Walker Percy Wednesday 180


The Antinomy of Science

Examples of the scientific assertion S is P:

The square of the time of revolution of any planet is proportional to the cube of the mean distance from the sun.

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(Kepler’s third law of planetary orbits)

The force of attraction between two bodies is in direct proportion to the product of the masses of the two bodies and varies inversely as the square of the distance between them.

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(Newton’s law of gravitation)

The inertia of a system necessarily depends on its energy content . . . inert mass is simply latent energy.

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In isolated historical systems tribal organization precedes the beginnings of the state. (Zilsel: a “temporal historico-sociological law”)

(1) What the scientist thinks of the assertion S is P when the assertion is proposed to him as a true-or-false-or-nonsense claim:

The scientific assertion, observation, correlation, hypothesis, theory, deduction, law, is accepted as a true-or-false, or at least as a more or less probable, claim. The claim is assumed to refer to a state of affairs other than the claim and the scientist, and to be open to techniques of verification, pointer readings, and so on. The scientific method presupposes that there is something to be known, that a degree of knowledge is possible, that this knowledge can be expressed as assertions and reliably transmitted from teller to hearer.

(2) What the scientist thinks of the assertion S is P when the assertion is itself a phenomenon under investigation to be ordered with other phenomena in the general corpus of scientific knowledge:

What does the scientist think of science as a phenomenon, not, what does he do as a scientist as he practices his science, assembles his data, sets up a controlled experiment, makes pointer readings, puzzles over discrepancies, gets a hunch, tries a new hypothesis, etc.-but what does he think of science as a happening in the world which takes its place along with other happenings?

If he is to understand science as a phenomenon to be ordered to other phenomena in a general functional scheme, he is obliged to disqualify the major assumptions which he has made in the practice of his science: that valid scientific knowledge is possible and that it can be transmitted from teller to hearer by means of assertions.

The dilemma of the modern philosopher of science has these two horns. It appears to him that he may pursue only one of two alternatives without betraying the rigor of the scientific method. Yet in each case the consequence is an antinomy in which his explanation of science as an activity stands in contradiction to his assumptions about science if he is a practicing scientist.

First, he may proceed according to the realistic assumptions of science, that here we are with a real happening between us which we must try to understand-and study science as a phenomenon which happens to real organisms in a world, just as metabolism and bee dances and dog salivation are real happenings. It seems reasonable to approach the organisms who are scientists with the same objectivity with which he approaches organisms who are searching for food or organisms who are making a myth. Thus he is obliged to understand science as an instrumentality, as either a mode of biological behavior or of cultural behavior and meaningful only as gauged by biological or cultural needs. Thus Dewey sought to understand science and knowledge as but one of many social instrumentalities whose validity and adequacy are measured in terms of the degree to which they make possible an adjustment between the individual organism on the one hand and the social and physical environment on the other. A kindred view of science as a phenomenon-to-be-explained is that of dialectical materialism, which sees research not as an enterprise freely undertaken and specified by the subject to be known but as itself determined by the economic organization and needs of society. In each case, instrumentalism and dialectical materialism, the theorist appears to be following the legitimate procedure of the scientific method; he is looking upon science as a phenomenon to be explained by a functional principle. In one case the principle is sociobiological, in the other dialectical.

Second, the theorist may elect to remain altogether on the cogito side of the mind-body split. He may view the problem simply as a semantico-logical one, stipulating a natural law as a “syntactical rule,” a free convention for the manipulation of symbols, refusing to deal with the problems of knowledge and induction and intersubjectivity (Carnap).  Or he may adopt the operationalism of Bridgman, who is frank to admit the consequence of solipsism: “. . . it is obvious that I can never get outside myself . . . there is no such thing as a public consciousness . . . in the last analysis science is only my private science.” In this case, the antinomy is overt: a practicing scientist who reports his findings in journals and his theories in books-and who denies the possibility of a public realm of intersubjectivity. A kindred approach is a neo-Kantian one, which seeks scientific validity entirely within the forms and categories of consciousness: “The validity of the physical concept does not rest upon its content of real elements of existence, such as can be directly pointed out, but upon the strictness of connection, which makes it possible” (Cassirer).

(3) Comment. Einstein once wrote, “If you want to find out anything from the theoretical physicists about the methods they use, I advise you to stick closely to one principle: don’t listen to their words, fix your attention on their deeds.”

Whitehead once remarked that it was a matter for astonishment that while scientists have succeeded in learning a great deal about the world in the past two hundred years, philosophers of science seem equally determined to deny that such knowledge is possible.

Both men allude to the antinomy which the functional method of the sciences encounters when it tries to grasp itself as a phenomenon among other phenomena in the world. The antinomy has been noticed often enough but it is usually attributed to the bad faith or bad philosophizing of the theorist. It seems to be a case, however, of too much good faith rather than too little-that is, an uncritical acceptance of the scientific method of physics as a total organon of reality. The antinomy has come to pass precisely because of the faithfulness and rigor with which the theorist tries to grasp the scientific enterprise in particular, assertory activity in general, by his superb instrument, the functional method of the sciences.

The ineluctable reality upon which the scientific method founders and splits into an antinomy is nothing else than the central act of science, “sciencing,” the assertions of science. From the primitive observation to the most exact mathematical deduction, science is a tissue of assertions. It is ironical but perhaps not unfitting that science, undertaken as a total organon of reality, should break down not at the microcosmic or macrocosmic limits of the universe but in the attempt to grasp itself. Heisenberg’s uncertainty relations seem to be a material difficulty resulting from an interference of measuring instrument with particle to be measured. But the antinomy into which the scientific method falls in treating assertory behavior is a formal methodological impasse. It lies beyond the power of the functional method to grasp the scientific, the mythic, the linguistic assertion as such. It will succeed in grasping itself according to its mode-as a functional space-time linkagebut in so doing it must overlook its most important characteristic, that science is an assertory phenomenon, a real phenomenon but not a causal space-time event. Science may seek to understand itself as a social instrumentality or as an intracultural activity, and to a degree no doubt correctly so; but it must remain silent in the face of the true-or-false claim, S is P, considered as such.

Here, as in the other antinomies, it is the assertory act itself which is refractory to the scientific method. Since an assertion–mythic, linguistic, mathematical–is an immaterial act in virtue of which two elements are paired or identified, and since the scientific method requires that elements be ordered serially, according to dependent functional ratios, the two are not commensurate. The corpus of scientific knowledge ascending in a continuum from inorganic energy exchanges to organic responses is not in principle coterminous with assertory behavior. To speak of culture as an “emergent” or a “superorganic level” is only to erect a semantical bridge across the abyss, when the need is to explore the abyss, not to ignore it.

Different as are the various scientific philosophies mentioned above, they share one conviction about the subject matter of science and it is this conviction which gives rise to the antinomy. It is the antirealist and antimetaphysical dogma that there is no lawful reality to be known apart from the activity of the knower. This tenet is usually expressed in an exaggerated language: “Knowledge conceived in the fashion of an infallible grasp of final truths without the mediation of overt organic activity is not something which modem science supplies.” What should be pointed out, however, is that it is not the claim to “infallible knowledge” which gives scandal to positivist philosophers of science; it is the claim to any valid knowledge whatsoever, however modest the claim of the knower. A realist would be the first to admit, would in fact insist upon, “the mediation of overt organic activity” in the knowing act. But this is not the real point at issue. The issue is the validity of knowledge and the providing for this validity in one’s scientific world view. The difficulty is that knowledge entails assertions and assertions are beyond the grasp of the functional method.

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