Ls&Cs: Other Ways of Knowing…What?

There have been debates for decades among scientists on the one hand and those with no interest in, or who are even hostile to, science, on the other. The latter insist that “other ways of knowing” are as valid as the conclusions formed by science, and of course cite intuition and artistic expression and of course religious revelations and insights as these other ways.

My take on this debate is to ask, about these other ways of knowing, knowing *what*? The things claimed to be known that science (in the broadest sense–the application of reason and evidence to sort out what is real and what is not) cannot demonstrate, or has nothing to say about, are they not universally subjective impressions that are “true” only to an individual or like minded group? They are relativistically true, at best, but cannot be demonstrated to anyone else on objective terms. (As Isaac Asimov once said, paraphrasing from memory, if you mean to convince me that reason is insufficient to know things, you’re going to have to use reason, not simply make the claim.)

Here’s a Scientific American piece by John Horgan, well-known as an iconoclast or gadfly in the scientific world.

Science Should Not Try to Absorb Religion and Other Ways of Knowing, subtitled “Our diverse ways of seeing reality will never, and should never, meld into a monolithic worldview”

Horgan cites E.O. Wilson’s Consilience and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (two of my favorite books) as defending the idea that

science will soon yield such a compelling, complete theory of nature, including human nature, that “the humanities, ranging from philosophy and history to moral reasoning, comparative religion, and interpretation of the arts, will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them.”

Horgan objects on the grounds that too many issues, e.g. about quantum mechanics and mind-body questions, remain unresolved. And for that matter, the legitimacy of “group selection” in natural selection. Then he asks,

Is consilience desirable? Although I’ve always doubted whether it could happen, I once thought consilience should happen. If humanity can agree on a single, rational worldview, maybe we can do a better job solving our shared problems, like climate change, inequality, pandemics and militarism. We could also get rid of bad ideas, such as the notion that God likes some of us more than others; or that racial and sexual inequality and war are inevitable consequences of our biology.

Horgan reaches my own conclusion: it will never happen simply because people cling to *stories,* and these stories are more important than a rational worldview in maintaining social networks and, in the end, the survival of the species.

Scientific omniscience looks less likely than ever, and humans are far too diverse, creative and contrary to settle for a single worldview of any kind. Inspired by mysticism and the arts, as well as by science, we will keep arguing about who we are and reinventing ourselves forever.

But again–those who defend “other ways of knowing” don’t admit they’re just telling stories. They claim to find some kind of “truth” in their intuitive, subjective experiences. Again I wonder, *what* do they think they’re knowing that isn’t an arbitrary, contingent story relevant only to one’s immediate environment?


Then Jerry Coyne, one of my favorite science writers (author of Why Evolution Is True), responds with John Horgan makes a strawman argument against “consilience”.

Coyne admits that Horgan is probably right about consilience simply not being feasible; but he fires back with a link to an essay by Steven Pinker, Science Is Not Your Enemy.

Coyne points out that science itself is moving toward consilience [echoing David Deutsch, perhaps]:

Scientists are a lot more in agreement on matters of truth than they were 200 years ago. We have a consensus about the major features of evolution, about the structures of molecules, about how DNA and metabolism work, about the age of the Universe, about who were the ancestors of humans, and what the fundamental particles were. Of course we’ll never agree on everything, but to say that “science is moving away from consilience” in effect says that we know less than we used to. And that’s not the case. We have a lot more consensus than we used to. When I was young, there was a big argument about whether the continents moved. We now know that they do.

Horgan reflects the attitude by many in the humanities that science should stop sticking its nose into their business.

I’ll end with Pinker’s closing of his lovely New Republic article, in which he answers critics who say that the invasion of humanities by scientific practices is “naive and simplistic”:

And the critics should be careful with the adjectives. If anything is naïve and simplistic, it is the conviction that the legacy silos of academia should be fortified and that we should be forever content with current ways of making sense of the world. Surely our conceptions of politics, culture, and morality have much to learn from our best understanding of the physical universe and of our makeup as a species.

So what do the opponents of concilience want to preserve? Things they “know” through drug trips and religious revelations? These are just stories, that cannot be demonstrated to others who haven’t had the same subjective experiences. But humans need their stories.

This entry was posted in Psychology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.