Over on Biologos there is a new column, the first of a series on “science and scientism” by Dr. Ian Hutchinson. Hutchinson is a nuclear physicist at M.I.T. As Dr. Hutchinson has some impressive credentials based on a long and productive scientific career, his thoughts on the nature of science might be thought to carry a weight beyond that of the regular Biologos columnists. Thus, I read the first installment in hopes of insight beyond what one normally finds on that site.
The column, which is based on Hutchinson’s new book, Monopolizing Knowledge, gets off to a good start. He distinguishes between “science” and “scientism.” In a quotation from his book, which introduces the column, he tells us:
“Scientism says, or at least implicitly assumes, that rational knowledge is scientific, and everything else that claims that status of knowledge is just superstition, irrationality, emotion, or nonsense.”
And in his first paragraph, he writes:
“One of the most visible conflicts in current culture is between “scientism” and religion. Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior. However, there are many other important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific, and therefore marginalized by scientism. And if that is so, then scientism is a ghastly intellectual mistake.”
So far, Hutchinson has said nothing which ID proponents would not applaud. ID proponents have long contended that the methods of modern science do not exhaust the possibilities of rational investigation, and that the relegation of non-scientific knowledge to inferior status by certain loud champions of “science” is entirely unwarranted.
Hutchinson then goes on to say:
“But how could it have come about that this mistake is so widespread, if it is a mistake? The underlying reason is that scientism is confused with science. It is natural for readers without inside knowledge of science to assume that science and scientism are one and the same when many leading scientists and science popularizers often speak and act as if they and thus directly promote this confusion.”
To this, ID proponents can only say, “Amen.” ID people take second place to no one in challenging the overreaching claims of Dawkins, Coyne, Myers, Dennett, etc. No one has spent more time, or expended more ink, in showing that much of what passes for “science” in these writers is really covert metaphysics, than ID people.
His introduction concludes with:
“scientism rapidly becomes … an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined … it is essentially a religious position.”
Again, ID people can only say, “Amen.”
Hutchinson then proceeds to make some historical remarks concerning how the word “science” changed in meaning from a general word for “knowledge” to a term of narrower meaning, to refer to the activities of physicists, chemists, etc. His account is in general terms correct; however, in the way he builds on this narrowing of meaning, he begins a train of thought which seems to end up in an uncritical acceptance of the tacit metaphysical assumptions of the very people — the promoters of scientism — that he is lambasting. Therefore, his subsequent remarks must be analyzed with critical care.
Hutchinson argues that we ought to accept, and even warmly welcome, the narrowing of the meaning of the word “science” to the usage it has today, i.e., a certain narrow kind of investigation, and explanation, in terms of mechanical causes, i.e., efficient causes. In addition to the obvious argument that the narrower meaning is now generally accepted, he touts the track record of modern science as impressive evidence that the modern definition is sound.
This is too facile. Yes, modern science has an impressive track record of explaining certain aspects of nature extremely well. It does not follow that because it explains certain things very well, that it explains everything well, and it is possible that it fails to explain some things entirely, not because it has not yet progressed far enough, but because it has certain inherent blind spots. And those blind spots may be due to the very narrowness of method which has produced modern science’s greatest successes. If this is so, it would follow that the fullest possible explanation of nature would make use not only of the narrow approach typical of modern science, but of other rational approaches as well. And then the question arises whether those other rational approaches might equally well be called “science.”
For example, Aristotle analyzed events in terms of four causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. His analysis was “scientific” as he would have understood the notion (though of course the word was not used in his day). It did not rest on any religious doctrines; nor was it aesthetic or moral in nature. It was based on a description of the phenomena. However, in opposition to Aristotelian thinking, modern science ruled out final causes — the notion that natural things have certain tendencies toward certain ends. This restriction enabled modern science to understand a vast number of things that Aristotelian science could not understand. But it also made it impossible to give a full and rational account of many things in nature, especially organic nature, which is rife with apparent ends and end-driven behavior.
I am not arguing that we should scrap modern science and go back to Aristotle’s science. I am arguing that Aristotle had a point. From Aristotle’s point of view, we could not claim to understand a thing until we understood all its causes, and to methodologically rule out a particular kind of cause was to exclude the possibility of full understanding. The question arises whether the modern, narrow understanding of “science” should be supplemented by something analogous to the study of final causes. In modern terms, such an analysis would involve a discussion of “information,” a concept which has aspects of formal and final cause within itself. That is, a full and rich modern science, while not throwing away the gains made by Cartesian science, would synthesize those gains with an appropriate understanding of why organic matter is “informed” in the way that it is.
This, however, does not seem to be the way that Dr. Hutchinson is going. He is quite happy to keep to the narrower definition, and narrower practice, of science. To be sure, he seems to be aware of the possibility of the argument I have made above, for he says:
“… suppose we grant that we will use the word science to mean natural science. Doesn’t that just mean the study of nature? So shouldn’t “the study of nature” be our working definition of science then? And if it is, why should one limit the scope of science by an identification of its methods? Surely one should use whatever methods are available to study nature.”
Yet, having stated this quite reasonable position, Hutchinson rejects it. And it is interesting what intellectual move he makes in order to reject it. Aware that starting from the objective reality of “nature” could put the adequacy of the methods of modern natural science into question, he proposes to define nature in terms of modern natural science:
“Instead, I believe, we must use a functional definition of science. Once we have a clear view of what science is, we will have a definition of what we here mean by nature. Nature is what we are studying in natural science.”
So, we need to know what “natural science” is before we can define nature? This is very odd. Would Dr. Hutchinson say that we need to know what “social science” is before we can define “society” or “social relationships”? Would he say that we need to know what “political science” is before we can define “politics”? That would be very strange. Charles Dickens certainly knew what was denoted by “society” — he was a very acute observer of it — and I doubt he could have defined “social science”; he may never even have heard the term. And Thucydides certainly knew what was meant by politics — he had an intimate understanding of ancient Athenian politics — but he had never taken a course in “political science.” Why then, should anyone need to know what “natural science” is in order to know what “nature” refers to?
Any untutored child knows that “nature” refers to the sun, moon, stars, rivers, seas, rocks, plants, animals, storms, forces, motions, etc. — things that are not produced by man. “Natural science” then is the science, i.e., systematic knowledge, which explains the ways of these things. The normal intellectual procedure — first define the object of study, and then define the science that explains the object of study — is no different for nature / natural science than for anything else.
The reason for Dr. Hutchinson’s approach is not clear, but based on what is given in his column so far, we might well infer that he does not want natural science measured by its success in interpreting “nature,” where nature is something that exists independently. Rather, he wants “nature” to be understood as a construct of natural science itself. Therefore, outside of natural science, there is no “nature.” What then, would the sun, rivers and plants be? What would magnetism and lightning be? Have they no independent reality, beyond what natural science makes of them? Or do they have a reality, but one utterly inaccessible to us, until we investigate them through the lens of natural science? Dr. Hutchinson probably means the latter; if so, he would seem to be steeped in some sort of Kantianism, though exactly what sort is unclear.
The upshot of Hutchinson’s position is that whatever qualities “science” allows nature to have, it will have; and whatever qualities “science” does not allow nature to have, it will not have. If “science” does not allow nature to have final causes, then nature will not have final causes, and then, of course, the science of nature will never discover final causes. And guess what? The modern science that Hutchinson champions refuses to have any truck or trade with final causes. Surprise, surprise.
Under this view, one cannot even ask the question whether or not there is teleology in living organisms, as if that is an empirical matter for science to investigate. There cannot be teleology in organisms, if “nature” is what “science” says it is. And we cannot ask whether such a non-teleological “science” is adequate to nature, because “nature” is so defined that non-teleological science will always be adequate to it.
To those with philosophical training, such an argumentative move is transparent. The reasoning is utterly circular. One cannot impute to the object of study just the qualities it ought to have in order to make one’s particular investigative tools relevant. That is like insisting that the world is made entirely of nails, because the only tool one owns is a hammer. Dr. Hutchinson’s view of the relationship between “science” and “nature” puts the cart before the horse. Nature is bigger, vastly bigger, than “science” as Dr. Hutchinson conceives it, and science ought to dance to its tune, not the other way around.
Epistemologically speaking, Dr. Hutchinson’s move is extremely dangerous. His “science” is forced to work on the assumption that there is no teleology in nature, not even in the places where teleology seems the most obvious, i.e., in organic nature. It therefore must “explain away” anything that looks like teleology, with ever more contrived mechanistic explanations. Thus, even if, based on overwhelming empirical evidence, mathematical figuring, and common sense, it looks as if the first cell could not have come into existence without design, “science” nonetheless has the duty to try to convince everyone that it did in fact come into existence without design. Design is not disproved as a factor in the production of the first cell; it is simply not allowed to be considered as a factor. Thus, if it turns out that the first cell was designed, “science” will lead the human race to believe an untruth about its own origin. And this possibility does not seem to bother Dr. Hutchinson in the slightest.
Nor does he see that the risk of such false trails is precisely what is demanded by “scientism.” For scientism’s claim is that everything can be explained by science, narrowly understood, and Dr. Hutchinson, by putting all of nature under the thumb of the same narrow model of understanding, has in fact made an implicit metaphysical ruling — that there is no teleology in nature — which will make all the disciples of scientism clap in thunderous applause. Ironically, Dr. Hutchinson gives comfort and support to scientism. He thus joins the legion of Biologos columnists who have railed against scientism while unwittingly endorsing the metaphysical and epistemological principles on which scientism is based.