The Fundamental Principles of the Universe and the Origin of Physical Laws by Attila Grandpierre

2.2. The relation of the metaphysical presuppositions of science with the reducibility question

Regarding that this first topic of our essay touches philosophy as well as science, especially the metaphysical presuppositions of science, we at first turn to science to see its position on the ontological structure of reality. Bunge (1967, Sect. 5.9) remarks that “philosophy is a part of the scaffolding employed in the construction of the finished scientific buildings…scientific research does presuppose and control certain important philosophical hypotheses”. Now let us revise shortly what are the most outstanding presuppositions of science by Bunge (1967, 291ff). We touch here only the first two of them. Firstly, he mentions “realism”, the “philosophical hypotheses that there is anything that exist independently from the cognitive subject”. Realism is based on the notion of factual truth, the hypothesis of the reality of facts, the “outer” nature of the facts, the separability of object of research from the inquiring subject. Moreover, the fifth element of “realism” as given by Bunge (1967, 291ff) is that “natural science, in contrast with prescientific views such as animism and anthropomorphism, does not account for nature in terms of typically human attributes, as it should if nature somehow depended on the subject. Thus, we do not account for the behavior of the object in terms of our own expectations or other subjective variables but, on the contrary, base our rational expectations on the objectively ascertainable properties of the object as known to us.” I have to note here that animism is not necessarily anti-scientific. On the contrary, William McDougall, a professor of psychology in Harvard University, wrote a whole book attempting to prove with the methods and aims of all empirical science that from all the thought systems of mankind it is just animism which is the closest to reality and that the conception of soul is indispensable to science (McDougall, 1920).

Now I think that this fifth element of the requirements of realism by Bunge needs more detailed ontological elaboration. If we accept the scientific ontology based on the classification of sciences as physics-biology-psychology/sociology (since I regard that man is a social being in her/his most basic foundation), how should we mean the term “objective”? In the context of “natural” sciences, in contrast with animism and anthropomorphism, the term “objectivity” indicates that we should ignore the ontological levels belonging to human existence. Now if we should also ignore the existence of any animating “psyche” and “spirit” that make the organisms animated, i.e. alive, together with consciousness, or nous, regarded as distinguishing ontological characteristics of human beings, what remains, is the mere inanimate matter. In this way Bunge’s realism seem to be a special, materialist one, since it is based on a “realism” requiring the ignorance of any other ontological levels. I found this requirement unnecessary, oversimplifying, and scientifically not valid.

Let us have another look to this point. The second outstanding philosophical hypothesis of scientific research by Bunge is pluralism: the multilevel structure of reality. “A second, related presupposition is that the higher levels are rooted in the lower ones, both historically and contemporaneously: that is, the higher levels are not autonomous but depend for their existence on the subsistence of the lower levels, and they have emerged in the course of time from the lower in a number of evolutionary processes. This rooting of the higher in the lower is the objective basis of the possibility of partially explaining the higher in terms of the lower and conversely…the principle of methodological reductionism is not to be confused with ontological reductionism or the denial of levels” (Bunge, 1967, 294). Unfortunately, Bunge did not specify the exact meaning of the terms he applied like “autonomous” and “ontological”. Anyhow, his stance expresses a non-reductive physicalism. In his concept, reality as a whole has a material, physical nature. Biology, relevant in a level of the material world, has some kind of autonomy, like chemistry has, but this autonomy has mostly a practical and not of principal significance. If materialist “realism” requires “desanimation” and “desanthropomorphism”, life is not based on its own ultimate principle but on physics. Bunge (1980, 217) expresses his view that “one can maintain that the mind is not a thing composed of lower level things – but a collection of functions or activities of certain neural systems that individual neurons presumably do not possess. And so emergentist (or systemic) materialism – unlike eliminative materialism – is seen to be compatible with overall pluralism.” Now the question is that what does Bunge mean on the term “ontological level” or ‘genera’. In the approach outlined here, Bunge’s ontological pyramid, although consists of five sub-levels, represents only one ontological level, and is pluralistic only within this one ontological level of emergentist materialism allowing materialistic sub-levels. Therefore, regarding ultimate realities as the basic constituents of the ontological structure of reality as a whole, we should evaluate the methodological reductionism of emergentist materialism as an ontological reductionism. Materialism is considered in this approach, as usual, as being a monism, and not a pluralism. Therefore, the claim of Bunge of ontological pluralism within the framework of materialist monism seems to us as controversial. Nevertheless, we will here work out a more detailed picture of physics and ontology. Before making it, we acknowledge about some of the main proponents of present-day science in ontological affairs.

The ontological reduction of biology to physics is one of the oldest and most significant problems of science and philosophy. Today, many eminent scientists expressed their opinions favouring physicalism. For example, Feynman stated that “today we cannot see if Schrödinger equation contains frogs, composers, and morality, or not” (Feynman, 1964, 12). The views prevailing at today’s universities and in handbooks on physics, as well as such influential best-sellers as Stephen Hawking’s The Brief History of Time, express the brute and dangerously antihuman materialistic view that human beings are mere material objects the behaviour of which will be exactly calculated by the soon coming Grand Unified Theory of physics. “Yet if there really is a complete unified theory, it would also presumably determine our actions” (Hawking, 1996, 13). Penrose (1989, 578) formulates his view in the following way: “…as I am suggesting, the phenomenon of consciousness depends upon this putative CQG (Correct Quantum Gravity theory)”. Moreover, physicalism seems to be dominating not only within physicists. As Bertalanffy (1969, 64) remarked, Williams (1966) articulated the common belief among biologists, expressed both in current teaching and in research, as “the theory of selection is based on the assumption that the laws of physical science plus natural selection can furnish a complete explanation for any biological phenomenon, and that these principles can explain adaptation in general and in abstract and any particular example of an adaptation”. Jacques Monod declares: “Anything can be reduced to simple, obvious, mechanical interactions. The cell is a machine; the animal is a machine; man is a machine” (Monod 1970/1974, ix). As Daniel Stoljar (2001) formulated: “Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical…Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are wholly physical.” But if living organisms, the psychic phenomena, moral and social processes have wholly physical nature, this would mean that the laws of physics would govern live, psychic phenomena, moral decisions and social activity. Harvard Genetics Professor Richard Lewontin, a Marxist expressed his attitude in the followings (Johnson, 1997): “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute…” In How the Mind Works, MIT professor Harold Pinker argues that the fundamental premise of ethics has been disproved by science. “Ethical theory,” he writes, “requires idealisations like free, sentient, rational, equivalent agents whose behaviour is uncaused.” Yet, “the world, as seen by science, does not really have uncaused events.” In other words, “moral reasoning assumes the existence of things that science tells us are unreal” (Pearcey, 2000). These formulations demonstrate that in practice scientific materialism is a monist view ignoring completely the autonomy of any other ontological levels.

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