June 23, 2015, by Stephen Mumford

Fare Well

Back in April there was a Twitter hashtag where you had to complete the sentence #Iamaphilosopherbecause. My contribution was “science cannot tell me what is a number, what is good, what is knowledge or what is causation. And I’ve kids to feed”. With that light-hearted ending, I was pretty surprised how much anger the tweet provoked. I was attacked on a number of fronts. Some tweeters took offence at my audacity to claim that there were questions science couldn’t answer. Others suggested that philosophy could never answer questions anyway.

I certainly think of myself as pro-science, even though I am not uncritical about its practices and methods. I think we all should be critical of science in a supportive and constructive way, thinking how to improve its methods of discovery. Knowledge progresses only when challenged. I also think that a dialogue between arts, science and social science is not only helpful but essential if we want to move closer to a full understanding of the world and our place in it.

The problem I encountered on Twitter is that there are some who think the arts has nothing to contribute at all and science can go it alone. The view that science can answer every meaningful question is called scientism. And it is resurgent. But you can certainly be pro-science while being anti-scientism, as I would say I am. I think it is helpful to have science and the arts interact. Scientism says it isn’t.

Science is the best way to approach many questions: questions that are empirical in nature and have to be answered from a starting point of experience. But not all questions are like that and we hold many beliefs that go beyond the data. I suspect that almost all of us, including scientists, believe that objects exist unperceived. And if we think of science as dealing with the observable, then this belief has to come out as a non-scientific one. It is philosophical; I would say metaphysical. Certainly physics can give us a theory in which things exists when they are not being looked at, but that is a theory that goes beyond what data gives us. It is also perfectly possible to construct a theory, equally consistent with the empirical evidence, in which physical things exist only when perceived. Scientific theories may be based on inference to the best explanation, or induction, but it is a further philosophical question whether these types of inference should be accepted. Again, the data cannot tell us whether they should. The data just sit there. It is philosophers who consider systematically what the correct methods of science should be: philosophers such as Bacon, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend.

The rise of scientism is dangerous. I would even think of scientism as being anti-science, given that it is an attempt to over-extend the proper boundaries of the field of enquiry. This was brought home to me when I attended a medical conference last week. Practitioners with various specialisms were discussing some of the flaws in current models. It struck me that these flaws had a common basis. The approaches were failing to treat patients as person, as individual existences, instead preferring large-scale experimentation that delivered statistical averages. Certain interventions, drugs for instance, were only being authorised for use when they could be shown to have on average a positive outcome under very strictly defined conditions. You should expect, however, it to be unusual that an individual is average. Consider the average number of legs for a human: it’s around 1.999. Almost everyone is above average and no one is average. How then can we infer from what is true on average to what is true of one individual?

The alternative is to accept the importance of the person as the key individual existence. It is people who have points of view on the world. They experience and think, adding meaning and value to the world. Science has an in-principle problem with accommodating such a point of view. An aim of science is an objective view, removing the biases that accompany subjective, individual points of view. Science aims, to use Thomas Nagel’s term, for a view form nowhere: a description of the world as if from no particular place and time. Yet everyone is located at some place and time. They have and give us a view from somewhere. The purely objective view thus misses those vital subjective facts, as Nagel describes in his famous essay ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ It is such subjectivity that we need to acknowledge in effective medicine, for instance, treating people as experiencing and feeling human beings instead of passive slabs of meat receiving biomedical treatments. For such reasons, I’ve come more and more to think of myself as an existentialist. Points of view matter.

I’m almost at the end of my four years as Dean of the Arts Faculty at Nottingham. I called this blog Arts Matters because the arts really do matter. Many of us working in the academic arts sensed a change of culture following the global economic crisis of 2007-08. Governments were stretched and looking for cuts. The arts seemed an easy target. Perhaps it was not entirely coincidental that there was a subsequent revival of scientism. How better to justify the cuts than to suggest the arts don’t actually do anything? But what a disaster it would be to have a world without art, without critical thinkers, and without the study of the humanities. Unless there are social experiencing subjects, capable of pleasure and valuing, all is for nought. Science will enable us to do many, many things but we are the ones who decide what to do. No amount of data can make such decisions on our behalf. I don’t know how we allowed ourselves to get to a position where the arts needed defending. Nevertheless, I saw it as one thing that I and the universities ought to do. I regret that I wasn’t Dean of Arts in better times. The job was interesting and exhilarating even so and I am glad I did it.

Thank you to all who read, tweeted and interacted with this blog over the last four years. I will continue writing but not on the arts in general. I go back to being a philosopher and you’ll find my blogs on The Philosophers’ Magazine online.

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