Dialectics and Science

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Tue Jun 20 20:25:18 MDT 1995

I disagree with Chris S. and Hans on these matters.

In the first place I reject the conceptioon of philosophy as a sort of
second-order discipline whose job it is to prescribe epistemological
criteria to science. I think, with Quine, that there is no first
philosophy, and that epistemology and even logic is deeply implicated with
so-called first order questions. Aprt from the job of sorting out the
mistakes of dogmatic, skeptical, and transcendentalist philosophy, the
rather modest task of philosophy of science seems to me mainly twofold:
(1) reflecting onm the place of science in the context of other human
activities and interests, trying to understand what sort of activity it
is, and (2) making explicit and subjectinbg to analysis the conclusions
and presuppositions about knowledge and reality implicit in the actual
practice of science, a task which calls for considerable modesty.
With regard to (1), we may ask questions about whether science provides
the only possible basis for knowledge, how science relates to values, how
the different sciencrs relate to each other, and so forth. With regard to
(2) we can ask questions like, on what basis we know, e,g., special
relativity (why the experts accept this theory), is spacetime absolute or
relational, how molecular biolology explains heredity, and so forth.

In both cases this work is ion large part semi-spectular sociology--in one
case, of the human community, in the other, of the scientific community.
Philosophers are part of the former, and and no privileged position from
which to pronounce on the questions that arise in that context. In the
second case they are, typically, outsiders and not practitioners, and
their external position is therefore to some degree suspect. What they
have to offer in either case is mainly a knowledge of how the arguments
about the larger questions have gone, what the shape of the debate and the
range of possibilities are, since no one else in our societies thinks
mainly about these questions. A very large part of their role is
negative--demolishing the latest recrudesnce of ancient errors which keep

Philosophy is certainly in no shape to pronounce any necessary truths
about how the world must be for science to be possible. (This formulation
begs all the important questions). The world is how it is: science is one
way we explore this, and it's not the philosopher's task to say how it
must be from her armchair. In fact, it is the task of science itself to
investigate the conditions of its own possibility. We can't get outside it
to assess these matters. We are, as Neurath says, like sailors on a ship
on a broad sea; we can take up a plank or two, and in the long term
replace them all, few by few, but we cannot take them up all at once.

Chris S.'s remarks about dialectics are of a sort to confirm a skeptic's
deepest worries about that sort of talk. Dialectics is apparently
compatible with everything, except that it rules out certain possibly
promising avenues of research (reductionist ones). Why so? To be
dialectical is to recognize that everything is related--thanks a lot! The
question of course, the real issue, is _how_ things are related, and here
dialectics is no help. Personally I think that talk of dialectics ought to
be confined to social questions, where Hegel and Marx deploy the notion of
internal instabilities and self-transformative pressures in social systems
to useful effect. ANd any use of dialectics ought to be stripped of any
notion of necessity. There are necessities, I believe, natural ones and
logical ones. There may be social ones, but we don't know any of these
yet. And the social sphere is the only one where dialectics has been
anyything but vagueness and hot air.

Alex Callinicos has a useful and I think correct discussion of this in his
little book Marxism and Philosophy.

Personally I think it would be best if we spent less time talking about
dialectics and more about substan\tive issues.

--Justin Schwartz

On Sun, 18 Jun 1995, Chris M. Sciabarra wrote:

>      Just a couple of observations on the question of
> dialectics and science.  I haven't worked out all of these
> issues, but I think that there are some fundamental
> principles that are involved here which shouldn't be
> forgotten.
>      First, I should state that I'm inclined to agree with
> Hans's post on Bhaskar.  The scientist's "first-order"
> questions are indeed, totally separate from the philosopher's
> "second-order" questions.  Bhaskar is correct; philosophers
> do generate the epistemological criteria for science.  These
> criteria may not be accepted explicitly by each scientist,
> but they are often accepted tacitly by the scientific culture
> at large.  The fundamental philosophic and methodological
> question remains:  "what must the world be like for science
> to be possible?"
>      It is on this issue that dialectics has much to offer.
> Dialectics is first and foremost, a method.  Though it is
> frequently conjoined with "materialism," it should not align
> itself with any metaphysical claims about the nature of the
> primary "stuff" in the universe.  Science simply doesn't know
> yet, what that primary "stuff" is.  To say that the world is
> material is certainly true, given the current context of our
> knowledge.  But if tomorrow, science should discover that the
> "material" is nothing more than puffs of meta-energy, this
> would not invalidate the essential METHOD that is dialectics.
>      Thus, though I agree with Hans that there is a "very
> rich philosophical thinking" about the "ontological
> underpinnings of modern scientific endeavor," philosophers
> qua philosophers should not engage in COSMOLOGICAL
> speculation.  Indeed, a search for the ultimate constituents
> of reality belongs to an older cosmological perspective.  If
> philosophers or scientists reify their current knowledge of
> existential constituents, they merely dogmatize their
> empirical assumptions or conclusions.  By tying dialectics to
> these assumptions or conclusions, there is the risk that a
> different set of conclusions will invalidate the dialectical
> approach.  Simply put:  cosmology has no place in the
> philosophy of science.  Science may someday uncover the
> specific identities of the entities in reality; our only task
> as dialecticians is to recognize that EVERYTHING belongs to
> one reality, and that the elements of reality exist in
> relationship to one another, and that our contextual
> definitions of the entities under scrutiny will very much
> depend upon their inter-relationships within a system and
> across a dynamic, temporal dimension.
>      Thus, a dialectical approach accommodates any and all
> valid scientific theories.  It should be as undaunted by the
> Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle--as it is with any other
> principle that might emerge in contemporary physics.  Our
> inability to predict a subatomic event does not prove that
> causality is inapplicable to subatomic particles.  Our
> inability to measure the simultaneous position and momentum
> of subatomic particles does not show that in reality such
> events are causeless.  Our lack of scientific explanation
> does not erase the reality it seeks to explain.  What is so
> wonderful about a dialectical sensibility is its openness to
> change and epistemic evolution.  Not possessing any
> metaphysical presumptions about the essential nature of
> reality--save a formal commitment to system, totality,
> internal relations, and dynamic process--we can proceed to
> examine any and all factors.
>      Note, that to recognize the reality of dynamic system
> and internal relations is not the same as a recognition of
> the specific NATURE of each part within a whole, or even the
> NATURE of the relationship of each part to the other.  Social
> scientists as much as natural scientists draw conclusions on
> the nature of the parts and their relationships (or even the
> parts AS relationships) based upon their own investigations
> and understanding of what is important.  For Marx, the social
> scientist, the essential relation of importance in social
> inquiry is material.  But other dialectical thinkers have
> stressed the primacy of different factors even though they
> may recognize the same kind of reciprocal dependence between
> and among the factors.  In all cases, a dialectical approach
> eschews reductionist monism.  Even for those who recognize
> the primacy of economics, there is the understanding that
> economics cannot be abstracted from politics or culture.
> Carol Gould has called this principle, aptly, an example of
> "asymmetric" internality--distinguishing it from both
> mechanistic causality AND indeterminism.
>                               - Chris
> =============================================================
> Dr. Chris M. Sciabarra
> Visiting Scholar, N.Y.U. Department of Politics
> INTERNET:  sciabrrc at is2.nyu.edu (NOTE NEW ADDRESS)
> =============================================================
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