On the limits of scientific explanations

Educational theory is considered a Social Science in the university today. Aside from the horrors of APA style (with its tyrannical and often meaningless appeals to authority), Social Science has its strengths. But the weakness of all Social Sciences is its built-in tendency to convince us that we can explain and predict societal issues with the same precision that we predict natural laws in hard science (or at least, will shortly be able to do so in the future).

Social scientists may not agree that they aim at such precision,  but their desire is still to explain the way humans interact without just philosophizing. Why was the “science of man” invented if not to apply the principles of scientific, rather than philosophic methods?

Whether you agree with Max Weber that there are “elective affinities” between the Protestant ethic and Capitalism, or with Hume that the only precision we have in science is “constant conjunction” of events and their effects, we still have a desire to explain the world in a way that satisfies our need for structure rather than chaos.

Perhaps because of this tendency, we distrust any study that isn’t “scientific.” But this is a failure to distinguish between the aims and limits of the scientific method, which explains reality, with the philosophic method which addresses our understanding of it, and its meaning.

For example, the concept of a person is difficult to say in the language of science. Only from the vantage point of our own identity do we see others as distinct individuals rather than collections of firing synapses and sinews. Colors are not just wavelengths, but can be beautiful. We view sex not just as a biological function, etc. The British philosopher Roger Scruton writes – “Since science has, or at any rate assumes, absolute sovereignty over what is true, the meaning comes to be viewed as fiction.”

The great moral imperative of our time, Scruton says, is to view people as rational and free moral individuals, as opposed to materially caused masses of sinews and synapses:

The scientific worldview contains a fatal temptation: it invites us to regard the subject as a myth, and to see the world under one aspect alone, as a world of objects. And this disenchanted world is also a world of alienation.

I want to transcribe the entire first chapter of Roger Scruton’s book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy, since he discusses the kinds of things science can and cannot explain. “If this book has a message, it is that scientific truth has human illusion as its regular by-product, and that philosophy is our surest weapon in the attempt to rescue truth from this predicament.” Here is the entire first chapter. The discussion of science and philosophy is about 1/2 of the way down.

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Why?

Philosophy – the ‘love of wisdom’ – can be approached in two ways: by doing it, or by studying how it has been done. The second way is familiar to university students, who find themselves confronted by the largest body of literature that has ever been devoted to a single subject. This book follows a more ancient pattern. It attempts to teach philosophy by doing it. Although I refer to the great philosophers, I give no reliable guide to their ideas. To expound their arguments in full dress would be to frustrate my chief purpose, which is to bring philosophy to life.

Life as we know it is not much like the life from which our philosophical traditions arose. Plato and Socrates were citizens of a small and intimate city state, with publicly accepted standards of virtue and taste, in which the educated class derived its outlook from a single collection of incomparable poetry, but in which all other forms of knowledge were rare and precious. The intellectual realm had not been divided into sovereign territories, and thought was an adventure which ranged freely in all directions, pausing in wonder before those chasms of the mind which we now know as philosophy. Unlike the great Athenians, we live in a crowded world of strangers, from which standards of taste have all but disappeared, in which the educated class retains no common culture, and in which knowledge has been parceled out into specialisms, each asserting its monopoly interest against the waves of migrant ideas. Nothing in this world is fixed: intellectual life is one vast commotion, in which a myriad voices strive to be heard above the din. But as the quantity of communication increases, so does its quality decline; and the most important sign of this is that it is no longer acceptable to say so. To criticize popular taste is to invite the charge of elitism, and to defend distinctions of value – between the virtuous and the vicious, the beautiful and the ugly, the sacred and the profane, the true and the false – is to offend against the only value-judgement that is widely accepted, the judgement that judgements are wrong. In such circumstances the task of philosophy must change. Philosophy, for Plato, undermined the certainties of a common culture, and led, through doubts and wonder, to a realm of truth. Now there are no certainties, and no common culture worth the name. Doubt is the refrain of popular communication, skepticism extends in all directions, and philosophy has been deprived of its traditional starting point in the faith of a stable community. A philosophy that begins in doubt assails what no-one believes, and invites us to nothing believable. However important its achievement, in describing the nature and limits of rational thinking, such a philosophy now runs the risk of being disengaged from the life surrounding it, and of forswearing the ancient promise of philosophy, which is to help us, however indirectly, to live wisely and well.

In his justly celebrated book, The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell described philosophy in the terms implied in his title; as a series of problems. ‘Philosophy is to be studied,’ he wrote, ‘not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves.’ But what, we might ask, is the point of such as study? Why should we, who have so few answers, devote our energies to questions which have none? For Russell, the purpose is to become a ‘free intellect, an intellect that will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge – knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain’. It is easy to be tempted by this vision of a purely abstract study, which is at the same time an exercise of the highest freedom, and a liberation from custom, prejudice and the here and now. But the mask of rhetoric is thin, and Russell’s anxiety shines through it. He knows that we must live in the here and now, and that the difficulty of doing so arises precisely because the ‘customary beliefs and traditional prejudices’ have lost their credibility. We are hoping, fearing creatures, and without our hopes and fears we should be loveless and unlovable. To see calmly and dispassionately is right – but only sometimes, and only in respect of some subjects. Besides, Russell published those words in 1912, when skepticism was the luxury of a ruling class, and not the daily diet of humanity.

In emphasizing abstract questions, Russell is true to the history of philosophy. The virtue of such questions is in freeing us from self-interested illusions; they set us at a distance from the world of emotion, and enable us to see it for a moment as though we ourselves were not involved. But philosophers, like other human beings, have a tendency to represent their own way of life as the best way – perhaps as the sole way to redemption. Freeing themselves from one set of illusions, they fall prey to others, every bit as self-interested, and with the added advantage of ennobling the person who promotes them. They extol the ‘dispassionate’ and ‘contemplative’ life, since it is the life that they have chosen. They tell us, like Plato, that this life leads to a vision of a higher world, or like Spinoza, that it shows our world in another light, ‘under the aspect of eternity’. They reproach us from our sensuous ways, and gently remind us, in the words of Socrates, that the ‘unexamined life is not a life for a human being’. It is tempting to agree with Nietzsche, that the philosopher is not interested in truth, but only in my truth, and that the thing which masquerades as truth for him, is no more than the residue of his own emotions.

The judgement is not fair; none of Nietzsche’s are. But it has a point. Philosophy in our tradition has assumed the existence of a plain, common-sense approach to things, which is the property of ordinary people, and which it is the business of philosophy to question. The result might be to subvert the normal view, as in Nietzsche himself; or it might be to question the question, as in Wittgenstein, and return us to our shared ‘form of life’ as the only thing we have. Nevertheless, without the background assumption, there is no normality to subvert or reaffirm, and philosophy finds it hard to begin. The peculiarity of our condition is that the assumption can no longer be made. Faced with the ruin of folkways, traditions, conventions, customs and dogmas, we can only feel a helpless tenderness for these things which have proved, like everything human, so much easier to destroy than to create. But what has philosophy to say in the face of this momentous change – the change, as some have described it, from modern skepticism, to the postmodern condition, in which all beliefs are simultaneously both doubted and affirmed, though in inverted commas?

The Czech philosopher T.G. Masaryk (1850-1937) ascribed many of the ills of the modern world to ‘half-education’. It was the prominence in public life of the semi-educated, he suggested, that stirred up the hopes and destroyed the certainties of mankind. All faith was cast in doubt, all morality relativized, and all simple contentment destroyed, by the sarcastic criticism of those who could see just so far as to question the foundations of social order, but not so far as to uphold them.

Masaryk’s complaint, like Russell’s declaration of faith in abstract thought, belongs to another world – a world that was shortly to disappear in the turmoil of the Great War, from which Masaryk emerged as President of the newly formed state of Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, it has a deep relevance for us, whose world has been rotted by skepticism, and who wish to know how to proceed, when no one offers guidance save those who are mocked for doing so. If half-education undermines our certainties, is there a whole education that restores them? Or does nothing remain at the end of all our thinking, save a handful of dust?

In this book I try to show what philosophy has to offer in this new condition. Its task, as I envisage it, is thoughtfully to restore what has been thoughtlessly damaged. This damaged thing is not religion, morality or culture, but the ordinary human world; the world in its innocence, the world in spite of science. Russell is surely right in his assumption that philosophy begins from questions; he is right too that it seeks for answers in a realm of abstraction, where ordinary interests recede, and contemplation comes in place of them. But its task does not end in this endless seeking. There is a way back to the human world, through the very abstract thinking that corrodes it.

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We are rational beings, and it is our nature to ask questions. Dogs and cats live in a ‘world of perception’ to use Schopenhauer’s phrase. For them the present experience is everything, and thought no more than a fragile bridge of anticipation, which leads from this experience to the next one. We, however, are beset by the need to explain. Faced with something unusual, our thought is not ‘What next?’ but ‘Why?’ By answering the second of those questions, we can answer the first. And this, in brief, is the scientific method. So where does the difference lie, between science and philosophy? Or is philosophy just a kind of generalized science, as it was or its first practitioners – those Titanic figures like Thales and Heraclitus, who emerge from the prehistoric darkness to tell us that ‘All is water,’ or ‘There is only fire,’ and whose enigmatic words resound down the centuries like mysterious primeval cries? This question is the first importance, since nothing has changed the position of philosophy so much as the success of modern science.

Scientific explanations give the causes of what we observe. But scientific knowledge would be are less useful than it is – no more useful than historical knowledge – if it could not be translated into predictions. The device whereby diagnosis becomes prediction is the ‘causal law’, the law which tells us not just that one event is the effect of another, but that events of the second kind make events of the first kind more likely. Feeling ill after drinking water from Alfred’s tap, I may suspect that the water caused my illness. As yet this is only a hypothesis; it is confirmed when I discover that other people too, drinking from the tap, have contracted a similar illness. I venture the law that drinking from Alfred’s tap makes illness likely. This statement is interesting for two reasons: first, it is open-ended: it does not refer only to cases so far observed, but universally. It has established its power as a diagnosis by becoming a prediction. Secondly, it is phrased in terms of probability; it does not say what everyone who drinks from Alfred’s tap will become ill, but only that such an effect is likely. Likelihood, or probability, is measurable. If 60 per cent of observed cases have produced the given result, then we conclude that, on the evidence, there is a 60 per cent probability of the next case doing so as well.

That is a very rough piece of science. To the question ‘Why was I ill?’ it offers the answer ‘Because I drank from Alfred’s tap.’ But this answer invites a further question: ‘Why does drinking from Alfred’s tap cause illness?’ Such questions are pursued to the point where causal laws become ‘laws of nature’ – laws which do not merely record our observations, but which describe the underlying mechanism. We discover than an organism lives in Alfred’s water tank, and that this organism an live also in the human digestive system, causing inflammation. It is a law of nature that organisms of this kind live in this way, and a law of nature that the human digestive system reacts as it does to their presence. This is not a statement of what we observe merely, but a statement of how things are. We can go deeper into the matter, discovering the precise chemical reaction which precipitates the inflammation, and so on. And the deeper we go, the firmer handle we acquire on the disease, the more likely we are to find a cure for it, and the more able are we to prevent it from spreading.

The nature and limits of scientific method are hotly debated among academic philosophers. But this much, at least, is suggested by my example. First, that the search for causes involves a search for laws; secondly, that laws are statements of probability; thirdly, that laws are themselves explained through wider and more general laws; fourthly, that however far we investigate the causes of something, we can always go further; and finally, that the further we go, the more remote we find ourselves from the world of observation. At the end of our enquiry we may be describing processes which are not observable at all – even processes, like those of quantum mechanics, which we could not observe, and which we can hardly describe in the language of observation. As quantum mechanics shows, the concept of probability, which features in our very first hypothesis, reappears in the final diagnosis; the world of nature is governed by laws, but no scientific law, however deep, is more than a statement of probability. Of nothing in the natural world can it be said that it must be so, but at best that it is highly likely to be so.

At a certain stage in its recent history, philosophy was dominated by the ‘logical positivists’, whose school originated in Vienna between the wars and whose ideas were brought to the English-reading public by A.J. Ayer, in his famous book Language, Truth and Logic (1936). The positivists were fascinated by science, the results and methods of which seemed so clear and indisputable when set beside the pompous nonsense of philosophy. They sought to explain why people can argue fruitfully over scientific questions, from a common understanding of their meaning; whereas philosophic disputes seem endless, with each participant inventing the rules. They concluded that the mass of philosophical propositions are meaningless, and proposed, by way of clinching the matter, a criterion of meaning, called the ‘verification principle’. This says that the meaning of a sentence is given by the method of its verification – by the procedure for determining whether it is true or false. Scientific propositions are meaningful, since they are tested by observation. No observation, experiment or analysis can settle whether ‘The Absolute is One and All-embracing’ is true; we should therefore dismiss the sentence as meaningless.

Logical positivism no longer has a following, and it is easy to see why. The verification principle cannot be verified; it therefore condemns itself as meaningless. Still, the positivists’ view of science remains highly influential. Many philosophers regard observation not merely as the route to scientific truth but also as the true subject-matter of science. Laws and theories generalize from observations, and weave them into a seamless tapestry. In the last analysis, that is what they mean. Reality is systematic appearance, and theories are summaries of observations.

Look back at my example, and you will see how strange that picture is. Science may start from observation. Its purpose, however, is not to summarize appearance, but to distinguish appearance from reality. Science is a voyage of discovery, which passes from the observed to the unobserved, and thence to the unobservable. Its concepts and theories describe a reality so remote from the world of appearance that we can hardly envisage it, and while its findings are tested through observation, this is no more than a trivial consequence of the act that observation is what ‘testing’ means. Science explains the appearance of the world, but does not describe it.

This means that the claim so often made on the behalf of philosophy, that is shows the reality behind appearances, could equally, and more plausibly, be made on behalf of science. And if the methods of science are agreed, certain, and indisputable, while those of philosophy obscure, controversial and vague, what need have we of philosophy? What is the contribution that philosophy could make, to our vision of the world?

Here is one response to those questions. Science begins when we as the question ‘Why?’ It leads us from the observed event to the laws that govern it, and onwards to higher and more general laws. But where does the process end? If each new answer prompts another question, then scientific explanations are either incomplete or endless (which is another way of being incomplete). But in that case science leaves at least one question unanswered. We still don’t know why the series of causes exists: the why of this event may be found in that; but what of the why of the world? Cosmologists dispute over the ‘origins of the universe’, some arguing for a Big Bang, others for a slow condensation. But in the nature of the case, such theories leave a crucial question unanswered. Even if we conclude that the universe began at a certain time from nothing, there is something else that needs to be explained, namely, the ‘initial conditions’ which then obtained. Something was true of the universe at time zero, namely that this great event was about to erupt into being, and to generate effects in accordance with laws that were already, at this initial instant, sovereign. And what is the why of that?

A positivist would dismiss such a question as meaningless. So too would many scientists. But if the only grounds for doing so is that science cannot answer it, then the response is self-serving. Of course the question has no scientific answer: it is the question beyond science, the question left over when all of science has been written down. It is a philosophical question.

Well yes, the sceptic will say; but it does not follow that it has an answer. Maybe philosophic questions arise at the margin of our thinking, where the writ of reason ceases to run, and no more answers are forthcoming. Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, tried to show that this might be so. But it required a philosopher to argue the point, and if Kant is right, then at least one philosophic question has an answer. For it is a philosophic and not a scientific question, whether the question as to the explanation of the universe has an answer; and the answer, according to Kant is no.

Not all philosophers have agreed with him. There is an argument, known by the name bestowed on it by Kant, but due to St. Anselm, eleventh-century archbishop of Canterbury, which offers the complete and final explanation of everything, by showing that at least one thing exists of necessity. The ‘ontological argument’ is normally offered as a proof of the existence of God. But it is capable of a wider interpretation, and reappears in Spinoza and Hegel as the final answer to the every ‘Why?’ It tells us that God is, by definition, the sum of all perfections, so that existence, which is part of perfection, belongs to his essence. He must exist, and the question why he exists answers itself. Since God’s existence explains everything else, no ‘Why?’ is without an answer, not even the why of the world.

Stated thus briefly and bluntly, he argument has the appearance of a sophism. Hence it is never stated briefly or bluntly, but wrapped in artful subtleties. Indeed, it is the one argument for God’s existence that is still alive, and which perhaps always was alive, even before St. Anselm gave explicit voice to it. For what is really meant by the sublime words which open the Gospel according to St. John? In the beginning, writes the evangelist, was the word, the logos. In Greek philosophy logos means not only word, but reason, argument, account; any answer to the question ‘Why?’ In other words, or rather, in the same words if you stick to the Greek: In the beginning was the why which answers itself.

Goethe’s Faust, meditating on this passage, offers an improvement: not words but deeds begin things, and if the world has sense for us, it is because im Anfang war die Tat; in the beginning was the deed. Let us not ask ‘Whose deed?’, for such a question merely plunges us again into the endless stream of causes. Let us ask instead how the ‘Why?’ of things is changed, when we see them not merely as events but as actions. When the judge asks me why I put arsenic in my wife’s tea, he will not be satisfied by my saying ‘Because electrical impulses from my brain caused my hand to reach for the bottle and tip it into the waiting teacup’ – although that may be a true answer to the question ‘Why?’ construed as scientists construe it, as a request for the cause. For it is an answer of the wrong kind.

It seems, then, that the question ‘Why?’ is ambiguous. Sometimes it is answered by pointing to a cause, sometimes by pointing to a reason. The judge is asking what I was aiming at. If I reply that I had mistaken the bottle for that which contained the whisky, that I had intended to administer only a small dose of arsenic as a warning shot, or that I had intended to kill her since quite frankly enough was enough – then I have in each case offered a reason for my action, and the reply is pertinent.. There are philosophers who say that reasons are causes, though causes of a special kind. For the three replies that I have sketched are valid explanations, and what is an explanation, if it does not mention a cause? But this does not get to the heart of the matter. The peculiarity of reasons is that you can argue with them; you can accept them or reject them; you can offer counter-reasons, and praise or condemn the agent on account of them. Even if reasons are causes, they have been lifted from the neutral realm of scientific theory, and endowed with a moral sense.

The ambiguity here can be phrased another way. Sometimes we explain our actions; sometimes we justify them. And while explanations are true or false, reasons can be good or bad. They belong to the endless moral dialogue whereby people relate to one another and to the world, and it is not surprising if they have an entirely different structure, and make use of entirely different concepts, from the explanations offered by the science of behaviour. My original answer to the judge was absurd not because it was false, but because it removed my action from the sphere of judgement, and described it in terms that make no reference to it as mine. Yet these are precisely the terms that we should expect the science of behaviour to employ: for they identify the underlying mechanism that explains what we observe.

We encounter here, and not for the first time in this work, an enduring paradox. It seems that we describe the world in two quite different ways – as the world which contains us, and as the world on which we act. We are part of nature, obedient to natural laws. But we also stand back from nature, and make choices which we believe to be free. Nature has a meaning for us – many meanings – and we classify it in ways which could find no place in scientific theory. When we see another’s smile we see human flesh moving in obedience to impulses in the nerves. No law of nature is suspended in this process; we smile not in spite of, but because of, nature. Nevertheless, we understand a smile in quite another way: not as flesh, but as spirit, freely revealed. A smile is always more than flesh for us, even if it is only flesh.

The question ‘Why?’, when asked of a smile, is seeking a meaning. Perhaps you are smiling for a reason; but even if you have no reason, there may be a why to your smile. I may understand it as a gesture of serene acceptance. And that answers the question of why you smile, even though it names neither justification nor cause. The description makes the smile intelligible. So here is another ‘Why?’, and one that can be applied more widely than to human beings. The why of a note of music, or a line in a painting, is like this. We understand why the opening chord of Tristan resolves onto the dominant seventh of A minor, not by learning Wagner’s reason for writing this, still less by looking for a cause, but by grasping the weight of these two chords as they balance against each other, by hearing the voice-leading which moves between them, and by pausing with the music, in the expectation of another resolution that never comes. Criticism describes the why of this music; but you do not need the description in order to understand what you hear, any more than you need a description to understand a smile. Understanding is sui generis, part of our way of relating to the world, when we relate to it as free beings.

And here we encounter another task for philosophy, and perhaps its most important task in our conditions. When we respond to the world as free beings, we look for meanings and reasons, and divide the world according to our interests, and not according to its inner nature, as this is revealed to science. Indeed, the meaning of the world is enshrined in conceptions which, while indispensable to the ‘Why?’ of freedom, find no place in the language of science: conceptions like beauty, goodness and spirit which grow in the thin topsoil of human discourse. This topsoil is quickly eroded when the flora are cleared from it, and there is a risk that nothing will ever grow thereafter. You can see the process at work in the matter of sex. Human sexuality has usually been understood through ideas of love and belonging. An enchanted grove of literacy ideas and images protected those conceptions, and man and woman lived within it happily, or at any rate, with a manageable unhappiness. The sexologist clears all this tangled undergrowth away, to reveal the scientific truth of things: the animal organs, the unmoralized impulses, and the tingling sensations that figure in those grim reports on the behaviour of American humanoids. The meaning of the experience plays no part in the scientific description. Since science has, or at any rate assumes, absolute sovereignty over what is true, the meaning comes to be viewed as a fiction. People may briefly try to reinvent it, sometimes even hoping to do a better job. Failing, however, they lapse into a state of cynical hedonism, scoffing at the fogeys who believe there is more to sex than biology.

That is the example of a process which the great sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) called Entzauberung – disenchantment. Philosophy is useful to us, precisely because it, and it alone, can vindicate concepts through which we understand and act on the world: concepts like that of the person, which have no place in science but which describe what we understand, when we relate to the world as it truly is for us. The scientific attempt to explore the ‘depth’ of human things is accompanied by a singular danger. For it threatens to destroy our response to the surface. Yet it is on the surface that we live and act: it is there that we are created, as complex appearances sustained by the social interaction which we, as appearances, also create. It is in this thin topsoil that the seeds of human happiness are sown, and the reckless desire to scrape it away – a desire which has inspired all those ‘sciences of man’, from Marx and Freud to sociobiology – deprives us of our consolation. Philosophy is important therefore, as an exercise in conceptual ecology. It is a last-ditch attempt to re-enchant the world, and thereby ‘save the appearances’. And as Oscar Wilde said, it is only a very shallow person who does not judge by appearances.

Philosophy arises, therefore, in two contrasted ways: first, in attempting to complete the ‘Why?’ of explanation; secondly in attempting to justify the other kinds of ‘Why?’ – the ‘Why?’ which looks for a reason, and the ‘Why?’ which looks for a meaning. Most of the traditional branches of the subject stem from these two attempts, the first of which is hopeless, the second of which is our best source of hope.

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One thought on “On the limits of scientific explanations

  1. Pingback: Jumped up monkeys | Andrew J Siebert

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