The Alchemy of Science


The Alchemy of Science

Jennifer Trusted, Physics and Metaphysics: Theories of Space and Time.

London: Routledge, 1991.

The premise that science and metaphysics are not entirely incompatible spheres of knowledge and activity is heresy among many true believers of both orders. Hume said of metaphysics, “Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Adorno wouldn’t even have dignified metaphysics with respectable terms; he called it “witchcraft.” They would separate fact from fancy, the real from the unreal, truth from error, all of them worthy goals.

Of course, there are those who would try to reconcile incompatibilities, but they haven’t been very successful over the past centuries. For one, the claims of reconciliation do not make very good headlines (outside of the tabloids). We thrive on oppositions, on dualisms.

Yet, there is a tradition of reconciliation that is difficult to gloss. Consider, for instance, that Max Weber observed once in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: “Religious belief which is primarily mystical may very well be compatible with a pronounced sense of reality in the field of empirical fact; it may even support it directly… mysticism may indirectly even further the interests of rational conduct.”

Following Weber’s lead, Jennifer Trusted does us a service in this volume by looking back through the history of science to trace its roots in non-science. She begins by classifying three kinds of metaphysics – (a) speculative conjecture, (b) basic presupposition and (c) mystical belief. Only mystical belief is widely understood to be at odds with science. But how to separate the three categories presents an interesting problem, one which the author doesn’t entirely resolve. However, she does affirm: “There is more to the relation of religious faith and scientific inquiry than the apparently contingent fact that many scientists have been motivated by their religion and some Christian clergy have been scientists. Certain fundamental tenets of Christian doctrine support presuppositions that have been, and still are, of prime importance for science.”

These premises hint at the intriguing notion that science would not have been possible without religious tenets, because to strive toward understanding is itself a rationalizing goal that might have begun in theism. If so, why would the offspring rise up and bite off the head of its master?

What makes Trusted’s approach to these kind of questions useful is her explicit treatment of the dominant beliefs of each period of historical development of science. She suggests that the great challenge to metaphysics began in the Enlightenment and was solidified in positivism, although they were inherently multidimensional developments.

For instance, Trusted details the dominant “medieval beliefs” in a list of 10 principles, beginning with God as the creator of the cosmos and ending with the affirmation that all final explanations must be teleological explanations. She notes, along the way, that resistance to the idea that the earth is the center of the universe was not so much the fault of the Roman Church, as it was of deep-rooted general beliefs in Western culture about humankind’s status in the universe. In her account, the history of science is closely linked to the history of Virtual God. God and Science are flip sides of the same coin. Consider this brief history of the deep entwinement of Science and the “Christian” God.

By the early 17th Century, the dominant medieval beliefs had evolved: although there were still strong religious presumptions that God was in charge, earthly religious institutions were being challenged. In the realm of science, matter was beginning to be regarded as inert. Animism and alchemy, which had been so widely accepted, were diminishing in importance although they were widely accepted by many people, including proto-scientists.

By the late 17th Century, the popular credo rested on a new mechanistic philosophy, one that recognized a laissez-faire God, a God that did not interfere in human affairs.

At the close of the 17th Century, there was a conviction that knowledge was immutable and certain, and could be obtained through reason. The Christian God remained, but was now more of a mathematician and designer, guaranteeing order and consistency.

By the close of the 18th Century, the virtualization of God was well on its way to its completion, which is to say God’s disappearance was imminent. Lip service might be rendered to God, but science itself had become a secular activity. Human reason and the rational justification of truth were sovereign.

By the end of the 19th Century, science had lost its overt religious motives and was regarded as independent and secular. It was also accepted that science ought to be free of the influence of metaphysics and speculation. In other words, God was fully sovereign in the form of so-called positivistic science.

Finally, the 20th Century privileges a lack of confidence in the ability of science to provide a definitive account of the world. Although science is a secular activity, the natural world cannot be adequately explained, or described, in terms of human sense experience. Virtual God is ready for a big comeback.

The clues to such a complex search for connections are rooted partly in the thought of, among others, Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Plato, but also in Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Bacon and Newton, as well as in Hume, Locke, Comte, Mill, Einstein and Hawking. Their ideas are linked in a sweeping movement toward the present, but what we get in the present belies any faith in science as an extra-human enterprise, leading toward ultimate (virtual) explanations of life.

Consider that the new scientific outlook produced in the age of Descartes and Newton, among others, absolutely rejected animism and teleological explanations in favor of immediately preceding physical events and empirical causal laws. More broadly, the universe was finally seen as a vast machine operating in an orderly way through physical laws. However, for Descartes and Newton, God was not constrained by the causal nexus of this machine-like universe. He was still the First Cause.

For Descartes especially, humans were machines, subject to the same mechanistic laws of nature… but also subject to influence by the mind (spirit, soul), not otherwise governed by causal laws. Bacon pushed further, arguing for freedom from intellectual constraints imposed by authority and stressed the need for validation by direct observation and experiments. What sensory experience produced, however, was not the separation of fact from fancy, but a kind of solipsism or a kind of idealism that undermines faith in rational inquiry. Such idealism ends in the tendency of both Einstein and Hawking to place explanatory theory higher than observation. But explanatory theory must rest on some premise that resembles again one or more of three categories of metaphysics.

In Trusted’s explanation: “If metaphysics is overtly rejected either there must be complete skepticism as to knowledge of anything but personal sensations or else metaphysical beliefs will be covertly smuggled into the purportedly metaphysics-free system.”

Of course, where all of this leads is towards the social construction of science, an increasingly popular perspective (e.g. Bruno Latour), which places scientists firmly on the same (virtual) ground as everybody else. They are, in Trusted’s words, smuggling in their metaphysical beliefs while promoting their value-free search for universal objectivity. The gap is probably as much a shortfall in idealism as it is in surreptitious practice. But, finally, today’s science is probably more like alchemy than practicing scientists would care to admit. The wrinkle is that science’s products are sometimes much more terminal than previous ages, due to the merging of technology and public policy, and the reluctance of scientists to accept their (collective, not individual) ethical responsibilities.

But what of the original premise – that metaphysics is an inherent, even if implicit, feature of contemporary science? Trusted does not offer the final word on the issue, but she sheds some worthwhile light on what has been unnecessarily portrayed as an oppositional and acrimonious discourse.