Is science rational?

The title of this post suggests a polemic of some form or another, whether in defense of or as an attack on science. The reality of this post will disappoint those feisty souls who delight in the witty barbs the polemicist uses to replace reasons, but may perhaps be of interest to those interested instead in an exploration of an intriguing historical topic. Scientific inquiry today is taken to be the pinnacle of rational thought, yet according to one established tradition of the use of the term “Reason”, contemporary scientific thought has no part in it. And this indicates that for science to reach the point where it could be seen as the paradigm of rational thought, there had to be a substantial reconsideration of what it is to be rational.

These reflections grow out of my reading for the human/animal seminar that I’ve been taking this semester. As such they reflect my limited and partial reading in the history of thought more, perhaps, than they reflect history itself. But with that caveat firmly in mind I may perhaps proceed in a free and incautious manner. I will draw particularly heavily on readings from Coleridge (discussed in my previous post), as well as J.S. Mill’s essay on Coleridge, which more or less makes the point I will be making a century and a half in advance. [Coleridge’s “Theory of Life” citations are the same as in the earlier essay. Coleridge’s “The Friend” citations are to a version of whose origin I am ignorant, though it is probably on Google Books or archive.org. Mill citations are to the pages in this PDF.]

In an earlier post on Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, I drew on readings from this same seminar to make the point that telling someone they cannot rise above their imagination is tantamount to calling them beastly, to reducing them to the animal. This same objection appears in Coleridge, in an argument, as usual, against materialism. The system of materialism is described, by Coleridge, as “the exclusion of all modes of existence which the theorist cannot in imagination, at least, finger and peep at!” (“Theory of Life”, 45) In this essay, Coleridge doesn’t make much of this, but in Essay V of “The Friend”, it becomes clear that this is supposed to reduce the materialist to a beast. Coleridge there defines cognitive faculties by their objects. The imagination is sensual, is concerned precisely with those objects that may be fingered and peeped at. Reason, by contrast, is concerned with the knowledge of spiritual objects: “the Universal, the Eternal, and the Necessary” and “God, the Soul, eternal Truth” (“The Friend”, 266).

From this, it is an easy deduction to conclude that Reason and materialism are incompatible. If there are no spiritual objects, there is no Reason. Materialism says there are no spiritual objects. So materialism says there is no Reason.

Where does science slot into this picture? For Coleridge it is a matter of Reason. Recall from my previous post his anti-realism about quantitative science and his realism about qualitative science. This distinction is fleshed out (though not in these terms) in “The Friend”. Coleridge makes a threefold distinction between Sense, which takes in impressions from the environment, Understanding, which organizes these impressions under concepts and rules (giving us experience), and Reason, which subsumes experience under “ABSOLUTE PRINCIPLES or necessary LAWS” (“The Friend”, 270). Mere induction on the basis of experience (which may give you quantitative, anti-realist science) is not yet reasoning. Reasoning requires the subsumption of experience under necessary laws.

Note that this changes the earlier deduction of the incompatibility of materialism and Reason. For Coleridge here is explicit: “Reason therefore, in this secondary sense, and used, not as a spiritual Organ but as a Faculty […] Reason, I say, or the scientific Faculty, is the Intellection of the possibility or essential properties of things by means of the Laws that constitute them” (“The Friend”, 270-1). So, insofar as materialism allows for a science with laws, it seems compatible with Reason. Now Coleridge thinks that Reason as a scientific faculty requires the spiritual aspect of Reason (it is, after all, a secondary aspect of Reason that is implicated in science), but if we drop this presupposition then at least this secondary sense of Reason seems compatible with materialist science.

Mill perceptively captures all of this. He characterizes the fight between the Benthamites and the Coleridgeans—Mill sees Bentham and Coleridge as the English heads of two competing tendencies—as follows: “Sensualism is the common term of abuse for the one philosophy, mysticism for the other. The one doctrine is accused of making men beasts, the other lunatics” (Mill, 405). Even more interesting, in light of the question I am raising, is what he says about the Coleridgean view of what happens to science given a materialist philosophy:

Even science, it is affirmed, loses the character of science in this view of it, and becomes empiricism; a mere enumeration and arrangement of facts, not explaining nor accounting for them: since a fact is only then accounted for, when we are made to see in it the manifestation of laws, which, as soon as they are perceived at all, are perceived to be necessary. These are the charges brought by the transcendental philosophers against the school of Locke, Hartley, and Bentham. (Mill, 407-8)

The charge, I want to say, sticks, at least to a very strong current of thought about science. (To say the charge sticks is not to accept the normative implication that this is a problem, of course.) Hume captured extremely well the difficulties with understanding experience as giving us access to necessity. We never perceive necessity, whether of a causal or law-like sort. We never see the truth of laws, but only individual phenomena that would be consistent with certain laws, did they exist. One might argue that the best explanation for why science works as well as it does is that there really are necessary laws of nature that “govern” (in a strong, causal sense) the phenomena studied by scientists. But such an inference without question goes beyond the content of the sciences themselves, and moreover seems of dubious compatibility with materialism, since such laws cannot be fingered or peeped at.

Thus I think there is a very real sense in which contemporary science has indeed rejected explanation in favor of description, has given up the search for necessary, governing laws, and has therefore given up its claim to be the product even of the secondary sense of Reason. And, as my examples adduced in the Melville post show, this conception of Reason has a long history that clearly predates the rise of modern science. For science to become the paradigm of rational thought that it is today, then, it had to throw off this history and stake out a new conception of ‘reason’ for itself.

Or so my limited grasp of history leads me to believe.

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  1. 2013/10/18 at 16:46

    Thank you for this piece of writing. It can be frustrating when people tout science as the source of all wisdom. I appreciate arguments that show the need for other sources of knowledge. Thanks!

    • 2013/10/18 at 19:59

      To be clear, that wasn’t the purpose of this post. I deliberately did not take a stand one way or the other on the status of scientific thought. I simply wanted to make a historical point about the use of the word “reason”: in at least one tradition of using the word, contemporary science more or less forgoes any claim to involving the use of reason. It requires instead a quite different conception of reason. Nothing in that historical point shows that there is anything wrong with the current state of things—again, addressing that question is simply not what I was trying to do here.

      (As it happens, I am perfectly comfortable with talking about sources of knowledge other than science, but I think it’s a dangerous thing to say unless you are very clear about what exactly you mean by that—what your methods are, what sort of knowledge you get, what the term “knowledge” means as you are using it, how it relates to scientific knowledge, what you can justifiably do with the knowledge, how much of a claim to objectivity it has, etc. Otherwise, the claim will lead to nothing but confusion.)

  2. 2013/10/21 at 08:57

    Great post. 😀

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