Michael Ruse has been in one of his frequent dust-ups with people whom he regards as purveyors of “scientism”, etc., etc. It gets a little complicated trying to track back through the debate to see who was responsible for its train-wreck quality, so I’ll avoid that today. However, it led Ruse to claim that there are various domains where objective knowledge can be found without using the methodology of science.
I don’t disagree with that, as far as it goes. First, there is no such thing as the methodology of science. Science has refined various techniques for exploring the cosmos beyond what I (not in an especially original way) call the middle world – the world that is spatially more or less in scale with us, and which is about as old as human texts, buildings, etc. However, science does not have a monopoly on any of its techniques. They are also available to, and sometimes useful to, humanities scholars, among others. Indeed the dividing line between the humanities and the sciences is rather arbitrary, and is set for pragmatic reasons rather than because they are totally isolated from each other in the methods that they use.
Second, the humanities have their own distinctive techniques for finding out stuff. These are available to scientists as well, and to anyone else, but some of them would be useful to today’s professionalised institution of science only in weird fictional scenarios. For example, someone wanting to discover new knowledge about Greek literature would do well to learn ancient Greek. But doing so is unlikely to help a team of twenty-first-century particle physicists. (I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to imagine some weird scenario in which it just might be.)
I don’t doubt that there are facts that we can find out without doing anything distinctively scientific. Sometimes, doing so will require the use of challenging scholarly techniques that are more distinctive of the humanities – techniques that can sometimes require much talent and training. Mastering ancient Greek or seventeenth century English prosody is not straightforward, but it is needed to engage in certain scholarly inquiries and draw plausible conclusions.
But none of this was Ruse’s approach. Instead, he named mathematics, morality, and philosophical epistemology as fields where there are objective truths to be found by non-scientific methods. These are all controversial examples, and I’ll set aside the first and last. I hope I’ve established that I don’t believe all truths that we can discover are available to us only by distinctively scientific means.
What, then, about morality? Relying on the existence of objective moral truths to disprove “scientism” seems like a case of defending a not-terribly-controversial conclusion using a highly controversial premise. To labour the point, we find out many things about the middle world without relying on distinctively scientific methods. But are there objective moral truths that we can learn through some non-scientific methodology? I very much doubt it.
It does, of course, depend on what you mean by “objective” – clearly enough, there are truths that take this form: “Among the Martians it is regarded as immoral to bury your parents without first eating their flesh.” There are plenty of truths about the standards of behaviour adopted in particular societies, or cultures, or sub-cultures. But are there truths about standards of behaviour that transcend (or somehow lie outside of) human subjectivity, human cultural institutions, and the like, standards that simply bind us to act in certain ways in the nature of things, and irrespective of our desires?
The trouble is that Ruse himself doesn’t think that. In his latest contribution to the debate, he pretty much concedes this by writing: “You may complain that this is not enough. You want a firmer foundation—meaning you still want some outside foundation—for morality. I cannot give you that.” Okay, but if that’s his position he is saying that people who imagine that there are moral claims with some sort of “outside foundation” are in error. The only question is how pervasive that belief is, and how far it is built into our moral language and thinking. Presumably he realises that it is pretty common, in which case our ordinary moral language and thinking is, to some extent, shot through with error.
That might not take Ruse all the way to moral error theory, if the latter is the position that all first-order moral claims are just false. That (or some refinement of it) is how contemporary metaethicists usually conceive of moral error theory, though its leading twentieth-century exponent, J.L. Mackie, arguably did not go so far. In any event, Ruse should at least concede that his view is somewhere on the way towards moral error theory and is not an objectivist theory at all. On Ruse’s own account, there are no truths about standards that simply bind us in the nature of things. Thus, there is no body of such truths to be discovered through non-scientific methods.
Once again, there may be truths about the standards of various societies, etc. I’m sure there are. There may also be truths about which of these standards we should support, given our deeper values, goals, sympathies, etc., though the word “we” is very tricky here – do all of us reading this really have the same deeper values, goals, sympathies, etc.? I rather doubt it. There may also be truths about deeper values, goals, etc., that we tend to share, but once we reach that point we’re getting into areas where science may, indeed, have much to say, along with the humanities. As I said above, the boundary between them is rather arbitrary in any event, and it tends to break down with these sorts of philosophical inquiries.
All very strange. Since Ruse rejects objectivism as metaethicists usually understand it, what was his point about morality in the first place?
To be fair to him, some people do seem to get very upset at the idea that we are able to find out stuff through means that are not especially scientific. So, yes, I suppose they have a scientistic tendency. Some commenters in the blogosphere react to harmless statements about the humanities and everyday observation almost as if science’s honour is at stake. But I doubt that anyone is seriously guilty of scientism as people like Ruse conceive of it. And even if someone is guilty of such an error, it’s easy enough to point out simple examples to them: e.g., discovering some historical fact by translating an ancient document. If the person then defines “science” so broadly as to include such an activity, we are now involved in an argument about semantics. You don’t need to tie yourself in metaethical knots, as Ruse does, to make such points.