June 03, 2007

SYP IV: Kitcher's four theses of scientism

My SYP reading has lead me to Phil Kitcher's Science, truth, and democracy (2001). The first, introductory chapter introduces two of what I, borrowing some postmodernist jargon, will call metanarratives. One metanarrative is called `scientism' or `faith in science', and Kitcher identifies four theses:
  1. The sciences can provide us with knowledge of nature.
  2. They have a definite aim, namely to offer knowledge that is as systematic and complete as possible.
  3. That knowledge can be used for practical ends, but the moral appraisal of the uses is properly directed at technology and public policy, not at science itself.
  4. Besides its practical benefits or harms, the knowledge has intrinsic value, and that value typically overrides mundane practical concerns.

I want to go through these one by one, with a little analysis and a little more of my own personal opinions.

First, I take the sciences to be paradigmatic of knowledge. But this doesn't mean that I think scientific theories are (generally) true in any standard correspondence conception of truth. It also doesn't mean that I think scientific theories are not (generally) true according to such a conception. Rather, I don't care about truth. I think truth is a metaphysical notion, and hence philosophically suspect at best. Instead, I think theories are epistemically adequate, and paradigmatic of epistemic adequacy. I won't talk about this notion in any detail here, except to assert that it is epistemic, rather than metaphysical, and is orthogonal to the realist/antirealist debate.

Second, I do not think science has a definite aim, yet it does aim at systematic and complete knowledge. This aim is not definite because it is complex, heterogeneous, and contextual. Complex and heterogeneous because knowledge is a complex good, which can be valuable in many different ways. As a first pass, knowledge can be valuable for making predictions or for providing explanations; and some pieces of knowledge will be valuable in one respect but not do well in the other. Contextual because the standards for knowledge depend upon the socio-political and epistemic context in which the knowledge claims are made.

Third, I have a modified pragmatic understanding of epistemology: knowledge is primarily valuable both in itself and for enabling more complex interactions with the world and the pursuit of non-epistemic projects. I do not make a strong distinction between `knowledge that' and `knowledge how', and hence do not recognise a strong distinction between `pure' science and technology. To the extent that the third thesis presupposes such a distinction, therefore, I reject it.

But I also, following Helen Longino, believe that socio-political values play an essential role in guiding certain lines of enquiry. Without racist and sexist values, for example, research into innate sexual and racial differences in cognitive abilities would not exist. Such lines of enquiry can therefore be criticised for their close connection to objectionable values.

Finally, I do think that knowledge has intrinsic value. But I do not think this intrinsic value overrides its pragmatic value, or exempts it from criticism on grounds that would classically be considered non-epistemic. So I agree with the fourth thesis, but only up through the `and'.

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