A Guide to Reality, Part 3

Continuing to work through The Atheist’s Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenberg:

Professor Rosenberg begins chapter 1 by explaining why he’s not going to spend much time arguing for atheism: others, especially David Hume, have already done that quite well; such arguments, even very good ones, don’t convince true believers; and anyway, it’s more important to understand how science can help us live without illusions than to keep talking about religion.

Instead, Rosenberg is going to discuss a view called “scientism”. As he notes, “scientism” is usually applied in a negative way to people who supposedly worship science, or try to extend it beyond its natural borders, or simply take it too seriously. Rosenberg welcomes the term, defining it this way:

[Scientism] is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when “complete”, what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today (6-7).

The idea that the current scientific description of the word is fundamentally accurate is known among philosophers as “scientific realism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as “a positive epistemic attitude towards the content of our best [scientific] theories and models, recommending belief in both observable and unobservable aspects of the world described by the sciences”. In other words, science is a highly reliable way to acquire knowledge of the world. Science allows us to learn about the world as it is, independent of our minds. Science even allows us to find out about things we can’t directly observe, like the Big Bang and sub-atomic particles.

Rosenberg is clearly a scientific realist. Not all philosophers are (they, in fact, disagree to some extent about what science is). But Rosenberg’s scientism goes beyond simple scientific realism when he asserts that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything”.

Maybe he’s exaggerating on purpose (not something philosophers ordinarily do), but are you and I doing science when we look out the window and agree that it’s snowing? Is a student doing science when she concludes that Socrates was mortal if Socrates was a man and all men are mortal? As Rosenberg knows, of course, science relies on occasionally unreliable activities like seeing and hearing in order to gather evidence. Even though scientists don’t rely on a single person’s observations, they do use the same perceptual abilities the rest of us employ to acquire knowledge. In addition, most of us would agree that people clearly know lots of things that aren’t “scientific” in the usual sense (including math, logic, historical facts, cultural practices and whether the Ford is in the driveway).

Perhaps it’s enough that an adherent of scientism believes that, when applied correctly, the various methods of science are by far the best ways we have to get at the truth about many or most features of the world. Those methods include classification, observation, experimentation, measurement, replication, discussion, publication and other things physicists, chemists, biologists and psychologists regularly do.That seems right to me, but I don’t think it’s enough for Rosenberg.

Before moving on, I should mention that Rosenberg also considers this question: if science is such a reliable method of determining the truth, why do so many people reject scientific conclusions? One reason, of course, is that scientific results are often revised. Another is that scientists often disagree among themselves, especially on topics that make the news, in some cases because they are influenced by un-scientific factors, like working for Exxon. Yet another big reason why many are skeptical about science is that scientific conclusions often make people uncomfortable (as in the case of climate change, for example).

Rosenberg, however, mainly discusses the human need for “stories”, by which he means our tendency to understand the world in terms of personalities and purposes. He argues that our ancestors became good at recognizing and interpreting purposeful behavior because that skill made it much easier to live and prosper among other people. Evolution, however, overshot the mark. People heard thunder and concluded that Someone was angry. Today, according to Rosenberg, people have trouble understanding math and physics because their subject matter doesn’t include human beings or other creatures doing things. In other words, science is especially hard because most people haven’t been built (through evolution) to understand it. Religion, on the other hand, often involves stories, which we generally find more easy to understand than science.

In the next installment: physics and the nature of reality.

One thought on “A Guide to Reality, Part 3

  1. Pingback: Science, philosophy, and caution about what we think we know | SelfAwarePatterns

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