Knowing Things for Sure: Science and Truth
By Mariano ArtigasPbk:290 pp | University Press of America | 2006 | ISBN 0761835113 | US$39.00
Many educated people wonder how it can be that modern science itself has progressed, guided by a realistic perspective concerning the world, and yet that very development is taken as evidence in support of philosophical currents which deny the possibility of knowledge. This newly-translated work can be a very helpful guide for the relations between experimental science and philosophy. It first examines the nature of science and of the scientific method, and seeks to explain the character of the objectivity attributed to science. It then turns to the truth that can be attributed to science, its progress, and its philosophical impact.
Father Mariano Artigas is already familiar to many readers because of his earlier work, The Mind of the Universe, published in 2000 by the Templeton Foundation Press and widely praised. Alan McCone is to be thanked for having translated this earlier work, first published in Spanish, concerning the philosophy of experimental science.
The author mentions in his preface that he first studied physics and was later drawn to questions of the philosophy of science. His experience as a scientist led him to a realist position, rather than an instrumentalist or pragmatist view. His concern was to understand science in relation to claims of truth. After many years of work, he first published the results of his efforts in 1989, and he has added an epilogue for the new English translation. In addition to focussing on the question of truth, he wants to offer others a brief account of the numerous publications in this area of study.
In his introduction, Professor Artigas points out that modern experimental science is about 300 years old. We could cite the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687) as a watershed in the history of intellectual life. In Artigas’ view, this scientific development in some way contributed to the influence of mechanism, which “considers reality as a machine whose functioning can be explained by the local motion of its component parts.”
Neither scientists nor philosophers have succeeded in giving a full and balanced account of science and its methods. In the twentieth century, the Vienna Circle promoted a reductionist understanding of the world and a rejection of metaphysics, advancing the view that experimental science is the only true form of knowledge. The neo-positivism of the Vienna Circle, and the logical positivism that was greatly indebted to the members of the circle, dominated and guided philosophical work concerning science until the 1960’s, when the efforts of Thomas Kuhn (his classic work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions remains a fixture on college reading lists) and Karl Popper (especially his Logic of Scientific Discovery) attacked the basic premises of positivism. But even their work has not led to the satisfactory resolution of fundamental questions related to the philosophy of science, especially its metaphysical implications.
The author wisely has begun with a thorough examination of basic aspects of experimental science, with a view to determining what it is, and its aims and methods. An especially important idea in the work is what he says in Chapter 3 concerning scientific method. There, he writes of “the formation of the scientific object.” He again takes Newton as a point of reference.
In his Principia, Newton sought knowledge by means of mathematical concepts. He devised an ideal system formed of points endowed with mass and acting under forces. In nature, however, there are no mass points having no extension. Nonetheless, this ideal system is the foundation of Newtonian mechanics. The definitions, statements, and demonstrations refer directly to mass points, and only indirectly to the Sun, the Earth, the other planets, and ordinary bodies found on the Earth. If real objects with all their observable properties had been considered, it would have been impossible to achieve the mathematical formulations of mechanics. It was indispensable to form a fictitious foundation, and substitute this for real existing entities. The fictitious foundation is what we call a scientific object.
This perspective is not difficult to grasp. The experimental scientist, especially in physics and chemistry, strives to apply mathematics to movement and change, and to all sensible realities. In order to do so, these disciplines must first form an object suitable for their study.
After having noted that there is thus something “fictitious” about the scientific object, Artigas writes about the reference and meaning of the models that are used in the sciences. Although they abstract from real things and give an oversimplified picture, they do represent physical reality, and when the models are built into a theory, the theory can be tested through experiment. The experimental sciences have been successful in developing what the author refers to as “protocol criteria” in order to provide for the acquisition of data related to the fundamental concepts (the author calls them “basic predicates”) developed in a particular theory. The construction of a theory, he notes, is particularly difficult in the beginning stages of a discipline, and calls for creative genius.
A consequence of these considerations is that science does in fact seek truth, but not a definitive and unchanging truth.
Neither the basic predicates nor the protocol criteria have definitive value, since their validity is limited to the concepts and instruments available at any moment, so the models and scientific objects defined by them are not established once and for all.
It is clear, I think, even from these few selections, that the author seeks to write with balance and fairness, taking into account the contributions of a variety of viewpoints and interests. The ideas outlined above will prove to be helpful when he reaches the consideration of scientific progress.
In addition to the value of the work as an outline of the fundamental principles of the philosophy of experimental science, it is worth mentioning that the author, having read widely in this and in related fields, provides a helpful survey of the literature concerning this topic. In his introduction, he mentions especially the influence of Stanley Jaki and Evandro Agazzi in the development and formulation of his own points of view. The latter is a highly respected philosopher of science, with great knowledge of the history and development of scientific method. Stanley Jaki in his extensive writings has especially stressed the particular influence of Christian thought on the growth of science.
The author’s considerable knowledge of physics, and in general of the history of science, allows him to illustrate his arguments with examples taken from important works, sometimes from the medieval and early modern periods. In his valuable discussion of scientific objectivity, he begins from the considerations of a sociologist, Robert Merton. In his analysis of this topic, he draws heavily on the writings of Agazzi. When he evaluates these considerations, he turns to a reflection about research concerning fundamental particles, how it has evolved over the years, and the instruments that have been used to contribute to this research. Again, his approach to the matter is marked by an equilibrium, neither emphasizing key ideas to the neglect of the material instruments used, nor vice versa. And he does not shy away from difficult topics, as when he considers some applications of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to the results of particle research. He notes with interest that method must not only be mathematical but also practical in order to attain useful experimental results.
This is only a glimpse of the contents of a work that merits a careful reading by anyone with an interest in science. In some measure, this means all educated persons, because science is so central to the culture in which we live. All citizens need some knowledge of science, because they are called upon to make informed judgments on questions with a scientific dimension.
The author concludes his epilogue noting that a kind of scientific hubris is not as apparent as it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but is nonetheless perhaps more pervasive. He concludes with the following observation, a nice summary of the importance of his own fine book: “Showing the complementarity between science, philosophy and theology is an important task if we want to overcome the many contradictions, biases and difficulties of our present scientific civilization.”
Father James Kelly is a philosopher writing from San Francisco.
Knowing Things for Sure: Science and Truth