.” For this line of thinking simply adds fuel to the fire set by those who want to see philosophy burn. As I point out in my (2017a), scientists who dismiss philosophy do so because they find it academically useless.

For instance, Hawking and Mlodinow (2010, 5) write that ‘philosophy is dead’ because it ‘has not kept up with developments in science, particularly physics’ (emphasis added). Similarly, Weinberg (1994, 168) says that, as a working scientist, he ‘finds no help in professional philosophy’ (emphasis added). (Mizrahi 2017a, 356)

Likewise, Richard Feynman is rumored to have said that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds” (Kitcher 1998, 32). It is clear, then, that what these scientists complain about is professional or academic philosophy. Accordingly, they would have no problem with anyone who wants to pursue philosophy for the sake of “individual intellectual progress.” But that is not the issue here. Rather, the issue is academic knowledge or research.

Does My Defense of Weak Scientism Appeal to Controversial Philosophical Assumptions?

Brown (2017b, 9) argues for (4) on the grounds that I assume that “we are supposed to privilege empirical (I read Mizrahi’s ‘empirical’ here as ‘experimental/scientific’) evidence over non-empirical evidence.” But that is question-begging, Brown claims, since he takes me to be assuming something like the following: “If the question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to [academic] non-scientific knowledge is a question that one can answer empirically, then, in order to pose a serious challenge to my [Mizrahi’s] defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere ‘what ifs’” (Mizrahi 2017b, 10; quoted in Brown 2017b, 8).

This objection seems to involve a confusion about how defeasible reasoning and defeating evidence are supposed to work. Given that “a rebutting defeater is evidence which prevents E from justifying belief in H by supporting not-H in a more direct way” (Kelly 2016), claims about what is actual cannot be defeated by mere possibilities, since claims of the form “Possibly, p” do not prevent a piece of evidence from justifying belief in “Actually, p” by supporting “Actually, not-p” directly.

For example, the claim “Hillary Clinton could have been the 45th President of the United States” does not prevent my perceptual and testimonial evidence from justifying my belief in “Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States,” since the former does not support “It is not the case that Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States” in a direct way. In general, claims of the form “Possibly, p” are not rebutting defeaters against claims of the form “Actually, p.” Defeating evidence against claims of the form “Actually, p” must be about what is actual (or at least probable), not what is merely possible, in order to support “Actually, not-p” directly.

For this reason, although “the production of some sorts of non-scientific knowledge work may be harder than the production of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 19), Brown gives no reasons to think that it is actually or probably harder, which is why this possibility does nothing to undermine the claim that scientific knowledge is actually better than non-scientific knowledge. Just as it is possible that philosophical knowledge is harder to produce than scientific knowledge, it is also possible that scientific knowledge is harder to produce than philosophical knowledge. It is also possible that scientific and non-scientific knowledge are equally hard to produce.

Similarly, the possibility that “a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things” (Brown 2017b, 19), whatever “noble” is supposed to mean here, does not prevent my bibliometric evidence (in terms of research output and research impact) from justifying the belief that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. Just as it is possible that philosophical knowledge is “nobler” (whatever that means) than scientific knowledge, it is also possible that scientific knowledge is “nobler” than philosophical knowledge or that they are equally “noble” (Mizrahi 2017b, 9-10).

In fact, even if Brown (2017a, 47) is right that “philosophy is harder than science” and that “knowing something about human persons–particularly qua embodied rational being–is a nobler piece of knowledge than knowing something about any non-rational object” (Brown 2017b, 21), whatever “noble” is supposed to mean here, it would still be the case that scientific fields produce more knowledge (as measured by research output), and more impactful knowledge (as measured by research impact), than non-scientific disciplines.

So, I am not sure why Brown keeps insisting on mentioning these mere possibilities. He also seems to forget that the natural and social sciences study human persons as well. Even if knowledge about human persons is “nobler” (whatever that means), there is a lot of scientific knowledge about human persons coming from scientific fields, such as anthropology, biology, genetics, medical science, neuroscience, physiology, psychology, and sociology, to name just a few.

One of the alleged “controversial philosophical assumptions” that my defense of Weak Scientism rests on, and that Brown (2017a) complains about the most in his previous attack on Weak Scientism, is my characterization of philosophy as the scholarly work that professional philosophers do. In my previous reply, I argue that Brown is not in a position to complain that this is a “controversial philosophical assumption,” since he rejects my characterization of philosophy as the scholarly work that professional philosophers produce, but he does not tell us what counts as philosophical (Mizrahi 2017b, 13). Well, it turns out that Brown does not reject my characterization of philosophy after all. For, after he was challenged to say what counts as philosophical, he came up with the following “sufficient condition for pieces of writing and discourse that count as philosophy” (Brown 2017b, 11):

(P) Those articles published in philosophical journals and what academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy teach in courses at public universities with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science (Brown 2017b, 11; emphasis added).

Clearly, this is my characterization of philosophy in terms of the scholarly work that professional philosophers produce. Brown simply adds teaching to it. Since he admits that “scientists teach students too” (Brown 2017b, 18), however, it is not clear how adding teaching to my characterization of philosophy is supposed to support his attack on Weak Scientism. In fact, it may actually undermine his attack on Weak Scientism, since there is a lot more teaching going on in STEM fields than in non-STEM fields.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2017), in the 2015-16 academic year, post-secondary institutions in the United States conferred only 10,157 Bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies compared to 113,749 Bachelor’s degrees in biological and biomedical sciences, 106,850 Bachelor’s degrees in engineering, and 117,440 in psychology. In general, in the 2015-2016 academic year, 53.3% of the Bachelor’s degrees conferred by post-secondary institutions in the United States were degrees in STEM fields, whereas only 5.5% of conferred Bachelor’s degrees were in the humanities (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Bachelor’s degrees conferred by post-secondary institutions in the US, by field of study, 2015-2016 (Source: NCES)

 

Clearly, then, there is a lot more teaching going on in science than in philosophy (or even in the humanities in general), since a lot more students take science courses and graduate with degrees in scientific fields of study. So, even if Brown is right that we should include teaching in what counts as philosophy, it is still the case that scientific fields are quantitatively better than non-scientific fields.

Since Brown (2017b, 13) seems to agree that philosophy (at least in part) is the scholarly work that academic philosophers produce, it is peculiar that he complains, without argument, that “an understanding of philosophy and knowledge as operational is […] shallow insofar as philosophy and knowledge can’t fit into the narrow parameters of another empirical study.” Once Brown (2017b, 11) grants that “Those articles published in philosophical journals” count as philosophy, he thereby also grants that these journal articles can be studied empirically using the methods of bibliometrics, information science, or data science.

That is, Brown (2017b, 11) concedes that philosophy consists (at least in part) of “articles published in philosophical journals,” and so these articles can be compared to other articles published in science journals to determine research output, and they can also be compared to articles published in science journals in terms of citation counts to determine research impact. What exactly is “shallow” about that? Brown does not say.

A, perhaps unintended, consequence of Brown’s (P) is that the “great thinkers from the past” (Brown 2017b, 18), those that Brown (2017b, 13) likes to remind us “were not professional philosophers,” did not do philosophy, by Brown’s own lights. For “Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, and Hume” (Brown 2017b, 13) did not publish in philosophy journals, were not academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy, and did not teach at public universities courses “with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science” (Brown 2017b, 11).

Another peculiar thing about Brown’s (P) is the restriction of the philosophical to what is being taught in public universities. What about community colleges and private universities? Is Brown suggesting that philosophy courses taught at private universities do not count as philosophy courses? This is peculiar, especially in light of the fact that, at least according to The Philosophical Gourmet Report (Brogaard and Pynes 2018), the top ranked philosophy programs in the United States are mostly located in private universities, such as New York University and Princeton University.

Is My Defense of Weak Scientism a Scientific or a Philosophical Argument?

Brown argues for (5) on the grounds that my (2017a) is published in a philosophy journal, namely, Social Epistemology, and so it a piece of philosophical knowledge by my lights, since I count as philosophy the research articles that are published in philosophy journals.

Brown would be correct about this if Social Epistemology were a philosophy journal. But it is not. Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy is an interdisciplinary journal. The journal’s “aim and scope” statement makes it clear that Social Epistemology is an interdisciplinary journal:

Social Epistemology provides a forum for philosophical and social scientific enquiry that incorporates the work of scholars from a variety of disciplines who share a concern with the production, assessment and validation of knowledge. The journal covers both empirical research into the origination and transmission of knowledge and normative considerations which arise as such research is implemented, serving as a guide for directing contemporary knowledge enterprises (Social Epistemology 2018).

The fact that Social Epistemology is an interdisciplinary journal, with contributions from “Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, cultural historians, social studies of science researchers, [and] educators” (Social Epistemology 2018) would not surprise anyone who is familiar with the history of the journal. The founding editor of the journal is Steve Fuller, who was trained in an interdisciplinary field, namely, History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), and is currently the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at Warwick University. Brown (2017b, 15) would surely agree that sociology is not philosophy, given that, for him, “cataloguing what a certain group of people believes is sociology and not philosophy.” The current executive editor of the journal is James H. Collier, who is a professor of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech, and who was trained in Science and Technology Studies (STS), which is an interdisciplinary field as well.

Brown asserts without argument that the methods of a scientific field of study, such as sociology, are different in kind from those of philosophy: “What I contend is that […] philosophical methods are different in kind from those of the experimental scientists [sciences?]” (Brown 2017b, 24). He then goes on to speculate about what it means to say that an explanation is testable (Brown 2017b, 25). What Brown comes up with is rather unclear to me. For instance, I have no idea what it means to evaluate an explanation by inductive generalization (Brown 2017b, 25).

Instead, Brown should have consulted any one of the logic and reasoning textbooks I keep referring to in my (2017a) and (2017b) to find out that it is generally accepted among philosophers that the good-making properties of explanations, philosophical and otherwise, include testability among other good-making properties (see, e.g., Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin 2010, 257). As far as testability is concerned, to test an explanation or hypothesis is to determine “whether predictions that follow from it are true” (Salmon 2013, 255). In other words, “To say that a hypothesis is testable is at least to say that some prediction made on the basis of that hypothesis may confirm or disconfirm it” (Copi et al. 2011, 515).

For this reason, Feser’s analogy according to which “to compare the epistemic values of science and philosophy and fault philosophy for not being good at making testable predications [sic] is like comparing metal detectors and gardening tools and concluding gardening tools are not as good as metal detectors because gardening tools do not allow us to successfully detect for metal” (Brown 2017b, 25), which Brown likes to refer to (Brown 2017a, 48), is inapt.

It is not an apt analogy because, unlike metal detectors and gardening tools, which serve different purposes, both science and philosophy are in the business of explaining things. Indeed, Brown admits that, like good scientific explanations, “good philosophical theories explain things” (emphasis in original). In other words, Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation (unlike gardening and metal-detecting instruments). To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable (Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20).

What Is Wrong with Persuasive Definitions of Scientism?

Brown (2017b, 31) argues for (6) on the grounds that “persuasive definitions are [not] always dialectically pernicious.” He offers an argument whose conclusion is “abortion is murder” as an example of an argument for a persuasive definition of abortion. He then outlines an argument for a persuasive definition of scientism according to which “Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32).

The problem, however, is that Brown is confounding arguments for a definition with the definition itself. Having an argument for a persuasive definition does not change the fact that it is a persuasive definition. To illustrate this point, let me give an example that I think Brown will appreciate. Suppose I define theism as an irrational belief in the existence of God. That is, “theism” means “an irrational belief in the existence of God.” I can also provide an argument for this definition:

P1: If it is irrational to have paradoxical beliefs and God is a paradoxical being, then theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God.

P2: It is irrational to have paradoxical beliefs and God is a paradoxical being (e.g., the omnipotence paradox).[4]

Therefore,

C: Theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God.

But surely, theists will complain that my definition of theism is a “dialectically pernicious” persuasive definition. For it stacks the deck against theists. It states that theists are already making a mistake, by definition, simply by believing in the existence of God. Even though I have provided an argument for this persuasive definition of theism, my definition is still a persuasive definition of theism, and my argument is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already think that theism is irrational. Indeed, Brown (2017b, 30) himself admits that much when he says “good luck with that project!” about trying to construct a sound argument for “abortion is murder.” I take this to mean that pro-choice advocates would find his argument for “abortion is murder” dialectically inert precisely because it defines abortion in a manner that transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), which they cannot accept.

Likewise, theists would find the argument above dialectically inert precisely because it defines theism in a manner that transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), which they cannot accept. In other words, Brown seems to agree that there are good dialectical reasons to avoid appealing to persuasive definitions. Therefore, like “abortion is murder,” “theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God,” and “‘Homosexual’ means ‘one who has an unnatural desire for those of the same sex’” (Salmon 2013, 65), “Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32) is a “dialectically pernicious” persuasive definition (cf. Williams 2015, 14).

Like persuasive definitions in general, it “masquerades as an honest assignment of meaning to a term while condemning or blessing with approval the subject matter of the definiendum” (Hurley 2015, 101). As I have pointed out in my (2017a), the problem with such definitions is that they “are strategies consisting in presupposing an unaccepted definition, taking a new unknowable description of meaning as if it were commonly shared” (Macagno and Walton 2014, 205).

As for Brown’s argument for the persuasive definition of Weak Scientism, according to which it “is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32), a key premise in this argument is the claim that there is a piece of philosophical knowledge that is better than scientific knowledge. This is premise 36 in Brown’s argument:

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 arguments 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]

There is a lot to unpack here, but I will focus on what I take to be the points most relevant to the scientism debate. First, Brown assumes 36 without argument, but why think it is true? In particular, why think that (a), (b), and (c) count as philosophical knowledge? Brown says that philosophers know (a), (b), and (c) in virtue of being philosophers, but he does not tell us why that is the case.

After all, accounts of friendship, with lessons about the significance of friendship, predate philosophy (see, e.g., the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh). Did it really take Plato and Augustine to tell us about the significance of friendship? In fact, on Brown’s characterization of philosophy, namely, (P), (a), (b), and (c) do not count as philosophical knowledge at all, since Plato and Augustine did not publish in philosophy journals, were not academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy, and did not teach at public universities courses “with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science” (Brown 2017b, 11).

Second, some philosophers, like Epicurus, need (and think that others need) friends to flourish, whereas others, like Diogenes of Sinope, need no one. For Diogenes, friends will only interrupt his sunbathing (Arrian VII.2). My point is not simply that philosophers disagree about the value of friendship and human flourishing. Of course they disagree.[5]

Rather, my point is that, in order to establish general truths about human beings, such as “Human beings need friends to flourish,” one must employ the methods of science, such as randomization and sampling procedures, blinding protocols, methods of statistical analysis, and the like; otherwise, one would simply commit the fallacies of cherry-picking anecdotal evidence and hasty generalization (Salmon 2013, 149-151). After all, the claim “Some need friends to flourish” does not necessitate, or even make more probable, the truth of “Human beings need friends to flourish.”[6]

Third, why think that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32)? Better in what sense? Quantitatively? Qualitatively? Brown does not tell us. He simply declares it “self-evident” (Brown 2017b, 32). I take it that Brown would not want to argue that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing” is better than scientific knowledge in the quantitative (i.e., in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitative (i.e., in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) respects in which scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge, according to Weak Scientism.

If so, then in what sense exactly “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing” (Brown 2017b, 32) is supposed to be better than scientific knowledge? Brown (2017b, 32) simply assumes that without argument and without telling us in what sense exactly “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32).

Of course, philosophy does not have a monopoly on friendship and human flourishing as research topics. Psychologists and sociologists, among other scientists, work on friendship as well (see, e.g., Hojjat and Moyer 2017). To get an idea of how much research on friendship is done in scientific fields, such as psychology and sociology, and how much is done in philosophy, we can use a database like Web of Science.

Currently (03/29/2018), there are 12,334 records in Web of Science on the topic “friendship.” Only 76 of these records (0.61%) are from the Philosophy research area. Most of the records are from the Psychology (5,331 records) and Sociology (1,111) research areas (43.22% and 9%, respectively). As we can see from Figure 2, most of the research on friendship is done in scientific fields of study, such as psychology, sociology, and other social sciences.

Figure 2. Number of records on the topic “friendship” in Web of Science by research area (Source: Web of Science)

 

In terms of research impact, too, scientific knowledge about friendship is superior to philosophical knowledge about friendship. According to Web of Science, the average citations per year for Psychology research articles on the topic of friendship is 2826.11 (h-index is 148 and the average citations per item is 28.1), and the average citations per year for Sociology research articles on the topic of friendship is 644.10 (h-index is 86 and the average citations per item is 30.15), whereas the average citations per year for Philosophy research articles on friendship is 15.02 (h-index is 13 and the average citations per item is 8.11).

Quantitatively, then, psychological and sociological knowledge on friendship is better than philosophical knowledge in terms of research output and research impact. Both Psychology and Sociology produce significantly more research on friendship than Philosophy does, and the research they produce has significantly more impact (as measured by citation counts) than philosophical research on the same topic.

Qualitatively, too, psychological and sociological knowledge about friendship is better than philosophical knowledge about friendship. For, instead of rather vague statements about how “true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing” (Brown 2017b, 32) that are based on mostly armchair speculation, psychological and sociological research on friendship provides detailed explanations and accurate predictions about the effects of friendship (or lack thereof) on human well-being.

For instance, numerous studies provide evidence for the effects of friendships or lack of friendships on physical well-being (see, e.g., Yang et al. 2016) as well as mental well-being (see, e.g., Cacioppo and Patrick 2008). Further studies provide explanations for the biological and genetic bases of these effects (Cole et al. 2011). This knowledge, in turn, informs interventions designed to help people deal with loneliness and social isolation (see, e.g., Masi et al. 2010).[7]

To sum up, Brown (2017b, 32) has given no reasons to think that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge.” He does not even tell us what “better” is supposed to mean here. He also ignores the fact that scientific fields of study, such as psychology and sociology, produce plenty of knowledge about human flourishing, both physical and mental well-being. In fact, as we have seen, science produces a lot more knowledge about topics related to human well-being, such as friendship, than philosophy does. For this reason, Brown (2017b, 32) has failed to show that “there is non-scientific form of knowledge better than scientific knowledge.”

Conclusion

At this point, I think it is quite clear that Brown and I are talking past each other on a couple of levels. First, I follow scientists (e.g., Weinberg 1994, 166-190) and philosophers (e.g., Haack 2007, 17-18 and Peels 2016, 2462) on both sides of the scientism debate in treating philosophy as an academic discipline or field of study, whereas Brown (2017b, 18) insists on thinking about philosophy as a personal activity of “individual intellectual progress.” Second, I follow scientists (e.g., Hawking and Mlodinow 2010, 5) and philosophers (e.g., Kidd 2016, 12-13 and Rosenberg 2011, 307) on both sides of the scientism debate in thinking about knowledge as the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields of study, such as the humanities, whereas Brown insists on thinking about philosophical knowledge as personal knowledge.

To anyone who wishes to defend philosophy’s place in research universities alongside academic disciplines, such as history, linguistics, and physics, armed with this conception of philosophy as a “self-improvement” activity, I would use Brown’s (2017b, 30) words to say, “good luck with that project!” A much more promising strategy, I propose, is for philosophy to embrace scientific ways of knowing and for philosophers to incorporate scientific methods into their research.[8]

Contact details: mmizrahi@fit.edu

References

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Macagno, F., and D. Walton. Emotive Language in Argumentation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Masi, C. M., H. Chen, and L. C. Hawkley. “A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, no. 3 (2011): 219-266.

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Mizrahi, M. “More Intuition Mongering.” The Reasoner 7, no. 1 (2013a): 5-6.

Mizrahi, M. “What is Scientific Progress? Lessons from Scientific Practice.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 44, no. 2 (2013b): 375-390.

Mizrahi, M. “New Puzzles about Divine Attributes.” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 5, no. 2 (2013c): 147-157.

Mizrahi, M. “The Pessimistic Induction: A Bad Argument Gone Too Far.” Synthese 190, no. 15 (2013d): 3209-3226.

Mizrahi, M. “Does the Method of Cases Rest on a Mistake?” Review of Philosophy and Psychology 5, no. 2 (2014): 183-197.

Mizrahi, M. “On Appeals to Intuition: A Reply to Muñoz-Suárez.” The Reasoner 9, no. 2 (2015a): 12-13.

Mizrahi, M. “Don’t Believe the Hype: Why Should Philosophical Theories Yield to Intuitions?” Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 34, no. 3 (2015b): 141-158.

Mizrahi, M. “Historical Inductions: New Cherries, Same Old Cherry-Picking.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 29, no. 2 (2015c): 129-148.

Mizrahi, M. “Three Arguments against the Expertise Defense.” Metaphilosophy 46, no. 1 (2015d): 52-64.

Mizrahi, M. “The History of Science as a Graveyard of Theories: A Philosophers’ Myth?” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 30, no. 3 (2016): 263-278.

Mizrahi, M. “What’s So Bad about Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017a): 351-367.

Mizrahi, M. “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017b): 9-22.

Mizrahi, M. “Introduction.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? Edited by M. Mizrahi, 1-22. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017c.

National Center for Education Statistics. “Bachelor’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by field of study: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2015-16.” Digest of Education Statistics (2017). https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_322.10.asp?current=yes.

Peels, R. “The Empirical Case Against Introspection.” Philosophical Studies 17, no. 9 (2016): 2461-2485.

Peels, R. “Ten Reasons to Embrace Scientism.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 63 (2017): 11-21.

Rosenberg, A. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

Rousseau, R., L. Egghe, and R. Guns. Becoming Metric-Wise: A Bibliometric Guide for Researchers. Cambridge, MA: Elsevier, 2018.

Salmon, M. H. Introduction to Logic and Critical Thinking. Sixth Edition. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2013.

Scimago Journal & Country Rank. “Subject Bubble Chart.” SJR: Scimago Journal & Country Rank. Accessed on April 3, 2018. http://www.scimagojr.com/mapgen.php?maptype=bc&country=US&y=citd.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W., and R. J. Fogelin. Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. Eighth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010.

Social Epistemology. “Aims and Scope.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy (2018). https://www.tandfonline.com/action/journalInformation?show=aimsScope&journalCode=tsep20.

Weinberg, S. Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature. New York: Random House, 1994.

Williams, R. N. “Introduction.” In Scientism: The New Orthodoxy, edited by R. N. Williams and D. N. Robinson, 1-22. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Yang, C. Y., C. Boen, K. Gerken, T. Li, K. Schorpp, and K. M. Harris. “Social Relationships and Physiological Determinants of Longevity Across the Human Life Span.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 3 (2016): 578-583.

[1] I thank Adam Riggio for inviting me to respond to Brown’s second attack on Weak Scientism.

[2] On why appeals to intuition are bad arguments, see Mizrahi (2012), (2013a), (2014), (2015a), (2015b), and (2015d).

[3] I use friendship as an example here because Brown (2017b, 31) uses it as an example of philosophical knowledge. I will say more about that in Section 6.

[4] For more on paradoxes involving the divine attributes, see Mizrahi (2013c).

[5] “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create)” (Lewis 1960, 71).

[6] On fallacious inductive reasoning in philosophy, see Mizrahi (2013d), (2015c), (2016), and (2017c).

[7] See also “The Friendship Bench” project: https://www.friendshipbenchzimbabwe.org/.

[8] For recent examples, see Ashton and Mizrahi (2017) and (2018).

Author Information: Adam Riggio, SERRC Digital Editor, serrc.digital@gmail.com

Riggio, Adam. “Action in Harmony with a Global World.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 20-26.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Vp

Image by cornie via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bryan Van Norden has become about as notorious as an academic philosopher can be while remaining a virtuous person. His notoriety came with a column in the New York Times that took the still-ethnocentric approach of many North American and European university philosophy departments to task. The condescending and insulting dismissal of great works of thought from cultures and civilizations beyond Europe and European-descended North America should scandalize us. That it does not is to the detriment of academic philosophy’s culture.

Anyone who cares about the future of philosophy as a tradition should read Taking Back Philosophy and take its lessons to heart, if one does not agree already with its purpose. The discipline of philosophy, as practiced in North American and European universities, must incorporate all the philosophical traditions of humanity into its curriculum and its subject matter. It is simple realism.

A Globalized World With No Absolute Hierarchies

I am not going to argue for this decision, because I consider it obvious that this must be done. Taking Back Philosophy is a quick read, an introduction to a political task that philosophers, no matter their institutional homes, must support if the tradition is going to survive beyond the walls of universities increasingly co-opted by destructive economic, management, and human resources policies.

Philosophy as a creative tradition cannot survive in an education economy built on the back of student debt, where institutions’ priorities are set by a management class yoked to capital investors and corporate partners, which prioritizes the proliferation of countless administrative-only positions while highly educated teachers and researchers compete ruthlessly for poverty wages.

With this larger context in mind, Van Norden’s call for the enlargement of departments’ curriculums to cover all traditions is one essential pillar of the vision to liberate philosophy from the institutions that are destroying it as a viable creative process. In total, those four pillars are 1) universal accessibility, economically and physically; 2) community guidance of a university’s priorities; 3) restoring power over the institution to creative and research professionals; and 4) globalizing the scope of education’s content.

Taking Back Philosophy is a substantial brick through the window of the struggle to rebuild our higher education institutions along these democratic and liberating lines. Van Norden regularly publishes work of comparative philosophy that examines many problems of ethics and ontology using texts, arguments, and concepts from Western, Chinese, and Indian philosophy. But if you come to Taking Back Philosophy expecting more than a brick through those windows, you’ll be disappointed. One chapter walks through a number of problems as examples, but the sustained conceptual engagement of a creative philosophical work is absent. Only the call to action remains.

What a slyly provocative call it is – the book’s last sentence, “Let’s discuss it . . .”

Unifying a Tradition of Traditions

I find it difficult to write a conventional review of Taking Back Philosophy, because so much of Van Norden’s polemic is common sense to me. Of course, philosophy departments must be open to primary material from all the traditions of the human world, not just the Western. I am incapable of understanding why anyone would argue against this, given how globalized human civilization is today. For the context of this discussion, I will consider a historical and a technological aspect of contemporary globalization. Respectively, these are the fall of the European military empires, and the incredible intensity with which contemporary communications and travel technology integrates people all over Earth.

We no longer live in a world dominated by European military colonial empires, so re-emerging centres of culture and economics must be taken on their own terms. The Orientalist presumption, which Edward Said spent a career mapping, that there is no serious difference among Japanese, Malay, Chinese, Hindu, Turkic, Turkish, Persian, Arab, Levantine, or Maghreb cultures is not only wrong, but outright stupid. Orientalism as an academic discipline thrived for the centuries it did only because European weaponry intentionally and persistently kept those cultures from asserting themselves.

Indigenous peoples – throughout the Americas, Australia, the Pacific, and Africa – who have been the targets of cultural and eradicative genocides for centuries now claim and agitate for their human rights, as well as inclusion in the broader human community and species. I believe most people of conscience are appalled and depressed that these claims are controversial at all, and even seen by some as a sign of civilizational decline.

The impact of contemporary technology I consider an even more important factor than the end of imperialist colonialism in the imperative to globalize the philosophical tradition. Despite the popular rhetoric of contemporary globalization, the human world has been globalized for millennia. Virtually since urban life first developed, long-distance international trade and communication began as well.

Here are some examples. Some of the first major cities of ancient Babylon achieved their greatest economic prosperity through trade with cities on the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and as far east along the Indian Ocean coast as Balochistan. From 4000 to 1000 years ago, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Persian, Arab, Chinese, Mongol, Indian, Bantu, Malian, Inca, and Anishinaabeg peoples, among others, built trade networks and institutions stretching across continents.

Contemporary globalization is different in the speed and quantity of commerce, and diversity of goods. It is now possible to reach the opposite side of the planet in a day’s travel, a journey so ordinary that tens of millions of people take these flights each year. Real-time communication is now possible between anywhere on Earth with broadband internet connections thanks to satellite networks and undersea fibre-optic cables. In 2015, the total material value of all goods and commercial services traded internationally was US$21-trillion. That’s a drop from the previous year’s all-time (literally) high of US$24-trillion.[1]

Travel, communication, and productivity has never been so massive or intense in all of human history. The major control hubs of the global economy are no longer centralized in a small set of colonial powers, but a variety of economic centres throughout the world, depending on industry. From Beijing, Moscow, Mumbai, Lagos, and Berlin to Tokyo, and Washington, the oil fields of Kansas, the Dakotas, Alberta, and Iraq, and the coltan, titanium, and tantalum mines of Congo, Kazakhstan, and China.

All these proliferating lists express a simple truth – all cultures of the world now legitimately claim recognition as equals, as human communities sharing our Earth as we hollow it out. Philosophical traditions from all over the world are components of those claims to equal recognition.

The Tradition of Process Thought

So that is the situation forcing a recalcitrant and reactionary academy to widen its curricular horizons – Do so, or face irrelevancy in a global civilization with multiple centres all standing as civic equals in the human community. This is where Van Norden himself leaves us. Thankfully, he understands that a polemic ending with a precise program immediately becomes empty dogma, a conclusion which taints the plausibility of an argument. His point is simple – that the academic discipline must expand its arms. He leaves the more complex questions of how the philosophical tradition itself can develop as a genuinely global community.

Process philosophy is a relatively new philosophical tradition, which can adopt the classics of Daoist philosophy as broad frameworks and guides. By process philosophy, I mean the research community that has grown around Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as primary innovators of their model of thought – a process philosophy that converges with an ecological post-humanism. The following are some essential aspects of this new school of process thinking, each principle in accord with the core concepts of the foundational texts of Daoism, Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi.

Ecological post-humanist process philosophy is a thorough materialism, but it is an anti-reductive materialism. All that exists is bodies of matter and fields of force, whose potentials include everything for which Western philosophers have often felt obligated to postulate a separate substance over and above matter, whether calling it mind, spirit, or soul.

As process philosophy, the emphasis in any ontological analysis is on movement, change, and relationships instead of the more traditional Western focus on identity and sufficiency. If I can refer to examples from the beginning of Western philosophy in Greece, process thought is an underground movement with the voice of Heraclitus critiquing a mainstream with the voice of Parmenides. Becoming, not being, is the primary focus of ontological analysis.

Process thinking therefore is primarily concerned with potential and capacity. Knowledge, in process philosophy, as a result becomes inextricably bound with action. This unites a philosophical school identified as “Continental” in common-sense categories of academic disciplines with the concerns of pragmatist philosophy. Analytic philosophy took up many concepts from early 20th century pragmatism in the decades following the death of John Dewey. These inheritors, however, remained unable to overcome the paradoxes stymieing traditional pragmatist approaches, particularly how to reconcile truth as correspondence with knowledge having a purpose in action and achievement.

A solution to this problem of knowledge and action was developed in the works of Barry Allen during the 2000s. Allen built an account of perception that was rooted in contemporary research in animal behaviour, human neurology, and the theoretical interpretations of evolution in the works of Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin.

His first analysis, focussed as it was on the dynamics of how human knowledge spurs technological and civilizational development, remains humanistic. Arguing from discoveries of how profoundly the plastic human brain is shaped in childhood by environmental interaction, Allen concludes that successful or productive worldly action itself constitutes the correspondence of our knowledge and the world. Knowledge does not consist of a private reserve of information that mirrors worldly states of affairs, but the physical and mental interaction of a person with surrounding processes and bodies to constitute those states of affairs. The plasticity of the human brain and our powers of social coordination are responsible for the peculiarly human mode of civilizational technology, but the same power to constitute states of affairs through activity is common to all processes and bodies.[2]

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. Whatever is soft, fluid, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.” – Lao Zi
The Burney Falls in Shasta County, Northern California. Image by melfoody via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Action in Phase With All Processes: Wu Wei

Movement of interaction constitutes the world. This is the core principle of pragmatist process philosophy, and as such brings this school of thought into accord with the Daoist tradition. Ontological analysis in the Dao De Jing is entirely focussed on vectors of becoming – understanding the world in terms of its changes, movements, and flows, as each of these processes integrate in the complexity of states of affairs.

Not only is the Dao De Jing a foundational text in what is primarily a process tradition of philosophy, but it is also primarily pragmatist. Its author Lao Zi frames ontological arguments in practical concerns, as when he writes, “The most supple things in the world ride roughshod over the most rigid” (Dao De Jing §43). This is a practical and ethical argument against a Parmenidean conception of identity requiring stability as a necessary condition.

What cannot change cannot continue to exist, as the turbulence of existence will overcome and erase what can exist only by never adapting to the pressures of overwhelming external forces. What can only exist by being what it now is, will eventually cease to be. That which exists in metamorphosis and transformation has a remarkable resilience, because it is able to gain power from the world’s changes. This Daoist principle, articulated in such abstract terms, is in Deleuze and Guattari’s work the interplay of the varieties of territorializations.

Knowledge in the Chinese tradition, as a concept, is determined by an ideal of achieving harmonious interaction with an actor’s environment. Knowing facts of states of affairs – including their relationships and tendencies to spontaneous and proliferating change – is an important element of comprehensive knowledge. Nonetheless, Lao Zi describes such catalogue-friendly factual knowledge as, “Those who know are not full of knowledge. Those full of knowledge do not know” (Dao De Jing 81). Knowing the facts alone is profoundly inadequate to knowing how those facts constrict and open potentials for action. Perfectly harmonious action is the model of the Daoist concept of Wu Wei – knowledge of the causal connections among all the bodies and processes constituting the world’s territories understood profoundly enough that self-conscious thought about them becomes unnecessary.[3]

Factual knowledge is only a condition of achieving the purpose of knowledge: perfectly adapting your actions to the changes of the world. All organisms’ actions change their environments, creating physically distinctive territories: places that, were it not for my action, would be different. In contrast to the dualistic Western concept of nature, the world in Daoist thought is a complex field of overlapping territories whose tensions and conflicts shape the character of places. Fulfilled knowledge in this ontological context is knowledge that directly conditions your own actions and the character of your territory to harmonize most productively with the actions and territories that are always flowing around your own.

Politics of the Harmonious Life

The Western tradition, especially in its current sub-disciplinary divisions of concepts and discourses, has treated problems of knowledge as a domain separate from ethics, morality, politics, and fundamental ontology. Social epistemology is one field of the transdisciplinary humanities that unites knowledge with political concerns, but its approaches remain controversial in much of the conservative mainstream academy. The Chinese tradition has fundamentally united knowledge, moral philosophy, and all fields of politics especially political economy since the popular eruption of Daoist thought in the Warring States period 2300 years ago. Philosophical writing throughout eastern Asia since then has operated in this field of thought.

As such, Dao-influenced philosophy has much to offer contemporary progressive political thought, especially the new communitarianism of contemporary social movements with their roots in Indigenous decolonization, advocacy for racial, sexual, and gender liberation, and 21st century socialist advocacy against radical economic inequality. In terms of philosophical tools and concepts for understanding and action, these movements have dense forebears, but a recent tradition.

The movement for economic equality and a just globalization draws on Antonio Gramsci’s introduction of radical historical contingency to the marxist tradition. While its phenomenological and testimonial principles and concepts are extremely powerful and viscerally rooted in the lived experience of subordinated – what Deleuze and Guattari called minoritarian – people as groups and individuals, the explicit resources of contemporary feminism is likewise a century-old storehouse of discourse. Indigenous liberation traditions draw from a variety of philosophical traditions lasting millennia, but the ongoing systematic and systematizing revival is almost entirely a 21st century practice.

Antonio Negri, Rosi Braidotti, and Isabelle Stengers’ masterworks unite an analysis of humanity’s destructive technological and ecological transformation of Earth and ourselves to develop a solution to those problems rooted in communitarian moralities and politics of seeking harmony while optimizing personal and social freedom. Daoism offers literally thousands of years of work in the most abstract metaphysics on the nature of freedom in harmony and flexibility in adaptation to contingency. Such conceptual resources are of immense value to these and related philosophical currents that are only just beginning to form explicitly in notable size in the Western tradition.

Van Norden has written a book that is, for philosophy as a university discipline, is a wake-up call to this obstinate branch of Western academy. The world around you is changing, and if you hold so fast to the contingent borders of your tradition, your territory will be overwritten, trampled, torn to bits. Live and act harmoniously with the changes that are coming. Change yourself.

It isn’t so hard to read some Lao Zi for a start.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Allen, Barry. Knowledge and Civilization. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004.

Allen, Barry. Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Allen, Barry. Vanishing Into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Betasamosake Simpson, Leanne. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2012.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Chew, Sing C. World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation, 3000 B.C. – A.D. 2000. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2001.

Negri, Antonio, and Michael Hardt. Assembly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Riggio, Adam. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2010.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics II. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011.

Van Norden, Bryan. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

World Trade Organization. World Trade Statistical Review 2016. Retrieved from https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/wts2016_e/wts2016_e.pdf

[1] That US$3-trillion drop in trade was largely the proliferating effect of the sudden price drop of human civilization’s most essential good, crude oil, to just less than half of its 2014 value.

[2] A student of Allen’s arrived at this conclusion in combining his scientific pragmatism with the French process ontology of Deleuze and Guattari in the context of ecological problems and eco-philosophical thinking.

[3] This concept of knowledge as perfectly harmonious but non-self-conscious action also conforms to Henri Bergson’s concept of intuition, the highest (so far) form of knowledge that unites the perfect harmony in action of brute animal instinct with the self-reflective and systematizing power of human understanding. This is a productive way for another creative contemporary philosophical path – the union of vitalist and materialist ideas in the work of thinkers like Jane Bennett – to connect with Asian philosophical traditions for centuries of philosophical resources on which to draw. But that’s a matter for another essay.

Author Information: Glen Miller, Texas A&M University, glenmiller@tamu.edu

Miller, Glen. “Animal Laborans, Homo Faber, or Something Else?.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 1-4.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3V5

Please refer to:

    • Stamm, Emma. “Retooling ‘The Human.’” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 36-40.
    • Williams, Damien. “Deleting the Human Clause: A Review of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 42-44.
Chamalow the cat escapes from his neighbours for some peace and quiet

“As preservationist Aldo Leopold put it, we should see non-human organisms as “fellow-members” in the citizenship of the earth.”
Image by Portier Jean Louis via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge is an interdisciplinary inquiry that incorporates resources from philosophical investigations into technology and biology, from scientists and others who work on animal behavior and cognition, and popular culture. These resources allow her to take on her central question, “do animal behaviors and constructions count as technological knowledge in the same way that human enterprises do?” (p. 3) She aims to “advance a more inclusive account of technology and tool use, give an argument for ‘technological knowledge’ as including animal tool-making and tool use, and look at actual cases of tool use in non-human animals” (p. 2).

One important outcome of her analysis is a two-dimensional chart on which various artifacts of human and non-human origin can be mapped. One dimension tracks the amount of knowledge “embodied” in the object, an amended version of Davis Baird’s “thing knowledge”; the second dimension measures the “know-how” or the learned skill that the object requires of its user. By mapping out the overlap between human and non-human tools, Shew hopes that this book “unites dialogues about biological and engineering design and provides a more coherent, unified account of made things” (p. 3) and functions “to induce philosophers of technology to consider animal cases and to induce researchers in animal studies to think about animal tool use with the apparatus provided by philosophy of technology” (p. 11). The two-dimensional chart provides visual support for another goal of the book, which is to flatten the hierarchical view that sees humans as categorically different and superior to humans: based on her research, she wishes to “deny vehemently” the prospect that “humanity is somehow divorced from other life” (p. 32).

Shew’s concise yet wide-ranging summary of the tool-using behavior of other animals is enlightening and an important contribution to the philosophy of technology literature. (I do not have the expertise necessary to assess its contribution to animal researchers, but given the rigidity of disciplinary strictures and the limited dissemination of ideas of philosophy of technology even into the broader philosophical circles, much less other sciences, I would surmise it to be of value there as well.) I regularly ask my ethics students to ponder whether Aristotle would have amended De Anima and what he derives from it in Nicomachean Ethics given what we now know about communication between dolphins and primate behavior but have never had the time to pursue this non-philosophical research.

Of course, as Shew points out, we must make an educated guess about what animals such as apes, dolphins, and whales, and New Caledonian crows are thinking about or thinking through when they are making or using tools because we cannot ask them in language they understand, and even if we could, we would not understand their responses. Moreover, scientific analyses that simply report observed actions seem even more susceptible to the kind of risks that Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar identified in Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), where anthropological techniques miss the meaning behind the acts that take place even as the target of their critique is one of the human sciences.

I am also sympathetic to Shew’s goal of persuading more people to place non-human animals on a continuum with humans. The “divorce” between humans and our evolutionary ancestors that she identifies is relatively new, at least in a historical context. Our predecessors had it right: our commonality—evident in the Scholastics interpretation of Aristotle, where human are rational animals and in the middling spot in the hierarchy of Arthur Lovejoy’s famous “Great Chain of Being” (Soper 1995, pp. 21-25)—has been lost in the wake of Enlightenment glorification of science and technology. As preservationist Aldo Leopold put it, we should see non-human organisms as “fellow-members” in the citizenship of the earth (1966, p. 240).

Shew’s extensive review of animal studies research shows that many characteristics of technical activities thought by many to be uniquely human, including intentionality, problem solving, and innovation, are performed by other species, an insight that is not at all obvious to people who spend most of their time surrounded by other humans, often engrossed with their flat screens. This insight has received minimal attention recently in philosophy of technology literature, which, as Shew points out, has focused more on technologies associated with engineering sciences.

Having apprehended this important insight, it seems worth asking the question of whether what occurs in the making and use of modern technology is in fact categorically different than the tool making and construction that humans share with other animals. Put another way, the discontinuity that matters is not between human technologies and their animal counterparts, but rather between modern technology and its primitive human and animal counterparts. (Distinction, of course, need not imply superiority.)

Another way to express this discontinuity is to say that while humans and non-humans share technics and technique, though perhaps to varying degrees, some human technology seems like a different animal altogether. While neither Plato nor Aristotle “felt drawn to join the two words—to speak of a logos of techne,” the cognitive dimension of high-tech objects has been present since the origins of the Greek term, i.e., “techne simply used logos” (Mitcham and Schatzberg 2009, p. 34). As Mitcham and Schatzberg put it, for Aristotle, techne itself is part of a “spectrum of different forms of engagement with reality, moving from sensation through experience to theory” (Mitcham and Schatzberg 2009, p. 33).

The theoretical dimension of technology functions for humans as a way of revealing the world. While it is possible that analogous cognitive processes occur in animals—we cannot be certain because we cannot communicate abstract and complex ideas with them—the evidence does not seem to me to support it, although perhaps I simply need to hear the (perhaps apocryphal) tale of the New Caledonian crow that falls into a well while staring into the heavens.

Moreover, several characteristics of modern technologies elucidate their human distinctiveness. Hans Jonas (1984) notes that modern technology, which is made possible by theory, operates at a more fundamental level, e.g., genetic or nano scales, than primitive technologies; their effects last longer; they have greater power and operate on a greater scale; and, at least in some cases, they operate on objects—such as humans themselves—in a different way than primitive or non-human technologies. Consider genetic engineering, especially to the human germline, and atomic weapons.

While tools and technics for humans and non-humans can satisfy practical concerns and provide a source of play or amusement, they do something more for humans. As Jonas writes, “technology, apart from its objective works, assumes ethical significance by the central place it now occupies in human purpose. Its cumulative creation, the expanding artificial environment, continuously reinforces the particular powers in man that created it, by compelling their unceasing inventive employment in its management and further advance, and by rewarding them with additional success—which only adds to the relentless claim” (Jonas 1984, p. 9). According to Jonas, it is this characteristic that differentiates homo faber from homo sapiens and, similarly, it seems to me, from other animals and their techniques. These characteristics of modern technology, Jonas argues, also make it a suitable topic for ethics.

Yet Jonas and Shew are not as adversarial as the preceding makes it seem. Jonas’s analysis of technology is paired with a philosophical inquiry into evolutionary connections in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (2001), a project first published in 1966, completed before The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (1984), originally published in 1979. He argues that a philosophical approach to evolution highlights continuity of organisms, rather than rupture, and that advanced complexity is accompanied by increasing risk. In both of these respects, Jonas is a kindred spirit of Shew’s, who argues for continuity and notes that other organisms may be better adapted to their niches than humans (Shew 2017, p. 18).

Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge left me wanting more. In particular, a longer second chapter, which sought to “disambiguate the relevant terminology—artifacts, tools, technology, and knowledge—in order to set up my argument that some non-human animal tool-related behavior should be seen as existing on a spectrum with technology” (p. 13), could have clarified the implications of her project for engineering design.

An expanded explanation of why the two dimensions that she used to map human and non-human artifacts are sufficient, or at least determinative, would have enabled the reader to more easily decide whether they should be considered on a continuum. Some mention of the ethical implications of her argument, however short, would have been welcome, although this concern is peripheral to her focus. A more expansive explanation of the benefits that animal researchers who employ her ideas would obtain would have also helped, though these may be obvious to practitioners in that field.

Finally, some comparison of her claims and those of Jonas mentioned above; Aristotle, whose work also integrated biological research and philosophy; and, relatedly, Martin Heidegger (2008), whose diagnosis of the flawed trajectory of Western culture begins with Aristotle’s techne that becomes the dominant way to see the world, a flaw that other species do not share, would have added helpful context her argument. Hopefully Shew is working on a sequel!

Shew’s book, which Andrew Feenberg called “revolutionary” for philosophy of technology, is lucid and thought-provoking. It stimulates reflection on our relationships with non-humans and our technologies. It is worth reading.

Contact details: glenmiller@tamu.edu

References

Aristotle. 2017. De Anima. Translated by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett.

Aristole. 2002. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Joe Sachs. Newburyport, Massachusetts: Focus Publishing.

Feenberg, Andrew. 2017. Back cover of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.

Heidegger, Martin. 2008. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrell Krell. London: Harper Perennial.

Jonas, Hans. 1984. Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Beverley Hills, California: Sage Publications.

Leopold, Aldo. 1966. “The Land Ethic.” In A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Ballantine Books.

Mitcham, Carl and Eric Schatzberg. 2009. “Defining Technology and the Engineering Sciences.” In Philosophy of Technology and Engineering Sciences, edited by Anthonie Meijers. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Shew, Ashley. 2017. Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Soper, Kate. 1995. What Is Nature? Culture, Politics, and the non-Human. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell.

Author Information: Paul R. Smart, University of Southampton, ps02v@ecs.soton.ac.uk

Smart, Paul R. “(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 45-55.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Uq

Please refer to:

Image by BTC Keychain via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Richard Heersmink’s (2018) article, A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education, provides an important and timely analysis of the Internet from the standpoint of virtue epistemology.[1] According to Richard, the Internet is an important epistemic resource, but it is one that comes with a range of epistemic hazards. Such hazards, he suggests, motivate a consideration of the ways in which individuals should interact with the Internet.

In particular, Richard appeals to a specific branch of virtue epistemology, known as virtue responsibilism, arguing that certain kinds of cognitive trait (e.g., curiosity and open-mindedness) are useful in helping us press maximal epistemic benefit from the Internet. Given the utility of such traits, coupled with the epistemic importance of the Internet, Richard suggests that educational policy should be adapted so as to equip would-be knowers with the cognitive wherewithal to cope with the epistemic challenges thrown up by the online environment.

There is, no doubt, something right about all this. Few would disagree with the claim that a certain level of discernment and discrimination is important when it comes to the evaluation of online content. Whether such ‘virtues’ are best understood from the perspective of virtue responsibilism or virtue reliabilism is, I think, a moot point, for I suspect that in the case of both virtue responsibilism and virtue reliabilism what matters is the way in which belief-forming informational circuits are subject to active configuration by processes that may be broadly construed as metacognitive in nature (Smart, in pressa). That, however, is a minor quibble, and it is one that is of little consequence to the issues raised in Richard’s paper.

For the most part, then, I find myself in agreement with many of the assumptions that motivate the target article. I agree that the Internet is an important epistemic resource that is unprecedented in terms of its scale, scope, and accessibility. I also agree that, at the present time, the Internet is far from an epistemically safe environment, and this raises issues regarding the epistemic standing of individual Internet users. In particular, it looks unlikely that the indiscriminate selection and endorsement of online information will do much to bolster one’s epistemic credentials.

We thus encounter something of a dilemma: As an epistemic resource, the Internet stands poised to elevate our epistemic standing, but as an open and public space the Internet provides ample opportunities for our doxastic systems to be led astray. The result is that we are obliged to divide the online informational cornucopia into a treasure trove of genuine facts and a ragbag collection of ‘false facts’ and ‘fake news.’ The information superhighway, it seems, promises to expand our epistemic power and potential, but the road ahead is one that is fraught with a dizzying array of epistemic perils, problems, and pitfalls. What ought we to do in response to such a situation?

It is at this point that I suspect my own views start to diverge with those of the target article. Richard’s response to the dilemma is to focus attention on the individual agent and consider the ways in which an agent’s cognitive character can be adapted to meet the challenges of the Internet. My own approach is somewhat different. It is borne out of three kinds of doubt: doubts about the feasibility (although not the value) of virtue-oriented educational policies, doubts about the basic validity of virtue theoretic conceptions of knowledge, and doubts about whether the aforementioned dilemma is best resolved by attempting to change the agent as opposed to the environment in which the agent is embedded. As always, space is limited and life is short, so I will restrict my discussion to issues that I deem to be of greatest interest to the epistemological community.

Reliable Technology

Inasmuch as intellectual virtues are required for online knowledge—i.e., knowledge that we possess as a result of our interactions and engagements with the Internet—they are surely only part of a much  broader (and richer) story that includes details about the environment in which our cognitive systems operate. In judging the role of intellectual virtue in shielding us from the epistemic hazards of the online environment, it therefore seems important to have some understanding of the actual technologies we interact with.

This is important because it helps us understand the kinds of intellectual virtue that might be required, as well as the efficacy of specific intellectual virtues in helping us believe the truth (and thus working as virtues in the first place). Internet technologies are, of course, many and varied, and it will not be possible to assess their general relevance to epistemological debates in the present commentary. For the sake of brevity, I will therefore restrict my attention to one particular technology: blockchain.

Blockchain is perhaps best known for its role in supporting the digital cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. It provides us with a means of storing data in a secure fashion, using a combination of data encryption and data linking techniques. For present purposes, we can think of a blockchain as a connected set of data records (or data blocks), each of which contains some body of encrypted data. In the case of Bitcoin, of course, the data blocks contain data of a particular kind, namely, data pertaining to financial transactions. But this is not the only kind of data that can be stored in a blockchain. In fact, blockchains can be used to store information about pretty much anything. This includes online voting records, news reports, sensor readings, personal health records, and so on.

Once data is recorded inside a blockchain, it is very difficult to modify. In essence, the data stored within a blockchain is immutable, in the sense that it cannot be changed without ‘breaking the chain’ of data blocks, and thereby invalidating the data contained within the blockchain. This property makes blockchains of considerable epistemic significance, because it speaks to some of the issues (e.g., concerns about data tampering and malign forms of information manipulation) that are likely to animate epistemological debates in this area.

This does not mean, of course, that the information stored within a blockchain is guaranteed to be factually correct, in the sense of being true and thus yielding improvements in epistemic standing. Nevertheless, there are, I think, reasons to regard blockchain as an important technology relative to efforts to make the online environment a somewhat safer place for would-be knowers. Consider, for example, the title of the present article. Suppose that we wanted to record the fact that a person known as Paul Smart—that’s me—wrote an article with the title:

(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

We can incorporate this particular piece of information into a blockchain using something called a cryptographic hash function, which yields a unique identifier for the block and all of its contents. In the case of the aforementioned title, the cryptographic hash (as returned by the SHA256 algorithm[2]) is:

7147bd321e79a63041d9b00a937954976236289ee4de6f8c97533fb6083a8532

Now suppose that someone wants to alter the title, perhaps to garner support for an alternative argumentative position. In particular, let’s suppose they want to claim that the title of the article is:

Fake News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

From an orthographic perspective, of course, not much has changed. But the subtlety of the alteration is not something that can be used to cause confusion about the actual wording of the original title—the title that I intended for the present article. (Neither can it be used to cast doubt about the provenance of the paper—the fact that the author of the paper was a person called Paul Smart.) To see this, note that the hash generated for the ‘fake’ title looks nothing like the original:

cc05baf2fa7a439674916fe56611eaacc55d31f25aa6458b255f8290a831ddc4

It is this property that, at least in part, makes blockchains useful for recording information that might otherwise be prone to epistemically malign forms of information manipulation. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that climatological data, as recorded by globally distributed sensors, was stored in a blockchain. The immutability of such data makes it extremely difficult for anyone to manipulate the data in such a way as to confirm or deny the reality of year-on-year changes in global temperature. Neither is it easy to alter information pertaining to the provenance of existing data records, i.e., information about when, where, and how such data was generated.

None of this should delude us into thinking that blockchain technology is a panacea for Internet-related epistemic problems—it isn’t! Neither does blockchain obviate the need for agents to exercise at least some degree of intellectual virtue when it comes to the selection and evaluation of competing data streams. Nevertheless, there is, I think, something that is of crucial epistemological interest and relevance here—something that makes blockchain and other cybersecurity technologies deserving of further epistemological attention. In particular, such technologies may be seen as enhancing the epistemic safety of the online environment, and thus perhaps reducing the need for intellectual virtue.

In this sense, the epistemological analysis of Internet technologies may be best approached from some variant of modal epistemology—e.g., epistemological approaches that emphasize the modal stability of true beliefs across close possible worlds (Pritchard, 2009, chap. 2). But even if we choose to countenance an approach that appeals to issues of intellectual virtue, there is still, I suggest, a need to broaden the analytic net to include technologies that (for the time being at least) lie beyond the bounds of the individual cognitive agent.

Safety in Numbers

“From an epistemic perspective,” Richard writes, “the most salient dimension of the Internet is that it is an information space” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 5). Somewhat surprisingly, I disagree. Although it is obviously true that the Internet is an information space, it is not clear that this is its most salient feature, at least from an epistemological standpoint. In particular, there is, I suggest, a sense in which the Internet is more than just an information space. As is clear from the explosive growth in all things social—social media, social networks, social bots, and so on—the Internet functions as a social technology, yielding all manner of opportunities for people to create, share and process information in a collaborative fashion. The result, I suggest, is that we should not simply think of the Internet as an information space (although it is surely that), we should also view it as a social space.

Viewing the Internet as a social space is important because it changes the way we think about the epistemic impact of the Internet, relative to the discovery, production, representation, acquisition, processing and utilization of knowledge. Smart (in pressb), for example, suggests that some online systems function as knowledge machines, which are systems in which some form of knowledge-relevant processing is realized by a socio-technical mechanism, i.e., a mechanism whose component elements are drawn from either the social (human) or the technological realm.

An interesting feature of many of these systems is the way in which the reliability (or truth-conducive) nature of the realized process is rooted in the socio-technical nature of the underlying (realizing) mechanism. When it comes to human computation or citizen science systems, for example, user contributions are typically solicited from multiple independent users as a means of improving the reliability of specific epistemic outputs (Smart, in pressb; Smart and Shadbolt, in press; Watson and Floridi, 2018). Such insights highlight the socially-distributed character of at least some forms of online knowledge production, thereby moving us beyond the realms of individual, agent-centric analyses.

On a not altogether unrelated note, it is important to appreciate the way in which social participation can itself be used to safeguard online systems from various forms of malign intervention. One example is provided by the Google PageRank algorithm. In this case, any attempt to ‘artificially’ elevate the ranking assigned to specific contributions (e.g., a user’s website) is offset by the globally-distributed nature of the linking effort, coupled with the fact that links to a specific resource are themselves weighted by the ranking of the resource from which the link originates. This makes it difficult for any single agent to subvert the operation of the PageRank algorithm.

Even ostensibly non-social technologies can be seen to rely on the distributed and decentralized nature of the Internet. In the case of blockchain, for example, multiple elements of a peer-to-peer network participate in the computational processes that make blockchain work. In this way, the integrity of the larger system is founded on the collaborative efforts of an array of otherwise independent computational elements. And it is this that (perhaps) allows us to think of blockchain’s epistemically-desirable features as being rooted in something of a ‘social’ substrate.

All of this, I suggest, speaks in favor of an approach that moves beyond a preoccupation with the properties of individual Internet users. In particular, there seems to be considerable merit in approaching the Internet from a more socially-oriented epistemological perspective. It is easy to see the social aspects of the Internet as lying at the root of a panoply of epistemic concerns, especially when it comes to the opportunities for misinformation, deception, and manipulation. But in light of the above discussion, perhaps an alternative, more positive, take on the Internet (qua social space) starts to come into sharper focus. This is a view that highlights the way in which certain kinds of online system can work to transform a ‘vice’ into a ‘virtue,’ exploiting the social properties of the Internet for the purposes of dealing with reliability-related concerns.

Image by Dariorug via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Filter Bubblicious

Search engines form one of the focal points of Richard’s analysis, and, as with previous work in this area, Richard finds at least some aspects of their operation to be highly problematic. A particular issue surfaces in respect of personalized search. Here, Richard’s analysis echoes the sentiments expressed by other epistemologists who regard personalized search algorithms as of dubious epistemic value.

In fact, I suspect the consensus that has emerged in this area fails to tell the whole story about the epistemic consequences of personalized search. Indeed, from a virtue epistemological position, I worry that epistemologists are in danger of failing to heed their own advice—prematurely converging on a particular view without proper consideration of competing positions. In my new-found role as the virtue epistemologist’s guardian angel (or should that be devil’s advocate?), I will attempt to highlight a couple of reasons why I think more empirical research is required before we can say anything useful about the epistemological impact of personalized search algorithms.

My first worry is that our understanding about the extent to which search results and subsequent user behavior is affected by personalization is surprisingly poor. Consider, for example, the results of one study, which attempted to quantify the effect of personalization on search results (Hannak et al., 2013). Using an empirical approach, Hannak et al. (2013) report a demonstrable personalization effect, with 11.7% of search results exhibiting differences due to personalization. Interestingly, however, the effect of personalization appeared to be greater for search results with lower rankings; highly ranked results (i.e., those appearing at the top of a list of search results) appeared to be much less affected by personalization.

This result is interesting given the observation that college students “prefer to click on links in higher positions even when the abstracts are less relevant to the task at hand” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 6). From one perspective, of course, this tendency looks like a vice that jeopardizes the epistemic standing of the individual user. And yet, from another perspective, it looks like the preference for higher ranked search results is poised to negate (or at least reduce) the negative epistemological effects of personalized search. What we seem to have here, in essence, is a situation in which one kind of ‘intellectual vice’ (i.e., a tendency to select highly-ranked search results) is playing something of a more positive (virtuous?) role in mitigating the negative epistemological sequelae of a seemingly vicious technology (i.e., personalized search).

None of this means that the epistemic effects of personalized search are to the overall benefit of individual users; nevertheless, the aforementioned results do call for a more nuanced and empirically informed approach when considering the veritistic value of search engines, as well as other kinds of Internet-related technology.

A second worry relates to the scope of the epistemological analysis upon which judgements about the veritistic value of search engines are based. In this case, it is unclear whether analyses that focus their attention on individual agents are best placed to reveal the full gamut of epistemic costs and benefits associated with a particular technology, especially one that operates in the socio-technical ecology of the Internet. To help us understand this worry in a little more detail, it will be useful to introduce the notion of mandevillian intelligence (Smart, in pressc; Smart, in pressd).

Mandevillian intelligence is a specific form of collective intelligence in which the cognitive shortcomings and epistemic vices of the individual agent are seen to yield cognitive benefits and epistemic virtues at the collective or social level of analysis, e.g., at the level of collective doxastic agents (see Palermos, 2015) or socio-epistemic systems (see Goldman, 2011). According to this idea, personalized search systems may play a productive role in serving the collective cognitive good, providing a means by which individual vices (e.g., a tendency for confirmation bias) are translated into something that more closely resembles an epistemic virtue (e.g., greater cognitive coverage of a complex space of thoughts, ideas, opinions, and so on). Consider, for example, the way in which personalized search may help to focus individual attention on particular bodies of information, thereby restricting access to a larger space of ideas, opinions, and other information.

While such forms of ‘restricted access’ or ‘selective information exposure’ are unlikely to yield much in the way of an epistemic benefit for the individual agent, it is possible that by exploiting (and, indeed, accentuating!) an existing cognitive bias (e.g., confirmation bias), personalized search may work to promote cognitive diversity, helping to prevent precipitant forms of cognitive convergence (see Zollman, 2010) and assisting with the epistemically optimal division of cognitive labor (see Muldoon, 2013). This possibility reveals something of a tension in how we interpret or evaluate the veritistic value of a particular technology or epistemic practice. In particular, it seems that assessments of veritistic value may vary according to whether our epistemological gaze is directed towards individual epistemic agents or the collective ensembles in which those agents are situated.

The Necessity of Virtue

As Richard notes, virtue epistemology is characterized by a shift in emphasis, away from the traditional targets of epistemological analysis (e.g., truth, justification and belief) and towards the cognitive properties of would-be knowers. “Virtue epistemology,” Richard writes, “is less concerned with the nature of truth and more concerned with the cognitive character of agents” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 2). This is, no doubt, a refreshing change, relative to the intellectual orientation of traditional philosophical debates.

Nevertheless, I assume that virtue epistemologists still recognize the value and priority of truth when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation. Someone who holds false beliefs is not the possessor of knowledge, and this remains the case irrespective of whatever vices and virtues the agent has. In other words, it does not matter how careful, attentive and assiduous an agent is in selecting and evaluating information, if what the agent believes is false, they simply do not know.

What seems to be important in the case of virtue epistemology is the role that intellectual virtue plays in securing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. In particular, the central feature of virtue epistemology (at least to my mind) is that the truth of an agent’s beliefs stem from the exercise of intellectual virtue. It is thus not the case that truth is unimportant (or less important) when it comes to issues of positive epistemic standing; rather, it is the role that intellectual virtue plays in establishing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. An agent is thus a bona fide knower when they believe the truth and the truth in question is attributable to some aspect of their cognitive character, specifically, a cognitive trait (virtue responsibilism) or cognitive faculty (virtue reliabilism).

What then makes something a vice or virtue seems to be tied to the reliability of token instantiations of processes that are consistent with an agent’s cognitive character. Intellectual virtues are thus “cognitive character traits that are truth-conducive and minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3), while intellectual vices are characterized as “cognitive character traits that are not truth-conducive and do not minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3). It is this feature of the intellectual virtues—the fact that they are, in general, reliable (or give rise to reliable belief-relevant processes)—that looks to be important when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation.

So this is what I find problematic about virtue theoretic approaches to knowledge. (Note that I am not an epistemologist by training, so this will require a generous—and hopefully virtue-inspiring swig—of the ole intellectual courage.) Imagine a state-of-affairs in which the Internet was (contrary to the present state-of-affairs) a perfectly safe environment—one where the factive status of online information was guaranteed as a result of advances in cyber-security techniques and intelligent fact-checking services. Next, let us imagine that we have two individuals, Paul and Sophia, who differ with respect to their cognitive character. Paul is the least virtuous of the two, unreflectively and automatically accepting whatever the Internet tells him. Sophia is more circumspect, wary of being led astray by (the now non-existent) fake news.

Inasmuch as we see the exercise of intellectual virtue as necessary for online knowledge, it looks unlikely that poor old Paul can be said to know very much. This is because the truth of Paul’s beliefs are not the result of anything that warrants the label ‘intellectual virtue.’ Paul, of course, does have a lot of true beliefs, but the truth of these beliefs does not stem from the exercise of his intellectual virtues—if, indeed, he has any. In fact, inasmuch as there is any evidence of virtue in play here, it is probably best attributed to the technologies that work to ensure the safety of the online environment. The factive status of Paul’s beliefs thus has more to do with the reliability of the Internet than it does with the elements of his cognitive character.

But is it correct to say that Paul has no online knowledge in this situation? Personally, I do not have this intuition. In other words, in a perfectly safe environment, I can see no reason why we should restrict knowledge attributions to agents whose beliefs are true specifically as the result of intellectual virtue. My sense is that even the most unreflective of agents could be credited with knowledge in a situation where there was no possibility of them being wrong. And if that is indeed the case, then why insist that it is only the exercise of intellectual virtue that underwrites positive epistemic standing?

After all, it seems perfectly possible, to my mind, that Sophia’s epistemic caution contributes no more to the minimization of error in an epistemically benign (i.e., safe) environment than does Paul’s uncritical acceptance. (In fact, given the relative efficiency of their doxastic systems, it may very well be the case that Sophia ends up with fewer true beliefs than Paul.) It might be claimed that this case is invalidated by a failure to consider the modal stability of an agent’s beliefs relative to close possible worlds, as well as perhaps their sensitivity to counterfactual error possibilities. But given the way in which the case is characterized, I suggest that there are no close possible worlds that should worry us—the cybersecurity and fact checking technologies are, let us assume, sufficiently robust as to ensure the modal distance of those worrisome worlds.

One implication of all this is to raise doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue, relative to our conceptual understanding of knowledge. If there are cases where intellectual virtue is not required for positive epistemic standing, then intellectual virtue cannot be a necessary condition for knowledge attribution. And if that is the case, then why should intellectual virtue form the basis of an approach that is intended to deal with the epistemic shortcomings of the (contemporary) Internet?

Part of the attraction of virtue epistemology, I suspect, is the way in which a suite of generally reliable processes are inextricably linked to the agent who is the ultimate target of epistemic evaluation. This linkage, which is established via the appeal to cognitive character, helps to ensure the portability of an agent’s truth-tracking capabilities—it helps to ensure, in other words, that wherever the agent goes their reliable truth-tracking capabilities are sure to follow.

However, in an era where our doxastic systems are more-or-less constantly plugged into a reliable and epistemically safe environment, it is not so clear that agential capabilities are relevant to epistemic standing. This, I suggest, raises doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue in securing positive epistemic status, and it also (although this is perhaps less clear) encourages us to focus our attention on some of the engineering efforts (as opposed to agent-oriented educational programs) that might be required to make the online world an epistemically safer place.

Conclusion

What, then, should we make of the appeal to virtue epistemology in our attempt to deal with the  epistemic hazards of the Internet. My main concern is that the appeal to virtue epistemology (and the emphasis placed on intellectual virtue) risks an unproductive focus on individual human agents at the expense of both the technological and social features of the online world. This certainly does not rule out the relevance of virtue theoretic approaches as part of our attempt to understand the epistemic significance of the Internet, but other approaches (e.g., modal reliabilism, process reliabilism, distributed reliabilism, and systems-oriented social epistemology) also look to be important.

Personally, I remain agnostic with regard to the relevance of different epistemological approaches, although I worry about the extent to which virtue epistemology is best placed to inform policy-related decisions (e.g., those relating to education). In particular, I fear that by focusing our attention on individual agents and issues of intellectual virtue, we risk overlooking some of the socio-epistemic benefits of the Internet, denigrating a particular technology (e.g., personalized search) on account of its failure to enhance individual knowledge, while ignoring the way a technology contributes to more collective forms of epistemic success.

In concluding his thought-provoking paper on virtue epistemology and the Internet, Richard suggests that “there is an important role for educators to teach and assess [intellectual] virtues as part of formal school and university curricula, perhaps as part of critical thinking courses” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 10). I have said relatively little about this particular issue in the present paper. For what it’s worth, however, I can see no reason to object to the general idea of Internet-oriented educational policies. The only caveat, perhaps, concerns the relative emphasis that might be placed on the instillation of intellectual virtue as opposed to the inculcation of technical skills, especially those that enable future generations to make the online world a safer place.

No doubt there is room for both kinds of pedagogical program (assuming they can even be dissociated). At the very least, it seems to me that the effort to resolve a problem (i.e., engineer a safer Internet) is just as important as the effort to merely cope with it (i.e., acquire a virtuous cognitive character). But, in any case, when it comes to education and learning, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Internet is itself something that is used for educational purposes. Perhaps, then, the more important point about education and the Internet is not so much the precise details of what gets taught, so much as the issue of whether the Internet (with all its epistemic foibles) is really the best place to learn.

Contact details: ps02v@ecs.soton.ac.uk

References

Goldman, A. I. (2011). A guide to social epistemology. In A. I. Goldman and D. Whitcomb (Eds.), Social Epistemology: Essential Readings, pp. 11–37. New York, New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

Hannak, A., P. Sapiezynski, A. Molavi Kakhki, B. Krishnamurthy, D. Lazer, A. Mislove, and C. Wilson (2013). Measuring personalization of Web search. In D. Schwabe, V. Almeida, H. Glaser, R. Baeza-Yates, and S. Moon (Eds.), Proceedings of the 22nd International Conference  on World Wide Web, Rio  de Janeiro, Brazil, pp. 527–538. ACM.

Heersmink, R. (2018). A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education. Social Epistemology 32 (1), 1–12.

Muldoon, R. (2013). Diversity and the division of cognitive labor. Philosophy Compass 8 (2), 117–125.

Palermos, S. O. (2015). Active externalism, virtue reliabilism and scientific knowledge. Synthese 192 (9), 2955–2986.

Pritchard, D. (2009). Knowledge. Basingstoke, England, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smart, P. R. (in pressa). Emerging digital technologies: Implications for extended conceptions of cognition and knowledge. In A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos, and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Extended Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Smart, P. R. (in pressb). Knowledge machines. The Knowledge Engineering Review.

Smart, P. R. (in pressc). Mandevillian intelligence. Synthese.

Smart, P. R. (in pressd). Mandevillian intelligence: From individual vice to collective virtue. In A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos, and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Socially Extended Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Smart, P. R. and N. R. Shadbolt (in press). The World Wide Web. In J. Chase and D. Coady (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Applied Epistemology. New York, New York, USA: Routledge.

Watson, D. and L. Floridi (2018). Crowdsourced science: Sociotechnical epistemology in the e-research paradigm. Synthese 195 (2), 741–764.

Zollman, K. J. S. (2010). The epistemic benefit of transient diversity. Erkenntnis 72 (1), 17–35.

[1] This work is supported under SOCIAM: The Theory and Practice of Social Machines. The SOCIAM Project is funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under grant number EP/J017728/1 and comprises the Universities of Southampton, Oxford and Edinburgh.

[2] See http://www.xorbin.com/tools/sha256-hash-calculator [accessed: 30th  January 2018].

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 complete pdf of the article gives specific page references. Due to the length of Brown’s article, we will be posting it in three parts. The first installment can be found here. Shortlink for part two: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3TJ

Please refer to:

Image by Bruce Irschick via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Problems for Mizrahi’s Argument, Given the Number and Kind of Philosophical Assumptions at Play in the Argument

In his 2017b response, Mizrahi makes some general criticisms of my strategy in criticizing Mizrahi’s Argument as well as offering particular objections to particular arguments I make in my 2017 essay with respect to Mizrahi’s Argument. In response, then, I first say a few things about Mizrahi’s general criticisms. Second, I respond to Mizrahi’s particular objections.

Mizrahi’s first general criticism of my approach is that I simply criticize Mizrahi’s Argument by proposing certain “what ifs?” (2017b, 9). His objection seems to be the following:

  1. “The question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific [academic] knowledge is a question that can be answered empirically” (2017b, 10).
  2. “Therefore, in order to pose a serious challenge to my defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere ‘what ifs’” (2017b, 10).

The argument is clearly an enthymeme. Mizrahi presumably is presupposing:

  1. If the question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific [academic] knowledge is a question that one can answer empirically, then, in order to pose a serious challenge to my defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere “what ifs” [assumption].

But why accept 27? Presumably because we are supposed to privilege empirical (I read Mizrahi’s ‘empirical’ here as ‘experimental/scientific’) evidence over non-empirical evidence. But that’s just assuming the sort of thing that is at issue when debating the truth or falsity of scientism. So Mizrahi’s response here begs the question against those who raise critical questions about Mizrahi’s Argument and Weak Scientism.

In addition, premise 25 is one of the propositions up for debate here. Mizrahi thinks Mizrahi’s Argument is a scientific argument. I disagree, for reasons stated in my 2017 article (more on this below).

A second general criticism Mizrahi raises for my critique of Mizrahi’s Argument concerns my habit of speaking about “controversial philosophical assumptions” at play in Mizrahi’s Argument. First, Mizrahi does not like my use of the word ‘assumptions’ in reference to the (implied) premises of Mizrahi’s Argument (2017b, 12; 14) since, according to Mizrahi, “an assumption is a statement that is taken to be true without justification or support.”

I just have to confess that I don’t think ‘assumption’ necessarily has this connotation. I certainly did not intend to communicate in every case I use the word ‘assumption’ in my 2017 article that Mizrahi had not supplied any justification or support for such propositions (although I do think it is the case that Mizrahi does not offer justification for some of the [implied] premises in Mizrahi’s Argument). For better or for worse (probably worse) I was thinking of ‘assumption’ as a synonym of ‘stipulation’ or ‘presupposition’ or ‘premise.’ But I will try to be more precise in what follows.

Second, Mizrahi takes me to task for calling the (implied) premises of Mizrahi’s Argument controversial, since I don’t say why they are controversial and, as Mizrahi states with respect to his 2017a, “the way I have characterized knowledge is exactly the way others in the scientism debate understand knowledge (see, e.g., Peels 2016, 2462), which means that my characterization of knowledge is not controversial as far as the scientism debate in philosophy is concerned” (2017b, 13; see also 14-15).  In addition, by calling a premise ‘controversial’, Mizrahi takes me to mean that I am saying it is doubtful (2017b, 14-15), which, if true, would raise some puzzles for my own responses to Mizrahi 2017a.

In response, my comment in 2017 that the (implied) premises in Mizrahi’s Argument are controversial was neither intended as commentary on a narrow philosophical discussion—what Mizrahi calls “the scientism debate in philosophy” (2017b, 13; emphasis mine)—nor meant simply to point out that it is possible to doubt those premises (Mizrahi 2017b, 14-15). Rather, what I intended to say (and should have made clearer) is that the (implied) premises of Mizrahi’s Argument are controversial when we contrast them with the views of a number of different philosophical schools of thought.

That is to say, I meant to suggest that a healthy minority of contemporary philosophers will reject those premises, and have reasons for rejecting them, where that healthy minority consists (just to name a few schools of thought that have contemporary adherents) of some Platonists, Aristotelians, neo-Aristotelians, Augustinians, Thomists, Scotists, Suarezians, Ockhamists, Cartesians, Liebnizians, Kantians, neo-Kantians of various sorts, Phenomenologists, Existentialists, Whiteheadians, as well as quite a few non-naturalist analytic philosophers.

Indeed, if we practice “the democracy of the dead,” as G. K. Chesterton suggested is only fair,[1] the majority of philosophers in the past would reject the implied premises in Mizrahi’s Argument; or, if that’s a bit anachronistic, they would reject premises at least analogous to those in Mizrahi’s Argument insofar as they would not reduce philosophical knowledge to what professional philosophers make public; think of, to take just one example, Plato’s criticism of the professional philosophers of his day as false philosophers in the Phaedo[2] and the Republic.[3]

Of course, there are non-philosophers too, including practicing natural scientists (past and present) who (would) also reject Weak Scientism and many of the (implied) premises in Mizrahi’s Argument. One gets the impression from both 2017a and 2017b that Mizrahi does not think Mizrahi’s Argument is at all controversial. It was for these reasons and in the sense specified here that I emphasized in my 2017 response that a number of (implied) premises in Mizrahi’s Argument are, in fact, very controversial.

In addition, Mizrahi himself cites contemporary philosophers engaged in “the scientism debate in philosophy” who reject Mizrahi’s reduction of philosophy and philosophical knowledge to what philosophers publish (see, e.g., Sorrell 1994 and Haack 2017). There are other professional philosophers engaged in debates about the plausibility of scientism who reject quite a few of the premises in Mizrahi’s Argument (see, e.g., Brown 2011, the authors of some of the papers in Williams & Robinson 2015, and the work of analytic philosopher, Edward Feser, who has offered criticisms of scientism in: 2008, 83-85; 2010a; 2010b, and 2014, 9-24).

Third, Mizrahi thinks I should not call his assumptions philosophical unless I have first defined ‘philosophy’ (2017b, 13; 14), particularly since I claim that his argument is a philosophical and not a scientific argument (2017b, 9; 15). He states: “what Brown labels as ‘philosophical’ is not really philosophical, or at least he is not in a positon to claim that it is philosophical, since he does not tell us what makes something philosophical (other than being work produced by professional philosophers, which is a characterization of ‘philosophical’ that he rejects)” (2017b, 14).

I do not define the nature of philosophy in my 2017 response to Mizrahi’s 2017a. I supposed, perhaps wrongly, that such an endeavor was altogether outside the scope of the project of offering some critical comments on a philosophy paper. Of course, as Mizrahi no doubt knows, even the greatest of Greek philosophers, e.g., Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all think about philosophy in very different ways (for Socrates philosophy is a way of life which consists of a search for wisdom; for Plato philosophy is not only a search for wisdom but also involves the possession of wisdom, if only by way of the recollection of an other-worldly (or pre-worldly) set of experiences; Aristotle thinks philosophy is said in many ways (hence metaphysics is ‘first philosophy’), but pace Plato, successful philosophy, Aristotle thinks, needs to make sense of what we know by common sense).

St. Augustine has yet a different way of thinking about the nature of philosophy (philosophy is the search for wisdom, but such a search need not be limited to a mere human investigation, as with the Greeks; it may be that wisdom can be found in a rational reception of a divine revelation). By the time we get to the twentieth century there is also the great divide between analytic and continental approaches to philosophy. As Mizrahi points out, philosophers today disagree with one another about the nature of philosophy (2017a, 356).

So I could give an account of how I understand the philosophical enterprise, but that account itself would be controversial, and beside the point.[4] Perhaps, if only for dialectical purposes, we can give the following as a sufficient condition for pieces of writing and discourse that count as philosophy (N.B. philosophy, not good philosophy):

(P) Those articles published in philosophical journals and what academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy teach in courses at public universities with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science.

Whereas Mizrahi takes the reduction of philosophy to what professional philosophers publish in academic journals as a premise in Mizrahi’s Argument, I don’t take P to be a necessary condition for something’s counting as philosophy. For philosophical discourses are also recorded, for example, in old books, some of which are not typically taught in philosophy courses today, and (some very good) philosophy, productive of philosophical knowledge, also occurs in conversations between persons who can directly see and hear one another. Indeed, some persons who do not have a Ph.D. in philosophy do (good) philosophy too.

First Controversial Philosophical Premise in Mizrahi’s Argument

Having remarked on Mizrahi’s general criticisms of my objections to Mizrahi’s Argument, I now turn to addressing Mizrahi’s objections to the particular objections or points I make in my critique of Mizrahi’s Argument in 2017. I address these objections not in the order Mizrahi raises them in 2017b, but as these objections track with the objections I raise in my 2017 article, and in the order I raise them (Mizrahi does not comment upon what I call ‘the Second Assumption’ at play in Mizrahi’s Argument in his 2017b, and so I say nothing else about it here).

Recall that the general schema for Mizrahi’s Argument is the following:

  1. One kind of knowledge is better than another quantitatively or qualitatively [assumption].
    8. Scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) in terms of the number of journal articles published and the number of journal articles cited.
    9. Scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) insofar as scientific theories are more successful than non-scientific theories (including philosophical theories) where the success of a theory is understood in terms of its explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success.
    10. Therefore, scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) both quantitatively and qualitatively [from 8 and 9].
    11. Therefore, scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) [from 7 and 10].

A first controversial philosophical premise at play in Mizrahi’s Argument is a premise Mizrahi uses to defend premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument. The premise states that we should think about both knowledge and philosophy operationally. As I point out in 2017, Mizrahi needs to premise such accounts of knowledge and philosophy, since otherwise “it won’t be possible for him to measure the quantity of knowledge in scientific and non-scientific disciplines, something Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for 8” (2017, 44).

Mizrahi has three criticisms of my comment here. First, Mizrahi claims to have provided sufficient justification for operationalizing the nature of philosophy and (philosophical) knowledge by noting the controversy surrounding the nature of philosophy. In light of such controversy, citing Lauer, Mizrahi says: “Arguably, as far as answering the question ‘What makes X philosophical?’ goes, [operationalizing philosophy as what professional philosophers do] may be the best we can do (Lauer 1989, 16)” (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 12). So, contrary to what I say (or imply), Mizrahi does not simply assume we should operationalize the nature of philosophy or knowledge. Second, Mizrahi thinks it problematic for me to challenge his premise reducing philosophy to what professional philosophers do without offering my own account of the nature of philosophy (2017b, 13). Third, Mizrahi thinks it strange that a philosopher (presumably, like me) who wants to defend the usefulness of philosophy should criticize his pragmatic account of the nature of philosophy.

As to Mizrahi’s first point, he offers justification for operationalizing the nature of philosophy and knowledge only in the sense of “here’s a reason why I am proceeding in the way that I am.” Indeed, as I point out in 2017, unless he operationalizes the nature of philosophy and knowledge, “it won’t be possible for him to measure the quantity of knowledge in scientific and non-scientific disciplines, something Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for 8” (2017, 44).

Of course, Mizrahi is free to stipulate an understanding of philosophy or knowledge that can be measured empirically (it’s a free country). But insofar as one bemoans the current state of the research university as one obsessed with outcomes, and measuring outcomes empirically, Mizrahi will forgive those who think stipulating an understanding of the nature of philosophy and knowledge as operational is not only shallow insofar as philosophy and knowledge can’t fit into the narrow parameters of another empirical study, but furthermore, begs the question against those who think that, as great as experimental science and its methods are, experimental science does not constitute the only disciplined approach to searching for knowledge and understanding.

Mizrahi even goes so far to say (his way of) operationalizing the nature of knowledge and philosophy is the least controversial way of doing so (2017b, 13). It’s hard to understand why he thinks that is the case. Just citing the fact that philosophers disagree with one another about the nature of philosophy, citing one author who thinks this is the best we can do, and then adding an additional account of what philosophy is to the already large list of different accounts of what philosophy is—for after all, to say philosophy is what philosophers do, is itself to do some philosophy, i.e., metaphilosophy—does not warrant thinking (a way of) operationalizing of philosophy and knowledge is the least controversial way of thinking about philosophy and knowledge.

In addition, many philosophers think it is false that philosophy and philosophical knowledge are reducible to what professional philosophers do (it may be good to recall that Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, and Hume were not professional philosophers). Also, some philosophers think that not all professional philosophers are true philosophers (again, for precedent, see the arguments in Plato’s Phaedo and Republic). Still other philosophers will insist on a definition of knowledge such as, knowledge is warranted true belief, and also think much of what is argued in philosophy journals—and perhaps science journals too—does not meet the threshold of being warranted, and so of knowledge.

Perhaps Mizrahi means (his way of) operationalizing philosophy and knowledge are the least controversial ways of thinking about philosophy and knowledge among those engaged in “the scientism debate in philosophy” (2017b, 13). That may be so. In my original response—and in this response too—I’m trying to suggest that there are people interested in evaluating scientism that do not share the scientistic account of philosophy and knowledge of those engaged in “the scientism debate in philosophy.”

Having said something above why I did not describe the nature of philosophy in my 2017, I turn to Mizrahi’s puzzlement at my raising the possibility that we should not operationalize the nature of philosophy and knowledge, given my interest in showing that philosophy is useful. After all, if it may be the case that a published journal article in philosophy does not constitute philosophy or an item of philosophical knowledge, what hope can there be to for responding to those academics who think philosophy is dead or useless?

Mizrahi apparently puts me in the class of folk who want to defend philosophy as useful. Mizrahi also seems to assume the only way to show philosophy is useful is by defining philosophy operationally (2017b, 13). Therefore, it doesn’t make sense for me to be skeptical about operationalizing the nature of philosophy and knowledge.

Is philosophy useful? That depends upon what we mean by ‘useful.’ Philosophy won’t help us cure cancer or develop the next form of modern technology (not directly, at any rate).[5] So it is not useful as physics, chemistry, biology, or mathematics are useful. It is presumably in that technological sense of ‘useful’ that Martin Heidegger says, “It is entirely proper and perfectly as it should be: philosophy is of no use” (Einfuhrung in die Metaphysik; qtd. in Pieper 1992, 41).

But by ‘useful,’ we may mean, “able to help a person live a better life.” In my view, philosophy can be very useful in that sense. A philosopher can help persons live a better life—sometimes even herself—by writing journal articles (that is, there certainly are some excellent philosophy journal articles, and some—often far too few—read and profit from these). But more often than not, since most people who may profit from exposure to philosophy or a philosopher don’t read academic journals (and wouldn’t profit much from doing so, if they did), people’s lives are improved in the relevant sense by philosophy or philosophers insofar as they encounter a good philosopher in the classroom and in every day conversations or by reading classical philosophical works from the ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary periods.

By operationalizing the nature of philosophy and knowledge, Mizrahi’s Argument fails to account for those occasions, times, and places where most persons exposed to philosophy can—and sometimes do—profit from the experience by gaining knowledge they did not possess before about what makes for a flourishing human life.

A Third Controversial Philosophical Premise in Mizrahi’s Argument

In my 2017 article, I mention a third controversial philosophical premise at play in Mizrahi’s Argument: the view that the knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both its output and impact—can be quantitatively measured. Mizrahi objects that I do not “tell us what makes this alleged ‘assumption’ philosophical” (2017b, 13). He also states that I do not provide evidence that it is controversial. Finally, Mizrahi claims:

that we can measure the research output of academic fields is not “contentious” [Brown 2017, 45] at all. This so-called “assumption” is accepted by many researchers across disciplines, including philosophy [see, e.g., Kreuzman 2001 and Morrow & Sula 2011], and it has led to fruitful work in library and information science, bibliometrics, scientometrics, data science [Andres 2009], and philosophy [see, e.g., Wray & Bornmann 2015 and Ashton & Mizrahi 2017] (Mizrahi 2017b, 13).

As for my claim that the premise one can quantify over knowledge produced in academic disciplines is a philosophical premise, I assumed in my 2017 essay that Mizrahi and I were working from common ground here, since Mizrahi states, “it might be objected that the inductive generalizations outlined above [in defense of premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument] are not scientific arguments that produce scientific knowledge because they ultimately rest on philosophical assumptions. One philosophical assumption that they ultimately rest on, for example, is the assumption that academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines can be measured” (2017a, 356; emphasis mine).

I supposed Mizrahi to agree with the highlighted portion of the citation above, but it may be that Mizrahi was simply writing in the voice of an objector to his own view (of course, even then, we often agree with some of the premises in an objector’s argument). I also (wrongly) took it to be obvious that the premise in question is a philosophical premise. What else would it be? A piece of common sense? A statement confirmed by experimental science?[6] Something divinely revealed from heaven?

Mizrahi also claims I don’t provide evidence that the claim that we can quantify over how much knowledge is produced in the academy is controversial. What sort of evidence is Mizrahi looking for? That some philosophical paper says so? Surely Mizrahi does not think we can settle a scholarly—let alone a philosophical—dispute by simply making an appeal to an authority. Does Mizrahi think we need sociological evidence to settle our dispute? Is that the best way to provide evidence for a claim? If the answer to either of these last two questions is ‘yes’, then Mizrahi’s Argument for Weak Scientism is begging the question at issue.

But, in any case, I do offer philosophical evidence that the philosophical claim that academic knowledge can be quantitatively measured is controversial in my 2017 article:

in order to measure the amount of scientific and non-scientific, academic knowledge—as Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for premise 8 [of Mizrahi’s Argument]—he needs to define knowledge teleologically—as the goal or aim of an academic discipline—or operationally—as what academics produce. But thinking about the nature of (academic) knowledge in that pragmatic way is philosophically controversial. Therefore, thinking we can measure quantitatively the amount of knowledge across academic disciplines is itself philosophically controversial, since the latter assumption only makes sense on a pragmatic account of knowledge, which is itself a controversial philosophical assumption (2017, 45).

As I noted above, by ‘controversial’ here, I mean there is (at least) a large minority of philosophers, whether we simply count professional philosophers alive today, or also include dead philosophers, who (would) reject the claims that we can collectively quantify over what counts as knowledge, knowledge is teleological, only academics produce philosophical knowledge, and philosophical knowledge is what philosophers publish in academic journals.

Finally, note that Mizrahi’s evidence that (a) reducing what academics know to what can be quantitatively measured is not controversial is that (b) there are academics from across the disciplines, including philosophy, who accept the premise that we can quantify over knowledge produced by academics and (c) the premise that we can quantify over knowledge produced by academic disciplines has led to fruitful work in a number of disciplines, including information science.

But (a)’s itself being controversial (i.e., that a large minority reject it), even false, is consistent with the truth of both (b) and (c). By analogy, it is no doubt also true that (d) academics from across the disciplines, even some philosophers, think quantitative assessment of college teaching is a good idea and (e) much data has been collected from quantitative assessments of college teaching which will be very useful for those seeking doctorates in education. But surely Mizrahi knows that (d) is controversial among academics, even if (e) is true. Mizrahi’s argument that (a) is true on the basis of (b) and (c) is a non-sequitur.

A Fourth Controversial Philosophical Premise

In my 2017 article, I claim that a fourth controversial philosophical premise is doing important work for Mizrahi’s Argument. This premise states: the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both output and impact—can be accurately measured by looking at the publications of participants within that discipline. I argue that reducing the production of academic knowledge to what academics publish shows a decided bias in favor of the philosophy of education dominating the contemporary research university, in contrast to the traditional liberal arts model that places a high value on reading and teaching classic texts in philosophy, mathematics, history (including the history of science), and literature. Showing such favor is significant for two reasons.

First, it is question-begging insofar as the philosophy of education in modern research universities, prizing as it does the sort of knowledge that the methods of the experimental sciences are specially designed to produce, i.e., new knowledge and discoveries, is itself rooted in a kind of cultural scientism, one that is supported by big business, university administrators, many journalists, most politicians, and, of course, the research scientists and academics complicit in this scientistic way of thinking about the university.[7] Second, since academics produce knowledge in ways other than publishing, e.g., by way of reading, teaching, mentoring, giving lectures, and engaging others in conversation, the premise that the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline can be accurately measured by output and impact of publications does not “present us with a representative sample of knowledge produced within all academic disciplines” (Brown 2017, 46). That means that Mizrahi’s inference to the conclusion scientists produce more knowledge that non-scientific academics from the premise, scientists produce more publications than non-scientific academics and scientists produce publications that are cited more often that those published by non-scientist academics is logically invalid.

Mizrahi responds to my comments in this context by stating that I am confusing “passing on knowledge” or “sharing knowledge” with “producing knowledge” (2017b, 14). This distinction is significant, thinks Mizrahi, since “as far as the scientism debate is concerned, and the charge that philosophy is useless, the question is whether the methodologies of the sciences are superior to those of other fields in terms of producing knowledge, not in terms of sharing knowledge” (2017b, 14). Finally, Mizrahi also notes that those in the humanities do not corner the market on activities such as teaching, for scientists pass on knowledge by way of teaching too.

Mizrahi seems to assume that sharing knowledge is not a form of producing knowledge. But I would have thought that, if a person S does not know p at time t and S comes to know p at t+1, then that counts as an instance of the production of knowledge, even if some person other than S knows p at t or some time before t or S comes to know p by way of being taught by a person who already knows p. But say, if only for the sake of argument, that Mizrahi is correct to think sharing knowledge does not entail the producing of knowledge. The fact that either Mizrahi does not count passing on or sharing knowledge as a kind of producing of knowledge or Mizrahi’s Argument does not measure the sharing or passing on of knowledge would seem to mean that Mizrahi’s Argument simply measures the production of new knowledge or discoveries, where new knowledge or a discovery can be defined as follows:

(N) New knowledge or discovery =df some human persons come to know p at time t, where no human person or persons knew p before t.

Mizrahi’s focus on knowledge as new knowledge or discovery in Mizrahi’s Argument reinforces a real limitation of (that argument for) Weak Scientism insofar as it equates knowledge with new knowledge. But it also confirms what I said in my 2017 article: Mizrahi’s Argument is question-begging since it has as a premise that knowledge is to be understood as equivalent to the sort of knowledge which the methods of the experimental sciences are specially designed to produce, i.e., new knowledge and discoveries.

Surely philosophers sometimes make new discoveries, or collectively (believe they) make progress, but philosophy (in the view of some philosophers) is more about individual intellectual progress rather than collective intellectual progress (of course, we may think it is also has the power to bring about social progress, but some of us have our real doubts about that). As Josef Pieper says:

‘Progress’ in the philosophical realm is assuredly a problematic category—insofar as it means an ever growing collective accumulation of knowledge, growing in the same measure as time passes. There exists, under this aspect, an analogy to poetry. Has Goethe ‘progressed’ farther than Homer?—one cannot ask such a question. Philosophical progress undeniably occurs, yet not so much in the succession of generations as rather in the personal and dynamic existence of the philosopher himself (1992, 92).

To the charge that scientists teach students too, I, of course, concur. But if passing on knowledge by way of teaching, mentoring, giving lectures, and personal conversations count as ways of producing knowledge, then Mizrahi’s defense of premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument does not, as I say in my 2017 article, “present us with a representative sample of knowledge produced within all academic disciplines” (2017, 46). And if passing on knowledge by way of teaching or reading does not count as a way of producing knowledge, then, given what many of us take to be the real intellectual significance of passing on knowledge through teaching and reading, the position Mizrahi is actually defending in 2017a and 2017b is even weaker:

(Very, Very, Very, Very Weak Scientism): When it comes to the knowledge that is produced by academic journals, i.e., the N knowledge or discoveries published in academic journals, knowledge that comes from scientific academic journals is the best.

A Fifth Controversial Philosophical Premise

Although Mizrahi says nothing about it in his 2017b response to my 2017 essay, I think it is important to emphasize again that, in arguing that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of quantity of knowledge, Mizrahi makes use of a fifth controversial philosophical premise in Mizrahi’s Argument: the quantity of knowledge—in terms of output and impact—of each academic discipline can be successfully measured by looking simply at the journal articles published (output) and cited (impact) within that discipline. For to count only journal articles when quantifying over impact of the knowledge of a discipline is, again, to adopt a scientific, discovery-oriented, approach to thinking about the nature of knowledge.

For how often do the works of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Dostoevsky, just for starters, continue to have research impact on the work of historians, social scientists, theologians, and literature professors, not to mention, philosophers? So Mizrahi’s Argument either begs the question against non-scientist academics for another reason—it neglects to count citations of great thinkers from the past—or, by focusing only on the citation of journal articles, we are given yet another reason to think the sample Mizrahi uses to make his inductive generalization in defense of premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument is simply not a representative one.

The Sixth and Ninth Controversial Philosophical Premises

Here I address the following controversial philosophical premises, both of which function as key background assumptions in Mizrahi’s Argument:

(K1) For any two pieces of knowledge, p and q, where p and q are produced by an academic discipline or disciplines, p is to be treated as qualitatively equal to q where measuring the quantity of knowledge produced within academic disciplines is concerned.

(K2) For any two pieces of knowledge, p and q, where p and q are produced by an academic discipline or disciplines, p is to be treated as qualitatively equal to q in the sense of the nobility or importance or perfection of p and q where measuring the quality of p and q, where quality in this latter sense measures the extent to which the theories employed in an academic discipline or discipline productive ofand q enjoy some degree of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success.

Premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument says that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific academic knowledge because scientists publish more journal articles than non-scientists and the journal articles published by scientists are cited more often—and so have a greater “research impact”—than do the journal articles published by non-scientists (2017a, 355-58). In my 2017 essay I note that, in concluding to premise 8 on the basis of his inductive generalizations, Mizrahi is assuming (something such as) K1.

Furthermore, we may reasonably think K1 is false since the production of some sorts of non-scientific knowledge work may be harder than the production of scientific knowledge (and if a piece of work W is harder to publish than a piece of work W1, then, all other things being equal, W is qualitatively better than W1). For example, I mentioned the recent essay by philosopher David Papineau: “Is Philosophy Simply Harder than Science?” (2017). I also offered up as a reason for questioning whether K1 is correct Aristotle’s famous epistemological-axiological thesis that a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things.[8]

Premise 9 of Mizrahi’s Argument says that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific academic knowledge insofar as scientific theories are more successful than non-scientific theories (including philosophical theories) where the success of a theory is understood in terms of its explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success. In my 2017 response, I suggest that Mizrahi has (something such as) K2 implicitly premised as a background philosophical assumption in his argument for premise 9, and a premise such as K2 is a philosophically controversial one. At the very least, Mizrahi’s implicitly premising K2 in Mizrahi’s Argument therefore limits the audience for which Mizrahi’s Argument will be at all rhetorically convincing. For as I stated in my 2017 response:

Assume . . .  the following Aristotelian epistemological axiom: less certain knowledge (or less explanatorily successful knowledge or less instrumentally successful knowledge or less testable knowledge) about a nobler subject, e.g., God or human persons, is, all other things being equal, more valuable than more certain knowledge (or more explanatorily successful knowledge or more instrumentally successful knowledge or more testable knowledge) about a less noble subject, e.g., stars or starfish. . . . [And] consider, then, a piece of philosophical knowledge P and a piece of scientific knowledge S, where P constitutes knowledge of a nobler subject than S. If S enjoys greater explanatory power and more instrumental success and greater testability when compared to P, it won’t follow that S is qualitatively better than P (2017, 50).

Mizrahi raises a number of objections to the sections of my 2017 essay where I mention implicit premises at work in Mizrahi’s Argument such as K1 and K2. First, I don’t explain why, following Papineau, philosophy may be harder than science (2017b, 9). Second, he offers some reasons to think Papineau is wrong: “producing scientific knowledge typically takes more time, effort, money, people, and resources . . . [therefore], scientific knowledge is harder to produce than non-scientific knowledge” (2017b, 9). Third, he notes I don’t argue for Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological thesis, let alone explain what it means for one item of knowledge to be nobler than another.

Fourth, in response to my notion that philosophy and science use different methodologies insofar as the methods of the former do not invite consensus whereas the methods of the latter do, Mizrahi notes that “many philosophers would probably disagree with that, for they see the lack of consensus, and thus progress in philosophy as a serious problem” (2017b, 10). Fifth, Mizrahi thinks there is precedent for his employing a premise such as K1 in his defense of premise 8 in Mizrahi’s Argument insofar as analytic epistemologists often use variables in talking about the nature of knowledge, e.g., propositions such as ‘if person S knows p, then p is true,’ and therefore treat all instances of knowledge as qualitatively equal (2017b, 13, n. 2).

In mentioning Papineau’s article in my 2017 essay, I offer an alternative interpretation of the data that Mizrahi employs in order to defend premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument, an interpretation that he should—and does not—rule out in his 2017a paper, namely, that scientists produce more knowledge than non-scientists not because scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge but rather because non-scientific knowledge (such as philosophical knowledge) is harder to produce than scientific knowledge. Indeed, Mizrahi himself feels the need to rule out this possibility in his 2017b reply to my 2017 article’s raising this very point (see 2017b, 9).

Mizrahi’s inference about the greater difficulty of scientific work compared to non-scientific academic work such as philosophy goes through only if we think about the production of philosophical knowledge in the operational manner in which Mizrahi does. According to that model of philosophical knowledge, philosophical knowledge is produced whenever someone publishes a journal article. But, traditionally, philosophical knowledge is not that easy to come by. Granted, scientific knowledge too is hard to produce. As Mizrahi well notes, it takes lots of “time, effort, money, people, and resources” to produce scientific knowledge.

But we live in a time that holds science in high regard (some think, too high a regard), not just because of the success of science to produce new knowledge, but because science constantly provides us with obvious material benefits and new forms of technology and entertainment.[9] So it stands to reason that more time, effort, money, and resources are poured into scientific endeavors and more young people are attracted to careers in science than in other academic disciplines. When one adds to all of this that scientists within their fields enjoy a great consensus regarding their methods and aims, which invites greater cooperation among researchers with those fields, it is not surprising that scientists produce more knowledge than those in non-scientific academic disciplines.

But all of that is compatible with philosophy being harder than science. For, as we’ve seen, there is very little collective consensus among philosophers about the nature of philosophy and its appropriate methods. Indeed, many academics—indeed, even some philosophers—think knowledge about philosophical topics is not possible at all. It’s not beyond the pale to suggest that skepticism about the possibility of philosophical knowledge is partly a result of the modern trend towards a scientistic account of knowledge. In addition, some philosophers think philosophical knowledge is harder to acquire than scientific knowledge, if only because of the nature of those topics and questions that are properly philosophical (see Papineau 2017 and Van Inwagen 2015, 14-15).

As for the meaning of Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological claim, I take it that Aristotle thinks p is a nobler piece of knowledge than q if, all others being equal, the object of p is nobler than the object of q. For example, say we think (with Aristotle) that it is better to be a rational being than a non-rational being. It would follow that rational animals (such as human persons) are nobler than non-rational animals. Therefore, applying Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological claim, all other things being equal, knowing something about human persons—particularly qua embodied rational being—is a nobler piece of knowledge than knowing something about any non-rational object.

Now, as Mizrahi points out, not all philosophers agree with Aristotle. But my original point in mentioning Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological thesis was to highlight an implicit controversial philosophical premise in the background of Mizrahi’s Argument. The Aristotelian epistemological-axiological thesis is perhaps rejected by many, but not all, contemporary philosophers. The implicit assumption that Aristotle is wrong that (knowledge of) some object is nobler than (knowledge of) another object is a philosophical assumption (just as any arguments that Aristotle is wrong will be philosophical arguments). Indeed, it may be that any reason a philosopher will give for rejecting Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological thesis will also show that they are already committed to some form of scientistic position.

I say the practice of philosophy doesn’t invite consensus, whereas one of the advantages of an experimental method is that it does. That is a clear difference between philosophy and the experimental sciences, and since at least the time of Kant, given the advantage of a community of scholars being able to agree on most (of course, not all) first principles where some intellectual endeavor is concerned, some philosophers have suggested philosophy does not compare favorably with the experimental sciences.

So it is no surprise that, as Mizrahi notes, “many [contemporary] philosophers . . . see the lack of consensus, and thus progress in philosophy as a serious problem” (2017b, 10). But it doesn’t follow from that sociological fact, as Mizrahi seems to suggest it does (2017, 10), that those same philosophers disagree that philosophical methods don’t invite consensus. A philosopher could lament the fact that the methods of philosophy don’t invite consensus (in contrast to the methods of the experimental sciences) but agree that that is the sober truth about the nature of philosophy (some professional philosophers don’t like philosophy or have science envy; I’ve met a few). In addition, the fact that some philosophers disagree with the view that philosophical methods do not invite consensus shouldn’t be surprising. Philosophical questions are by nature controversial.[10]

Finally, Mizrahi defends his premising (something such as) K1 by citing the precedent of epistemologists who often treat all items of knowledge as qualitatively the same, for example,  when they make claims such as, ‘if S knows p, then p is true.’ But the two cases are not, in fact, parallel. For, unlike the epistemologist thinking about the nature of knowledge, Mizrahi is arguing about and comparing the value of various items of knowledge. For Mizrahi to assume KI in an argument that tries to show scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge is to beg a question against those who reasonably think philosophy is harder than science or the things that philosophers qua philosophers know are nobler than the things that scientists qua scientists know, whereas epistemologists arguably are not begging a question when engaged in the practice of abstracting from various circumstances (by employing variables) in order to determine what all instances of knowledge have in common.

The Seventh and Eighth Controversial Philosophical Premises

In his attempt to defend the thesis that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge, Mizrahi assumes that a theory A is qualitatively better than a theory B if A is more successful than B (2017a, 358). He thus thinks about a theory’s qualitative value in pragmatic terms. But not all philosophers think about the qualitative goodness of a theory in pragmatic terms, particularly in a philosophical context, if only because, of two theories A and B, A could be true and B false, where B is more successful than A, and a philosopher may prize truth over successful outcomes.[11] This constitutes a seventh controversial philosophical premise in Mizrahi’s Argument.

In addition, as I point out in my 2017 response, there is an eighth controversial philosophical premise in the background of Mizrahi’s Argument, namely, that a theory A is more successful than a theory B if A is more explanatorily successful than B, and more instrumentally successful than B, and more predictively successful than B. Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that this is a helpful account of a good scientific explanation, interestingly, Mizrahi thinks these criteria for a successful scientific theory can be rightfully applied as the measure of success for a theory, simpliciter.

I argued in my 2017 response that to think philosophical theories have to be, for example, instrumentally successful (in the way experimental scientific theories are, namely, (a) are such that they can be put to work to solve immediate material problems such as the best way to treat a disease or (b) are such that they directly lead to technological innovations) and predicatively successful in an argument for the conclusion that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge is “to beg the question against non-scientific ways of knowing, ways of knowing that do not, by their very nature, employ controlled experiments and empirical tests as an aspect of their methodologies” (2017, 48).

In responding to my comments, Mizrahi makes three points. First, I criticize his account of explanation without offering my own account of explanation (2017b, 19). Second, passing over my comments that good philosophical theories need not be instrumentally successful (in the relevant sense) or predicatively successful, Mizrahi argues that I can’t say, as I do, that good philosophical theories explain things but do not enjoy the good-making qualities of all good explanations. As Mizrahi states, “the good-making properties of [good] explanations include unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability. Contrary to what Brown (2017, 48) seems to think, these good-making properties apply to explanations in general, not just to scientific explanations in particular” (2017b, 19) and

Contrary to what Brown asserts without argument, then, ‘To think that a theory T is successful only if—or to the extent that—it enjoys predicative success or testability’ is not to beg the question against non-scientific ways of knowing. For, insofar as non-scientific ways of knowing employ IBE [i.e., inference to the best explanation], which Brown admits is the case as far as philosophy is concerned, then their explanations must be testable (as well as unified, coherent, and simple) if they are to be good explanations (Mizrahi 2017b, 2); emphases in the original).

Mizrahi offers as evidence for the claim that all good explanations are testable and enjoy predicative power the ubiquity of such a claim in introductory textbooks on logic and critical thinking, and he offers as a representative example a chapter from a textbook by two philosophers, Sinnott-Armstrong & Fogelin 2010.

I plead guilty to not offering an account of good explanation in my 2017 article (for the same sort of reason I gave above for not defining philosophy). What I contend is that just as philosophical methods are different in kind from those of the experimental scientists, so too is a good philosophical explanation different in kind from what counts as a good explanation in an empirical science. That is not to say that philosophical and scientific explanations have nothing significant in common, just as it is not to say that the practice of philosophy has nothing in common with experimental scientific practice, despite their radical differences.

For both philosophy—at least on many accounts of its nature—and experimental science are human disciplines: their premises, conclusions, theories, and proposed explanations must submit to the bar of what human reason alone can establish.[12] Indeed, many philosophers who do not share Mizrahi’s scientistic cast of mind could happily agree that good philosophical explanations are coherent and, all other things being equal, that one philosophical explanation E is better than another E1 if E is more unified or simpler or has more explanatory power or depth or modesty than E1.

Others would add (controversially, of course) that, all other things being equal, philosophical theory E is better than E1 if E makes better sense of, or is more consistent with, common-sense assumptions about reality and human life,[13] e.g., if theory E implies human persons are never morally responsible for their actions whereas E1 does not, then, all other things being equal, E1 is a better philosophical theory than theory E. In addition, we may think, taking another cue from Aristotle, that a philosophical theory E is better than a theory E1, all other things being equal, if E raises fewer philosophical puzzles than E1.

Mizrahi also premises that good philosophical explanations have to be testable (2017a, 360; 2017b, 19-20). But what does he mean? Consider the following possibilities:

(T1) A theory or explanation T is testable if and only if T can be evaluated by controlled experiments and other methods characteristic of the experimental sciences, e.g., inductive generalization.

(T2) A theory or explanation is testable if and only if T can be evaluated by (a) controlled experiments and other methods characteristic of the experimental sciences, e.g., inductive generalization or (b) on the basis of deductive arguments or (c) the method of disambiguating premises, or (d) the method of refutation by counter-example or (e) inference to the best explanation or (e) thought experiments (or (f) any number of other philosophical methods or (g) methods we use in everyday life).

In my 2017 response, I took Mizrahi to mean (something such as) T1 by ‘a good explanation is testable’. For example, Mizrahi states: “as a general rule of thumb, choose the explanation that yields independently testable predictions” (2017a, 360; emphases mine). If Mizrahi accepts T1 and thinks all good explanations must be testable, then, as I stated in my 2017 response, “philosophical theories will . . . not compare favorably with scientific ones” (2017, 49).

But as philosopher Ed Feser well points out, to compare the epistemic values of science and philosophy and fault philosophy for not being good at making testable predications is like comparing metal detectors and gardening tools and concluding gardening tools are not as good as metal detectors because gardening tools do not allow us to successfully detect for metal (2014, 23).

In other words, if T1 is what Mizrahi means by ‘testable’ and Mizrahi thinks all good explanations are testable, then Mizrahi’s Argument does, as I contend in my 2017 response, “beg the question against non-scientific ways of knowing, ways of knowing that do not, by their very nature, employ controlled experiments and empirical tests as an aspect of their methodologies” (2017, 48; see also Robinson 2015).

But perhaps Mizrahi means by ‘an explanation’s being testable’ something such as T2. But in that case, good philosophical work, whether classical or contemporary, will compare favorably with the good work done by experimental scientists (of course, whether one thinks this last statement is true will depend upon one’s philosophical perspective).

Some Concluding General Remarks About Mizrahi’s Argument

Given the number of (implied) controversial philosophical premises that function as background assumptions in Mizrahi’s Argument, that argument should not convince those who do not already hold to (a view close to) Weak Scientism. As we’ve seen, Mizrahi premises, for example, that philosophy should be operationally defined as what philosophers do, that knowledge within all academic disciplines should be operationally defined as what academics publish in academic journals, K1, K2, and all good explanations are explanatorily, instrumentally, and predicatively successful.

Of course, the number of controversial philosophical premises at play in Mizrahi’s Argument isn’t in and of itself a philosophical problem for Mizrahi’s Argument, since the same could be said for just about any philosophical argument. But one gets the distinct impression that Mizrahi thinks Mizrahi’s Argument should have very wide appeal among philosophers. If Mizrahi wants to convince those of us who don’t already share his views, he needs to do some more work defending the implied premises of Mizrahi’s Argument, or else come up with a different argument for Weak Scientism.

Indeed, many of the implied controversial philosophical premises I’ve identified in Mizrahi’s Argument are, as we’ve seen, not only doing some heavy philosophical lifting in that argument, but such premises imply that (something such as) Weak Scientism is true, e.g., the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both output and impact—can be accurately measured by looking at the publications of participants within that discipline, K1, K2, a theory A is more successful than a theory B if A is more explanatorily successful than B, and more instrumentally successful than B, and more predictively successful than B, and an explanation is a good explanation only if it is testable in the sense of T1. Mizrahi’s Argument thus begs too many questions to count as a good argument for Weak Scientism.

Mizrahi is also at pains to maintain that his argument for Weak Scientism is a scientific and not a philosophical argument, and this because a significant part of his argument for Weak Scientism not only draws on scientific evidence, but employs “the structure of inductive generalization from samples, which are inferences commonly made by practicing scientists” (2017a, 356). I admit that a scientific argument from information science is “a central feature of Mizrahi’s Argument” (Brown 2017, 50) insofar as he uses scientific evidence from information science to support premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument. But, as I also note in my 2017 essay, “Mizrahi can’t reasonably maintain his argument is thereby a scientific one, given the number of controversial philosophical assumptions employed as background assumptions in his argument” (2017, 51).

My objection that Mizrahi’s Argument is a piece of philosophy and not a scientific argument is one that Mizrahi highlights in his response (2017b, 9). He raises two objections to my claim that Mizrahi’s Argument is a philosophical and not a scientific argument. First, he thinks I have no grounds for claiming Mizrahi’s Argument is a philosophical argument since I don’t give an account of philosophy, and I reject his operationalized account of philosophy (2017b, 15). Second, Mizrahi states that

Brown seems to think than an argument is scientific only if an audience of peers finds the premises of that argument uncontroversial. . . . Accordingly, Brown’s (2017) criterion of controversy [according to Mizrahi, I think this is dubitability] and his necessary condition for an argument being scientific have the absurd consequence that arguments presented by scientists at scientific conferences (or published in scientific journals and books) are not scientific arguments unless they are met with unquestioned acceptance by peer audiences (2017b, 16).

I have already addressed Mizrahi’s comment about the nature of philosophy above. In response to his second objection, Mizrahi wrongly equates my expression, “controversial background philosophical assumptions,” with his expression, “controversial premises in a scientific argument.” Recognizing this false equivalency is important for evaluating my original objection, and this for a number of reasons.

First, what Mizrahi calls the “premises of a scientist’s argument” (2017b, 15) are, typically, I take it, not philosophical premises or assumptions. For is Mizrahi claiming that scientists, at the presentation of a scientific paper, are asking questions about propositions such as K1 or K2?

Second, Mizrahi and I both admit that philosophical background assumptions are sometimes in play in a scientific argument. Some of these claims, e.g., that there exists an external world, some philosophers will reject. What I claimed in my 2017 essay is that a scientific argument—in contrast to a philosophical argument—employs background philosophical assumptions that “are largely non-controversial for the community to which those arguments are addressed, namely, the community of practicing scientists” (2017, 15). For example, an argument that presupposed the truth of theism (or atheism), would not be, properly speaking, a scientific argument, but, at best, a philosophical argument that draws on some scientific evidence to defend certain of its premises.

So, contrary to what Mizrahi says, my argument that Mizrahi’s Argument is not a scientific argument neither implies that Darwin’s Origin of the Species is not science, nor does it imply a scientist’s paper is not science if audience members challenge that paper’s premises, methods, findings, or conclusion. Rather, my comment stands unscathed: because of the number of philosophical background premises that are controversial among the members of the audience to which Mizrahi’s Argument is directed—presumably all academics—Mizrahi’s Argument is not a scientific argument but rather, a philosophical argument that draws on some data from information science to defend one of its crucial premises, namely premise 8.

But, as I pointed out above, even Mizrahi’s argument for premise 8 in Mizrahi’s Argument is a philosophical argument, drawing as that argument does on the controversial philosophical background premises such as philosophy should be operationally defined as what philosophers do, knowledge within all academic disciplines should be operationally defined as what academics publish in academic journals, and K1.

Finally, there is another reason why Mizrahi himself, given his own philosophical principles, should think Mizrahi’s Argument is a piece of philosophy. As we’ve seen, Mizrahi thinks that philosophy and philosophical knowledge should be defined operationally, i.e., philosophy is what philosophers do, e.g., publish articles in philosophy journals, and philosophical knowledge is what philosophers produce, i.e., publications in philosophy journals (see Mizrahi 2017a, 353). But Mizrahi’s 2017a paper is published in a philosophy journal. Therefore, by Mizrahi’s own way of understanding philosophy and science, Mizrahi’s Argument is not a scientific argument, but a philosophical argument (contrary to what Mizrahi says in both 2017a and 2017b).

Contact details: chrisb@utm.edu

References

Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1981.

Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles. Book One. Trans. Anton C. Pegis. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.

Aristotle. Posterior Analytics. Trans. G.R.G. Mure. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Aristotle. On the Parts of Animals. Trans. William Ogle. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. W.D. Ross. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Augustine, Saint. Confessions. Trans. Frank Sheed. 1942; reprint, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006.

Brown, Christopher. “Some Logical Problems for Scientism.” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 85 (2011): 189-200.

Brown, Christopher. “Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s ‘What’s So Bad about Scientism?’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 42-54.

Bourget, David and David J. Chalmers. “What do philosophers believe?” Philosophical Studies 170, 3 (2014): 465-500.

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. 1908; reprint, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995.

Feldman, Richard. Epistemology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003.

Feser, Edward. The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008.

Feser, Edward. “Blinded by Scientism.” Public Discourse. March 9, 2010a. Accessed January 15, 2018. http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1174/.

Feser, Edward. “Recovering Sight after Scientism.” Public Discourse. March 12, 2010b. Accessed January 15, 2018. http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1184/.

Feser, Edward. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. editiones scholasticae, 2014.

Haack, Susan. Defending Science—Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Haack, Susan. “The Real Question: Can Philosophy Be Saved? Free Inquiry (October/November 2017): 40-43.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. God, Philosophy, and Universities. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

Mizrahi, Moti. “What’s So Bad About Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017a): 351-367.

Mizrahi, Moti. “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017b): 9-22.

Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “scientism,” accessed January 10, 2018, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/172696?redirectedFrom=scientism.

Papineau, David. “Is Philosophy Simply Harder than Science?” The Times Literary Supplement On-line. June 1, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. https://goo.gl/JiSci7.

Pieper, Josef. In Defense of Philosophy. Trans. Lothar Krauth. 1966; reprint, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.

Plato. Phaedo. In Five Dialogues. Trans. Grube and Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002.

Plato. Gorgias. Trans. Donald J. Zeyl. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987.

Plato. Republic. Trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Robinson, Daniel N. “Science, Scientism, and Explanation.” In Scientism: the New Orthodoxy. Williams and Robinson, eds. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, 23-40.

Rosenberg, Alex. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2011.

Sorrell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. First edition. London: Routledge, 1994.

Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. Kindle edition. London: Routledge, 2013.

Van Inwagen, Peter. Metaphysics. 4th edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2015.

Williams, Richard. N. and Daniel N. Robinson, eds. Scientism: the New Orthodoxy. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

[1] “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about” (Orthodoxy [chapter four] 1995, 53).

[2] See Phaedo, 61c-d and 64b-69e.

[3] See Republic 473c-480a.

[4] Here follows a description of something like one traditional way of thinking about the intellectual discipline of philosophy, one that I often give in my introduction to philosophy classes. It describes philosophy by comparing and contrasting it with the experimental sciences, on the one hand, and revealed theology, on the other hand: philosophy is that intellectual discipline which investigates the nature of ultimate reality, knowledge, and value (i.e., subjects the investigation of which raise questions that can’t be settled simply by running controlled experiments and taking quantitative measurements) by way of methods such as deductive argumentation, conceptual analysis, and reflection upon one’s own experiences and the experiences of others (where the experiences of others include, but are not limited to, the experiences of experimental scientists doing experimental science and the experiences of those who practice other intellectual disciplines), by way of the natural light of human reason alone (where this last clause is concerned, philosophy is usefully compared and contrasted with revealed theology: revealed theology and philosophy investigate many of the same questions, e.g., are there any sorts of actions that ought to never be performed, no matter what?, but whereas philosophy draws upon the natural light of human reason alone to answer its characteristic questions [in this way philosophy is like the experimental sciences], and not on any supposed divine revelations, revealed theology makes use of the natural light of reason and [what revealed theologians believe by faith is] some divine revelation).

[5] Although, as I pointed out in my 2017 essay, it seems one can plausibly argue that modern science has the history of Western philosophy as a necessary or de facto cause of its existence, and so the instrumental successes of modern science also belong to Western philosophy indirectly.

[6] For academics don’t agree on which claims count as knowledge claims, e.g., some will say we can know propositions such as murder is always wrong, others don’t think we can know ethical claims are true. Are we, then, to simply measure those claims published at the university that all—or the great majority of academics believe count as knowledge claims? But in that case, we are no longer measuring what counts as knowledge, but rather what a certain group of people, at a certain time, believes counts as knowledge. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say cataloguing what a certain group of people believe is sociology and not philosophy.

[7] See, e.g., Alasdair MacIntyre 2009, esp. 15-18 and 173-180.

[8] See, e.g., On the Parts of Animals, Book I, chapter 5 [644b32-645a1]. See also St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, book one, ch. 5, 5 and Summa theologiae Ia. q. 1, a. 5, ad1.

[9] Of course, modern science and technology produce negative effects too, e.g., pollution, and, according to some, increased dissolution of traditional social bonds. But, because the positive effects of modern science and technology are often immediate and the negative effects often arise only after some time has passed, it is hard for us to take into account, let alone see, the negative consequences of modern science and technology. For some helpful discussion of the history of the culturally transformative effects of modern science and technology, both positive and negative, see Postman 1993.

[10] See, e.g., Bourget & Chalmers 2014. As that study shows, when a good number of contemporary philosophers were polled about a number of major philosophical questions, every question asked turns out to be collectively controversial. Although the paper certainly identifies certain tendencies among contemporary philosophers, e.g., 72.8% identified as atheists, and only 14.6% identified as theists, that latter number is still a healthy minority view so that its seems right to say that whether atheism or theism is true is collectively controversial for contemporary philosophers. For some good discussion of philosophical questions as, by nature, controversial, see also Van Inwagen 2015, 11-19.

[11] A small point: in responding to my comment here, Mizrahi misrepresents what I say. He renders what I call in my 2017 article “the seventh assumption” as “One theory can be said to be qualitatively better than another” (2017b, 12). That’s not what I say; rather I suggest Mizrahi’s Argument premises a theory A is qualitatively better than theory B if A is more successful than theory B.

[12] In this way, philosophy and the experimental sciences differ from one historically important way of understanding the discipline of revealed theology. For example, as St. Thomas Aquinas understands the discipline of revealed theology (see, e.g., Summa theologiae Ia. q. 1.), revealed theology is that scientia that treats especially of propositions it is reasonable to believe are divinely revealed, propositions that can’t be known by the natural light of human reason alone. In addition, the wise teacher of revealed theology can (a) show it is reasonable to believe by faith that these propositions are divinely revealed and (b) use the human disciplines, especially philosophy, to show how propositions that are reasonably believed by faith are not meaningless and do not contradict propositions we know to be true by way of the human disciplines, e.g., philosophy and the sciences.

[13] See, e.g., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, book vii, ch. 1 (1145b2-7).

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. Due to the length of Brown’s article, we will be posting it in three parts. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3TE

Please refer to:

Image by Bryan Jones via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In 2017a,[1] Moti Mizrahi distinguishes a position he calls Weak Scientism—of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best—from what he calls Strong Scientism—the only real kind of knowledge is scientific knowledge. Whereas Strong Scientism may have serious problems, Mizrahi argues Weak Scientism is a defensible position. In my 2017 response, I raise some objections to the arguments Mizrahi employs to defend Weak Scientism. Mizrahi replies to my objections in 2017b. This essay has two parts. In the first part, I briefly summarize both Mizrahi’s arguments in defense of Weak Scientism in 2017a and the problems for Mizrahi’s arguments I identify in my 2017 essay. In the second part, I offer replies to Mizrahi’s objections in 2017b.

Mizrahi’s Arguments for Weak Scientism and Some Objections to those Arguments

In 2017a, Mizrahi does at least three things. First, he distinguishes persuasive and non-persuasive definitions of scientism and argues for adopting the latter rather than the former. Second, Mizrahi distinguishes Strong Scientism from the position he defends, Weak Scientism. Third, Mizrahi defends Weak Scientism in two ways. The first way Mizrahi defends Weak Scientism is by attempting to defeat the following two objections to that position:

(O1) It is epistemically impossible to offer scientific evidence for Weak Scientism.

(O2) It is viciously circular to support Weak Scientism with scientific evidence.

Where Mizrahi’s attempt to defeat O1 is concerned, he offers what he takes to be a scientific argument for Weak Scientism. Here follows a schema of the argument:

7. One kind of knowledge is better than another quantitatively or qualitatively.[2]
8. Scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) in terms of the number of journal articles published and the number of journal articles cited.
9. Scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) insofar as scientific theories are more successful than non-scientific theories (including philosophical theories) where the success of a theory is understood in terms of its explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success.
10. Therefore, scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) both quantitatively and qualitatively [from 8 and 9].
11. Therefore, scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) [from 7 and 10].

For the sake of ease of reference, let us call the argument above, Mizrahi’s Argument. A second way Mizrahi defends Weak Scientism in his 2017a paper is directly by way of Mizrahi’s Argument. For if Mizrahi’s Argument is sound, it not only shows O1 is false, but it shows Weak Scientism is true.

In my 2017 essay, I raise a number of objections to what Mizrahi argues in 2017a. First, I argue Weak Scientism is not really a form of scientism. Second, I argue Mizrahi does not give an advocate of Strong Scientism good reasons to adopt Weak Scientism. Third, I contend that, contrary to what Mizrahi supposes (2017a, 354), Weak Scientism is not relevant by itself for mediating the debate between defenders of philosophy and those who think philosophy is useless. Fourth, I argue that Mizrahi’s Argument presupposes philosophical positions that many academics reject, so that Mizrahi’s Argument is not as powerful as he seems to think. Fifth, I argue that some of the background philosophical premises in Mizrahi’s Argument are question-begging.

Sixth, I contend that Mizrahi’s primary argument for Weak Scientism—Mizrahi’s Argument—is a philosophical argument and not a scientific argument, and so he does not defeat objection O1. Seventh, I argue that Mizrahi does not defeat objection O2, since there is a way to think about the defensibility of deductive inference that does not involve making inferences. Finally, I offer two counter examples to Mizrahi’s contention that the use of a persuasive definition of a term necessarily involves both begging the question against those who reject such a definition and a failure to provide reasons for thinking that definition is true.

Responding to Mizrahi’s Objections

I now respond to objections Mizrahi raises in 2017b to my 2017 essay. In each section of this part I highlight an objection I raised for Mizrahi 2017a in my 2017 response, I explain Mizrahi’s response to that objection in 2017b, and I offer a response to Mizrahi’s response. In many cases Mizrahi has misconstrued one of my objections, and so I here clarify those objections. In other cases, Mizrahi misses the point of one of my objections, and so I try to make those objections clearer. Still in other cases, Mizrahi makes some good points about objections I raise in 2017, although not points fatal to those objections, and so I revise my objections accordingly. Finally, in some cases Mizrahi asks for more information and so I give it, at least where such information is relevant for evaluating Mizrahi’s defenses of Weak Scientism.

Is Weak Scientism Really Scientism?  

In 2017, I argue that Weak Scientism is not really strong enough to count as scientism. For, given Weak Scientism, philosophical knowledge may be nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge. In fact, given that Weak Scientism claims only that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific academic knowledge (see, e.g., Mizrahi 2017a, 354; 356), Weak Scientism is compatible with the claim that non-academic personal knowledge, moral knowledge, and religious knowledge are all better than scientific knowledge. Certainly, Mizrahi’s defenses of Weak Scientism in 2017a and 2017b don’t show that scientific knowledge is better than non-academic forms of knowledge acquisition. Traditional advocates of scientism, therefore, will not endorse Weak Scientism, given their philosophical presuppositions.

Mizrahi raises two objections to my arguments here. First, even if I’m right that one could think about philosophical knowledge as nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge, this does nothing to show Weak Scientism is not strong enough to count as scientism, since “one of the problems with the scientism debate is precisely the meaning of the term ‘scientism’” (Mizrahi 2017a, 351-353; qtd. in Mizrahi 2017b, 10). Second, Mizrahi notes that scientism is an epistemological thesis and not a psychological one and that he sets out to show what traditional advocates of scientism should accept, and not what they would accept (2017b, 11).

Say Strong Scientism is false, if only because it is self-refuting and subject to good counter-examples. The questions remain, why think Weak Scientism, particularly the weak version of that view Mizrahi ends up defending in 2017a, is really a form of scientism? And why think advocates of Strong Scientism should accept Weak Scientism?

Take the first question. As Mizrahi’s list of citations at the beginning of 2017a makes clear, there already exist very entrenched linguistic conventions with respect to the meaning of ‘scientism.’ As Mizrahi notes, one such meaning is the pejorative or “persuasive” sense of ‘scientism’ that Mizrahi does not like, which (again as Mizrahi himself points out) is quite pervasive, e.g., scientism is an “exaggerated confidence in science (Williams 2015, 6)” (Mizrahi 2017a, 351), and “an exaggerated kind of deference towards science (Haack, 2007, 17; 18)” (Mizrahi 2017a, 351). Mizrahi also mentions persuasive descriptions of scientism in the work of Pigliucci and Sorrell. Why does this diverse group of philosophers use the word ‘scientism’ in this way? Perhaps because it is simply one of the meanings the word ‘scientism’ has come to have in the English language.

Consider, for example, the entry for ‘scientism’ in the Oxford English Dictionary. It has two main headings. Under the first heading of ‘scientism’ is a descriptive use of the term: “A mode of thought which considers things from a scientific viewpoint.” This meaning of ‘scientism’ is not relevant for our purposes since Weak Scientism is a normative and not a descriptive claim. Under the second heading of ‘scientism’ we have:

Chiefly depreciative [emphasis in the original]. The belief that only knowledge obtained from scientific research is valid, and that notions or beliefs deriving from other sources, such as religion, should be discounted; extreme or excessive faith in science or scientists [emphasis mine]. Also: the view that the methodology used in the natural and physical sciences can be applied to other disciplines, such as philosophy and the social sciences (2017).

For better or worse, something such as the following so-called persuasive definition of scientism is thus one of the meanings the word ‘scientism’ has come to have in the English language:

(Scientism1): having an exaggerated confidence in science or the methods of science.

Presumably, some philosophers use ‘scientism’ in the sense of Scientism1 because they think some contemporary thinkers have an exaggerated confidence in science, it is convenient to have a word for that point of view, and, since there is already a term in the English language which picks out that sort of view, namely, ‘scientism’, philosophers such as Williams, Haack, Sorrell, and Pigliucci reasonably use ‘scientism’ in the sense of Scientism1.

But what does this have to do with the question whether Weak Scientism is really a species of scientism? As we’ve seen, one of the meanings commonly attached to ‘scientism’ is the idea of having an exaggerated or improper view of the power or scope of science. But as Mizrahi also notes in 2017a, there is a second sort of meaning often attached to ‘scientism’:

(Scientism2): the view that states the methods of the natural sciences are the only (reliable) methods for producing knowledge or the methods of the natural sciences should be employed in all of the sciences or all areas of human life.

Mizrahi cites Richard Williams (Mizrahi 2017a, 351) and Alex Rosenberg (2017a, 352) as examples of philosophers who use ‘scientism’ with the meaning identified in Scientism2. In addition, as we saw above, this is (part of) the second entry for ‘scientism’ in the Oxford English Dictionary. This is good evidence that Scientism2 picks out one meaning that ‘scientism’ currently has in the English language.

The prevalence of Scientism2 as a meaning of ‘scientism’ goes some distance towards explaining the commonality of the use of Scientism1 as a meaning of ‘scientism’, since many philosophers, historians, psychologists, sociologists, and natural scientists think it is false that science is the only method for (reliably) producing knowledge or the methods of the natural sciences should be employed in all of the sciences or all areas of human life.

Of course, here, as in other areas of life, what some people think is a vice others think a virtue. So philosophers such as Alex Rosenberg think ‘scientism’ in the sense of Scientism2 is true, but reject that acceptance of Scientism2 represents “an exaggerated confidence in science,” since, in their view, the view that science is the only reliable path to knowledge is simply the sober truth.

What I am calling Scientism2 Mizrahi calls Strong Scientism, a view he thinks has problems (see Mizrahi 2017a, 353-354). Furthermore, Mizrahi argues that Weak Scientism is the view that advocates of Strong Scientism should adopt and the view philosophers who want to defend philosophy against charges of uselessness should attack (2017a, 354). But, as I point out in 2017, there is a huge logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Weak Scientism. To see this, recall that Mizrahi defines Weak Scientism as follows:

(Weak Scientism): Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge (2017a, 354).

In my 2017 response, I suggest that, as we take into account the philosophical premises at play in Mizrahi’s Argument, it turns out Weak Scientism becomes an even weaker thesis. For example, consider a strong interpretation of Weak Scientism:

(Fairly Strong Weak Scientism): Of all the knowledge we have, including non-academic forms of knowledge such as common sense knowledge, personal knowledge, moral knowledge, and religious knowledge, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge.

There is a big logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Fairly Strong Weak Scientism. For Strong Scientism (Scientism2) states that scientific knowledge is the only kind of real knowledge (or the only kind of reliable knowledge). But, for all Fairly Strong Weak Scientism says, scientific knowledge is just barely better, e.g., just barely more reliable, than religious knowledge or philosophical knowledge. There’s a huge logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Fairly Strong Weak Scientism.

As Mizrahi notes (2017a, 354; 356), and to which his practice in 2017a conforms, he is not interested in defending Fairly Strong Weak Scientism. This means that Mizrahi really has something such as the following in mind by Weak Scientism:

(Very Weak Scientism) When it comes to the kinds of knowledge produced within the academy, scientific knowledge is the best.

But there is a big logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Very Weak Scientism.  In fact, as I point out in my 2017 article, given other philosophical presuppositions Mizrahi makes or positions Mizrahi defends in 2017a, the view Mizrahi actually defends in 2017a gets even (and ever) weaker:

(Very, Very Weak Scientism) When it comes to the knowledge that is produced by academic publications, scientific publications are the best.

(Very, Very, Very Weak Scientism): When it comes to the knowledge that is produced by academic journals, knowledge that comes from scientific academic journals is the best.

Now, acceptance of Very, Very, Very Weak Scientism leaves open the possibility that there is philosophical knowledge produced by way of monographs, lectures, and conversations that is better than any sort of scientific knowledge. And, as I point out in my 2017 article, ultimately, something such as Very, Very, Very, Weak Scientism is the view Mizrahi defends in 2017a. Is Very, Very, Very, Weak Scientism really scientism? Given the conventional uses of ‘scientism’ and the huge logical gap between Weak Scientism—even on the strongest reading of the position—and Scientism2, it doesn’t make sense to think of Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism as a species of scientism.

Consider some other reasons for thinking it strange that Weak Scientism counts as a species of scientism. Imagine a person named Alice, about whom, let us say for the sake of argument, the following statements are true: (a) Alice thinks there is a God; (b) she knows the reasons for not thinking there is a God; (c) she has published influential attempted defeaters of the arguments that there is no God; (d) even though she reasonably thinks there are some good, if not compelling, arguments for the existence of God, she thinks it reasonable to believe in God without argumentative evidence; (e) she has published an influential account, by a prestigious academic press, of how a person S can be rational in believing in God, although S does not have good argumentative evidence that God exists; (f) she has published a much discussed argument that belief in God makes better sense of an evolutionary account of the human mind (understood as a reliable constellation of cognitive powers) than does an atheistic evolutionary one, and (g) she thinks that modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century. If believing modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century is (roughly) equivalent to Weak Scientism, then Alice is (roughly) an advocate of Weak Scientism. But it seems odd, to say the least, that Alice—or someone with Alice’s beliefs—should count an advocate (even roughly) of scientism.

One may also reasonably ask Mizrahi why he thinks the position picked put by Weak Scientism is a species of scientism in the first place. One may be inclined to think Weak Scientism is a species of scientism because, like Strong Scientism, Weak Scientism (as formulated by Mizrahi) puts too high a value on scientific knowledge. But Mizrahi won’t define or describe scientism in that way for the reasons he lays out in 2017a.

Given the conventional uses of ‘scientism,’ the huge logical gap between Weak Scientism and Scientism2, and Mizrahi’s refusal to employ a persuasive definition of scientism, it is not clear why Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism should count as a species of scientism. A friendly suggestion: perhaps Mizrahi should simply coin a new word for the position with respect to scientific knowledge and non-scientific forms of academic knowledge he wants to talk about, rather than simply coining a new (and problematic) meaning for ‘scientism.’

Mizrahi’s Argument Does Not Show Why Advocates of Strong Scientism Should Endorse Weak Scientism  

Given Mizrahi’s interest in offering “a defensible definition of scientism” (2017a, 353), which, among other things, means an alternative to Strong Scientism (2017a, 353-354), we can also consider the question, why think advocates of Strong Scientism should adopt Weak Scientism? Mizrahi does not argue in 2017a, for example, that there are (reliable) forms of knowledge other than science. His argument simply presupposes it. But if Mizrahi wants to convince an advocate of Strong Scientism that she should prefer Weak Scientism, Mizrahi can’t presuppose a view the advocate of Strong Scientism believes to be true (particularly, if it’s not even clear that Weak Scientism is a form of scientism).

In addition, as I try to show in my 2017 response, Mizrahi’s Argument relies on other philosophical positions that advocates of Strong Scientism do not accept and Mizrahi does not offer good philosophical arguments for these views. Indeed, more often than not, Mizrahi has simply stipulated a point of view that he needs in order to get Mizrahi’s Argument off the ground, e.g., that we should operationalize what philosophy is or we should operationalize what counts as knowledge in a discipline (for more on these points, see below). If philosophical premises that the advocate of Strong Scientism do not accept are doing the heavy lifting in Mizrahi’s Argument as I claim, premises which are undefended from the perspective of the advocate of Strong Scientism, then it’s not clear why Mizrahi thinks advocates of Strong Scientism should accept Weak Scientism based upon Mizrahi’s Argument.

For even Fairly Strong Weak Scientism is a lot different from the view that advocates of Strong Scientism such as Alex Rosenberg hold. Here’s Rosenberg: “If we’re going to be scientistic, then we have to attain our view of reality from what physics tells us about it. Actually, we’ll have to do more than that: we’ll have to embrace physics as the whole truth about reality” (2011, 20). Indeed, it seems the only reason an advocate of Strong Scientism such as Rosenberg would be even tempted to consider adopting Weak Scientism is because it contains the word ‘scientism.’

But once the advocate of Strong Scientism sees that an advocate of Weak Scientism admits the possibility that there is real knowledge other than what is produced by the natural sciences—indeed, in Mizrahi 2017a and 2017b, Weak Scientism is compatible with the view that common sense knowledge, knowledge of persons, and religious knowledge are each better than scientific knowledge—the advocate of Strong Scientism, at least given their philosophical presuppositions, will reject Weak Scientism out of hand. Given also that Mizrahi has not offered arguments that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge, and given that Mizrahi has not offered arguments for a number of views required for Mizrahi’s defense of Weak Scientism (see below), views that advocates of Strong Scientism reject, Mizrahi also does not show why advocates of Strong Scientism should adopt Weak Scientism.

How Is Weak Scientism by Itself Relevant Where the Philosophy-Is-Useless-Objection Is Concerned?

Mizrahi seems to think Weak Scientism is relevant for assessing the philosophy-is-useless claim. He states: “I propose . . . Weak Scientism is the definition of scientism those philosophers who seek to defend philosophy against accusations of uselessness . . . should attack if they want to do philosophy a real service” (2017, 354). But why think a thing like that?

In his response to my 2017 essay, Mizrahi gets his reader off on the wrong foot by reinterpreting my question as “Does Weak Scientism entail that philosophy is useless?” (2017b, 9; 11). Mizrahi says that I “object to [Mizrahi’s] argument in defense of Weak Scientism by complaining that Weak Scientism does not entail philosophy is useless” (2017b, 11) and he goes on to point out that he did not intend to defend the view that philosophy is useless.

But this is to miss the point of the problem (or question) I raise for Mizrahi’s paper in this section, which is, “how is Weak Scientism by itself relevant where the philosophy-is-useless-objection is concerned?” (Brown 2017, 42). For Weak Scientism itself implies nothing about the degree to which philosophical knowledge is valuable or useful other than stating scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge.

Given Mizrahi’s definition of Weak Scientism, (a) one could accept Weak Scientism and think philosophy is extremely useful (there is no contradiction in thinking philosophy is extremely useful but scientific knowledge is better than, for example, more useful than, philosophical knowledge); (b) one could accept Weak Scientism and think philosophy is not at all useful (one may be thinking philosophical knowledge is real but pretty useless and that scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge); (c) one could obviously reject Weak Scientism and think philosophy very useful (depending upon what one means by ‘philosophy is useful’; more on this point below), and (d) one could reject Weak Scientism and think philosophy useless (as some advocates of Strong Scientism surely do).

Accepting (or rejecting) Weak Scientism is compatible both with thinking philosophy is very useful and with thinking philosophy is useless. So it’s hard to see why Mizrahi thinks “Weak Scientism is the definition of scientism those philosophers who seek to defend philosophy against accusations of uselessness . . . should attack if they want to do philosophy a real service” (2107a, 354).

Contact details: chrisb@utm.edu

References

Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1981.

Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles. Book One. Trans. Anton C. Pegis. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.

Aristotle. Posterior Analytics. Trans. G.R.G. Mure. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Aristotle. On the Parts of Animals. Trans. William Ogle. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. W.D. Ross. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Augustine, Saint. Confessions. Trans. Frank Sheed. 1942; reprint, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006.

Brown, Christopher. “Some Logical Problems for Scientism.” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 85 (2011): 189-200.

Brown, Christopher. “Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s ‘What’s So Bad about Scientism?’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 42-54.

Bourget, David and David J. Chalmers. “What do philosophers believe?” Philosophical Studies 170, 3 (2014): 465-500.

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. 1908; reprint, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995.

Feldman, Richard. Epistemology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003.

Feser, Edward. The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008.

Feser, Edward. “Blinded by Scientism.” Public Discourse. March 9, 2010a. Accessed January 15, 2018. http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1174/.

Feser, Edward. “Recovering Sight after Scientism.” Public Discourse. March 12, 2010b. Accessed January 15, 2018. http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1184/.

Feser, Edward. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. editiones scholasticae, 2014.

Haack, Susan. Defending Science—Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Haack, Susan. “The Real Question: Can Philosophy Be Saved? Free Inquiry (October/November 2017): 40-43.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. God, Philosophy, and Universities. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

Mizrahi, Moti. “What’s So Bad About Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017a): 351-367.

Mizrahi, Moti. “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017b): 9-22.

Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “scientism,” accessed January 10, 2018, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/172696?redirectedFrom=scientism.

Papineau, David. “Is Philosophy Simply Harder than Science?” The Times Literary Supplement On-line. June 1, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. https://goo.gl/JiSci7.

Pieper, Josef. In Defense of Philosophy. Trans. Lothar Krauth. 1966; reprint, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.

Plato. Phaedo. In Five Dialogues. Trans. Grube and Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002.

Plato. Gorgias. Trans. Donald J. Zeyl. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987.

Plato. Republic. Trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Robinson, Daniel N. “Science, Scientism, and Explanation.” In Scientism: the New Orthodoxy. Williams and Robinson, eds. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, 23-40.

Rosenberg, Alex. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2011.

Sorrell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. First edition. London: Routledge, 1994.

Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. Kindle edition. London: Routledge, 2013.

Van Inwagen, Peter. Metaphysics. 4th edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2015.

Williams, Richard. N. and Daniel N. Robinson, eds. Scientism: the New Orthodoxy. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

[1] I’m grateful to James Collier for inviting me to reply to Moti Mizrahi’s “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown” (2017b) and Merry Brown for providing helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

[2] For the sake of consistency and clarity, I number my propositions in this essay based on the numbering of propositions in my 2017 response.

Author Information: Bonnie Talbert, Harvard University, USA, btalbert@fas.harvard.edu

Talbert, Bonnie. “Paralysis by Analysis Revisited.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 6-9.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Sh

Illustration by Lemuel Thomas from the 1936 Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Calendar.
Image by clotho39 via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In his reply to my article “Overthinking and Other Minds: the Analysis Paralysis” (2017), Joshua Bergamin (2017) offers some fascinating thoughts about the nature of our knowledge of other people.

Bergamin is right in summarizing my claim that knowing another person involves fundamentally a know-how, and that knowing all the facts there is to know about a person is not enough to constitute knowing her. But, he argues, conscious deliberate thinking is useful in getting to know someone just as it is useful in learning any type of skill.

Questions of Ability

The example he cites is that of separating an egg’s yoke from its white—expert cooks can do it almost automatically while the novice in the kitchen needs to pay careful, conscious attention to her movements in order to get it right. This example is useful for several reasons. It highlights the fact that learning a skill requires effortful attention while engaging in an activity. It is one thing to think or read about how to separate an egg’s white from its yoke; it is quite another thing to practice it, even if it is slow going and clumsy at first. The point is that practice rather than reflection is what one has to do in order to learn how to smoothly complete the activity, even if the first attempts require effortful attention.[1]

On this point Bergamin and I are in agreement. My insistence that conscious deliberate reflection is rarely a good way to get to know someone is mostly targeted at the kinds of reflection one does “in one’s own head”. My claim is not that we never consciously think about other people, but that consciously thinking about them without their input is not a good way to get to know them.  This leads to another, perhaps more important point, which is that the case of the egg cracking is dissimilar from getting to know another person in some fundamental ways.

Unlike an egg, knowing how to interact with a person requires a back and forth exchange of postures, gestures, words, and other such signals. It is not possible for me to figure out how to interact with you and simply to execute those actions; I have to allow for a dynamic exchange of actions originating from each of us. With the egg, or any inanimate object, I am the only agent causing the sequence of events. With another person, there are two agents, and I cannot simply decide how to make the interaction work like I want it to; I have to have your cooperation. This makes knowing another person a different kind of enterprise than knowing other kinds of things.[2]

I maintain that most of the time, interactions with others are such that we do not need to consciously be thinking about what is going on. In fact, the behavioral, largely nonverbal signals that are sent nearly instantaneously to participants in a conversation occur so quickly that there is rarely time to reflect on them. Nevertheless, Bergamin’s point is that in learning an activity, and thus by extension, in getting to know another person as we learn to interact with her, we may be more conscious of our actions than we are once we know someone well and the interactions “flow” naturally.

Knowing Your Audience

I do not think this is necessarily at odds with my account. Learning how to pace one’s speech to a young child when one is used to speaking to adults might take some effortful attention, and the only way to get to the point where one can have a good conversation (if there is such a thing) with a youngster is to begin by paying attention to the speed at which one talks. I still think that once one no longer has to think about it, she will be better able to glean information from the child and will not have her attention divided between trying to pay attention to both what the child is doing and how she sounds herself.

It is easier to get to know someone if you are not focused on what you have to do to hold up your end of the conversation. But more than whether we are consciously or unconsciously attending to our actions in an interaction, my point is that reflection is one-sided while interaction is not, and it is interaction that is crucial for knowing another person. In interaction, whether our thought processes are unconscious or conscious, their epistemic function is such that they allow us to coordinate our behavior with another person’s. This is the crucial distinction from conscious deliberation that occurs in a non-interactive context.

Bergamin claims that “breakdowns” in flow are more than just disruptive; rather, they provide opportunities to learn how to better execute actions, both in learning a skill and in getting to know another person. And it is true that in relationships, a fight or disagreement can often shed light on the underlying dynamics that are causing tension. But unlike the way you can learn from a few misses how to crack an egg properly, you cannot easily decide how to fix your actions in a relationship without allowing for input from the other party.

Certain breakdowns in communication, or interruptions of the “flow” of a conversation can help us know another person better insofar as they alert us to situations in which things are not going smoothly. But further thinking does not always get us out of the problem–further interacting does. You cannot sort it out in your head without input from the other person.

My central claim is that knowing another person requires interaction and that the interactive context is constitutively different from contexts that require one-sided deliberation rather than back and forth dynamic flows of behavioral signals and other information. However, I also point out that propositional knowledge of various sorts is necessary for knowing another person.

Bergamin is correct to point out that in my original essay I do not elaborate on what if anything propositional, conscious deliberative thinking can add to knowing another person. But elsewhere (2014) I have argued that part of what it means to know someone is to know various things about her and that when we know someone, we can articulate various propositions that capture features of her character.

In the essay under discussion, I focus on the claim that propositional knowledge is not sufficient for knowing another person and that we must start with the kind of knowledge that comes from direct interaction if we are to claim that we know another person. We do also gain useful and crucial propositional knowledge from our interactions as well as from other sources that are also part of our knowledge of others, but without the knowledge that comes only from interaction we would ordinarily claim to know things about a person, rather than to know her.

Bergamin is also right in asserting that my account implies that our interactions with others do not typically involve much thinking in the traditional sense. They are, as he speculates, “immersive, intersubjective events…such that each relationship is different for each of us and to some extent out of our control.”  This is partly true. While I might share a very different relationship to Jamie than you do, chances are that we can both recognize certain features of Jamie as being part of who he is. I was struck by this point at a recent memorial service when people with very different relationships spoke about their loved one, impersonating his accent, his frequently used turns of phrase, his general stubbornness, generosity, larger than life personality and other features that everyone at the service could recognize no matter whether the relationship was strictly professional, familial, casual, lasting decades, etc.

I have tentatively spelled out an account (2014) that suggests that with people we know, there are some things that only the people in the relationship share, such as knowledge of where they had lunch last week and what was discussed. But there is also knowledge that is shared beyond that particular relationship that helps situate that relationship vis-à-vis other, overlapping relationships, i.e., while I share a unique relationship with my mother, and so does my sister-in-law, we can both recognize some features of her that are the same for both of us. Further, my sister–in-law knows that I am often a better judge of what my mother wants for her birthday, since I have known my mother longer and can easily tell that she does not mean it when she says she does not want any gifts this year.

Bergamin’s concluding thoughts about the Heideggerian nature of my project are especially insightful, and I too am still working on the speculative implications of my account, which posits that (in Bergamin’s words), “If people are ‘moving targets,’ then we are not ‘things’ but ‘processes,’ systems that are in constant flux. To know such a process is not to try to nail down the ever-changing facts about it, but involves interacting with it. Yet we who interact are ourselves a similar kind of ‘process,’ and in getting to know somebody we are just as much the known as the knower. Our relationships, therefore, are a kind of identity, that involves us and yet exceeds us — growing and evolving over time.” My hope is that this is a project on which we and many other scholars will continue to make progress.

Contact details: btalbert@fas.harvard.edu

References

Bergamin, Joshua. “To Know and To Be: Second-Person Knowledge and the Intersubjective Self, A Reply to Talbert.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 43-47.

Cleary, Christopher. “Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training.” New York Times,  February 22, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html

Talbert, Bonnie. “Knowing Other People: A Second-person Framework.” Ratio 28, no. 2 (2014): 190–206.

Talbert, Bonnie. “Overthinking and Other Minds: The Analysis Paralysis.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 6 (2017): 1-12.

[1] There is some research that shows that conscious thoughtful reflection, indeed “visualization” can help a person perform an activity better. Visualization has been used to help promote success in sports, business, personal habits, and the like. Process visualization, which is sometimes used with varying degrees of success in athletes, is interesting for my purposes because it does seem to help in performing an activity, or to help with the know-how involved in some athletic endeavors. I do not know why this is the case, and I am a bit skeptical of some of the claims used in this line of reasoning. But I do not think we could use process visualization to help with our interactions with others and get the same kind of results, for the actions of another person are much more unpredictable than the final hill of the marathon or the dismount of a balance beam routine. It is also useful to note that some sports are easier than others to visualize, namely those that are most predictable. For more on this last point and on how imagery can be used to enhance athletic performance, see Christopher Cleary’s “Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training” (2014).

[2] This leads to another point that is not emphasized in my original essay but perhaps should have been. Insofar as I liken getting to know another person to the “flow” one can experience in certain sports, I do not sufficiently point out that “flow” in some sports, namely those that involve multiple people, involves something much more similar to the “know-how” involved in getting to know another person than in sports where there is only one person involved. Interestingly, “team sports” and other multi person events are not generally cited as activities whose success can be significantly improved by visualization.

Vice Ontology, Quassim Cassam

SERRC —  November 16, 2017 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Quassim Cassam, University of Warwick, UK, q.cassam@warwick.ac.uk

Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Ontology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 20-27.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3QE

Please refer to:

Image by Francois Meehan via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

One of the frustrations of trying to make headway with the rapidly expanding literature on epistemic vices is the absence of an agreed list of such vices. Vice epistemologists are more than happy to say what makes a character trait, attitude of way of thinking epistemically vicious and most provide examples of epistemic vices or lists of the kind of thing that have in mind. But these lists tend to be a hotchpotch. Different philosophers provide different lists and while there is some overlap there are also some significant variations. Closed-mindedness is a popular favourite but some vices that appear on some lists fail to appear on others. Here, for example, is Linda Zagzebksi’s list:

intellectual pride, negligence, idleness, cowardice, conformity, carelessness, rigidity, prejudice, wishful thinking, closed-mindedness, insensitivity to detail, obtuseness, and lack of thoroughness (1996: 152).

Confronted by a list like this several questions suggest themselves: why do these items make it onto the list and not others? Why not dogmatism or gullibility? Is idleness really an epistemic vice or a vice in a more general sense? Are all the items on the list equally important or are some more important than others? What is the relationship between the listed vices? It isn’t necessarily a criticism of vice epistemologists that they rarely tackle such questions. They are mainly concerned to develop a theoretical account of the notion of an epistemic vice, and individual vices are more often than not only mentioned for illustrative purposes.

An Order for Vice

But as vice epistemologists get down to listing epistemic vices they need to make it clear on what basis included items have been included and excluded items have been excluded. If some epistemic vices are deemed to be subservient to others it needs to be explained why. As Ian James Kidd notes in his valuable contribution, an important but neglected issue for vice epistemology is taxonomy, and this means having a story to tell about the basis on which epistemic vices can reasonably be grouped and ordered.[1]

Kidd rises to this challenge by drawing on the historically influential notion of a capital vice.[2] Capital vices are ‘source vices’ that give rise to other vices. Kidd asks whether there are capital epistemic vices and gives closed-mindedness as a possible example. According to Heather Battaly, whose view Kidd discusses, closed-mindedness is an unwillingness or inability to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options.[3] One way to be closed-minded is to be dogmatic but Battaly suggests that closed-mindedness is the broader notion: one is dogmatic if one is closed-minded with respect to beliefs one already holds but one can be closed-minded without being dogmatic.

For Battaly, closed-mindedness does not require one already to have made up one’s mind since one can also be closed-minded in how one arrives at one’s beliefs. The upshot is that closed-mindedness is the ‘source of dogmatism’ (Kidd 2017: 14). This doesn’t settle the question whether closed-mindedness is a capital epistemic vice if genuine capital vices have more than one sub-vice.

Still, Kidd reads Battaly’s view of the link between closed-mindedness and dogmatism as providing at least some support for viewing the former as a capital epistemic vice. Furthermore, it looks as though the capitality relation is in this case a conceptual relation. It might be a psychological fact that being closed-minded tends to make a person dogmatic but the postulated connection between closed-mindedness and dogmatism looks conceptual: it is built into the concepts of closed-mindedness and dogmatism that being dogmatic is a way of being closed-minded.

To what are analyses of concepts of specific epistemic vices answerable? One might think: to the nature of those vices themselves but then it needs to be explained how talk of the ‘nature’ of epistemic vices is to be understood. In what sense do such vices have a ‘nature’ that analyses of them capture or fail to capture?

Going Back to Locke

This way of formulating the methodological question should resonate with readers of Locke, not least because it represents the question as turning on the ontology of vice. In Locke’s ontology there is a fundamental distinction between substances and modes. Substances, for Locke, are the ultimate subjects of predication and exist independently of us. Gold and horses are Lockean substances, and our complex ideas of substances aren’t just combinations of simple ideas or observable properties.

They are ideas of ‘distinct particular things subsisting by themselves’ with their own underlying nature that explains why they have the observable properties they have (II.xii.6).[4] Since our ideas of substances are ‘intended to be Representations of Substances, as they really are’ they are answerable to the nature of substances as they really are and aren’t guaranteed to be adequate, that is, to do justice to the actual nature of what they are intended to represent (II.xxx.5).

In contrast, our ideas of modes are ideas of qualities or attributes that can only exist as the qualities or attributes of a substance. Modes are dependent existences. Simple modes are combinations of the same simple idea whereas mixed modes combine ideas of several different kinds.[5] So, for example, theft is a mixed mode since the idea of theft is the idea of the concealed change of possession of something without the consent of the proprietor. Locke’s key claim about ideas of modes is that they are ‘voluntary Collections of simple Ideas, which the Mind puts together, without any reference to any real Archetypes’ (II.xxxi.3). It follows that these ideas can’t fail to be adequate since, as Michael Ayers puts it on Locke’s behalf, we form these ideas ‘without the need to refer to reality’ (1991: 57).[6] Take the idea of courage, which Locke regards as a mixed mode:

He that at first put together the Idea of Danger perceived, absence of disorder from Fear, sedate consideration of what was justly to be done, and executing it without that disturbance, or being deterred by the danger of it, had certainly in his Mind that complex Idea made up of that Combination: and intending it to be nothing else, but what it is; nor to have any other simple Ideas, but what it hath, it could not also be but an adequate idea: and laying this up in his Memory, with the name Courage annexed to it, to signifie it to others, and denominate from thence any Action he should observe to agree with it, had thereby a Standard to measure and dominate Actions by, as they agreed to it’ (II.xxxi.3).

When it comes to our ideas of substances it is reality that sets the standard for our ideas. With mixed modes, it is our ideas that set the standard for reality, so that an action is courageous just if it has the features that our idea of courage brings together. Locke doesn’t deny that ideas of mixed modes can be formed by experience and observation. For example, seeing two men wrestle can give one the idea of wrestling. For the most part, however, ideas of modes are the products of invention, of the ‘voluntary putting together of several simple Ideas in our own minds’ (II.xxii.9), without prior observation.

An interesting consequence of what might be described as Locke’s conceptualism about modes is that there is in a sense no external standard by reference to which disputes about what is and is not part of the idea of mixed modes can be settled.[7] Again Locke uses the example of courage to make his point.

Suppose that one person X’s idea of a courageous act includes the idea of ‘sedate consideration’ of ‘what is fittest to be done’ (II.xxx.4). This is the idea of ‘an Action which may exist’ (ibid.) but another person Y has a different idea according to which a courageous action is one that is performed ‘without using one’s Reason or Industry’ (ibid.). Such actions are also possible, and Y’s idea is as ‘real’ as X’s. An action that displays courage by X’s lights might fail to do so by Y’s lights and vice versa but it seems that the only respect in which Y’s idea might count as ‘wrong, imperfect, or inadequate’ (II.xxxi.5) is if Y intends his idea of courage to be the same as X’s. Apart from that, both ideas are equally legitimate and can both be used in the classification of actions.

In fact, this isn’t quite Locke’s view since it omits one important qualification. At one point he argues that:

Mixed Modes and Relations, having no other reality, but what they have in the Minds of Men, there is nothing more required to those kinds of Ideas to make them real, but that they be so framed, that there be the possibility of existing comformable to them. These Ideas being themselves Archetypes, cannot differ from their Archetypes, and so cannot be chimerical, unless any one of them will jumble together in them inconsistent Ideas (II.xxx.4).

On reflection, however, consistency isn’t enough for our complex ideas of mixed modes to be ‘real’. For these ideas not to be ‘fantastical’ they must also ‘have a Conformity to the ordinary signification of the Name’ (II.xxx.4). So it would count against Y’s (or X’s) conception of courage that it doesn’t accord with the ordinary meaning of common usage of words like ‘courage’ or ‘courageous’.

Return to the Present

What is the relevance of Locke’s discussion for the issues that Kidd is concerned with? A natural thought is that epistemic vices like closed-mindedness and dogmatism are, like the idea of courage, mixed modes. As noted previously, there is room for debate about how these epistemic vices are to be understood and how they are related. Starting with dogmatism, here is one account by Roberts and Wood:

A doctrine is a belief about the general character of the world, or some generally important aspect of the world, which bears the weight of many other beliefs. Thus a mother who refuses, in the face of what should be compelling evidence, to give up her belief that her son is innocent of a certain crime, is perhaps stubborn, obstinate, or blinded by her attachment, but she is not on that account dogmatic. By contrast, someone who holds irrationally to some fundamental doctrine, such as the tenets of Marxism or capitalism or Christianity, or some broad historical thesis such as that the Holocaust did not occur, is dogmatic (2007: 194-5).

Battaly sees things slightly differently. On her view, it is possible for a person to be dogmatic even in relation to relatively trivial beliefs or beliefs that aren’t representative of ideologies or doctrines. One can be dogmatic about whether one’s pet is well-behaved or whether one’s son is innocent of a crime. Roberts and Woods’ conception of dogmatism is narrow whereas Battaly’s conception is broad. Who is right?

If being ‘right’ is a matter of conceiving of dogmatism is a way that does justice to its real or true nature then the Lockean conceptualist says that there is no such thing. As a mixed mode, dogmatism is a voluntary collection of simple ideas. Roberts and Wood are free to stipulate that dogmatism has to do with doctrine and Battaly is free to reject this stipulation. Relative to Roberts and Woods’ complex idea of dogmatism the belief that one’s pet is well-behaved is too trivial to be dogmatic. Relative to Battaly’s idea of dogmatism the belief that one’s son is innocent of a certain crime might be dogmatic.

However, the disagreement between the broad and narrow accounts of dogmatism is, on a Lockean reading, a not very deep disagreement between two policies about the use of the term ‘dogmatic’. The most one can say is that the narrow account is closer to ordinary usage, and this might be a case for preferring that account. Beyond that, it’s not clear what is really at issue.

Turning to the relationship between dogmatism and closed-mindedness, Kidd bases his proposal that closed-mindedness is a capital vice of which dogmatism is an offspring on the idea that dogmatism is a sub-class of closed-mindedness: one is dogmatic if one is closed-minded with respect to beliefs one already holds but closed-mindedness doesn’t require one already to have made up one’s mind. Suppose, to borrow Battaly’s example, that P is the proposition that there was no Native American genocide. Even if a person starts out with no prior belief about the truth or falsity of P, their inquiry into its truth or falsity can still be closed-minded. They might, for example, systematically ignore evidence that P and look for evidence against P.

But if this is a how the inquirer behaves then a natural question would be: why is their inquiry into the truth or falsity of P closed-minded in just this way? And the answer that suggests itself is that they are closed-minded in just this way because they already really believe that P. So we do not have here a compelling case of closed-mindedness without the subject already having made up their mind about the topic at hand. The belief that P is implicit in their epistemic conduct and this means that their dogmatism can’t be distinguished from closed-mindedness in quite the way that Kidd recommends. Ordinarily, dogmatism and closed-mindedness aren’t clearly distinguished and there is bound to be an element of stipulation in any proposed way of carving up the territory.

Be Natural – Is There Anything Else?

This is not necessarily an objection to the notion of a capital vice. It is permissible for a vice epistemologist to try to bring some order to the chaos of ordinary thinking and represent one vice as an offshoot of another. It is important to recognize, however, that such proposed regimentations are just that: an attempt to introduce a degree of systematicity into a domain that lacks it. It’s helpful to compare the classification of epistemic vices with the classification of so-called ‘natural modes’. A criticism of Locke’s theory of mixed modes is that it ignores natural modes.[8] Examples of non-natural modes are the ideas of a lie, democracy and property. Lies are lies regardless of their underlying causes.[9]

In contrast, although diseases are modes, ‘the name of a disease will normally be introduced, and then be generally applied, on the basis of repeated experience of a set of symptoms, and on the assumption that on each occurrence they have the same common cause, whether a microbe or an underlying physiological condition’ (Ayers 1991: 91). However, there is a still a sense in which the individuality and boundary conditions of diseases are imposed by us. So, for example, diseases can be classified by bodily region, by organ, by effect, by the nature of the disease process, by aetiology, or on several other bases.[10] There is nothing that compels us to adopt one of these systems of classification rather than another and there is no absolute sense in which one particular system of classification is the ‘right’ one. With diseases and other such modes there is still the relativity to human interests and concerns that marks them out as modes rather than substances.

To make things even more complicated there are some modes that fall somewhere in between the natural and the non-natural. For example, one might take the view that perception and memory are such ‘intermediate’ modes. Perception is mechanism-dependent in the sense that it isn’t really perception unless some underlying physiological mechanism is involved. Plainly, however, no specific mechanism need be involved in all cases of perception. Human perception and dolphin perception both involve and require the operation of physiological mechanisms but the precise mechanisms will no doubt be very different in the two cases. The necessity of some mechanism is a respect in which intermediate modes are ‘natural’. The fact that no particular mechanism is required is a respect in which intermediate modes are akin to non-natural modes.[11]

In these terms, are epistemic vices natural, non-natural or intermediate modes? The discussion so far, with its emphasis on choice and stipulation in the classification of epistemic vices, might be thought to imply that such vices are non-natural but there is room for debate about this. Just as all manifestations of a particular disease are assumed to have a common cause at the level of physiology so it might be argued that the identification and attribution of epistemic vices is based on the assumption of a common psychological cause or mechanism. Epistemic vices are in this respect, and perhaps others too, like diseases.

Closed-mindedness is a case in point. There is the view that being closed-minded isn’t just a matter of being unwilling or unable to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options. A closed-minded person also has to have what Kruglanski calls a high need for ‘closure’, that is a low tolerance for confusion and ambiguity.[12] It might be argued that this is the distinctive psychological component of closed-mindedness that causally explains the various cognitive dispositions with which the trait is closely associated. In this case the psychological component is a motive. Would this justify the classification of closed-mindedness as a natural mode, an epistemic vice whose attribution in different cases is based on the assumption of a common motivational core that functions as a common psychological cause?

If so, then dogmatism is different from closed-mindedness in precisely this respect. What motivates a dogmatic commitment to a political doctrine might be a psychological need for closure but other motives are also possible. For example, a person’s dogmatism about a particular political doctrine might be a reflection of the ways in which a commitment to it is part of their identity, their sense of who they are.

Whether or not this is the right account of dogmatism it is doubtful that the motivational account applies epistemic vices generally. There are epistemic vices like stupidity, understood as foolishness rather than lack of intelligence, which lack an obvious motivational component. People aren’t motivated to be stupid in the way that they are supposedly motivated to be closed-minded. And even in the latter case one might wonder whether the desire for closure is strictly necessary or, even if it is, whether it is an independently identifiable component of closed-mindedness. One might count as having a high need for closure because one is closed-minded. Here, the attribution of the motive follows rather than underpins the attribution of the trait.

What Is a Vice of Knowledge?

So one should be careful about representing epistemic vices as natural modes. There is still the option of representing them as intermediate modes but it’s not clear whether epistemic vices are mechanism-dependent in anything like the way that perception is mechanism-dependent. This issue merits further discussion. In the meantime, the one thing that seems reasonably clear is that epistemic vices are epistemically harmful and blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible.[13] The sense in which they are epistemically harmful is that they systematically obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. However, there is considerable room for maneuver when it comes to defining the individual character traits, attitudes or ways of thinking that are epistemically harmful.

Where does this leave the notion of a capital vice and the project of identifying some epistemic vices as capital vices and others as offspring vices? To the extent that ordinary ways of talking about vices like closed-mindedness and dogmatic are imprecise there is a lot to be said for the project of establishing clear lines of demarcation and relations of priority between different epistemic vices.

However, any such project needs to be informed by a proper conception of what epistemic vices are, ontologically speaking, and a well-founded view as to whether the project consists in the discovery of real distinctions that are there anyway or rather in the imposition of boundaries that only exist in virtue of our recognition of them. To think of epistemic vices as modes is to be committed to an ‘impositionist’ reading of the capital vices project. The point at which this project starts to look suspect is the point at which it is conceived of as fundamentally a project of discovery.[14] The discovery in this domain is that there is, in a certain sense, nothing to discover.[15]

Contact details: q.cassam@warwick.ac.uk

References

Ayers, M. R. Locke, Volume 2: Ontology. London: Routledge, 1991.

Battaly, H. “Closed-Mindedness and Intellectual Vice,” Keynote Address delivered at the Harms and Wrongs in Epistemic Practice conference, University of Sheffield, 4 July 2017.

Cassam, Q. “Parfit on Persons.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 93 (1993): 17-37.

Cassam, Q. “Vice Epistemology.” The Monist, 88 (2016): 159-80.

Kidd, I., “Capital Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6 (2017): 11-17.

Kruglanski, A. W. The Psychology of Closed-Mindedness. New York: Psychology Press, 2004.

Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Perry, D. L. “Locke on Mixed Modes, Relations, and Knowledge.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 5 (1967): 219-35.

Robbins, S. L, Robbins, J. H. & Scarpelli, D. G. “Classification of Diseases.” Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/human-disease/Classifications-of-diseases, 2017.

Roberts, R. C. & Wood, W. J. Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Zagzebski, L. Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[1] ‘Vice epistemology’, as I understand it, is the philosophical study of the nature, identity and significance of epistemic vices. See Cassam 2016. ‘Vice epistemologists’ are philosophers who work on, or in, vice epistemology. Notable vice epistemologists include Heather Battaly, Ian Kidd and Alessandra Tanesini.

[2] Kidd 2017.

[3] Battaly 2017.

[4] All references in this form are to a book, chapter and section of Locke 1975, which was originally published in 1689.

[5] Locke’s examples of mixed modes include beauty, theft, obligation, drunkenness, a lie, hypocrisy, sacrilege, murder, appeal, triumph, wrestling, fencing, boldness, habit, testiness, running, speaking, revenge, gratitude, polygamy, justice, liberality, and courage. This list is from Perry 1967.

[6] Locke illustrates the arbitrariness of mixed modes by noting that we have the complex idea of patricide but no special idea for the killing of a son or a sheep.

[7] There is more on ‘conceptualism’ in Cassam 1993.

[8] For a helpful discussion of this issue see Ayers 1991, chapter 8. My understanding of Locke is heavily indebted to Ayers’ commentary.

[9] See Ayers 1991: 97.

[10] For more on the classification of diseases see Robbins, Robbins and Scarpelli 2017.

[11] This paragraph is a summary of the discussion of intermediate modes in Ayers 1991: 96-7.

[12] Kruglanski 2004: 6-7.

[13] This is the essence of what I call ‘obstructivism’ about epistemic vice, the view that epistemic vices are blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible character traits, attitudes or ways of thinking that systematically obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. For obstructivism, epistemic vices aren’t delineated by their motives.

[14] I’m not suggesting that this is how Kidd conceives of the project. His approach is more in keeping with impositionism.

[15] Thanks to Heather Battaly and Ian James Kidd for helpful comments.