The return of Aristotelian anti-reductionism

And the intellectual surrender of scientific naturalism. Edward Feser considers the implications of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos as well as Philip Kitcher’s response to it at the New York Times:

Like other Nagel critics, Kitcher agrees that reductionism has failed.  The “Newtonian vision” promised a “cosmos in which everything would be explained on the basis of a small number of physical principles.”  But this, Kitcher says, is not what science has actually delivered.  It has given us “no grand theories, but lots of bits and pieces, generating local insights about phenomena of special interest.”  And the future of science promises to continue in this vein, taking us beyond “the illusion of unity” and replacing it with “an enormous and heterogeneous family of models.”

What about the specific aspects of nature emphasized by Nagel?  Kitcher doesn’t seem to dispute that they have not been explained the way reductionistic science and naturalistic philosophy promised.  He acknowledges that “we lack a physico-chemical account of life” and indeed that the problem of giving such an account “hasn’t been directly addressed by the extraordinary biological accomplishments of past decades.”  And he allows that scientists have an “incautious tendency… to write as if the most complex functions of mental life — consciousness, for example — will be explained tomorrow.”

So, what then is Kitcher’s alternative answer to the questions reductionist science and naturalistic philosophy have failed to answer, and to which Nagel offers a (partially) neo-Aristotelian answer?  He doesn’t have one.  Instead he suggests that we stop asking the questions.  More precisely, with respect to the nature of life, he proposes: “[D]on’t ask what life is (in your deepest Newtonian voice); consider the various activities in which living organisms engage and try to give a piecemeal understanding of those.”  He recommends taking a similarly piecemeal approach to answering questions about mind, and forgetting about whatever won’t succumb to this method.  “With luck, in a century or so, the issue of how mind fits into the physical world will seem as quaint as the corresponding concern about life.”  For “philosophy and science don’t always answer the questions they pose — sometimes they get over them.”

Well, “get over it” is, needless to say, not an answer we would accept in other contexts.  When you give the cashier a twenty for the three dollar coffee you just purchased and he hands you back seven dollars, “Get over it” is no answer to the question “Where’s the other ten?”  When you go into the hospital for an appendectomy and awaken to find your legs missing, “Get over it” is no answer to the question “What the hell did you do to me?!”  And, needless to say, “Get over it” is no answer Kitcher or any other naturalist would accept in response to criticism of a theological proposition.  So why should we give naturalists a pass we wouldn’t give to theologians, surgeons, and cashiers?

It’s worse than that, though.  For when someone offers you a unified explanation of the world — as Nagel does, in a very sketchy way, and the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition does in a rigorously worked out way (and a way that can incorporate what we’ve learned from modern science, as present day representatives of the tradition have shown) — it is no response whatsoever to say: “Well, I’ve got this alternative view of the world on which there is no unified explanation.”  The only thing to say to that is: “Um, thanks for sharing, but I’ve just given you a unified explanation.  So what you need to do, if your rejection of it is going to be rational, is to show me exactly what is wrong with it, and not just question-beggingly assert that there is no explanation, or that acceptable explanations have to fit into your Procrustean philosophical bed.”

Actually, it’s worse even than that.  For the main philosophical selling point of naturalism has, of course, always been the idea that it can explain everything its rivals can but in a more economical way.  The original claim was that we don’t need all that Aristotelian metaphysics (or the Cartesian, idealist, or other non-naturalistic metaphysics that replaced it) in order to account for rationality, sentience, life, etc.  Ockham’s razor and all that.  And Ockham’s razor, of course, says: Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity.   It doesn’t say: Don’t multiply entities when doing so would be tantamount to an embarrassing admission that naturalism can’t after all perform as advertised.  And if it turns out you do need the entities for explanatory purposes, then multiply away.

Nagel’s proposal is like that of the honest salesman who gives you a refund when his product doesn’t do what he said it would do.  I’m sorry ma’am, here’s your money back.  You should have stuck with Aristotelianism rather than that new-fangled Elixir of Materialism I was peddling.  In fact I now rep the Stagirite brand myself!

Kitcher’s proposal, by contrast, makes of naturalism (whatever his own intentions) something of a bait and switch.  Naturalism will explain mind, life, etc.?  A unified metaphysical picture of the world?  Did I say that?  Hmm, doesn’t ring a bell, lady.  Must’ve been some other salesman.  Anyway, the check’s cashed and you already signed the contract.  But hey, have a look at these really interesting recent findings of molecular biology.  Might lead to some new pharmaceuticals…

As usual, the scientists and their gaggle of male science fetish groupies are well behind the philosophers. Over the years, I’ve gradually come to understand that scientists have a lot more in common with IT guys than they do with software developers and designers. They’re pretty good with pushing the right buttons and fixing the little things, but they have no idea what is going on under the surface and don’t understand what the developers are talking about when they raise questions related to intent, purpose, and meaning.

Scientists aren’t stupid, and for the most part they aren’t midwits like nearly all their groupies are. (If you meet someone who loves, loves, loves science, and swears by it in a quasi-religious manner, but doesn’t work in a lab or research facility, the odds are that he simply didn’t have the brains to cut it.) But perhaps because their training is so specialized these days, scientists often appear to exhibit a strange inability to maintain logical coherency, let alone logical consistency, with regards to their expressed opinions and philosophies, which is something I don’t observe as often in non-scientists of similar intelligence.