Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Fallacy of Scientism

Ladybug, on my laptop power cord.

I sometimes run into someone who believes that science will eventually answer all of life's Big Questions (such as free will, purpose, meaning, and morality).  I hear this I wonder things such as: What does this person mean when they use the word 'science'? Do they understand that 'science' cannot give us 'value'? And that, since 'science' is a tool in the hands of 'scientists," 'science' explains nothing, but 'scientists do'?

I remain forever thankful to my undergraduate exposure to issues in the philosophy of science. They forever exorcised the demon of scientism out of me.

There's a nice article on the fallacy of scientism and the limits of science in today's nytimes - "Seeing Is Unbelieving," by Columbia University philosopher Philip Kitcher.

"Scientism" is the belief that:
  1. microphysics determines all of reality;
  2. Darwinian natural selection explains human behavior; and
  3. neuroscience shows us as we really are.
To illustrate the limits of science Kitcher uses the "evangelical scientism" of Alex Rosenberg's The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. Because, for Rosenberg, science explains all, "morality, purpose and the quaint conceit of an enduring self all have to go."

Kitcher finds such conclusions "premature." And, in some cases, in principle impossible. He writes:

"Although microphysics can help illuminate the chemical bond and the periodic table, very little physics and chemistry can actually be done with its fundamental concepts and methods, and using it to explain life, human behavior or human society is a greater challenge still. Many informed scholars doubt the possibility, even in principle, of understanding, say, economic transactions as complex interactions of subatomic particles. Rosenberg’s cheerful Darwinizing is no more convincing than his imperialist physics, and his tales about the evolutionary origins of everything from our penchant for narratives to our supposed dispositions to be nice to one another are throwbacks to the sociobiology of an earlier era, unfettered by methodological cautions that students of human evolution have learned: much of Rosenberg’s book is evolutionary psychology on stilts. Similarly, the neuroscientific discussions serenely extrapolate from what has been carefully demonstrated for the sea slug to conclusions about Homo sapiens. "

The natural sciences do command admiration. The Big Questions (purpose, free will, morality) remain, and may be forever out of the reach of any scientific knowledge the future may bring.