“It is the ancient error of the nominalists. In different forms, and with various degrees of awareness, they all blame knowledge through-concepts for not being a supra-sensible intuition of of the existing singular…They cannot forgive that knowledge for not opening directly upon existence as sensation does, but only onto essences, possibles.”The Degrees of Knowledge, Jacques Maritain. (1959), Pg. 3.
This quotation marks out an important turning point in intellectual history, where shifts in thought overturned a view of knowledge and understanding which held that reason, ordinary language, and logic could be combined to reveal aspects of reality in ever greater detail. It is now intuitive for many of us to think of concepts in nominal terms – as simply the names we give to our subjective experience of phenomena, not descriptions of the way things really are.
In this series, I’ll look at some of the perennial themes in the philosophy of science in their contemporary guise. Though the topics may seem abstract, they have fundamentally practical implications. All philosophical questions are of this nature, though the connections from abstraction to the concrete are seldom made.
In the first instalment, a very brief overview of the major shifts in the philosophical understanding of what science is, what it explains, and how it does so.
In the second, correlation and causation. We have all heard the well-known saying that ‘correlation does not equal causation‘, but that advice is usually taken selectively and adhered to only when it suits our purposes.
Scientific conclusions are regularly interpreted as definitive descriptions of causal relationships, though many are in fact probabilistic statements about correlated phenomena, based on highly idealized models. I’ll look at the way in which the range of methods of data collection and inference fall along the correlation-causation spectrum, and the implications for the judgment of claims in different fields of scientific study.
In the third instalment, the role of values in science. It is often assumed that scientific inquiry is unique in its ability to remove bias by controlling for human subjectivity and prejudice. It does so by deploying a rigorous set of standards and methods aimed at just that.
There is considerable truth to that ideal, but science is far from value-free. In fact, the idea that any inquiry can be value free is a non-starter. Values enter the equation in every way possible and at every point of the scientific process: from the formulation of the question, the choice of the object of study, the methods of investigation, modelling, and subsequent prediction, as well as the assumptions that must be made for scientific inquiry to get off the ground in the first place.
For example, when has enough data been gathered to support a conclusion? What does it mean for something to be testable? What kinds of explanations are correct – probabilistic, or causal? Is a simpler theory better than a complex one? All such questions are determined – in significant part – by value judgments and philosophical reasons. Contrary to a prevailing view among scientists and intellectuals, the realm of value is indeed objective – though it appears as though it is not due to an unwarranted and self-defeating emphasis on a restricted set of standards of evidence and reasoning.
In the fourth, I’ll look at the difference between the natural and social sciences, with an emphasis on the range of questions that the former addresses, and the numerous challenges facing the latter. The ‘hard’ natural sciences deal with the non-human world. The explanations tend therefore, to be more deterministic and law-like in nature. Traditionally, they have been categorized as physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as their various sub-disciplines, and forms of practical application, such as molecular biology, neuroscience, or physiology and pathology (the life sciences), for example. The ‘soft’ or social sciences deal with the study of human subjects, in some form or another. Psychology, sociology, economics and anthropology are among the most well-known.
Many popular accounts of science assume that sciences are engaged in explanation: the how and the why of events, in causal terms. But the natural sciences are often thought to be more basic to the social ones. They are supposedly built on firmer ground, and therefore generate more reliable theories and predictions.
The natural sciences are confronted by the difficulties of the inherent normativity of the assumptions that underpin investigation, the nature of causation, and problems of verification. The social sciences face a challenge inherent to the nature of the discipline – that of translating data about the meaning of human activity into theories that make no reference to meaning, only to causal explanations. I will look at the nature of these tensions, their prospects for a resolution, and the implications that follow. In recent years, it has become clear that many social sciences like psychology and practical fields of application like medicine have had many studies fail to replicate, meaning that further studies and theories built upon those conclusions cannot be tested, and therefore verified.
In the fifth, I’ll look at the oft-discussed topic of ‘social construction’. The term itself is not as in vogue as it once was, but that may simply be because it is the default assumption for many people about the nature of things as diverse as atoms, and quarks, to sex, gender, sexuality, culture, and of course, truth. Though everything is, in some sense, a product of human culture, it is unclear what the implications of such a claim are.
In the sixth, the topic of freedom. The classical problem has not, and probably never will go away. It is the problem of accounting for free (caused by the agent) action in the human person, or even of novel causes in the natural world that are not the necessary product of those that preceded them. The mechanistic picture of the world bequeathed to us by the natural sciences seems to suggest there is little room for either, just a deterministic unfolding from the origins of the universe to the present day.
Here, it is important to address the prospects of substantial modification of the natural world, and the apparent laws that guide it. The prospects for the development of genuinely artificial Intelligence have contributed to the widespread belief that AI will eclipse human intelligence and, in the process, demonstrate by analogy the deterministic functioning of our own cognitive processes. The difference between Strong AI and Weak AI is giving way under the developments of quantum computing, which posit a fundamentally different foundation to the processes that are built into AI, and likened to human cognition.
Lastly, I’ll conclude with reflections on the nature of scientific explanation, its application to social, political, and philosophical questions, and suggest a view of its scope and limits. In particular, I hope to show that there is a coherent strand of thinking that has been developing over time, which provides a stable, yet evolving set of tools to understand the natural world, and our place in it.
Science is both a way of knowing, and a body of knowledge that results from those methods. It can be loosely defined as a set of methods of inference and standards of evidence that yield predictions, and later theories about the causal relationships of entities in the ‘natural’ world.
In contemporary culture, within the academy and without, the idea of reduction is often taken for granted. All entities and causes can be further reduced to their constituent parts.
Ultimately, a thought is a neurological process, which is chemical, which abides by the laws of physics, somehow both classical (deterministic) and quantum (random, to some extent). In other words, there is a causal explanation all the way down to which the larger, macroscopic causes and entities can be further reduced.
A person is a collection of tissue, which is broken down to cells, and molecules etc. The only ‘real’ entity is therefore some kind of substance, perhaps particles, quarks, or gluons, to some extent dark matter – whatever the latest foundational physical taxonomy suggests.
Likewise with causation – the feeling of pleasure, or a thought in the mind is caused by neural activity, which is caused by molecular activity, and so on and so forth. In terms of causes, there are only really material, or physical causes, so the thinking goes. We are all familiar with this kind of story in some form or another.
As I wrote in another piece, the question of reduction is not as straightforward as that well-known story would suggest.
Generally, the sciences propose provisional answers to questions about causal relationships. They do this better than any other method, with the aid of the language of mathematics and the contribution of everyday human perception and reasoning. Through the latter, we synthesize disparate experiential findings into theoretical frameworks that, in turn, generate predictions against which new data can be tested.
However, it is unclear whether scientific findings can do more than this. A scientific conclusion can, at best, serve as a premise in a process of reasoning about what should be done in a practical setting, or about values themselves, but perhaps only partially. Only when combined with other considerations do the findings have anything to say about such matters.
Rather than presume knowledge of the finer points of each of these sprawling fields of study, I will stay in my lane, and remain focused on questions of logic, inference, consistency, coherence, and philosophical implications throughout.
About the Series:
This series is a standalone set of essays on topics in philosophy of science, and the interface between science, faith, public policy and social issues. However, some of the essays will also appear in modified form at select publications, tied to contemporary events.
Concurrently, many of these topics will be explored through different lenses in the ‘Beauty of Creation’ webinar series at Catholic Conscience. To sign up for the webinars, please subscribe to the newsletter here.