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April 1, 2007

Bernard Williams on Scientism

Posted by David Corfield

In Brussels, Brendan Larvor took us through a range of options for those of us who want our philosophy of mathematics to take serious notice of the history of mathematics. A distinction he relied upon was one Bernard Williams introduced to discuss historical attitudes towards philosophy. Practising the History of Ideas one is merely interested in the chronology of the rise and spread of philosophical ideas, while practicing the History of Philosophy one enters into the mental life of the philosophers to understand their problems and the resources open to them. The idea then is for a parallel to the latter which would be a History of (Philosophy of) Mathematics, which would study changing conceptions of mathematical entities and notions, such as space, quantity, continuity, dimension, etc., in terms of the problems and problem shifts of the mathematicians of the day. We should then regard mathematicians, such as Bolzano, Dirichlet, Riemann, Grassman, Weierstrass and Dedekind, who bring about changes in the ways in which mathematics is practised, as practitioners of a form of philosophical activity.

Now in an online article, Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, Williams wanted to warn philosophers against what he called scientism, the imitation of scientific practice. And the reasons he used in his argument suggest that he might not have believed the discipline Larvor is sketching to be necessary.

One particular question, of course, is how make best sense of the activity of science itself. Here the issue of history begins to come to the fore. The pursuit of science does not give any great part to its own history, and that it is a significant feature of its practice. (It is no surprise that scientistic philosophers want philosophy to follow it in this: that they think, as one philosopher I know has put it, that the history of philosophy is no more part of philosophy than the history of science is part of science.) Of course, scientific concepts have a history: but on the standard view, though the history of physics may be interesting, it has no effect on the understanding of physics itself. It is merely part of the history of discovery.

There is of course a real question of what it is for a history to be a history of discovery. One condition of its being so lies in a familiar idea, which I would put like this: the later theory, or (more generally) outlook, makes sense of itself, and of the earlier outlook, and of the transition from the earlier to the later, in such terms that both parties (the holders of the earlier outlook, and the holders of the later) have reason to recognise the transition as an improvement. I shall call an explanation which satisfies this condition vindicatory.

Philosophy, at any rate, is thoroughly familiar with ideas which indeed, like all other ideas, have a history, but have a history which is not notably vindicatory. I shall concentrate for this part of the discussion on ethical and political concepts, though many of the considerations go wider.

Now, clearly the natural sciences and mathematics aren’t riven by the kind of fundamental disagreements so prevalent in philosophy. But still I object to his claims that the movement of scientific thinking involves vindicatory explanation, where, say, ethical thinking does not, and that the presence of vindicatory explanations justifies scientists’ ignorance of the history of science. If for philosophy

…there is no inherent conflict among three activities: first, the first-order activities of acting and arguing within the framework of our ideas; second, the philosophical activity of reflecting on those ideas at a more general level and trying to make better sense of them; and third, the historical activity of understanding where they came from. The activities are in various ways continuous with one another,

are things any different in science? Do scientists not perform these activities?

Here is the mathematician Robert Langlands’s view of the point of history:

Despite strictures about the flaws of Whig history, the principal purpose for which a mathematician pursues the history of his subject is inevitably to acquire a fresh perception of the basic themes, as direct and immediate as possible, freed of the overlay of succeeding elaborations, of the original insights as well as an understanding of the source of the original difficulties. His notion of basic will certainly reflect his own, and therefore contemporary, concerns.

Now, Williams

Above all, historical understanding - perhaps I may now say, more broadly, social understanding - can help with the business, which is quite certainly a philosophical business, of distinguishing between different ways in which various of our ideas and procedures can seem to be such that we cannot get beyond them, that there is no conceivable alternative.

I fail to see that there is an essential difference here, just the historical fact that by and large consensus is easier to achieve in the sciences.

Gian-Carlo Rota, late Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy at MIT, was also highly critical of ‘scientistic’ philosophy. He once likened the use of much philosophical formalism to the purchase of groceries with Monopoly money. Perhaps we could say that what made ‘scientistic’ philosophers look absurd to him is that they’re not even imitating good scientists.

Posted at April 1, 2007 10:25 AM UTC

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Alan Baker on Occam’s Razor; Re: Bernard Williams on Scientism

This is tangential to the main thrust of your fine posting, but important in the public misunderstanding of Science and Mathematics.

The most visible and absurd use of Scientism (see 6b,6d) invading curricula is Intelligent Design.

I have a 2nd order Philosophical (not 1st order Scientific) analysis in the terms of my 100+ page paper on Axiomatizations of Occam’s Razor, out of which 2 published conference papers have been excerpted so far.

This follows up on a conversation I had on the question: “Is Intelligent Design a SIMPLER theory than Darwinian Natural Selection and/or the Neodarwinian synthesis?”

Let me put this in the context of Alan Baker’s
brilliant survey of the Philosophy of Simplicity: “A
distinction is often made between two fundamentally
distinct senses of simplicity: syntactic simplicity
(roughly, the number and complexity of hypotheses),
and ontological simplicity (roughly, the number and
complexity of things postulated).[3] These two facets
of simplicity are often referred to as elegance and
parsimony respectively….”

(1) Intelligent Design hypothesizes one new entity:
GOD (although it sneakily avoids saying so

(2) In return for “multiplying entities” in apparent
violation of Occam’s Razor, it claims to reduce other
entities, such as Natural Selection as a cause-effect
system, and the actual mechanism of Heredity (which
Darwin was forced to postulate, not knowing of Mendel,
let alone of later-doscovered DNA, etc.);

(3) Intelligent Design is TOO simple, in that it has
zero explanatory power and is only falsifiable at the

(4) The hypothesis of the existence of God, despite
many clever arguments over the millennia (i.e. the
Ontological Argument, etc.) is NOT a falsifiable
hypothesis until, hypopthetically, once has died and
entered Heaven or Hell, by which time it is rather too
late to publish.

(5) Intelligent Design has Syntactic Simplicity
(roughly, the number and complexity of hypotheses),
and can be stated and explained in many fewer words in
a school curriculum, and in fact, is syntacically too
simple to be useful outside of the realm of politics
and propoganda; but KISS principles (Keep It Simple,
Stupid) account for some of its appeal;

(6) hence I state that Intelligent Design (and other
theological systems of causation) are:
(a) Ontologically Quantitatively Parsimonious if and
only if one accepts that the introduction of the God
entity results in eliminating at least one other
entity; [definition: “Ontological Parsimony
Perhaps the most common formulation of the ontological
form of Occam’s Razor is the following: ‘Entities are
not to be multiplied beyond necessity’”];
(b) Scientism, i.e. pretending to be Science, for
persuasive effect; hence giving the appearance of, but
not the value of, Naturalistic Justifications of
(c) Pseudorationalism, pretending to apply
Justifications via Principles of Rationality, claiming
that it is irrational to hypothesize structure coming
randomly from chaos [paradox: there may be no
non-circular answer to “why should one be rational?];
(d) Mere �Intrinsic Value� Justifications, smuggled
under scientism, i.e. depending on the psychological
position that it is intrinsically justifiable to
believe in God;
(e) an attempt at Metaphysical Justifications [i.e.
One approach to justifying simplicity principles is to
embed such principles in some more general
metaphysical framework], not in itself a bad idea;
(f) most deeply, in the words of Baker, “Theological
Justifications: The post-medieval period coincided
with a gradual transition from theology to science as
the predominant means of revealing the workings of
nature. In many cases, espoused principles of
parsimony continued to wear their theological origins
on their sleeves, as with Leibniz’s thesis that God
has created the best and most complete of all possible
(g) dependent on A Priori Justifications of
Simplicity, (which work only if one a priori accepts

My paper, as a long Word document, is available on request. The recent mathematical results on Minimum Description Length are important, not widely known outside of Information Theory, let alone the Philosphy of Science and Phislosophy of Mathematics.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on April 1, 2007 6:47 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Bernard Williams on Scientism

I am inclined to agree with David, that Williams had a streak of scientism in him that pushed him into remarks of this sort. It may be relevant that in his approach to ethics, he was very serious about Nietzsche. That may be the source of his conviction that convincing vindicatory stories are not available in the case of ethics or politics. That is to say, his approach to ethics was (in MacIntyre’s three-way taxonomy) genealogical. If you combine that with a sort of basic ‘no miracles’ view of natural science, then science and ethics look fundamentally different.

For my part, I am inclined to see differences of degree. We should always be a bit suspicious of vindicatory stories (in all domains). It’s always the view from here; we are always in the business of making sense of the perspective we currently have. Ethical and scientific world-views may be lost and in vindicating our own convictions we may undervalue those losses. At the same time, I don’t think it’s always simply whiggish to speak of ethical progress, especially when you can explain it in terms of increased knowledge.

In short, I don’t have a general view about vindicatory stories. In all domains, they stand or fall on their individual merits. So, the vindicatory story about our growing distaste for racism may convince, while our vindicatory story about some other ethical topic may be no more than special pleading, to be exposed by genealogical critique. Similarly on the science side, it’s down to the details. Sometimes, the actual is rational; other times it’s just fashionable.

Notice what happens when there is a row in science or mathematics: it’s not long before you get someone making some sort of historical appeal–I’m doing it like Newton did, while my opponant is a latter-day Bellarmino.

That is to say, there are vindicatory stories available to scientists, which they draw on in times of need. It’s a pity they don’t keep these stories in better repair, as they are usually in pretty shabby shape when wheeled out for use in anger.

Posted by: Brendan Larvor on April 10, 2007 5:33 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Bernard Williams on Scientism

A few comments to help non-philosopher readers:

(1) First,

his approach to ethics was (in MacIntyre’s three-way taxonomy) genealogical.

For the taxonomy see my paper.

(2) Second,

basic ‘no miracles’ view of natural science

The ‘no miracles’ thought is that it would be a miracle if science were as successful as it is without it being at least approximately true. As Hilary Putnam put it:

a natural account of the way scientific theories succeed each other … is that a partially correct/incorrect account of a theoretical object … is replaced by a better account of the same object or objects. But if those objects don’t really exist at all, then it is a miracle that a theory which speaks of curved-space time successfully predicts phenomena; and the fact that the laws of the former theory are derivable ‘in the limit’ from the laws of the latter theory has no methodological significance.

(3) Finally,

there are vindicatory stories available to scientists, which they draw on in times of need. It’s a pity they don’t keep these stories in better repair, as they are usually in pretty shabby shape when wheeled out for use in anger.

We might consider whether evolutionary biologists could fare better against Intelligent Design proponents with their stories in better shape. Similarly for those participating in the debates about the ‘crisis’ in physics.

Posted by: David Corfield on April 11, 2007 8:22 PM | Permalink | Reply to this
Read the post Learning from Our Ancestors
Weblog: The n-Category Café
Excerpt: Back in this post I argued against Bernard Williams' view of science: The pursuit of science does not give any great part to its own history, and that it is a significant feature of its practice... Of course, scientific concepts...
Tracked: April 25, 2007 11:39 AM

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