Saturday, August 16, 2008

Reason is just another faith by Mary Midgley in New Scientist

crabsallover says 'Mary Midgley (Wikipedia) thinks 'Reason' is ambiguous. Science subverts religious views. Science alone ('scientism') is not sufficient - different problems need different ways of thinking.'

7: Reason is just another faith

Unconditional reliance on a single authority is never sensible, says philosopher Mary Midgley.

  • 23 July 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Philosopher Mary Midgley

IN 1960 Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, wrote: "It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people... The future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science."

This was doubtless intended as a manifesto for reason, but it also sums up a major justification people have for objecting to reason. Such pronouncements were common at that time. The crucial words in Nehru's stirring speech, for me, are "science alone". It is this exclusiveness that is the trademark of scientism: the belief in the unconditional supremacy of physical science - or of Science with a capital "S" - over all other forms of thought. Scientism sparked many movements, both in thought and politics, especially during the 20th century, from so-called "scientific socialism" to the doctrine in psychology called "behaviourism".

Taken literally, Nehru's proposal is odd. We might think, for instance, that we obviously need other things, such as good laws, good institutions and a clear understanding of history, as well as science, to solve the problems he named. He surely knew this, but he put science first because he thought it was the only cure for what he considered the central cause of present evils - religion.

This function of subverting religion played a huge part in the widespread exaltation of science at this time, both in the east and west. Throughout the Enlightenment, reformers who were struggling against the power of the church had called for the use of reason to undermine Christianity.

But the term "reason" proved ambiguous and, in the 20th century, the rallying cry shifted to something that seemed more specific, namely science. This had awkward effects. It put off those who did not want to be cured of religion and also - perhaps even more unfortunately - it led to science's functioning like a kind of rival religion itself.

The central question here is about trust. What do you put your faith in? The kind of faith that Nehru expresses in science is absolute. It is not at all the qualified, provisional acceptance that might suit actual scientific findings. It claims to answer not just factual questions but every kind of social and moral dilemma. It offers general salvation.

The central question here is about trust. In what do you put faith?

This sort of unconditional, general reliance on a single authority is never sensible, whatever god it may invoke. No system provides an infallible oracle; different problems need different ways of thinking.

Indeed the sciences themselves are various and use all sorts of methods. Of course there are clear cases, such as evolution, where scientific doctrines are needed to correct particular non-scientific ones. But controversy on such topics inevitably involves a wide clash of imaginative visions which cannot possibly fall under the physical sciences.

Science then no longer stands for enquiry but for ideology, authority, a general approach to life which demands to prevail in all conflicts: that is, it is turned into scientism. And, as past experience shows, that ideology can include some very odd components. The most obvious example is eugenics, the programme of "improving" the human race. This was fully accepted as an authentic part of science from the time when the Victorian polymath Francis Galton invented the term and proposed incentives for "the lights of the nation" to breed early and often. That was until the arrival of the Nazis, whose activities suddenly made the fearful overtones of eugenics plain.

Another example - less deadly but perhaps more confusing - was the campaign by behaviourists, led by the psychologist B. F. Skinner from the 1950s, to drive all discussion of subjective experience out of psychology. Though this movement had no real scientific basis it has been extraordinarily successful in paralysing thought for much of the last century. Indeed, it has managed to send the crucial topic of consciousness - of our own most intimate experience - into a limbo which it is now proving very hard to extract it from. The campaign has made, and still makes it hard to discuss our subjectivity not as a delusion but as an objective fact, to say that we do have experiences and inner states.

The behaviourist project was, of course, part of a campaign to subordinate the social sciences and humanities to science, on the assumption that they were all merely "folk" doctrines - primitive, uninstructed habits which needed to be simplified, boiled down and reduced ultimately to physics. Indeed, excepting the long-standing war with fundamentalist churches in the US (which is essentially political), it is the social sciences and humanities that have lately been the main targets of scientistic campaigning.

Science does not need to be defended in this way and it is surely not surprising if this kind of reductive chauvinism sometimes confuses the bystanders and makes them hostile.

Read about all the problems with reason in our special issue

Mary Midgley is a moral philosopher, previously at Newcastle University in the UK
From issue 2666 of New Scientist magazine, 23 July 2008, page 50-51

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