Roger Trigg is a senior theologian and philosopher. His new book, “Beyond Matter”, is soon to be published by the Templeton Press, part of the wealthy Templeton Foundation whose aim is to produce a religion-friendly version of science.
An excert from the book promotes a view of science that is common among philosophers. Those of us with a scientistic perspective see it as erroneous, and yet, since Trigg’s account of science is widely accepted, it is instructive to rebut it.
Trigg argues that science rests on metaphysical assumptions:
What then has to be the case for genuine science as such to be possible? This is a question from outside science and is, by definition, a philosophical — even a metaphysical — question. Those who say that science can answer all questions are themselves standing outside science to make that claim. That is why naturalism — the modern version of materialism, seeing reality as defined by what is within reach of the sciences — becomes a metaphysical theory when it strays beyond methodology to talk of what can exist. Denying metaphysics and upholding materialism must itself be a move within metaphysics. It involves standing outside the practice of science and talking of its scope. The assertion that science can explain everything can never come from within science. It is always a statement about science.
This view can be summarised by the “linear” schematic:
One can see why theologians like this account of science. If it were really true that science rested on metaphysical assumptions then science would be in big trouble, since no-one has ever proposed a good way of validating metaphysical assumptions.
In Trigg’s account, ideas such as naturalism and materialism are merely matters of personal taste; being preconditions that we impose on science. It is equally valid to start with different metaphysics, such as seeing the universe as a manifestation of the divine. Thus, the theologian argues, atheistic science is willfully blinkered by the unwillingness of atheists to consider the wider picture.
Fortunately the above account is merely metaphysics and therefore, by the very testimony of its advocates (!), is not supported by actual evidence. A much better understanding of science instead sees the process of science as a loop.
Science’s method is the progressive iteration of models by adjusting them to better match empirical reality. At each stage one uses everything one knows to predict some aspect of the world, and then compares that against what is actually seen, and then feeds that back into adjustments to improve the model.
The point is that there are no unquestionable axioms. Everything, including working assumptions, including maths and logic, and including the very nature of science itself, is part of and wrapped up with the “scientific world model”. All of those things then get tested and honed as the overall model is compared to reality.
If one wants to question something fundamental, for example the basic logical axiom modus ponens, then all one has to do is produce an alternative model including some negations of modus ponens, and then ask which version of the model best reproduces and predicts features of the empirical world.
This conception of science is often explained using Otto Neurath’s metaphor of being at sea on a floating raft. Any part of the raft can be replaced, just not all of it at once. In the same way, any aspect of the scientific model can be examined and possibly replaced, and thus all aspects of the model are tested by the comparison with empirical reality. That includes any “metaphysical axioms” that might be adopted as working hypotheses, that then get tested by the scientific method’s iterative-loop, in the same way that the “laws of physics” get tested.
Even the scientistic ideas I’m defending here are ones that are products of the scientific method, having been developed as the best explanation of how the world, including human science, actually works.
Thus ideas such as naturalism and materialism are not preconditions of science, not axioms adopted by the blinkered, but rather they are products of the scientific method. The straightforward fact is that naturalistic and materialistic models work better in explaining and predicting the world, and that is why science has come to adopt them. It wasn’t always like that. In the past, invocations of the divine were seen as a normal and necessary part of science; but, as science has progressed, such ideas have fallen by the wayside and are now found to be superfluous, or, more often, making the model much worse.
Thus, Roger Trigg goes wrong when he asks:
Mathematics, though, could be claimed to be merely a tool created by the human mind. Why, then, should we assume that it can express in compressible form the workings of physical reality?
We don’t just “assume” that mathematics can express the workings of physical reality, we test whether it does! And the answer is yes! That is why physicists adopt the language of maths and, indeed, why mathematicians created such language. Historically, maths first arose precisely because it was useful in describing the world.
Trigg quotes Jim Baggot saying that “reality is rational, predictable and accessible to human reason”, but this is not the mere “assumption” that Trigg claims, but, rather, we can test whether it is true. Indeed we do exactly that every time we predict the time and place of a future solar eclipse and then find that our predictions come true.
Indeed, Trigg might be on the verge of realising this when he says:
Alternatively, the reality that we seek to understand may not even be subject to rational understanding. It may be sufficiently chaotic and disordered to be unintelligible. If we are told that this is impossible because science works, we are back with a pragmatic justification rather than a metaphysical one.
Exactly. By a “pragmatic justification” Trigg means a scientific one, since of course science is the pragmatic matter of doing one’s best to figure out the nature of reality based on the actual evidence that we have. Trigg is right that there is no metaphysical justification, but a pragmatic, scientific justification is the much better thing to have.
It may appear convincing, but it is no defense to the worry that we could live in an accidental bay of order on the periphery of a great ocean of disorder.
Well yes, that is true. It is indeed possible that there might be vast swathes of “reality” which lie beyond our ken and for which we have no evidence. And yes, science, being merely pragmatic and limited, will not tell us about things for which we have no evidence. But one can be equally sure that nor will metaphysics and theology. Contra Trigg, scientism does not say that science can answer all questions, merely those questions to which humans can obtain an answer.
Trigg goes further wrong by asserting:
The logical independence of physical reality from mind …
Yet our humans minds and the ideas “created by the human mind” are not independent of the physical world, since our minds are products of that physical world, having evolved by Darwinian natural selection for the very purpose of modelling and predicting the world that we inhabit. Once one accepts that our brains are the product of evolution (not always a given when it comes to theologians!), it follows that our minds must, over evolutionary timescales, have done a pretty good job of modelling and predicting the world around us.
Science is then just a human product, rooted in time and place. […] 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.
But then we don’t just “take for granted” that science works, we test whether it does! We know that we can predict eclipses; we know that we can land probes on comets out in our Solar System; we can predict and then detect the Higgs Boson; and we can even detect molecules in the atmospheres of extrasolar planets that are hundreds of light years away.
Science is not just an arbitrary “human product” that is “independent of reality” — science explains why our brains will have been molded by that reality, and why the brain’s workings will, at a minimum, be a rather good reflection of how reality works. Trigg continues:
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.
This is a theologian speaking. He wants there to be an “ultimate reality” that provides such explanations, and he hopes that such explanations don’t come from science, because that would leave no need for the theologian’s god. But science tells us that maths reflects the rational structure of the physical world because it is a product of human brains, and those brains reflect the rational structure of reality because that is what is evolutionarily useful. As usual, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea refutes the theologians’ hopes.