20 September 2006

Meeting with the Representatives of Science

I've made two comments about Pope Benedict's lecture last week - one complaining about the bad internationalization of the website, the second dealing with the spurious outrage from Islamic rentamobs.

Given that, I will complete the "trinity", so to speak, by addressing the actual content of the speech.

Benny is cool with science. "The scientific ethos, moreover, is - as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector - the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit."

But he claims that science depends on assumptions about the nature of reality which are not themselves scientific:

"This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature's capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty."

The conclusion is that to justify the presupposition of "the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality", one must resort to the twaddle of the philosophers from Plato to Descartes to Kant, thereby importing Christian theology into the scientific worldview.

Of course, there is no necessity to do any such thing. The only necessary presumption to start doing science is that there is an external reality which exhibits some regularities. One can then start to probe what those regularities might be.

That necessary presumption is unprovable, but it is necessary not only for science but for any kind of social activity. The only alternative to it is solipsism, for if one denies that an external reality exists, or if one claims that it could vary entirely unpredictably, there is no mechanism by which one could become aware, even in principle, of the existence of another mind. It would then follow that anyone other than me that I am aware of is merely a figment of my imagination, and there is no point in attempting to to convince them of anything.

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