On “Scientism”, Biologist Jerry Coyne ‘Misses the Boat’

Helen Keller and her teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan. Learning a Language is not done by “observing, hypothesizing, testing.”

(Getting ‘deep’ again. I really don’t think it is too ponderous. Only about 25 paragraphs long! And its point is, our most important kind of knowledge is not science, it is our knowledge of the ways we Respectfully Participate in our society and the other societies we encounter. “Science” is no slouch, but it is not our primary way to be as social and cultural creatures.)

‘What the hell are we to do in this world?’ “Scientism” is an important topic because it ‘gets the ball rolling’ on this entire issue. “Scientism” is traditionally a criticism of the idea that science makes the basic contribution to this discussion. These believers in science think that science, “broadly viewed”, is the only kind of knowledge we, thinking humans, really have.

Therefore, if we want to ‘get a handle on what our life is all about’ we should (and do) practice science (“broadly construed”). I will add that this belief in science — in a more demanding form — contends that only the professional sciences (“science narrowly viewed”) are knowledge of the world. I think the two views stand or fall together, and they are mistaken.

But, the term “Scientism” now has two uses. One, Coyne’s side, is “yes, science is the only true knowledge.” This is “scientism” in its good sense, he says. Two, “Scientism” as a pejorative term standing for the above as an overestimation of scientific knowledge. My view is the latter, we have another form of knowledge that is more important than science. It is this other form that is more basic and gets us on a better track to figure out our situation in this crazy world of ours, I believe!

Ironically, I will use organisms, biology, and developmental considerations to illustrate the problem with this overly ambitious estimation of science’s contributions. Biologist Coyne has constantly challenged his opponents to present one case of legitimate knowledge that is not science knowledge. He does that again in his post calledBoudry on scientism and ‘ways of knowing” (7/29/20) on his blog. Boudry is a philosopher who recently wrote an article similar to Coyne’s expansive pro-science position. (http://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/07/27/more-on-scientism-and-ways-of-knowing/)

First, I do believe that the scientific view of the world is a remarkable and powerful perspective. Science has largely relieved us of the idea of gods (in any traditional sense) and angels, souls, fairies, nymphs, along with ‘places’ like heaven, hell, Valhalla and Nirvana. Science has made possible or facilitated all our remarkable new technology —computers, cell phones, rocket-ships, x-rays, etc.

Not even Plumbing is accurately described by the “Empirical Method.” The very tools and fixtures of plumbing embody a predisposition to think and work in a particular way: in the tradition of plumbing.

Coyne calls this “science, broadly construed” and describes it as “the empirical method.” It is to “observe, hypothesize, and test.” Coyne is emphatic about the significance of his qualification, science, “in the broad sense. It includes a plumber who is seeking to fix a leak. She observes the problem, speculates on its source and cause, then tests a solution and observes the result. This traditionally is thought to be a very piecemeal process, with observation being independent of speculation (‘just pure looking’ with no preconceptions) and testing as equally “stand alone” and thus attaining an “objective” result. Also, the process seems to be very conscious and self-conscious: ‘I will just look, I will then speculate, I will try out a solution.’

Observation—-Hypothesize—-Test: The Empirical Method

I will follow a very prominent school in philosophy that argues against “Empiricism” as an accurate understanding of how we “know.” My example of knowledge that is Not scientific is Our Knowledge of a Language.

We Do Not Learn a Language Empirically!

It is a miss-use of the term “observe” to say that a pre-linguistic child “observes” the world. Our use of the term “observation” usually signifies an experience too clearly demarcated, too specific to apply in this case. An infant lying on its back and kicking about its legs and waving its arms is just starting out on the road toward de-markation — marking off things in the world. Why, this child does not even distinguish itself from the external world! It’s own ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ are a mystery to it that are not being “observed” by it, but probably more accurately described as vague and fleeting aspects of a very vague experience. We should not confuse our perceptions as language users for that of the infant’s.

But the infant does experience some things with more clarity. It is very attuned to forms of its own comfort and discomfort. It needs to eat and desires to suckle. The comfort of eating and closeness to its mother are immediate to it. Faces have been shown to be unusually significant and attractive to their attention. And they do seem to crave human attention and nurturence. They are not “blank slates” when coming into the world but have inbuilt biological orientations and abilities. Language-learning and language-use is one of these abilities. It is a system of skills ready to be specified (French, English, Latin) and deployed.

It is equally misplaced to think of young language-learners creating hypotheses. After all, they have no language to frame such proposals. They are being conditioned in the use of initial words, relying solely on imitation and reinforcement. “MaMa” is reinforced positively even when said ‘to’ the father, at first. Eventually, of course, its use is pared down more appropriately. It could be said the child tests, but we all recognize it is not responsible for or even aware of the test or it’s result. It is not something the child is “doing” in a straightforward way, but “doing” unconsciously and automatically in a biological sense. A child learns a language more like a young bird learns to fly, not a like a plumber fixing a leak. Infants and birds don’t observe, hypothesize, test when learning a language or learning flight.

These birds do not fly or learn to fly by observing, hypothesizing and testing possible solutions. This is an outdated model for understanding knowledge and learning.

A More Holistic Approach

If Empiricism is not the way to think of knowing a language, what is the alternative? It is a more holistic approach in which a system of skills and in-built structural features (inherent connections between the knower and its environment) “kick in”. They are practiced and then mastered. This transition from practice to mastery can be seen as a rather dramatic and even sudden event, somewhat of a “leap”, but there are “steps” to its acquisition so “gradualism” is not completely foregone. In language-learning, this is the burst of acquisition of words and sentence-use that is shown in the data for those early years and even months. Consider a young bird, how long does it take it to learn to fly rather well? Is it an afternoon, two days? It’s a skill built to be acquired quickly because the bird’s life depends on it.

This “holistic approach” to language acquisition and use, as a “system of interrelated skills,” is understanding language as “rule-guided behavior.” This kind of ‘action’ is really the basis of our lives as ‘Persons’, as much as, and even more so than, the physics and chemistry we also know is essential to our existence as physical objects. These two words are in scare quotes because they are new things, emerging at this level of events. Rule-guided action must be a level of design —a level of complexity— in addition to, but compatible with, the lawful behaviors displayed by those sciences.

Computing Machines are structured to apply the rules of a given activity, and, yet, they are thoroughly physical and mechanical. Maniac I, one of the early chess playing computers (1957), was designed to “look” two moves in advance for each side. Some of the earliest and most speculative research in Cybernetics was done in designing chess playing machines. (thanks to Tartajubow On Chess II)

When computers are designed to perform a task, a “competence model” for that task is formulated by the designers. It is the rules by which that behavior is preformed accurately by humans. Those rules are then built into the structure of the computer’s many layers of processing. It is how computers ‘understand’ words spoken to them or ‘decides’ on a winning chess move.

Importantly, Professor Coyne emphasizes science as our true method for “knowledge of the external world. My point about our knowledge of language could then be taken, by contrast, to be knowledge of our internal world as language users, persons, and societal members. Rule-guided action is the basis for all Our Representational Endeavors. This includes not only language but also the universe as displayed to us in our science, art, morality, politics, the crafts and even religion (in a way).

Helen Keller Learns Language

With Ann Bancroft, and Patty Duke as Helen Keller. (1962) A good movie.

The famous story of the experience of Helen Keller is often used to suggest Language-Learning is not an Empirical or piecemeal process. Keller’s progress was documented by her teacher Anne Sullivan and reprinted in Keller’s autobiography and retold on stage and screen in The Miracle Worker. Keller was, of course, a blind child with no hearing. At the age of seven (1887), she was very unruly and able to communicate only rudimentaly with several people through a small number of self-improvised gestures and noises. In her book she described her early experience as “at sea in a dense fog.”

It was then that Anne Sullivan was hired to live at the house and begin the training of Helen in behavior and sign language. She signed words with her fingers into the palm of Helen’s hand, constantly and repeatedly.  “I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed,” Keller later wrote. “I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation.”

Within a month or two, Helen had her famous break through. One morning at the pump, cold water was spilling over her hand as Sullivan signed W-A-T-E-R into the palm of Helen’s other. Sullivan reports that it seemed…

“to startle her…she stood transfixed…she spelled “water” several times…Then dropped to the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and the trellis and suddenly turning round she asked for my name. I spelled “teacher.” All the way back to the house she was highly exited, and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary. The next morning she got up like a radiant fairy. She flitted from object to object, asking the name of everything and kissing me for very gladness….Everything must have a name now.”

The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller; quoted from An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer

Helen had ‘stepped inside the world of language,’ we might say. She had caught on to its rule that all must have a name and soon would also quickly acquired its rules of grammar. She eventually learned to speak. She learned to joke and to persuade. In her life she went on to play a significant public role as advocate for the disabled, trade unions, suffrage and socialism.

Knowing and Learning: A different Model

This is the alternative model for learning. Human beings never start out, or continue, in an activity with an unbiased observation. This is expressed in the slogan, “all observation is theory laden.”

Socialization is training in the adoption of a society’s points of view. So, what is known and what is learned is first and foremost what has worked for and been of interest to that society. Knowledge is mastering those rule-governed behaviors, like language-use, hunting, farming, child-rearing, cooking, social etiquette.

Societies derive their perspectives by naturally selected modifications of our biologically inherited needs and outlooks. Alteration of these views, or”paradigms”— as they were called in the intellectual “uproar” surrounding this issue in the 1970’s and 80’s, is not the result of new observations, but new paradigms of thought and perspective that bring with them a shift in “the facts.” New facts may now be considered relevant, old facts may now be reinterpreted. An issue is re-framed; an old problem is restated in a new way.

Isaac Newton changed “the paradigm” of thought; he reorganized all the observations and made different ones relevant. (thanks to google.com for cartoon)

What made Isaac Newton the genius he was was not some new observation; it was his revision of the statement of the problem. He tied together the Movement of The Planets with the falling of An Apple from its Tree. He decided that what needed to be explained was the change in motion. “Inertia” was his new concept that made all the difference: what is in motion will stay in motion, what is at rest will stay at rest. No longer will it be presumed that “the natural state” of all objects is rest. And interestingly, this truth of inertia is counter-intuitive, contrary to our everyday experience and observation! Here on earth, all moving objects tend to stop.

Some theorists (the Deconstructionists) argue that issues of social power play a significant role in our social knowledge structures, even if “rational” considerations are still in play. There is some truth to this, but I believe that “rational considerations” can still be seen to play an important role in the history of most societies and especially, hopefully. our own. Our social and cultural history is The Narrative of how we have gotten better and what prospects the future holds for us as a society; just as The Personal Narrative of each of us is the story of where they have come from, how we survived, and –hopefully– made the most of it. In each case, the logic of This Narrative Form contains values and a future where hope is the desideratum.

We value our participation in society.
We value our participation in running our society.

Science is the second most important form of knowledge. Our knowledge in Human Cultural Practices is primary to it. Our knowledge of Language, for example, is acquired and used in a context in which “observation, hypothesizing and testing” are thoroughly oriented toward language mastery. We Participate in the learning and use of Language; we do not stand apart from it to know it from The Outside! We do not “observe” it, or make independent speculations about it, or “test” it as if there was some other solution might be better. We get “inside” it and find out who we are and what the world is inherently in relation to us and from our social and cultural perspective.

So, if you want to figure out “What the hell life is all about?”, don’t stand off and study it “objectively.” Participate in as many of our cultural forms as possible: read some great novels; learn some science and history; experience some variety of religion, poetry and visual art; immerse yourself in being healthy in your family and interpersonal relations; work hard at a useful job. Then, taking as much of this into consideration as you can, weave it together and honestly construct a Narrative of your life and yourself that includes the way society should be for you –that “self” you have created– to prosper. Then, you will share that narrative with other persons, at various times and in various pieces. That is our “way of knowing” that is prior to and primary to our knowledge of “the external world.”

GETTING DOWN WITH THE CONNECTION, naturereligionconnection.org
“O—H—-I—O” 100,000 fans at “The Shoe” on a typical fall Saturday in Columbus, Ohio. “Go Buckeyes!

3 thoughts on “On “Scientism”, Biologist Jerry Coyne ‘Misses the Boat’

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