Science and Humanism Workshop         
University of Miami         
6-7 November 2020

Registration & Overview               Program               Abstracts

Abstracts

‘Nature, Value, and Human Agency’
Akeel Bilgrami, Columbia University

This lecture will explore the ways in which science’s dominion in nature is circumscribed by the presence of value and how that understanding of value and nature is essential to understanding the nature of human agency.


‘The Pragmatic and the Religious Functions of Science’
Matthew J. Brown, University of Texas at Dallas 

The primary significance of scientific theories, laws, models, etc. lies in how they enable prediction and control of some part of the world that interests us. Pragmatists see this as the whole story with science; science is problem-solving inquiry that helps us when our habitual anticipations and practices fail us. What scientific inquiry delivers is new modes of prediction and control that resolve such problematic situations. Further talk of “pure” science, of the role of “explanatory virtues” beyond the empirical and practical, the pragmatist is wont to dismiss as “quasi-religious” and metaphysical claptrap. All of this is right, except the dismissiveness and the epithet “claptrap.” There is a perfectly pragmatic account to be given of this other (genuine and important) element of science, and it depends on taking seriously the social and personal role of religion and mythos. We may need science to play a key role in this secular age: providing synoptic understanding of the place of humanity in the universe and the meaning of it all. This suggests complex criteria for the synthetic and visionary parts of science that can fulfill this role.


‘Humanistic and Scientific Understanding’
Kareem Khalifa, Middlebury College

Many have debated whether understanding human beings is distinct from the kinds of knowledge that characterize the natural sciences. The leading argument this allegedly distinctive form of “humanistic understanding” leans on is the observation that, as humans, we are the kinds of things that have perspectives—on the world, on ourselves, and on each other. Consequently, it is a significant cognitive achievement when social scientists take the perspective of their objects of study, i.e. when they accurately simulate another person’s mental states and processes. By contrast, it is a category mistake when natural scientists do the same with subatomic particles, chemical compounds, simple organisms, planets, and the like. On this view, humanistic understanding and perspective-taking are inextricably entwined. Using my account of natural-scientific understanding, I will argue against the claim that perspective-taking is what makes humanistic understanding unique.


‘The Present Plight of Science, and Our Plight’
Janet A. Kourany, University of Notre Dame

We need the help of the sciences now more than ever, what with the coronavirus pandemic, the economic downturn, global warming, racial unrest, the threat of cyberattacks, and at least a hundred other problems. And yet, the sciences these days are suffering from their own set of problems, and have even contributed in significant measure to many of the problems that now beset us. Are the sciences, therefore, up to the job we need done right now, or can they be helped to be up to that job, and if so, how? These are serious issues that a socially relevant science studies should take up. What might be philosophy of science’s role in that endeavor? This will be my topic.


‘Exclusive vs. Inclusive Scientism’
Alexandru Manafu, York University

Scientism is commonly characterized as the belief in the universal applicability of the methods of science even in areas in which these methods are prima facie inapplicable, or in the ability of science to set the limits of our knowledge (Stenmark 2001, p. 25). However, these characterizations of scientism are compatible with two different epistemic theses:

1) Science is the only way to attain knowledge.
2) All knowable truths are knowable by science.


This paper argues that: i) although related and often criticized together, these two theses are not equivalent, and they should be distinguished; and ii) while the first thesis is indefensible as shown by a number of scholars, the second is not obviously so.


‘Reconciling Objectivity and Accountability in Science: A Pragmatist Approach’
Parysa Mostajir, University of Chicago 

A humanist theory of science must satisfy two requirements which appear to be in tension. Firstly, in order to hold science accountable for its socio-political consequences, it must challenge narratives presenting science as objective and value-free. Secondly, in order to hold scientific knowledge as authoritative when deciding on public policy, it must challenge narratives presenting science as biased and unreliable, e.g. climate science denial or anti-vaccination rhetoric. I show that pragmatist philosophy can answer these apparently contradictory needs. Rather than taking science as a means of objectively representing an external world, pragmatism would hold that scientific method has evolved through human attempts to navigate their material environment, with increasingly abstract and broadly applicable practices for successful goal-achievement being honed and systematized in the process. So, while science’s proper function is to serve value-based purposes, it is nevertheless a method which carries authority in determining appropriate actions for navigating encountered problems.


‘Science and Humanism between Accuracy and Confidence: A Plea for a Metacognitive Approach to Trust in Science’
Ioan Muntean, University of North Carolina Asheville and Western Carolina University

Some philosophers claim that science has a privileged epistemic position and that we should trust it in representing reality, pursuing truth and understanding, and changing the world. This paper focuses on the rationality of trust in science and, more specifically, the role of a certain metacognitive component of rational trust in scientific representations (SR). Understanding the metacognitive nature of rational trust in our best SR may allow us to enhance the public understanding of science and prevent science denialism. We discuss (i) accuracy as first-order cognitive feature and (ii) confidence level as a second-order metacognitive property of SR. Confidence is typically associated with a metacognitive ability: a “second-order” ability to evaluate the representation of a target system, or epistemic competence in the form of “high-level knowledge”. When accuracy is accompanied (and augmented) by a certain level of confidence, it is more rational to trust SR and less rational to engage in denialism. By striking a balance between the accuracy of and confidence in SR, humanists can strengthen their arguments for the rationality of trust in science.


‘Scientism and the Limits of Objective Thinking’
Gurpreet Rattan, University of Toronto

Are there principled limits of objectivity and objective thinking? If so, what are they, and what determines them? Let Scientism be the view that science and scientific thinking determines such limits. I believe that Scientism is right that there are such limits, and that they may coincide with scientific thinking. Science and scientific thinking, however, do not set those limits. I argue that science participates in these limits rather than determining them. The limits of objective thinking, I argue, are determined by the nature of the epistemic normativity that governs the most general, topic-neutral thinking we are capable of – in critical reflective thinking. Critical reflective thinking is governed by norms of reflective clarity in thought and method and openness to challenge and refutation. These norms exhibit an inverse relationship, which, (1) in the limit of perfect reflective clarity, makes the conceptualization of challenges and refutations as challenges and refutations impossible; and (2) in the limit of perfect openness, strips thinking of reflective clarity in thought and method. The very structure of the epistemic normativity governing critical reflective thinking, not science, is the source of the limits of objectivity and objective thinking.


‘The Limits of Scientific Humanism: Cases from Agricultural Policy’
Jamie Shaw, University of Toronto

That science is especially well suited to further the aspirations of humanism has influenced the view that policy must be scientifically informed. Usually, ‘science’ denotes scientific work in the academy. This forms the backbone of recent outcries against the implementation of ‘holistic management’ of agriculture in Arizona and New Mexico given its “unscientific” status. In this paper, I argue that these charges overestimate the importance of science in developing robust agricultural policy and that scientific institutions must reorient some of their aims and practices to contribute to humanism. Specifically, scientists must take seriously the tacit knowledge of farmers and ranchers, scrutinize their assumptions, and focus on questions that are salient to stakeholders. This requires changing several incentive structures including publication quotas, promoting concrete collaborations, shifting institutional restrictions on academic science, and re-imagining what it means for policy to be ‘scientifically informed.’