- Scientism: Prospects and Problems ed. by Jeroen de Ridder, Rik Peels, and René van Woudenberg
This excellent anthology of new essays on scientism begins with a useful introduction by the editors summarizing the historical roots of scientism, the difficulties of defining the view, the main arguments for and against it, and its philosophical significance and implications. Prominent defenders and critics of scientism are both represented in the volume.
The opening two essays by Rik Peels and Mikael Stenmark give the lay of the conceptual land, spelling out the different varieties of scientism and comparing and contrasting them with rival views. The next three essays present defenses of scientism from three of its most influential current advocates, Alex Rosenberg, James Ladyman, and Hilary Kornblith.
Rosenberg's brand of scientism holds that "reality is fermions and boson[s] and the aggregations of them governed by the laws of physics." Whatever cannot be analyzed into these is not real. For Rosenberg, this entails a reductionist account of some phenomena (such as living things) and an eliminativist positon on others (for example, the self, free will, moral value, intentionality).
Rosenberg addresses what he takes to be the two most serious challenges facing this extreme brand of scientism: accounting for mathematical truth, and solving the self-refutation problem that afflicts eliminativism about intentionality. His answer to the first problem is tentatively to endorse David Lewis's reduction of most of mathematics to set theory by way of the notion of a singleton class, and proposing a causal account of knowledge of a singleton class. But it seems that there is an indeterminacy problem lurking here that Rosenberg doesn't consider. Any causal relation the mind might bear to a singleton class is also a relation to the individual thing that is the sole member of the class. So how can the causal relation suffice to determine that the content of a thought concerns the class rather than the individual?
The self-refutation problem arises in part because, without intentionality, there cannot be semantic content, and without semantic content no thought or utterance—including any thought or utterance asserting scientism—can be either true or false. To deal with the problem, Rosenberg proposes that the notion of an isomorphism between structures in the brain and structures in the external world to which they are causally related might substitute for the notion of truth as correspondence to reality.
Here too there are indeterminacy problems Rosenberg does not consider. Any given structure in the brain is going to be causally related to, and isomorphic in various respects to, multiple structures in external reality. To which of these, exactly, does a brain process bear a relation that might be said to substitute for truth as correspondence? Furthermore, what in Rosenberg's model can plausibly be said to substitute for the notion of falsity as a failure of correspondence? [End Page 363]
Ladyman defends a less austere form of scientism that eschews Rosenberg's extreme physicalism and does not dogmatically rule out the possibility that there might be subjects outside the expertise of scientists. At the same time, he argues that there can be no a priori limits put on what science might investigate, and that where scientific findings in some area conflict with common sense, intuition, tradition, or religion, science ought to be deferred to. Ladyman regards scientism as a "stance" (in Bas Van Fraassen's sense of that term) rather than a doctrine.
Kornblith formulates scientism in terms of Wilfrid Sellars's distinction between "the manifest image" and "the scientific image," and argues that the former should be accepted only to the extent that it is recapitulated by the latter. And commonsense epistemology is, in his view, among the elements of the former that cannot be supported by the latter.
The next three chapters, by Ian James Kidd, René van Woudenberg, and Jeroen de Ridder, criticize scientism precisely on epistemological grounds. Van Woudenberg identifies epistemological problems with the versions of scientism defended by Rosenberg and in Ladyman and Don...