Author Information: Christopher M. Brown, University of Tennessee, Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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In 2017a, 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.
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).
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 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.
 For the sake of consistency and clarity, I number my propositions in this essay based on the numbering of propositions in my 2017 response.