From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 4

Part 3 of this series is here. This post covers Chapter Three on the Limits of Science. Note: “man of science” was the common expression for scientist in Britain until the 20th c.

p. 80 – Victorian science saw many dramatic shifts in what counted as “science,” and figures such as Huxley and Maxwell were under constant pressure to justify their work as valid and reliable. Both of them, in rather different ways, struggled to clearly articulate what they saw as the proper limits of science and how their claims fell within them. For Huxley, this took the form of his agnosticism; for Maxwell, his development of scientific models.

p. 81 – The definitive work on agnosticism is Bernard Lightman’s Origins of Agnosticism. Lightman locates the roots of agnosticism at the intersection of Hume, Kant, and Dean Henry Mansel’s 1858 Brampton lectures. Mansel’s attempt to ward off historical and literary analysis of the Bible by emphasizing man’s inability to apprehend the divine was flipped by Huxley to argue that humans could make no positive statements about God, and thus that theology could never have the persuasive force of science. Following this reasoning, he took the position that if no certain knowledge of God could be attained, then there could also never be a positive denial of God’s existence. Taking Hume and Kant’s warnings about theological certainties into account, he defended “the limitation of all knowledge or reality to the world of phenomena revealed to us by experience.”

p. 83 – He worked to show that agnosticism had a genuine philosophical pedigree, and that it had genuine enemies. Those who possessed “unqualified assurance” were explicitly targeted. In particular, theologians who claimed absolute knowledge were placed as the targets for the arrows forged by Hume, Locke, and Kant.

p. 84 – Miracles violated the key principle of agnosticism–“that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena”–because they tried to link experience to something beyond human reason; namely, divine action.

While [Huxley] was happy to use agnosticism as a tool to deny theists their fundamentals, he was equally committed, in principle, to applying it to his allies: “To my mind, atheism is, on purely philosophical grounds, untenable. That there is no evidence of the existence of such a being as the God of the theologians, is true enough; but strictly scientific reasoning can take us no further. Where we know nothing we can neither affirm nor deny with propriety.”

p. 87 – The scientific naturalists relentlessly trumpeted their rejection of a priori, idealist, or overly speculative reasoning in science. Huxley and his allies argued that their work, unlike that of the natural theologians, was grounded in hard empirical facts about the physical world. They constantly asserted the need to limit science to claims that grew directly out of observation and experiment, thus allowing no room for theological interference or distraction.

p. 89 – Huxley described a hypothesis as a way to extend observation, not replace it. It was supposed to be a tool that functioned analogously to empirical experience. Hypotheses were to be evaluated on the grounds of their ability to provide explanation for physical phenomena that actually were directly observed.

p. 90 – The critical issue, [Huxley] said, was the gradual willingness to put aside unverifiable hypothesis as outside the limits of science.

p. 95 – [For Huxley’s ally John Tyndall] Even religion had something to contribute to the full human experience, specifically “in the region of poetry and emotion, inward completeness and dignity to man,” but not, however, in the realm of objective knowledge.

P. 96 – [Theist A. J.] Balfour actually did not disagree that human senses and reason were limited and certainly imperfect for understanding the world–he acknowledged that both naturalists and theists accepted this. His complaint was that naturalism, on these grounds, demanded “terms of surrender to every other system of belief.” The limits of naturalistic science, he argued, thus demanded too much from too little.

Further, these limits did not allow naturalism to provide many aspects of what Balfour considered to be an adequate worldview, such as morality and aesthetics. It has no “emotional adequacy.” Imagine, he said, a “catechism of the future, purged of every element drawn from any other source than the naturalistic creed.” Its inadequacy was obvious. And worse, the limits of science imposed by naturalism allowed no justification for the principles that made science possible: reliable experience of the world, the rationality of phenomena, and the uniformity of nature. He argued persuasively that science could not provide its own first principles, and therefore was not a stand-alone epistemology of nature.

As Lightman has shown, Huxley’s response to Balfour (written in the last days of his life), was not particularly strong. … Huxley fell back on the strategy of trying to control the terms of the debate: he objected to the conflation of naturalism, agnosticism, and materialism, and denied that he or anyone else held the positions being attached.

p. 97 – Maxwell was not hesitant to declare something beyond the limits of science.

Maxwell pointed out that even with modern science, humans knew nothing more about death than our earliest ancestors.

p. 98 – Like the majority of Victorian scientists, Maxwell saw observation and experience as the foundation of the practice of science.

Maxwell was not, of course, a complete empiricist. As one of the great theorists of the century, he used mathematics and speculative analysis in amazingly successful ways.

p. 99 – Just as the scientific naturalists did, Maxwell argued that hypothesis was essential to modern science.  … Intricate theoretical models using hypothetical entities were, as discussed earlier, somewhat suspect to many Victorian natural philosophers, and Maxwell constantly felt the need to discuss their scientific legitimacy.

p. 100 – [Maxwell:] “We must therefore discover some method of investigation which allows the mind at every step to lay hold of a clear physical conception, without being committed to any theory founded on the physical science from which that conception is borrowed, so that it is neither drawn aside from the subject in pursuit of analytical subtleties, nor carried beyond the truth by a favourite hypothesis.”

p. 101 The value of [energy] dynamics was that it provided a method for analyzing a system without needing to specify all of its inner working, thus avoiding the danger of misleading or inappropriate hypotheses.

p. 102 – Restrictions necessary to fit observations needed to come naturally from within the theory; otherwise, an investigator was simply forcing his pet theory onto the facts. A good hypothesis disciplined the man of science as much as mathematics did.

Generating new entities at will was precisely the sort of unscientific move that Maxwell was working so hard to avoid. He needed to convince his readers that his imagination was not out of control, speculating beyond acceptable limits. He said we should be reassured by evidence from multiple scientific disciplines pointing the same way, providing good reason to be confident in the hypothesis.

p. 106 – This suggests that Maxwell was thinking of a sort of graduated ladder of speculation–the more steps of hypothesis necessary to link an idea to observation, the less scientific the idea. As such ideas drifted from the anchor of experience, and became more reliant on reason and imagination, they could become misleading. He cautioned the reader not to confuse well-verified concepts and illustrative models.

p. 107 – A major feature of Maxwell’s scientific boundaries was that a hypothesis must be provisional.

p. 108 – [Maxwell:] “I have been carried by the penetrating insight and forcible expression of Dr. Tyndall into that sanctuary of minuteness and of power where molecules obey the laws of their existence, clash together in fierce collision, or grapple in yet more fierce embrace, bui8lding up in secret the forms of visible things … But who will lead me into that still more hidden and dimmer region where Thought weds Fact, where the mental operation of the mathematician and the physical action of the molecules are seen in the true relation? Does not the way to it pass through the very den of the metaphysician, strewed with the remains of former explorers, and abhorred by every man of science?”

“In our daily work we are led up to questions the same in kind with those of metaphysics; and we approach them, not trusting to the native penetrating power of our own minds, but trained by a long-continued adjustment of our modes of thought to the facts of external nature.”

p. 110 – Maxwell was clearly a highly synthetic thinker, and the threads of [Scottish] Common Sense, Whewellian Cambridge, and Boolean philosophy can all be seen in his articulation of the limits of science.

[Maxwell’s] vision of a divine creator who had wrapped the natural world in mystery while revealing selected portions, which was so important for his pursuit of unified laws, can be seen here as well. His evangelical God, wholly other, chose to make some aspects of the world understandable to humans despite their fallen and fallible nature. Maxwell’s sense of the divine gave him a deep appreciation that much of the world would always remain unknown while maintaining the prospect of sound knowledge.

p. 111 – Both Maxwell and Huxley stressed the importance of observation and empiricism while acknowledging the inherent limitations of human perception. Each was, in an important sense, a channel for Kantian-influenced epistemology. Both worried about the danger of rampant speculation and unverified hypotheses while also accepting the need for theory. Both saw theory as the tool that allowed science to provide deeper understanding of the unseen world, whether microscopic, invisible, or far in the past. Scientific knowledge was reliable, but necessarily incomplete, and was always vulnerable to the weakness of human reason and emotion. Natural philosophers needed physical and conceptual tools to discipline their minds and senses. Huxley and the scientific naturalists presented that views as methods for preventing theological and dogmatic intrusion into proper science. However, these limits were, at the least, deeply compatible with Maxwell’s evangelical outlook. Their similar limitations of hypothesis and scientific statement were arrived at via quite different approaches and justifications.

p. 116 – [Tyndall:] “Be careful, above all things, of professing to see in the phenomena of the material world the evidences of the Divine pleasure or displeasure.” It was the theists, he said, who tried to go beyond the limits of science.

p. 118 – As he often did, Huxley appealed to the narrative of scientific progress to imagine a time when there would be newly understood laws that would move molecular transformation back inside the boundaries of science. “It seems safe to prophesy that the hypothesis of the evolution of the elements from a primitive matter will, in the future, play no less a part in the history of science than the atomic hypothesis, which, to begin with, had no greater, if so great, an empirical foundation.”

Part 5 is here.