The Promissory Note of Physics

Materialists often make the logically unwarranted (not to mention presumptuous, paradoxical and preposterous) claim to the effect that the physical sciences can and will some day be able to quantify and weigh the qualitative and imponderable aspects of human consciousness, and that the mere happenstance that science has no means, tools, powers, methods or ability to do so is a temporary accident.

The physical sciences are not competent to make any statements at all about non-physical things at all, not even to make the rather modest statement that non-physical things exist or do not exist. When asked why he concludes otherwise, the materialist will say that science (or, rather SCIENCE!) has proven that non-physical things do not exist, or, if they exist, they can be reduced to physical things.

When asked for the name and date of the peer reviewed experiment or observation that affirms this theory, the materialist blinks in astonishment, or when asked for details on how to perform the experiment or observation for oneself which affirms the theory, the materialist becomes surprised and belligerent (well, more belligerent) and tells you that the scientific method does not rest on repeatable experiment or observation, but instead rest on the firm foundation of some opinions he picked up in casual conversation  and/or woolgathering somewhere he cannot quite recall, but perhaps it involved reading a book, or the first part of it anyway, by Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan or perhaps an article on Wikipedia.

I am frequently awed by the logic, clarity, rigor, and apodictic and indubitable nature of this new method of scientific procedure, one unknown to any scientists. And by “awed” I mean the argument is awful. It is an argumentum ad populum without any people.

The materialist has an arguable philosophical position which he could, if he were bright, defend with some rational arguments, or, at least, sober arguments. But his conclusion that only empirical knowledge is real knowledge precludes him from arguing the point on philosophical grounds: philosophy is a lesser discipline to these morons, whereas science is SCIENCE! an idol more potent than Dagon. A materialist is not a scientist, and when even a professional scientists steps into the arena to discuss materialism, he is no longer doing science, he is doing amateur philosophy. Hilarity ensues.

Just listen to Carl Sagan, for example, holding forth on how it is that the Cosmos is all that is and all that ever will be. If this were a scientific, that is, empirical statement, it would be supported by the necessary observation: Mr Sagan could fly in some faster than light “starship of the imagination” and examine the entirety of the sidereal cosmos, from Big Bang to Heat Death (or whatever fate holds in store), and then, in the interests of thoroughness, bypass the bounds of spacetime to enter the unimaginable conditions outside the Cosmos, and having gone over every cubic angstrom of the Cosmos inside and out, he could then affirm without fear of contradiction that the Cosmos is all there is.

However,  the starship of the imagination is imaginary. No one has studied every cubic angstrom of Weehawken, New Jersey, much less the Cosmic All of timespace (including hypothetical hyperspace).  So whatever Mr Sagan’s confident statement means when he rules that nothing exists outside his idea of the Cosmos, it cannot be taken as a conclusion of science, nor as an empirical statement. It may be a statement of metaphysics, it may be a dogma of faith, or it may be a tautology (if “Cosmos” means “That of which nothing is or can be outside”).

It might even be SCIENCE! But it cannot be science.

It is amateur philosophy, the type that carries on without defining one’s terms, answering the objections of previous philosophers (some of them thousands of years old, yet still fresh) and without drawing conclusions using logic, or identifying and overcoming objections.

But the most awful aspect of all this amateur philosophy is the utterly unscientific method of assuming one knows beforehand what the physical sciences will discover. No one who has read Ptolemy and Galileo and Newton and Einstein will rest comfortably on the notion, even when restricting the notion to the physical nature studied by physical sciences, that the physical sciences will someday confirm our preconceptions of how the universe should or must behave.

No one who lives in an age where the physical sciences confront the paradoxes of special relativity and quantum weirdness — an age where it is an act of faith even to say that the two branches of physics will and must one day yield to a universal field theory —  should be so insouciant about making bets on the future of science.

The materialist is willing to bet the farm that someday physical sciences will solve the Mind-Body Problem, when  the physical sciences so far have not solved the Three Body Problem.

The added hubris of asserting that the Mind-Body Problem can be solved by the method that deliberately ignores all data about the mind merely adds stature to the folly.

The theologian David Bentley Hart aptly and adroitly sums up the problem:

I have, rather, a very simple worry to confess about the competence of method—any method—to recognize its own boundaries. All method, after all, as the etymology of the word exquisitely shows, is an elective practice of cleaving to a particular path (met’-hodos), a labor of limiting oneself to a particular approach to a problem in order to achieve as precise an understanding of that problem as may be achieved from one perspective. But that means that method always remains only a perspective, however powerful it may be: a willful blindness to many things for the sake of seeing a few things with a special clarity. A man peering into a microscope has been vouchsafed a glimpse into realities that the naked eye could never see, but he may also fail to notice the large fire that has just started on the far side of his laboratory, near the only exit.

Modern experimental science began to coalesce into a general method with the rise of the mechanical philosophy and the shattering of the old Aristotelian fourfold structure of causality. That may be only an accident of history, in long retrospect; but, whatever the case, the magnificent force and fecundity of modern scientific method is in part the consequence of a conscious decision to eschew any explanation for any physical phenomenon that requires the invocation of final or formal causes. By thus prescinding from teleology and causative morphology, experimental science was allowed to devote itself unwaveringly to those material and efficient processes at work within any physical event (though here “material” and “efficient” no longer have the meaning they had in Aristotelian thought). In Daniel Dennett’s language, science learned to think in terms of “cranes” only, and entirely to discount the possibility of “sky-hooks.”

Even so, it would be worse than naïve to imagine that the sciences have thereby proved the nonexistence of final and formal causes. In fact, by bracketing such causes out of consideration, scientific method also rendered itself incapable of pronouncing upon any reality such causes might or might not explain. Now, of course, the typical reply to this observation (from the aforementioned Daniel Dennett, for instance) is to say, with some indignation, that modern science has in fact demonstrated the utter superfluity of final and formal causal explanations, because the sciences have shown that they do not need finality or formality to understand the processes they investigate.

That, however, is an empty tautology: Of course modern scientific method discovers the kind of reality it is specifically designed to discover; and even in cases where it finds its explanatory reserves overly taxed, it must presume that in future some sort of “mechanical” cause will be found to restore the balance, and so issue itself a promissory note to that effect.

But, again, this may mean that it must also overlook realities that actually lie very near at hand, either quite open to investigation if another method could be found, or so obviously beyond investigation as to mark out the limits of scientific method with particular clarity.


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