Kitcher’s view on science & the humanities

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the topic – most of it myopic, in my estimation – but Philip Kitcher, in an essay in the New Republic, contributes a perspective that is informed, clear, and judicious. As usual. Excerpt, from the conclusion:

We are finite beings, and so our investigations have to be selective, and the broadest frameworks of today’s science reflect the selections of the past. What we discover depends on the questions taken to be significant, and the selection of those questions, as well as the decision of which factors to set aside in seeking answers to them, presupposes judgments about what is valuable. Those are not only, or mainly, scientific judgments. In their turn, new discoveries modify the landscape in which further investigations will take place, and because what we learn affects how evidence is assessed, discovery shapes the evolution of our standards of evidence. Judgments of value thus pervade the environment in which scientific work is done. If they are made, as they should be, in light of the broadest and deepest reflections on human life and its possibilities, then good science depends on contributions from the humanities and the arts. Perhaps there is even a place for philosophy.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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7 Responses to Kitcher’s view on science & the humanities

  1. It will be interesting to see, after a decade or so of further gene-culture coevolution research, how confidently it can be claimed that “culture appears to be at some level autonomous and in some sense irreducible, and this is what scientism cannot grasp.” Though Kitcher is certainly an authority to be trusted, I do increasingly wonder if humanists wary of “scientism” have much idea of the rapidly growing and increasingly sophisticated array of evolutionary and otherwise naturalistic resources available in accounting for cultural phenomena. (The evolutionary and cognitive science of religion is, for me at least, a most exciting example, gathering together so many interesting strands of research: )


  2. Huenemann says:

    I think it depends on what you’re interested in, and what questions are being asked. If I’m interested in why it should be that groups of human beings have survived with religious beliefs, then articles like the one you link to are the ones to study. But there are so many other questions that could be raised, like Why did Christians end up with the doctrine of the trinity? What is the common core to the conceptions of God within the Abrahamic religions? Is any attempt to invest life with meaning inherently religious in its nature? What did the practice of Islam mean to a 14th-century Turkish laborer? What do composers do when they try to write music that reflects the divine? And on and on and on. I can’t see that genes and evolution will be of much help here, since the explanations are in a different kind of sphere altogether.


  3. Huenemann says:

    Rob, I didn’t pay attention to the context of the bit of Kitcher you quote. Now that I have, I concede your point.

    Kitcher writes, “Human culture, moreover, is not obviously reducible to a complex system of processes in which single individuals affect others. Rigorous mathematical studies of gene-cultural coevolution reveal that when natural selection combines with cultural transmission, the outcomes reached may differ from those that would have been produced by natural selection acting alone, and that the cultural processes involved can be sustained under natural selection. Whether this happens in a wide variety of areas of human culture and domains or is relatively rare is something nobody can yet determine. But culture appears to be at some level autonomous and in some sense irreducible, and this is what scientism cannot grasp.”

    He is out on a limb here, asking to be proved wrong, and the article you link to aims in exactly that direction. Thanks.


  4. Chris Rawls says:

    He sounds similar to what Tom Kuhn already said (and others in Womanist Epistemology for example) about the structure of scientific revolutions. Scientific results have always been interpreted according to one’s perceptions, belief sets, and expectations, unfortunately. What might be interesting, in Nietzschean style, to throw in the mix is Dean Radin’s ‘The Conscious Universe…’ and see what happens. There may even be a place for philosophy there too. One can dream can’t she?


  5. I consider myself broadly scientismist (really need a new word, there). But I see the scientismist project proceeding pretty much after the manner Kitcher prescribes. We will only be able to eschew “the broadest and deepest reflections on human life and its possibilities” if they become actually irrelevant to our project. But (perhaps pace Alex Rosenberg) we’re clearly not there yet. More importantly, there’s little reason either to hope or to fear that we could ever get there, because we can’t possibly know what it will be like to know what we would have to know to have made it there.


  6. Huenemann says:

    “we can’t possibly know what it will be like to know what we would have to know to have made it there.” That’s awfully pooh-poohish for a scientismist! I like it.


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