Science and wisdom

James Ladyman argues for the the proposition that human nature is better understood through science than through philosophy or art, and the gods of irony again provide richly for their children by giving us another defense of the superiority of science to philosophy which is entirely philosophical and innocent of scientific reasoning. Ladyman lamented philosophy’s “poor track record” and its failure to resolve disputes while giving his listeners to another run on the track through the pro-science arguments: science replaces superstition, science alone gets out of the armchair, science alone gets consensus…

Look, these heroic science narratives are all past-date, and the militancy with which they’ve been advanced in the Anglosphere since Septemper 11 is a rearguard action. Our contemporary sola scientia is the result of the silly politicization of the Humanities* and the specialization of tracked curricula, which is the only way we could have ever reached the level of peak enstupidation where a student could think he gets only second-rate, purely social, and scientifically replaceable knowledge from, say, The Iliad, Gorgias, translating Vergil, or mulling over Augustine’s discussions of psychology, addiction, and time in Confessions. 

The attempt to pit science, philosophy and art as rival and rankable methods of knowing is pointless for a few more reasons.

1.) Science, philosophy, and art are not more or less perfect instances of one method. There are relatively few ways in which you can compare them the way you would compare Mountain Dew to coffee in its ability to keep you awake or the way you would compare the Wright flyer to the stealth bomber as flying technologies. Homer, Rimbaud, and T.S. Eliot are not fumbling about for algorithms that quantify the results of polling data only to settle for hexameters and anthropomorphism; nor would Aristotle need to change his theories of happiness if a large number of self-reporting happy persons were mired in vice.

2.) “Science” lacks sufficient definition to divide itself from its own philosophical bases. We have no standard to divide science from pseudo-science since scientists are always prepared to accept theories that violate the familiar Popperian or Positivist criteria. We are, of course, perfectly able to identify some things as scientific and others not, but we have no criteria that can do this work in controversial or disputed cases even though these are exactly the cases where it is most important to have formal criteria. A fortiori, we have no criteria that, in controversial or disputed cases, suffices to identify a true philosophical basis for science (like Naturalism or Divine logos theory).

3.) Human thought is not a process in search of an ideal method, but an exitus-reditus structure of mutually ecstatic modes of knowing. The sola scientia movement is part of a larger mistake that takes the unity of the mind to require a unity of method in reasoning, as though reasoning were like a golf-swing or producing a tire and could be done by some maximally efficient single method. But human thought arises from one type of knowledge before leaving it to return to it again: we start from insights, develop them through reasons, and then use the reasons as confirmations or developments of the insights. Again, we need theories in which various things can appear as facts, and facts which can be used as support for theories; we need paradigms that can order masses of data and experience and experience and data that can be the basis of seeing the paradigm. Science does not start from a hypothesis as though from some randomly asserted claim made with no insight, but from a partial insight that works its way back to my confirmation or denial. This partial insight which starts and completes the scientific process is itself a part of a larger whole which both gives rise to science and which science serves to flesh out and confirm. All this leads to the main point, which is

4.) The sola scientia movement entirely overlooks wisdom while always speaking from within an instance or corruption of it.  Wisdom and science are fundamentally different sorts of knowledge, and philosophy and art are above all advances or corruptions of wisdom. We entirely miss the character of philosophy or art when we want them to achieve widespread consensus, to be acknowledged by many, and so to have the “successful track record” of explanation that science is supposed to have.** No one has ever assumed that wisdom could be common or widespread; nor for that matter do we expect the same of good taste, and for the same reason.*** Wisdom has no savants that can shortcut around long experience, and the arguments in its favor are not things that first-timers can divide from the objections to it. There are no wisdom algorithms or universal methods. Wisdom and science are rather the fundamental elements of the mind’s exitus-reditus. Both wisdom and science are ecstatic into each other: wisdom seeks to go outside of itself in search of concretion, detail, consensus; science seeks to go outside of itself in search of transcendental foundations but can only do so by leaving the very concretion, detail, and consensus that drives wisdom to it.


*Though this was itself an extension of the folly of calling them humanities in the first place, as though the only work they did was enculturation. Liberal and classical education is not about making someone a 19th century white, polo-playing Harvard man but is a crucial development of reasoning as such. Reasoning is essentially and exitus-reditus structure of insight/reasoning, theory/ fact,  paradigm/ example, and above all of wisdom / science.

**In fact, science has a long history of modifying what counts as proven or scientific. While they haven’t been as florid in self-negation as philosophers have been, their real history belies their claim to consensus or a successful track record within a single accepted account of proof. Science has had at least three major redactions of what counts as physical science:

a.)  Mathematical description was taken to suffice as opposed to physical explanation.

b.) Necessary and universal laws were seen as replaceable with probabilistic ones.

c.) Push-pull mechanisms were seen as replaceable by information structures or fields.

*** The Latin connection between a sapiens (wise man) and sapere (to taste) is particularly a propos.


  1. Socrates said,

    February 19, 2016 at 12:39 am

    Why do you follow Benjamin Cain’s Rants Within the Undead God?

    • February 19, 2016 at 11:17 am

      I identify with Cain’s desire to be honest about the consequences of losing one’s cosmology, whether this occurs (for him) by the Nietzschean route of recognizing that secular morality and science cannot provide a cosmology that can replace the religion – though religion itself is also as false as science or (for me) by noticing that the loss of Thomistic or Aristotelian cosmology gives rise to a host of problems that we need to honestly confront.

  2. February 20, 2016 at 5:12 pm

    There is something almost comical about the man of science presuming to declare that only science provides authoritative knowledge; whereas, he stridently insists that for something to even qualify as a scientific theory it must, in principle, be falsifiable. How, then, can he even in principle scientifically demonstrate or prove that there is no domain of knowledge or things that can be known that can’t be – even in principle – falsifiable? How exactly does he manage to prove that scientifically if per necessity his theory, reasoning and resultant conclusions must be falsifiable? If we even grant that such a proof is possible in principle; the very act would itself prove the hypothesis to be false, as we would then have knowledge of something that couldn’t in principle be falsified and, consequently, was not scientific knowledge.

    • February 21, 2016 at 8:43 am

      To cite him one more time, the article to read is Larry Laudan’s “The demise of the demarcation problem”, which gives a brief tour over how the attempts to neatly divide science from pseudo-science tend to be rigged, end up excluding too much, and fail to work for any number of other reasons. I’d add to Laudan’s critique that ever since Kant the main complaint against metaphysics/ philosophy has been its failure to persuade, but persuasion as opposed to wisdom is the goal of a sophist.

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