Pushing back against Positivism

I felt like giving my two cents over at Pharyngula again. My response is copied below. I fear I repeat myself too much, but I just can’t help offering philosophical resistance whenever I come across scientism. Humanity has no future if meaning continues to be reduced to the measurable and culture to the technologically useful. Here is PZ Myers’ critique of a recent Guardian article by Mary Midgley about New Atheism: Bumblin’ Midgley babbles again. You’ll find a link to Midgley’s article there.

From the looks of it, Midgley’s article was probably chopped up by editors. That, or she tried to shrink wrap a complex, multi-tiered argument about the relationship between scientific materialism and traditional world-views into a few paragraphs. The philosopher Charles Taylor had the good sense to carefully unpack a version of this argument in no less than 900 pages (see “A Secular Age”).

I’ll assume no one has read Taylor’s book, so we’ll have to make due with Midgley’s spark notes. It is hard to dismiss her basic point without becoming a positivist by default. World-views that include some conception of the divine are not necessarily making factual claims. God is not a hypothesis meant to explain this or that natural phenomenon, at least not in traditional metaphysical approaches (Intelligent Design is a very recent school of thought that has more in common with materialism than, say, Aquinas’ philosophy of nature). Instead, God is posited as a necessary condition for the possibility of there being a universe that produces life and intelligence. In this sense, God is not a fact that might be tested for because the only evidence for God’s existence is existence itself. Positivists say this is nonsense, of course. But so long as human being’s are capable of thinking, metaphysics will be unavoidable. We aren’t satisfied with just thinking about external nature (a mode of thought science continues to perfect); we also think about thinking (the domain of philosophy), which necessarily supersedes natural scientific reasoning and inevitably leads one in a “spiritual” direction when pursued thoroughly. “Spiritual,” because upon sustained reflection concerning one’s own consciousness, it becomes apparent that the universe is not just a collection of measurable objects colliding with one another in extended space; the universe also has an inside (in the phenomenological, not geometric, sense) that is not accounted for by the known laws of physics.

The positivists are cringing again, I know. Philosophy supersedes natural science?! Yes, because no amount of empirical study of the brain will explain conscious activity or thinking, since these are the pre-conditions of any empirical study. Neurochemical processes are involved, I have no doubt, but it is a gross category error to assume there exists some description in terms of external material events alone that might account for mental experience.

But back to Midgley’s point… Human being’s don’t develop a world-view by adding up empirical facts to form the most likely picture of the universe. A fact is significant only given an imaginative background that supplies its metaphysical context. Without such a background, we could not even decide what counts as a fact in the first place. An observed correlation between a neurological structure and a specific conscious experience could be interpreted several ways depending on one’s cosmology. If you’re a mechanistic reductionist, this fact means the brain is somehow locally producing consciousness. If you have a more richly textured ontology, this fact means that the organized structure of the physical brain somehow taps into a deeper dimension of space-time (an ether of sorts), sapping or receiving consciousness from a non-local, non-physical source.

Parsimony!, screams the positivist. Yes, but the simplest explanation isn’t always the right one. This tired cliche about simplicity only works if reality is assumed from the beginning to be entirely material, and since the quantum revolution, its unclear what the term “matter” even means. Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t as simple as Newton assumed (or our everyday experience assumes) it to be. And anyways, who is to say which explanation is simpler? I’ve yet to come across even the hint of an explanation for how neurochemistry might create consciousness in scientific literature.

We can say no to some myths, but myth, or story, is as much a part of scientific narrative (especially those of the evolutionary sort) as it is religious narrative. Scientific stories work, as technology testifies. But so do religious stories, as the continued and indeed growing role of spirituality in our society shows.

One Reply to “Pushing back against Positivism”

  1. I agree entirely. We cannot simply dismiss myth, just because we have discovered it is a myth! Myth helps explain who we are, and why we are here. Like everything else in this world, it parallells discoveries made in science. It is an innate part of our being – it is natural to ask yourself, the “why?” For – “Why” is even the atheist drawn to try and explain the role of myth?

    We are drawn to myth because it helps us explain the natural world around us. We are drawn to placing God in myth because we want to explain our unique place in perspective to the whole. God is a uniting energy, harmony, pattern in the chaos.

    When looked at from a different angle – myth is not just religion – myth can be math, and myth can be science.

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