In my post of March 6, I noted that we must distinguish between what science has been and what it ought to be, or what it is naturally ordained to be. It is therefore a mistake to take any current or past state of science and construe that as universal without any argument. It is a mistake, for example, to suppose that the Galilean paradigm of physics as “written in mathematical terms” is a universal truth, merely on the ground that physics has been that way for some time, and indeed with some fair degree of success. Or, again, I shall argue, it is a mistake to infer that science consists essentially, and by its permanent universal nature, in reasoning from artificial “paradigms,” even if the recent history of science suggests that.
But from this one might be inclined to draw either of two diametrically opposite inferences. One would be to suppose that history and science have nothing to do with each other, otherwise than accidentally. We should therefore try to find out what science is really supposed to be, and let it be that. But the opposite conclusion seems perhaps equally justifiable: namely that science is essentially historical, so that stages in its progress are precisely stages, and therefore ought not to be confused with the universal character of science itself.
Which is the right conclusion? Should we think that science and history have any real connection? To make the question suitably concrete, we should first recognize that this is really a question about humanity. It is humanity we are wondering about when we ask whether our knowledge has any essential relation with history. It is about the being called “man” himself that we must finally ask whether there is something essentially historical.
But then we can see, perhaps, that this is no small question, and it would scarcely do it justice to propose an answer to it in a few short paragraphs. For now, I will let it suffice to have asked the question. But I would also like to take note of some significant historical facts which suggest a direction in which to seek an answer. And after that I will propose what I think is an absolutely fundamental and critical principle on the way to finding an answer.
The signs I have in mind are these. Some 2500 years ago, Aristotle wrote his Organon, which laid out the delineations of “science.” Aristotle argued that science, in the strictest sense, must be knowledge from universal causes, that these causes must be expressed in self-evident principles, and that the principles must derive from the essences of things as expressed in their definitions. Historically, that view seemed to hold a very firm sway for a very long time, until something strange happened: there was a revolt. Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes were primary agents of the revolt. The revolt was in large measure a backlash against entrenched stagnation, against which irrepressible spirits finally grew indignant. From that moment on, intellectual culture became bifurcated into “science” and “philosophy,” and that bifurcation remains to this day.
Those who remain in the camp of the “philosophers” often stake their claims on the basis of the original claims of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. They resist the intrusions of science on the alleged ground that only philosophy proceeds in a truly universal mode, seeking definitions by “genus and difference,” aiming at truly universal causes, and proposing its theses with complete certitude. Those, on the other hand, who decide to be “scientists” stake their claims on the basis of what they take to be reality itself. They notice the truly astonishing degree to which physical reality has a structure, a structure which reaches down deeply into the materiality of things. They see, all too well, that the discovery and appreciation of that structure absolutely demands a mode of thought which is not that of conventional philosophy. And they cannot, moreover, help but notice that conventional philosophers have often tended to either be completely ignorant of that structure, or worse yet, to not care about it, or to deny that it matters, or to deny that it really exists at all.
To describe this by a succinct approximation, we might say that the philosophical mindset tries to reason from characteristics of the mind: from its yearning for what transcends the murkiness of matter. The scientific mindset, by contrast, seeks to reason from the characteristics of physical reality, even possibly at the expense of the aspirations of human reason towards what is immaterial.
It is the philosophical mindset which also, at least in certain relatively isolated enclaves, clings steadfastly to a more or less static view of human thought, and indeed of man himself. (A colleague of mine tried recently to prove to me that the instantaneous propagation of light was a matter of “common experience,” despite my pointing out that there are photographs of light spreading through space! And I know others who still insist that atoms are mere hypotheses.) The scientific mindset, on the other hand, seem very ready to acknowledge the plain fact that our knowledge has greatly progressed, especially in the last two centuries, and shows no signs yet of letting up in that progress; yet on the other hand this acknowledgment seems to be often coincident with a peculiar indifference to our natural desire to find ultimate principles in something which lies beyond the mobile and contingent.
All of this points to what appears to be a central problem, if not the central problem, of natural philosophy: namely to discern the place of humanity, and especially of the human mind, in this vast physical cosmos. This indeed appears as one of the principal motivating questions in the entire history of Western thought. At the dawn of our tradition, Plato expressed the mind’s awakening to the reality of logoi, to that aspect of reality which would answer to our own mind’s deepest nature and aspiration. But at the same time he drew the conclusion that our mind, and we ourselves therefore, could never be at home in a physical world. Our body itself came to be thought of as a prison.
Plato’s great disciple Aristotle recognized a way beyond this rejection of the physical. A more refined understanding of the concept of matter, and its distinction from privation, became for him a key to restoring the possibility of seeing physical being as fully and truly a part of the order of things. Plato’s logoi thus ceased to be viewed as incompatible with physical being.
Nevertheless, to recognize that there is no such incompatibility is far from being the same thing as fully grasping the nature of the compatibility. This leads me to the fundamental principle I mentioned above. That will be the subject of my next post.