Friday, July 18, 2008

Humanism vs. Scientism

The following is an email I sent to a friend—an aspiring neuroscientist—who espouses a rather pejorative, and surprisingly common (especially, my wife reports, at institutions such as MIT), view of the humanities. The question posed was: If you had to choose between science and the humanities to propagate through/to society for its amelioration, which would you choose? His answer was, of course, the former, on the assumption that the humanities are (what Bertrand Russell calls, in Education and the Good Life) "ornamental" rather than "instrumental," and that disciplines with instrumental value are axiologically better than those with mere ornamental value. Here it is:

The answer would depend entirely upon the purposes of "spreading" it to society; and these purposes might depend on the nature of that society itself. For example, the modern era of Baconian "technoscience" is marked by (i) (borrowing from Weizenbaum's critique of AI) an "imperialism of instrumental rationality," (ii) a "technological mood," and (iii) what some thoughtful critics of modernity call "reverse adaptation."

The first points at the ability of clever educated people today to solve increasingly abstruse problems—i.e., to acquire means to an end, but (very often) without questioning the end itself. (E.g., we know how to build thermonuclear weapons, but fall short with respect to the more reflective, thoughtful, philosophical task of determining why we build them.) The second points to a natural offshoot of the capitalist ideology (which has deeply penetrated even—or especially—science): one begins to see nature (including other human beings) as "standing reserves"—as objects for exploitation (Heidegger). The third points to the fact that, along with the first two, the standards and criteria by which we judge the value of technology are universalized, now being applied to everything (Langdon Winner). The point is this: the statement that you'd choose science over philosophy because it (philosophy) is not "useful" is loaded with unexamined and thoroughly "normative" notions about what ought to count as valuable; and these unexamined notions are not self-evident, but must be justified before one accepts them. In other cultures—indeed, some would argue, in far more enlightened cultures, even though their capacity to manipulate and deform nature (thanks to science) was less developed—the usefulness of X was not the criterion by which X's value was determined. Again, in our capitalist milieu, it's common for people to uncritically assume that use alone (or at least primarily) is criterial of value; but this needs to be examined.

Two points: (1) I'd be very careful about "discipline chauvinism," especially without familiarity of the disparaged discipline (e.g., philosophy, literature, etc.). As someone (part of a growing number) of academics who "swing both ways"—towards the humanities and science—I encounter individuals on both sides with a rabid and often highly irrational abhorrence for those on the other side. This is very upsetting, since (at least in my experience) the primary reasonStructures, in which he adduces a substantial amount of empirical (i.e., historical) evidence to show that scientific theories do not in fact describe reality, and that one theory replaces another, over generations, not through a rational process in which evidence is objectively examined, experiments are carefully performed, etc., but rather through a merely rhetorical process of persuasion and, for lack of a better word, coercion (although such coercion is subtle and insidious). And again, there is a lot of empirical evidence supporting this, which at least renders it plausible. for such a posture is that these hard-core exponents (of humanism or scientism) are simply unaware of what the other side does, what it offers, what it accomplishes, what it is about, etc. For example, many scientists would be surprised—and, I think, rather enlightened—to discover extremely robust "metascientific" theories that see the enterprise of science as no more progressive than, say, the enterprise of painting (which clearly doesn't move forward). In fact, the most cited book of the twentieth century was Kuhn's

(2) It would help, I think, to read those SEP articles to get an idea of what exactly philosophers do. (Incidentally, I should add that almost every major scientist since the Scientific Revolution has been an omnivorous reader—and active contributor!—to the philosophy of science, including: Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Hawking, etc. Darwin, Morgan, Watson & Crick, Gould, Pinker, Dawkins, etc. just to name a few that come to mind; as well as many in numerous other scientific domains. Thus, a pejorative view of philosophy offends not just philosophers, but most of the "great" scientists as well ;-) Philosophers of science, for example, ask the most fundamental—and therefore difficult—questions about science: What are theories? What are laws of nature? What does it mean to explain a phenomenon? Is science really objective? etc. These issues have attracted attention of many great philosophers and scientists, and they turn out to be many orders of magnitude more stymieing than might be thought at first glance. It would take many books to explicate them in detail—but the point is simple: Such questions are not in the least superfluous, but concern, in the most fundamental way, the very validity, rationality and objectivity of science.

Thus, the philosophy of science adds a profound richness and depth to one's understanding of science as a (maybe the best?) "strategy" for acquiring knowledge about the universe. Suddenly, what was once accepted without critical reflection becomes an entirely new and extraordinary realm of intellectual curiosity: If theories explain through the formulation of laws of nature, how is Darwinian theory explanatory, since it posits a mechanism rather than a universal generalization? Or, if the theoretical entities that scientific theories posit don't really exist (as many of the greatest scientists and philosophers of the mid-twentieth century claimed), then what good is science as a source of knowledge? Or, if our observation is always influenced by the theories we hold, can scientific experiments ever really be objective?

This is a long email, I know—but far, far shorter than it ought to be. [...] Anyway, I've convinced many humanists of the value of science, and I'd love to convince you of the value of philosophy as well. Talk to you later, Phil