Monday, March 20, 2017



D. R. Khashaba

It is commonly believed that science explains things and makes us understand things and scientists themselves strongly foster that belief. There would be no harm in that belief if it did not obliterate another notion of explanation and understanding of a radically different nature and of the highest importance for humanity.

In certain areas it comes very naturally that we speak of explaining and understanding. Primitive peoples were amazed and frightened when an eclipse of sun or moon occurred. They attributed the puzzling event to supernatural causes. Then astronomers explained how a solar or lunar eclipse happens and we have come to see that as a natural happening in the course of nature. William Harvey in the seventeenth century explained the circulation of the blood. Louis Pasteur in the nineteenth century explained microbial fermentation. These are instances where we find it natural to speak of explaining and understanding.

Let us go back to sun, moon, planets, and stars. The Babylonians and Egyptians observed the movements of the ‘heavenly bodies’ and recorded their regularities. Thales in the sixth century BC, probably making use of Babylonian records, predicted a solar eclipse. Ptolemy fashioned a model representing the movements of the sun and planets, taking the earth as the centre. Copernicus presented a more satisfactory model, taking the sun as the centre. All of these observed and represented, but none of them claimed to know why the ‘heavenly bodies\ moved as they did.

Then came Newton. Newton found a formula the application of which enables us to calculate the movements of the earth, moon, planets, and other bodies to a satisfactory degree of accuracy. Why do they move that way? Newton’s formula enables us to predict the course a body would take in its motion. But why does it do that? Newton formulated ‘laws’ of motion. We deceive ourselves if we think that those ‘laws’ explain anything. They only describe how we find things actually behave. But why do bodies move? When we move things we make an effort. Newton imagined that behind the movement of bodies there must be some kind of effort or force. He called that unknown thing gravitation but he frankly confessed he had no idea about its nature. We might say that ‘the force of gravitation’is Newton’s translation of his formula into the language of our sensuous experience.

Came Einstein. He found equations and formulas that enable us to calculate at a more satisfactory degree of accuracy. Why do bodies move that way? Einstein said the ‘cause’ is not gravity but the curvature of space. Do we know what space is in the first place? Is there objectively such a thing as space? Or is space simply the geometrical relations between things? If there were no things would there be space? Is the space curved or do the bodies cause space to curve? These questions have no answer because we are simply talking about what we do not know. Einstein’s notion of the curvature of space is Einstei’s translation of his equations into the language of human sensuous experience.

‘Gravity’, ‘force’, space’, ‘time’, are conceptual fictions which we find it useful to work with. Those who talk of ‘laws of nature that govern the universe’ are deceived by language. They picture the universe after the model of a human society governed by laws. Not that Einstein himself was so deceived, but scientists of the highest rank are taken in by such fictions. Wittgenstein’s insight is lost on them: “At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.” (Tractatus, 6.371)

I said above that Newton’s gravitation and Einstein’s space curvature are translations into the language of our own sensuous experience. When we move things we make an effort or use force. Some moderns don’t even have any use for the notion of force. Things move because the law of inertia says so. All things happen in obedience to the laws formulated by scientists, or rather by the god Science. They are so taken in by the practical utility of these laws that they have no need for any understanding beyond that. They fancy that the laws explain everything. So that we find even Bertrand Russell – who was not only exceptionally intelligent but was also highly alive to things human – saying that we have no need for the notion of ‘cause’: the laws of nature suffice. (“On the Notion of Cause”)

When we move things we apply force, but when we move ourselves, when I walk, when I raise my hand, when I take up my cup of coffee, I need no exterior explanation for these movements. This is the only inherently intelligible kind of movement. I do it because I want to, because I will it. Reductionists of course speak of muscles and chemicals and neurons. These are accompaniments of the act; they describe what happens in my body when I act; but they explain nothing. I act because I want to: that is the only kind of causation I understand and all other causation is modeled on this but is not intelligible in itself.

We read or watch Macbeth. We understamd why Macbeth killed the king. He wanted to be himself king. A forensic investigator will say that the cause of death is a dagger wound that pierced the heart. That tells us how the king died but not why. When we read a good novel we understand the characters and their actions. We perceive their motives, their ideals, their values. That is the other kind of understanding and explanation that relates to human conditions and human behaviour. That is the kind of understanding that we need as humans and for interacting with other humans.

All scientific laws describe observed regularities in nature. The enable us to calculate, to anticipate, to predict, to manipulate. This is the sum of scientific knowledge. All of our civilization (as distinct from culture) is based on such knowledge, but such knowledge does not explain anything, does not give us understanding of anything. Even in such a familiar happening as the sprouting of a plant from a seed, we can specify the elements needed – seed, soil, moisture, etc. – and describe the stages of growth up to fruition and beyond, but we are misusing the word ‘understand’ when we say we understand that process. All the processes of nature are a mystery, and if we have lost the sense of awe and amazement at the mysteries of nature, we are so much the poorer.

We human beings live our proper human life, strictly speaking, in a world of meanings, ideals, aims, values, purposes, good and bad, clear and muddled, and to live as rational beings we have constantly to examine those ideas and values and subject them to Socratic scrutiny. Objective science is no help in this. For this we need to probe our minds and that is the function of philosophy.

We may need science to provide our means of living. But only philosophy, poetry, art, creative literature give us understanding of what we should live for.

D. R. Khashaba

March 20, 2017

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