Monday, 1 September 2014

Scientism - a commitment to a scientific view of total reality

From Bryan Magee, "Confessions of a Philosopher" (1997), p.401-403, in the discussion of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer:

"In recent centuries, there have been quite a lot of people in the West who believed, often as a matter of principle, that we should do everything we could to construct our total conception of the way things are out of what can be inter-subjectively observed. Such a programme constitutes a commitment to a scientific view of total reality.
Schopenhauer sees this as an almost absurd error, not because he has anything against science, but because of it's obvious limitations.   ....
The growth of scientific knowledge seemed to him among the few glories of mankind's history, one of not many things that human beings could be proud of.   .....
Nevertheless, its explanations, though of prodigious richness, value and fascination, can never be exhaustive, because it is characteristic of science that it explains things in terms [e.g. Laws involving entities and concepts such as mass, energy, light, gravity, distance, time] that are themselves left unexplained. .....
Ultimate explanations, then, are not to be looked for in science. The insistent belief that they are is not a scientific belief but a belief in science, a metaphysical belief, an act of faith....
At its crudest it takes the form of materialism, which Schopenhauer once described as 'the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself'. Unfortunately it seems to be characteristic of many people who have committed themselves to an act of faith in the ultimate ability of science to explain everything that they construe any denial of this as hostility to science [if not also as 'irrationalism', AvProtestant]"

Some readers will be familiar with the criticisms made by Mary Midgley of certain claims emerging in evolutionary biology and neuroscience to give a scientific accounts of morality and consciousness.

I think of a discussion on BBC radio 4, first broadcast 5th November 1998 (
between the physicist and popular-science author John Gribbin and MM.

In this discussion Dr Gribbin confidently asserts that the human-social activity "football" (Mary Midgley's example) can be fully and meaningfully explained through a complete physical account of all that is happening in a football match, which would include the account of the interaction of particles forming the brains of the players, referee and spectators.
"Money" is another example Midgley offers of a real thing, something we see in our universe, which - again she challenges Dr Gribbin - cannot be understood from an account of the physical world. Such a physical account could never enable understanding of what money is.
Dr Gribbin disagrees.

What MM is up against, and Dr Gribbin exhibits, is a mind-set which starts from an assumption that all that happens in minds, including self-awareness and free-will and the grasping of what money and football are, experiences of fantasy, love, despair, trust, is ultimately interactions of sub-atomic particles in the brain, and that the scientific account of these interactions is, first, within grasp, and, second, the fundamental explanation; fundamental to all explanations.
Therefore, any, say, "anthropology" of money, or of football, or any other account of any event, that claims itself to be "knowledge", must be further translatable and reducible to this fundamental physical-atomistic-naturalistic account.
As Professor Colin Blakemore asks, insistently, of his audience in the debate "Mazes of the Mind": "What is the explanatory alternative?" His answer is: there is none.
Professor Blakemore, and Dr Gribbin in his way, means to assert that there can be no "knowledge" (and no understanding, and no explanation, without such knowledge) that is not the "knowledge" of things that we attain through science.

It is a mindset that starts out regarding such things as novels (works of art) as shoddy sociology, and religion as poor science. 
It is a mindset that ultimately eliminates meaning (nihilistic).
Myth, as Popper (and Freud) wrote, is the character of science and that out of which it emerged: imaginative accounts of events as seen from our human perspective, and never attaining true objective knowledge.

I recommend listening to the discussion to get a proper flavour of the absence of self-reflection that prevents Dr Gribbin from seeing the grounds for the criticisms that are put to him by MM.

Here a quote from the auto-biography of Bryan Magee (p.426/7), again from the chapter on Schopenhauer, that echoes MM's approach.

"The metaphysical visions of philosophers are not empirically verifiable, and this us as true of those of the empiricists as of any if the others. When Locke, like Descartes, presents us with a vision of the universe as a vast cosmic machine made up of lesser machines, all of them subject to the same scientific laws, this is not a scientific theory that observers can investigate and test, it is a vision of how things are; yet it will have a thousand practical influences on whoever accepts it. And when, by contrast, Schelling comes along and says that reality us not so much like a machine as like a single great big living organism, and is therefore better understood as a quasi-organic developmental process rather than as something mechanical, and that in the highest products of the human mind this process achieves an understanding of itself, there are no crucial experiments by means of which scientific-minded observers can adjudicate between this view and Locke's to decide which of the two, if either, is 'true'. However, to conclude from this that such world outlooks are nothing but words, and therefore fanciful, a lot of nonsense - a load, really, of meaningless metaphysics - is a profound mistake. It is those metaphysical visions that give rise to our research programmes, as they did in the case of both Plato and, two thousand years later, empirical scientists."

Here is another quote, this time from Rudiger Safranski's biography of Martin Heidegger (1999), which I think chimes very closely with the criticism Mary Midgley makes (futilely) of Dr Gribbin's views, drawing on the same two examples of phenomena offered by MM: money and football.

"If, says Heidegger, we approach a "subject" in order to discover what it is; if we wish to comprehend its "Being-meaning" (Seinsinn), we must first get into the "implementation meaning" (Vollzugsinn), from which alone its Being-meaning can be derived. Anyone entering our economic life from a strange culture, and still unable to grasp its implementation meaning, will be unable to comprehend the Being-meaning of money, even though he may touch it, or weigh it in his hand; ...... This applies to the different areas of Being - art, literature, religion, calculation with imaginary numbers, or football. These considerations, moreover, also - by argument e contrario - reveal the blinkered aspect of the reductionist method. If we say: thinking is a function of brain physiology, ..., then we are making a statement about the Being of thinking ... without having placed ourselves in their implementation. Viewed from a non-implementation angle, all this is not present at all - the game, the music, the picture, religion."

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