Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Science and Metaphysics

There's a school of thought in philosophy called scientism which asserts that there is no significant truth about reality that is not in principle discoverable through the methods of science. Philosophers who embrace this view are at pains to eliminate metaphysics from their ontology. There are no metaphysical truths worth knowing, the devotee of scientism argues, everything worth knowing is a physical fact. In the words of Duke philosopher Alex Rosenberg, "Physics fixes all the facts."

The problem with this, beside the fact that it seems patently false, is that it itself is a metaphysical assertion. It's making a claim about reality that transcends the ability of science to adjudicate. Science simply cannot tell us what the limits of science are. Nor can it tell us whether there are facts to which the methods of science are blind.

An excerpt from a new book by philosopher Roger Trigg, the title of which is Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics, discusses the problem:
Once the logical independence of reality from science is accepted, the question is why reality has a character that enables it to be understood scientifically. The intelligibility and intrinsic rationality of reality cannot be taken for granted. Even the greatest scientists, such as Einstein, have seen that the intelligibility of the world is a mystery.

He famously remarked that “the eternally incomprehensible thing about the world is its comprehensibility.” Like the way in which mathematics seems to map the intrinsic rational structure of the physical world, this is presupposed within science and cannot be given a scientific explanation. It appears to be a metaphysical fact, and the explanation for which, if there can be one, must come from beyond science.
In other words, metaphysical assumptions are woven into the body of assumptions that scientists make as they go about their everyday work. Science would be impossible without these assumptions (for example, the assumption that the universe is intelligible and that it can be explained by mathematics). When scientists and philosophers allege that science doesn't use or require metaphysics they're, in fact, sawing off the branch on which they sit.