Philosophy and Science

Keith Ward on Materialism, 9     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8

“For good old-fashioned materialists”, Ward says, “everything that exists, or the one and only stuff out of which everything is made, is matter – solid particles located in three-dimensional space, with definite masses and velocities.” This old-fashioned materialism was basically the same from Democritus to the nineteenth century, built on the atomic theory that Ward here describes. Ward speaks as a philosopher about philosophy, although philosophy at a time when it was not clearly distinct from science. At the time of Democritus, philosophy and science were rising not together, but as an undifferentiated unity, and this unity was also very much real in the case of revived classical philosophy and emergent classical physics during the Renaissance or the “early modern” period.

I mention this because one of the importance of the question of the legitimacy of drawing, as a philosopher, on natural science, now that philosophy and science are considered separate in principle, not just institutionally but theoretically or conceptually. I would like to broaden the dicsussion here to address this more general issue of philosophy and science. Is the appeal of philosophy to contemporary science and some of its representatives against other representatives who defend materialism on scientific and not philosophical grounds admissible and recommendable?

I suggest it is. Not that it is sufficient, and not even that it is necessary. But that it is legitimate and natural as part of and for some clearly delimited purposes of the larger case I am discussing. Clearly, philosophy must on one level or within some of its sub-disciplines relate to and deal with science too. This is not the same as relying on it or becoming dependent on it, or being committed to certain current theories that will soon be obsolete. It is a question of a quite natural relation, indeed a factual necessity determined by the nature of philosophy itself.

Moreover, science needs philosophy for its own self-understanding, if only in a very different sense than the one intended by the original and main tradition of misconceived scientism within analytic philosophy.  Agreeing to some extent with the perennialist so-called traditionalist school, I will now cite the controversial Italian thinker Julius Evola, whom I too find problematic, although I reject his dismissal as simply a fascist. In Ride the Tiger, he gave a radical description of the “commonplace” understanding of science as pragmatic:

“None of modern science has the slightest value as knowledge; rather, it bases itself on a formal renunciation of knowledge in the true sense. The driving and organizing force behind modern science derives nothing at all from the ideal of knowledge, but exclusively from practical necessity, and, I might add, from the will to power turned on things and on nature. I do not mean its technical and industrial applications, even though the masses attribute the prestige of modern science above all to them, because there they see irrefutable proof of its validity. It is a matter of the very nature of scientific methods even before their technical applications, in the phase known as ‘pure research’. In fact, the concept of ‘truth’ in the traditional sense is already alien to modern science, which concerns itself solely with hypotheses and formulae that can predict with the best approximation the course of phenomena and relate them to a certain unity. And as it is not a question of ‘truth’, but a matter less of seeing than touching, the concept of certainty in modern science is reduced to the ‘maximum probability’. That all scientific certainties have an essentially statistical character is openly recognized by every scientist, and more categorically than even in recent subatomic physics. The system of science resembles a net that draws ever tighter around a something that, in itself, remains incomprehensible, with the sole intention of subduing it for practical ends.”

And: “These practical ends only secondarily concern the technical applications; they constitute the criterion in the very domain that belongs to pure knowledge, in the sense that here, too, the basic impulse is schematizing, an ordering of phenomena in a simpler and more manageable way. As was rightly noted, ever since that formula simplex sigillum veri (simplicity is the seal of the true), there has appeared a method that exchanges for truth (and knowledge) that which satisfies a practical, purely human need of the intellect. In the final analysis, the impulse to know is transformed into an impulse to dominate; and we owe to a scientist, Bertrand Russell, the recognition that science, from being a means to know the world, has become a means to change the world.”

We need not discuss here Evola’s particular evaluation of pragmatic science and his general perspective on it; I would just add that within a larger whole, represented by philosophy as well as the broader culture, pragmatic science can be perfectly legitimate, as a limited discipline. The pragmatic nature of scientific concepts is also discussed by Folke Leander and Claes Ryn, whose thought – in this area a partial, Crocean Hegelianism – I have often referred to. Concluding as they do that scientific concepts are largely pragmatic is, they point out, a conclusion reached by means of philosophy, a conclusion which goes beyond science itself. For contrary to the pragmatic concepts of science, the concept of a pragmatic concept itself is not a pragmatic concept, but a “categorial”, philosophical one.

This does not mean that scientists do not, within science, sometimes go beyond pragmatic concepts, develop theories of a kind that involves speculation in a manner that overlaps with and makes use of philosophy, whether or not they are themselves aware of it, and quite regardless of pragmatic applicability in science or technology. Distinctly philosophical issues that are not adequately dealt with by science itself inevitably arise all the time in science and its linguistic communication. One of the problems with some of the speculative scientists who address the question of God is that they do not see this. But basically, science, and contemporary physics, do not seem to go beyond pragmatic concepts. The fact that this includes their use of mathematics seems to raise some fundamental questions, as we will see.

“When, around 1911, Rutherford bombarded atoms with alpha particles, the indivisibility and solidity of the atom was shattered”, Ward continues. Here it could perhaps be argued that Ward is already talking about something beyond the scope of philosophy. But is it not arbitrary to allow him to speak of Democritus simply because he is considered a philosopher, or about Marx, but not of Rutherford, when Rutherford too speaks about atoms? If philosophers can speak about atoms, it would seem they could also speak about divided atoms and use such concepts in their philosophizing. If Ward’s account of Rutherford is not wrong and misleading, it seems this is something that it is legitimate do discuss among philosophers. If it is not, philosophers should perhaps not deal with Democritus’ and Marx’s materialism either, but leave that too to the scientists alone? Where precisely does philosophy turn into science of a kind that philosophers should no longer make use of in their philosophizing? How could philosophers possibly avoid dealing with and refering also to such science?

Again, in the earliest period, when philosophy and science were a new, unitary, speculative enterprise, Democritus argued that reality consisted of atoms falling through space and combining in different ways. Although the atomic theory remained well-known, and was revived during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, very few, indeed hardly anyone, reasserted the full metaphysical position of the materialism which it constituted in Democritus, namely that atoms (and space) were the whole of reality. Atoms were of course accepted by some and matter by most, but not materialism.

Only with Marx, whose doctoral dissertation dealt with the relation between Democritus’ and Epicurus’ versions of materialism, did materialism in the strict philosophical sense that is what Ward is concerned with become a significant force in Western thought – i.e., only when it became part of a political ideology, and politically organized. Even so, it was still not a common position in philosophy. In recent decades, it has, as Ward has described, become more common in philosophy. Still, it is not philosophers who are its main protagonists in the general public debate, but speculative scientists and journalists who insist on its truth in popular books aimed at the reading public. If a philosopher asserts, as almost all philosophers have done between Democritus and Marx, that reality is not such as Democritus or any later version of materialism describes it, or even that matter as described by materialism does not exist at all, he must of course address the arguments of those scientists and journalists. And if other speculative scientists say things about matter that correspond to what he himself claims, is it not perfectly natural and obvious that he should mention this as part of his case in a debate about the nature of reality started precisely by the materialist scientists and journalists?

In no way does such an appeal to science imply that the philosopher has made himself dependent on science or committed himself to its current hypotheses. Rather it is a legitimate consequence of a relation and dialogue that is both inevitable and desirable. Science can of course never be a replacement and substitute for philosophy, which goes far beyond it and includes areas of thought which science can never adequately deal with at all within the necessary confines of its constitutive framework.

Some speak of the poor self-confidence of philosophy or of philosophers in the face of the success of modern science and its technological application as well as its influence on public discussion, but I have never been able to understand this. It must be something found only among philosophers in the misconceived and failed scientistic tradition within analytic philosophy, which sought to prove the relevance and necessity of philosophy by making it the theoretical ancilla of science, but was rejected by science itself and its own intrinsic development. If other philosophers too suffer from it, it can only be because they have not really understood the true nature of philosophy at all.

It is evident that Ward does not belong to those philosophers, but is perfectly well aware of the distinctiveness of philosophy, and indeed that it is not just necessary but sufficient within the areas in which, by its own nature, it transcends other disciplines of human thought and research. Nicholas Capaldi’s The Enlightenment Project in the Analytic Conversation, is an excellent analysis of the relationship between misconceived modern philosophy and science.

But while science is thus neither sufficient in itself as a replacement of and successor to philosophy, nor necessary for philosophy, it is of course one of the most important cultural achievements of Western civilization (although certainly not exclusively of Western civilization). And it is a fragile one which is in the long perspective threatened, as so much else, by the decline of this civilization. It is something philosophers should certainly ever continue to take an interest in, and take into account in their own thinking. And vice versa: in the past, when the living cultural tradition still shaped and set the tone of society, scientists often had a good philosophical and humanistic education. This they should again acquire.

Ward gives more relevant examples for the fate of materialism of the development of science: “In 1924, de Broglie…argued that sub-atomic particles could be treated as waves. In 1925 the first formalism for quantum theory was produced. From that point on, matter itself was subsumed under the wider concept of ‘energy’, which could take many forms. Electrons, from being tiny precisely locatable particles, were seen as probability-waves in Hilbert space, only collapsing into particles under specific conditions of measurement. Even then, only the probability of finding them at a specific location could be predicted, and Heisenberg proved that such waves/particles could not be assigned both a determinate position and momentum at the same time.”

Is a line crossed somewhere in this paragraph, where the philosopher should have stopped talking about this development in physics and left it all to the physicists alone? If so, where precisely is it, and why is it drawn there and not somewhere else?

“In modern quantum cosmology, virtual particles of indefinitely many different sorts flash in and out of existence in accordance with quantum laws, from a vacuum (lowest-energy) state of precisely balanced, but fluctuating, energies. Time and space are only four or ten or eleven dimensions that emerge from such a vacuum state, and there may be many space-time universes (of which ours is only one) that fluctuate in and out of existence from a more primal quantum foam, far beyond the forms of space-time with which we are familiar in experience.”

Is Ward now, as a philosopher, far beyond the pale? Is the account even roughly adequate? Is this misleading popularization and distortion? Have New Age dreamers taken the place of the leading physicists in Oxford colleges? If it is admitted that it is at all legitimate and relevant for Ward to refer as a philosopher to these developments in science and to discuss them as parts of his case, then those who reject the truth of the account must point out where and why it is false.

“Things have proceeded so far in quantum cosmology that physicists like Chris Isham, of Imperial College, and Stephen Hawking, of Cambridge, tend to say that ‘imaginary time’ is more real than real time, that the human belief that time passes (or that we pass through time) is an illusion of consciousness, and that human consciousness of three-dimensional space is a narrow subjective selection out of a multi-dimensional reality that we are unable to perceive.”

It is inevitable that a simplified account must be given, although that does not really make all the pragmatic concepts in the cited passages very much more comprehensible to the non-physicist. Nonetheless, it seems to me the account does succeed in communicating what it is intended to communicate, namely that in science, “it has become increasingly hard to say just what ‘matter’ is”. Whatever it is said today that matter is, it is not that “everything that exists, or the one and only stuff out of which everything is made, is matter – solid particles located in three-dimensional space, with definite masses and velocities”. In other words, contemporary physics does not accept “old-fashioned materialism”.

And what it does say that matter is, is not, it seems to me, something that can easily be described in terms of some other materialism, in terms of materialism at all. Contemporary physics – which is neither more nor less than that, not physics as such, not future physics, not categorial concepts, not the absolute truth, but also not the physics of the past and not some insignificant, marginal and arbitrary theoretical speculation – thus says something about how matter is conceived today, something that is of relevance for the case against materialism and thus also for the case for idealism and personalism.

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi