Science as knowledge vs. science as naturalism

On The Stone, Timothy Williamson continues to explore naturalism, most recently to counter Alex Rosenberg’s suggestion that only science produces worthwhile knowledge:

If semiotics, existentialism, hermeneutics, formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism transparently flout science’s standards of objectivity, or if they seek arbitrarily to limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can’t take them seriously as knowledge.

That doesn’t mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than forgoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.”

While skewering Rosenberg on this point, Williamson’s response muddles two distinct questions. We can ask whether science requires naturalism as defined by Rosenberg. We can also ask whether the knowledge produced by science is the only type worth having. These are different issues and the entire discussion confuses them.

I’ve decided I can’t bring myself to care that much about the first. Science in practice is effectively naturalistic almost all the time and is probably going to stay that way. It’s even harder for me to care in this case because I don’t find their definition to be helpful. I suspect people like Paul Newall can marshal history and philosophy to reject all naturalism criteria. Although I might agree with him, I won’t spend any more time trying to decide  either way.

The second question is the far more interesting one, and though Williamson is mostly on solid ground his argument doesn’t quite add up. Consider this passage from his intellectual dismembering of Rosenberg, where Williamson appears to believe history and literary criticism are valid forms of knowledge:

Rightly noting the successes of physics, [Rosenberg] says “We should be confident that it will do better than any other approach at getting things right.” What things? If he means questions of physics, what reasonable person denies that physics will do better than any other approach at answering those questions? But if he means all questions, why should we be confident that physics will do better than history at getting right what happened at Gettysburg?

I raised history and literary theory as test cases. According to Professor Rosenberg, naturalism treats literary criticism as fun, but not as knowledge. Does he really not know whether Mr. Collins is the hero of “Pride and Prejudice?”…

For Professor Rosenberg, it may turn out that “reality contains only the kinds of things that hard science recognizes.” By “hard science” he seems to mean something like physics…That physics does not show that there is such a thing as a debt crisis does not mean that physics shows that there is no such thing as a debt crisis: physics simply does not address the question. That is no criticism of physics; it has other work to do.

This line of reasoning will be familiar to long-time readers of this blog. Other than the chest-thumping that is distressingly routine among scientists, there is no general-purpose epistemological ranking. If you want to determine the acceleration due to gravity, use physics. If you want to analyze the protagonists in a Jane Austen novel, use literary criticism. Nothing that controversial here.

The confusion occurs because at the same time Williamson insists history and literary criticism produce useful knowledge on their own terms, he calls for a “broader conception of science that includes mathematics, history, much of philosophy, and the sensible parts of literary criticism, as well as the natural and social sciences.”

So which is it? Do we expand science to include practically all forms of scholarship–at which point science just means research Williamson happens to value? Or do we recognize other equally valid, but different, forms of knowledge production? Both answers can’t be correct.

This schizophrenia weaves throughout Williamson’s posts. On one hand, the “scientific spirit” includes both experiments and philosophical reasoning, implying an expanded definition of science. On the other, in that same paragraph, scholars who “know what they are doing” may use methods outside the natural sciences, implying different research methods can be equally valid. Even though mathematics is “one of the most spectacular success stories in the history of human knowledge”, it must be counted as a science to receive that title.

Perhaps I am violating my own rules by expecting consistency and rigor in mere blog posts. Nevertheless, I was dismayed to see Williamson’s indecisiveness. He can’t quite come out and say scientific knowledge is not always better. By sneaking in subjects with no clear connection to traditional science, he undermines the stronger part of his argument and loses some of the benefits of categorization.

Physics has more in common with chemistry and microbiology than it does with literary criticism. Literary criticism in turn has more in common with art history than it does with thermodynamics. As long as we are nonjudgmental and recognize that boundaries are fuzzy and overlap, it can be useful to sort these activities into different groups. But as nebulous as they may be, these boundaries do exist: literary criticism and particle physics are substantially different forms of knowledge. Pretending otherwise devalues both.

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