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Human Inquiry and the Authority of Science

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Part of the Studies in Humanism and Atheism book series (SHA)


Science has become a major source of knowledge. Yet, if we take it to be the only authority on understanding the world, the legitimate trust in the results of scientific research can easily turn into a quasi-religious belief. Pragmatic humanism defies such a scientism and the implied reductionist worldview. It rather pleads for a naturalism that acknowledges the primacy of human experience and therefore understands science as one way of inquiry among others. Since science is a human activity, it is not a disinterested quest for truth. Hence, the way science is practiced and organized comes into focus. Pragmatic humanism advocates a pluralization of science and underlines its relevance for democracy.


  • Science
  • Scientism
  • Naturalism
  • Supernaturalism
  • Democracy
  • Research

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-02441-3_3
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  1. 1.

    See, for example, the Humanist Manifesto III (American Humanist Association), or Law, Stephen. 2011. Humanism. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1.

  2. 2.

    For an overview of naturalism as a philosophical position, see Papineau, David. 2016. “Naturalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta,

  3. 3.

    For further reading on the debate about qualia and “the hard problem of consciousness”, see, for example, Nagel, Thomas. 1974. “What It Is Like to Be a Bat?”. Philosophical Review Vol. 83, No. 4, 435–450, Jackson, Frank Cameron. 1986. “What Mary Didn’t Know”. Journal of Philosophy 83, 291–295, and Kim, Jaegwon. 2005. Kim, Physicalism, or Something Near Enough. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  4. 4.

    Even if the universe is not determined, as quantum theory may suggest (which is, however, still controversial), this reductionist position is at odds with the idea of free will and intentional human action, since the assumption of indeterminate states substitutes determination for chance.

  5. 5.

    Thus, pragmatic naturalism should rather be termed “experientialism” to avoid sticking to ontological commitments, especially ontological realism, which usually surround the term “naturalism”.

  6. 6.

    Schiller was president of the British Society for Psychical Research in 1914, a position that has been held before also by Henri Bergson (1913) and William James (1894–1895). James has been member of the British Society for Psychical Research since 1884, and has been its vice president for 18 years. He also helped to establish the American branch of the Society. An excellent historical exploration of the SPR and its work is given in Deborah Blum. 2007. Ghost Hunters. The Victorians and the Hunt for Proof of Life after Death. London: Arrow Books.

  7. 7.

    For further dealing with the question of free will, see also James 1975, 59–62, 1985, 119–120. It is mainly the future perspective that makes the question of scientific or philosophic materialism practically relevant and even decisive for James, as “spiritualistic faith in all its forms deals with a world of promise, while materialism’s sun sets in a sea of disappointment” (56). Regarding human beings as free (and therefore being able to make a difference and create something new) is central for both James and Schiller. For an extensive dealing with the question of determinism and freedom, see Schiller, F. C. S. 1912. “Freedom”, in Studies in Humanism, ed. F. C. S. Schiller. London et al.: Macmillan and Co., 391–420.

  8. 8.

    For the grave impact and controversy that the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” aroused in the scientific as well as in the religious landscape, see Croce 1995, 87–106. Croce takes James to be the “focal point” (17) of this general tendency toward uncertainty and regards Jamesʼ awareness of this erosion not only as a dominant personal feeling but also a major motivation for his philosophical works, aiming at theories “that involved an embrace of uncertainty in the form of flexibility, practicality, openness, will, risk, freedom, and pluralism” (223).

  9. 9.

    The perspective of common sense is a central reference in the pragmatic tradition, being a basic level of sedimented, shared, and articulated human experience. For James’ discussion of common sense, see James 1975, 81–94. The ongoing task of academic philosophy is coordinating and harmonizing the other disciplines; see Schiller, F. C. S. 1939 [1937]. “Humanisms and Humanism”. In Our Human Truths. New York: Columbia University Press, 65–80, here: 66–72.

  10. 10.

    Again, pragmatic humanism rejects the dichotomy of (scientific) realism and anti-realism. The instrumental character of scientific theories, thus, leads the pragmatic humanist not into the position of radical instrumentalism, that is, a denial of the reality of theoretical entities, for example, subatomic particles. On the other hand, the pragmatic humanist is not committed to regard theories as absolute, that is, as metaphysically true sentences; see Pihlström, Sami. 2007. “Metaphysics with a Human Face: William James and the Prospects of Pragmatist Metaphysics”. William James Studies 2, 52–57.

  11. 11.

    James refers to the sciences and their instrumental understanding of theories to illustrate the pragmatic understanding of truth; see James 1975, 33–34. Competing or even inconsistent theories form a normal part of science. For example, Lamarck’s and Darwin’s ideas were alternative approaches to explain biological evolution. In the field of physics, the two most fundamental theories available at the moment, general relativity and quantum field theory, cannot be unified. However, the great majority of physicists reject the idea of a remaining competition.

  12. 12.

    Peirce introduced the “doubt-belief-hypothesis” in his essay “Fixation of Belief” (1877), which became programmatic for the pragmatic tradition.

  13. 13.

    Schiller’s philosophy of science, especially his writing on hypotheses, was that part of his work that was well respected. For an introductory summary, see Abel, Reuben. 1955. The Pragmatic Humanism of F.C.S. Schiller. New York: King’s Crown Press, 56–66.

  14. 14.

    Werner Heisenberg, “father” of the principle of uncertainty, reflects the human part in reality-making (as well as his colleague Niels Bohr). Bohr was directly inspired by William James; see Barzun, Jacques. 1983. A Stroll with William James. London: University of Chicago Press, 300. For James’ reception by Poincaré and Duhem, see Shook, John R. 2009. “Early Responses to American Pragmatism in France. Selective Attention and Critical Reaction”, in The Reception of Pragmatism in France & The Rise of Roman Catholic Modernism, 1890–1914, ed. David G. Schultenover. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 59–75, here: 61, 71–74. All of them were not only active in scientific research (mathematics and physics) but also elaborated on their humanist philosophy of science; see, for example, Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations (1971) [Der Teil und das Ganze, Gespräche im Umkreis der Atomphysik, 1969], Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypotheses (1904) [La Science et l’Hypothèse (1902)], Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1954) [La Théorie Physique: son Objet et sa Structure (1906)].

  15. 15.

    See Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959) [Logik der Forschung. Zur Erkenntnistheorie der modernen Naturwissenschaft (1935)]; Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975) and Science in a free society (1971); Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (1977).

  16. 16.

    The exclusion and marginalization of certain groups, rooted in an ideal of value-free and context-independent science, is pointed out by Barker and Kitcher 2014, 140–141; for a more detailed critique of the gender and cultural bias in science, see 107–117, for the bias of medical research, see 107, 153–154.

  17. 17.

    Democratizing science, of course, does not mean to have polls about scientific results, or deny scientific expertise in general. I am following the suggestions of Barker and Kitcher in this point, who reject the ideal of autonomy and advocate a “well-ordered science” instead, introducing tools like the “Fair Share” principle, deliberative polling, or citizen juries in order to facilitate mutual exchange between scientists and citizens and public scientific literacy; see Barker and Kitcher 2014, 142–143, 150–162. The idea of “well-ordered science” is introduced and discussed in Kitcher, Philip. 2011. Science in a Democratic Society. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 105–137. Other concepts worth considering are open science, citizen science, engaged research, and service learning.

  18. 18.

    For a critique of the “powers behind the lab”, see Barker and Kitcher 2014, 142–150. Appalling cases in which science has been used to influence the public opinion toward market interests are, for example, acid rain, the ozone hole, herbicides, and climate change; see Oreskes, Naomi, and Conway Erik M. 2012. Merchants of Doubt. How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. London et al.: Bloomsbury.

  19. 19.

    Dewey clearly stated the importance of the scientific habit for democracy as “the future of democracy is allied with [the] spread of the scientific attitude” (Dewey, John. 1988 [1939]. Freedom and Culture, in The Later Works. Vol. 13. ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 176). See also Dewey, John. 1954 [1927]. The Public and Its Problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press. For a further discussion of the relation of science in democracy in Dewey’s work, see Brown, Mark B. Brown. 2009. Science in Democracy. Expertise, Institutions and Representation. Cambridge/London: MIT Press, 135–161.


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Honnacker, A. (2018). Human Inquiry and the Authority of Science. In: Pragmatic Humanism Revisited. Studies in Humanism and Atheism. Palgrave Pivot, Cham.

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