RE: [asa] Providence? (and reductive or elevated Science?)

From: Gregory Arago <>
Date: Sun Sep 14 2008 - 12:10:57 EDT

Hi Moorad,
On the one hand I'm glad to hear that we are in agreement. I'm just not sure what it is we are in agreement about! :-)  
Let us not forget that 'scientia' is Latin for 'knowledge, understading,' that is, sciens, to know, understand. The 'modern' (while some even argue that 'ancient,' 'pre-modern,' 'modern,' 'post-modern' are useless distinctions!) understanding of 'science' is more specific, of a systematic, ordered knowledge. The 'post-modern' understanding of science likewise has another meaning or signification (which many natural scientists still do not accept or even allow themselves to understand!). Science was once 'natural philosophy,' though at least in the N. American context, very few scientists consider themselves as 'philosophers' today.
There is a great distance sometimes between natural science and human-social science and I get the impression, Moorad, that we differ here in that you view anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics and politology, etc. as 'not-scientific.' Yet many people do consider them as 'scientific' in the sense that they are 'social sciences.' So your stipulation that 'science studies physical Nature' is questionable (and why do you capialise the 'N'?). Do I understand you correctly? It would be helpful for me if you could explain your perspective of the difference(s) and similarity(s) between natural and social or cultural and historical when it comes to science, perhaps in another thread.
Well, so, since 'science' is the at the core of my current research - i.e. sociology of science - I do have to make a clear definition of it, right? First, there is no single definition of science; there are many sciences, scientists and scientific methods, theories, approaches, styles, etc. We have learned this from advances in knowledge (some will doubt this) made by the academic field HPS. Second, the recognition of 'scientism,' that is, the over-stretching of 'science' into areas outside of its legitimate domain, poses a poignant blow to the European Enlightenment project that elevated 'science' into 'Science' - i.e. one of the most legitimate (if not the most legitimate) and authoritative forms of knowledge. Yes, there are many forms of knowledge, but for a particular western, modern understanding of science, which uses 'reason' and achieves 'progress' (both these two allied concepts can likewise be capitalised in the Enlightenment sense of
 them), the sense that science is King or Queen is given voice. It is worth noting that though in the USA there is no king or queen, a type of 'nobility' is afforded to science that is not granted in other respective parts of the world (e.g. those which live more peacfully on the earth and as such cannot be said to be more 'primitive' than the self-said pinnacle of the 'civilised' world).
The relatively new recognition (of the possibility) of 'scientism' undermines this 'older' meaning of science and helps to, in the excellent words of David Livingstone, 'put science in its place.' Religious persons (esp. theologians) who are scientists are thus in a position of 'double power,' where they can (preferably humbly) accept the mantle of wearing two crowns, the priests of old - holders of religious knowledge, and the priests of new - holders of scientific knowledge (and don't challenge the 'rightful' sovereignty of either of our crowns please!). However, this dichotomy of powers betrays the HUGE realm of human-social thought that cannot be pigeon-holed any longer under the title 'science' as the old definition would have it and as the category 'human nature' would obscure it. The maturing of social-humanitarian science and the recognition that 'science' (and technology) is ultimately a tool for better human living, i.e. in society,
 demands a new (21st century) re-interpretation of science's contribution to what counts as socially important knowledge, knowledge that is meaningful to humanitas, the trump category that the European Enlightenment didn't fairly play.
The demarcation game has become somewhat farcical; in human-social sciences the Sokal Hoax contributed to the 'science wars,' which have now subsided with no clear winner or loser (though personally I side with Fuller over Latour on the centrality of anthropos in 'social science'). For some natural scientists this further persuaded them that human-social thought simply cannot be (i.e. qualify communicatively as) 'real science' or be done scientifically. Yet this demarcation play belongs particularly in HPS or Science Studies and one can learn a lot from the Big Four, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend, for which I polled the ASA list a little while back, and the latter two scholars many people have not read. So, I find it difficult (and oftentimes frustrating) to play the demarcation game if these perspectives are not on the table. Thus, it seems, ASA is not an ideal place to debate what is and is not science (that comment is itself
 debatable!), though in its welcome message, a wide variety of 'scientific/scholarly' fields are invited an consented to be 'somehow scientific.' For goodness sake, there are people who advocate theistic science (e.g. this is sometimes equivalent to 'theistic evolution' the way some people use it), so we have a spectum of views and no clear favourite as if science were dogma, with heterodoxy either impossible if one is a 'true scientist' or punishable by expulsion or outsider labelling. This game has become for me zanudni (boring-dreary).
Finally in response to your comment that: "what people mean by the word “science” is all encompassing and thus becomes totally reductive." The easy first question is 'which people' are you referring to? Some peoples' meaning of 'science' is surely reductive. While others, for example, many at ASA, their meaning of 'science' is not reductive in the way you suggest.
Perhaps you could further elaborate on what (a) non-reductive science would look like or how it could be 'elevated science' that is responsible to a holistic worldview, in which human beings are integrated and synthesized with the 'natural' world in a way better than the current understanding of disunified scientific knowledge allows. That is of course no small challenge, but since you raise the issue Moorad, and since you've got at least one person here 'in agreement' who is likely to defend you against misunderstandings that might occur on the ASA list (each with our own perspectives), for example, in where to place history (e.g. nomothetic and ideographic) in academy and whether or not historical science counts as 'science' or not, maybe giving it a try would appear worthwhile to you. In any case, far too long an answer to your short message!
Gregory Arago
p.s. maybe it was the reference to anthroposophy and theosophy and later to sophiology that got you ignited, Moorad?

--- On Sun, 9/14/08, Alexanian, Moorad <> wrote:

From: Alexanian, Moorad <>
Subject: RE: [asa] Providence?
To:, "ASA list" <>, "George Murphy" <>
Received: Sunday, September 14, 2008, 4:56 PM

Gregory, I agree wholeheartedly with your view. I have already proposed a definition of science that solves the problem that you are addressing. The subject matter of science is the physical aspect of Nature and the data that constitutes that subject matter is collected by purely physical devices. Any claims that science makes outside the confines of this definition is not valid and is bringing in “data” that cannot the detected by purely physical
devices. That is the problem since what people mean by the word “science” is all encompassing and thus becomes totally reductive.

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Received on Sun Sep 14 12:11:42 2008

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