What Is Science?

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The
reason why our sentient, percipient, and thinking ego is met nowhere
within our scientific world picture, can easily be indicated in
seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical
with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as part of
it.

~
Physicist Erwin Schrodinger

In
an interview in the October issue of Reason, psychologist
Steven Pinker defends materialism and “debunks” the idea of the
human soul as follows: “The doctrine of the ghost in the machine
is that people are inhabited by an immaterial soul that is the locus
of free will and choice and which can’t be reduced to a function
of the brain…. [But n]euroscience is showing that all aspects of
mental life – every emotion, every thought pattern, every memory
– can be tied to the physiological activity or structure of the
brain.”

Pinker’s
statement deserves analysis, because, while philosophical rubbish,
it is a type of philosophical rubbish that we encounter frequently
today. Furthermore, it is not mere confusion, but an assertive sort
of confusion with a particular aim in mind: to discredit religion.
Pinker is pushing his religious belief, materialism, by putting
forward a pseudo-philosophical argument under the guise of scientific
objectivity. For those readers who are religious, or, indeed, any
reader who is simply interested in making philosophical sense when
discussing science, it is useful to see the error in such arguments.

To
understand the emptiness of Pinker’s claim, it will be helpful to
step back and consider for a moment what science is.

The
word ‘science’ has various uses: we can have the ‘science of cooking,’
‘the science of literary criticism,’ and even ‘the sweet science
of boxing.’ But here I will consider science as the ideal character
of what are often called the hard sciences: physics, chemistry,
biochemistry, astronomy, and so on. As I have come to comprehend
it, that character is the attempt to abstract from experience a
universal mechanical relationship among measurable quantities.

Given
that quest, there is no a priori reason to set certain limits on
the sort of experiences from which science might attempt to abstract
a mechanical aspect. Religious people have sometimes erred here,
in declaring certain experiences – the mind, the gene, the movements
of the earth and the sun, or the existence of life on earth – as
being off limits for scientific investigation. (That mistake has
nothing to do with the issue of whether certain methods, such as
cloning, are moral for the scientist to use in his pursuit
of scientific knowledge.) The fears of such people are based on
a misapprehension: Because a mechanical relationship might be abstracted
from any experience in no way reduces that experience to
that abstraction. The abstraction derives from the experience, and
certainly does not generate it!

If
science is the search for such abstractions, it is wrong to chide
the scientist for “turning everything into a mechanical relationship”
or some such complaint. When acting as a scientist, that is exactly
what he should be doing. But the flip side of that is that the scientist
has left behind that defense and, in fact, wandered far into error
himself, when he mistakes his process of abstraction for “fundamental
truth” or “the way things really are.” Science is a particular way
of looking at experience, true as far as it goes, but it has no
claim to finality vis–vis other ways of understanding the world,
such as history, religion, and art. The fact that it achieves mechanical
abstractions of experience and those other modes do not is hardly
surprising, since science searches for such abstractions, and history,
religion, and art do not.

Having
achieved such an abstraction, it is a serious mistake to view it
as causing the experience in question. Newton’s Universal
Law of Gravitation is not the cause of the attraction between
physical objects; it is a description of a mechanical aspect of
that attraction.

With
our definition in mind, we can pinpoint the confusion at the root
of Pinker’s claim. It is quite possible that, from any mental activity,
neuroscientists can abstract a mechanical aspect and associate it
with certain thoughts, emotions, and so on. But that in no way “reduces”
the mental activity to a “function of the brain.” All that it demonstrates
is that thinking, too, has a mechanical aspect to it. To move from
that fact to the notion that those mechanical processes “cause”
our thoughts is akin to deciding that, because we can abstract out
certain aspects of any city and call that abstraction a “street
map,” that therefore street maps are the cause of cities!

The
idea that the experience "sitting with one’s true love, watching
the sunset over Galway Bay," somehow can be reduced to certain
physiological responses to a particular wavelength of light and
the proximity of a member of the opposite sex is absurd. One could
potentially abstract such a description from the experience, but
the experience is what it means to the person who had it. The mechanical
and quantitative are only aspects of our experience, and since no
concrete experience is ever merely mechanical and quantitative,
such a description can never be a complete one of any experience
whatsoever.

But
you are right, Dr. Pinker, that there is no ghost in the machine.
Rather, the machine itself is an aspect of the ghost.

September
7,
2002

Gene Callahan [send him mail],
the author of Economics for Real People, is
an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
and a contributing columnist to LewRockwell.com.

Gene
Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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