Friday, December 02, 2005

Science and Scientism

Science is arguably among the greatest achievements of the human intellect. The collective body of knowledge that has been slowly brought to light through the centuries by generations of philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, biologists, chemists, etc., has done much to improve not only our material existence but the state of our souls. Any genuine Christian humanist (a fine tradition that extends farther back than Erasmus and More--certainly one would want to count Albert the Great, Anselm, Boethius, and Augustine among the ranks of Christian humanists) cannot help but feel the call so eloquently described by Aristotle in the opening passages of his Metaphysics:
All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight....

It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant; therefore since they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end. And this is confirmed by the facts; for it was when almost all the necessities of life and the things that make for comfort and recreation had been secured, that such knowledge began to be sought. Evidently then we do not seek it for the sake of any other advantage; but as the man is free, we say, who exists for his own sake and not for another's, so we pursue this as the only free science, for it alone exists for its own sake.
But there is genuine science in this Aristotelian tradition, and then there is a kind of banal and vacuous scientism that looks to materialism as such, or empiricism as such, or reductionism as such, not so much as a tool for the discovery of knowledge but as a psychological crutch to be used both for the support of one's own impoverished worldview and for the whacking of one's intellectual opponents on the head.

This latter phenomenon is something that we find in such writers as Neil Mackay, the yob who is being kept off the streets by being asked to write for the Sunday Herald of Scotland. Here is an example of the sorts of things that an "intellect" such as his is capable of producing. You can read more about his stuff here--the man is obviously something of a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but even so, reading his stuff makes me feel much better than I used to about the comparative values of an American as opposed to an English education, since very few, if any, of my own students are capable of lowering themselves into the belly of incoherence to quite that extent. Steve at Speculative Catholic does an excellent job of debunking this crap here.

I have remarked before that it is not just the yobs who appeal to what they think of as "science" in an attempt to win what really amounts to a culture war. This is something that one can find among allegedly educated persons as well. Daniel Dennett comes to mind, Mr. Brighter-Than-Thou, who has spawned such silliness as this, the closest thing I've seen yet to a Cathedral of Nerdity. If the founders of the site are older than 16 or 17 I'll eat my hat. And I don't mean chronologically older, since Dennett himself is something of a dinosaur on the outside--it's only on the inside that he's still an adolescent.

Well, once people stop believing in God they don't start believing in nothing, they start believing in everything, as has already been remarked by brighter folks than I. One is tempted to compare scientism to fundamentalism, but in some ways it seems more dangerous, since it proceeds from a kind of ignorance dressed up as learning. Both depend on the arrogance of the adherents, of course, so they have that in common, but only scientism can sneek into a culture under the radar, passing itself off as somehow opposed to various fundamentalisms, even while it represents one of the most stiff-necked varieties around. Our culture is wide-open to such forces, sadly, because much of it is so vapid and uncritical. This is not true only of certain parts of our culture--you find it in just about every stratum of society. There are some very intelligent folks out there, of course, but there are morons everywhere, and unfortunately many of them, like Mr. Bright and Mr. Yob, have managed to secure for themselves a level of respect that they don't deserve. The man in the street, of course, doens't have any idea who Daniel Dennett is, a fact that Mr. Dennett no doubt regards as confirmation of his Theory of Luminosity. The respect that he gets comes from others of his own kind, a fact that is rather scary in its own right: he is a professor at Tufts. As Steve Allen used to say: "These are the jokes, folks!" Or was it Mike Wazowski?

Of course, when he said it, he wasn't talking about people and their ideas.


Apollodorus said...

Your post, as well as your previous posts on natural law and the 'causal structure' of the world, reminds me of the question that I've put to you before, but still can't answer to my satisfaction. At least one defining characteristic of a theory of natural law in its classical formulation(s) is that it purports to ground some moral truths in an appeal to human nature. At least some versions of this appeal take the relevant aspect of human nature to be that it possesses certain more or less determinate ends, the instantiation of which amounts to the completion of our being, eudaimonia. Putting aside all the complex questions that arise once the framework is accepted, that basic framework is pretty simple: human beings are such that we seek by nature to attain certain ends, and moral philosophy consists in second-level reflection on the best ways to organize our lives so as to achieve these ends.

Now, as you no doubt have figured out, I find this framework immensely attractive, but have some problems with it. The most common objection, and one that I can not answer even to my own satisfaction, is that naturalistic eudaimonism cannot sustain its appeals to 'natural teleology' because human nature simply is not the way that the teleologists say it is. My biggest problem is not with the objections that simply observe that human beings seem to seek some ends 'by nature' that we don't want to think of as good -- that many of us seem to be genetically predisposed to certain forms of violence or aggression, say. Those objections are, I think, easily managed within a eudaimonist framework by viewing them within the context of the broader, more authoritative ends that we seek, so that we can legitimately appeal to those ends in order to show that our less appealing inclinations are not, in fact, inclinations towards the good. The objections that really trouble me are more epistemological and metaphysical, but rooted in evolutionary biology.

The basic sort of objection I have in mind runs something like this: Darwinian theory shows that species develop through the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection, and in the case of human beings perhaps 'cultural selection' has played some role. Because the functions of the parts of animals (granting for the sake of argument that they have real functions, which not all biologists and metaphysicians of biology will concede) are the products of random genetic mutation and natural selection, with the individuals of a species inheriting genetic traits from their ancestors, what we have in a species is not the sort of determinate thing that the natural-law appeal to nature assumes they are. A species is, rather, a group of individuals with a common ancestry and a capacity, derived from their shared genetics, to produce offspring. What human beings share, then, is a range of genetically-determined dispositions to behave in certain ways, and not some essential nature which they can complete to a greater or lesser degree. Thus, what individual members of the human species seek by nature may differ from individual to individual and from population to population, and in the strictest sense the only criterion of membership in the human species is a sufficiently similar collection of traits. If, then, any moral theory can be grounded in what all human beings share, it will only be grounded in what we share accidentally, because there is nothing essential to the human species.

The claim is that Darwinian theory supports nominalism and anti-essentialism about 'humanity,' so that all appeals to what we share by nature, while perhaps not intrinsically disqualified from consideration as important elements in ethical theory, will necessarily fail to provide the kind of foundation that motivates natural-law thinkers to appeal to nature in the first place. The claim of the naturalistic eudaimonist must be that all human beings have, qua human beings, some more or less determinate ends which we seek by nature and which can be referred to coherently and usefully in considerations about how we should live our lives. If the nominalist and anti-essentialist view is correct, then you and I and other people may share some natural ends because we have a common genetic ancestry, but plenty of other people who otherwise qualify as members of the human species may not share those ends. If some people happen to be naturally constituted in such a way that they fail to be fulfilled in any non-instrumental way by community with other people, then we have no grounds for claiming that they are in any way defective or that they lack the capacity for some human good of 'friendship' or 'community' which they ought properly as human beings to have, because the only goods which derive their status as goods from human nature are derived from the nature of individual human beings, and not from some essential nature which individuals can achieve or fail to achieve more or less perfectly. The appeal to nature may turn out to be a only a little bit less subjectivist than appeals to individual psychological preferences.

What I want, I guess, is to understand why it is that Darwinian theory does not compel us in this direction. Do we have to reject the theory, or accept it in some anti-realist way? Or is the theory perfectly compatible with a more essentialist view of species? You've given me plenty of suggestions on this before, but I haven't really been able to work them out to my satisfaction. The strongest statement you've given, if I recall correctly, was something to the effect that biology doesn't compel us towards nominalism and anti-essentialism; those doctrines are, rather, assumed in the construction of biological theories and in ontological abstractions thereof. My problem with that is, I guess, that Darwinian theory, if it is a true and fairly complete theory of the evolution of species, seems to point very clearly in the direction of nominalism and anti-essentialism about species. The argument makes plenty of assumptions, but it doesn't seem to assume its nominalism and anti-essentialism conclusion a priori. If I'm really just reasoning circularly about it, I'd love not to.

So if you can either work this issue out in a little bit more detail, or point me in the direction of someone who does so effectively, it would help me, I think.

Kevin Jones said...

By any chance have you happened to have read Etienne Gilson's From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again? I'm told it's quite apropos. Somebody made some notes on it here.

Apollodorus said...

I've heard of it, but haven't made my way to it for at least two reasons. The first is that I'm just not one of those people who can devour a book, especially a book of philosophy, and at any given time I've got a dozen other things to be reading. Reading philosophy is actually dangerous for me, because it can distract me from the less pleasant, but necessary, parts of being a student.

Another reason is that not many people seem to think that Gilson succeeded. Even Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotelian and Catholic with as acute an understanding of the problems as anyone you'll find, claims to have been unpersuaded by it. Of course, that may be precisely because he has such an acute understanding of the problems, but when even the guys who are most likely to be sympathetic to the book without simply agreeing with whatever it says on principle are generally unimpressed with a book, it usually doesn't get very high up on my list.

But I'll check out the notes. Thanks.

Apollodorus said...

The notes aren't really all that helpful, though. Seems more like half-coherent intelligent design rambling. Could somebody tell the ID people that the real existence of irreducible purposeful activity in the behavior of organisms is not evidence of a transcendent designer, but rather just the way that nature works?

Scott Carson said...

The one thing Hume did get right: you can't infer like causes from like effects.

On the other hand, though--even Hume admitted that the presence of design in nature is at least compatible with the existence of a designing God. It doesn't prove it, but neither may we infer that it is nothing more than "just the way nature works."

The advantages of anti-realism become apparent!

Apollodorus said...

Let me rephrase that: the real existence of purposeful activity in nature does not require the existence of a transcendent designer. If we could show to the satisfaction of most reasonable people that teleology is a part of nature, we would not thereby be compelled to conclude that nature must have been 'designed' by a transcendent intelligence. As it happens, most naturalism of the scientific variety denies that there are any teleological accounts of nature that can not be reduced to mechanistic accounts. Rejecting that kind of reductionism, though, doesn't compel us to conclude anything beyond the existence of irreducibly purposive behavior in nature.

My motivation for making the statement was the comment in the notes (sortof) about Gilson's book, where Aristotle's teleological account of organisms is assimilated to the thesis that nature has been designed by an intelligence outside of it. If I'm not mistaken, Aristotle does not make such a claim on those grounds, and I'm certain that he need not do so in order to defend his teleological account. Purposive behavior just is a part of the natural behavior of an organism for Aristotle, and its existence does not require anything outside of nature.

But you're the Aristotelian-cum-philosopher-of-biology, so correct me if I'm mistaken.

Scott Carson said...

No, you're quite right about Aristotle and his motivations. The unmoved mover is more a logical necessity than an ontological one. But I thought it worth pointing out that we're not driven to naturalism by the failure of one particular argument for intelligent design.