Friday, March 02, 2018



D. R. Khashaba

Scientists are deservedly proud of their work. All the benefits and comforts of our present-day material civilization are the gift of the astounding achievements of science during the past four centuries and of the science-supported technologies. None but a fool will gainsay this. But scientists have turned their legitimate pride into arrogance and blameworthy hubris. Before proceeding further a cautionary word is needed. Individual scientists like individuals in any walk of life display the normal mix from the meek to the haughty. The hubris I speak of is not personal but professional and is exhibited in two trends. (1) Scientists claim that advances in science explain and help us understand the mysteries of nature and the secrets of the universe’. (2) Scientists explicitly or implicitly expect that eventually science will unfold the ultimate mystery of the origin of everything. Against (1) I maintain that scientists are misusing the words ‘explain’ and ‘understand’. Against (2) I am convinced that the mystery of the Ultimate Origin will always remain a mystery. To show that I am not misrepresenting the claims and expectations of scientists I reproduce the banners crowning a news article published by the Independent two days ago:

“Scientists see the very beginning of stars for the first time, in breakthrough that could unlock the mysteries of the universe

“The research could break open the secrets of dark matter, and how the galaxy that surrounds us formed”

What do I mean when I say that scientists misuse the words ‘explain’ and ‘understand’? I mean that science can show how things have come about but that does not give us understanding. In the seventeenth century Descartes reduced all things to two completely separate substances: thought and extended body; he maintained that in the extended body there is no force or motive power. That position despite the insurmountable theoretical difficulties involved in it, is the working scheme of empirical science. It observes, measures, experiments with, the objectively given surface of things. That is what Kant called phenomena and limited empirical science to. Newton supposed there is a force in bodies which he called gravity but confessed he had no idea what it could be. Hume said we observe one state of affairs then another state of affairs but have no ground for connecting the two states of affairs together. Bertrand Russell pronounced the long and the short of it: science has no use or need for the notion of cause; the laws of nature is all we need. What are the laws of nature? They are summarized descriptions of observed regularities in nature; they are always provisional approximations. Goodbye to the dream of Laplace. Wittgenstein stated boldly:

“The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.371, tr. Pears and McGuinness).

However comprehensive, however detailed an account of an objectively observed state of affairs is, it cannot give us understanding: the world will always be to us a pageant of passing shadows. To my mind, understanding is only to be found in the immediacy of our subjective reality. There is a sense in which understanding one’s self is the rarest of things, but in general we understand motives, we understand the spontaneous acts of free will. Our free will, rather than being the dark mystery it is commonly supposed to be, is in truth our model of the intelligible: the notion of natural causation is a projection into nature of our experience of free, purposive activity. When we see one person helping another at a considerable sacrifice for himself, we understand that as an act of kindness.

So much for the question of understanding. I will deal very briefly with the question of the ultimate origin of all things. The lines I reproduced above from the Independent speak of seeing “the very beginning of stars” and of unlocking “the mysteries of the universe”. Supposing that, Big Bang or no Big Bang, we see the universe at its birth, there must have been something there in the first place to ‘give birth’, so we have the eternal child’s unanswerable “And who made God?” Or supposing we say there was nothing to start with and the primordial Nothingness out of nothing brought about all things. What an understandable revelation! We have to face it: neither empirical science nor pure reason can “unlock” the riddle of the being of Being. That was what Kant saw clearly and stated unequivocally even though he, unable to find release from the dogmatic religious inculcation of his childhood, found in Practical Reason a subterfuge for affirming the existence of God and the immortality of the soul — the soul which he vainly tried to capture in his doctrine of the transcendent unity of apperception. I do not want to lengthen this essay any further; suffice it to refer the reader to “Stephen Hawking’s Bad Metaphysics”.

D. R. Khashaba

March 2, 2018

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