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Sam Harris

Sam Harris is known for many things, from being one of the leading figures of the New Atheist movement to a controversial critic of Islam. he is also known for arguing that science can provide answers to questions regarding morality. For him, morality is within the domain of science.

How is this possible, exactly? After all, science deals with facts, not values. Harris proposes that the term science is far more inclusive than we normally understand. There is no fundamental distinction, for instance, between a scientist working in a laboratory and a plumber identifying problems in a plumbing system. The distinction between them is merely conventional, because what really counts is that doing science means using reason and observation. As long as a given domain can be the subject of reasoned inquiry and observation, it belongs to the broader domain of science.

Here is how Harris himself puts it in his essay responding to Ryan Born’s critique:

“For practical reasons, it is often necessary to draw boundaries between academic disciplines, but physicists, chemists, biologists, and psychologists rely on the same processes of thought and observation that govern all our efforts to stay in touch with reality.”

Also:

Many people think about science primarily in terms of academic titles, budgets, and architecture, and not in terms of the logical and empirical intuitions that allow us to form justified beliefs about the world.” 

As well as:

“I am, in essence, defending the unity of knowledge — the idea that the boundaries between disciplines are mere conventions and that we inhabit a single epistemic sphere in which to form true beliefs about the world.”

It seems from the above that Harris thinks science is just the application of reason and observation in order to arrive at justified true beliefs about the world. To be more precise, what Harris would likely say is that science is conceived as consisting in applying reason and observation with the intention to acquire justified true beliefs (otherwise, every time a scientific notion turns out to be false we would have to conclude that it wasn’t science to begin with).

As long as we use reason and observation with proper epistemic intentions, we are doing science regardless of whether or not we really do acquire true beliefs. Even if we found out that some of our beliefs are false, we can always try to replace them with better justified ones. While this definition too is not without problems, I will assume this is what Harris has in mind. I’ll argue, however, that if science is conceived as just applying reason and observation with an intention to acquire justified true beliefs, this leads to one of the best known problems in the philosophy of science: the demarcation problem.

The demarcation problem is the problem of how we differentiate science from pseudoscience in principle. In other words, the demarcation problem consists in finding some principles, criteria, reasons, or conditions to place something like astronomy under “science” and place its counterpart astrology as a pseudoscience. However, for every proposed claim about what distinguishes science from pseudoscience, there’s a counter-example. For example, Karl Popper proposed that falsification is the criterion for distinguishing science from pseudoscience. If any set of claims or theory is falsifiable, it belongs to the domain of science. But if any set of claims or theory is unfalsifiable, it belongs to the domain of pseudoscience. However, this criterion is too strict because some untestable scientific claims ranging from string theory to the many-worlds interpretation are not considered pseudoscience.

How is the problem of demarcation relevant to Harris’ definition of science? If science is any activity that relies on reason and observation (or empirical and logical intuitions) with the intention to produce justified true belief, then the concept includes many things that are considered to be pseudoscience or non-science. Consider three examples.

First, phrenology. Phrenology is now relegated to pseudoscience, but during the 19th century many people took it seriously. Phrenology claims that personalities, emotions, talents, and such are caused by the activity of very specific regions of the brain. The theory of Phrenology was developed by Franz Joseph Gall, on the basis of his observations of the size of many skulls. Harris’ definition of science seems to force him to accept that phrenology is in fact a science.

Second, Intelligent Design (ID). Many people like to ridicule proponents of ID as mindless buffoons, but in fact the public figures of ID like Stephen C. Meyers and Michael Behe are well-educated and thoughtful people. This doesn’t mean that their claims are true. After all, it’s possible to be well-educated, thoughtful, and yet fundamentally misguided. But ID proponents like Stephen C. Meyers do in fact use reason and observation to support their claim. They give arguments and provide what they think of as empirical evidence for their conclusion that there must be an intelligent designer. In effect, they are doing science according to Harris’ definition.

As a side note, someone could object that ID proponents are using reason and observation too poorly for what they do to be considered science. Moreover, what they are doing goes against the established body of knowledge. Yet, Harris’ definition of science does not really include any qualification concerning the quality of using reason and observation. Harris could propose to amend his definition to say that reason and observation need to be used well. I shall address this later. As to the second point, going against the body of established knowledge may seem irrational, but we want to be careful because many scientists who initiated a breakthrough were going against established the then accepted body of knowledge. Albert Einstein’s General Relativity went against Newtonian Mechanics, which was an established body of theoretical knowledge. However, we certainly don’t want to say that Einstein was being irrational.

Third, consider Natural Theology. Regardless of what one may think of Natural Theology, we can all agree that it is not a science. However, natural theologians use observation and reason to support their claim that God exists. One notable example is the fine tuning argument. Natural theologians observe that the values of the cosmological constants are conducive to the existence of life, and they make an inference to the best explanation (at least in their view) that God is responsible for so structuring the universe. Whether or not this is a convincing argument, natural theologians are indeed using both observation and reason to support their claim. According to Harris’ definition of science, Natural Theology is therefore a science.

What I’m trying to argue by way of these counterexamples is that Harris’ conception of science is far too broad. It readily includes a number of notions that most of us wouldn’t consider to be within the domain of science, and reasonably so. In fact, it seems to include things that are considered to be downright pseudoscience, or theology. It should therefore be apparent that Harris’ definition of science is not very helpful, as it exacerbates the demarcation problem.

Harris could reply by arguing that he wants to make a distinction between a rigorous and reliable use of reason and observation and a loose and unreliable use of reason and observation. Anything that counts as science involves a rigorous and reliable use of reason and observation, whereas pseudoscience involves a loose and unreliable use of reason and observation, although both have the intention to produce a justified true belief. With this new distinction, Harris could exclude ID, Phrenology, and Natural Theology from the domain of science because they involve a very sloppy and unreliable use of reason and observation.

However, even Harris’ improved definition wouldn’t work. Even if it succeeds in excluding ID, Phrenology, and Natural Theology, it ends up excluding a lot of science. There are many scientific works that are not very rigorous and reliable. For example, more often than most people realize, peer review journals tend to publish scientific works afflicted by serious methodological problems.

One also has to consider the kind of scientific work at the frontier of knowledge. A lot of this works will turn out to be mistaken, because it is dealing with something that is barely within the grasp of science. For example, consider some cutting edge work on neuroscience. Despite the fact that neuroscience has made enormous progress of late, there is of course still a lot that neuroscientists do not know. Application of the scientific method in this domain began rather poorly (not rigorously, and somewhat unreliably), but eventually improved, and continues to improve. Still, even according to Harris’ augmented definition, neuroscience done poorly is not within the domain of science.

Harris may, of course, continue to modify and improve his definition, but he also wants to maintain it as broad as possible, in order to include ethics within the domain of science. This is a very difficult, if not impossible, challenge. What we have seen so far is that he has to narrow down his definition in order to avoid embarrassing counter examples. But if he is forced to continue on this path, there’s a potential problem that his eventual definition will end up either being beyond recognition and familiarity, or fail in its stated purpose to include branches of philosophy such as ethics.

Some readers may at this point conclude that this is merely a semantic issue. In an important sense,  they are correct. After all, Harris provides a definition of science, and I am disputing it. This is a discussion about the meaning of words, that is, about semantics. But contra popular understanding, semantic issue aren’t pointless. On the contrary, they are quite instructive. Mine is a cautionary tale on what happens when one broadens the meaning of an important word too much, leading straight into clearly unintended and perhaps even embarrassing consequences. One simply has to be careful with how one uses words, especially when one’s entire argument depends on it. Despite being a good writer, Harris, it turns out, is not careful with his words.

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