I find myself once again defending a reasonable approach to epistemology in the face of religionism. Epistemology is defined as:
The theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion. - Oxford DictionariesThere are two major schools of thought in epistemology: rationalism and empiricism. The division between them concerns the sources of our knowledge. The empiricist position is that knowledge ultimately derives from our experience of the world through the senses, while the rationalist thinks that there are other valid ways of knowing things. These schools of thought correspond roughly to the distinction between skeptical and theistic belief systems. The skeptic limits his beliefs about what is justified knowledge to that which is supported by empirical evidence, and the theists allows for other forms of knowledge that are less tangible, such as intuition or innate knowledge, or even divine revelation.
Of course, both schools insist that their own position is the more reasonable one. One of the key battlegrounds is over intuition. We all agree that we have intuitive understanding of various things, but we disagree on the source of that intuitive knowledge. Empiricists believe that intuitive knowledge is based on experience, and without a background of life experience, we'd have no intuitive understanding at all. Rationalists often attribute this kind of knowledge to God, who creates our souls with built-in rational capabilities that are derived from his own mind, and without God's mind as the ultimate source, we'd have no intuitive knowledge at all. At the same time, the rationalists tend to extend the concept of intuition-based knowledge to include things that fall more into the category of opinion, such as ideas of what is good and bad, what constitutes beauty, and so on.
Skeptics contend that without an empirical approach to learning about our world, namely science, we would be stuck in the dark ages, mired in ignorance and unable to master our environment and improve our lives to the degree that we have achieved thanks to science. Theists argue, on the other hand, that a strictly scientific approach, which they call scientism, leaves a vast empty space in our lives - a space in which resides not only the knowledge of God, but everything about us that is human, including morality, aesthetic appreciation, and love.
In this battle of opposing views, there may be a tendency to overstate the unreasonableness of the opponent's position. Charges of scientism are often a perfect example of this. Joe Hinman says about scientism:
Scientism is the understanding that science is the only valid form of knowledge . It's an ideology and permeates real scientific circles. When thinkers whose understanding is colored by this ideology their defense of science against valid ordinary critique is ideological and programmed, We can always spot this kind of thinking immediately because they invulnerably see any valid criticism as an attack upon the very notion of science, This tendency to think of science as some fragile sacred truth that dare not be questioned is emblematic of ideological reverence - HinmanThis statement is striking because it makes scientism sound exactly like religion - an ideology that embodies a "sacred truth" that can't be questioned and clouds the thinking of its adherents. This is obviously projection. But more importantly, it is practically the exact opposite of what skeptics actually believe. Skepticism is all about questioning everything and verifying what we think we know. There are no "fragile sacred truths". And the idea that science is the "only" valid way to know things is a gross overstatement, as I will explain.
But Joe certainly isn't alone in this view. It seems to be ubiquitous among religionists. Like many others, Richard Shumack sees scientism as a grossly deficient epistemological position held by "New Atheists" such as Peter Boghossian:
Now I agree that reasoning from objective evidence is a very good way of knowing lots of things. Especially scientific things like door sizes. But just a little reflection reveals that it is not the only way we know things. In everyday life we know things through a whole range of different methods. We know some things, like the fact that child abuse is wrong, intuitively. We know some things, like I have a headache, from personal experience. We can know some things, like riding a bike, through just doing it. And we know some things – and probably most things – through other people telling us. So, aside from a few monuments, everything we know about the past is based on eyewitness testimony. Similarly, most of what we know of our friends is from their personal testimonies. In fact, a few experts aside, pretty much all we know about science comes from what our teachers tell us. - ShumackI understand and agree that the view of scientism purveyed by these religionists is grossly deficient. But it isn't what what real people like Boghossian actually believe. Who denies that we learn things from personal experience? Certainly not skeptics or empiricists. That is the very basis of empiricism. Who ever claimed that they learn nothing by listening to other people, or by reading historical accounts? And who thinks that the only objective knowledge comes from a science lab? Nobody. This is nothing but a straw man. It's a way for religionists to try to make their own position seem reasonable by comparison.
But Shumack's transparent tactic is revealed in his opinion piece. If we can learn things from personal experience then it must be acceptable to assume a knowledge of God based on (unverifiable subjective) personal experiences. And if we can know things from the testimony of others, then we can know that Jesus rose from the dead, because there is (poorly substantiated) testimony in the bible. So rather than drawing a distinction between unreliable sources and that which is objective and verifiable, he just tosses these questionable sources of knowledge in the same basket with much more reasonable sources, and claims that scientism rejects them all. Which is a lie.
Science does not exclude sources of knowledge. It does not embody any sacred inviolable truth. Nor does it remove humanity from our lives. Science is a methodology for obtaining knowledge about our world, to the extent that it is practicable, by minimizing the impediments of bias and ideology, and emphasizing verification. As Stephen Pinker explains:
On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. - PinkerIn this view, the spirit of scientific inquiry can be applied in all walks of life - not just in the science lab. Reliable knowledge is based on observable, verifiable evidence, and stands up to scrutiny. Personal experience tells us much about our world, but if it isn't objective, we can't know that it is an accurate reflection the world outside our own mind. The testimony of other people has value as a source of knowledge, and its value is proportional to the extent that it is credible and verifiable. Our trust of historical accounts is based on their following established historical method. These things constitute the "science broadly construed" that Jerry Coyne talks about.
Laboratory science is certainly not the only way of knowing things. But science just happens to be the best way we have of knowing and understanding our world. And how do we know that? Because it works. As a methodology for obtaining reliable knowledge, it works far better than any other methodology that has ever been devised. The evidence for this is undeniable. And if understood outside the context of religionists' attempts to denigrate science and its adherents, scientism is simply a recognition of that reality. It does not imply any limitation on one's sources of knowledge, nor does it imply any lack of humanity. Rather it enhances our ability to know and understand our world. It is the religionist who lacks or denies the epistemological power of scientific inquiry, particularly when it comes into conflict with his religious beliefs. And that's sad.