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The Folly of Scientism


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Showing 1-25 of 868 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 29, 2012 2:43:58 PM PST
IFeelFree says:
Interesting recent article, "The Folly of Scientism", in the New Atlantis, by Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, Austin L. Hughes:

http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-folly-of-scientism

While I don't agree with all of the author's arguments, he does make some good points. He argues that "Scientism claims that science has already resolved questions that are inherently beyond its ability to answer", and discusses this overreach of science in the areas of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. For example, with regard to metaphysics, he writes, "Though physicists might once have been dismissive of metaphysics as mere speculation, they would also have characterized such questions as inherently speculative and so beyond their own realm of expertise". However, recently some scientists have gone further by claiming that metaphysical questions (such as "What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?") are better answered by science.

With regard to the question of "Why should anything exist at all?", Hughes brings up "Physicist Lee Smolin, in his 1997 book The Life of the Cosmos, goes one step further by applying the principles of natural selection to a multiverse model", and then criticizes the multiverse explanation for the origin of our universe, and its being finely-tuned for life to arise:

"...any particular universe may follow from the existence of a multiverse, but the existence of the multiverse remains to be explained. In particular, the universe-generating process assumed by some multiverse theories is itself contingent because it depends on the action of laws assumed by the theory. The latter might be called meta-laws, since they form the basis for the origin of the individual universes, each with its own individual set of laws. So what determines the meta-laws? Either we must introduce meta-meta-laws, and so on in infinite regression, or we must hold that the meta-laws themselves are necessary - and so we have in effect just changed our understanding of what the fundamental universe is to one that contains many universes. In that case, we are still left without ultimate explanations as to why that universe exists or has the characteristics it does."

As I said, I'm not sure I agree completely with Hughes, but he does make some interesting arguments. If I were criticizing scientism, I probably would have instead discussed consciousness and our inability to understand its nature or origin via the conventional scientific method. To my way of thinking, that is where the limits of knowledge gained via empirical (i.e., sensory) observation is most apparent.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 5:09:16 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 29, 2012 5:10:46 PM PST
Thanks, IFF. I certainly agree with the points you cite in your post. I've put it on my hard drive and will read it and muse about it starting tomorrow and then I will be ready to see what others think. I also would have put consciousness high on the list of things science can't explain -- not because it doesn't know enough, but because the questions are simply beyond the capabilities of science.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 5:33:29 PM PST
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In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 5:35:43 PM PST
Wulfwig Fox says:
I've read a fair deal of the original article.

A biologist arguing with Stephen Hawking.

He takes issue with the following opening statement of his 2010 book co-written with Mlodinow:

'What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?...Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.'

I don't see anything amiss with that paragraph.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 5:36:49 PM PST
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In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 5:40:38 PM PST
Scientists are no better or worse metaphysicians than anyone else, IMO.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 5:43:46 PM PST
The assumptions here are that everything that is unknown can become known via the scientific method, or that every question is answerable by science.

These are unproven assumptions.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 5:46:40 PM PST
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In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 5:47:36 PM PST
Wulfwig Fox says:
If it's a purely scientific debate warning against overreach or hubris, I don't mind.

But if it gets hijacked by those who want to shove science out of their domains, there's a problem, as far as I'm concerned.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 5:50:13 PM PST
Right, there's the risk of trying to apply science where it's not relevant, and the risk of trying to apply religious or philosophical beliefs where they're not relevant.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 7:12:55 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 29, 2012 7:14:04 PM PST
IFeelFree says:
MMX: My argument is this: (1) Moral perspectives evolved due to natural selection. (2) Natural selection is when a trait, such as a moral perspective, thrives because it is well-suited to a particular environment. (3) Given that the environments-of-our-ancestors are so markedly different from the environments-of-today, it is PROBABLY (note the probability-based argument) unwise to assume that ANY or ALL long-held moral perspectives are relevant today.

IFF: I think the author of this article would argue that such a view is possibly true, but is not proven. For example, it could be argued that selfishness often improves one's ability to survive. (Thus, if you stole or hoarded food during a famine, you very well might improve your chances of surviving.) If true, this would *not* favor traditional moral perspectives. Conversely, it could also be argued that if the majority of the population acts selfishly, this hurts the overall survival of that population, since each individual would be acting in ways that might improve his own survival, even at the expense of others. This would favor traditional morality -- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", etc. Science deals in matters that can be tested empirically. How do we test which of these hypotheses are correct? Or is some balance between the two (selfish vs. unselfish) give rise to the optimal survival and reproduction chances?

The author would probably disagree with you, since he appears to favor, or at least admit the possibility of, "objective ethical truths", which suggests that morality is not merely an evolutionary artifact:

"Part of this evolutionary approach to ethics tends toward a debunking of morality. Since our standards of morality result from natural selection for traits that were useful to our ancestors, the debunkers argue, these moral standards must not refer to any objective ethical truths. But just because certain beliefs about morality were useful for our ancestors does not make them necessarily false. It would be hard to make a similar case, for example, against the accuracy of our visual perception based on its usefulness to our ancestors, or against the truth of arithmetic based on the same."

In contrast, I tend to agree with the point of view of Sam Harris, who takes issue with evolutionary ethics, and favors utilitarianism -- "the central criteria for judging if a behavior is moral is whether or not it contributes to the 'well-being of conscious creatures.'" I would say that an ethical action is that which does the most good for the most people. The author, however, spends several paragraphs trying to counter Harris' point of view, but I don't find the author's arguments all that persuasive. This is one area where I disagree with Hughes.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 7:29:56 PM PST
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In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 10:55:27 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 29, 2012 11:26:43 PM PST
Ashwood says:
MMX says: "that natural selection should have favored the development of traits in human beings that lead us to distinguish truth from falsehood, on the grounds that believing false things is detrimental to fitness." ....(2) During a game against nature, the above quotation is fundamentally true.

Ash : Actually, natural selection favors traits that produce false positives.

If you think "there is a tiger in the bushes" when there is no tiger, then you waste time being overcautious.
If you think "there is no tiger in the bushes" when there is a tiger, then you have a good chance of getting mauled.

Both false beliefs are detrimental but they are not equally detrimental.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2012 8:58:54 AM PST
Jeff Marzano says:
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In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2012 9:08:20 AM PST
Jeff Marzano says:
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In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2012 9:30:11 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 30, 2012 9:30:41 AM PST
Alan says:
Jeff,

You state: "To me that type of argument is only useful to disprove a very literal interpretation of the bible about statements like God created the universe in 7 days. That is a true statement but it's not 7 of our days"

Evolution also raises questions about the story of Adam and Eve being the first man and woman. The gradual accumulation of small changes that occur through the process of evolution by natural selection means, in effect, that there cannot ever be a first male or female of any species. There never was an Adam or Eve, therefore they cannot have disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, there was in consequence no original sin, and therefore no need for Christ to be a sacrifice to atone for this non-existent original sin.

At the very least this biblical episode requires Christians to re-think how they interpret this story in a less literal way.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2012 9:45:29 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 30, 2012 9:46:25 AM PST
Agree that arguments about whether God "exists" revolve around defining what you mean by "exist". If by "exist" you mean "objectively reproducibly observable by means of the senses or their extensions, scientific instruments", i.e., exist the wasy one defines "having an actual physical existence", then of course this cannot be said to apply to a supernatural being, although one could try to argue that if the supernatural being created the natural world, the existence of the natural world would be indirect evidence for the supernatural being's existence.

Disagree that the "dark" in dark energy and dark matter means that nobody is sure they even exist. What the "dark" means in dark matter is that it doesn't interact with ordinary matter via the electromagnetic, weak or strong forces. Thus it's not detectable as something giving off light, etc. It IS detectable by its interaction with ordinary matter via the gravitational force. Thus, dark matter is the label we give to something that definitely exists, because we see its gravitational effects, but are unsure of its exact nature.

The "dark" in dark energy was coined in 1998 by analogy to the "dark" in dark matter as a form of energy which interacts only via the gravitational force. It is detectable as an acceleration of the rate of expansion of the universe. There are other explanations for this which do not involve dark energy.

Agree there may be things we'll never know but we don't know what they are and no scientists are recommending that we stop trying to figure out what is currently unknown.

Posted on Dec 30, 2012 9:55:31 AM PST
I read the Hughes' article this morning and found it fascinating. I agree with virtually everything he said that is within my knowing to understand. Much of the science that he criticizes, I have long disregarded as junk science. Consequently, I am very ignorant of its specific claims. So either disregard my ignorance or correct me, as you choose.

Among the notions that I consider junk science are those which just "make up" how the brain works rather than basing it on established biology. Kurzban's dividing the brain into independent modules is made up stuff. I am equally dismissive of the more traditional approach of characterizing the brain as a computer-like information processor.

The posts on morality are also interesting. Are we suggesting that morality is more than an artifact of a culture or family of cultures? Is there a "true" morality based on science in some way? Not in my world there is not. Am I reading this claim right? Hughes' criticisms seemed right on: Advocates of such "science-based" morality are too time-restrictive and too situation-restrictive. Plus, I have a behaviorist's suspicion of such words as "trait." They are overly-general descriptive terms that are often used to "explain" that which they describe. I am much more comfortable with operational definitions to describe phenomena and independent reductionist process descriptions to explain them.

And that gets us to consciousness. Hughes doesn't mention consciousness, but IFF does - and appropriately. Many scientists claim that biological emergence explains the origins of consciousness. Actually, no such explanation exists. What they are really saying is that when an explanation is established, they believe that it will take the form of a biological emergence explanation. The really tough part of this approach is to explain how the property of consciousness is produced. You can't just say X produces Y and Y produces Q and then - voila - consciousness appears. It has to be a real scientific explanation - functional and reductionist and persuasive.

A panpsychic explanation avoids the problem of biological emergence because it assumes that there is something that already possesses the property of consciousness. Its problem is that it leads to a totally different worldview than the current science worldview. However, it could be a relatively minor change that doesn't affect science at all - other than relieving it of the responsibility of explaining consciousness.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2012 10:42:46 AM PST
Jeff Marzano says:
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In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2012 11:07:21 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 30, 2012 11:07:56 AM PST
Alan says:
Jeff,

This is certainly a fascinating point of view.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2012 11:24:55 AM PST
Astrocat says:
"The study of the soul will before long be as legitimate and respectable an investigation as any scientific problem, such as research into the nature of the atom. The investigation of the soul and its governing laws will before long engross the attention of our finest minds. The newer psychology will eventually succeed in proving the fact of its existence, and the paralleling intuitive and instinctive response of mankind to soul nurture, emanating from the invisible side of life, will steadily and successfully prove the existence of a spiritual entity in man - an entity all-wise, immortal, divine and creative."

Esoteric Psychology, Vol. I, p. 105

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2012 11:44:12 AM PST
Can you give an example of this?

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2012 11:44:47 AM PST
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Discussion in:  Religion forum
Participants:  46
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Initial post:  Dec 29, 2012
Latest post:  Mar 9, 2014

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