How does Quine answer the metaphysician's charge that scientism is self-refuting?



General scientism seems to hold that due to the predictive powers of our scientific methods, such methods are preferred to other methods of knowledge, such as metaphysics (radical scientism claiming that metaphysics is by and large simply irrelevant to actual knowledge). The metaphysician then claims that this claim of scientism is itself not a scientific claim, but rather a metaphysical claim, and so it is self-refuting. This metaphysical nature can be seen even in the claim's most primary assumptions, including its primary assumption that a method is 'good' so as to be preferred over another thing simply because it is predictive of events (for it can and must be asked what makes the 'quality of being predictive' to be 'good').

Quine differs from many scientism proponents however in his understanding of the nature of what constitues a method as 'scientific'. My question is about the way in which Quine regards any justification of scientism as a 'scientific' claim, which would be apparently necessary in order to avoid self-refutation. In short, how does Quine respond to the metaphysician's refutation that scientism is itself not a scientific claim, but rather a metaphysical claim?


Posted 2015-10-02T21:04:57.830

Reputation: 241



Quine does not subscribe to scientism, i.e. the epistemological primacy of the scientific method, but he is often taken to because his repudiation of scientism is non-traditional. Quine does consign epistemology to a "chapter of psychology", which would be scientism if he also preserved the traditional understanding of epistemology, as scientism does. But naturalizing epistemology means that he does not. For Quine there is no ultimate grounding of knowledge, even in a predefined organon such as the scientific method. All parts of our knowledge are subject to testing and revision in view of contrary evidence, including methodological parts such as naturalized epistemology itself. There are no assumptions, the preference for scientific method is not a metaphysical claim, it is a provisional surmise of the current state of affairs.

This is characteristic of naturalized epistemology's response to meta-objections in general. In contrast to apriorism or scientism there is no meta, no presupposed justification principles that are independently validated. In Epistemology Naturalized Quine writes "if the epistemologist's goal is to validate empirical science he defeats his purpose by using psychology or other empirical science in the validation. However, such scruples against circularity have little point once we have stopped dreaming about deducing science from observations. If we are to simply understand the link between observation and science we are well advised to use any available information, including that provided by the very science whose link with observation we are seeking to understand".

But Quine does not dismiss metaphysics as such, he credits it as a useful tool for organizing our knowledge conceptually. For example, in On What There Is he writes that "physical conceptual scheme simplifies our account of experience because of the way myriad scattered sense events come to be associated with single so-called objects". However, it is the "phenomenalistic" scheme that "claims epistemological priority. Viewed from within the phenomenalistic conceptual scheme, the ontologies of physical objects and mathematical objects are myths. The quality of myth, however, is relative; relative, in this case, to the epistemological point of view".


Posted 2015-10-02T21:04:57.830

Reputation: 38 006

3Quine does subscribe to scientism, or methodological naturalism if you prefer. The following quote from 'Epistemology Naturalized' makes it very clear: "Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject." (Quine 1969, 82) Quine explicitly argues for leaving the traditional epistemological project to psychology and science in general. It's the standard and correct interpretation of Quine. Naturalizing epistemology implies leaving epistemology to science. – PVJ – 2015-10-03T11:52:55.830

1As PVJ says, I think this answer is somewhat misleading and a little bit of clarification would be appreciated. So far I don't really see how nor where Quine has made any actual reply to the objection that science is contextualized by more primary principles that simply cannot be coherently rejected (though it seems for Quine they can be ignored). – Jecko – 2015-10-03T16:16:14.973

2@PVJ I think the difference is terminological, it depends on how one differentiates between scientism and naturalism. For Quine epistemology is reduced to a chapter of psychology, but psychology, and science in general, is not thereby elevated to the pedestal of old epistemology. In Two Dogmas he subjects not only scientific organon but even laws of logic to the "tribunal of experience". Such empirical holism is inconsistent with scientism as "belief in universal applicability of the scientific method and approach" since it contemplates their potential discarding. – Conifold – 2015-10-04T21:58:12.903

1@Jecko "Can be ignored" is about right, more precisely the metabasis and circularity objections remain valid but lose their relevance. This is because their relevance rests on the old assumption that acquisition of knowledge uses or needs contextualizing principles, which Quine rejects:"The old tendency was due to the drive to base science on something firmer and prior to the subject's experience, but we dropped that project". There is no point to scruples about an organon if it is subject to revision like everything else. – Conifold – 2015-10-04T21:58:43.697

The pragmatic argument in EN is that the old epistemology failed anyway, and science is the best remaining option. I added a clarification on scientism at the beginning of the answer. – Conifold – 2015-10-04T21:59:24.047

@Conifold The problem is that it still remains in question as to how Quine has made any successful argument at all for his position of believing that traditional epistemology is to be less preferred than 'naturalized epistemology'. Rather than provide a reason for ignoring the argument of the necessity of primary principles, Quine simply ignores the argument as though his ignoring it is an argument in itself. What should stop the metaphysician from doing the natural thing of ignoring Quine's 'unargued-for argument' in response? – Jecko – 2015-10-04T22:23:38.367

@Jecko I can not answer for Quine, but he seems to have what he considers two arguments. First, just because one is doing x according to a rule y does not mean that she is presupposing validity of the rule, let alone makes any claims to that effect. One can just do it and see what happens with both x and y. Second, EN sketches how traditional epistemology repeatedly failed historically, not advancing in the least since Hume on justification, while science had a much better track record. Metaphysicist is free to ignore Quine of course, but at the likely price of continuing to fail. – Conifold – 2015-10-05T00:14:38.713

@Jecko Quine accepts that the acquisition of knowledge needs to be contextualized, or that they rest on other principles. What he does say is these other principles are open for revision too. They're not in direct contact with experimental refutation (they're at the center of our web of belief, not at its periphery) but not immune to refutation. What Quine rejects through careful arguments in "two dogma" is that there is a clear frontier between methodological principles and scientific hypothesis. – Quentin Ruyant – 2015-10-05T09:05:42.823

@Jecko scientists and metaphysicians both believe that methodological principles are not revisable by experience. Both assume a divide between scientific hypothesis and metaphysics. The former view methodological principles as obvious and non questionnable, and metaphysics as irrelevant, the latter view them as questionnable and metaphysically grounded. Quine rejects the whole divide. – Quentin Ruyant – 2015-10-05T09:13:07.670

@Jecko so there is no point in addressing standard objections against scientism to Quine, because Quine doesn't reject metaphysics or assume strict verificationism as scientism does, he rather blurs the distinction between science and metaphysics. – Quentin Ruyant – 2015-10-05T09:18:59.770

@quen-tin To what extent the claim that the primary principles of metaphysics can be revised is questionable. How can the principle of identity, for example, possibly be coherently denied? Also, denying the distinction between metaphysics and science as a whole ultimately means one simply acquiring the other. For Quine, it means science, and its methodological approach, acquiring metaphysics. But how this is any different than the claims of those scientists whom Quine criticizes the world may never know. Both rely on assumed metaphysics that suit science rather than science suiting metaphysics – Jecko – 2015-10-05T13:14:49.027

@quen_tin Furthermore, the distinction between metaphysics and science should be noted, for even the claim that they are not different rests on arguments that analyze how they are. Simply expanding the definition of science does not in any way solve the distinction; it simply makes the term vacuous, and even welcomes the possibility of other metaphysical arguments (such as theistic proofs). If Quine detests these arguments, he must draw some distinction between them and his term 'science'. But any line drawn would be entirely self-serving and, all in all, circular in its reasoning. – Jecko – 2015-10-05T13:16:38.810

@quen_tin Lastly, the claim 'there is no distinction between metaphysics and science' supposes itself to be not open to refutation, revision, or any other experimental deduction. It rather assumes itself to be aligned with some primary primary principles; in other words, it's an 'unmixed' metaphysical claim. To say that this claim was somehow arrived at through experience won't do either, for the claim is ultimately an abstraction that contextualizes, and so makes intelligible, the experience of the terms within it, and not the other way around. Such is the very purpose for its being stated. – Jecko – 2015-10-05T13:27:01.623

@Conifold I appreciate the response, and it does make more clear the exact argument Quine makes for his belief as to why science should acquire metaphysics (though the argument is surprisingly weak). I think I've somewhat abused the comment section so far, so I'll avoid pointing out what I perceive to be the failures of the argument. We could move the discussion to chat if it's interesting enough though. I'll leave that option open to whoever wishes it. – Jecko – 2015-10-05T13:30:51.760

@Jecko read Quine to see how he proceeds before objecting to his views. I only gave you his conclusions, not his arguments, if you read him you'll see that your objections are irrelevant. Basically Quine shows that there's no absolute way to determine the meaning of a sentence a priori. This includes the meaning of sentences where the word "identical" appears. Then science (about facts) cannot be clearly opposed to metaphysics (about meaning/concepts) at most there is a difference of degree. Finally he needs not align with a an priori metaphysics because his arguments are mostly destructive. – Quentin Ruyant – 2015-10-05T17:00:10.043

@Jecko I won't defend anymore his positions against your objections here, I'm only trying to present them for you so that you know how they are different from traditional positivism or scientism. If you don't believe me or if you want to know more read him or some relevant sources. – Quentin Ruyant – 2015-10-05T17:05:11.163

@Jecko Heraclitus is seen as rejecting the law of identity, Hegel explicitly revises it in his Science of Logic (p.71). For them the issue seems to be that identity law fails to capture the dynamic nature of reality. There are modern formalizations in terms of temporal logic. Non-contradiction is rejected in dialetheism, which is popular lately I thought SE would convert this thread into a chat automatically, but I don't know how to do it by hand.

– Conifold – 2015-10-05T22:39:32.570

@Conifold I'm going to type in this comment and see if the option to move this conversation over to chat comes up, and if it doesn't than I'll manually create a new room and invite those who have commented so far into the room. – Jecko – 2015-10-06T21:53:07.587

Let us continue our conversation in a chat

– Conifold – 2016-05-01T00:42:20.767