Reflecting on Russell’s Religion and Science 2. Its Scientism Confirmed and Two Complications Raised

1. The present post is the second in a series of posts reflecting on the philosophical theses at work in Bertrand Russell’s Religion and Science.* In the series’ opening post, I did three things pertinent to the present one. First, I directed the readers’ attention to the opening paragraph of Russell’s essay, “The Art of Rational Conjecture, the first of the three essays that constitute the book, The Art of Philosophizing and Other Essays.** There (p. 1) Russell “gave expression … in a statement than which none more terse is possible” of the thesis of, as I dubbed it, “exclusivist epistemological scientism.” (If it is not immediately evident just what is meant by “exclusivist epistemological scientism,” a perusal of the previous post should help.). Russell’s statement reads:

Let us begin with a few words as to what philosophy is. It is not definite knowledge, for that is science. Nor is it groundless credulity, such as that of savages [sic]. It is something between those two extremes; perhaps it might be called the art of rational conjecture.

I took that identification of science with “definite” knowledge as a statement of the defining thesis of exclusivist epistemological scientism.

Second, over two or three steps, I expanded that statement of the defining thesis of exclusivist epistemological scientism into the fully explicit universal affirmative categorical proposition,

All instances of knowledge are instances of scientific knowledge.

and then converted that proposition into the logically equivalent,

Only instances of scientific knowledge are instances of knowledge.

Third, I set out as an historical task that of determining whether and, if so, to what extent Russell adheres to the doctrine of exclusivist epistemological scientism in Religion and Science. The aim of the present post is to complete that task.

2. The task is not that difficult to complete and will be quickly taken care of in the paragraphs to follow. There are, however, at least two complications; they will have to await a subsequent post or two.

Three texts demonstrate the presence of the doctrine of exclusivist epistemological scientism in Religion and Science. Its most full-throated expression is located at the end of the ninth chapter, “Science and Ethics.” There (p. 243) Russell tells us:

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind [sic] cannot know.

There are two radical theses in the theory of ethics expressed here, the so-called emotivist theory of ethics. The one is that, as “questions of value” “lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood,”

No propositions of ethics are either true or false.

The other thesis is the thesis that as “questions of value” “cannot be intellectually decided at all,”

There is no ethical knowledge.

(The two theses are distinct the one from the other, for it is at least logically possible for a proposition to be true or false even though it knowing whether it is true or false may be beyond human capacity.)

That aside set aside, we can note that the proposition, “There is no ethical knowledge,” has to be accepted by one who, like Russell, accepts the theses that

All instances of knowledge are instances of scientific knowledge.

and

No instances of scientific knowledge are instances of ethical knowledge.

for together the two serve as the premises of the following patently valid argument (in Celarent; see the aforementioned immediately preceding post):

No instances of scientific knowledge are instances of ethical knowledge.
All instances of knowledge are instances of scientific knowledge.
Therefore, no instances of knowledge are instances of ethical knowledge.

3. Two further texts endorsing the doctrine of exclusivist epistemological scientism will catch the attention of readers of Religion and Science. In Chapter VI, “Determinism,” Russell tells us (pp. 144-145:

[T]here are three central doctrines—God, immortality, and freedom—which are felt to constitute what is of most importance to Christianity, insofar as it is not concerned with historical events. These doctrines belong to what is called “natural religion”, in the opinion of Thomas Aquinas and of many modern philosophers, they can be proved to be true without the help of revelation, by means of human reason alone. It is therefore important to inquire what science has to say as regards these three doctrines. My own belief is that science cannot either prove or disprove them at present, and that no method outside of science exists for proving or disproving anything.

And in Chapter VII, “Mysticism” (p. 189):

I cannot admit any method of arriving at truth except that of science….

4. In sum, the Russell Religion and Science does not accept as real any knowledge other than scientific knowledge. Insofar, therefore, as he remains consistent with the doctrine of exclusivist epistemological scientism, he will have to eliminate the other three, mathematics, philosophy, and theology, of the four major theoretical disciplines or magisteria, as I called them in the previous post, leaving only science. But there remain the complications I mentioned above. I will turn my attention to them in the next post or two.

Until next time.

Richard

* Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science, with an introduction by Michael Ruse (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 [1935]). Religion and Science is readily available for purchase through Amazon.com. You need only click on the following image to be taken to the Amazon site:

*** Bertrand Russell, The Art of Philosophizing and Other Essays (Totowa, New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1974 [1968]). I continue to be puzzled over the fact that, in a book bearing such a title, there is to be found no essay entitled “The Art of Philosophizing.”

The Art of Philosophizing and Other Essays too is readily available for purchase through Amazon.com. You need only click on the following image to be taken to the Amazon site:

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About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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