Comment on “The Folly of Scientism”

This post is in response to a piece in New Atlantis by Austin L. Hughes:

The central question is something like `can science answer all questions?’, a much discussed topic. Note that it is not the question `is science the best way of answering all questions in its relevant domain?,’ a question to which we can be sure the answer is positive. It is more about the scope of that relevant domain, and in particular whether there is anything outside of it.

Scientists sometimes confuse the two. A good example of the sort of area where this may be false is ethics. If a scientist holds that only scientific claims are truth evaluable, you can ask him whether it is true or false that it is wrong to torture cats for fun. The choices are to claim that the statement is not truth-evaluable (not in fact a position to be quickly dismissed but unlikely to be chosen) or to allow that it is. If it is, then one can enquire of the scientist what data could be collected to establish the truth of the claim. There seems to be none. Thus we may make out the claim that science, while superb within its relevant domain, does not answer all questions of interest. That result may be confirmed by observing a group of scientists in the pub, and measuring the proportion of the time that they discuss questions which have an empirical answer: not a high proportion. In fact — why discuss such questions at all? Why not go and perform the appropriate measurement?

Hughes notes that science has taken over a lot of territory from philosophy. This is true, but should concern no-one. Philosophy which conflicts with science is valueless. Where it is useful is in the wider domain of non-empirical questions, which is why the domain question above is of such importance. Science will also tend to develop more than philosophy does — parts of philosophy of mind may be resolved by psychology for example. Note that this is a different process to the one where science potentially gradually answers all questions of interest, or provides a complete account of everything. How will science answer the question as to why there is something rather than nothing? (A question Hughes later raises.) What would a scientific answer to that question even look like?

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Hughes is slightly unfair on scientists when he writes that they “confus[e] correlation and causation, or confus[e] implication with a bi-conditional. The former does occur quite often in journalistic reporting of scientific papers.  However, while some scientists may be unaware that all they can ever measure is correlation, and that causation is not an observable quantity, I think most working scientists are alive to the possibility of confounds.  This is why control groups are so important. The latter error is probably also not very frequently seen. The error precisely stated is proceeding from the claim “if A then B” and observing B, to conclude A.  This will not be valid when there may be other causes of B. Scientists however are quite good at looking at several possible explanations for their data.

Hughes claims that philosophy can assist science by deciding what are the proper boundaries of science. This is true, but I think he weakens his case here  by introducing Popper’s falsification requirement: only hypotheses which can be falsified are proper science. One problem with this is that it renders some items non-scientific while they certainly appear to be part of that domain.  For example, there are string theories in cosmology which appear to be completely non-testable since they would require particle accelerators of immense energy.  Thus, many of the string theories would be non-science which seems like an odd result — but not an impossible one. The worst problem though is that Popper may not be being philosophical. Many scientists would agree with the criterion but also count is as part of science — or at least meta-science, in that it is something that emerges from their general practice even if it cannot itself be subjected to scientific test or subjected to itself. That causes a problem of supportability because if the test of what is scientific is not itself a part of science, then what has been achieved, when one is seeking to delineate domains?

Hughes is unfair to Quine in criticising the latter’s use of `nerve endings’ as an explanation for certain biology. This is just a placeholder for the biology that transpires to be true in the relevant domain. Philosophers also speak of `c-fibres firing’ for whatever mechanism transpires to be the physiological underpinning of pain. Philosophers cannot be expected to do the biology better than the biologists, and are interested in different questions, such as: `if we had a complete physiology of pain, would it be sufficient for someone to feel pain that they replicated that physiology?’ Answering these questions does not require a detailed knowledge of the physiology which may not in fact be available.  It does not even matter for philosophical purposes if the physiological information never becomes available.  We can still have fruitful debates about the meaning of sensation without having a detailed description of how we sense, physiologically.  (Or more likely, without having a detailed description of how sense data generate qualia.)

It is definitely correct, as Hughes says, that assuming that scientists are right on non-scientific questions is a mistake. But plenty of action is still properly left to science — dealing with climate change, furthering stem cell research will provide useful results, promoting vaccination, eliminating fears of radio masts — and the problem here is that the public accords too little weight to the views of scientists, for reasons that escape me, but which may be connected to the difficulties in defining the correct domain for science.  They may also be related to the current distrust of experts in all fields.

Hughes goes on to challenge Hawkings’s admittedly very poor grasp of philosophical questions in three areas: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics; these are basically the questions `what exists?’; `how do we know anything?’ and `what should we do?’. As he points out, Hawkings’s idea that by positing the multiverse as an explanation for the existence of this and perhaps other universes merely moves the `why is there anything’ question one level back. Hawking is rather embarrassing on these sorts of topics because he attempts to take a line of which the starting point is “now physics has progressed thus far we no longer need philosophy” and then proceeds to do philosophy very poorly.  One one occasion, I have seen a Nobel prize winning scientist deliver a lecture on ‘the method of doubt’ without mentioning Descartes, which would be seen as extremely bold in philosophical circles — by which I mean you would fail the essay as a first year undergraduate.

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Hughes is also right to dismiss the idea that evolution explains why we can understand the universe because it does not explain why the universe is governed by stable scientific laws. We could have evolved in any way at all in a universe with unstable scientific laws — assuming we could survive in such a beast — and be unable to understand anything because conditions would change all the time.  There could never be any replication and reproducibility is crucial to the scientific method.

Hughes is also right to note that the claims that evolution should select us to believe only and always the truth are questionable. He might go further though and note the work of McKay And Dennett in `The Evolution of Misbelief’ on the fitness enhancing nature of certain false beliefs. For example, a healthy level of delusion about one’s own capacities is associated with optimal mental health. Hughes might also consider the extensive work of Gilovich (`How we know what isn’t so’) on the vast amount of things people believe — in religions, in astrological dreams, in the predictive power of tarot cards, in the healing power of crystals, that interviewing candidates produces better hires — which are simply empirically false. Hughes does usefully note Trivers’ work in this context though.

Hughes is wrong when he says “it is very hard to see such an advantage to DNA sequence analysis or quantum theory”. While he is right, strictly speaking, to say that evolution could not possibly have selected us to be good at quantum theory, it is entirely plausible that it could have selected us for ever more and improved information gathering capacities and intelligence, and that those have after many years led us to quantum theory.  We might even think that extreme intelligence is like the peacock’s tail.  Not necessarily essential in itself, but a powerful method of attracting mates because it signals “I can afford to carry this huge brain around.” It might just be simpler though to hold that more intelligence is always better for survival in an uncertain world.

Hughes makes his strongest point when he attacks naturalism, the view that what is natural is right. Why would it be? If what our ancestors did was selfish and driven by natural selection, why would our current views be any less driven by natural selection or any less wrong?  Note that none of this means that natural selection is not correct.  It is indeed the correct explanation of how we came to be here.  It is right if right means correct, but it is not right if right means good.  That is not the appropriate question to ask about something like natural selection.  It is.

Hughes is wise to challenge utilitarianism, because it tends to be widespread outside philosophy and especially appealing to scientists, because they think they can measure things to answer the question as to what is the greatest good for the greater number. Anyone in philosophy can provide dozens of fatal counterexamples. One of the simplest ones is the christians and the lions: if the value to each of 100,000 spectators of seeing a christian torn apart by a lion is greater than the disvalue/100,000 to the christian, utilitarianism (in simple versions) supports it. Avoiding that conclusion requires some fancy footwork, particularly when one notes that the number 100,000 can be made arbitrarily large in a thought experiment. Also one can ask utilitarians why they think an infinite number of people living on the planet is a better result than a smaller number.

There is an immediate counter to Hughes’s claim that “both states and countries with high rates of reported “happiness” also have high rates of suicide suggest that people’s answers to surveys may not always provide a reliable indicator of societal well-being, or even of happiness.” To be sure, he may be right in his premise that high happiness countries are high suicide countries. But a more reasonable interpretation of this is that people do not know if they are happy, and to bear in mind that the number of people who commit suicide is very small, and perhaps inequality in societies is a factor? Perhaps a society in which some people are very happy because they are rich, and most people are quite happy because they are quite well off, is very difficult for very poor people to live in?

I do not understand Hughes’s complaint that “Harris seems to think that free will is an illusion but also that our decisions are really driven by thoughts that arise unbidden in our brains.” He seems to think that these claims are in tension when in fact they are entirely consistent. Perhaps Hughes thinks that if a decision arises in my brain, then ipso facto I have free will, but that is in need of an argument and contrary to views in which the subconscious is prominent.

Hughes’s conclusions is well made and supported by his arguments. He writes: “Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole.” This is surely true. In fact, would not the credibility of science be enhanced by acknowledging the proper restriction of its domain? Within the empirical arena, it is supreme and unchallenged. But that’s not all there is.

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

The Existence Of The Global Poor Does Not Mean We Can Address No Other Issues

How can we reconcile the following apparent truths: ‘Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes was created by Conan Doyle’?

Problems With Quantitative Easing

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I am a former investment banking and securitisation specialist, having spent nearly a decade on the trading floor of several international investment banks. Throughout my career, I worked closely with syndicate/traders in order to establish the types of paper which would trade well and gained significant and broad experience in financial markets.
Many people have trading experience similar to the above. What marks me out is what I did next. I decided to pursue my interest in philosophy at Doctoral level, specialising in the psychology of how we predict and explain the behaviour of others, and in particular, the errors or biases we are prone to in that process. I have used my experience to write The Psychology of Successful Trading. In this book, I combine the above experience and knowledge to show how biases can lead to inaccurate predictions of the behaviour of other market participants, and how remedying those biases can lead to better predictions and major profits. Learn more on the About Me page.

9 replies on “Comment on “The Folly of Scientism””

Thank you for the link to Hughes’ article; I thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed reading your response, as well. I am an undergraduate majoring in philosophy and want to read as many philosophical thoughts as I possibly can so thanks for your post.

I’ve recently started becoming interested in philosophy of science problems, e.g., causation versus correlation. Philosophy allows us to recognize our inability in demonstrating causation, such as, causation appears to move infinitely linear, consequently, no one thing can be demonstrated to be the cause of another, or all things are, possibly, the cause of all other thing, which is contrary to the principle of locality, but a necessary outcome from the acceptance of no hidden variables in a particular. Distinguishing between what is science and philosophy is rather difficult, hence philosophy of science I suppose. The same problem of categorizing Popper as either this (philosophy) or that (science) occurs when looking at the works of Bacon, Hume, and Mill; is a theory about science actually a part of science? I agree with Hughes’ critique of Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett’s definition of science; Bacon’s a scientist because he, and others, say he is a scientist: a bit circular. I cannot make any comments about yours’ or Hughes’ thoughts concerning Quinne since I know very little of his work, but there is undoubtedly an exaltation of the scientific form, or mathematical ideal, in logical positivism; the problems of which are adequately demonstrated in the games of Wittgenstein. Hughes’ “meta-meta-laws” ad infinitum or a necessary meta-law I think is his most interesting point. Mathematical idealism, which is the inevitable outcome of Hawking’s and other’s physics, is nothing more than a supplanting of traditional theistic figures to an ideal principle, which cannot be completely understood and concludes with deification, i.e., kneel in awe before the gods of science and math. The objections raised against utilitarianism are undoubtedly relevant, but what is the alternative, the imperative? If I am that unfortunate Christian and am presented with an opportunity to lie to my Roman captors, thus escape death, and, let’s say, save 19 other Christians from eminent death, then shouldn’t I do so, and, in so doing be virtues? Yet, according to the imperative I am acting immorally, how so?

Again, thank you for your post and the link. You do not have the option to follow your page (you should do this), I would like to receive updates whenever you post.

Glad to have helped. Hughes’s piece is indeed very useful, I think. I was pointed at it by a scientist who wanted to know more about the background, so that tells us something I think.

You are right to point out the difficulties with correlation vs causation — it is a surprise that the latter can never be observed.

The relevant Quine here is probably `Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ which I would definitely recommend to you. The general Quine approach here is the holism or web of beliefs approach. Quine’s coherentism suggests that beliefs stand trial all at once; we cannot isolate single testable beliefs. One way to think about that is a kind of slippery slope approach. It is definitely clear that one belief cannot be tested alone in an experiment because you need (at least) `the experiment is functioning as I believe’, `gravity continues’ and a host of others. And then — where do you draw the line?

We should definitely always be on the lookout for circularities like the one you spot! They are everywhere.

I guess the problem in ethics is that none of the systems seem to work! So I am unattracted by arguments like `this one is less bad than that one…’!

I would be grateful if you could tell me how to let people follow my blog as you suggest…I guess it is an option somewhere…?

Good luck with the major.

Thank you for your response comment. I found a PDF of Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ and am going to start reading it today. Also, I completely agree with your critique of following any one ‘less bad’ ethical system over another; unfortunately, this implies we should follow no ethical system until we formulate an all encompassing one or we must pick and choose from each, and, if it is the latter, how do we go about the process of determining which parts we take.

I wasn’t clear enough when I suggested you provide the option of ‘following’ your blog. Each blog has a follow tab that is included on the page without the blogger having to do anything. If someone selects this, then your posts are sent to their dashboard (in the reader). But, since so many posts go up a day, they may not actually see what you have posted, even though it’s going to their reader. However, there is a setting in your widgets that allows readers the option of following your blog via email. So, every time you post something an email is sent to anyone who has selected that option informing them you have posted something, which guarantees they can read all of your posts if they choose to do so.

Thanks for the well wishes, I hope to read more of your posts in the future.

It’s a great paper; I think you will find it illuminating.

On the technical stuff, when I look at my own blog home page, I do see a +follow button so I don’t know why you aren’t seeing it really. Obviously I am more than happy for people to be notified.

Your point about the incommensurability of different ethical systems is a good one. I would take a Nietzschean perspective which I think would start by rejecting all claims of existing ethical systems to truth, and then start by asking the prior question you raise — what ethics should we have? That leads to `what is the source of value?’ and that of course is another very large question.

I am a junior in college hoping to major in Biblical Studies one day. My brother sent me “The Folly of Scientism but I cannot grasp the concept Hughes is speaking of. So what exactly is scientism in response to the article?

So I would say that `scientism’ is any of the claims that give universal authority to science. Some of these are justified. For example, the claim that science is the best way of dealing with questions like “what is the cellular structure of frogs?” seems fine to me. On the other hand, it is common to go too far and say that questions like that are the only interesting and important ones. This is false, because science cannot help me with questions like “should I get married?” And that seems like an important and interesting question!

The Folly of Scientism makes an important and critical point. Philosophy is the ” art of thinking” . Some artists are good and others are poor. The authors philosophy is excellent, and seriously needed in respect to what Sheldrake labeled the ” The Science Delusion”. Also read or view on YouTube, Biocentric science by Robert Lanza whom time magazine ranked as one of the ten most important scientist in the world today.
My personal opinion and example of scientific over reach and I might add ” poor philosophy” is the assumption, the poor philosophical assumption, that consciousness exist in the brain. There is no, evidence for this opinion, none, only dogma, science as a belief system, science as a religion. I should add as to the origins of life, i.e. consciousness, not DNA, RNA, proteins, and lipids, the theory of evolution doesn’t stand up so well. In my metaphysical mind Darwin begins to look like a monkey.


I don’t agree with any of that. Science is definitely competent to answer questions like “how did the animals and plants and humans we see around us today come to be” and there is a very large amount of extremely strong scientific evidence supporting the theory of evolution. So this would not be an example of scientism: it is not over-reach because the question is one within the proper domain of scientific enquiry.

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