On Telescopes … or, On A Principle “Small in Bulk but Great in Consequence”

Authors

On the topic of the small and the great, I’m afraid this entire blog is hopelessly quixotic. (No, not because of its name… that’s not quixotic at all, at least not in the usual sense of the term….) I started this blog because of the deep conviction that there is no current philosophy of science which is really adequate. That, actually, is a nice way of saying that contemporary philosophies of science are not just inadequate; they’re false. And unfortunately, there is not — I am very convinced of this — one school of thought that has succeeded much better than others at surmounting falsehoods. Thomism and analytic philosophy, for instance, are nearly at opposite extremes in essential ways, and yet when it comes to the philosophy of science, not only the latter, but even the former often suffers from serious impediments, and impediments of the same kind, only in different ways. By impediments I mean nominalism, David Hume, bad scholasticism, the concept of force, a failure to examine with much depth how final and efficient causes are related, the confusion of words and symbols,  … to name a few.

There may be some who are surprised to hear me say this even about the various strands of Thomist philosophy of science, but I think it is often true. Of course, it’s not that Thomists themselves are nominalist (for example), but they still tend to adopt views about the nature of science that derive from nominalism. These views seem acceptable because they are current, and also because they appear to be convenient. Their convenience derives from the fact that they almost always involve a certain degree of skepticism, ultimately inherited from Hume and nominalism. The Thomist intellectual tradition has often been willing to accept this skepticism — not, of course, for itself, but for science, which it thus can keep at arm’s length.

The one really noteworthy exception I know of to what I just described is Charles De Koninck, who thought and wrote better, and more profoundly, about the philosophy of science than anyone else I know of. There is an important effort currently underway to reawaken appropriate attention to his writing.  But even such attention, supposing that it does get reawakened, deserves supplementary reflection, which it has been my hope to arouse. Trying to do that, though, with a blog I rarely seem to find enough time to post to, and one that only has a handful of readers, doesn’t exactly seem promising. In fact it looks like this:

Quixote

So why, you might very reasonably ask, should one bother with this?

Well, there is something else. We — the West, that is, and maybe the world — are currently witnessing a very great uprising of scientism against religious faith. Judging by the flurry of anti-Christian activity now on the Internet, and by the virulence with which much of it derides Christian faith while advocating scientism as the alternative, one can make a surmise as to where it will all lead. The surmise is not a happy one. Here is an example.

Scientism, however, isn’t the same thing as science; it’s a sort of faith in science which poses as an alternative to faith in divine revelation. It pretends to be the advocate of reason as against faith, which it sees as foolishness. What it fails to recognize, for the most part, is that it is precisely not science as such that stands in opposition to faith; what stands in opposition is the corrupt philosophy (or philosophies) of science I have just alluded to, based on false principles such as those I referred to

Those who read between the lines will see that this is a complex picture. Why?  Because, first, the philosophies of science which I am accusing of falsehood are skeptical, but science itself is not skeptical. The combination of science with the customary philosophies of science therefore results typically in a sort of schizophrenia which would be surprising if it were not so common. Those imbued with the spirit of scientism are, typically, skeptical about anything which transcends direct observation; but they are naturally not skeptical at all when it comes to what they can directly observe; indeed, therefore, they take the sensibly observable as more or less the very definition of truth. Meanwhile, those who try to oppose this scientism on the basis of the same faulty philosophical principles — I am here especially referring to many Thomists — undercut themselves, because they put the lack of certitude in precisely the wrong place; they put it in the scientifically observable rather than in the pernicious philosophy of science that lurks in the background, which they are, as I said, all too willing to assent to.

So… how is it likely that a little blog like this will get anywhere?

I guess I’ll just have to leave it to her!

8869088-blessed-virgin-mary

Now… where was I? Ah, yes: telescopes. And “a principle small in size, but great in consequence.” It’s great in consequence because it is an absolutely decisive key to seeing where the Humean principles are wrong, especially in their application to science.

I think that I should underline what I just said, so that readers of this little blog will understand that I am serious. The principle in question is small in size, but very great in consequence.

The principle is instrumental causality, as applied to our ability to know the world. Since I’m out of time, I’ll describe it next time. For now, I’ll just leave a hint: the entire Humean philosophy of knowing, now applied to science by philosophers of all stripes, founded itself on complete obliviousness towards this principle. And as I said, Christian intellectuals have been all too willing to play along.

7 Comments

Comments RSS
  1. anaxagorus

    My postulant master, if I recall correctly from 20 years ago, Fr William Wagner, thought that the principle of instrumental causality was one of the most important contributions to philosophy and theology ever made. He attributed this principle to St Thomas Aquinas. Immanuel velikovsky challenged the scientific community with an alternative narrative to the evolutionary history of our planet that involved cataclysms caused by astronomical events. He made a courageous attempt to unite disparate fields from astronomy to geology to the study of ancient writings and folklore into one coherent whole. Thus the parting of the Red Sea was a natural occurrence with a natural explanation. The miracle of salvation was that the Lord working through his angels so orchestrated human events that this natural occurrence happened at the precise moment that Moses lifted up his staff in the desert. Although Velikovsky erred insofar as his writings became overly precise and then mistaken, the core of his thoughts was that the Biblical old testament was historically true and the Lord works through instrumental causes to accomplish his will. He staked out the middle ground between Christians who simply deny the old testament as mythology and fundamentalists who holding to the inerrancy of Scripture see God as directly intervening in a supernatural way throughout history suspending natural causality to bring about his will.

  2. BM

    My 2 cents:

    When you first started this blog I was very hopeful that it would help clarify the lines of a true philosophy of science, but you don’t seem to have your thoughts in order. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have mine in order either….

    You speak of various neo-thomists or thomisms, but give no examples to manifest your statements. I am aware of the multitude of differing opinions among them, but I’m not sure who/what persons or arguments you are talking about or what premises you think are clearly false nor why. Where are they written? You allude to skepticism and nominalism about science among them, but so far I’m not even sure what you mean by ‘science’ or what you think they mean by it. Nor why we should or should not be skeptical about it. About what? A molecular theory? The circulation of the blood? Is there really anyone who is skeptical of all things scientific generally considered? I doubt it. So, who is skeptical about what and why? Everything you say may be perfectly true, but none of it is clear. Something convinced you of what you say here, no? Why leave it out? The foundation is missing.

    May I make a suggestion or two?

    1. Don’t worry about moving slowly.
    2. Figure out what questions you are trying to answer with this blog and put them in order.
    3. Ask and try to answer only as much as you can within a post or few by clear arguments that you state outright, and supplement them with examples that manifest the premises.

    Even if it comes off as dry, I think your readers would benefit more from greater rigidity in style and approach. You appear to have a lot to contribute and this blog could be very helpful for the very purpose you originally gave it. But it is not coming across. I hope it will yet.

    Like I said, just my 2 cents.

    • sdcojai

      BM:

      Thank you for your candid comments. I actually do have my thoughts in order. To make the claims I made in my last post while not having thoughts in order would be a little insane, don’t you think? I’d have to be either dull witted or dishonest, or both.

      I understand your desire that I should name names, but I have reasons for not wanting to do that. For one thing, my disagreement isn’t so much with this or that individual, as it is with a tradition of generally accepted views, views which are in fact so widely accepted as to be not even generally in view — that is, they are scarcely ever so much as looked into. That’s a difficult position for me to be in; for some it constitutes a priori grounds for my being deemed a crank.

      Because these semi-conscious views I want to address bear on the most fundamental issues, I view my own endeavor as not so much as to make arguments, as if the terms of the discussion were given and one only needed to draw some new conclusions, but to bring into view principles — ways of seeing, if you will — which aren’t even a part of most discussions in the philosophy of science. It will take me time to both say what these principles are, how they relate to each other, and what their consequences are. I think I am already taking this part by part, as you suggest I ought to do. The impression you have that I don’t have my thoughts in order may come from that very fact, because I can’t present the whole all at once; you’ll have to be patient.

      Traditional logic teaches that there are “three operations of the intellect:” understanding terms, making propositions, and making arguments — in that order. A common, but very superficial opinion — but again one that is not perhaps often examined — imagines that we should do the first of these first, the second second, and the third last. It isn’t always recognized that not only the beginning, but also the end, of all philosophical endeavor is really understanding; that is, the first “operation” is, in a way, the end of all three, and needs to permeate all three. Failing this, thought itself becomes mechanistic — and often is. And so my own aim is to try to show how this understanding, or the “first operation,” can come about by making ourselves more conscious of commonly held principles, and the need to reform them. That certainly does involve argument (and also a little rhetoric, frankly, which I am painfully aware of not having mastered all that well). But one thing I very much want to avoid is the impression is that it all merely reduces to “arguments.”

      As a great teacher of mine once said, I’m not so much interested in who holds what, as I am in what is true; and so I may say things that others have already said, just because they are true, and things that others will say again after me. I’m sure I’m not the best one to do this… but I’m doing my best. Perhaps it will be of some reassurance to you, if not to everyone, that I had already intended to make my next post extremely dry.

      –Cheers, SC

      • BM

        Have you seen some of the blogs out there? For all I know you are dull AND insane. 🙂 Just kidding.

        No, I don’t really contend what you say here and I didn’t mean to imply that it is reduced to argument. My desire to name names is not to look to the person but to be able to identify where I might find the ideas stated. My comment is but a reflection of that phrase that occurs in St. Albert like a mantra, that the way of reason is to proceed from the known to the unknown and the more known to the less known. It is something all of us should keep in mind when discussing such difficult matters.

  3. BM

    If it’s any comfort, you don’t seem like a crank to me. I just find this topic frustrating.

    • sdcojai

      Well, yes, I know what you mean about “the blogs out there”…. Great medium, this Internet, isn’t it? We can all speak as if we were insane to our hearts’ content. ….Though it may come back to haunt us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: