On Rosenberg on Science

A quotation first:
“But what about other items on Professor Williamson’s list of disciplines it would be hard to count as science: history, literary theory? Can science and naturalistic philosophy do without them? This is a different question from whether people, as consumers of human narratives and enjoyers of literature, can do without them. The question naturalism faces is whether disciplines like literary theory provide real understanding.
“Naturalism faces these questions because it won’t uncritically buy into Professor Williamson’s ‘default assumption … that the practitioners of a well-established discipline know what they are doing, and use the … methods most appropriate for answering its questions.’ If semiotics, existentialism, hermeneutics, formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism transparently flout science’s standards of objectivity, or if they seek arbitrarily to limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can’t take them seriously as knowledge.
“That doesn’t mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than foregoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.”
Rosenberg starts here with a brief list: history, literary theory. He forgets history (after implying that all history is narrative history: so much for the Annales school and hundreds of other historians), and turns to “disciplines like literary theory”.
Then we get a seriously defective bit of non-argument. In form:
If A, then B.
Therefore B.
Here A = “semiotics etc. flout science’s standards or seek to limit the reach of scientific methods”, and B = “naturalism can’t take them seriously”.
No doubt Rosenberg holds A true. But it is bad manners in philosophy, even op-ed philosophy, to pretend you’ve proved or been granted a controversial premise that you haven’t gone one step toward proving.
Another point:
Rosenberg: “‘Why can’t there be things only discoverable by non-scientific means, or not discoverable at all?’ Professor Williamson asked in his essay. His question may be rhetorical, but the naturalist has an answer to it: nothing that revelation, inspiration or other non-scientific means ever claimed to discover has yet to withstand the test of knowledge that scientific findings attain.”
I’m not at all sure what that last clause is supposed to be saying. First of all, as any reader of the general science journals knows, new science is shaky. So the “test of knowledge” must mean what becomes of scientific claims in the fullness of time. It would be better to say “the test of knowledge that scientific findings strive to pass”.
But what would it mean to say that the proposition of Kant, argued for by non-scientific means, according to which we ought to keep our promises, “has withstood the test of knowledge that scientific findings in the fullness of time must undergo”? This sounds almost like a reversion to a sort of verificationism, not as a theory of meaning, but as a theory of “candidacy for knowledge”. Only those statements or propositions that could be submitted to a test akin to that to which scientific findings attain can even hope to be granted the status of knowledge.
It is sensible to hold that, mathematics aside, the strongest claims to that status can be made on behalf of scientific generalities, e.g. that ordinary matter is composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons or that certain elements are transmuted into others by radioactive decay. That is settled science. In the knowledge game, that's as good as it gets. So much we can agree on.
Two related questions arise:
(1) Are we to accept as candidates to be granted the status of knowledge only those propositions that could someday undergo the test of knowledge that scientific findings in the fullness of time must undergo? Are we, in other words, to accept as candidates to be granted the status of knowledge only those propositions which could someday attain the status of settled science—which is to say the status of those propositions that have the strongest claim? It’s as if one were to accept only gold in payment on the ground that gold, having the strongest claim to be money, was the only genuine currency. Even if semiotics were counterfeit, there may well be disciplines that, though not gold, are not counterfeit either.
(2) What are we to do if we think a class of statements won’t attain that status—not because of insufficient funding or time, but because statements of that class just don’t seem of the right sort to attain the status of settled science? Rosenberg suggests we regard making statements of this sort as a game, as fun. But that is to say that with respect to those statements argument, criticism, the amassing of evidence, and so forth are a sham. The appearance of knowledge-seeking in history and literary theory can only be make-believe, like dress-up games for children, or rhetoric as Kant describes it in the Critique of judgment—a mere semblance of reasoning. I don’t see how moral discourse can escape that fate also.
Perhaps this is what Rosenberg means when he says there is a “threat that science will end up showing that much of what we cherish as meaningful in human life is illusory”. But neither science nor anything else has shown this, because nothing has been shown. A decision, independent of anything science affirms, has been made to confer the status of “candidate for knowledge” on one class of statements alone (whose boundaries are not easily determined, to say the least—and is that a job for science, and will the boundary-settling itself attain to the status of settled science? what if it doesn’t?) and to deny that status to others. It is not easy to see that that decision is other than arbitrary.
I’m inclined to agree with Williamson. Science is the best way to discover and establish those truths that science is fitted to discover and establish; but no reason has been offered to show that science is the best way to discover and establish every genuinely knowable claim whatsoever.

LinkSeptember 19, 2011 in NewAPPS · Philosophy of Philosophy · Science