Archives For scientism

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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

Please refer to:

Image by Chase Elliott Clark via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For some reason, Mizrahi renders premise 14 as

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details: chrisb@utm.edu

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.

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

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

[2] See Gorgias 507a-508a.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Nz

Please refer to:

Image credit: /\ \/\/ /\, via flickr

In “What’s So Bad about Scientism?” (Mizrahi 2017), I argue that Weak Scientism, the view that “Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017, 354; emphasis in original) is a defensible position. That is to say, Weak Scientism “can be successfully defended against objections” (Mizrahi 2017, 354). In his response to Mizrahi (2017), Christopher Brown (2017) provides more objections against Weak Scientism, and thus another opportunity for me to show that Weak Scientism is a defensible position, which is what I will do in this reply. In fact, I think that I have already addressed Brown’s (2017) objections in Mizrahi (2017), so I will simply highlight these arguments here.

In particular, Brown’s (2017) objections consist of raising the following questions as challenges to my defense of Weak Scientism:

1. Is Weak Scientism strong enough to count as scientism?
2. Does Weak Scientism entail that philosophy is useless?
3. Does my defense of Weak Scientism rest on controversial philosophical assumptions?
3. Is my argument in defense of Weak Scientism a philosophical or a scientific argument?
5. Why think that deductive rules of inference cannot be proved valid in a non-circular way?
6. What’s wrong with persuasive definitions of scientism?

In what follows, I will address these challenges in order. I will argue that Brown’s (2017) attempt to cast doubt on my defense of Weak Scientism fails to undermine it; Weak Scientism remains a defensible position and the one that advocates of scientism should hold.

Before I get into the details of Brown’s (2017) objections, I would like to make a general point about his argumentative strategy. Brown’s objections to my defense of Weak Scientism consist of casting doubt on my defense by entertaining alternative possibilities or “what ifs.” For example, in an attempt to undermine the bibliometric data on research output and research impact, which show that “scientific knowledge is better—in terms of research output (i.e. more publications) and research impact (i.e. more citations)—than non-scientific knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017, 358), Brown (2017, 47) invites us to consider the possibility that (following Papineau 2017) “it is simply harder to arrive at philosophical knowledge than scientific knowledge” or that (following Aristotle) “a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things” (Brown 2017, 48). But why think that it is harder to produce philosophical knowledge than scientific knowledge? Brown does not tell us.

If anything, producing scientific knowledge typically takes more time, effort, money, people, and resources (think of large-scale scientific projects, such as the Human Genome Project and the Large Hadron Collider). This means that scientific knowledge is harder to produce than non-scientific knowledge. And why think that the “Aristotelian epistemological axiom: less certain knowledge […] about a nobler subject […] is, all other things being equal, more valuable than more certain knowledge […] about a less noble subject” (Brown 2017, 50) is true? Brown does not tell us. Nor does he tell us what it even means for one item of knowledge to be more or less “noble” than another. Isn’t knowledge of the origin of life and the universe “noble” enough? Perhaps Aristotle is wrong and Kant is right that knowledge about “the starry heavens above” is just as noble as knowledge about “the moral law within” (Kant 1788/2015, 129).

My general point, then, is that Brown’s (2017) argumentative strategy of casting doubt on my defense of Weak Scientism by entertaining alternative possibilities is not sufficient to undermine my defense. In order to pose a serious challenge to my defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere “what ifs,” especially since the question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge is a question that can be answered empirically. That is, we can compare the track record of scientific disciplines to that of non-scientific disciplines in order to find out which has been more successful in terms of producing knowledge (Mizrahi 2017, 355-356). As far as the track record of philosophy is concerned, for instance, it is “a track record that is marked by an abundance of alternative theories and serious problems for those theories” (Mizrahi 2016, 205). Brown (2017, 49) will insist that “philosophical methodologies […] differ in kind from the consensus-inviting methodologies of empirical science,” but many philosophers would probably disagree with that, for they see the lack of consensus, and thus progress, in philosophy as a serious problem (see, e.g., Chalmers 2015).[1]

1. Is Weak Scientism strong enough to count as scientism?

For Brown (2017, 42), the answer to the first question is “no” because “one could accept Weak Scientism and not only agree that philosophical knowledge exists (as Mizrahi notes), but also think philosophical knowledge is extremely valuable, indeed, nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge itself.” Even if Brown (2017) is right about this, it is not clear how it is supposed to follow from this that Weak Scientism is not “really” scientism, or that it is not strong enough to count as scientism. After all, one of the problems with the scientism debate is precisely the meaning of the term ‘scientism’ (Mizrahi 2017, 351-353). Without a clear understanding of what scientism is, and Brown (2017) does not provide one, it is not clear on what grounds Brown can say what is “really” scientism and what is not “really” scientism.

Brown (2017, 42) also argues that Weak Scientism is not “really” scientism because “traditional advocates of scientism, such as Alex Rosenberg (see, e.g., 2011),” and “those who think philosophy is useless, such as Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (see, e.g., 2010),” would find Weak Scientism not “quite strong enough to communicate their own (negative) attitudes toward philosophy or philosophical knowledge or non-scientific forms of knowledge more generally.” As I point out in Mizrahi (2017, 353), however,

the focus of this paper [Mizrahi (2017)] is not what self-professed adherents of scientism actually say or have said. Rather, the focus of this paper [Mizrahi (2017)] is what an adherent of scientism should say. In other words, the aim of this paper is to articulate a defensible definition of scientism to replace the straw man that is (SP) [i.e., “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture” (Sorell 2013, x)].

And even if Brown (2017, 42) is right about “traditional advocates of scientism” finding Weak Scientism not strong enough for their taste, it is not clear how this is supposed to imply that Weak Scientism is not “really” scientism, or that it is not strong enough to count as scientism. After all, if the (negative) attitudes toward non-scientific knowledge of Rosenberg, Hawking, and others are indefensible or unwarranted, then they should revise their attitudes. Their attitudes do not determine what scientism is, for scientism is an epistemological thesis, not a psychological one (Peels 2017).

For these reasons, Brown (2017) fails to provide good reasons for thinking that the answer to the first question is “no.” Indeed, Peels (2017, 10) finds my Weak Scientism “fairly strong,” for it is the view that scientific knowledge is simply the best; better than all the rest (to borrow from Tina Turner). Whether “traditional advocates of scientism” (Brown 2017, 42) would accept Weak Scientism is beside the point. As far as my defense of Weak Scientism is concerned (Mizrahi 2017), what matters is what they should accept (given the evidence in support of Weak Scientism).

2. Does Weak Scientism entail that philosophy is useless?

Brown (2017) points out that Weak Scientism does not entail that philosophy is useless. He is right about that, of course, but I do not set out to defend the charge that philosophy is useless in Mizrahi (2017). Rather, in Mizrahi (2017), I set out to defend Weak Scientism. In fact, I explicitly say that (Mizrahi 2017, 356):

It is also important to keep in mind that Weak Scientism does not amount to a denial of non-scientific knowledge. On Weak Scientism, there is knowledge other than scientific knowledge; it’s just that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge.

According to Weak Scientism, of all the academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines, including scientific disciplines like astrophysics and non-scientific disciplines like philosophy, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge we have (emphasis in original).

Accordingly, to object to my argument in defense of Weak Scientism by complaining that Weak Scientism does not entail that philosophy is useless is to misunderstand my overall argument in Mizrahi (2017).

So I agree with Brown (2017) that the answer to the second question is “no.” But that’s because I have no interest in defending the charge that philosophy is useless. In Mizrahi (2017), my aim is to show that Weak Scientism is defensible. If I am right, then Weak Scientism is how we should understand scientism as an epistemological thesis, regardless of whether scientism has been understood in this way by parties to the scientism debate in philosophy.

3. Does my defense of Weak Scientism rest on controversial philosophical assumptions?

Brown (2017, 44) thinks that my defense of Weak Scientism rests on a few “controversial philosophical assumptions.” According to Brown (2017), I “assume” that

(a). Work produced by professional philosophers is a proxy for philosophical knowledge.
(b). The scientism debate in philosophy is about academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines.
(c). Academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines can be measured.
(d). Publications are reliable indicators of academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines.
(e). Journal articles are reliable indicators of academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines.
(f). Academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines can be treated equally for the purpose of quantitative comparisons.
(g). One theory can be said to be qualitatively better than another.
(h). One theory can be said to be qualitatively better than another in terms of its explanatory, predictive, and instrumental success.
(i). Academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines can be treated equally for the purpose of qualitative comparisons.

Now, is it accurate to say that (a)-(i) are “controversial philosophical assumptions”? If so, in what sense are (a)-(i) “controversial philosophical assumptions”?

First, to call (a)-(i) “assumptions” is inaccurate and uncharitable, since an assumption is a statement that is taken as true without justification or support. In Mizrahi (2017), however, I do provide some support for (a)-(i). For example, in support of (a), I say the following (Mizrahi 2017, 356):

As Baggini and Stangroom (2005, 6) point out, this ‘question [namely, what exactly makes something philosophy?] is too large to be properly answered [in a book],’ let alone a journal article. Sytsma and Livengood (2016, Ch. 2), for example, discuss six competing accounts of what makes something philosophical. This is why, for the purposes of this paper, I have operationalized ‘philosophy’ as simply ‘what [professional] philosophers do’ (Sparshott 1998, 20). Arguably, as far as answering the question ‘What makes X philosophical?’ goes, that may be the best we can do (Lauer 1989, 16).

In other words, I argue that we should operationalize “X is a work of philosophy” as “X is produced by professional philosopher(s)” because that is the best we can do; all the other accounts of what makes X philosophical are problematic. Contrary to what Brown seems to think, then, I have operationalized “X is a work of philosophy” in the least controversial way (see Sytsma and Livengood 2016, Ch. 2). Now, Brown may find this unsatisfactory and he may disagree with what I say in support of (a)-(i), but that does not change the fact that I do support these statements. To call them “assumptions,” then, is inaccurate and uncharitable.

Second, Brown criticizes what I count as work in philosophy but he does not offer an alternative account for what counts as philosophy. He simply asserts, without argument, that my so-called “assumptions” are philosophical. But he does not tell us what makes something philosophical. Since he objects to my operationalization of what is philosophical in terms of what professional philosophers produce, I suppose he would not want to appeal to it as an account of what makes something philosophical. In that case, it is not clear on what grounds Brown can claim that (a)-(i) are “philosophical.”

In that respect, it is worth noting how strange it looks for someone who wants to defend philosophy from accusations of uselessness to object to (a). After all, if one wants to show that work in philosophy is useful, one should want to be able to show that work done by professional philosophers is useful in some sense. Accordingly, whether he accepts (a) or not, Brown should accept (a) insofar as he wants to defend philosophy from accusations of uselessness, since by showing that the work of professional philosophers is useful, he could thereby show that philosophy is useful.

Third, just as he asserts without argument that (a)-(i) are “philosophical assumptions,” Brown also asserts without much argument that (a)-(i) are “controversial assumptions.” Take, for instance, his discussion of (a). He simply asserts, without argument, that my way of thinking about knowledge is “philosophically controversial” (Brown 2017, 44), but he does not tell us why it is controversial (or why it is philosophical, for that matter). As I point out in Mizrahi (2017, 353), 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.

Likewise, in his discussion of my alleged “third assumption,” namely, (c), Brown (2017, 45) simply asserts, without argument, that “thinking we can measure quantitatively the amount of knowledge across academic disciplines is itself philosophically controversial” (emphasis in original). He does not tell us what makes this alleged “assumption” philosophical. Nor does he tell us what makes this alleged “assumption” controversial. In fact, 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).[2]

Brown (2017) seems to think that any statement that can be subjected to doubt is thereby controversial. For in his discussion of my alleged “controversial assumptions,” he entertains possibilities that would (if true) cast doubt on them. For instance, in his discussion of (d), Brown (2017, 46) suggests that teaching could be “a means of passing on knowledge.” Brown seems to be confusing here “passing on knowledge” or sharing knowledge with producing knowledge. 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. After all, philosophy, or the humanities in general, do not have a monopoly on teaching. Teaching occurs in science departments as well, of course. As Beale (2017, 67) puts it, the scientism debate is about “the idea that science, or the scientific method, is superior to all other modes of inquiry.”

Even if Brown (2017) is right about teaching somehow being a mode of inquiry distinct from science, the mere fact that one can cast doubt on a statement does not mean that the statement is controversial. By this criterion, the claim that Barack Obama is a United States citizen is controversial because some persistently doubt it and refuse to believe that he was born in Hawai’i. Likewise, the claim that there is an external world would also be controversial, on Brown’s criterion of controversy in terms of casting doubt, for what if we are all brains in vats. In other words, there is a difference between being doubtful and being controversial. Simply casting doubt on (a)-(i) is not sufficient for making them controversial.

In fact, Brown’s (2017) criterion for controversy in terms of casting doubt would make all of philosophy controversial, and thus objectionable by his own lights. For he tries to show that “a number of serious philosophical objections remain for the argumentative strategy Mizrahi employs to defend Weak Scientism” (Brown 2017, 50) by casting doubt on the premises of my argument, and then claim that they are controversial. But if being doubtful makes a claim controversial, then almost all of philosophy would be controversial, since almost all philosophical theories can be, and have been, subjected to doubt (Mizrahi 2016). Given the track record of philosophy, and Brown’s criterion of controversy in terms of casting doubt, then, we would have to conclude that most philosophical theories are controversial. This is a result that Brown would not want to accept, I take it.

For these reasons, Brown (2017) fails to provide good reasons for thinking that the answer to the third question is “yes.” What Brown labels as “assumptions” are not really assumptions, since I do support the statements he thinks are “assumptions.” What Brown labels as “philosophical” is not really philosophical, or at least he is not in a position 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). What he labels as “controversial” is not really controversial, or at least Brown does not give us a good reason to think that, since simply finding ways to cast doubt on a statement is not sufficient for making it controversial.

4. Is my argument in defense of Weak Scientism a philosophical or a scientific argument?

To Brown (2017, 51), my “argument [in defense of Weak Scientism] rather looks like a philosophical argument” (emphasis added). As I have mentioned above, however, Brown does not give us an account of what makes something philosophical, and he rejects my operationalization of the philosophical as that which professional philosophers do, so it is not clear on what grounds Brown can assert that my argument is philosophical (other than the fact that it simply “looks like” a philosophical argument to him). As I point out in (Mizrahi 2017, 356), “just as the mere fact that an argument (e.g. William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument) draws on scientific theories (e.g. the Big Bang theory) does not make that argument a scientific argument, the mere fact that an argument draws on philosophical assumptions does not make that argument a philosophical argument” (emphasis in original).

In another place, rather than claim that my argument “looks like a philosophical argument” (Brown 2017, 51) to him, Brown suggests that my argument is not scientific. As Brown (2017, 51) writes, “in order for Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism to count as science, the background philosophical assumptions he employs need to be largely uncontroversial for the community of thinkers to which his argument is addressed” (emphasis in original). Brown seems to think that an argument is scientific only if an audience of peers finds the premises of that argument uncontroversial.

As I have mentioned above, Brown’s criterion for what makes something controversial (in terms of casting doubt) is too broad, since it makes anything that can be doubted controversial. But let us grant, for the sake of argument, Brown’s criterion of controversy and consider the following common scenario. A scientist presents a paper at a conference. Based on the results of her research, she argues that p. The audience, which consists of her academic peers, raises questions about her methods, findings, and conclusion during the Q&A session. On Brown’s criterion of controversy, the premises of the scientist’s argument are controversial, since they are met with doubt from the audience. And on Brown’s condition for an argument being scientific, the scientist’s argument is not scientific, since her audience does not find the premises of her argument uncontroversial.

To give a concrete example from the history of science, on Brown’s criteria for “controversial” and “scientific argument,” Darwin’s The Origin of Species contains no scientific arguments, since it was met with criticism, doubt, and even “controversy” in the scientific community following its publication in 1859 (Francis 2007, 61-76). A more recent example is string theory. On Brown’s criteria for “controversial” and “scientific argument,” we would have to say that arguments for string theory are not scientific arguments, despite the fact that the arguments for the theory are put forth by physicists (e.g., Edward Witten), the theory is supposed to explain natural phenomena (e.g., strong nuclear force and interactions), it incorporates other scientific theories (e.g., general relativity), it guides scientific research in physics (Becker et al. 2007), and it is currently being tested experimentally (e.g., at the Optical Search for QED Vacuum Bifringence, Axions and Photon Regeneration experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider).

Accordingly, Brown’s (2017) criterion of controversy 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. For these reasons, Brown fails to show that my argument in defense of Weak Scientism is a philosophical argument or that it is not a scientific argument.

5. Why think that deductive rules of inference cannot be proved valid in a non-circular way?

One of the objections I defend Weak Scientism from in Mizrahi (2017) is the charge of vicious circularity. The charge of vicious circularity is this (Mizrahi 2017, 355):

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

In defense of Weak Scientism against (O2), I said that (Mizrahi 2017, 362):

the problem with (O2) is that it is not an objection against Weak Scientism per se but against any inferential way of knowing. This is because even “deductive inference is only defensible by appeal to deductive inference” (Ladyman 2002, 49), as Lewis Carroll’s “What the Tortoise said to Achilles” (1895) makes clear (emphasis in original).

In other words, if (O2) were true, then producing knowledge by inference would be viciously circular, whether in science, philosophy, or any other field.

Now, Brown’s (2017, 52) objection against my defense of Weak Scientism from (O2) consists in raising the possibility that “we come to know the validity of deductive rules of inference such as modus ponens” in “some non-inferential mode.” As I have already pointed out in Mizrahi (2017), however, to say that rules of inference can be known to be valid “by some non-inferential mode of knowing” (Brown 2017, 52), such as intuition, is to give up on the attempt to prove the validity of rules of inference, since a proof just is a deductively valid argument, i.e., an inference in which the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises (Mizrahi 2017, 362-363), whereas an intuition, whatever it is (Mizrahi 2014), is not a deductively valid argument.

Moreover, recall that Brown’s criterion for a statement being controversial is that the statement can be subjected to doubt. By this criterion, then, Brown’s (2017, 52) claim that “we come to know the validity of deductive rules of inference such as modus ponens” in “some non-inferential mode” is doubtful, and thus controversial. This is because there are putative counterexamples to deductive rules of inference, such as modus ponens (Lycan 1994), as well as to argument forms that are taken to be deductively valid, such as hypothetical syllogism (Mizrahi 2013), i.e., examples of arguments that should be valid, if modus ponens and hypothetical syllogism are valid, but that seem invalid, as I point out in Mizrahi (2017).

Accordingly, Brown (2017) fails to show that deductive rules of inference can be proved valid without relying on those very rules of inference (Psillos 1999, 86). For this reason, his objection against my defense of Weak Scientism from (O2) misses the mark.

6. What’s wrong with persuasive definitions of scientism?

In Mizrahi (2017), I argue that (SP) [i.e., “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture” (Sorell 2013, x)] is a persuasive definition of scientism. In my discussion of persuasive definitions, I give the example of defining abortion as murder as an example of a persuasive definition (Mizrahi 2017, 352). Brown (2017, 52) uses this example in his attempt to show that persuasive definitions could be the “conclusions of deductive arguments.” Of course, not all deductive arguments are good arguments. A deductive argument can be invalid or unsound. But let’s look at Brown’s argument for the conclusion that “abortion is murder” in order to see if it avoids transferring “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), “condemning […] the subject matter of the definiendum” (Hurley 2015, 101), or “presupposing an unaccepted definition” (Macagno & Walton 2014, 205).

Brown’s (2017, 53) argument for the persuasive definition “abortion is murder” runs as follows:

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

Now, Brown may have intended this argument to be a deductive argument, but it is not valid. Notice the unwarranted shift from “human being” in (14) to “person” in (15), and then in (16). The former is a biological term for a member of the species Homo sapiens, whereas the latter is a legal term that comes with rights, such as the right to life. This, of course, is one of the key issues in the abortion debate, i.e., whether human fetuses are human persons that have a right to life. To simply assume that as a premise in an argument for the conclusion that “abortion is murder” is to presuppose “an unaccepted definition” (Macagno & Walton 2014, 205). So, unless we assume that “human being” and “person” mean the same thing, which they don’t, (16) does not necessarily follows from (14) and (15), and thus Brown’s argument for “abortion is murder” is invalid due to this equivocation on “human being” and “person.”

Moreover, notice how the emotionally charged term “innocent” is smuggled into (15). In what sense can a fetus be said to be “innocent,” i.e., not guilty of a crime or offense? Perhaps a fetus can be said to be innocent only in the trivial sense that it is incapable of committing crimes, given that it is unborn and still developing. But in that case, by using the emotionally charged term “innocent,” (15) still transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65) and condemns “the subject matter of the definiendum” (Hurley 2015, 101). It might be argued that the fetus can be considered innocent (or not) insofar as it can endanger the life of the mother as in the case of life-threatening pregnancies, such as an ectopic pregnancy. But in that case, the fetus could be considered guilty of the crime of reckless endangerment (i.e., acting in ways that put another person at risk of injury or death), and hence not innocent.

Brown’s (2017, 53) argument for the persuasive definition of scientism, according to which “Scientism is the view that commits its advocates to putting too high a value on—or having an exaggerated confidence in—science,” suffers from the same problems as his abortion argument.

19. Scientism is the view that science is the only, or best, kind of knowledge.
20. Therefore, if scientific knowledge is not the only, or best, kind of knowledge, then scientism is a view that commits its advocates to putting too high a value on—or having an exaggerated confidence in—science [from (19)].
21. If p, then scientific knowledge is not the only, or best, kind of knowledge.
22. p.
23. Therefore, scientific knowledge is not the only, or best, kind of knowledge [from (21) and (22), MP].
24. Therefore, scientism is a view that commits its advocates to putting too high a value on—or having an exaggerated confidence in—science [from (20) and (23), MP] (Brown 2017, 53).

In particular, notice the equivocation on “only” and “best,” which makes the argument invalid. Strong Scientism is the view that “Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the only ‘real knowledge’” (Mizrahi 2017, 353; emphasis in original), whereas Weak Scientism is the view that “Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017, 354; emphasis in original). In Mizrahi (2017), I set out to defend the latter, not the former. This means that Brown’s conditional in (20), namely, “if scientific knowledge is not the only, or the best, kind of knowledge, then scientism is a view that commits its advocates to putting too high a value on—or having an exaggerated confidence in—science,” is misleading.

If Strong Scientism were false, i.e., if it were not the case that scientific knowledge is the only real knowledge, then it would follow that non-scientific knowledge is also real knowledge. And from that it would follow that confidence in scientific knowledge alone, to the exclusion of non-scientific knowledge, which is also real (as we are assuming now, for the sake of argument), would be exaggerated. For it would be a mistake to ignore non-scientific knowledge if it were just as real as scientific knowledge.

But if Weak Scientism were false, i.e., if it were not the case that scientific knowledge is the best knowledge, then it would follow that non-scientific knowledge is just as good as scientific knowledge. But from that it would not follow that confidence in scientific knowledge over non-scientific knowledge would be exaggerated. For, if two equally good options are available, it is not a mistake to prefer one to the other. As I have argued in Mizrahi (2017, 352), one would have to show, rather than make it true by definition, that preferring one (scientific knowledge) to the other (non-scientific knowledge) is a mistake.

Of course, Brown (2017, 53) simply assumes, without argument, that there is some item of knowledge, which he labels p in premise (22), that is both non-scientific and better than scientific knowledge. Given that the scientism debate is precisely about whether scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge, one cannot simply assume that non-scientific knowledge is better than scientific knowledge without begging the question.

For these reasons, Brown’s attempt to show that a persuasive definition of scientism, such as the one I criticize in Mizrahi (2017, 352), can be the conclusion of a valid deductive argument fails. In addition to equivocating on “only” and “best,” the premises of Brown’s argument for a persuasive definition of scientism still transfer “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65) and condemn “the subject matter of the definiendum” (Hurley 2015, 101) by using locutions like “putting too high a value on” and “exaggerated confidence” (cf. Mizrahi 2017, 352). They also presuppose “an unaccepted definition” (Macagno & Walton 2014, 205) by assuming, without argument, that there is some piece of knowledge, p, that is both non-scientific and better than scientific knowledge.

Conclusion

To sum up, I have defended Weak Scientism from Brown’s (2017) objections, and thereby have shown again that Weak Scientism is a defensible position, which is what I have set out to do in Mizrahi (2017). I would like to end this reply to Brown (2017) by pointing out what I take to be a glaring omission in his discussion of my defense of Weak Scientism. Even though Brown (2017, 49) admits that, like good scientific theories, “good philosophical theories explain things” (emphasis in original), he does not tell us what makes an explanation a good explanation. As I point out in Mizrahi (2017, 360), the good-making properties of 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. Indeed, almost any introductory textbook on logic and critical thinking, including those written by philosophers, includes a chapter on Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) where these properties are discussed. For example, according to Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin (2010, 257), “common standards for assessing explanations [include] falsifiability [i.e., testability], conservativeness [i.e., coherence], modesty, simplicity, power [i.e., unification], and depth.”[3]

So, if “good philosophical theories explain things,” as Brown (2017, 49) admits, and if good explanations are those that exhibit the properties of unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability, then it follows that good philosophical explanations must have these properties as well. 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 predictive 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, 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. This is the glaring omission in Brown’s (2017) discussion of my defense of Weak Scientism; he does not address this argument from IBE: “if IBE is ubiquitous in scientific and non-scientific reasoning, and good explanations are those that are comprehensive, coherent, simple, and testable, then it follows that, in both scientific and non-scientific contexts, the best explanations are those that are comprehensive, coherent, simple, and testable explanations” (Mizrahi 2017, 362).[4] As I argue in Mizrahi (2017), and as Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin (2010, 259) point out as well, IBE is everywhere.[5] So everyone is in the business of producing good explanations, but science is simply the best; better than all the rest.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to James Collier for inviting me to reply to Brown’s “Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s ‘What’s so Bad about Scientism?’” (2017).

References

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Ashton, Zoe. and Moti Mizrahi. “Intuition Talk Is Not Methodologically Cheap: Empirically Testing the ‘Received Wisdom’ about Armchair Philosophy.” Erkenntnis (2017):  doi 10.1007/s10670-017-9904-4.

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

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

Mizrahi, Moti. “Why the Ultimate Argument for Scientific Realism Ultimately Fails.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 43, no. 1 (2012): 132-138.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Why Hypothetical Syllogism is Invalid for Indicative Conditionals.” Thought: A Journal of Philosophy 2, no. 1 (2013): 40–43.

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Mizrahi, Moti. “Why Be an Intellectually Humble Philosopher?” Axiomathes 28, no. 4 (2016): 425-436.

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

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

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

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[1] There is a “Disagreement in Philosophy” subcategory on PhilPapers (under Metaphilosophy) that contains 92 papers (as of August 26, 2017).

[2] These remarks apply to the alleged “sixth controversial philosophical assumption,” namely, (f) as well. As I point out in Mizrahi (2017), epistemologists are doing pretty much the same thing when they treat propositional knowledge equally in their analyses of knowledge. That is, “in the same way that epistemologists bracket the content of a proposition when they theorize about propositional knowledge, i.e. knowing that p, and treat all propositional knowledge equally, information scientists who use bibliometric techniques to study scientific knowledge can bracket the propositional content of that knowledge and treat each piece of knowledge (measured in terms of publications, citations, and the like) equally” (Mizrahi 2017, 362).

[3] See also Rudinow & Barry (2008, 266-269), Hendrickson et al. (2008, 76), Govier (2010, 298-302), Velasquez (2012, 71-73), and Douven (2017).

[4] In Mizrahi (2017), I discuss two failed attempts to use IBE in philosophy: an IBE for the Real World Hypothesis (Mizrahi 2017, 358-359) and an IBE for scientific realism (Mizrahi 2017, 360-361). For more on the latter, see also Mizrahi (2012).

[5] See also Harman (1965) and Douven (2017) on the “ubiquity of abduction.”

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

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

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3HQ

Please refer to:

Image credit: Tom Hilton, via flickr

In these critical remarks, I raise a number of objections to the arguments Moti Mizrahi (2017) employs in his attempt to defend (the usefulness of) a position he calls Weak Scientism.

Is Weak Scientism Really Scientism?  

According to Moti Mizrahi, we can distinguish Strong Scientism—“Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the only ‘real knowledge’ (2017, 353)—from Weak Scientism—“Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (2017, 354). Mizrahi goes on to argue Weak Scientism is both the position traditional advocates of scientism should adopt and the position those who want to defend philosophy against charges of uselessness should attack (2017, 354).[1] Many contemporary philosophers, specifically, and academics, generally, accept Weak Scientism (or at least a position that closely resembles it).

If only for the reason that it focuses our attention upon an influential contemporary philosophical perspective, Mizrahi’s paper is a very useful one. That being said, Weak Scientism is not really strong enough to warrant the appellation, ‘scientism.’ For one could accept Weak Scientism and not only agree that philosophical knowledge exists (as Mizrahi notes), but also think philosophical knowledge is extremely valuable, indeed, nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge itself. For that matter, one could accept Weak Scientism and think that religious knowledge is nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge.

In fact, if Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism is really only a claim about the relative value of different academic forms of knowledge, as Mizrahi seems to admit in a couple of places (see, e.g., 2017, 354; 356), then one could accept Weak Scientism and think that personal knowledge, moral knowledge, and religious knowledge are more valuable than scientific knowledge. One might suppose, therefore, that neither traditional advocates of scientism, such as Alex Rosenberg (see, e.g., 2011), nor those who think philosophy is useless, such as, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (see, e.g., 2010) and Stephen Weinberg (see, e.g., 1994), will find Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism to be a position that is quite strong enough to communicate their own (negative) attitudes toward philosophy or philosophical knowledge or non-scientific forms of knowledge more generally.

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

Mizrahi says: “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 that? For it is hard to see how the philosophy-is-useless charge gets off the ground just given Weak Scientism. For example, in order to get the uselessness charge from Weak Scientism we might argue as follows:

1. If scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge, then philosophy is useless.
2. Scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge.
3. Therefore, philosophy is useless [from (1) and (2), MP].

Even if one grants (2), why accept (1)? For, clearly, the consequent of (1) does not follow from its antecedent. Indeed, it wouldn’t follow even if the value of philosophical knowledge were quite a bit lower than scientific knowledge.

To make good on the philosophy-is-useless claim from a scientistic stance we need something much stronger than Weak Scientism, for example:

4. Only cognitions that rise to the perfection of knowledge are useful.
5. If scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge, then philosophy is useless [from (4)].
6. Scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge.
3. Therefore, philosophy is useless [from (5) and (6), MP].

But we don’t have anything like the argument above in Mizrahi’s paper. Therefore, Mizrahi’s attempt to mediate the discussion between defenders of philosophy, on the one hand, and defenders of the philosophy-is-useless claim, on the other, by way of Weak Scientism is a non-starter.

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

Mizrahi argues that Weak Scientism is defensible, namely, it can be defended against objections (2017, 354). One objection to Weak Scientism he fields is

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

Mizrahi does not say why (O1) should be thought to be an objection to Weak Scientism other than noting the objection is inspired by the self-reference problem for the verifiability criterion of meaning (2017, 355). At any rate, Mizrahi thinks (O1) is false and defends the falsity of (O1) by offering what he takes to be a scientific argument for Weak Scientism. Here follows a schema of that 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 forms of knowledge are better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) [from (7) and (10)].

In his defenses of (8) and (9), Mizrahi makes quite a few controversial philosophical assumptions. This section lists some of these controversial philosophical assumptions, discusses the significance of their functioning as background assumptions for Mizrahi’s argument for (8) and (9), and, at the end of the section, develops four general problems for Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism, given the central role these controversial philosophical assumptions play within that argument.

First Assumption

The first controversial philosophical assumption at play in Mizrahi’s defense of (8) is his decision to think about knowledge teleologically or operationally. He states that for the purposes of his argument: “‘knowledge’ is meant to refer to the aim or goal of inquiry or the final product of inquiry” (2017, 353). In another place, citing the work of Francis Sparshott, Mizrahi states, “[f]or the purposes of this paper, I have operationalized ‘philosophy’ as simply ‘what [professional] philosophers do’ (Sparshott 1998, 20)” (2012, 356). Mizrahi’s reasons for thinking about academic knowledge pragmatically are themselves pragmatic: not only are the natures of philosophy and science matters of great debate (2017, 356), but, if Mizrahi does not think about knowledge teleologically or operationally, 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).

Second Assumption

Mizrahi’s pragmatic approach to thinking about knowledge is itself, of course, philosophically controversial. But, in addition, Mizrahi’s defining knowledge as a goal of inquiry is a way of thinking about knowledge that seems to entail many forms of non-academic cognitions can’t count as forms of knowledge. Indeed, much human knowledge is obtained without any sort of explicit inquiry on our part, as Mizrahi himself concedes, e.g., the knowledge of the heavens that comes by way of lazily gazing up at the night sky (2017, 354). So, we have a second controversial philosophical assumption as a background assumption for Mizrahi’s argumentation: knowledge is the goal of inquiry.

In order to justify his focusing on academic forms of knowledge for the purposes of his defense of Weak Scientism, Mizrahi notes that scientists such as Hawking, Mlodinow, and Weinberg have academic philosophy in particular in mind when they criticize philosophy, and Mizrahi thinks that philosophers who criticize scientism are comparing academic philosophy with science when they do so (2017, 356). In arguing for this latter claim, Mizrahi cites Sorell (2013, x) as a representative example. Mizrahi writes:

. . . when he defines scientism as ‘a matter of putting too high a value on science’ Sorell (2013) compares science to ‘other branches of learning or culture’ (emphasis added). Accordingly, it is clear that the debate between scientists who are critical of philosophy and philosophers who charge critics of philosophy with ‘scientism’ is about academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines, as opposed to more basic sources of knowledge, such as perception, introspection, and the like (2017, 356).

There are a couple of things to note about this passage. First, Mizrahi apparently feels justified in equating Sorell’s expression, branches of learning and culture with academic knowledge. That’s puzzling. Does Mizrahi really think (Sorell thinks) that all learning and culture is confined to what happens within the walls of the academy? Second, we might ask about basic—or non-basic—sources of knowledge such as knowledge of persons, moral knowledge, and religious knowledge. Does Weak Scientism say scientific knowledge is better than those forms of knowledge? At any rate, Mizrahi seems to imply in a couple of places (see, e.g., Mizrahi 2017, 354; 356) he is really defending a position weaker than Weak Scientism in his paper, one we might call, Very Weak Scientism:

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

Third Assumption

A third controversial philosophical assumption at play in Mizrahi’s argument for (8) is the view that the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both its output and impact—can be measured. Mizrahi recognizes that the position that knowledge can be quantitatively measured is a philosophical assumption, but he does not see this as a problem, since an argument’s making philosophical assumptions is not a sufficient condition for it counting as a philosophical rather than a scientific argument (2017, 356). Grant Mizrahi’s claim that an argument’s making philosophical assumptions is not a sufficient condition for it counting as a philosophical rather than a scientific argument. But the point here is that the view that academic knowledge can be quantifiably measured is a philosophically contentious one, to say the least.

To see why that is so, consider again that 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)—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.

Fourth Assumption

The fourth controversial philosophical assumption Mizrahi makes use of in his argument for (8) is the assumption that 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. Let us assume, if only for the sake of argument, that the quantity of academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines can be accurately measured. Compared to the quantity of knowledge produced by academic publications, some academics believe that just as much, if not more, knowledge is acquired or disseminated within a discipline by way of the good teaching that goes on within that discipline.

To measure the quantity of knowledge within a discipline merely by examining the academic publications within that discipline shows a decided bias in favor of the philosophy of education currently dominating contemporary universities, one which places the highest value on making new discoveries[2] (whether about starfish or about some text from the past), a philosophy of education which is itself rooted in an empirical scientific way of thinking. So, not only is this fourth philosophical assumption contentious, it is also a question-begging assumption: for we would expect the output and impact of scientific knowledge to fare better than non-scientific academic knowledge in an environment where knowledge is primarily understood in terms of publishing new discoveries.

To put the point another way, sampling just the publications produced within academic disciplines will not present us with a representative sample of knowledge produced within all academic disciplines. According to a traditional liberal arts understanding of education, teaching as a means of passing on knowledge from one generation to another is just as important, if not more so, than the making of new discoveries, and that context, we might think, is more fecund for the output (teaching) and impact (learning) of knowledge in liberal arts such as literature and philosophy. To put the point here still another way, it looks as though Mizrahi is actually defending the following thesis in his paper:

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

Fifth Assumption

In arguing that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of quantity of knowledge, Mizrahi makes a fifth controversial philosophical assumption: 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.

There is no doubt that the journal publications within a field give one a good sense of what subjects are receiving attention within that discipline at a particular time. And this includes new discoveries and new arguments within a discipline. But to reduce academic knowledge to the number of journal articles produced and cited within these disciplines neglects to take into account important differences between disciplines concerning the relevance of the history of those academic disciplines for knowledge produced in those disciplines now. For example, the history of science is less relevant for the practice of science today than is the history of philosophy for the practice of contemporary philosophy.

Although historians sometimes study philosophical texts from the past merely as historical artifacts, many contemporary philosophers treat important philosophical texts from the past as extremely—even indispensably—relevant for the practice of philosophy today. 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, 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, the sample Mizrahi uses to make his inductive generalization is simply not a representative one. Or, perhaps Mizrahi is actually defending a weaker thesis yet in his paper:

(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.

Sixth Assumption

There is a sixth controversial philosophical assumption that Mizrahi makes in arguing for (8), namely, each piece of knowledge acquired in a discipline should be treated equally where measuring its quantity is concerned. As we’ve seen, Mizrahi thinks scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific 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 (2017, 355-58).

Consider an explanation alternative to the one Mizrahi offers for why there are fewer non-scientific academic papers produced and cited than is the case with scientific papers, and consider just the discipline of philosophy. We might think scientific journal articles get cited more often than do philosophy journal articles simply because, at any given time, there is more consensus among scientists than among philosophers. And, as David Papineau (2017) has recently suggested, perhaps the higher amount of disagreement among philosophers compared to scientists is due to the fact that philosophy is harder than science. If Papineau is correct, then perhaps there is also less output of philosophical knowledge when compared to science, not because science is in some sense better than philosophy, but because it is simply harder to arrive at philosophical knowledge than scientific knowledge.[3]

Consider also Aristotle’s famous claim that a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things.[4] Mizrahi’s argument assumes Aristotle is wrong. That too is a controversial philosophical assumption. For it is an honest question to ask how we should compare, in terms of relative value, a smaller amount of knowledge about a more important topic—say philosophical topics such as, the nature of God, the nature of the human person, or the best form of government—to a greater amount of knowledge about a less important topic—say topics studied within scientific disciplines, such as stars and starfish.

Seventh Assumption

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 (2017, 358). He thus thinks about a theory’s qualitative value in pragmatic terms. So we have a seventh controversial philosophical assumption in the background of Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism.

Eighth Assumption

An eighth controversial philosophical assumption Mizrahi employs—also in his argument for (9)—is the notion that a theory A is more successful than a theory B if A is more explanatorily successful than B, more instrumentally successful than B, and more predictively successful than B. Mizrahi defends this philosophical account of the successfulness of a theory by way of citing the work of some contemporary philosophers of science concerning the criteria for a successful scientific theory, which philosophers of science speak of a theory’s success in terms of its explanatory power, its instrumental success, and its predictive success (2017, 358). Apparently, Mizrahi thinks these criteria for a successful scientific theory can be rightfully applied as the measure of success for a theory, simpliciter.

But why think a good philosophical theory should enjoy predictive success, i.e., the power to “make novel predictions that are borne out by observation or experimentation” (Mizrahi 2017, 358) or meet ‘the criterion of testability,’ i.e., “As a general rule of thumb, choose the explanation that yields independently testable predictions” (2017, 360)? To think that a theory T is successful only if—or to the extent that—it enjoys predictive success or testability 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. As Edward Feser has noted (2014, 23), to compare the epistemic values of science and philosophy and fault philosophy for not being good at making predictions 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.

Are good philosophical theories instrumentally successful, i.e., “theories [that] allow us to intervene in nature and causally manipulate entities, events, and processes” (Mizrahi 2017, 358)? It depends on what one means by ‘theories that allow us to intervene in nature and causally manipulate entities, events, and processes.’ If, by that expression, one means “thinking that leads to curing diseases or building bridges and other pieces of technology,” then philosophical theories will, we might think, not compare favorably with scientific ones.[5] But, again, philosophy by definition isn’t in that sort of business.

So to say science is qualitatively better than philosophy because science leads to technological innovations is like saying instrumental jazz is qualitatively better than Gregorian chant because jazz makes use of musical instruments. On the other hand, if by ‘intervene in nature,’ etc. one means “doing that which conduces to human happiness,” then it certainly will not be obvious that scientific theories are qualitatively better than philosophical ones, unless Mizrahi also assumes that human beings are better off with modern technology than without it. If so, we will need to add another controversial philosophical assumption to the (growing) list of controversial philosophical assumptions at play in Mizrahi’s argument in defense of Weak Scientism.

On the other hand, Mizrahi is correct that good philosophical theories explain things. But Mizrahi is skeptical about whether philosophical theses such as external world realism or scientific realism explain more than do competing anti-realist theories, so he concludes that philosophical theories do not compare favorably with good scientific theories in terms of their explanatory power. Whether Mizrahi is correct in that judgment depends upon just what a philosophical theory needs to explain, e.g., does it, all things being equal, need to make sense of common-sense intuitions about reality? In addition, we might wonder whether philosophical theories that count as responses to skeptical theories really represent the explanatory power of the best philosophical theories. For it is notoriously difficult to overcome skepticism on the skeptic’s own terms. But what about the explanatory success of Aristotle’s hylemorphic dualism as a theory of substantial change, or a natural-law/virtue-ethical theory as a theory for why human flourishing requires noble human conduct, or theism as an explanation for the rationality of believing in the reliability of cognitive faculties that have arisen by way of an evolutionary process, to pick just a few examples of philosophical theories that have great explanatory power?

Of course, none of the theories just mentioned are believed by even a majority of contemporary philosophers. But that not all—or that even a majority of—contemporary philosophers agree about the relative explanatory value of a philosophical theory A is no good argument that A does not actually explain what it sets out to explain—and better than do other theories. To think that a philosophical theory A is successful only if all, or a majority of, philosophers accept A is, we might think, to misconstrue the nature of the philosophical enterprise and the kinds of questions philosophy treats. It is again to beg the question against distinctively philosophical methodologies, which differ in kind from the consensus-inviting methodologies of empirical science.

Ninth Assumption

A ninth controversial philosophical assumption at work in Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism is the assumption that each piece of knowledge acquired in a discipline should be treated equally where measuring its quality is concerned. Assume, if only for the sake of argument, that we should use the same criteria to evaluate the relative success of a scientific theory and a non-scientific theory. And assume also 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.

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. In other words, contrary to what Mizrahi wants to assume, we might think philosophers and some other non-scientific academicians treat subjects of greater existential/axiological import than the subjects treated by scientists. Admitting as much, of course, does not mean thinking scientific knowledge has no value. Just as the advocate of Weak Scientism might think philosophical knowledge has great value, so the critic of Weak Scientism might think scientific knowledge has great value.

Four General Points

Having noted (at least) nine controversial philosophical assumptions Mizrahi makes in arguing for Weak Scientism, one can make four general points.

First, it seems reasonable to reject some—even all—of the controversial philosophical assumptions that function as background assumptions in Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism. Indeed, we’ve examined some reasons for rejecting some of these assumptions. Therefore, a number of serious philosophical objections remain for the argumentative strategy Mizrahi employs to defend Weak Scientism.

Second, as we’ve seen, many, if not all, of the nine contestable philosophical assumptions Mizrahi employs in his argument for Weak Scientism one would accept only if one already accepted Weak Scientism or Strong Scientism or some position closely allied with one of those positions. One might be excused for thinking, then, that Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism is question-begging.

Third, Mizrahi is 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” (2017, 356). Grant that inductive generalization from samples is a central feature of Mizrahi’s argument, since he argues from samples of scientific and non-scientific work (number of journal articles published and number of times those articles are cited in a given time period) in order to generalize about the quantity and quality of scientific knowledge and non-scientific knowledge, respectively. Even so, 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. Mizrahi’s argument rather looks like a philosophical argument that defends one of its key premises—premise (8) in my formulation of his argument—by way of drawing upon some contemporary work in information science.[6]

The point here is not that Mizrahi’s argument in defense of Weak Scientism makes philosophical assumptions. We might admit that all science proceeds on the basis of some philosophical assumptions among its background assumptions. But the background assumptions of scientific arguments are largely non-controversial for the community to which those arguments are addressed, namely, the community of practicing scientists. We might think, therefore, that in order for Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism to count as science, the background philosophical assumptions he employs need to be largely uncontroversial for the community of thinkers to which his argument is addressed. Of course, the community of thinkers to which Mizrahi is addressing his argument for Weak Scientism includes not only scientists, but also philosophers, literature professors, indeed, all kinds of thinkers. Now, all nine of the philosophical assumptions at play in Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism highlighted here are highly controversial within the community of thinkers to which his argument is addressed. Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism is therefore not a scientific one.

Fourth, Mizrahi offers Weak Scientism as the position traditional advocates of scientism should adopt (2017, 354; 364). Why should they adopt it according to Mizrahi? They should adopt it “if they want to have a defensible definition of scientism” (2017, 354). And by “defensible definition,” Mizrahi means, one that “can be successfully defended against objections” (2017, 354). As we’ve seen, Mizrahi’s defense against objection O1 is his argument for Weak Scientism. Now, as Mizrahi notes, traditional advocates of scientism believe philosophy is useless or of little epistemic value (2017, 351-54; 356).

Once traditional advocates of scientism therefore become aware of the number of controversial philosophical claims that function as background assumptions in Mizrahi’s argument, they will (absent a serious intellectual conversion) consider Mizrahi’s argument to be an argument that is useless or of little epistemic value. Therefore, as far as the traditional advocate of scientism is concerned, Mizrahi has not successfully defended against objection O1, and so, he has given traditional advocates of scientism neither a good reason to think Weak Scientism is a defensible definition of scientism nor a good reason why they should adopt that view. If Mizrahi’s argument is going to be at all convincing for the traditional advocates of scientism, they need to be convinced first that philosophy is useful and has high epistemic value, which is not something Mizrahi attempts to do in his paper.

An Objection to Mizrahi’s Defense Against the Circularity Charge

In defending Weak Scientism, Mizrahi also attempts to defeat the following objection to Weak Scientism:

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

Mizrahi’s attempted defeater of (O2) relies on the following claim:

12. Deductive inference is only defensible by way of deductive inference (2017, 362).

But why think (12) is true? Consider propositions such as ‘1+1=2’ and ‘a whole is greater than one of its (improper) parts.’ We can’t defend the truth of these sorts of propositions by way of deductive inference or prove they are true. But we don’t need to. Rather, we know such propositions are true by way of some non-inferential mode of knowing. It seems reasonable to say we come to know the validity of deductive rules of inference such as modus ponens in a similar sort of manner (see, e.g., Feldman 2003, 3-4).

Mizrahi goes on to claim,

13. “. . . if it is viciously circular to support claims about science using scientific evidence, then it is viciously circular to prove the soundness of inference rules using logic” (2017, 363).

According to Mizrahi, the consequent of (13) is false and so he also denies its antecedent. But perhaps we should rather affirm the truth of both the antecedent and the consequent of (13). Since there are ways other than deductive inference to know the rules of deductive inference—by some sort of non-inferential mode of knowing—there is no inconsistency in affirming both a scientific argument for Weak Scientism is a circular argument and we have knowledge of the rules of deductive inference.

An Objection to Mizrahi’s Claim that Philosophers Should Not Use Persuasive Definitions of Scientism.

Mizrahi argues that one who uses a definition of scientism that suggests those who endorse the scientistic stance have an improper attitude towards science (call such definitions persuasive definitions of scientism for the sake of simplicity here) “begs the question” (2017, 351; 352) against the scientistic stance, or otherwise errs by not “show[ing] precisely what is wrong with scientism” (352). Mizrahi draws an analogy between offering persuasive definitions of scientism and defining abortion as murder (352). Interestingly, this analogy actually allows for a more charitable interpretation of what authors might be doing when they offer persuasive definitions (or descriptions) of scientism, namely, such persuasive definitions or descriptions of scientism are actually conclusions of deductive arguments. To see this, consider first the following argument for the claim, abortion is murder:

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

In the argument above, (18) is a persuasive definition or description of abortion insofar as it communicates disapproval of abortion. Say Jane uses the argument above to communicate to John why she thinks abortion is murder. Whatever else John might think of Jane’s argument, John would be wrong to say Jane begs the question here in thinking abortion is murder or Jane has not shown precisely what (she thinks) is wrong with abortion.

Consider the possibility, then, that someone who offers a persuasive definition or description of scientism has also given an argument for defining scientism in that fashion. For example, consider an argument that has the following form:

19. Scientism is the view that science is the only, or best, kind of knowledge.
20. Therefore, if scientific knowledge is not the only, or best, kind of knowledge, then scientism is a view that commits its advocates to putting too high a value on—or having an exaggerated confidence in—science [from (19)].
21. If p, then scientific knowledge is not the only, or best, kind of knowledge.
22. p.
23. Therefore, scientific knowledge is not the only, or best, kind of knowledge [from (21) and (22), MP].
24. Therefore, scientism is a view that commits its advocates to putting too high a value on—or having an exaggerated confidence in—science [from (20) and (23), MP].

Now, if Jane offers an argument for (24) that has the logical form of the argument above, then when she describes scientism in such a way that communicates disapproval of scientism, in doing so she neither begs the question against the scientistic stance, nor fails to show precisely what (she thinks) is wrong with scientism. One strongly suspects that authors such as Susan Haack (2007) and Tom Sorell (1991; 2013) can be read charitably, but also plausibly, as doing something similar when they sometimes offer persuasive definitions of scientism.[7]

References

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

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

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

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

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

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

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.

Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.

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

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.

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

Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. First edition. London: Routledge, 1991.

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

Sparshott, Francis. The Future of Aesthetics: The 1996 Ryle Lectures. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

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

[1] Mizrahi is not the first to consider the possibility of a position such as Weak Scientism as a candidate for scientism; see, e.g., Sorell (1991, 1) and Brown (2011, 196-7).

[2] Or, as often is the case, new ‘discoveries.’

[3] In addition, the greater output of science surely also has something to do with the fact that today there are more working scientists than there are working philosophers, which is itself rooted more in cultural conditions that have something to do with an implicit acceptance of scientism by the majority of business owners, university administrators, professors, journalists, and politicians than it does the relative objective value of philosophy and science.

[4] 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.

[5] Although 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 by transference.

[6] At least in this respect, if not in others, Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism resembles William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God such that most of that argument’s premises are contestable philosophical assumptions, but one premise, i.e., that the universe has a beginning, Craig defends (not only by philosophical argument but) by way of drawing on scientific arguments (see, e.g., Craig 2008, 111-156).

[7] I’m grateful to Merry Brown for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

Author Information: Markus Seidel, University of Münster, maseidel@hotmail.com

Seidel, Markus. “Ludwik Fleck’s Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 8 (2015): 79-88.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2fI

Please refer to:

wave_clouds

Image credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, via flickr

In a recent paper in Social Epistemology Dimitri Ginev aims to show that Ludwik Fleck uses transcendental arguments in two contexts in his work that are closely intertwined: the context of comparative cognitive sociology and the context of socio-historical epistemology (Ginev 2015, 3-4). I am skeptical about Ginev’s interpretation and my aim is to show that at least the part of Ginev’s argument in which he aims to show Fleck’s use of transcendental arguments in the context of socio-historical epistemology is not convincing. To my mind, a much better interpretation of Fleck’s argument in this context is to see Fleck as using scientistic instead of transcendental arguments. Since my argument will be based on a much closer reading of Fleck’s wording than is provided by Ginev, I can only focus on a very short passage in Ginev’s paper and will not discuss the paper as a whole.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Jeroen de Ridder, VU University Amsterdam, g.j.de.ridder@vu.nl

de Ridder, Jeroen. “Science and Scientism in Popular Science Writing.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 12 (2014): 23-39.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1KE

popular_scienceImage credit: Denise, via flickr

Abstract

If one is to believe recent popular scientific accounts of developments in physics, biology, neuroscience, and cognitive science, most of the perennial philosophical questions have been wrested from the hands of philosophers by now, only to be resolved (or sometimes dissolved) by contemporary science. To mention but a few examples of issues that science has now allegedly dealt with: the origin and destiny of the universe, the origin of human life, the soul, free will, morality, and religion. My aim in this paper is threefold: (1) to show that these claims stem from the pervasive influence of a scientistic epistemology in popular science writing, (2) to argue that this influence is undesirable because it ultimately undermines not only the important role of popular science reporting in society but also the public’s trust in science, and (3) to offer suggestions on how popular science writing can be improved.

Continue Reading…

Author Information: Monique Dufour, Virginia Tech, msdufour@vt.edu; Gregory Sandstrom, European Humanities University, SERRC, gregory.sandstrom@ehu.lt; Adam Riggio, McMaster University, SERRC, adamriggio@gmail.com

Dufour, Monique, Gregory Sandstrom and Adam Riggio. “Beyond Polemic, Part, III.” Review of The Science Delusion, by Curtis White. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 12 (2013): 22-28.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-18o

Please refer to:

Circulating Scientism, Monique Dufour

The recent and much circulated Steven Pinker piece, “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” scolds recent critics of scientism, and extends “an impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.” What does he ask of this beleaguered group whom he deigns to address? Acknowledge that all great modern thinkers were actually scientists, and that scientism is little more than a “boo-word.” Accept that they need science and that science will enhance all of their endeavors, endeavors that would otherwise wallow in nostalgia, irrelevance, and resentment. And revel in the “gifts bestowed by science:” “the exhilarating achievement of scientific knowledge itself,” and “images of sublime beauty” that “science has provided the world.” Continue Reading…

Author Information: Gregory Sandstrom, European Humanities University, SERRC, gregory.sandstrom@ehu.lt; Adam Riggio, McMaster University, SERRC, adamriggio@gmail.com;Monique Dufour, Virginia Tech, msdufour@vt.edu

Sandstrom, Gregory, Adam Riggio and Monique Dufour. “Beyond Polemic, Part, II.” Review of The Science Delusion, by Curtis White. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 12 (2013): 14-21.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-17Y

Please refer to:

Beyond Polemic, Part II  

The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers
By Curtis White

Melville House Publishing, 224 pp., 2013

Can ‘Romanticised’ Humanities Help Overcome Natural Scientism Delusions? Gregory Sandstrom

Part I: The Reflexive Negative

“We Romantics, we Free Spirits (as Nietzsche liked to say), are in exile.” — White (197).

White’s The Science Delusion (TSD) is framed as a way of taking back the city of Knowledge in contemporary higher education and returning Romantic-Humanists or ‘Free Spirits’ from exile to positions of honour, dignity and worth. What jumps out in the book instead is an unnecessary inferiority complex demonstrated by a Professor of English when it comes to the hierarchy of disciplines in the contemporary academy.   Continue Reading…