Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Scientists and Philosophy

If a philosopher, with no special training in science, were to offer an opinion on a scientific question, s/he would quickly be laughed out of court and would soon lose respect and credibility in her/his own field. But scientists assume the right to speak boldly and with all the show of authority on questions which should properly only be discussed with due regard to their philosophical bearings. I have within the past few days come across two specimens which call for some comment. The first comes from Ernst Mayr, perhaps unquestionably the most eminent living bilogist and the most prominent Darwinist since T. H. Huxley; the second comes from an article by John Gribbin, who, in his own words, is "someone who has been involved professionally in scientific research".
In an interview on EdgeVideo Mayr says:
"One of my themes is that Darwin changed the foundations of Western thought. He challenged certain ideas that had been accepted by everyone, and we now agree that he was right and his contemporaries were wrong. Let me just illuminate some of them. One such idea goes back to Plato who claimed that there were a limited number of classes of objects and each class of objects had a fixed definition. Any variation between entities in the same class was only accidental and the reality was an underlying realm of absolutes." http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/mayr/mayr_print.html
Now this is a gross misrepresentation of Plato. Plato's so-called 'theory of forms' has been the subject of much cotroversy and much misunderstanding, but the gist of it may be put in this way: There can be no rational knowledge of the ever-changing particulars of sense, but only of the intelligible forms supplied by the mind. Brute facts which lie before our eyes dumb and senseless suddenly become infused with meaning when a genius hits upon an idea that embraces the facts in an intelligible formation. In his famous 'divided line' simile (Republic, 509d-511b), Plato accords the highest place to knowledge consisting of pure ideas only. All knowledge involving an empirical element he relegates to the lower section of the higher division of the divided line. Perhaps scientists will readily admit that, even where we have a well-tested 'law of narure', its application in any specific case always involves some inaccuracy and uncertainty.
Plato insists on the constancy and immutability of the intelligible form as a necessary condition for rational knowledge. The form in itself must be seen as immutable; else we cannot base any knowledge on it. That is one side of the coin; the other side, on which Plato insists with equal emphasis, is that no actual, particular instance is ever completely true to the form or is ever free of change and variation. Thus Plato's insistence on the immutability of the intelligible forms is not belied by the facts of evolution as Ernst Mayr maintains. If, historically, theologians and others deployed the concept of essential forms as an objection to the theory of evolution, that does not show that Plato's conception was faulty but that it was misunderstood.
Now to the other specimen. John Gribbin, writing in The Guardian, http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,1123948,00.html, about his book Science: A History concludes with the following two paragraphs which I quote in full:
"One of the strangest arguments that I have seen put forward – apparently seriously – is that using a word such as 'gravity' to describe the cause of the fall of an apple from a tree is no less mystical than invoking 'God's will' to explain why the apple falls, since the word 'gravity' is just a label. Certainly it is – in the same way that the words 'Beethoven's 5th' are not a piece of music, but only a label which indicates a piece of music, and an alternative label, such as the Morse code symbols for the letter V, could just as easily be used to indicate the same piece of music.
"The word 'gravity' is simply a shorthand exprerssion for the whole suite of ideas incorporated in Newton's Principia and Einstein's general theory of relativity. To a scientist, the word 'gravity' conjures up a rich tapestry of ideas and laws, in the same way that to the conductor of a symphony orchestra the words 'Beethoven's 5th' conjure up a rich musical experience. It is not the label that matters, but the underlying universal law, giving a predictive power to science. And that's why science is real, and objective, in a way that music, or art, can never be."
The argument that the theory of gravity leaves the mystery of one body attracting another where it was is one that I have presented repeatedly in various forms, though I am not conceited enough to think that Mr Gribbin was alluding to or was aware of any of my writings. Let me assure Mr Gribbin that no one advancing such an argument could be stupid enough to mean that the theory of 'gravity' does not explain anything. What we mean is that the whole 'rich tapestry of ideas and laws' does nothing but what he justly says it does; it gives 'a predictive power to science'; it tells us how things work, and that's what makes science so useful (and often so pernicious), but it does not tell us what those things in themselves are. Let me quote here something that I once jotted down in my Scrapbook:
"Are we wiser than Thales? Thales says, 'All things are full of gods. The magnet is alive for it has the power of moving iron.' When we superciliously smile at such a 'childish' thought we should remind ourselves that when we speak of gravitation and inertia and the theory of relativity we are merely evading the problem. We are manipulating useful fictions that pay. But we do not know what makes things move. Thales' dictum does not give us a fiction. The expression is necessarily mythical, for all language involves myth; but it places us face to face with the mystery of what we do not know."
When Mr Gribbin says that "science is real, and objective, in a way that music, or art, can never be", I must say: Begging your pardon, I think it is just the other way round. When I listen to Beethoven's Fifth I live in the music and the music lives in me; the theories and equations of the sciences are serviceable, and though various sciences can advance my life or ruin my life, they have no immediate, direct contact with my inner life. True, for many scientists the scientific quest is a passion, and then that quest is for them life — the quest, the activity, but not its 'objective' results.


Blogger Walter said...

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5:36 AM  
Blogger Walter said...

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5:38 AM  
Blogger Walter said...

You certainly have made many good points. And certainly people, whether they are scientists or not that comment on areas of which they know little should not expect to be taken seriously. However in all fairness philosophers should not be all that offended by such uninformed pronouncements since philosophy certainly seem to have no problems commenting on and defining science.

5:40 AM  

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