iSoul In the beginning is reality

A sensible biologist

Some sensible thoughts and observations from an evolutionary biologist: The Folly of Scientism by Austin L. Hughes, Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina.

A few excerpts:

All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.

To take an obvious example, scientists can be prone to errors of elementary logic, and these can often go undetected by the peer review process and have a major impact on the literature — for instance, confusing correlation and causation, or confusing implication with a biconditional. Philosophy can provide a way of understanding and correcting such errors. It addresses a largely distinct set of questions that natural science alone cannot answer, but that must be answered for natural science to be properly conducted.

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.

  1. V. O. Quine was one of the first modern philosophers to apply evolutionary concepts to epistemology, when he argued in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (1969) 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.

But there is little reason to suppose that natural selection would have favored the ability or desire to perceive the truth in all cases, rather than just some useful approximation of it. Indeed, in some contexts, a certain degree of self-deception may actually be advantageous from the point of view of fitness.

These invocations of evolution also highlight another common misuse of evolutionary ideas: namely, the idea that some trait must have evolved merely because we can imagine a scenario under which possession of that trait would have been advantageous to fitness. Unfortunately, biologists as well as philosophers have all too often been guilty of this sort of invalid inference. Such forays into evolutionary explanation amount ultimately to storytelling rather than to hypothesis-testing in the scientific sense. For a complete evolutionary account of a phenomenon, it is not enough to construct a story about how the trait might have evolved in response to a given selection pressure; rather, one must provide some sort of evidence that it really did so evolve. This is a very tall order, especially when we are dealing with human mental or behavioral traits, the genetic basis of which we are far from understanding.

If the great unwashed are out-reproducing the genteel classes, that can only imply that it is the great unwashed who are the fittest — not the supposed “winners” in the economic struggle. It is the genteel classes, with their restrained reproduction, who are the unfit. So the foundations of eugenics are complete nonsense from a Darwinian point of view.

True ethical statements — if indeed they exist — are of a very different sort from true statements of arithmetic or observational science. One might argue that our ancestors evolved the ability to understand human nature and, therefore, they could derive true ethical statements from an understanding of that nature. But this is hardly a novel discovery of modern science: Aristotle made the latter point in the Nicomachean Ethics.

The positivist tradition in philosophy gave scientism a strong impetus by denying validity to any area of human knowledge outside of natural science. More recent advocates of scientism have taken the ironic but logical next step of denying any useful role for philosophy whatsoever, even the subservient philosophy of the positivist sort. But the last laugh, it seems, remains with the philosophers — for the advocates of scientism reveal conceptual confusions that are obvious upon philosophical reflection. Rather than rendering philosophy obsolete, scientism is setting the stage for its much-needed revival.

Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence. One longs for a new Enlightenment to puncture the pretensions of this latest superstition.

April 2013

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