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.”
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.
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.
When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.