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Scientism

Well, if my encounters with the Mormons have taught me one thing, it is not to approach serious questions with a tone of light mockery. I am still in a state of shock that anyone would think my real target was the Mormons rather than myself. I thought it was obvious that I was criticizing Michael Ruse for being willing to vote for or against a presidential candidate on mere prejudice. I assumed that not even my worst enemies – the New Atheists for example – would think that I would make a decision based on a 19th-century detective story (Sherlock Holmes).

Oh well. If nothing else, the episode brought home how truly the religious mind is a total mystery to me. I am not just talking about the Mormons – golden plates, creatures from outer space, blokes who spend three days in a grave and then get up and walk out – it’s all beyond my ken. I grew up as a Quaker and believed some of that stuff until I was about 20, and then like a passion for baked beans (I kid you not) and an obsession with stamp collecting, it all just faded away. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” I wonder who first said that? (Just joking folks! Just joking! I know it was Abraham Lincoln when he got his first pair of long pants.)

I thought that perhaps when I grew old, I might get scared and come back, but at 71 I find a gentle agnosticism suits me just fine. But then there are days when I realize that the scientific mind is just as much a mystery to me. I really respect David Barash, I really do. He stood up to the bullying of Stephen Jay Gould with courage and spirit. He has a passion for peace that makes me truly humble. He loves nature like Thoreau and he is clearly a wonderful teacher. In short he is a terrific human being. And then he starts to talk about the nature of science and I realize that we are in different worlds. Mormons on the one side, scientists on the other.

I love science, and you should, too, if only because it provides us with the best (perhaps the only) way of genuinely knowing the world.

What on earth induces someone to say that? Of course, if you are talking about empirical matters it is true. You want to find out about geology, go to a scientist and not to the Bible. But there is so much more about genuine knowledge of the world that science simply doesn’t even touch.

Start with mathematics. It can be applied to the world, but does anyone really think that it is a matter of generalizing from experience? What about the Euler identity? It is true. It is beautiful. But what’s it about? To be honest, I am not quite sure what it is. As one who has an undergraduate degree in mathematics, I am half inclined to Platonism, thinking it describes an ideal world of ultimate reality. But one thing I do know. It isn’t science. (And if you object that because it is about an ideal world then it isn’t about our world, you still have the very non-scientific question of how claims about the ideal world apply to things going on in our physical world.)

Go on to morality. Take the appalling story of the mother who shot herself and her children in a Texas welfare office. Everything that is coming out suggests that there was a dreadful breakdown of services there. I say the authorities should be ashamed of themselves; we as part of the society should all be ashamed of ourselves. I think this is true. It is about the world as much as the fact that the DNA molecule is a double helix. But it isn’t a scientific statement. David Hume taught us that you cannot justify matters of morality on the basis of matters of fact.

Continue with the kind of discussion we are having now. The very statement that science is the best and perhaps the only way to genuine knowledge of the world is no scientific statement. It is a meaningful statement and it is a meaningful statement about the world, but it isn’t something you are going to find under a microscope.

I am sorry if I sound a bit cross about all of this. I realize that, living in Florida and working at a public university, I am a bit sensitive about the worth of subjects like philosophy and other areas in the humanities. We are increasingly under attack from politicians who think that because we don’t immediately cure pains in the belly or make better widgets we must be useless and therefore eliminable.

I have spent over 30 years fighting religious fanatics and am used to being roughed up by them. But increasingly I am noticing that scientists are arguing that if it isn’t science then it isn’t genuine. I should say that this is a two-way thing. I am shocked and ashamed of how many of my fellow philosophers don’t respect science and its achievements. I will get to this in the next week or so. For the moment, let me simply beg the scientific community not to fall into the trap of the religious and think that they uniquely have the answers to every question worth asking. The questions I posed above are really worth asking and if you disagree then it is back to John Stuart Mill yet again. Pigs and fools only think they know better because they are ignorant.

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