Wittgenstein and Scientism

The discussion reminds me of one of my favorite articles on one of my favorite philosophers. Just to encourage @Mervin_Bitikofer to read it, it is about “scientism”:

The difference between science and philosophy, he now believed, is between two distinct forms of understanding: the theoretical and the non-theoretical. Scientific understanding is given through the construction and testing of hypotheses and theories; philosophical understanding, on the other hand, is resolutely non-theoretical. What we are after in philosophy is “the understanding that consists in seeing connections.” Non-theoretical understanding is the kind of understanding we have when we say that we understand a poem, a piece of music, a person or even a sentence.

How does one demonstrate an understanding of a piece of music? Well, perhaps by playing it expressively, or by using the right sort of metaphors to describe it. And how does one explain what “expressive playing” is? What is needed, Wittgenstein says, is “a culture”: “If someone is brought up in a particular culture-and then reacts to music in such-and-such a way, you can teach him the use of the phrase ‘expressive playing.’” What is required for this kind of understanding is a form of life, a set of communally shared practices, together with the ability to hear and see the connections made by the practitioners of this form of life. What is true of music is also true of ordinary language. “Understanding a sentence,” Wittgenstein says in Philosophical Investigations, “is more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think.”

“An inner process stands in need of outward criteria,” runs one of the most often quoted aphorisms of Philosophical Investigations. It is less often realised what emphasis Wittgenstein placed on the need for sensitive perception of those “outward criteria” in all their imponderability. And where does one find such acute sensitivity? Not, typically, in the works of psychologists, but in those of the great artists, musicians and novelists. “People nowadays,” Wittgenstein writes in Culture and Value , “think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them–that does not occur to them.”

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I’ve only started reading the article but it occurs to me already that not only is scientism prevalent in the humanities and in atheism but also in much theology. Scary.

One of the leading competitors in this crowded field is the theory advanced by the mathematician Roger Penrose, that a stream of consciousness is an orchestrated sequence of quantum physical events taking place in the brain. Penrose’s theory is that a moment of consciousness is produced by a sub-protein in the brain called a tubulin. The theory is, on Penrose’s own admission, speculative, and it strikes many as being bizarrely implausible.

Or perhaps the Midichlorians? Which word offers the more promising goose chase?

Wow, this just gets better:

,when we are thinking philosophically we are apt to forget these trivialities and thus end up in confusion, imagining, for example, that we will understand ourselves better if we study the quantum behaviour of the sub-atomic particles inside our brains, a belief analogous to the conviction that a study of acoustics will help us understand Beethoven’s music. Why do we need reminding of trivialities? Because we are bewitched into thinking that if we lack a scientific theory of something, we lack any understanding of it.

Last quote, I promise:

It is less often realised what emphasis Wittgenstein placed on the need for sensitive perception of those “outward criteria” in all their imponderability. And where does one find such acute sensitivity? Not, typically, in the works of psychologists, but in those of the great artists, musicians and novelists.

James Hillman is the exception to that rule. He took a humanities approach to psychology rather than a science based one. Strongly recommend “Re-imagining Psychology”. It wasn’t the first thing I read by him but it was the most comprehensive. He wrote a lot on the soul and contrasted it with spiritual pursuit.

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That sounds fascinating. One of my favorite passages in Wittgenstein comes when he discusses the “imponderable evidence” that the article briefly mentions. How do we know that someone isn’t faking an expression of pain or some other feeling? Experience. If we are certain that someone is in pain but another person doubts it, can we always convince that person that he is wrong? What sort of evidence would we provide that the first person genuinely was in pain?

Wittgenstein calls such evidence “imponderable,” and in many ways, that is how I view the evidence for God and the spiritual realm. I believe it with certainty because I have experienced it, but I cannot put it into words or explain it in such a way to convince all people of its truth. It is imponderable evidence.

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Dang I thought I’d let that fly out of the bottle but looks like I will be reading Philosophical Investigations after all. I read Tractatus for a philosophy class in college but while it was bizarrely interesting it seemed naive. So, even though my favorite graduate student was a big Wittgenstein fanboy, I wasn’t much inspired to read the later book. But Wittgenstein sure does put his finger on some important points in that one, doesn’t he.

@vulcanlogician, I wonder if this article or his second book made an impression on you?

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Your professor must not have liked you. I had a similar experience, though on my own and not for a class. Not my cup of tea. When I ran across Wittgenstein again, his biography attracted me more than anything. I decided to give him another shot but started with this book by Ray Monk, who was Wittgenstein’s friend, biographer, and also the author of the article I linked. Unlike most short introductions to philosophers, I found this one extremely valuable and still a good guide to the major thrusts of Wittgenstein’s work.

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