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Tag Archives: Metaphysics

Science is conditional

Science is indifferent to metaphysics. This is seen in the break between science and philosophy in the 19th century, and before that in the rejection of metaphysics by early scientists such as Newton. The scientific community doesn’t make metaphysical arguments.

The model science since classical times has been mathematics. The geometry of Euclid has been seen as the ideal for all the sciences. It is a model of conditional, systematic knowledge.

Euclid begins by considering definitions and axioms that are sufficiently simple and self-evident that everyone or almost everyone would easily accept them at least provisionally. Through logical argument and inference the reader is led step-by-step to see the derivation of propositions acceptable to common experience. Then new propositions are derived that are not obvious.

In the end a magnificent deductive system has been built that reflects inductive experience. But is it true? Not necessarily. The whole system is conditional on the truth of the definitions and axioms. Within science it is adopted as a convention. Whether or not it is true is not part of any science. (Whether metaphysics itself is a science is another matter.)

The history of science shows the indifference of science to metaphysics, though the success of science led many to accept it as metaphysically true. The most famous case is the geocentric-heliocentric controversy at the time of Galilei. Ptolemy had adopted geocentrism for his astronomy, whereas Copernicus had showed the advantages of heliocentrism. Galilei went beyond Copernicus and promoted a metaphysical heliocentrism, which led him into conflicts.

Geocentrism, heliocentrism, or the current astronomy with no universal center are all conventions that scientists are free to adopt for the purposes of science. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Whether any of them represent reality is a metaphysical issue, not a scientific issue. Science is indifferent to such metaphysical questions.

TH Huxley famously said “Agnosticism is of the essence of science …”. He should have meant that science is indifferent, not necessarily agnostic.  But he went on, “It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” Tying science to belief or the lack of belief ties science to metaphysics. That was a mistake.

We all have our metaphysical notions but these should at most provide motivation for doing science or trying a particular line of research. Metaphysical commitments, no matter how much they are commonly accepted, are not part of science. Science is conditional.

Other posts on science and metaphysics are here, here, and here.

The Bible and science

The Bible is true. However, the Bible does not contain all truth. And the Bible does not meet every degree of precision. No book or set of books does.

Is the Bible scientifically true? The Bible is better than scientifically true. The Bible is true without qualification. Science seeks truthlikeness. If parts of science are true, they do not contradict the Bible.

The Bible emphasizes intensional truth. While the Bible does contain some extensions – quantities, places in space and time – the focus is on the meaning and significance of places, people, and actions. In contrast, science is extensional.

Is all of the Bible true? Yes. The Bible has been tried over centuries and peoples, and found true. It has also been misunderstood and misapplied but that is another matter. In any case, our standard of truth is not higher than the Bible, so we are not in a position to judge the Bible against a higher standard.

Some accepted scientific theories seem to contradict the Bible. But the Bible is about reality. Science is completely conditional, and depends on a metaphysics to assert truth about reality. So it is only with a particular metaphysics that science can be possibly said to contradict the Bible. In that case, the metaphysics is false in some respect.

The best metaphysics is one that is based on the Bible. The metaphysics of the Bible is a neglected subject. Roger E. Olson has written an introduction excerpted here.

Science and metaphysics again

The Scholastics developed a cosmology with the Earth at absolute rest in the center of moving concentric spheres. Ptolemy’s geocentric astronomy with its epicycles was thought to be consistent with the Scholastic cosmology. When geocentrism was challenged by the early scientists, the whole Scholastic cosmology was thought to be undermined.

The difference between science and metaphysics has been confused ever since.

For example, in his General Scholium to the Principia Newton wrote:

For whatever is not deduc’d from the phenomena, is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.

But then in his Scholium to the Definitions Newton goes on to give his opinions about absolute time, absolute space, and absolute motion. So much for staying away from metaphysics!

As the sciences progress they normally come to question their metaphysical assumptions, reduce the metaphysics, and become more formal and mathematical. Quantum mechanics as an example of science with minimal metaphysics. Some people think that is a problem but I see it as a success.

Philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin describes quantum mechanics this way:

Unlike Relativity, there is no agreement among physicists about how to understand quantum theory. Indeed, the very phrase “quantum theory” is a misnomer: there is no such theory. Rather there is a mathematical formalism and some (quite effective) rules of thumb about how to use the formalism to make certain sorts of predictions. … The philosopher of physics cares about the underlying reality and attends to the predictions only insofar as they can serve as evidence for which account of the underlying reality is correct.” p.xiii, Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time by Tim Maudlin

Like most in his field, Maudlin develops a metaphysics that doesn’t go beyond the bounds of naturalism. That’s his business but it’s not the business of science.

Other sciences are entwined with metaphysics. For example, the development of geology and biology as historical sciences conjured up first thousands, then millions, and then billions of years of time before recorded history. With no quantitative parsimony there was no cost for such magic.

The existence of time before the history of humanity is really about metaphysics, not science. What can be done in science is to show that the assumption of pre-historic time fits well – or not – with other science. Those with a methodology that includes quantitative parsimony (with or without qualitative parsimony) have an incentive to avoid such large metaphysical quantities.