Splinters in my mind
Now that school's out, I'll be able to blog more! In this post I share some thoughts in kernel form that I hope to flesh out soon in full size posts.
There are two interesting varieties of scientism: epistemological and ontological. The former claims that the methods of the (natural) sciences are the only reliable ones for obtaining knowledge of the world. The latter claims that the only things that exist in the world are those which are transparent to the methods of the sciences. Note that the two must be distinguished, as one could hold to epistemological scientism without ontological scientism (there may be entities other than scientific ones, but we don't know anything about them).
Epistemological scientism is vulnerable to at least two objections: 1) the claim that the methods of the sciences are the only reliable ones for obtaining knowledge of the world cannot itself be assessed using those methods, as one would have to assume their reliability prior to making this assessment. In other words, epistemological scientism is self-referentially incoherent. 2) Before we can even engage in science we must presuppose a host of knowledge which we did not arrive at scientifically, so science cannot be the only reliable source of knowledge. Working scientists must rely on sense perception, memories and the authority of other scientists in order to get on with their work. More interestingly, there is a good case to be made for aesthetic and moral perception as revealing truth about the world (see below).
Might one modify epistemological scientism to the thesis that, while we do sometimes obtain knowledge by other means, these means are quite fallible and that scientific methods are the MOST reliable? But this reply would fall afoul of the first objection again. How do we assess the reliability of scientific method? Any such procedure would involve relying on other sources of knowledge.
A further and more comprehensive objection is that there may be no useful way to distinguish scientific from other methods of investigation. This is known in philosophy of science as the demarcation problem. As Samir Okasha put it in his excellent Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction:
Is it actually possible to find some common feature shared by all the things we call science, and not shared by anything else? Popper assumed that the answer to this question was yes. He felt that Freud’s and Marx’s theories were clearly unscientific, so there must be some feature that they lack and that genuine scientific theories possess. But whether or not we accept Popper’s negative assessment of Freud and Marx, his assumption that science has an essential nature is questionable. After all, science is a heterogeneous activity, encompassing a wide range of different disciplines and theories. It may be that they share some fixed set of features that define what it is to be a science, but it may not. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that there is no fixed set of features that define what it is to be a ‘game’. Rather, there is a loose cluster of features most of which are possessed by most games. But any particular game may lack any of the features of the cluster and still be a game. The same may be true of science. If so, a simple criterion for demarcating science from pseudo-science is unlikely to be found. (pp.16-17)
If this is the case, we might realize that science is not discontinuous from other ways of knowing. It seems more likely to me that science is basically continuous with our everyday methods of reasoning (involving such practices as induction and inference to the best explanation), focused and refined by concentrating on questions that are uniquely amenable to empirical investigation. If science has been so spectacularly successful, that is because it has focused on questions which admit of quantification and manipulation by statistics and other technical tools (see also Susan Haack, Defending Science-Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism).
Ontological scientism is vulnerable to the 'fish-net' objection: it is like a fisherman proclaiming that fish under two inches in length do not exist because all he has ever caught using a net with two-inch wide gaps are fish greater than two inches in length! Moral facts, if they exist (and I am increasingly convinced that this cannot really be doubted), are not the kinds of facts that can be discovered simply by reading off a list of energy exchanges. A rape can be described in terms of the biology of the victim and the perpetrator without once making reference to how heinously wrong (indeed, abominable) this act is. However we come to know moral facts, they exist and thus making this a 'haunted' universe from a naturalistic perspective. Good testimonial evidence for the presence and influence of spirit-beings would also constitute a decisive challenge to ontological scientism.
The refutation of vulgar materialism
By vulgar materialism I mean a metaphysical view governed by the basic image that all the things we see around us are built up from fundamental building blocks like elementary particles, which interact mechanistically (that is, strictly according to physical principles that are 'blind' to final causes or any kind of intentionality) and combine in various ways to form the structure of the world.
There are various criticisms one might make of this view, but one that has recently been forming in my mind, which is not often encountered, is that it may be a mistake to start from the bottom when trying to understand the complexity of the world. The 'building block' model is appealingly simple, but perhaps too simple. What if fundamental particles are not actually fundamental building blocks, but merely a convenient abstraction from the more organic, continuous, intentional structures that make up the world of everyday experience? Take my arm, for example: while it makes sense for certain purposes to speak of it as if it were a detachable limb, would it really still be an arm if severed from my body? Is it not only an arm in the context of its organic connection to the rest of my body? Similarly, elementary particles can be said to be building blocks, as it is a heuristically helpful image, but perhaps we should take a top-down instead of bottom-up understanding of matter, where instead of viewing objects as composites of fundamental building blocks, we should view them as objections which can be heuristically decomposed into various components, but the reality is at the macro rather than the micro-level.
I know this would be a pretty big departure from standard ways of thinking about the world, so take this with a grain of salt. But it seems that some approaches such as Whitehead's process approach move in this direction, and Whitehead was no scientific slouch.