I may, justifiably, be accused of this post having a clickbait title. What it refers to, though, is a youtube debate between Philip Moriarty (a Physics Professor at the University of Nottingham) and Fred McVittie (whose credentials I, unfortunately, do not know). It was done as a series of shortish youtube clips, each presenting an opening statement, a first rebuttal, a second rebuttal, and closing remarks. The series can be found here.
I watched the whole series, and I found it very interesting. I don’t want to give away too much, but Tom McVittie was essentially arguing that Jorden Peterson is discussing some kind of greater truth (moral/societal) that encompases the universal truths that emerge from the scientific process. Philip Moriarty – on the other hand – argued that it’s quite hard to know what Jordan Peterson is saying, because it doesn’t make much sense and seems highly inconsistent; critisicing post-modernism, while essentially engaging in it himself.
I did, however, want to highlight something specific. Philip Moriarty stressed the epistimology of empiricism, which just means that truth emerges through collecting data, making observations, and testing hypotheses – the scientific method, essentially. Fred McVittie argued, in his closing statement, that some scholarship in the humanities doesn’t conform to this epistimology of empiricism. This – according to Fred McVittie – does not mean that this is not scholarship and that it can’t generate knowledge, or discover truths.
This suggestion really did make me stop and think; maybe I really have misunderstood some forms of scholarship within the humanities, and that what seems obscure and meaningless, might simply be an alternative epsitimology that I simply do not understand. In fact, it even seemed somewhat appealing. I think we can sometimes overplay the scientific method, in the sense that even within the physical sciences, not every step is a perfect representation of empiricism. We can make mistakes, we can over-interpret/mis-interpret data, we can use methods that are inapproriate, and we can draw conclusions that turn out to be wrong.
However, we only start to trust results when we’re confident the data is suitable, that the analysis methods are sound, and that the conclusions are justified. Even though every step may not be a good representation of empiricism, we still apply the epistimology of empiricism when determing the value of emergent truths. So, if there are areas in the humanities that can uncover knowledge and reveal truths without following something akin to empiricism, how do they do this? How can they be confident in the value of the knowledge/truths that they’ve uncovered, if they don’t go out and collect some data, or make some observations, or test their hypotheses?
So, I can see how there might be aspect of scholarship in the humanities that doesn’t conform to the epistimology of empiricism, but I can’t see how one can be claim to have uncovered new truths if one doesn’t do something that is essentially a form of empiricism.
On the other hand, if the kind of knowledge/truths that emerge from this non-empirical form of scholarship is not universal, but some kind of societal/moral knowledge/truth, then maybe it can emerge without undertaking any kind of empirical research. However, if this is the case, then is this knowledge/truth emerging, or being generated? In other words, if this non-empirical scholarship is revealing societal/moral knowledge/truths, or is it actually influencing what society regards as knowledge/truth. If the former, I still don’t see how this can not involve any form of empiricism. If the latter, how does this differ from someone successfully imposing some kind of ideology onto society? There’s nothing wrong with people promoting their views about knowledge/truth, but why does this qualify as scholarship?
To be clear, I’ve worked with people in the humanities, and published a number of social science papers, so this is certainly not a criticism of the humanities in general. If anything, I think social science research is very difficult, because you don’t have fundamental laws that underpin your discipline, and that constrain what can be “true”. However, I have found some of what I’ve come across to be quite bizarre (and have written about it on a number of occasions). I still don’t see how it is possible to reveal knowledge/truth without engaging in a form of empiricism, but I am willing to be convinced otherwise if someone is willing to spend some time explaining how this non-empirical process is actually able to uncover knowledge/truth.