April 18, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Vacant God, Part II
Science and Philosophy, cont.
THE FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEMS of human existence do not disappear simply because they have not been answered. They do not become the less binding for our feelings of helplessness before them, nor do they grow silent, simply because we have. The Sphinx devours whomsoever does not answer her riddles, more certainly yet than those who misrespond. Yet we exist today in a kind of fragile avoidance of every true problem, a kind of deliberate or semi-deliberate ignorance of all trouble. Looking about us, one sometimes has the strange but unmistakable sense that we are waiting: that, insofar as we have not become simply numb to the profounder enigmas of the world, we yet expect some external force to do our work for us and hand us their solutions.
Yet what could we be waiting for?
Once was that philosophy and religion were the undisputed masters of all questions. In our day, it is apparent that science has willingly assumed this mantle. All real questions are held to be scientific questions; all questions are scientific questions or they are not legitimate questions, not answerable questions. That is the state of affairs today, the state of affairs which science itself promulgates, and which the great majority of human beings meekly accept. It is obvious that science has not answered any of the questions most basic to human life—those relating to the way we ought to live, or how we ought to order our government or household; questions of justice, of good, of beauty; questions of how one becomes most completely what one us, and realizes one’s nature as fully as one may; questions of liberty and its attainment and its consequences. We exist in a strange time, for in a certain way all such questions have been deliberately set aside. We are waiting—we are waiting for science to answer them.
It is only just that science be judged by the same standards that it has used to condemn philosophy: by the historical success or failure of its attempts. The fact that today as yesterday we find ourselves in the same state of utter and lamentable ignorance regarding the first and highest things—the fact that we know no more today than Socrates claimed he knew at the start of his philosophical quest—suggests to us that science, too, has failed.
Yet it would be quite permissible to rejoin here that we have not yet given science the time it requires, and that it is even now making great headway in several most promising fields. Science, after all, is still so very young. Philosophy was given better than two thousand years; shall we not wait with science but a single night? All the doors into human life tried by philosophy, as we have already said, have proved shut and locked; that leaves but a single possibility remaining: the world of man, too, must be accessed by the laws of the physical world. Science, through its physics and its chemistry, must rise itself up from the study of basic things to comprehend the higher through the lower. And although it has so far not managed this ascent, nonetheless even now it is seems to be making great strides in this direction, especially in the field of neuroscience. Admittedly, patience is no easy thing when we are awaiting the resolution of the most fundamental problems of human existence—but is it not still preferable to a reckless haste that can attain, as it has always attained, nothing but false answers?
Such the defense to be made for science, which seems, to be sure, an eminently fair one. Yet what should make us hesitant to accept this defense is first and foremost our very willingness to do so. We are precisely those human beings who did not witness the victory of science, but who nonetheless live in the land it reigns and dwell beneath the laws it fashions. That makes it a dangerous king to us. Science does not present itself naïvely today, as it is, naked and unadorned; it comes ever wearing its technology about it like its robes of state, and its theoretical successes about it as its ceremonial garb. Science in and of itself should not make us pause; it has proved its value abundantly. But scientism, or that doctrine that science and science alone is fit to validly answer all questions relating to experiencable phenomena, and that science should thus remain perfectly unhampered to continue its studies and its work—this doctrine we must test to the very limits of our power. For this scientism is the dogma of our day—every bit as much a dogma as the teaching of any church. Modesty is the prime virtue of our science, and arrogance must be its undoing: then we must look to the soul of these matters insofar as we may. There, I think we shall find that science cannot be ceded the throne for the simply reason that it is not the true king, but at best a plenipotentiary of that monarch in its present and most lamentable absence.
Now, science today holds philosophy in contempt. I speak of an ill-considered contempt, which is paraded about proudly or uncritically by the body of scientifically-minded men or their followers; I speak of a contempt which, as so many kinds of contempt, rouses an ingratiating sensation to its holder, and acts as a pleasant narcotic to his reason; I speak, indeed, of a particularly meretricious contempt, which is as difficult to rid from oneself, as it is easy to adopt. Contempt, above most any other influence, prohibits liberal inquiry into its object; that is its virtue when it is rightly employed, and its vice when it is adopted without due consideration. It does our reason no harm, though it may well damage our self-satisfaction, to spend but a moment in contemplation of our contempt, to see if it is deserved or not. We can only approach it by considering the theoretical basis of science itself.
The first thing we must demand to know is why the scientific method is seen, not just as one arbiter of human thought among others (which it most certainly is), but rather as the arbiter of human thought—the final arbiter. I will give but a single pedestrian example. Let us say that one wishes to understand the role of generosity in human life. Once, a serious and free-spirited human being would have questioned the matter, or turned to those who knew how to question it, via philosophy. Nowadays one turns to statistics and batteries of psychological studies which purport to offer scientific insight into the question, but which, in the very best of cases, grant only fragmentary conclusions about a fraction of present-day humanity, and which moreover from the very start eschew all questions of the particular value of generosity as being unscientific. Why this change, and what is the justification that can be given for it? Obviously, the justification of scientific method cannot come from the scientific method itself; even beyond subtler problems with this, science should in such a case be justifying itself through itself, and therefore indulging in a most pungent circularity of reasoning. We must ask, independently of the scientific method: what are the specific grounds for claiming that the scientific method is the final arbiter of human thought?
Now the scientific method we may incompletely but still accurately define as a means of procuring knowledge through the medium of experimentation. Tacit to this is the idea that true verification relies on experimentation—i.e., the reproducible observation of a certain result under given and reproducible conditions. Scientific knowledge of this sort can be labeled effective knowledge, not insofar as scientific method seeks only to produce technology, but insofar as it considers unprovable all ideas that are untestable, by its standards of testability. Scientific method thus primarily yields effective knowledge, or the knowledge that under these conditions, this results.
But this is only the core of scientific knowledge, not the full extent of it; for we must also include under the heading “scientific knowledge” all knowledge that results from effective knowledge as its logical, and especially mathematical-logical, offshoot. For example, consider the Maxwell equations, which themselves are not the immediate conclusions of experimentation, but are derived from and later supported by the results of experimentation. Similarly, Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which was at first a mathematical model, was only later supported and verified by experimentation. For the sake of completeness, we must also include under the umbrella of scientific knowledge such hypotheses and theories as are implied by effective knowledge, even though these do not themselves always qualify as knowledge: for example, the theory of the aether, later disproved, or the first theories of the atom, which have been modified over the decades but not abandoned.
Despite these many forms of scientific knowledge, its nerve and core is still effective knowledge; it is upon this foundation that the whole complex reticulated edifice of science finally and originally rests. The claim that scientific method is the arbiter of human thought thus depends on the premise that effective knowledge, or knowledge purely derived from effective knowledge, is the only knowledge available to man.
The force of this proposition seems to depend in turn on the delimitation of causality that science has effected in the modern era; causality, traditionally considered to be of four kinds, as postulated by Aristotle, is in fact found, or better yet posited, to be only of one kind: effective causality, the one kind of causality which can be subjected to experimentation. But this is misleading, for this limitation of causality was brought about precisely because only effective causality can be subjected to experimentation: or, put otherwise, it was the preoccupation with experimentation which obligated the delimitation of causality. Once again, it is the idea of effective knowledge which stands at the base of science. Or better and more completely: science rests on the unspoken thesis that all knowledge which is not effective knowledge, all knowledge not produced via experimentation, is not and cannot be real knowledge, because it is not “falsifiable.”
It is undeniable that this experimental falsifiability adds strength to scientific claims; but that is very different from claiming that it and it alone provides the unique valid basis of all valid knowledge as such. Arguments may be given in support of this idea, but a problem arises from all such defenses: these arguments are certainly not produced via the scientific method, and therefore they are as little “falsifiable” as any other non-scientific knowledge. The very argument that “falsifiability” should be the standard to judge of legitimate versus illegitimate knowledge, is itself unfalsifiable. The claim that scientific method is the final arbiter of all human thought is either circular, or else it is supported on a basis which is not provided by scientific method, and which cannot be arbitrated by scientific method—which is to say, it is self-contradictory.
Indeed, tacit to any analysis of scientific method is the idea that one can judge the scientific method as regards its fitness and its limitations as an arbiter of ideas. But that necessarily means that there is an arbiter of ideas beyond scientific method. Given the failure of science to derive scientifically valid conclusions on morality and politics, or on specifically human things, it would be reasonable to suppose that this other arbiter might provide better insight into human things than science ever can. But science itself is one of the human things; its aims, its products, its consequences, are all the products of specifically human desires and human actions. Therefore, this other arbiter, which alone is capable of determining the limitations of scientific method, would be itself the rightful ruler of science and scientific knowledge. Science would by justice have to subject itself to the insights of that higher ruler, and to its judgements as to the right and wrong use of sceince.
Science’s failure to discover moral or political truths therefore direct us decisively to a higher authority, embodied in a non-scientific moral and political philosophy, to which science itself must be subservient.
Science, it is needless to say, would despise this claim, were it ever to bother to consider it. Scientists work from a belief, resembling, if not amounting to, a faith, that science will continue to comprehend greater and greater provinces of human experience, until it finally encompasses them all, and provides human beings the power to explain, at least in wide outline, everything that comes to them as experience. Were science ever to attain so thorough a knowledge of human things as it presently has for non-human things, its apotheosis over all other forms of knowledge-getting, and the concomitant impotence of non-scientific philosophy, would be all but demonstrated. The very power of science at such a point would be proof enough of the claims of science. Contemporary scientists, who lack the hegemony they presuppose, are thus buying their present rights by the currency of their future gains; they have every faith that thoroughgoing knowledge of all the world, the human world included will come to us before long via scientific method; and because this is inevitable, they believe is useless to spend one’s time or energies in futile critiques of the limitations of science.
Wherefore this faith? For it is indubitably true that there remain alarmingly huge swaths of human experience—characteristically the most innately human—which scientific method not only has failed to explain, but which it sometimes even seems to despair of describing. Enormous portions of fundamentally human activity, including all or nearly all of art, religion, morals, mores, law, politics, economics, sociology, anthropology, history, psychology, dreams, and thinking itself, have been at best researched under various “soft sciences,” the findings of which provide nothing like the fortitude of the so-called “hard sciences.” Science may indeed one day finally, as is often claimed, proclaimed, and promised with astounding confidence, comprehend also these phenomena—but at bottom and at root, such promises are based on the very idea that they would bolster: namely, the proposition, indemonstrable through scientific method, that scientific method is the final arbiter of human thought regarding all experiencable phenomena. They are permitted this faith by the complacency of humankind in the face of science, which itself is the product of nothing other than the remarkable and indisputable practical success that science has hitherto clearly enjoyed, especially in the sphere of physics.
But the success of scientific method in one sphere of phenomena cannot by itself be taken to guarantee its success in all spheres, without an independent proof of two things. First, it would be necessary to demonstrate the fundamental unity of all phenomena; and second, it would be necessary to prove that the nature of those particular phenomena which have so well rewarded science, is in fact not particular to those individual phenomena, but itself makes up the essence of the fundamental unity of all of phenomena. Put otherwise: it would be necessary to prove that man and world are made at bottom of the same stuff, and that the best approach to understanding man is through understanding of the world, and not vice-versa. Both these proofs are lacking in any quarter, and the second, which could suffice for both, has never even been attempted.
More yet: the very attempt to furnish either of these proofs, must itself be based, not in science, but in philosophy. And thus we come once more before the inevitable conclusion of any analysis of science: science cannot be legitimated through science, but only through philosophy; the very body of human knowledge which science despises as being non-scientific and therefore invalid, proves itself not only precedent to science, but indispensable to it. Science’s contempt of philosophy, so far from being justified, is in fact permitted by nothing other than the philosophy hidden at the basis of science.
If science’s dismissal of philosophy is thus based on a faulty critique, or worse yet on the total absence of any merest attempt at a real critique—if furthermore the presumption of scientific hegemony over all other forms of knowledge-getting is nothing but an empty faith—then the only way to consider both science and philosophy with a fresh and unbiased eye is to escape, as fully as we may, the shackles of scientism. But this is no easy proposition: scientism still manages to bind one even when one thinks one has rid oneself of it. For even after science and scientific theory cease to have a monarchical hold on the entirety of one’s thinking, still their public postures remain magnetically persuasive. Consider but the sway the off-handed remarks of a scientist can have on public opinion. The non-religious ideas held by a religious fanatic for any given thing are easily dismissed as being the products of dogmatism, primarily because his dogma today no longer binds the common mind. But the ideas of the scientist, who is known in his special sphere of activity to do his work with an admirably unbiased eye, is perforce lent weight by this distinct impression he gives of honesty, sobriety, incorruptibility, and quality of intellect. Let him speak of a matter far beyond his purview—of morality or art or politics—as, for example, Einstein or Noam Chomsky; his science lends credence to the whole of his reflections and beliefs, despite that he has perhaps never proved his competency in any field but the scientific, and really only in a branch of the sciences. Or again—consider the copious studies or indices or researches which are promulgated all about us as providing legitimate conclusions on any number of sociological or political questions; consider the frequency with which they are mentioned in the news, in conversations, in books and journals; consider their ubiquity and their potency. All of this, we owe to scientism, and it is all of it deeply suspect.
The thinking man of today must therefore strive to divest himself of the influence of this scientism, this tendency to be influenced by the contemporary scientific outlook on any given issue. And he must do so with great consciousness and awareness: for even when he has freed himself of these prejudices—for they are, finally, the prejudices of our eminently “unprejudiced era”—it is not at all rare that his further thinking is still informed by their vestiges, like a meal cooked in a poorly-cleaned pot. How might we then proceed?
It is apparent from all we have here said that science does not have right to be considered as the final arbiter of human thought. Yet it assumed its present position almost without struggle; if one discounts the Luddites, who were after all concerned with questions of material well-being much more than of morality or philosophical principle, and the religious, who sometimes offer resistance to its consequences of conclusions, science has faced no contest whatsoever in its ascension to its present heights. But then it follows that science has been bequeathed its position by the power which once stood its stead: science has been bequeathed its rights by philosophy itself. Philosophy has abdicated the throne, and simultaneously has ceded its very crown and scepter to science, which comes to its new rule willing but unprepared for the wide responsibilities it takes upon its shoulders.
This observation opens the first possibility of a fundamentally liberating question we may ask of science, a question which can in principle awaken us from the grip of our contemporary scientism, if we but follow it far enough—to wit: which philosophy has yielded science the keys to this kingdom? To which philosophy in particular do we owe the present apotheosis of science?
We have suggested that science could not have taken the place of philosophy had it not been for the perceived historical failure of philosophy, but we have not understood this as completely as we must. The historical failure of philosophy can only be regarded as a failure by the standards of a certain philosophy. For make no mistake: it is in every case philosophy which determines value, and it is that fact alone which makes philosophy universal and final in a way that science, by its very premises, can never be. One cannot get around philosophy, nor under it, except through it. Philosophy in a certain sense is to mind, what space is to body. The “failure” of philosophy can only be considered a failure insofar as one recognizes history as a philosophical testing stone, or better yet a gauntlet, for human thought. To so consider history, one must believe in progress, and in a certain specific sense—one must believe in progress as visible and constant betterment. One must believe finally that philosophy is capable, not only of arriving at truth, but of making that truth public and publicly understood, as science does in the form of its scientific theories, and of harnessing that truth to produce an overwhelming quantity of observable and palpable proofs, such as those which science offers in endless supply in the form of its technology. One must, in fine, have already hit upon the philosophy of history to see the failure of philosophy as a failure, and moreover to view this as the simultaneous justification for the investiture of science.
Had science been born connate with philosophy, one can anticipate that it would have been absorbed by philosophy and into philosophy, as a method for approaching the physical world and its grosser nature. It might have been considered a kind of practical wisdom, as opposed to theoretical wisdom, and it might have found itself fulfilling its appropriate and appropriately modest role in the hierarchy of human thought. It would never have come near its present hegemony over human knowledge, because it obviously does not demonstrate its power so universally as that; its very method and the clearly understood and clearly limiting presuppositions of its method would prohibit its attainment of any such august rank. But science was born late in history compared to philosophy, and could not have been born sooner; its very conception already demanded an idea of the default of philosophy; its very birth, aye, and its incubation, required an already extant sense of the historical, and a newly emerging but already well established historic consciousness. And it could not have supplanted philosophy as it did without the judgement passed on philosophy itself by that historic consciousness, to the effect that philosophy had failed to prove itself historically.
Science today has been handed a mandate to rule human thought; it was philosophy alone that could give it such. Only philosophy could have infused in science the faith it has in its own future—the faith that it shall one day comprehend the world without remainder. It is the philosophical notion of historical progress at the heart of science which gives it its power; it is the philosophy of history which has given us our contemporary scientism. If we are to understand our position and our situation today, the proper rank ordering of philosophy and science, and also the right rulership of our minds, we must therefore turn our attentions toward this philosophy of history, which runs through all our spirits like it were their very blood, and fills our very hearts with its presuppositions.
Return to Part I
Continue to Part III