Critique of "The Scientific Worldview": Part 1 Introduction and Renaissance of Determinism


One of my best commenters, William Westmiller, has kindly consented to provide a chapter-by-chapter critique of "The Scientific Worldview" (TSW). In addition to helping me with future work, I believe this will be valuable for new readers confronting deterministic assumptions and scientific interpretations for the first time. It might even be considered a sort of study guide for solitary readers of the book (just search the blog for "cotsw" to get the complete guide). You may remember Bill as the person who was “95% in agreement” with "The Ten Assumptions of Science" (TTAOS). His disagreement seems to stem from his belief in free will and the existence of finite particles, which is a critical part of a book he is writing on physics. I suspect that many folks new to univironmental determinism might have similar beliefs and that they would be interested in what Bill has to say. I will be forever grateful to Bill for all his work! 

Bill’s critique from a semi-indeterministic point of view gives me a chance to clarify points not well made previously. Do not expect me to give up determinism or any of the Ten Assumptions because of any criticism. That would be like expecting a regressive physicist to give up aether denial, more than three dimensions, or the universe exploding out of nothing. As always, the purpose of TTAOS is to provide a foundation for further work. Mostly, I shall try to avoid debates about the appropriateness of those assumptions. I presented my analysis of fundamental assumptions in the 2004 book and reiterated it in Chapter 3 of TSW. We now can progress beyond that. The debates, of course, will continue after the next indeterminist is born and begins to question how the world really works.

Here is Bill’s first reservation with my response in brackets:

I've read everything (I think) that you've posted on the web, but I hadn't found the time to read "The Scientific Worldview" from beginning to end. After the first few chapters, some reservations:

1. I was a little disappointed that you gave Marx and Engels such prominent attention. They were primarily engaged in the analysis of historic, social, economic, and political *extrapolations* of the philosophy of "dialectical materialism". Marx never used the phrase and Engels focused primarily on materialism.

I think this distracts from your review of the philosophical foundations of science, which was a very peripheral issue to Marx and Engels. I think it might have been better to extract elements of philosophy and point to their originators (Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and even Spinoza), rather than adopting Marx as the primary guide for your ideas.

[One certainly could do as you suggest. This might have kept me out of trouble with the mainstream. Unfortunately, those who tried that have failed. Formal philosophy of science has been no threat to the current regressive physics. But remember that I started this whole exploration because I could not understand why otherwise smart folks believed in more than three dimensions and the universe exploding from nothing. Collingwood and Kuhn hinted that the key was to discover the assumptions lurking behind the whole train of thought resulting in such weird conclusions. I could not readily find these assumptions clearly stated in either the scientific or philosophy of science literature. So I had to reach out in a big way.

Philosophy is the grandest achievement of humankind. When it is done properly, it should be the zusammenfassung (German for “together fastening”) of all knowledge. As a scientist, I have always believed in determinism: the proposition that “there are material causes for all effects.” So I took a cursory look at all philosophy with that in mind. What I found was a struggle of ideas between those who tended to believe in determinism and those who did not. Throughout history philosophy vacillated from a tendency to be dominated by either determinism or indeterminism. As knowledge about the real world accumulated, the cycles failed to repeat exactly, showing that there were advances in both camps. I cherry picked a few examples for Chapter 2 and even included a controversial sketch in the 1984 review version of TSW:

Progression of the determinism-indeterminism cycle as represented by various Western philosophers.

Sophists, postmodernists, and other indeterminists hate this cartoon ostensibly because it is simple, but mostly because its spiralic character illustrates Hegel’s “negation of the negation.” This dictum, implying that progress is inevitable, bedevils reactionaries and conservatives and gives hope to progressives. It explains why you can’t go home again and why we will never return to those five minutes in 1950 when all was perfect.

I have been asked to downplay the importance of Marx and dialectical materialism. That is not possible. If you really believe that “there are material causes for all effects,” then you must admit that you are not only a determinist, but a materialist as well. You can see the appeal of any philosophy that dares to use “materialism” in its name. Indeed, some Marxists have considered dialectical materialism to be the scientific worldview. Aside from the great religions, no other philosophy has had such a great effect on the world and day-to-day life. This is true whether one was promoting it or fighting against it. Previous philosophers have been indeterminists in their own way even though one can always extract a few deterministic ideas from their works. They became popular because they were useful to the authorities who, above all, had to instill and enforce loyalty to survive. As always, those who stepped over the line were ignored, confined, or executed.

The philosophical struggle came to a head with the publication of Lenin’s “Materialism” in 1909 as a reaction to what he saw as the bourgeois sponsorship of idealism in physics. Subsequent events accelerated the slander against materialism in the West. Materialism became covert among scientists, who dared not mention its name. Most became too philosophically confused or enfeebled to prevent the introduction of immaterialism into physics. The dominance of religion provided an enormous reservoir of indeterministic ideas that aided this regression.

Growing up in the fifties, we were taught to avoid reading or talking about anything having to do with communism, materialism, Marx, Lenin, or atheism—some of my earliest television memories are of Sen. McCarthy and HUAC, which taught us lessons in persecution. The Vietnam War changed all that, because we were being asked to put our lives on the line in opposition to the ideas behind McCarthy’s words. Many of us tried to find out what we were fighting to overthrow. Eventually the words became less intimidating than the prospect of an early, needless death.

Bill, you are correct that Marx and Engels gave little direction as to how to proceed in science. I was struck, however, by Marx’s claim that it is not consciousness that determines material conditions, but material conditions that determine consciousness. This fit with my long-standing belief in determinism. Of course, the relationship is really univironmental, as I eventually discovered—the subjective and objective are in perpetual interaction. Sure, Engels later formulated the three “laws” of dialectical materialism: 1) the unity and conflict of opposites, 2) the transformation of quantity into quality, and 3) the negation of the negation. These observations are sometimes useful, but I could not see how disagreement with them would lead to the objectification of motion, cosmogony, or religion. That is where Collingwood and Bohm came in, as you will see in Chapter 3, which is on "The Ten Assumptions of Science."]

 2. You handle the matter/spirit dichotomy well, but I think the better approach is to simply identify religious ideas as convenient methods of dealing with the unknown and imposing social order. They were a refuge for blind ignorance and de-facto authority, when knowledge and truth were sparse.

[I partially agree, but this situation is still true for most of the world. I do not find attacks on religion to be particularly helpful for getting to the place I want to go: the philosophical elimination of free will as the best expression of the proposition that “there are material causes for all effects.”]

I'm not sure that it's valid to equate determinism with the material view and indeterminism with the spiritual view. One can be a determinist while still embracing acausality (true material randomness) and one can be a spiritualist who believes in a predetermined plan of God (dictating every natural and human event).

[You are partially correct, except that would not satisfy the assumption that “there are material causes for all effects.” Aristotle and some of the classical determinists incorrectly thought material randomness to be acausal. This would mean that the microcosms involved were not subject to Newton’s Second Law (F=ma). Calvin’s predestination eliminated free will too, but substituted an immaterial actor in charge of carrying out the plan.]

3. I don't agree that determinism and free will are contrary ideas. However, I see that you have a latter chapter discussing the topic, so I'll reserve my comments.

[You write that you agree with the assumption that “there are material causes for all effects” and that human abstractions are configurations of synapses, but remark that “While the configurations themselves are purely material, the content is not constrained by the laws of physics.” Univironmental determinists consider all things and their motions as being constrained by the laws of physics. I have no idea what you mean by “content” independent of the universe—sounds like spiritualism to me.]

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