On Old School Scientism

by F.

The so-called “problem of induction” gripped me when I first read about in in David Hume’s work. Essentially, the problem is this: Why do we believe that scientific reasoning is any good?

The answer Hume suggested is that we have seen scientific reasoning work. It has worked in the past, and so we conclude it will work in the future.

But a moment’s reflection shows that this reason assumes the truth of what we are trying to prove. We use scientific reasoning to prove that science works, and that doesn’t feel right: we could do the same thing with astrology, or tea-leaf reading, or any other pseudoscience. “Why do you think the Bible is the revealed word of God?” you might ask a Christian. “Because God says so in the Bible.” Same thing.

I think this problem gripped me because I did—and still do—think of scientific knowledge as the only knowledge we will ever have. So this problem rocked me. If we don’t have science, then we have nothing. That’s the way it felt. Some of the emotional effect of this idea was probably due to things like my age (late adolescence). A human brain radically reorganizing itself gets upset easily.

A succession of smart folks have worked on this “problem” of induction (scientific reasoning) and mostly the so-called solutions are just a waste of ink. However, I still believe that Wesley Salmon and Hans Reichenbach essentially solved the problem. They showed that it is rational to trust scientific reasoning over any alternative. Is this method (science) foolproof? No. Of course not. But not much—perhaps nothing—is. There are a lot of subtle discussions about this problem, but I don’t think they add much: they are just the product of various philosophers creating products to sell so they can get tenure.

The pith of Salmon and Reichenbach’s solution is beautiful. Scientific reasoning has a wonderful property, they say: it is omnivorous.

So suppose that some other form of reasoning—astrology—suddenly started yielding correct predictions about the future. Would that undermine scientific reasoning? No. Because scientific reasoning would take astrology as a subject and incorporate it into the scientific toolkit. Scientific reasoning doesn’t care what it eats: it just wants correct answers, where correct means something like “generates more-or-less accurate predictions about the future” and corresponds to measurable data.

Scientific reasoning can be agnostic as to what the the world is “really like.” We well never, I don’t think, know what the world is “really like out there” beyond our senses, for a simple reason: we have no mind-indpendent way to understand this “world out there.” Any perception of the world comes either through our senses—eyes, say—or the senses of someone else—the eyes of some one else. So human knowledge will always be biased or limited by our sensory and cognitive apparatus, however it is augmented by tools like electron microscopes. While many people have historically worried about this issue of “Realism”, it’s hard to see why. To me at least.

But back to so-called “other ways of knowing,” like astrology. The short answer is that there are none because as soon as these “other ways of knowing” start getting right answers, science consumes them. This is why I’m with E.O. Wilson, who essentially thinks that there is only science, and all else is entertainment.

Does this mean that entertainment has no value? Not at all! Entertainment is entertaining. But it’s important to use the right tool for the right job. If I want to be distracted or motivated or jerked out of a bad mood, I’ll go see a comedy. Does Borat describe reality? Not really, but that’s not it’s job. It’s a tool used for something else. Everything is a tool.

What about novels and culture and stuff like that? These things have two benefits. One is what I’ve just described: entertainment value. The other, though, is data collection. Novels and stories and cultural artifacts generate data that can be used scientifically. This is why pseudoscience can actually be quite useful—it can become science.

Take herbal medicine. Mostly, there no reason at all to think it does anything. It may have a placebo effect, which is fine. But when the herbal medicine practitioner says, “If you eat these dried bat wings, you’ll be more fertile,” there is no evidence to support that view, most likely. It is “folk wisdom.” Folk wisdom can be right; but it can also be wrong. For instance, “In order to get a dog to love you, you have to beat it.” Or: “You get what you deserve and deserve what you get.” Tell that to someone in Darfur.

But an open mind is useful here. Pseudosciences have a wonderful use: they generate scientific hypotheses. Bat wings increase fertility? Let’s test that. If it’s right, that’s great—we have a new fertility treatment. Scientific reasoning doesn’t care where the hypothesis came from. It only cares that it works. Science is omnivorous and promiscuous—like us. Aspirin was, at one time, an herbal remedy.

Data is the same. Suppose the herbal medicine practitioner tells you that 90% of couples using the bat-wing treatment conceive within a month. Is it true? Let’s check. Let’s get our rulers and go measure the world and see what we find. Is it right, or not?

I was reading Nietzsche the other night—The Gay Science. I love Nietzsche’s work. But he says a lot of stuff that can be shown to be false now, over one-hundred years after he wrote. Not the stuff where he says, “I feel like such-and-such.” Introspective reports like that, for now, can’t be shown to be true or to be false. I think this will change as neuroscience progresses.

But he says things about how the mind works—how we become happy, how we become sad. Sweeping generalizations about you and me and everyone we know. These kinds of generalizations can be right or wrong, scientifically speaking. This is why there are not “two cultures,” the humanities and the sciences, where the former are a “different kind of knowledge.” There is only one kind of knowledge. It’s called science. The “other culture” is just waiting to be either consumed by science or spit out as poison.

Sadly, ideology fills the gap left by an absence of facts. Elections are coming up here is the US and there is a lot of talk about macroeconomic policy and geopolitics. I hate this because there is very little evidence discussed. The correct answer in the absence of evidence is “I don’t know.” It is not, “It must be this way, because that is the way I want it to be.”

The flip side of thinking in terms of “two cultures, science and the humanities” is thinking that there is science and then there is a world of “values”—of ideology. There isn’t. That’s an illusion. It’s another gap. Science will gradually, I predict, erode this gap. Dan Dennett talks about Darwinian reasoning as “universal acid.” Scientific reasoning is the real universal acid, something we need more of, not less.

Now what about religion? Recently, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have been getting a lot of ink over their books, which they’ve been pimping. I’m an atheist, so I agree with their views. But I think they are absolutely wasting their time trying to convert people to atheism. The way to generate more atheists is to increase scientific understanding, because science crowds out bullshit—to the extent necessary. There will, I would say, always be religion, just like there will always be music. But it’s domain will be reduced and reduced and reduced. That will make it less dangerous.

Dawkins and Harris want to take candy from a bunch of babies. What will happen? The babies will cry. Dawkins and Harris should work instead on providing a substitute: give the kids an aspartame sucker. It time, they’ll forget about the difference.

And then there are the benefits to religion. Are there any? I don’t know, but I suspect that there are. Who is to say how it nets out? I don’t know. Do Dawkins and Harris? They seem to. But I think their confidence is based on more than the evidence. It’s based on ideology.

Is religion “wrong” in the sense that it’s not science, that it says false things, like the earth is 6,000 years old? Of course. But does it have a use? Maybe. And do the benefits of its use outweigh the costs? Maybe. I don’t know. And, I suspect, neither do they. I’ve browsed these books and don’t see many numbers. Where is the science to back up these claims?

I read a lot of science blogs and I hear scientists bitching a lot about “intelligent design” and the “war on science.” Is it real? Sure. Is it a problem? Seems like it, but I don’t have the facts. But a lot of this bitching is about funding, I suspect. Many scientists are on the dole. The other thing scientists bitch about is getting turned down for grants. They don’t want to get off the dole, so if certain kids of research are outlawed, funding for that research will start to dry up.

Now, note well that I think it’s fine for scientists to be on the dole. I think scientific research is like parks: it’s a public good that should be funded through redistribution of wealth. But I suspect this is where much of the anger over ID comes from: fear of funding cuts. Ideology, as I said, substitutes for facts, but it also substitutes for material needs.

This is the age of facts. Of data. In the old days, before Macs and Google and Wi-Fi, you would get into arguments with your friends over something like the definition of word. Think about that? Are you old enough to remember those days? “I think bagatelle means X.” “No! It means Y.” Or maybe you’d argue about the population of Uruguay. I mean, argue. Now you look it up right there, on the spot, and then get on with life. Why would you argue about a fact? You either know it or you don’t. If you don’t, find out. The problem in the old days was that you couldn’t find it. Now you can.

Soon, I hope, it will be that way over everything. Infotopia, as Cass Sustein says. We will turn into the fact society, and ideology will be on the run. If we have arguments it will be over things like sample size and significance, not sweeping ideological claims that can neither be confirmed or denied, like “homosexuality is wrong.” Wrong? What does that mean?

It means you don’t have the facts.