Feser contra scientism—again

Ed Feser sees a post by Alva Noë on Thomas Nagel's recent book Mind and Cosmos as an opportunity for another diatribe against scientism.   By 'scientism' he seems to mean certain metonymic usages common in popular science writing whereby brains or other bits of the neural system are said to 'decide' or that genes are 'selfish'.  'Scientism' makes its first appearance about three quarters of the way through the article.  Ed quotes Noë
Trying to understand consciousness in neural terms alone is like trying to understand a car driving down the road only in terms of its engine. It’s bad philosophy masquerading as science…

The brain is necessary for consciousness. Of course! Just as an engine is necessary in a car. But an engine doesn’t “give rise” to driving; driving isn’t something that happens inside the engine. The engine contributes to the car’s ability to drive. Consciousness is more like driving than our philosophical tradition leads us to expect. To be conscious is to have a world. The fact is, you and I don’t have what it takes to make a world on our own. We find the world, we don’t make it in our brains.

The brain is essential for our lives, physiology, health and experience. But the idea that it is the whole story, or even the key to understanding the story, is not a scientific conclusion. It’s a prejudice. Consciousness requires the joint operation of the brain, the body and the world.
Ed then goes on to say
What Noë is here decrying is, essentially, what I have described elsewhere as scientism’s tendency to reify abstractions and to treat parts of substances as if they were substances in their own right, and his examples are more or less the same as the ones I gave there.  From the rich, concrete world of material objects presented to us in experience, which is characterized by colors, sounds, odors, [1] flavors, warmth, coolness, meanings and purposes, causal powers and liabilities, physics abstracts out its mathematical structure. [2] That is extremely useful for certain purposes and certainly captures aspects of what is really out there in the world.  But scientism treats this abstraction as if it were the concrete reality itself, and the entirety of that reality.  From concrete human beings, neuroscience abstracts out the nervous system [3] and makes of it the focus of study.  This too is useful for certain purposes, and is unproblematic as long as it is kept in mind that neural structures and processes can properly be understood only by reference to the whole organism of which they are a part. [4] Scientism, however, fallaciously tends to treat such structures and processes as if they were substances in their own right [5], and attributes to them activities -- “interpreting,” “perceiving,” “deciding,” etc. -- that can intelligibly be attributed only to the human being as a whole and not to any part, not even a neurological part.  (I’ve discussed various “neurofallacies” at greater length here and here.)

Scientism claims to be “reality based” but that is precisely what it is not.  It recognizes only aspects of reality, and in particular only those susceptible of study via its favored methods.   When those methods fail to capture some aspect of reality -- God, consciousness, intentionality, free will, selfhood, moral value, and so on -- scientism tends to blame reality rather than its methods, and to insist that the reality either be redefined so as to make it compatible with its methods, or eliminated entirely.

The Aristotelian, by contrast, insists upon recognizing the world as it really is, and adjusting method to reality rather than reality to method.  Hence while the methods appropriate to physics -- the construction of mathematical models that capture those aspects of material nature susceptible of strict prediction and control -- are certainly suitable for the study of some phenomena, they are not suitable for biology, psychology, ethics, metaphysics, or what have you.

As we’ve seen, in his most recent post, Noë writes:
The issue at stake is internal to science.  We have not yet integrated an account of ourselves into our understanding of nature.  And so our conception of nature itself is, or threatens to be, incomplete.
But the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition had an account that integrated us into nature.  It is scientism, which abstracts out of nature everything that smacks of the human [6], that has created the problem of reintegrating us into it.  The solution is not a further application of its methods, which simply compounds the problem, but a realization that those methods are not the only ones available to us, and never were.  The work of Nagel, Noë, and Co. is evidence that that realization is increasingly to be found outside the circle of self-consciously Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophers.
I'll adopt my usual method of a close critical reading of what Ed has written.  The underlined sentences, to my mind, stand out.

(1) Ed starts almost with an own-goal.  Concrete reality presents itself to us in experience.  Is it the reality or the experience that is characterised by colours, sounds, etc?

(2) What on Earth can Ed mean by the mathematical structure of the world? (or was it the experience?)  The mathematical structure.  Just the one?  Mathematics can be applied to a vast range of phenomena from the interactions of elementary particles to the dynamics of space-time itself, with engineering, ecology, and economics somewhere in the middle.  Nobody mistakes these abstract mathematical models for the concrete reality.  Perhaps what Ed is trying to say is that physics hypothesises that the material world is assembled from vast numbers of particles drawn from a small family of easily characterised types interacting through a small number of similarly characterised fields of force.  But no-one would ever claim that there is nothing more of interest to be said about the world, except perhaps shortly after the Big Bang.  

(3) I have trouble with Ed's use of abstracts out.  Neuroscientists sometimes dissect out (bits of) a nervous system but they regard this as a concrete entity that can be experimented with.  They may subsequently theorise that a nervous system can be treated as a network linking sensing elements (in sensory organs) to actuating elements (in muscles, say). If a significant amount of the behaviour of Caenorhabditis elegans  with its 302 neurons can be explained by reference to this model then it would appear that we have a good understanding of the worm's nervous system.  That's scientific method. But no-one would mistake the model for the nerve cells themselves.

(4) What is meant by properly here? If it means completely, in the sense that no questions remain unanswered, then everyone would have to agree with Ed.  It's in the nature of abstractions that some aspects get left out.  But if it means legitimately then I disagree.   Valuable understanding can be had through abstractions and approximations.  Arguably all intellectual understanding is through abstractions.  If we can treat the vascular system in this way, why not the nervous system?

(5) Maybe Ed is using substance in a technical sense here.  In distinction with accident clearly a kidney is a substance, so why not a system of nerves?  The complaint that activities are ascribed to parts that can properly be ascribed only to wholes is a complaint against a metonymic usage that careful authors avoid.  Yet it's a chess-playing computer's program rather than its power supply that more properly decides on its next move, though both have a hand in the decision. Or perhaps this should not be called a decision at all? 

(6) Here Ed uses abstracts out in the opposite sense to his earlier usages.  Here he means discards as opposed to retains.

It's really disappointing that Ed Feser continues to bang away at the straw man of scientism whilst ignoring the problem that Nagel and others have put before us:  How are we to reconcile the Sellarsian manifest and scientific images?    True, Aristotelianism gives us an account of the human integrated with nature.  It does so by projecting the human onto nature.  The apparatus of matter and form, potentiality and actuality, teleology and cause invented to tame the unruly and complicated human world has nothing to offer us in our understanding of the strikingly simple world of the elementary particles.  It's no use saying, as Ed often does, that the scientific image results from some metaphysical error committed in the seventeenth century and if we would only repent this mistake all would be well.   For J. J. Thompson experimenting with cathode rays in the late 1890s, electrons were as real as billiard balls but profoundly simpler.  We are stuck with the scientific image and have to move forward with it.  Neither image can assimilate the other.  Hence we must unify them or continue to live with the duality.

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