Oxford philosopher Roger Trigg has written another book on the relationship of science and philosophy. Beyond Matter aims to save science as a rational enterprise by securing its metaphysical foundations. This theme was already central in Trigg’s earlier work Rationality and Science (1993). In fact, both books begin with the question, “Can science explain everything?” In addition to criticizing scientism (according to which the answer is “yes”), Trigg delivers another attack on relativism, as he has done several times since his Reason and Commitment (1973).
The six chapters of Beyond Matter revolve around whether we can trust that science gives us knowledge about the natural world as it really is. According to Trigg, science is a fallible but successful guide to truth and reality, but he argues that we need to understand it in the context of human rationality in general. He writes that, “Because science is a human practice and needs justification, it must depend on a wider understanding of a reason that can provide a rational basis for some confidence in science as a means to truth. This is where metaphysics enters” (p. xi).
Trigg maintains that the mainstream view of science includes a number of metaphysical presuppositions. For instance, we believe science describes objective reality, that our minds have the ability to grasp this reality, and that science brings us gradually closer to the truth. Most scientists themselves subscribe to this view. Yet, in recent decades, unobservable theoretical entities (such as other universes and subatomic particles) in physics have pushed science even more clearly into the realm of metaphysics.
The first chapter is historical. Trigg, once a student of A. J. Ayer, tells the familiar narrative of the philosophy of science in the twentieth century, starting with the Vienna Circle. Various forms of relativism gradually undermined positivist orthodoxy, which attempted to exorcise metaphysics from science once and for all. Thomas Kuhn, for instance, argued that observation in science was dominated by theory, and that theories were chosen for psychological and sociological, rather than rational, reasons. These views have led to full-blown postmodernism and relativism, which make science so dependent on our philosophical whims that it loses all objectivity. Interestingly, this history has also resulted in stubborn scientism that discards philosophy altogether. In the spirit of the Vienna Circle, scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Peter Atkins continue to advocate science as the only path to knowledge. Some, such as philosopher of science James Ladyman, are willing to allow metaphysics as a servant of science, once it is properly “naturalized”. These thinkers argue that philosophy is helpful, for example, in spelling out the ontological implications of the different interpretations of quantum physics. Nevertheless, Trigg points out that even here science is seen as standing firmly on its own feet. But he argues that these attempts to elevate science are, in fact, uprooting it from its rational grounds.
The second chapter asks whether science defines what is real. Most scientists trust that their work uncovers reality. Methodological naturalism is central to this project, since gods and immaterial souls cut investigation short. The success of the scientific method has spurred many scientists to adopt metaphysical naturalism, which claims that science reveals not only what is, but all there is. However, Trigg shows that this is a peculiar metaphysical move, since it ends up making reality anthropocentric and dependent on human observers and their instruments. Ontology collapses into epistemology. As several other philosophers before him, Trigg uses the Copernican revolution to teach us an important philosophical lesson: reality does not revolve around us, literally nor metaphorically. In fact, the principle of scientific objectivity demands that we should seek the nature of things without reference to humans.
Nevertheless, the so-called anthropic principle does seem to point to a close link between humans and the world. As is well known, the universe is (as if) fine-tuned for human life. In explaining this phenomenon, many scientists quickly venture into speculation about a multiverse. This speculation is metaphysical in the truest sense of the word, since other universes are unobservable entities that stand outside of our science by virtue of their own physical laws. Often a multiverse results from an argument that all mathematical and logical possibilities are actualized somewhere, and therefore a universe with the perfect conditions for human life is inevitable. Another way to avoid the uncomfortable theological implications of finetuning is to claim that the initial conditions of our universe are somehow necessary. But as Trigg puts it, “juggling between possibility, actuality, and necessity is, however, the very stuff of metaphysics” (p. 44). While Trigg questions the explanatory power of the multiverse hypothesis, he regards this sort of reasoning in science as legitimate in principle. We should, however, recognize the metaphysical weight of the claims.
Chapter three discusses the amazing fit between the mind and the cosmos. Trigg argues that science must presuppose the human ability to under- stand and discover the nature of reality. This commitment precedes scientific practice, and is therefore a metaphysical stance. However, evolutionary epistemologists try to offer a post hoc explanation for why observation and theorizing about the world are possible: the ability to track truths about our environment is a highly adaptive trait. In other words, “People who do not see holes in the ground fall into them. People who are not aware of predators get eaten by lions” (p. 60). But Trigg points out that this is an inference from the scientific theory of evolution, and science cannot explain science without circular reasoning. Also, while true beliefs about lions and holes in the ground most probably helped our ancestors to survive, this does not sufficiently explain our ability to reason about other universes or subatomic particles. Beliefs concerning these and many other scientific theories go far beyond our immediate environment and hardly contribute to our survival. Why trust, therefore, that evolution has wired our brains to understand all reality?
The next chapter considers the intelligibility of reality. There are two questions at hand. First, why does the universe display order? The second question reiterates the topic of the previous chapter: why is it that we can make sense out of that order? According to Trigg, the natural world is essentially a contingent order. Contingency and orderliness are both vital concepts for the self-understanding of science, and we should not use one to downplay the other. However, the question of the intelligibility of the world has driven some to embrace either radical contingency of reality or the necessity of order. As we have seen, some scientists postulate an infinite number of universes and claim that all possibilities are actualized somewhere. And since our universe with its initial conditions and physical laws is obviously a possibility, they argue that the question of the intelligibility of reality is superfluous. But Trigg thinks this response basically means giving up the enterprise of explanation altogether: if everything that is possible happens, there is no reason why things are this way rather than some other way. On the other hand, if we see our universe arising out of some mathematical necessity, as some claim, then observation and experiment become only of peripheral importance. All we need to arrive at the truth is mathematics. Interestingly, this view harks back to ancient Greek philosophy, where the physical universe was seen as the outcome of “first principles”. Thanks to empirical science and its emphasis on contingency, the intellectuals were forced to get their hands dirty and carry out experiments in order to understand the world.
Chapter five discusses the unity of science. Trigg thinks that unification of scientific knowledge is a legitimate goal if we believe that reality is also unified. However, he is sceptical of current, reductionist attempts at unification. A “final theory” or an “ultimate explanation” should not be sought through reduction of all other disciplines into one, such as physics. And why physics? After all, sociology of science, for instance, has tried to explain even the physicist’s work by reference to sociological factors, such as career advancement, peer review, and funding. Trigg emphasizes the need for every discipline to play its part in the project of unification, because reality is a layered, “variegated complexity”. Nature is not explained only from the bottom up. There are emergent structures that have a causal influence on their more primitive parts. For example, mental states cannot be reduced to physical brain states. In fact, if they could, science would lose its grounding in human reason. For if our scientific beliefs “are merely identical with the firing of neurons, we lose the power of rationality to discover what is true” (p. 120). This is yet another example of how false metaphysical assumptions in science undermine its rational basis.
The last chapter deals with the success of science and tackles the common pragmatist thesis against metaphysics: “science works”. The core of this thesis is that no one deems it necessary to engage in philosophical speculation before flying an airplane. And that just goes to show that in real life, science works, and metaphysics does not contribute one bit to its success. But as Trigg has argued throughout his book, few scientists are satisfied with the simple claim that science works. Most want objective reality. Among them is the philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg. He claims that science has liberated us from cognitive illusions such as free will and the idea of an enduring self. (Metaphysical) nonsense, says Trigg. Science cannot get rid of the idea of the conscious subject, the individual scientist doing the scientific work. First-person perspective, thought and consciousness are real, and a worldview that lacks these cannot make sense of science as a guide to reality. Rosenberg and his kind must also answer the challenge of postmodernism. Here Trigg refers to the work of Gianni Vattimo, an Italian philosopher, who believes that every claim to truth is relative to the community that holds it. Trigg paraphrases his iconoclastic views by saying that “Science works because scientists think it does, and that is all that can be said” (p. 140). A proper response to Vattimo has to involve metaphysical claims. His views are completely opposite to those of Rosenberg, but both end up compromising the self-understanding of science as a human practice aimed at the truth.
As always, Trigg’s writing is clear and his argumentation easy to comprehend. He introduces a number of philosophical debates in science without getting too entangled in details. The obvious drawback here is that the reader gets only a shallow idea of divergent positions and arguments. For example, in chapter three Trigg briefly discusses Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism and claims that Plantinga overstates his case. For “if the majority of our perceptual beliefs did not coincide with how things are, our chances of negotiating the world around us with any success would be slim” (p. 69). Unfortunately, the reader might get the false impression that the common objection that true beliefs are beneficial is a sufficient response to Plantinga’s honed argument. Furthermore, Trigg’s own objection to the evolutionary vindication of scientific beliefs is not completely airtight. Even if most scientific beliefs were detached from the lifeworld of our ancestors, one could argue that they are ultimately based on the flexible cognitive mechanisms that have developed to track truths about everyday matters of fact.
Beyond Matter is a short book and clearly aimed at a wider public. Experts in the contemporary philosophy of science will probably find little new in it. Non-specialists, however, such as theologians, will probably be enlightened. Beyond Matter makes an interesting read also for a philosophy of science class. Students will be persuaded by Trigg’s sober thinking.
University of Helsinki
Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 26:1 (March 2016), pp. 40-44.