Thursday, May 28, 2015

Positivists vs. Darwin's bull-dog (social-scientism vs. reductionist-scientism, Part II)

Sixteenth in a series of seventeen posts (123456789101112, 13, 14, 15, & 17)

In my last post on scientism, I claimed to have excavated distinct uses in that word's history (and in the history of the French scientisme). I labeled the older use social-scientism. This use was directed primarily at Saint-Simon, Comte, and their followers. These philosophers and scientists were not in thrall to reductionism; they did not, for example, prophesy the reduction of other sciences to physics. Nor did they envisage the elimination of special sciences (such as sociology). In fact, Comtean positivists embraced a levels picture, on which the special sciences (such as biology and sociology), while dependent upon lower, more general empirical sciences (such as physics and chemistry), were nonetheless capable of explaining phenomena that could not be accounted for in the terms of the more basic sciences. In short, the special sciences were taken to do distinctive explanatory work that could not, even in principle, be accomplished without them. Still, critics used the word 'scientism' to ridicule the Comteans' vision of sociology as an empirical science that held the key to understanding all human activities in terms of observed uniformities of conduct, a science that could be used to revamp society.

I called the second use of 'scientism' reductionist-scientism. I should, perhaps, have called it eliminative-scientism, for its critics were horrified by the prospect of a physical science, such as biology, putting both the old, humanistic disciplines and the newer, social sciences out of work by giving an exhaustive explanation of these disciplines' putative subject matter. The critics feared that biology would eliminate the social sciences and the humanistic disciplines by answering all the sensible how- and why-questions that could be posed about human beings. For its critics, the impetus behind this type of scientism was Darwinian theory, and its champions were members of the X-Club.

In an old periodical, I found a fierce exchange between a Comtean positivist and the most famous member of the X-Club -- well, fierce by Victorian standards. The positivist was Frederic Harrison, and the X-Clubber was 'Darwin's bulldog', T. H. Huxley.

"TH Huxley" by Carlo Pellegrini - Vanity Fair, 28 January 1871. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

What follows are selections from Harrison's contribution, in which Harrison defends a levels view of the sciences. He wants to police the boundaries between the sciences, ensuring that evolutionary theory does not gobble up the explananda of other scientific fields of inquiry. Harrison writes:
I am quite aware that Prof. Huxley has elsewhere formulated his belief that biology is the science which 'includes man and all his ways and works.' If history, law, politics, morals, and political economy, are merely branches of biology, we shall want new dictionaries indeed. (A Modern Symposium II: the Soul and Future Life, first published in The Nineteenth Century [September, 1877]: 175)
More generally, Harrison ridicules Huxley for 'fancying that one science can do the work of another' (Ibid. 178). Harrison acknowledges that everything in the proprietary domain of the human sciences depends on the phenomena that are described in the more basic physical sciences. Still, he takes Huxley to task for
that hallucination of his about questions of science all becoming questions of molecular physics. The molecular facts are valuable enough; but we are getting molecular-mad, if we forget that molecular facts have only a special part in physiology, and hardly any part at all in sociology, history, morals, and politics; though I quite agree that there is no single fact in social, moral, or mental philosophy, that has not its correspondence in some molecular fact, if we only could know it. (Ibid., 178-9)
Harrison is vague about the nature of the dependence relation in question -- he doesn't say 'emergence' or 'supervenience' -- but he stresses that it does not supply an explanation of the dependent items. Again, in his words:
We both agree that every mental and moral fact is in functional relation with some molecular fact. ... But, then, says Prof. Huxley, if I can trace the molecular facts which are the antecedents of the mental and moral facts, I have explained these mental and moral facts. That I deny; just as much as I should deny that a chemical analysis of the body could ever lead to an explanation of the physical organism. Then, says the professor, when I have traced out the molecular facts, I have built up a physical theory of moral phenomena. ... [T]here is no such thing, or no rational thing, that can be called a physical theory of moral phenomena, any more than there is a moral theory of physical phenomena." (Ibid., 172-3, emphases in original)
"Frederic Harrison" by Carlo Pellegrini - Vanity Fair,23January1886. Licensed as Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Harrison's emphasis is squarely on the relations between sciences (their taxonomies and laws) rather than on the entities or facts that fall within the purview of any given science. He says:
We do not diminish the supreme place of the spiritual facts in life and in philosophy by admitting these spiritual facts to have a relation with molecular and organic facts in the human organism -- provided that we never forget how small and dependent is the part which the study of the molecular and organic phenomena must play in moral and social science. (Ibid., 158, italics added)
In view of these quotations, it's safe to say that Harrison would side with the critics who accused Huxley of eliminative-scientism. Nevertheless, many of those critics would charge Harrison with social-scientism, for he remained committed to the program of naturalistic social sciences that broadly follow the empirical methods of the physical sciences and that will, eventually, describe laws of human functioning that afford as complete an understanding of us as can be had. The methods in question needn't invoke empathy, or Verstehen. As Harrison remarked in another context, 'We take man as he is and history as we find it, and we seek to interpret the whole on one uniform scientific method' ('The Creeds - Old and New', The Nineteenth Century, No. XLIV, [October, 1880]: 526-49, at 544).

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