Scientism's Theory of Everything

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EXCERPT: [...] I want to talk here about an undergraduate teacher of mine about whom many stories were told, but who is not so widely known. His name was Frank Cioffi (1928-2012), an Italian-American [...] Some years later, I went back into his office to ask permission to switch from one course to another.

“Which courses?” he said indifferently.

“I’m meant to be reading Foucault, but I want to do a course on Derrida.”

“Man,” he replied “that’s like going from horseshit to bullshit.”

In fact, as others can confirm, the latter word was his most common term of reference and it also expresses his approach to philosophy: No BS.

In the preface to “Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James said that it was his belief that “a large acquaintance with particulars makes us wiser than the possession of abstract formulas, however deep.” This was Frank’s pedagogical credo and his teaching moved from particular to particular [...] He hated big theories and any kind of metaphysical pretention and he would use little quotations to pick away relentlessly at grand explanations. He used the particular to scratch away at the general, like picking at a scab.

Quote:There is a gap between nature and society. The mistake, for which scientism is the name, is the belief that this gap can or should be filled.

[...] Despite the astonishing breadth of his interests, Frank’s core obsession in teaching turned on the relation between science and the humanities. More particularly, his concern was with the relation between the causal explanations offered by science and the kinds of humanistic description we find, say, in the novels of Dickens or Dostoevsky, or in the sociological writings of Erving Goffman and David Riesman. His quest was to try and clarify the occasions when a scientific explanation was appropriate and when it was not, and we need instead a humanistic remark. His conviction was that our confusions about science and the humanities had wide-ranging and malign societal consequences.

Let me give an example. [...] What is in play here is the classical distinction made by Max Weber between explanation and clarification, between causal or causal-sounding hypotheses and interpretation. Weber’s idea is that natural phenomena require causal explanation, of the kind given by physics, say, whereas social phenomena require elucidation — richer, more expressive descriptions. In Frank’s view, one major task of philosophy is help us get clear on this distinction and to provide the right response at the right time. This, of course, requires judgment, which is no easy thing to teach.

Let me push this a little further. [...] Frank tells a story about a philosophical paper (imagined or real, it is not clear) with the title “Qualia and Materialism —Closing the Explanatory Gap.” The premise of the paper is twofold: first, there is a gap between how we experience the world — our subjective, conscious experiences (qualia) — and the scientific explanation of the material forces that constitute nature; and, second, that such a gap can potentially be closed through one, overarching theoretical explanation. Frank goes on to point out that if we can imagine such a paper, then we can also imagine papers called “The Big Bang and Me — Closing the Explanatory Gap” or “Natural Selection and Me — Closing the Explanatory Gap.”

This is the risk of what some call “scientism” — the belief that natural science can explain everything, right down to the detail of our subjective and social lives. All we need is a better form of science, a more complete theory, a theory of everything. Lord knows, there are even Oscar-winning Hollywood movies made about this topic. Frank’s point, which is still hugely important, is that there is no theory of everything, nor should there be. There is a gap between nature and society. The mistake, for which scientism is the name, is the belief that this gap can or should be filled.

One huge problem with scientism is that it invites, as an almost allergic reaction, the total rejection of science. As we know to our cost, we witness this every day with climate change deniers, flat-earthers and religious fundamentalists. [...] Now, in order to confront the challenge of obscurantism, we do not simply need to run into the arms of scientism. What is needed is a clearer overview of the occasions when a scientific remark is appropriate and when we need something else [...]

People often wonder why there appears to be no progress in philosophy, unlike in natural science, and why it is that after some three millenniums of philosophical activity no dramatic changes seem to have been made to the questions philosophers ask. The reason is because people keep asking the same questions and perplexed by the same difficulties. [...] Philosophy scratches at the various itches we have, not in order that we might find some cure for what ails us, but [] begin to understand why we engage in such apparently irritating activity. Philosophy is not Neosporin. It is not some healing balm. It is an irritant, which is why Socrates described himself as a gadfly.

This is one way of approaching the question of life’s meaning. Human beings have been asking the same kinds of questions for millenniums and this is not an error. It testifies to the fact that human being are rightly perplexed by their lives. The mistake is to believe that there is an answer to the question of life’s meaning. As Douglas Adams established quite some time ago, the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything will always be “42” or some variation of 42. Namely, it will be something really rather disappointing.

[...] We don’t need an answer to the question of life’s meaning, just as we don’t need a theory of everything. What we need are multifarious descriptions of many things, further descriptions of phenomena that change the aspect under which they are seen, that light them up and let us see them anew. That is what Frank was doing with his quotations, with his rich variety of particulars. They allow us to momentarily clarify and focus the bewilderment that is often what passes for our “inner life” and give us an overview on things. We might feel refreshed and illuminated, even slightly transformed, but it doesn’t mean we are going to stop scratching that itch. In 1948, Wittgenstein wrote, “When you are philosophizing you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there....”

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