The always challenging Steve Talbott continues his series of sophisticated and searching critiques of the materialism that rules science these days. This rulership he regards as illegitimate, a kind of mental despotism issuing in numerous blunders and follies and, off at the end, throwing doubt on the nobility of the scientific enterprise as such.
Like Lawrence Brown’s majestic and endearingly quirky book Might of the West, Talbott’s examination of science reveals how dependent our idea of causality is upon the wider world as it impinges on us. The observable world only rarely can deliver to our perception a true pattern of causality; mostly the observable world delivers repeatable succession which is suggestive of causality. It is only by a particular method of intellectual abstraction, which Talbott ably describes as analogous to the reduction of a language into rules of grammar, that we can approximate it.
Now no one ever confused the rules of grammar for the language itself; yet this very sort of error pervades modern science.
What this fascination with abstract causalities, which undergirds so much of how engineering applies what science exposes, tends to obscure is the fact that metaphysics is still necessary for understanding. To even conjecture on the patterns of causality is to admit that a mind outside those immediate causalities exists by use of which their pattern becomes at least partially discernible.
Materialism is woefully inadequate for many purposes, but its blindness to the possibility that our ability perceive is limited may be its most debilitating effect on the mind. That we can only demonstrate succession and repeatability that is suggestive of causality may only mean that there is more to the universe than meets the “eye” of modern science.
The bluster of the materialist, presupposing that man sees all, is like a poison that begins by attacking faith but in the end also destroys reason. For of course the first step of reason — the assumption that the world is intelligible — is a step of faith.
Talbott in this essay ranges over these and related profound matters, and draws out some vital points of emphasis. He does all this by way of a careful examination of how biology tries to understand organisms: what it means to be an organism and what it means to observe organisms.
He emphatically rejects, having shown its absurdity, that reductionism which would make organism into a mere function of chemistry or physics. He points out the plain pulverizing fact that a physical law may well be in effect; it may well be obeyed by all, out of sheer brute necessity; but it does not on that account exhaust the reality. To mistake physical law for arc of causality is piss-poor science. That all animals are subject to gravitational force is a law that is very true, but it also very inadequate to tell us much about the similarities and differences between a yellow jacket and a polar bear.
A subject possessing a power of agency adequate to regulate or coordinate at the level of the whole organism [even, Talbott makes clear, a one-celled organism] looks for all the world like what has traditionally been called a being. But you will not find biologists speaking of beings. It’s simply not allowed, presumably because it smells too explicitly of vitalism, spiritualism, the soul, or some other appeal to an immaterial reality. We will see later what extraordinary confusion bedevils this attitude …
Indeed we will. Read the whole essay.