Saturday, August 31, 2013

Derbyshire and the Science of Man

From John Derbyshire's column of August 15:
Science insists that there is an external world beyond our emotions and wish-fulfillment fantasies. It claims that we can find out true facts about that world, including facts with no immediate technological application. The human sciences insist even more audaciously that we ourselves are part of that world and can be described as dispassionately as stars, rocks, and microbes. Perhaps one day it will be socially acceptable to believe this.
It is a continual source of amazement to me that people of Derbyshire's intelligence cannot see the profound difference between understanding a microbe scientifically and understanding a man scientifically, and how much more problematic the latter is than the former. For the simple fact is that in any scientific investigation of man, man is both the subject under investigation and the investigator; the enterprise is therefore necessarily "dialectical", a two-dollar word that just means that the nature of the investigation, and indeed its very possibility, is conditioned by the investigation's own conclusions.

The scientific investigation of microbes is not dialectical. A scientist may conclude whatever he wants about microbes without it saying anything about the possibility of the scientist's investigation. But if he investigates man and concludes, for example, that man's cognitive apparatus is such that what man knows is "models" his brain constructs out of raw and unformed sensory data, then the scientific investigation is itself undermined. The scientist, as a member of the human race, is a mental model-maker like everyone else, and so his scientific theories reach only to those mental models and never to the reality behind the models. The brain, eyes and nervous system that feature in the scientists' account are not directly known elements of reality (for this is impossible on the scientist's account of things); they are cognitive models constructed by the scientist's mind just as much as anything else. It may appear that the scientist is getting somewhere when he says that "the apparently persistent natures of things we perceive are not really out there but are our brain's construction on sense data", but he hasn't really gotten anywhere. For the brain on this account is just as much a construction as anything that is purportedly to be explained by the brain's constructive powers (which powers are, naturally, themselves constructions). The dialectic is not avoided simply because it is not always recognized.

I believe there is a small voice in the mind of even "stone-cold empiricists" (as Derbyshire calls himself) that hints at this truth. It is kept at bay by recourse to mythology, the mythology of science, which is easily recognized when science is reified as in "The human sciences insist..." Science as an abstraction is, of course, not subject to the dialectical difficulties a merely human scientist must suffer. If "Science" concludes that the brain is a model-maker, this is no more problematic for it than any conclusion Science may make about microbes, for Science is no more a brain than a microbe. For science that is conducted by actual scientists, however, the dialectical difficulties remain...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please find some references which describe how we are now all trapped in the iron cage (or mind-forged-manacles) created by scientism - Weber's iron cage. With NO exceptions, including all of those who presume to be what is conventionally called religious.

Also, how to really do philosophy