Friday, August 10, 2012


Massimo Piglucci attacked the supposedly scientistic and anti-illectual thinkers in the skeptical movement and the bad manners of internet posters. Skepticism historically has been associated with a certain kind of conservatism. Like Hume, often the practitioners are trying to find a middle ground between religion and materialism, that rules out religios bigotry while also ruling out any materialist nonsense about the equality of persons. (No, science has not established any superiority of persons save the rather obvious one that the young do not possess their full powers yet.) There doesn't really seem to be any difference about the modern skeptical movement. They want to be anti-leftist without being outright superstitious reactionaries. Since this is not a principled position, you get an extraordinary variety of incompatible positions in the movement. Piglucci has been distressed apparently. On the one hand he can't help but attack people for wrong thinking but on the other he can't really object to anything but manners. I'm not altogether sure whether he wants to be the philosophical pope or just the Miss Manners. It is sad to see a professional philosopher be so confused. Philosophy doesn't concern itself with truth but it is supposed to concern itself with valid arguments and clarity of thought generally!

Here's my post at Rationally Speaking, with a sentence fragment deleted (and possible paragraphing changes due to cut-and-paste.)

As near as I can tell, the belief that the social sciences are "soft" is justified by Popperism, the belief that science can only falsify predictions. Crudely put, science is doing experiments: Ergo, no social science. Popper of course had notorious problems with the historical science of evolution. Popperism of course is philosophy, one of the most non-embalmed philosophies. It seems to be quite a stretch to accuse the Popperazis of being scientistic when one of their main goals is to deny that there is such a thing as an historical science.

Doesn't this example suggest that the attribution of the hodge podge of positions widely held by skeptics that you dislike are not attributable to scientism? Is it not possible that the nature of the skeptical movement is so mixed because skepticism is undefined?  "Skepticism" is a visceral felling of anger at unwarranted certainty, a distaste for dogmatism (defined as a pomposity.) Thus a person who feels that people ranting about science showing there is no God is arrogant notes that science cannot address religion. 

But if one objects "skepticism" is also an epistemological position, it is unclear how it is different from philosophical materialism. It must be different, because its proponents set themselves up in opposition to philosophical materialism.  One thing "skepticism" seems to say, is that "science" is, variously, not knowledge in any philosophically meaningful sense; not the only path to knowledge; that agnosticism about ontological questions is is not only coherent but reasonable; the empirical component of knowledge derived from philosophy, logic and math; a (merely?) pragmatic substitute for true knowledge which is or may be unattainable, and peculiar combinations of all. Of course none of this is scientism in any ordinary sense of the word.

As used here, "scientism" appears to shrink down to the belief that the idea of free will is absurd; that the universe is deterministic; that science cannot address morals because of the is/ought distinction. The post above is careful to define free will as the power to make decisions which is not what anybody else I know of means by free will. Nor does it make a positive affirmation that the universe is undetermined. Also it concedes that science may inform moral reasoning. My best judgment is that the power to make decisions is completely irrelevant; that the prima facie case is that the notion of an undetermined universe is incoherent even in philosophy; that saying science can "inform" moral discussion is a literally meaningless concession, leaving us with the assertion that the is/ought divide is an unbridgeable chasm, a position I'm sorry to say I think is embarrassingly wrong, no matter how popular it is.

Whether you accept the counterobjections to your skeptical propositions about scientism is kind of irrelevant. Because frankly, it seems to me that skepticism, being an, ah, eclectic opposition to materialism can still admit such positions. By the definition of skepticism as taking offense at someone's arrogance of course these positions are plainly scientistic. I suppose that explains the insistence that better skepticism boils down to better manners will lead to a better skeptical movement. Is it not possible that clarifying the metaphysical presuppositions would be more useful?

In fact, is it possible that emphasizing niceness above all else can lead to gross error? Consider your insistence that it is unreasonable to label religious education as child abuse. You asked "why a secular education wouldn’t be open to the same charge, if done as indoctrination (and if it isn’t, are you really positive that there are no religious families out there who teach doubt?" The first question equates secularism with religion, which is dubious. The answer is simple, that secular education doesn't teach superstition. As for the second, "doubt" can be and often is simply anti-intellectualism. Plenty of skeptics have that, which in other contexts offends you, as you made clear in your post, and plenty of religious too. As for the hypothetical example of a family which teaches their children the scientific arguments against religous superstitions, I can only point out that is a secular education, not a religious education.

The real problem with your complaint is that you refuse to draw a conclusion because it is unpalatable. You feel it would be rude to imply so many parents are harming their children with a religious education. And this supposed rudeness is unacceptable. As I understand it, that is a gross fallacy. What you need to show is why we should accept that a religious education might be beneficial to children. Good luck with that one.

Since so much of this boils down to not liking people's bad manners for holding positions you disagree with, such as scientism, the final question is, why are your feelings privileged?

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