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Metaphysics Is Prior to Science


Over the past couple of days I have been commenting on the modern debate about philosophy of the mind (see here and here). What follows are some thoughts on scientific versus philosophical discussions of the mind and other matters.

I was at a conference recently and was asked by friends who are quite sympathetic to the immaterial understanding of the mind if I could discuss some of the scientific evidence for it and not rely as heavily as I otherwise do on philosophical reasoning. It's an understandable request, and one that I hear often from allies and adversaries alike.

Indeed there is much scientific evidence that the mind cannot be explained adequately in material terms, especially if one understands matter according to modern mechanical philosophy. I have an aversion to the use of scientific arguments to bolster claims that are inherently logical and metaphysical. Such recourse to scientific, rather than logical and metaphysical, arguments are the mainstay of materialist arguments about the mind, about biology, and about many aspects of physics.

The difficulty with using raw scientific evidence, untethered from a valid metaphysical framework, is that it gives free reign to ideological bias. In that sense our metaphysical framework -- whether explicit or implicit -- is analogous to train tracks, where the trains are our scientific investigations, and the destination is the truth. Our scientific investigations are restricted to the tracks that the trains run on, and if we are to understand the truth of our science we must understand the tracks that constrain our work. If our metaphysical framework is materialistic, the destination of our inquiries will always be materialistic -- we can do no other.

Metaphysics is prior to science, and science goes horribly wrong if we have an error in metaphysics. An obvious example of profoundly misguided science that arose from metaphysical error is Francis Bacon's abandonment of teleology in the 17th century in favor of a mechanical understanding of nature. Evolution of living things is understood quite readily in a teleological framework -- the nonsensical invocation of tautology (survival of survivors) in the Darwinian fallacy is the direct consequence of the abandonment of teleology in natural science.

Another metaphysical error for which we have paid dearly is the abandonment of the concept of potency and act which is at the heart of Aristotelian metaphysics. Our misunderstanding of the "strangeness of quantum mechanics" such as the existence of myriad indeterminate quantum states that collapse to a single actual state upon observation is the direct consequence of the abandonment of Aristotelian potency and act with the rise of mechanical philosophy in the 17th century. Quantum indeterminacy confounded Bohr and Einstein and Schrodinger, who were trapped in mechanistic Newtonian metaphysics.

Aristotle wouldn't have blinked an eye at quantum indeterminacy -- the collapse of the quantum waveform is a simple manifestation of reduction of potency to act. Heisenberg, who understood Aristotle, understood this.

The use of scientific arguments for things for which they are not suited is a hallmark of scientism, and it is among the most pernicious errors of modern thought. It is important that we who oppose materialism and scientism don't employ scientistic arguments to refute scientism.

So my arguments about the mind are strongly metaphysical, with only occasional reference to clinical experience and to neuroscience. It is not true that neuroscience supports materialistic understandings of the mind; neuroscience in fact only makes sense if one sets aside modern mechanical metaphysics and looks instead to the classical hylomorphic metaphysics of Aristotle and the Scholastics. Bennett and Hacker have made this point in their profoundly important work to rid neuroscience of its philosophical junk.

Wholly materialistic models of the mind are wrong for logical and metaphysical reasons. Only when we understand those metaphysical errors can we properly interpret the scientific evidence.

Modern science is a metaphysical wasteland. Our sad state of affairs is that we moderns have much more scientific evidence than we have metaphysical insight with which to make sense of that evidence.

Image: Francis Bacon, by Frans Pourbus the younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.