Scientific reductionism and common sense

Scientific reductionism and common sense June 1, 2020


Cornell U. today
On the campus of Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York  (Wikimedia CC image by Stilfehler at wikivoyage)


The late Cornell University historian of science William Provine (1942-2015) was not only a vocal atheist but a forthright proponent of what he saw as the implications of modern science:


Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear. . . .  There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind.  There is no life after death.  When I die, I’m absolutely certain that I am going to be dead.  That’s the end for me.  There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either.

[William Provine, “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?” Origins Research 16/1-2 (1994): 9.]


One is tempted, when reading such claims as those of Dr. Provine, to respond in the manner of the great English lexicographer and literary figure Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).  What response do I have in mind?  I’ll tell the story:


The university town of Berkeley, California, is named after the Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) — although he pronounced his own surname more like Barclay.  Bishop Berkeley, as he is more commonly known, is famous for his doctrine of “immaterialism” (now generally called “idealism”).  According to this view, there are no actual material objects; instead, only minds exist, along with their perceptions or ideas.  It is said that Dr. Johnson was walking one day with his biographer, James Boswell.  At one point, as they conversed, Boswell commented that there seemed no way to refute Berkeley’s “sophistry.”  In response, Dr. Johnson kicked a large stone and declared “I refute it thus.”


Now, strictly speaking, Dr. Johnson had not refuted Bishop Berkeley.  But we can all easily understand what he meant.  Berkeleyan idealism is so contrary to common sense, so counterintuitive (as philosophers might say), that it seems obviously false — and kicking a rock makes that point pretty clearly.


In the case of Professor Provine’s denials, arguments have persisted for many centuries about whether there are gods, whether personality survives death, and whether life has any ultimate meaning.  Such arguments are likely to continue.  But most people, in their hearts, are quite certain that morality is not wholly relative and that we have free will.  It’s virtually impossible to think or act otherwise.


Presumably, Professor Provine himself thought that, in publishing his denial of God, immortality, “objective” morality, and free will, he was acting freely, choosing freely to devote time and energy to an attempt to persuade an audience of freely-choosing minds.  Did he really think that his writing such things was as ineluctable as the falling of a rock from a cliff to the valley floor below?  That it was as inevitable as the rusting of iron?


Likewise, if we were to meet someone who believed that it’s simply good, clean entertainment to torture kittens or small children for the fun of it, we would regard that person as sick, depraved, morally malformed. Wrong.  We wouldn’t shrug our shoulders and reply “Different strokes for different folks!” or “I say po-TAY-to and you say po-TAH-to!” or “Some people like broccoli and some people don’t!”  If we were to run into a person who thought it ethically permissible, even a moral imperative, to eliminate the Jews or to enslave African Blacks or to burn widows on funeral pyres, as we might easily have done in Nazi Germany or the American Confederacy or the pre-1829 Indian subcontinent, most of us wouldn’t simply have said “Oh well” and observed that different societies and cultures see things differently.


We innately know that such things are wrong.  Or, at least, we feel and think that we do.  But we can’t prove them the way Galileo demonstrated (supposedly from the campanile at Pisa) that objects of different mass fall at the same speed.  We can’t demonstrate them by chemical analysis, or by counting elk in the Canadian Rockies, or by measuring tree rings or peering deep into space or dissecting frogs.


In my judgment, if a worldview denies the reality of such knowledge, that is a serious defect in that worldview.



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