an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

On Massimo Pigliucci on scientism 2: brains r us

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neuroethics is coming…

In his Point of Inquiry interview, Pigliucci mentions Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape a couple of times. Harris seeks to make the argument, in that book, that we can establish, sometime in the future, a science of morality. That is, we can be factual about the good life and its opposite, and we can be scientific about the pathways, though there might be many, that lead towards the good life and away from the bad life. I’m in broad agreement about this, though for pragmatic reasons I would probably prefer the term ‘objective’ to ‘scientific’. Just because it doesn’t frighten the horses so much. As mentioned in my previous post, I don’t want to get hung up on terminology. Science obviously requires objectivity, but it doesn’t seem clear to everyone that morality requires objectivity too. I think that it does (as did, I presume, the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and I think Harris argues cogently that it does, based on our well-being as a social species. But Pigliucci says this about Harris’s project:

When Sam Harris wrote his famous book The Moral Landscape, the subtitle was ‘How science can solve moral questions’ – something like that. Well that’s a startling question if you think about it because – holy crap! So I would assume that a typical reader would buy that book and imagine that now he’s going to get answers to moral questions such as whether abortion is permissible and in what circumstances, or the death penalty or something… And get them from say physics or chemistry, maybe neuroscience, since Harris has a degree in neuroscience..

Pigliucci makes some strange assumptions about the ‘typical reader’ here. Maybe I’m a long way from being a ‘typical reader’ (don’t we all want to think that?) but, to me the subtitle (which is actually ‘How science can determine human values’) suggests, again, methodology. By what methods, or by what means, can human value – that’s to say what is most valuable to human well-being – be determined. I would certainly not have expected, reading the actual sub-title, and considering the main title of the book, answers to specific moral questions. And I certainly wouldn’t expect answers to those questions to come from physics or chemistry. Pigliucci just mentions those disciplines to make Harris’s views seem more outrageous. That’s not good faith arguing. Neuroscience, however, is closer to the mark. Our brains r us, and if we want to know why a particular mammal behaves ‘badly’, or with puzzling altruism, studying the animal’s brain might be one among many places to start. And yet Pigliucci makes this statement later on re ‘scientistic’ scientists

It seems to me that the fundamental springboard for all this is a combination of hubris, the conviction that what they do is the most important thing – in the case of Sam Harris for instance, it turns out at the end of the book [The Moral Landscape] it’s not just science that gives you the answers, it’s neuroscience that gives you the answers. Well, surprise surprise, he’s a neuroscientist.

This just seems silly to me. Morality is about our thoughts and actions, which start with brain processes. Our cultural practices affect our neural processes from our birth, and even before our conception, given the cultural attitudes and behaviours of our future parents. It’s very likely that Harris completed his PhD in cognitive neuroscience because of his interest in human behaviour and its ethical consequences (Harris is of course known for his critique of religion, but there seems no doubt that his greatest concerns about religious belief are at base concerns about ethics). Yet according to Pigliucci, had Harris been a physicist he would have written a book on morality in terms of electromagnetic waves or quantum electrodynamics. And of course Pigliucci doesn’t examine Harris’s reasoning as to why he thinks science, and most particularly neuroscience and related disciplines, can determine human values. He appears to simply dismiss the whole project as hubristic and wrong-headed.

I know that I’m being a little harsh in critiquing Pigliucci based on a 20-minute interview, but there doesn’t seem any attempt, at least here, to explain why certain topics are or should be off-limits to science, except to infer that it’s obvious. Does he feel, for example, that religious belief should be off-limits to scientific analysis? If so, what do reflective non-religious people do with their puzzlement and wonder about such beliefs? And if it’s worth trying to get to the bottom of what cultural and psychological conditions bring about the neurological networking that disposes people to believe in a loving or vengeful omnipotent creator-being, it’s also worth trying to get to the bottom of other mind-sets that dispose people to behave in ways productive or counter-productive to their well-being. And the reason we’re interested isn’t just curiosity, for the point isn’t just to understand our human world, but to improve it.

Finally Pigliucci seems to confuse a lack of interest, among such people in his orbit as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss, in philosophy, especially as it pertains to science, with scientism. They’re surely two different things. It isn’t ‘scientism’ for a scientist to eschew a particular branch of philosophy any more than it is for her to eschew a different field of science from her own, though it might seem sometimes a bit narrow-minded. Of course, as a non-scientist and self-professed dilettante I’m drawn to those with a wide range of scientific and other interests, but I certainly recognise the difficulty of getting your head around quantum mechanical, legal, neurological, biochemical and other terminology (I don’t like the word ‘jargon’), when your own ‘rabbit hole’ is so fascinating and enjoyably time-consuming.

There are, of course, examples of scientists claiming too much for the explanatory power of their own disciplines, and that’s always something to watch for, but overall I think the ‘scientism’ claim is more abused than otherwise – ‘weaponised’ is the trendy term for it. And I think Pigliucci needs to be a little more skeptical of his own views about the limits of science.

Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2019 at 3:09 pm

2 Responses

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  1. There is a strand of belief, rather prevalent today, that can be branded “scientism”, I think. For example, go to Dr. J. Coyne’s blog, “why is evolution true”. He is a biologist and outspoken atheist (your probably familiar). He says outright, “No knowledge but sci knowledge’ and ‘no free will’. He claims that all the world is physics. That is Scientism.

    Now, if you want to dilute term “science” down into some mush like ‘rational inquire guided by facts’, well hell, that’s saying just about nothing. Yes, then anthropology is sci. But surely we mean a little more than that by “sci.” Testing, replication, analysis… How about ‘correspondence to the reality that is already there independently of us’. ?

    Never saw your site before, hope I’m not being redundant.

    GregWW

    May 26, 2019 at 10:59 pm

    • I know that Coyne has been accused, by Pigliucci for example, of scientism, but I’d be surprised if he claims that all the world is physics. Physics is a branch of science – the fundamental branch. Maybe he’s claiming that the world is entirely material – particles, waves, fields, forces. That would be true enough, but not useful for explaining or exploring morality or behaviour. People speak of ‘reductionism’, that we shouldn’t or can’t ‘reduce’ complex human behaviour to physics or physical phenomena, but actually the problem is that it’s the opposite of reduction, it actually expands explanations beyond what we are currently capable of encompassing, adding physics to chemistry and neurology and psychology etc. That’s why the current discipline which might explain behaviour in a ‘reduced’ form is neuroscience, but even that discipline is limited, being in its infancy, though expanding rapidly.
      I do favour a broader view of science – rational inquiry guided by facts is certainly not mush, if taken seriously. A fact is not nothing.
      Anyway, thanks for visiting, and your comment.

      stewart henderson

      May 27, 2019 at 11:59 am


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