Thursday, October 3, 2013

Science Doesn't Have All the Answers but Does It Have All the Questions?

Jerry Coyne has been following the debate between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier on the topic of scientism [see The final round: Pinker vs. Wieseltier on scientism]. Jerry seems to agree with both Pinker and Wieseltier that there are "two magisteria" (science and humanities) ...

[Wieseltier] calls for a “two magisteria” solution, with science and humanities kept separate, but with “porous boundaries.” But that is exactly what Pinker called for, too! Wieseltier claims that Pinker and other advocates of scientism advocate “totalistic aspirations,” i.e., the complete takeover of humanities by the sciences (“unified field theories,” Wieseltier calls them), but Pinker explicitly said that he wasn’t calling for that.


As you can see above, Steve never argued that science is, or should be, supreme in all the contexts. Indeed, in his earlier piece he noted that art and literature, while they might be informed in some ways by science, nevertheless have benefits independent of science. To me, those benefits include affirming our common humanity, being moved by the plight of others, even if fictional, and luxuriating in the sheer beauty of music, words, or painting. (Note, though, that one day science might at least explain why we apprehend that beauty.)
I'm not sure how Pinker, Wieseltier, and Coyne are defining science but it's clear that they aren't using the same definition I use.

I think that science is a way of knowing based on evidence and logic and healthy skepticism. I think that all disciplines seeking knowledge use the scientific approach. This is the broad definition of science used by many philosophers and scientists.

Maarten Boudry discusses, and accepts, this definition in his chapter on "Loki's Wager and Lauden's Error" in Philosophy of Pseudescience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. Boudry says that the distinction between the ways of knowing used by biologists, philosophers, and historians are meaningless and there's no easy way to distinguish them (territorial demarcation). On the other hand, there is a way to distinguish between good scientific reasoning and bad scientific reasoning like Holocaust denial.
I have expressed little confidence in the viability of the territorial demarcation problem, and even less interest in solving it. Not only is there no clear-cut way to disentangle epistemic domains like science and philosophy, but such a distinction carries little epistemic weight. The demarcation problem that deserves our attention is the one between science and pseudoscience (and the analogous ones between philosophy and pseudophilosophy and between history and pseudohistory).
Sven Ove Hanson is more specific because he actually defines "science in a broad sense" in a way that I have been using it for several decades. This is from his chapter on "Defining Pseudoscience and Science" in Philosophy of Pseudescience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem.
Unfortunately neither "science" nor any other established term in the English language covers all the disciplines that are parts of this community of knowledge disciplines. For lack of a better term, I will call them "science(s) in the broad sense." (The German word "Wissenschaft," the closest translation of "science" into that language, has this wider meaning; that is, it includes all the academic specialties, including the humanities. So does the Latin "scientia.") Science in a broad sense seeks knowledge about nature (natural science), about ourselves (psychology and medicine), about our societies (social science and history), about our physical constructions (technological science), and about our thought construction (linguistics, literary studies, mathematics, and philosophy). (Philosophy, of course, is a science in this broad sense of the word.)
If this is what we mean by science" then there's no difference between the ways we try to acquire knowledge in the humanities or the natural sciences and the debate between Pinker and Wieseltier takes on an entirely different meaning.

There aren't "two magisteria" but only one. Unless, of course, someone is willing to propose a successful non-scientific way of knowing. I have asked repeatedly for examples of knowledge ("truth") that have been successfully acquired by any other way of knowing. So far, nobody has come up with an answer so we can tentatively conclude that science (in the broad sense) is the only valid way of acquiring true knowledge.

Clearly we don't have all the answers to everything so it's clear that neither science nor anything else has all the answers. What about the questions? Are there any knowledge questions that science (in the broad sense) can't address? I don't think there are. I think "science" covers all the questions even though it doesn't (yet) have all the answers.

If this is "scientism" then I'm guilty. What is the alternative? Is it revelation (revealed truth)? Or is there some other way of knowing that I haven't heard about?