FOM: Unity or disunity of science, human knowledge?

Solomon Feferman sf at Csli.Stanford.EDU
Sun Jan 18 22:21:48 EST 1998

This concerns a point in my posting of 13 Jan 00:10 and in Simpson of 13
Jan 13:29.  In order to save space and the reader's patience I will not 
quote the passages in question (and recommend others to do the same in
their postings).  Briefly, I questioned Simpson's goal of f.o.m. as
contributing to the unity of knowledge, and recommended reading the book
*The Disorder of Things* by John Dupre, in which the disunity of science
(and thence the disunity of knowledge, though see end p.243, op.cit.) is
argued.  Simpson said he waded through a good bit of the book and found
that it deploys postmodernist arguments, radical feminism, Foucault, and
other bogies of his.  He was not convinced, to say the least.  While there
are certainly elements of what Steve reacted to so negatively, I think he
magnifies these out of all proportion.

I have to ask other readers interested in this issue to read Dupre with an
open mind.  I cannot repeat the arguments here which made his main theses
convincing to me, and anyhow this goes far beyond the scope of f.o.m. as I
see it, but I feel I have to say something about the issue since Steve
does consider it as part of the big picture in which f.o.m. fits.

What exactly is the supposed unity of science?  This was a slogan attached
to the program of the logical empiricists starting with the Vienna Circle
in the 1920s-1930s.  Their idea was to ground all knowledge in observation
statements; the program is generally considered to be a failure, either
because it is hopeless or because it is wrong-headed or both.  It was an
example of looking for the unity of science through a form of
reductionism.  Modern programs of reductionism take the form of a
hierarchy of sciences, with physics at the base, then chemistry, then
biology, then the social sciences, each reduced to the preceding in the
list.  And in physics, everything is supposed to be reduced to the
ultimate laws of nature (which we still don't have yet in unified form,
though that is an avowed goal of some theoretical physicists) concerning
quantum-mechanical phenomena, electrodynamics, relativity theory, etc. It
is this kind of reductionism that leads to such chimerical projects as the
efforts of Roger Penrose to explain rational (or perhaps just
mathematical) mental behavior in terms of yet to be discovered underlying
laws of physics.  (It has certainly been profitable for him, whatever its
prospects.)  The reverse side of this particular coin is the efforts of
many others to reduce mental behavior to the workings of computing machines, 
another kind of reductionism.  Dupre argues convincingly, to my mind,
against reductionism in the sciences.  He concentrates on biology in doing
so.  But the case can already be made in the physical sciences.  It is lip
service to say, e.g. that fluid mechanics, or thermodynamics are reducible
to the supposed fundamental laws above.  What about meteorology and
geophysics?  Sure, physical laws come into play in the explanations of
the phenomena studied in these subjects, but one doesn't have a genuine

Let's take the science of human beings.  Is there one?  No, there are
thousands of ways you can classify what you are interested in, from the
point of view of a variety of the major sciences, going from the
anatomy of the big toe through the physiology of the big colon to
schizophrenia.  What is the essence of being human?  Nowadays it is
fashionable to locate the answer in the genes.  Dupre makes convincing
arguments against this kind of essentialism, which is part of a
reductionist picture.  This is where feminism comes in. What is the
essence of being a female human being?  Also where Foucault comes in (just
two pages, near the end of the book); what is the essence of being a
homosexual?  The effort to reduce the social sciences to the biological
and physical sciences has political effects which Dupre takes up in his
last chapter.  While I don't find his particular examples there very
persuasive, the possibly negative significance of essentialist-reductionist 
viewpoints in that respect certainly needs consideration.  In his next to
the last chapter, Dupre considers other possible ways of arriving at the
unity of science, including Popper's falsificationism, or presumed
commonality of scientific method or process.  Again I find his arguments
against all of these persuasive.  Of course all this has to be fit into
the vast literature of the philosophy of science, most of which I have a
very superficial knowledge of, and it is possible I have been too easily
swayed by Dupre's arguments.  But they reinforced what I had arrived at in
my own thinking, and so it is natural that I have found them congenial.
Other issues he takes up are the venerable ones of determinism and
One final, related point: The efforts of Reuben Hersh to have mathematics
rest on features of reproducibility and consensus in the same respect as
the sciences doesn't work because the sciences themselves don't rest on
these, except possibly in the "hard", experimental sciences.  What is
reproducibility in evolutionary theory, or macroeconomics, or the residual
presence of living matter in martian meteorites, or etc., etc.?  Where is
the consensus?  

Sol Feferman

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