Whenever I talk with continentals they keep getting angry at me. Because I continually claim not to understand what they say. An example. Some days ago I was at a party where a lot of phil. students attended. I talked with some of them that I don’t normally talk with (and now I have even better reason not to talk with them). I don’t recall why but we got into a discussion of scientism, and one of them advanced an argument against some kind of very strong scientism which he phrased like this (translated)
“Science has all the answers.”

And I asked him what he meant because, clearly, he was using some kind of metaphor. What would it even mean to say that science has an answer? I gave them an example of how “having an answer” is used literally. An example with a classroom and the teacher asking a specific student if he has the answer for a specific question. That is an instance of literal use of the phrase. The student has an answer iff he knows what the correct answer is to the question. I asked the person if he meant that scientists have all the answers (to all questions presumably). But he insisted that it made sense to say what he did. I asked him what it would mean to say that some other field of inquiry had all the answers, like mathematics. What would that mean? But I didn’t get any useful reply. After some minutes or maybe just seconds he gave up and stopped talking with me. So good for actually saying something meaningful.

I prefer not to use the phrase “has all the answers” at all since it’s pretty unclear. Presumably it’s about having (that is, knowing or at least believing) that something is a correct answer to some question. If I was to discuss scientism, I would phrase it something like: Are there things which if true cannot be discovered to be so by doing science? Something like that.

I think I recall why we talked of scientism. He thinks that analytic phil. ‘makes’ the claim that we talked about. Whatever that means.

Now, today I saw a relatively analytical person write something similar.

“PSR says: “For every fact F, there must be an explanation why F is the case.”

An atom of plutonium sits there in the canister of radioactive waste. It sits there and sits there and sits there … and then POW! … it decays.

Q: What is the explanation for why it decayed THEN? And not some other time?

A: Modern science says there is no reason. It is random. Which does not comport with the PSR.” (Smullyan-esque, post)

“PSR” =df “Principle of Sufficient Reason”

The interesting sentence in this case is “Modern science says there is no reason.”. It is some kind of non-literal language. It does not mean anything to say of a field of inquiry that it says something. But it seems to me that what he meant is that theories or findings in modern science imply that there isn’t a reason (i.e. quantum theory). But it isn’t entirely clear. I prefer literal language.

One Responses

  • fast

    There’s an old saying that goes, “you have to read between the lines.” Needless to say, people are not always clear, but if we can read between the lines (as the saying goes), then we can often glean what a person means from what a person says. Sometimes, it’s what the person is thinking (and not what the person is literally saying) that is right on the money, but to know this, we may occasionally have to make the oft-bothersome effort to sift through their wake of esoteric communication in hopes of revealing what is hidden by their challenged communication skills.

    Do not demand of the vulgar that they speak with the learned; It is futile. Be selective on whom you raise the bar of expectations in regards to clarity. Then, make a judgment call as to whether or not what is being said is close enough to lend a speaker a charitable hand—be they continentalists or otherwise.

    I wouldn’t have been fazed in the least to hear someone say that science has all the answers, well, except for the fact that I would have disagreed with the statement. Science has some answers, but science doesn’t have all the answers. Awe, but science isn’t the sort of thing that can have answers at all you say. Your head then starts-ta churnin’, and before long, you’ll arrive at the inevitable conclusion that the person is mistaken or confused because of a category error.

    However, had you read between the lines and paid attention to the underlying message that, “it is through scientific endeavors that we will ultimately come to answer all our questions,” (or something of the sort), then you would have noticed that there was a proposition there for your analysis (and with no category errors to impede your progress). You could have then focused on what was important: the underlying message, as poorly delivered as it may have been.

    On another post you said something to the effect that clarity is the way forward, and you are absolutely correct. We should strive to be clear, but no matter how hard you try, you cannot make others deliver the clarity you expect. So, what are you to do? I challenge you to displace blame. When there is a miscommunication, briefly pretend that you have failed in some way. For example, consider the statement, “Modern science says there is no reason.” Now, remember something else you said, “I continually claim not to understand what they say.” I understand it. Others understand it. Next, even though a category error has been made and thus no proposition has been made, it is nevertheless a statement (something that has been stated) that people don’t merely think they understand but in fact do understand. If you don’t understand it, then you have failed in some way (or so you pretend). I say that just to give you some justification for pretending that you are partly to blame for your misunderstanding—even though we both know it’s the notorious lack of clarity of others.

    By redirecting your energy towards improving your ability to comprehend the things people say, you may later find some things easier to understand. Either that or create a new language and see to it that the entire world adopts it.

Leave a Reply