It's a human tendency to push farther than is justified --- to take a good concept and run with it beyond the limits of its known validity. Such leaps of faith have paid big dividends, time and again, especially in studying the laws of nature. But it's important, when leaping, to respect those already on the other side of the chasm.

Good explanations of fundamental phenomena don't answer all questions on larger scales. People and their activities aren't simply reducible to their genes, for instance. Contemptuous claims that we're just big lumbering robots, puppets dancing to the strings pulled by our DNA, don't hold water ... any more than the opposite arguments that our minds are transcendent entities, independent of physical bodies and their underlying chemistry. Life's more complex than that, both ways.

Mary Midgley makes some balanced and insightful insightful comments on this topic in Chapter 4 of Beast and Man: the Roots of Human Nature:

... Anyone who speaks of a small part as doing something that can only intelligibly be done by the whole grinds his logical gears, producing a frightful noise that obscures all the implications of what he is trying to say. (Very few scientists treat their cars as badly as they treat their conceptual schemes.) If I claim that this carburetor won the Monte Carlo Rally, or that Eclipse's left hock won the Derby; if I say that my small intestine has digested my lunch; if the boy soprano's family remark that he has just sung the Messiah --- we speak confusedly. It was Cæsar, not just Cæsar's brain, that crossed the Rubicon. And what took the decision to do it was again Cæsar, not his HLC [hypothalamic-limbic complex] or his cerebral cortex.

People find it hard to grasp this point because they see it as antiscientific. Must not the real account of what is happening, they say, be the physical one? Are we not speaking only indirectly or superficially, if not superstitiously, whenever we describe an event in any other term than as the movement of electrons? Is not everything else in some way unreal?

Asking different kinds of questions produces quite different kinds of answers; they are usually not reducible to one another, though they must be compatible. Slicing the world in different directions reveals different patterns. Jelly rolls, sliced downward, have a spiral structure. Sliced across, they have stripes. Stripes are not reducible to spirals, nor vice versa, and will not become so by further analysis. Both are real, and the two patterns can be related if we understand the relation between the two slicing angles. In just the same way, other things are real as well as electrons. Brains are also real --- but so are the colors we see and the pains we feel, though they could never figure in books on physics or neurology. And someone with a moral conflict has a real conflict --- granted that it is not unreal in the way that conflicts can be so (that is, fictitious, imaginary, or self-induced). All real features of the world can be studied directly, on their own terms. They do not have to be approached indirectly, by finding their mirror images in a pattern studied by physicists.

Midgley goes on to explain how the DNA of living creatures can be both worthy of reverence (as part of an awesome, wonderfully complex system) and yet not any more worthy of reverence than the beings whom we interact with on a macroscopic scale. She concludes by critiquing the logic of those who try to use an ersatz "scientific" viewpoint (e.g., "a chicken is only the egg's way of making another egg" applied to genetics), in a game of intellectual one-upmanship, to cast scorn on real-world thinking:

... It can lead, with startling ease, to a confident belief that all the concerns of daily life are somehow "unscientific," that the scientific thing to do is always to find some extremely remote standpoint and insist that only what is seen from it shall count as reality. Middle-sized phenomena, such as we must always deal with in our lives, are dismissed as beneath explanation, while the scientist makes off with the speed of light, either to use his electron microscope on ultimate particles, or to gaze through his telescope at remote perspectives, in terms of which indeed the individual counts for almost nothing. Now both these things must be done, but they are no more scientific than working on patterns seen in the phenomena immediately before us. The scientific temper is one that looks for the appropriate method in each field, that carefully distinguishes different sorts of questions for differing treatment. To become obsessed with a method for its own sake and try to use it where it is unsuitable is thoroughly unscientific.* And the purpose of all explanation must be, ultimately, to illuminate the chaotic world with which we are actually surrounded. That is what we have to explain.

*It is the mark of an educated man to look for just as much precision in each enquiry as the nature of the subject allows" (Aristotle, Ethics 1.3).

For additional Mary Midgley comments see the ^zhurnal entries of 1 June 2000 (EducationCultureAndBlame) and 10 May 2000 (WonderWhy).

Thursday, July 06, 2000 at 04:52:47 (EDT) = 2000-07-06

TopicMidgley - TopicScience

(correlates: BookBrain, DemonStrations, BigLessons, ...)