A Life Observed

Andrew Sullivan —  May 21 2012 @ 8:35pm

Philip Kitcher sounds off on the constraints of scientism:

Organisms are aggregates of cells, cells are dynamic molecular systems, the molecules are composed of atoms, which in their turn decompose into fermions and bosons (or maybe into quarks or even strings). From these facts it is tempting to infer that all phenomena—including human actions and interaction—can "in principle" be understood ultimately in the language of physics, although for the moment we might settle for biology or neuroscience. This is a great temptation. We should resist it. Even if a process is constituted by the movements of a large number of constituent parts, this does not mean that it can be adequately explained by tracing those motions.

Robert Krulwich explains the above video:

Science is our way of describing — as best we can — how the world works. The world, it is presumed, works perfectly well without us. Our thinking about it makes no important difference. It is out there, being the world. … The world knows. Our minds guess. In any contest between the two, The World Out There wins. 

Jerry Coyne pushes back against Kitcher's claim:

[Art and literature] function not to find out new things about our world, but to convey to others in an expressive ways truths that are derived from observation.  Of course the arts have other functions as well: they can enable us to see in new ways, for example.  Who can look at a lily pond the same way if you’ve seen Monet’s renditions?  And many of us are moved by Bach or Coltrane. But those aren’t ways of knowing—they’re ways of feeling.

It is indeed "scientism" to dismiss the real progress that has been made in history, archaeology, and other social sciences (though I’d be a bit hard pressed to identify real advances in economics). But few of us would deny that progress, so Kitcher’s form of "scientism" is in many ways a straw man.

I still maintain that real understanding of our universe can come only from using crude versions of methods that have been so exquisitely refined by science: reason combined with doubt, observation, and replication.  As one of my commenters said last week, "there are not different ways of knowing.  There is only knowing and not knowing."  I would add that there is also feeling, which is the purview of art.  But none of this gives the slightest credibility to religion as a way of finding truth.

Being moved by Monet cannot be about discovering something "true" about our lives? Religion ceases to have "the slightest credibility" with respect to the truth of the human condition because it has no scientific basis? History – a discipline with its own methods and questions – is not a pursuit of the truth of how things happened the way they did? To relegate of all these human modes of understanding to the supremacy of science is, well, to junk the whole of knowledge for a slice of it that can only measure empirical patterns. Science is a critical part of our understanding. It simply isn't and cannot be the whole. If that is all human knowledge is, it is pretty sad, and limited to the last few centuries out of 20,000. It consigns the human experience for the vast majority of our existence to condescending oblivion.

What we have to understand first and foremost is not what is out there, but who we are, with all the immense complexity that demands.