Friday, August 5, 2016

Without theories, facts make no sense

This morning I received an email from on one of my Mount Angel Seminary classmates in which he affectionately referred to me as a “staunch defender of metaphysics.” This refers back to our pastoral psychology class, which, while tremendously informative, very useful and extremely well-taught, was, on my view, sometimes a bit reductive, especially when metaphysics was rejected, but only after the insistence that existence precedes essence, which is surely a metaphysical stance. The good news is metaphysics are inescapable and so require no defense. As soon as you reject or accept, say, a creator you’re firmly in the realm of metaphysics. This post is a bit of ramble, or perhaps more accurately, a sketch, a blogospheric reflection on not severing reason from faith, for looking at the world holistically.

While on the subject of metaphysics and reductive thinking, a few weeks ago I imprudently wandered into the middle of one of the most pointless on-line conversations I have ever allowed myself to get sucked into. The comment that prompted the exchange stated that philosopher Alvin Plantinga was off-base for suggesting in a lecture delivered some time ago that Intelligent Design (ID) should be included in certain biology classes as a theory alongside [neo-]Darwinistic theories. The dismissal was made without argument. While I was not privy to the audio of Plantinga’s lecture, I would be shocked if he provided no argument or rationale for making this suggestion. It stands to reason that a rebuttal should at least identify Plantinga’s reason or argument for making this suggestion and respond to that instead of dismissing his suggestion outright, or even taking the suggestion as a freestanding proposition. To be honest I am not certain what I think about teaching ID in biology. Given that the metaphysics of materialistic naturalism manage to creep into the classroom, I am inclined endorse giving them a run for their money.

What prompted this post was an article I came across today by physicist Carlo Rovelli that appeared in New Republic magazine slightly more than two years ago: “Science Is Not About Certainty: The separation of science and humanities is relatively new – and detrimental to both.” Rovelli’s piece begins:
We teach our students: We say that we have theories about science. Science is about hypothetical-deductive methods; we have observations, we have data, data require organizing into theories. So then we have theories. These theories are suggested or produced from the data somehow, then checked in terms of the data. Then time passes, we have more data, theories evolve, we throw away a theory, and find another theory that's better, a better understanding of the data, and so on and so forth.

This is the standard idea of how science works, which implies that science is about empirical data; the true, interesting, relevant content of science is its empirical content. Since theories change, the empirical theories change, the empirical content is the solid part of what is science

Rovelli is moving toward the view that science is not the empirical data, but consists of efforts to make sense of the data, which means theorizing. Some theories become so entrenched and are held so dogmatically that they don't change as more data is gathered, or rival interpretations of existing data emerge in the light that passes through the holes of existing theories. As a result, those who would challenge the predominant theory immediately become heretics of a sort, who must be separated from the believing community. Rovelli takes his own field, theoretical physics, to task not so much for the kind of dogmatism that Darwinists of various sorts are often guilty, but, at least in part, for having “the wrong ideas about science,” which results in doing something “methodologically wrong.” In support of his assertion he notes: “There hasn’t been a major success in theoretical physics in the last few decades,” even though there are no shortage of hypotheses (he points to loop quantum gravity and string theory).

In the realm of the life sciences, to cast the net broadly, thinking beyond or outside of the Darwinistic paradigm threatens the goring of many sacred oxen, many of which are metaphysical, to extend the metaphor. For more than a century there has been a paucity not only of theories, but even of scientific hypotheses.

Personally, when it comes to how science works, I am more of the Feyerabend school, which sees science working successfully in a less institutionalized and more anarchic way. I think the institutionalization of science, which often includes the insistence that science is about facts and that facts, not being theoretical, amount to certainty, which is the very thing Rovelli argues against (the seventh chapter of MacIntyr'es After Virtue is a great treatment of the modern obsession with facts). Rovelli insists that this is detrimental to science. Perhaps the best way to break out of this is interdisciplinary collaboration.

Towards the end of his article Rovelli asked, “Should a scientist think about philosophy or not?” He sought answer his own question:
It’s the fashion today to discard philosophy, to say now that we have science, we don’t need philosophy. I find this attitude naïve, for two reasons. One is historical. Just look back. Heisenberg would have never done quantum mechanics without being full of philosophy. Einstein would have never done relativity without having read all the philosophers and having a head full of philosophy. Galileo would never have done what he did without having a head full of Plato. Newton thought of himself as a philosopher and started by discussing this with Descartes and had strong philosophical ideas
I could not agree more with Rovelli’s conclusion:
Restricting our vision of reality today to just the core content of science [data] or the core content of the humanities is being blind to the complexity of reality, which we can grasp from a number of points of view. The two points of view can teach each other and, I believe, enlarge each other
All of this before we ever consider important moral and ethical questions about our increasing instrumentalization of the material world, which instrumentalization relies on the moral axiom that being able to do something is sufficient justification for doing it, or addressing the even more fundamental question of something coming from nothing, or organic life emerging from inorganic matter.

In his book The Religious Sense, Luigi Giussani asserted, "Man is that level of nature where nature itself becomes conscious of itself, that level of reality where reality begins to become aware of itself, begins to become reason" (25). The form this awareness takes, the form reason takes, what constitutes our humanity, is a question: "Why?" As Heidegger stated it in the first sentence of his first lecture in An Introduction to Metaphysics, as translated by Ralph Manheim, “Why are there essents [beings, things] rather than nothing?” (1) To take the theoretical position that the question is either unanswerable or nonsensical is still to take a metaphysical stance and, as Giussani notes, this runs counter to experience and eviscerates our humanity. As Giussani also asserted, “Realism requires a certain method for observing and coming to know an object, and this method must not be imagined, thought of or organized and created by the subject: it must be imposed by the object” (The Religious Sense 5).

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