Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris


Search your mind, or pay attention to the conversations you have with other people, and you will discover that there are no real boundaries between science and philosophy—or between those disciplines and any other that attempts to make valid claims about the world on the basis of evidence and logic. When such claims and their methods of verification admit of experiment and/or mathematical description, we tend to say that our concerns are “scientific”; when they relate to matters more abstract, or to the consistency of our thinking itself, we often say that we are being “philosophical”; when we merely want to know how people behaved in the past, we dub our interests “historical” or “journalistic”; and when a person’s commitment to evidence and logic grows dangerously thin or simply snaps under the burden of fear, wishful thinking, tribalism, or ecstasy, we recognize that he is being “religious.”

via Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris.

Harris seems to rant that people interpret science too narrowly.   While at it, he reduces religion to a mere lack of commitment to evidence and logic, wishful thinking, tribalism, extacy, and inability to think coherently under fear.  But these are not defining attributes of religiosity.  Many people exhibit these attributes, religious or not (as we will see below).  Mr. Harris seems to attack a “straw man”.  It’s very unlikely that Harris is unfamiliar with this common fallacy implying that he uses it deliberately.  Twisting definitions to conform to one’s beliefs seems to be the very practice Sam Harris appears to criticize.

Confusion on this point has spawned many strange ideas about the nature of human knowledge and the limits of “science.” People who fear the encroachment of the scientific attitude—especially those who insist upon the dignity of believing in one or another Iron Age god—will often make derogatory use of words such as materialism, neo-Darwinism, and reductionism, as if those doctrines had some necessary connection to science itself.
This is the first time I hear that “materialism”, “neo-Darwinism”, and “reductionism” are “derogatory terms”.  Why does anybody need to be insulted when things are called what they are?
I, personally, do fear the encroachment of science into politics and morality, but not for religious reasons.  I am fairly convinced that moral rules cannot be established by scientific experiment, in principle.  Such view would be in gross contradiction with Harris’ own views.  If we admit that there are absolute, objective, undeniable, universal moral values, then we must admit that the physical universe has a purpose and can impose moral judgement on humans.  Essentially, such belief is belief in a weird “scientific” version of God and give scientists the status of high priests to declare moral values as “scientific truths proven with evidence”.
If we allow morality to be established by scientific experiment, we can easily demonstrate that killing sick and elderly eliminates the need and expenses for healthcare and social benefits, thus making society much healthier and wealthier (of course, if we agree that health and wealth constitute “wellbeing”, otherwise we will need to find scientific evidence that they do).
What’s the evidence for “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…”?  It’s an obvious falsity.  The evidence shows that some men are tall and some are short, some are black  and some are white, some are wise and some believe that science can prove moral values.
Regarding reductionism:
If there were evidence that complex systems produced phenomena that cannot be understood in terms of their constituent parts, it would be possible to be a neo-Darwinist without being a reductionist. For all practical purposes, that is where most scientists find themselves, because every branch of science beyond physics must resort to concepts that cannot be understood merely in terms of particles and fields. Many of us have had “philosophical” debates about what to make of this explanatory impasse. Does the fact that we cannot predict the behavior of chickens or fledgling democracies on the basis of quantum mechanics mean that those higher-level phenomena are something other than their underlying physics? I would vote “no” here, but that doesn’t mean I envision a time when we will use only the nouns and verbs of physics to describe the world.

Perhaps, trying and failing to explain large systems based on properties of constituents can be construed as evidence that reductionism is not all-powerful.  It may be useful in some cases, but not in others.  Why not expand scientific method beyond reductionism instead of trying to fit square pegs into round holes?

Can quantum mechanics predict processes in society?  May be, having some facts and examples would be beneficial to establish a belief that quantum mechanics can predict fledging democracies lest we engage in “wishful thinking” and show “lack of commitment to evidence”.  A person adhering to “the highest standards of logic and evidence” might also avoid using arguments from ignorance in his reasoning.

The remedy for all this confusion is simple: We must abandon the idea that science is distinct from the rest of human rationality.
In other words, we need to abandon the  definition of science and opt for some fuzzy “highest standards of logic and reasoning” whatever it might mean.  One can use logic to explain something other than logic.  Using logic to explain logic and define the “highest standards of logic” seems to include circular reasoning and is, therefore, unreasonable.  There is a similar problem with being conscious of one’s own consciousness and thinking about one’s own thoughts.  But it’s a fine philosophical point which seems to escape the grasp of Mr. Harris’s titanic intellect.
It occurs to me that “highest standards” would require some definition.  Otherwise, it’s hard to “adhere” to them.  Usually, standards benefit from being specific.  “Highest standards” are, usually, “strict standards”, i.e. narrowly defined.
When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.
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2 thoughts on “Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris

  1. That we need to continuously increase the food supply for human consumption in order to meet the needs of a growing population is a colossal misperception, bereft of a foundation in science.

    Human population dynamics is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species. How are we to do anything with regard to the global predicament spawned by skyrocketing human population numbers if we cannot widely share and consensually validate an adequate understanding, based upon the best available science, of why human numbers have been growing so rapidly? The science of human population dynamics has been a taboo topic for too long. I have come to believe that top rank scientists and other self-proclaimed experts are acting as deliberate defenders of current, conventional, preternatural thought and willful deniers of new scientific research regarding the human population. That you are willing to say something about what you see regarding human population dynamics takes intellectual honesty and uncommon courage.

    We appear to live in a time in which humankind’s perception has fractured schizophrenogenically and clarity of vision has been lost; when incoherent minds determine what was real; a period of abject intellectual dishonesty and the absence of moral courage. Political convenience, economic expediency, specious demographics, ideological idiocy, social status quo, religious dogma, cultural prescription and incomprehensible greed rule the world, reign supreme, darken the surface of Earth and threaten future human well being and environmental health.

    Individually and collectively, human beings cannot make a difference that makes a difference if we continue not to question the ubiquitously broadcasted delusions by the world leaders of my generation who are directing our youth down a ‘primrose path’ to surely precipitate the utter extirpation of global biodiversity, the irreversible degradation of Earth’s environs, the reckless dissipation of its limited resources and the destruction of life as we know it. The very thing our leaders claim to be protecting and preserving for children everywhere and coming generations.

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