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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Modern Moral Philosophy by Anscombe: Summary

1 Critical Summary

Three theses:
– moral philosophy unprofitable
– concepts like `moral duty’ useless since assume obsolete background
– all modern (1958) English moral philosophy basically similar

General assault on all moral philosophers
– Butler said to `exalt conscience’; Anscombe objects that someone’s conscience can tell them to do vile things
– But Butler can respond by denying this — perhaps people sometimes act against their consciences

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Kant attacked for concept of `legislating for oneself’
– Said to be too legalistic, but this is not what Kant means
– Instead, he relies on the intuition that if action X is right in situation A, then it always will be in similar situations to A
– Anscombe does have a good response here which is to demand specifications of sufficient relevant similarity in A situations

Mill suffers from the same description problem: is it `murder’ or `mercy killing’?
– Without an answer to this, we cannot resolve conflict among utilitarian rules

Anscombe on Hume similarly bizarre to Schopenhauer on Kant i.e. sees all the right answers from all the wrong arguments
– Hume’s arguments moving from `is’ to `owes’ are as inadequate as the ones he castigates for moving from `is’ to ‘ought’; leads to a consideration of `brute facts’

Brute facts
– `He had potatoes carted to my house’ and `they were left there’ are brute facts relative to \he supplied me with potatoes”
– If xyz is a set of facts brute relative to a description A, then xyz is a set out of a range some set among which holds if A holds
– But no set among xyz entails A because exceptional circumstances can always make a difference
– Anscombe now admits the possibility of a transition from `is’ to `owes’ or to `needs’; does not sit well with her previous comments on Hume
– Injustice can now be defined as a set of sub-infringements such as `bilking’; this infraction will have a set of `brute facts’ associated
with it so we can derive a definition
– Need positive account of justice as virtue to show that an unjust man is a bad man: without this moral philosophy cannot proceed
– Legal conception of ethics inherited from religion a mistake; Aristotle believes virtue more a settled state of character than capable of being destroyed by single infractions
– Modern conceptions of obligation or ought-statements as law-like mistaken because there is no longer a law-giver { Nietzsche…
– `Less brute facts’: `is’-statements about a plant for example can lead to `needs’ statements if we want the plant to survive viz. the plant `ought’ to have water if it is going to flourish
– But this says nothing about whether the plant ought to flourish; so still no moral guidance here
– So Hume has shown just that `needs’, `owes’ statements are just variants of `is’-statements i.e. types of fact

Further claim that one cannot even derive `morally ought’ statements from each other, because the term has ceased to have other than
`mesmeric’ force
– Seems too strong; implies that we cannot get to `we ought not to torture cats’ from `we ought not to torture animals’

Utilitarianism and deontology both inadequate
– Cannot derive principle of utility from itself
– Similarly, cannot derive support for `divine law ought to be obeyed’ from within divine law
– Non-divine versions of deontology could be considered
Kant employs a deity but neo-Kantians need not

Virtue Ethics Introduced
– Since no content can be given to `morally wrong’, it would be an improvement to replace that sort of term by analogs of `unjust’
– Sometimes this would clarify viz. while we do not know whether something is `wrong’ we may know more quickly that it is unjust

Contra-utliititarianism again
– Utilitarianism as stated at that time would not allow e.g. absolute prohibition on killing the innocent for any purpose whatsoever
– Using something more modern like Nozick’s rules as side constraints might be more successful
– But unfair to criticize Anscombe for not anticipating future variants

All utilitarianisms incompatible with judaic religions since do not allow for any absolute prohibitions e.g. idolatry, adultery etc.
– Anscombe counts this as a criticism without admitting her own religious perspective; `the zeal of the converted’
– This is then taken to be so devastating as to render insignificant all other differences between the philosophers under consideration thus making out thesis three

– Criticism as `dull’ and `vulgar’ too ad hom to be useful
– Complains that Sidgwick obviously wrong when he thinks that the reason for blasphemy rules is to prevent oense to
believers without giving an alternative

Sidgwick’s argument that one must intend all foreseen consequences of a voluntary action attacked
– A man who must choose between a disgraceful act and going to prison may not intend to withdraw child support even if that is
a consequence of going to prison
– Anscombe’s criticism fails, for the man has here weighed up the choices including the withdrawal of support and judged them better than the disgraceful act
– `a man is responsible for the bad consequences of his bad actions, but gets no credit for the good ones’ { far too gloomy/Roman/asymmetric
– Similarly, consequentialism attacked for being akin to consideration of temptation

– Previous point about `no law without a law-giver’ revisited with the aim of reviving the law-giver — this is disingenuous
– Criticism of Sidgwick et al as `conventional’ has no force because absent an argument that the conventions are wrong; some societies would be acceptable to Anscombe — nunneries perhaps
– Criticism of society as source of norms includes the consequence that `it might lead one to eat the weaker according to the laws of
nature’ indicates that Anscombe does in fact understand the naturalistic fallacy despite her protestations to the contrary

Distinction introduced between `morally wrong’ and unjust; illustrated by idea of judicially punishing an innocent man { this could be morally right but could not be just

We are not even permitted to consider execution to save millions; we have `corrupt minds’ if it is even a question!

2 Questions

1. How is Anscombe’s paper a response to Prichard?

(a) Prichard argues that contemporary (1912) moral philosophy rests on a mistake, being the belief that it is possible to answer the question `what ought we we to do?’ analytically or provide a proof that the dictates of conscience are in fact correct.
(b) Anscombe would share Prichard’s lack of faith in the current state of moral philosophy in her era, but would presumably differ from him in employing a divine law-giver to guarantee the dictates of conscience.

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2. How does Anscombe think a `virtues’ approach to morality would differ from `traditional’ approaches?

(a) It avoids the errors associated with utlititarianism (not self-sufficient, no allowance for absolute prohibitions) and deontology (not self-sufficient, who is the law-giver when not divine).
(b) It is unclear why Anscombe thinks that religions are self-sufficient other than by assertion or why absolute prohibitions are good.

3. What are `brute facts’, and how do they work in her theory of evaluation?

(a) Some among a range of facts which must be true if A holds.
(b) If A is an infraction of virtue e.g. an injustice, then some set of brute facts must also be true, consideration of which should allow
discrimination of whether there has in fact been injustice.

4. Does the theory preserve the `moral ought’?
(a) The initial line appears to be that no sense can be given to the term within the context of current moral philosophy.
(b) This is later { again, disingenuously { treated as a reductio i.e. we must in fact have the law-giver because we must have the `moral
ought’ with the force of divine/external law and we cannot get that otherwise

G E M Anscombe
Modern Moral Philosophy
Philosophy Vol. 33, No. 124, Jan. 1958

See Also:

Anscombe on Intentionality of Sensation: Summary

Putnam on Functionalism: Summary

Nietzsche On Memory: Outline

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”



Spinoza’s Style Of Argument In Ethics I

The Ethics are set out in geometrical form, an arrangement intended to parallel the canonical example of a rigorous structure of argument producing unquestionable results: the example being the geometry of Euclid. The structure is synthetic rather than analytic; Spinoza begins with definitions and axioms and then derives the consequences. Both definitions and axioms are intended to carry high levels of certainty. The axioms are supposed to be indubitably true, to reflect ‘common notions’. The definitions could in principle be regarded as less certain; they could be regarded as stipulated, with the remainder of the results being of the form that if the definitions are true, then the results are true. While this is possible, we can take it that Spinoza believes his definitions are also in fact truly reflective of reality.

However, there are immediate difficulties. We open with “by cause of itself, I understand that whose essence involves existence” . We must be careful here because it already involves a variant of the ontological argument. Essence is generally defined as a property without which something cannot exist. So the definition refers to something that cannot exist without existing, which in fact has either no referents or encompasses the whole universe and thus has no explanatory power. Spinoza will later employ this ontological argument, and so if we accept it here, we must accept his subsequent position.

The axioms also display varying levels of certainty. Axiom 1 has the form (A v ~A): “Each thing that exists exists either in itself or in something else” . This of course is certain as it stands, though we must take note of the dichotomy introduced and its subsequent use, which may be less certain. On the other hand, axiom 4 seems more questionable: “Knowledge of an effect depends on the knowledge of the cause” . This seems to confuse ontology and epistemology. Hume would argue that we never observe cause or effect, merely constant conjunction. Even when setting that aside, there are manifold examples of situations wherein we claim to have knowledge of an effect without knowing anything of its cause. A child can observe a ship sinking without knowing anything about metal fatigue. The same objection applies to definition 4. Spinoza’s rigid determinism is expressed in axiom 3: “From a given determinate cause there necessarily follows an effect”

Spinoza’s three major concepts are substance, attribute and mode. A substance is any self-sufficient entity that can be conceived solely through itself. An attribute is an essential property of a substance. A mode, or affection, is the opposite of a substance in that it can only exist as a way of being of something else, i.e. it cannot be understood through itself solely. Spinoza espouses monism in the physical realm at least, and in p5, he brings these concepts together to argue that there is only one substance: “There cannot exist in the universe two or more substances of the same […] attribute” .

The argument proceeds via the claim that substances could only be distinguished either by having different attributes or different modes. If the former is the case, Spinoza has made his point; if the latter, then Spinoza claims that a difference merely in mode is insufficient to make a distinction.

Bennett holds that Spinoza commits the modal fallacy in this p5: the claim is that Spinoza has invalidly argued from (Fx and possibly Fy) to possibly (Fx and Fy). The inference is indeed logically invalid from the following substitution: x = the first student in the room, y = the second student in the room, F = the property of being the oldest student in the room. Spinoza is supposed to have done this in the move from ‘two substances x and y differ only modally’ to ‘two substances x and y could become the same and thus really be one substance’. However, a more charitable interpretation here would allow that Spinoza is guilty not of an error but of a suppressed assumption, viz. that a substance can be in any mode and may move freely among them irrespective of whether any other putative substance is already ‘occupying’ that mode. While this should have been spelt out, it does not seem a fatal error.

In p7, Spinoza introduces his version of the ontological argument: “It belongs to the nature of substance to exist” . Spinoza must be using his own definition of ‘substance’. In the tradition, the term is often associated with Aristotle, who would not have understood the idea of a single substance. “That Aristotle accepted it as a consequence of the identity of a substance with its essence that an individual substance like Socrates or Callias was identical with his essence may be disputed.”

While we do find support here for Spinoza’s line that a substance and its essence are identical, Aristotle clearly holds that there are multiple substances, as does Descartes. This would be a problem for Spinoza at this point, because then his version of the ontological argument would be open to the standard ‘floodgates’ objection, whereby if we can define a perfect dog or perfect island, then these must exist. It could be a neat inversion of the problem for Spinoza to claim that since he has used the ontological argument and this objection can be made when there are multiple substances, then there can be only one substance. There will also turn out to be a theological argument, because there cannot be more than one perfect being: the existence of one would impair the putative perfection of the other. Since Spinoza will later argue for the identity of the one substance, the universe and a perfect being, this line carries weight from his perspective.

Nevertheless, p5 and p7 are incompatible with a traditional definition of ‘substance’. Charlton considers various solutions to this, including Russell’s view that a substance is something self-causing – note the consistency of this with definition 1 and the fittingness that Spinoza should open his treatise with a reference, albeit disguised, to a perfect being. Also mentioned is Curley’s view that a substance is anything that is independent of everything else.

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It is held in p8 that “every substance is necessarily infinite” . Spinoza needs this because following his identification of the one substance with a perfect being, he will be open to a concern of Descartes that finitude is “unworthy of the divine nature” in Spinoza’s own later comment on the problem. The solution is that nothing external can act on the perfect being or limit it if it is infinite.

Spinoza aims to support his argument in p7 in p8s: “If anyone were to say, therefore, that he has a clear and distinct, that is true idea of substance and yet doubts whether such a substance exists, then that would be the same as if he were to say, if you please, that he has a true idea and yet is inclined to think that it may be false”.

Spinoza has adopted Descartes’ clear and distinct perception test of truth. The form of the argument is a reductio, because the consequent that someone could simultaneously consider a proposition to be false and true at the same time is clearly unappealing. But whether the antecedent entails the consequent seems open to question. It appears that Spinoza subscribes to a correspondence theory of truth, in that if a proposition is true then there is, following Aquinas, an adaequatio intellectus et rei, meaning that what is in the mind corresponds well or adequately to a real entity. Spinoza often speaks of adequate ideas later in his work.

So the current argument viewed in this light seems to say that if someone considers that they have a clear and distinct idea of substance, then that idea is true, which means it is adequate, which means that it must correspond to something existing in the world. Objections to this would include the point that the clarity and distinctness test may not actually be a valid guide to truth, and in fact Descartes needs the existence of a perfect being as a guarantor of that. This is fine for Descartes, but Spinoza does not have a perfect being who is personal; his perfect being is one infinite substance comprising all that there is, and taking no interest in humanity: such an entity would not seem likely to confer guarantees. Further, to what extent is it reasonable to claim that we can have a clear and distinct perception of infinity? Also a variant of the argument from illusion may be relevant here, in that we often have clear and distinct perceptions of false propositions that we must correct by reason.

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Later in this same section, Spinoza gives an interesting further demonstration by considering a universe comprising 20 men. Since he is determinist, each man must have a cause. But “the true definition of man does not involve the number 20” as may be appreciated from the fact that a different number could have been chosen. So the cause must be external, and “everything of whose nature several individuals can exist must necessarily have an external cause” . This is neat, because it reinforces Spinoza’s line on substance as being single and self-caused, and is a good example of his style of argument.

See Also:

Husserl’s Phenomenological Reduction: What Is It And Why Does Husserl Believe It To Be Necessary?

Does Nietzsche Favor Master Morality Over Slave Morality?

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

Why Kids Are Robots


Spinoza, Ethics, Ed. and Tr. G H R Parkinson, Oxford University Press, 2000 (henceforward Ethics), p. 75, def. 1
Ethics, p. 77
J Bennett, A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, Hackett Publishing Company, 1984
Ethics, p. 78
M. J. Woods, ‘Substance and Essence in Aristotle’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 75, (1974 – 1975), pp. 167-180
William Charlton, ‘Spinoza’s Monism’, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 90, No. 4 (Oct., 1981), pp. 503-529