What would you know about it?!

Roger Trigg

Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics, Roger Trigg, Templeton Press.

We live in a world shaped by Western science. But not only is science governed by often unspoken metaphysical assumptions, writes philosopher of science Roger Trigg, science actually requires a metaphysical framework, both to prompt and hint at avenues of further enquiry, and to ensure scientists are not staking claims beyond their turf.

Beyond Matter is prompted by and a response to the claims often made by scientists that questions beyond the reach of science are not worth asking and are only ‘pseudo-problems’. Trigg tries to take a middle path, as the book is also a response to postmodernist claims that scientific truth is merely relative, only agreement rather than something of cross-cultural importance. Though rightly made, Trigg perhaps over-emphasises this point, as those of a postmodernist persuasion don’t generally think of science as inapplicable in non-Western cultures. Postmodernists are, however, sceptical of the claims of disinterest amongst scientists that often cover up personal (or cultural) ambition and particular agenda. Trigg blames Wittgenstein for a recent tendency to be suspicious of science, but Wittgenstein simply warned us about the hubris involved in seeking truth through human means, for language can only be verified by more language, in a circular fashion. There is something here that resonates with the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, an enterprise in applied science. It is no coincidence that the story of Babel links human hubris with sharing language. Shared scientific language (and outlook) can mask a tendency to overreach. Still, Trigg is right to make the point that within scientific practice there is an emphasis on reason, which should cross cultural borders. Planes fly and fridges chill in both the East and the West. As Trigg, says, science works, and it works universally.

There is some irony in this. Atheistic science enthusiasts often pit religion against reason, and yet reason in Western science can be seen as a legacy of Christianity. The early Christians were quite sceptical of superstition, and their faith was built not on a kind of belief in magic but on the belief that Jesus’ resurrection had been verified. And the superstitions of the Middle Ages, it can be argued, were contrary, not sympathetic, to Christian belief. The Enlightenment philosophers might not have all been devout, and some not even deists (as most actually were), but their faith in reason was a legacy of the belief, deeply embedded in Western culture and prompted by the Bible’s revelation of God, that Creation was logical, understandable and testable. And that the laws of nature, a product of God’s benevolence, are predictable due to their consistency. This is, as Trigg points out, not simply fact, but a metaphysical assumption.

The modern era has, of course, thrown a spanner into this machinery, with the discovery of quantum physics, which, as Niels Bohr and others famously pointed out, seems to have a certain unpredictability built in. And now, says Trigg, science, at least in the realm of physics, currently touted as the base upon which all science needs to be built, has made a turn from the pragmatic approach of testing and observation to the speculation of mathematical theorising. Nowhere is the hubris of scientists more on show than in the realm of physics, both at the micro level of string theory and the macro level of speculation about multiverses. Much has been verified (the Higgs particle, for example), but the new physics rides somewhat on the coattails of previous incarnations of science, and although much is merely speculation, it is described as science and is therefore, according to its defenders, unassailable. Although Trigg doesn’t go as far as to say so, there is something of a desire to take religion out of the equation, to try and explain origins without mention of the ‘G’ word, but by its very nature multiverse theory is unprovable, as we are speculating about what happens outside our universe where the laws of nature or God may work differently.

The distinction between abstract theory and testability is not quite as neat as Trigg makes out. Mathematical modelling could be said to be both theory and a manner of verification. When a dinosaur skeleton is reconstructed, is it theory or practice? But Trigg is right to be wary of multiverse explanations. The theory of multiverses, even where it is suggested that there are an infinite number of universes and so anything is not only theoretically possible but actually existent, doesn’t really answer the question of ‘why’, particularly why there is something rather than nothing. If there are an infinite number of universes, why are there an infinite number? If that is simply mathematically predictable, why does maths work in this way? Where did maths come from? If it is a human mapping of the way the universe is, why does it work so well? This may be just a Wittgensteinian case of asking the wrong questions, but I suspect there is something fundamentally correct about asking where our universe (or universes) comes from and why. Part of the reason I hold this suspicion is because even supposedly disinterested, atheistic science, even deliberately atheistic Darwinian science, cannot help but, as Trigg observes, use the language of purpose and design. Some of that is simply anthropocentric, and as Christians we could happily agree with that charge by citing God’s reply to Job, along the lines of ‘what would you know about it?!’ But there is also a nagging sense, which can only be the product of revelation, of purpose and control within our universe. This revelation is, of course, in the shady realms of metaphysics, of religion and philosophy.

Trigg doesn’t spell out in detail what metaphysical framework we might need, though those of us who are Christians are happy to fill in the blanks. But he certainly implies that scientists need a sense of humility. This goes for Christians too, as human brains have only a certain capacity for knowledge. We can both celebrate our capacity to understand much about the universe, and wonder at the complexities of mystery that continue to baffle.

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