Tag Archives: Thomas Nagel

Does science have a cognitive privilege?


Finding “self-evidence” and “self-justification”

You don’t often come across the term “cognitive privilege.” But  I did the other day – and knew immediately what it meant – or what was being implied by the term.

The theologian Brian Mattson used it in his blog post Does Scientific Materialism Deserve a Cognitive Privilege?  Its clear what he means, although his specific use of it is very confused. He accuses someone of, in effect, cognitively privileging “scientific materialism.”

(These theologians love to use words like “materialism” and “naturalism” when they critique science. The rarely bother defining the terms but they are usually stand-ins for scientific method or the implied scientific epistemological process.)

As he says:

“A “privilege” is a “right or immunity granted as a particular benefit, advantage, or favor.” The benefit, advantage, or favor being granted to scientific materialism is that it has the preeminent right to be the baseline. It is what we are to take for granted. There the edifice stands.”

He is supporting the complaints of Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel about modern science:

“Their point (a philosophically ruthless and perhaps uncomfortable one) is that scientific materialism is not entitled to privileged status at all. It is not self-evident, self-justifying, an edifice that must be taken for granted as the baseline. It is precisely this sleight-of-hand they are challenging, a sleight-of-hand so effective it has largely produced the widespread privileging of its construct . . . . . It is simply not the case that scientific materialism must be taken as true and that the burden of proof must be passed on to any and all challengers.”

So these guys are upset by the widespread acceptance that science is generally a reliable way of getting to know reality? They think this reputation is “privileged? That it hasn’t been earned? That we have pulled the wool over the eyes of people all these years? We have an unearned “privilege?”

They obviously haven’t really thought this through, or even looked around at our modern society. At most they will childishly chant “You can’t logically prove scientific method or knowledge is reliable.”

Crickey, do they really think that humanity should have held back. Refused to even contemplate trying to understand its environment or solve the problems it faced until someone had come up with a watertight deductive proof that science would work? Something to make it “self-evident” or “self-justifying?”

And, seriously, do they think that people would have paid any attention to such a deduction? Or taken seriously the philosophers or logicians who has produced it?

The proof of the pudding

We haven’t allowed such mental gymnastics hold us back. Humanity just went ahead and did the best it could. Trial and error has taught us what works best. The proof of the pudding was in the eating.

People respect scientific method and knowledge because of their own experience. They know it works. So they aren’t particularly interested in these complaints of lack of deductive proof.

And guess what – even scientists, those using these methods are not particularly interested in those deductive proofs either. They are practical people – if the methods didn’t work they wouldn’t bother with them. They would look for something else.

So if science has a good reputation it’s well-earned. People know from experience that it works. That’s why it’s respected. That’s why society and governments turn to scientists when there are problems and we are looking for solutions.

Science has cognitive respect – not privilege, and certainly not the unearned privilege suggested by Plantinga, Nagel and Brian Mattson.

An attempt to demand privilege as a right

Mattson’s complaint about the “cognitive privilege” of science is, however, revealing. Both Plantinga and Nagel have been critiquing the high standing of science because they are arguing for an alternative. They are in effect demanding that religious or other “way’s of knowing,” revelation and philosophy of religion, should be more acceptable to humanity. That it should be given the credibility that science gets, perhaps even more. The more honest theologian may admit that there is no obvious reason for accepting religious and similar “ways of knowing,” but because scientific knowledge and method is no more “self-evident” or “self-justifying” than religious knowledge,  the two methods should be treated as “equally valid”

But where science has won cognitive respect through experience, through successful performance, these theologians and philosophers of religion seem to think they can demand cognitive respect as a right. Without earning it through deeds.

Actually they, not science, are the ones demanding cognitive privilege.

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