Why science doesn’t need a philosophical or metaphysical grounding

Here’s a comment I recently posted at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog. I think it’s useful enough to be worth reposting here.


I’ve just been reading this interview with Feser: http://www.strangenotions.com/scholasticism-vs-scientism-an-interview-with-dr-edward-feser/

It clearly shows the fundamental problem with his approach to philosophy: he thinks we can start from metaphysics.

“The trouble is that this gets things precisely backwards.”

Well, at least he and I agree that someone is getting things backwards. We just disagree on who that is.

The best we can do is start with what we know most securely, and proceed by the methods that have shown themselves to be most effective. We humans started with the knowledge that arose from the unreflective use of our evolution-given cognitive faculties, primarily knowledge of our immediate environment. Over time we gradually started to develop more reflective methods, but those always built on what we knew most securely. We adopted new methods because we found they worked. Over time our epistemic methods improved, building on what worked, until we arrived where we are now. We have good reason to trust modern science (on the whole) because it has proven so successful. Science doesn’t need any philosophical underpinning, which is just as well since philosophy hasn’t provided one.

The idea that we need some ultimate grounding or underpinning for our knowledge is hopeless. That misguided way of thinking leads to the problems of infinite regress and induction. It arises from an over-emphasis on arguments, or reasoning from premises to conclusion. Argumentative reasoning is a useful tool, but it’s not the primary basis of knowledge. Our knowledge starts with the working of our automatic (non-conscious) cognitive faculties, which work as well as they do thanks to natural selection (another sort of trial and error, building on what works best). Even when we engage in reasoning, our justifications must end somewhere (on pain of infinite regress), and where justification ends we must rely on our automatic cognitive faculties to work properly. In other words, we must rely on judgements which are not further justified. This should be particularly obvious in the case of non-deductive inference (which is most of our inference), where the premises are not sufficient to deliver the conclusion.

To say that we must rely on our cognitive faculties working successfully is not to deny that we should do our best to improve them, and do our best to critically scrutinise our existing beliefs. But those processes also involve using our cognitive faculties. In the end, if our cognitive faculties fail us, that’s just tough. Nothing can give me a guarantee that my faculties are working properly. (And I don’t mean “properly” in some absolute, ideal sense. I just mean working well enough.)

I think the traditional, scholastic way of philosophical thinking has appealed to philosophers primarily because argumentative reasoning is the epistemic method that we observe ourselves using. We aren’t directly aware of the operation of our non-conscious cognitive processes, and until a couple of hundred years ago we knew nothing of such processes. I guess before that our intuitive judgements must have seemed to arise from nowhere, or perhaps from a dualistic soul. Now we know better, or at least those of us who take the lessons of science seriously.

Contrast this reasonable, scientifically-informed account of knowledge building on success with Feser’s claim that metaphysics is “prior” to all other knowledge. What reason do we have to take metaphysical thinking seriously? Where are its demonstrated successes? How can a metaphysical account avoid the problem of infinite regress, or starting from some premises that just seem intuitively obvious (in which case it isn’t prior to all other knowledge)?

It isn’t hard to see that metaphysics is neither necessary nor useful. That’s enough reason to ignore it. On top of that, however, careful examination can reveal more specifically the ways in which metaphysics goes wrong. I won’t elaborate here, except to say that Wittgenstein showed us the ways in which much of traditional philosophy (including metaphysics) is bewitched by language.

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