Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What's this "Nature" I've heard so much about?

Whenever I hear about how "nature" can do one thing or another, I start to get suspicious. When I hear that "science" shows "nature" can do one thing or another, blind and unguided, without purpose or foresight, I know I'm dealing with a bullshitter.

I get suspicious about the first claim because it inevitably involves smuggling in assumptions about what "nature" is, which is something that's been under debate for centuries, even millenia, and shows no signs of coming to a decisive end. Is "nature" Brahman, some pan(en?)theistic eternal and infinite intellect which ultimately comprises all of us, though at the moment we don't realize it? Is "nature" something from Berkeley's idealism, that direct communication of ideas to "us" from God? Is "nature" that aristotilean-thomist thing (of which I have the strongest sympathies for), that mix of causes directed towards a final cause?

To put aside answers to these questions is to put aside the question itself. We're no longer talking about what "nature" can do - we're talking about what particular models, drastically limited in their scope and representation, can be applied to experience or built up. Useful stuff, this. But it's connection to nature is more tenuous.

And all this makes the "science shows blind, unguided nature can do this" talk complete and utter bunk. And I mean bunk even in the smallest case, the 'pebble tumbling down a hill' case. Science can no more show a pebble tumbles down a hill due to ultimately blind, unguided causes than it can show the Empire State Building came about the same way. At best, science can provide predictive models based on abstractions that have tremendous utility, that are extremely reliable, but that say zero about the inner or ultimate causes or essences of anything. Did a pebble tumble because God had preordained this would occur from eternity? Did God intervene at some or any recent point to make that pebble tumble? Do pebbles tumble because of their essential natures? Are pebbles consciously following rules?

Ask questions like this and science can't say a thing. Philosophy, metaphysics, theology and the rest suddenly are required to get at these questions, and it does science no good for someone to complain that philosophy, metaphysics, and theology never solve anything decisively. It won't change science's limits, severe as they are.


IlĂ­on said...

As I constantly say, "'Science' is a toy for little boys; men do philosophy ... and theology."

Crude said...

I've run into multiple supposed scientists online (on blogs, etc) claiming a deep distaste for philosophy, and of course utter contempt for theology. What I've found interesting is that a lot of these guys would rail against these things, and then turn around and 'do philosophy' or theology without realizing it.

Eventually I figured out that they didn't hate philosophy or theology. They hated disagreement, and especially disagreement they thought they should be able to end by giving their opinion as scientists on philosophical/theological questions.