Friday, March 23, 2012

What Science Can and Can Not Do

You'll find here at the Ink Desk Sophia Mason's interesting summary of "philosophy versus science", a debate which has been raging at the Ink Desk since Joseph Pearce had the audacity to criticize a joke, something I would never do ("speaking as a comic in all seriousness," as Bobby Bitman used to say).

What I find interesting about this debate is that the defenders of science have the notion that the defenders of philosophy are somehow knocking science.

But science can not be defended without philosophy - for the purpose of science is something only a philosophical activity of the mind can define. "Purpose" is a metaphysical concept. And whether we call "purpose" "teleology" or "final cause", it is a thing beyond the purview of science.

Why this would be is best explained by Fr. Stanley Jaki, PhD Theology and PhD Physics, who points out over and over again in his hundred or more books on the subject that modern science grew and flourished and was empowered when it shed the teleology that Aristotle had burdened it with and confined itself to examining the quantitative aspects of reality - those things that can be counted, measured, demonstrated, and thereby predicted. This great limitation was a great blessing and made science what it is today.

Fr. Jaki writes ...

"That exact science stands or falls with quantitative operations has been noted countless times. After Heinrich Hertz discovered electromagnetic waves he had to admit that he had failed in his real pursuit, namely to find out what electromagnetism really was. ...

"What is true of electromagnetism applies to any other branch of physical theory. Newton's theory of gravitation does not reveal what gravitation is. It merely states that what is called gravitation operates along strictly specifiable quantitative lines, summed up in the idea of a central field of force. One of its implications is the inverse square law of gravitation, another is the times-squared law of the free fall of bodies. They are exact mathematically and therefore provide for exact predictions. ...

"Exact science [is] the study of the quantitative aspects of things in motion. Nothing more and nothing less. This notion of exact science gives competence to scientists whenever they deal with matter, but it does not enlighten them as to what matter is, let alone what scientific study is as an exercise of the intellect. Much less does that notion of science enlighten them about their purpose for doing science, and even less about the fact that they presumably do freely what they do."

This is why Jaki was quick to point out in the Evolution Debate that, "Darwinian theory gives the sole known hope for a scientific account of the great chain of living forms. All other accounts, from vitalism to Intelligent Design, are operating with factors that cannot be measured."

That is why, "those who try to save purpose through science - Newtonian, Einsteinian, Darwinian or non-Darwinian - are barking up the wrong tree ...

"The handling of quantitative relations and features, which is the chief power of exact science, limits it to the quantitative properties of things. Those properties may be likened to a CD disk which is practically infinite in its diameter, because it extends everywhere matter is, but at the same time is enormously thin. Quantitative properties are on the surface of things and of all their constituents, be they atoms or subnuclear particles. ... Anything beneath that surface is profoundly philosophical, where one has to work with analogous concepts that belong to any of the nine categories other than the categories of quantities as listed by Aristotle in his Categories. There he also noted the all important thing that it is through their quantitative magnitudes that things are recognized to exist. Still a set of quantities does not mean existence as such, nor can it mean purpose, not even design taken for a synonym of purpose, let alone free will and moral responsibility.

"Quantitative properties have no role in man's grasping of the fact that he acts for a purpose and that he is craving a lasting purpose. Quantitative properties cannot cope with one's self-awareness, with one's having free will and moral responsibility."

What the study of the quantitative aspects of things has done for us is given us modern technology and the ability to manipulate matter in unimagined ways, and it has given us a system for understanding crucial aspects of reality. The good of science is a great good, but exact science is a tool that does a very specific thing - and because of that, it does it very well.

1 comment:

Tom Leith said...

Oh my. Not only must Philosophy be used to defend Natural Science (what is usually called "Science"), but Natural Science is a only branch of Philosophy. A very practical branch of Philosophy, but also a very limited one, as Fr. Jaki points out.