The Insufficiency of Empiricism

Daniel J. Castellano (2012)

Part II

Part I
1. Dogmatic Skepticism
2. Early History of the Scientific Method
   2.1 Thales of Miletus
   2.2 Plato’s Mathematical Physics
   2.3 Aristotle’s Rationalist Physics
   2.4 Medieval Natural Philosophy
   2.5 Scientific Methodology Before Galileo
3. Galileo and the New Science
4. Baconian Empiricism
5. The Victorian Myth of Objectivity
6. Scientific Method in Modern Practice
Part II
7. Falsifiability
8. Scientism in Analytic Philosophy
   8.1. Physical Materialism
   8.2. Biological Materialism
   8.3. Ontology in General
   8.4. Limitations of Materialist Anthropology
9. The Poverty of Empiricism
10. Paranormal and Supernatural Claims
11. Non-Repeatable Experience

7. Falsifiability

The successful use of controlled experiments in science to corroborate or falsify hypotheses has led many to consider this testing process as the defining characteristic of scientific inquiry. Sir Karl Popper articulated this criterion when trying to find a way to distinguish apparent pseudosciences such as Freudianism and Marxism from genuine science. Popper asserted that a truly scientific theory must be “falsifiable,” that is to say, it can be subjected to a controlled experiment that could conceivably contradict it. Conversely, any theory that does not admit the possibility of empirical falsification is regarded as pseudoscience.

The falsifiability standard has attained widespread acceptance among scientists, though philosophers of science have pointed out several problems with such a definition of scientific method.

First, the falsifiability standard was chosen by Popper deliberately to exclude theories he intuitively judged unscientific, so it possibly contains more cultural bias than an objective theory of knowledge should. Second, it is not clear that this standard includes or excludes the theories that Popper intended. Some Marxists and Freudians are quite amenable to refutation by experiment, while some mathematical theories of physics deal with particle interactions that are fundamentally unobservable. Moreover, Popper’s definition might be interpreted to exclude mathematics and many of the social sciences, particularly those studying the unrepeatable past. Falsifiability might be a good standard for empirical natural science, but not science in the broader, classical sense of the term.

So-called pseudosciences such as Freudianism, Marxism, and astrology do not meet the falsifiability standard, to the extent that their defenders resort to special pleading to explain away failed predictions, rather than admit a failure of their theory. This seems to make the scientific or pseudoscientific status of a theory depend more on the behavior of its adherents than on any intrinsic characteristic of the theory as such.

Tautological knowledge, which may be deduced by philosophers and mathematicians, would seem to be inherently unfalsifiable. This exclusion reminds us that a theory of empirical science can never serve as a general theory of knowledge, as there are other possible paths to knowledge. Thus pseudosciences that do not meet the falsifiability standard are not thereby discredited in the least. All that is proven is that they are not empirical sciences of nature, but neither are mathematics and philosophy, and that is not to their discredit.

The falsifiability standard counterintuitively suggests that the credibility of a scientific theory is derived from the possibility of it being wrong. It is more accurate to assert that a scientific theory gains credibility from its verifiability, by successfully passing tests where it might have been proven wrong. What is paramount is that a theory is consistent with observation, and this has been the hallmark of physical science for the last three centuries, without explicit reference to a falsifiability standard. As long as a theory is confirmed by controlled experiment, the hypothetical possibility of a negative result is of secondary importance.

Equally counterintuitive is the implication that a theory lacking falsifiability loses credibility. Intuitively, if a proposition is absolutely not falsifiable, it is certainly true, though it may be merely a tautology. Regarding pseudosciences as non-falsifiable gives them too much credit, when in fact their excuses for failed predictions can be refuted by evidence and argument. All too often the falsifiability standard is used as an excuse to refuse to engage a theory, maintaining that its exponents will not accept any refutation.

Since falsifiability really means being empirically falsifiable, and the empirical is restricted to physical observation, Popper’s theory furtively incorporates philosophical materialism into his theory of science, which is then misused as a general theory of knowledge. With one stroke, any sort of metaphysical, religious, or spiritual speculation is dismissed as not meriting credibility. Rather than be forced to honestly engage metaphysical arguments with counterarguments, we are excused from debating them altogether, as if they were beyond reason. Clearly, this position is unwarranted, and it arises from the error of equating non-empiricism with irrationality.

The scientific method is an excellent way to arrive at near-certain knowledge in areas that are susceptible to both physical observation and controlled experiment. Many ordinary types of knowledge are not susceptible to controlled experiment, as is the case with the study of history or any other aspect of the past, which can never be replicated. Such sciences must use different rules of evidence, and the basis of certitude in their results is of a different quality than that of the natural sciences. Other types of knowledge are not susceptible to physical observation, such as our conscious experiences (as opposed to their neural correlates), or abstract reasoning about mathematical or metaphysical entities. This non-physical knowledge is not inferior to that of the empirical sciences, but on the contrary is considered the most certain knowledge of all, as we directly comprehend the truth of a tautology and directly experience our own consciousness. The knowledge of empirical sciences, on the other hand, is mediated indirectly through the exercise of our consciousness and abstract reasoning. From this, the foolishness of philosophical materialism is evident: we only know matter through the mind, so it is absurd to doubt the existence of the mind or soul without doubting the existence of matter. Similarly, physics is only intelligible against a background of logical, metaphysical, and mathematical assumptions.

The natural sciences are still epistemologically subordinate to philosophy, in fact if not in culture. Our cultural rejection of abstract philosophy in favor of “hard” science has not eliminated the need for philosophy, but has simply removed it from conscious discourse, reducing it to a set of unconsciously held and poorly understood assumptions. Popper himself recognized this in his study of quantum mechanics, which he called “the great quantum muddle,” in reference to how physicists incoherently invoked contradictory philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics. Even the most radically anti-philosophical man has a philosophy, but if he consciously rejects the study of philosophy, he is doomed to hold his philosophy unconsciously and incoherently.

8. Scientism in Analytic Philosophy

It is not only scientists who believe that empirical science is epistemologically self-sufficient; the analytic school of philosophy was established for the express purpose of validating this conceit. In another work, I examine the deficiencies of the symbolic logic used by analytic philosophers. Their epistemological and metaphysical shortcomings are expounded at length in Nicholas Capaldi’s book The Enlightenment Project in the Analytic Conversation. For present purposes, I will discuss an example of an especially pure form of scientism expressed by an analytic philosopher.

In an article titled “The Phenomenological Illusion,” noted analytic philosopher John Searle accuses phenomenologists of advocating a sort of idealism by suggesting that what goes on in the mind (experience) contributes to the ontology of an object. While there is much that is valid in Searle’s critique of phenomenology (which he knows only at second hand through the work of Hubert Drefyus), we are concerned with an odd claim that he makes uncritically, precisely because he thinks it proven well beyond reasonable doubt. He describes the basic question of modern philosophy: “How do we account for our conceptions of ourselves as a certain sort of human being in a universe that we know consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force.” Throughout his entire analysis, he assumes that the reality of particles and fields is a fundament to everything else, so all other reality, including that of conscious experience, ideation, intensive meaning, must somehow be explained in terms of this presumably deeper reality.

With such a perspective, even Husserl’s philosophy, which was conceived in opposition to psychologism, seems itself to be a kind of psychologism. Analytic philosophers who adopt the premise of scientism, that physics underlies all other reality, cannot allow any ontological reality to experience or ideations except as purely derivative of the reality of particles and fields. Analytic philosophers constrict ontology to the concrete objects of natural science, leaving no place for universals. Logically, analytic philosophers ought to be in constant war with their minds, which are always presenting falsifications of reality through abstraction and ideation.

Searle’s ontological scientism is grounded in two root assumptions:

  1. Everything is a particle or field. (!!)
  2. All life, including humans, is a product of evolution.

Searle holds that these broad assertions are “proven” by science, and therefore ought to be held as universal assumptions. It is profoundly foolish to make these claims the axioms of an ontology. Both of these statements are the product of complex, synthetic physical theories, which in turn are laden with na´ve metaphysical assumptions. Searle starts with his conclusion, making philosophical materialism, which ought to be proven, instead his axiom. He na´vely supposes that the realities studied by empirical physics are absolutely “everything,” which is precisely what the non-materialist challenges. His assertion of a materialist origin of all life is based on our incomplete and circumstantial knowledge of biological evolution, which lacks, among other things, a detailed model of how life arose from inorganic matter. Even if these claims were completely uncontroversial within their respective physical domains, it would not follow that they should be regarded as absolutely universal principles.

We now examine the two claims in some detail.

8.1. Physical Materialism

The first claim is, "Everything is a particle of field." Physics proves no such thing. To wit:

(a) Problem of induction: We cannot infer universality from any large finite number of observations, not even probabilistically.

(b) Limitation of scope: Physics only deals with objects that can be modeled mathematically. Things like intentionality or quality are either ignored or assumed to be mere epiphenomena of physical processes. Yet this assumption is precisely what the non-materialist challenges, and what the materialist is obliged to prove, or at least to give a reason for his preference.

(c) Particles and fields are mathematical models, having little more content than scalar or vector objects. Most of these so-called particles or fields exist as mathematical constructs, arguably telling us little about ontology. That is to say, there is more to the reality of the objects we call “particles” and “fields” than what is contained in their mathematical representations. They are not pure mathematical objects.

(d) Ambiguity of interpretation of quantum mechanics: The ontology of quantum mechanics is far less straightforward than a particle-field materialism would indicate. A “particle” is more like a class of states (consider neutrino oscillation), with the propensity of each state being determined by a wavefunction. Since the propagation of the wavefunction can be described by a second-order differential equation in the form of a classical wave, the wavefunction can be modeled by a field, yet its dimensions are not in real space. (Even the spatial wavefunction is really in an infinite-dimensional Hilbert space, spanned by eigenvectors representing each spatial state.) “Particle” and “field” again are mathematical constructs that may or may not have ontological significance, depending on context. Further, the wavefunction, being non-deterministic, leaves open the possibility of some other metaphysical object underlying it. In fact, quantum mechanics renders materialism (the idea that concrete “stuff” is ontologically fundamental) incoherent. Still, analytic philosophers try to salvage materialism by making mathematical abstractions and quantum wavefunctions serve the role of physical substances. Yet it would be wrong to say that things are “made of” wavefunctions; in fact the relation of the wavefunction to the thing-in-itself, being context- and perspective-dependent, is closer to Husserl’s description of the relation of intentional experience to objects.

(e) Space, time, quality, and relation are not reducible to particles and fields. Space and time are the metaphysical background on which particles and fields operate. Without them, particles and fields could not stand in relation to each other, which requires something to allow them to exist in the same contiguous reality. Most of the wavefunctions are defined with respect to properties or qualities. We have not shown how mass, charge, etc. are reducible to pure matter. Instead these are just lumped into the definition of matter. Yet simply applying the label “matter” to all physical properties does not contribute to any real understanding of what charge and other properties are. For all we know, the charge of each class of fundamental particle is arbitrarily determined by angels, as we have no physics reason to account for this brute fact. Facetiousness aside, charge is not a particle or a wave, though it is quite real. The same may be said of interaction terms, which prove that physical relations are more than mere compositions of constituent particles and fields.

(f) Empirical physics cannot answer metaphysical questions. Empiricism deals only with phenomena. Abstract reasoning gives us (hopefully) universals (e.g., “This object is an electron.”). Experimental physics deals with individuated quantitative relations (e.g., “The mass of this object multiplied by its acceleration is proportionate to the force applied to it.”). It assumes but does not prove causality (i.e., that phenomena are linked by causation, not just mathematical correlation), and na´vely assumes which ontological entities these relations describe, often erroneously, as demonstrated by the crisis of the nineteenth century. This is not to speak of the epistemic and logical assumptions of physics, not to mention its “commonsense” metaphysical assumptions, which are selectively discarded when they contradict a desired interpretation (e.g., “Everything in nature has a cause,” except when that leads to theology.).

8.2. Biological Materialism

The claim, “Humans evolved from inanimate matter,” contains a host of physical and metaphysical assumptions that cannot be established by current science, and many of which are outside the domain of empirical science. Searle believes science has no defined domain, but its epistemic assumptions in fact restrict it to concrete spatiotemporal phenomena; and by cultural choice, it is further self-restricted to the quantitative aspects of these phenomena.

(a) The fact of transmutation of species is known only through a synthetic theory of circumstantial evidence. No one observes high order transmutations—these are inferred from the fossil record and genetics as a parsimonious explanation. In other words, the claim relies on ratiocinative and speculative theory, not pure empiricism. The construction of this theory involves epistemic and metaphysical assumptions, so to make this thesis an axiom of philosophy is absurd, since it must assume a hefty portion of philosophy in order to be valid.

(b) Even if the fact of transmutation of species is accepted as established, this would not automatically yield a metaphysical or ontological account of said transformation. It is one thing to say something happens, but quite another to say how or why it happened. As far as evolution being a purely stochastic process constrained only by selective pressures, this position is not without its mathematical difficulties. Even if these were overcome, we still have not accounted for transitions ontologically. How can any permutation of inanimate matter yield intentionality if such intentionality is not already there in potentia? We do not understand ontogeny well enough to say that consciousness is only a phenomenon of molecular activity, so we can hardly infer ontogeny from phylogeny or genomics. There are too many unknowns, such as: what are all the functions of each gene; how do ribosomes “read” sequences; how is it decided when to activate which genes, and what is the process of activation, not to mention the extent to which phenotype may be independent of genotype. It is rashly premature to postulate evolution as the ontological basis of animal life when these questions remain unanswered.

(c) An abiogenetic naturalistic origin of life is not established empirically—it is simply assumed. Indeed, most speculation on such an origin of life is focused on showing it is not impossible, without giving a concrete process showing that it is possible. Such a lack of empirical corroboration may be advanced even against the thesis of transmutation—scientists have conveniently forgotten T.H. Huxley’s expectation that a transmutation on the order of ape to man would be confirmed by artificial selection. In other areas of science, man has been able to accelerate through artifice what occurs slowly in nature (e.g., synthesizing gems and fossil fuels), but he has not been able to do so in convincing fashion with the evolution of complex biological structures.

8.3 Ontology in General

Having dispensed with Searle’s ontological axioms as mere physical theses of doubtful universality, we may proceed to a discussion of ontology proper. Here, the anti-metaphysical prejudice of the analytic school again stifles inquiry, as Searle seems to think that anyone who speaks of Being must be a Platonist or committing an elementary category error. This is only because he has artificially restricted ontology to particles and waves, an incoherent position that will not hold even within the domain of physics.

Searle complains that those who speak of Being as a noun run into serious intellectual difficulties. Indeed, he might have gone further and said there will be problems using “being” as virtually any part of speech, for being is not a genus of any predication, much less is it a substance, action, or property. The best our grammar can do to represent this intuition is as a copula.

Yet Searle’s proposal to discard the concept of Being is not a solution. For surely there is a real distinction between that which is and that which is not, or all logic is worthless, including that upon which mathematics and physics is based. It may be an unfortunate barbarism to say something “has being” or “does not have being” as though being were a substance or property, but this is a constraint of our idiom, which was constructed based on our conscious intention or intuition, which in turn uses concrete objects as its matter even when dealing with abstractions.

All ontological categories are predicated of being: to deny being is to deny ontology. There are different modalities by which being can be considered: necessary/contingent, possible/actual/impossible, existent/non-existent, etc. Searle shrinks from an analysis of being, indeed from all metaphysics, since this can lead to the necessity of God, which he resists. Following Hume’s bad habit of declaring meaningless that which is perfectly intelligible to many people, Searle denies being, because he cannot analyze it with symbolic logic. His faulty assumption is that only that which can be treated by formal logic can be real, a vestige of long-dead logicism disproved by G÷del. In the case of being, there is a deeper reason it cannot be analyzed by formal logic: it is prior to form; it is the notion underlying all logical predications and statements. Without being, logic is just the manipulation of symbols.

The core deficiencies in Searle’s philosophy are not in his reasoning, but in his underlying assumption of scientism, that all truth is to be found by empirical science, and no other valid means. This assumption naturally confines a person to philosophical naturalism and atheism from the outset, before any real philosophizing is done. Even the content of science is accepted as something prior to philosophy. As Searle notes, there is little reason to be troubled with epistemological problems, if we are so certain in the growth of modern scientific and technical knowledge. It is unclear why analytic philosophy should even exist as a discipline separate from mathematics and the natural sciences, as it discovers no content apart from these. Why should we learn truth from analytic philosophers, who generally have a secondhand understanding of scientific theories, when we can go straight to the scientists themselves? Yet if we were to do so, we would be appalled by the metaphysical na´vetÚ of scientists, and it is perhaps the work of analytic philosophers to paper over this embarrassing fact. Most analytic philosophers, however, are hardly better informed regarding phenomenology and other Continental philosophy, much less regarding the Scholastics who, as Heidegger acknowledged, understood philosophy better than many moderns.

Indeed, the modern analytic movement appears to have abandoned philosophy and regressed to a pre-Socratic materialism. The science and mathematics has become more complex and sophisticated, but the philosophical content is just crude materialism. This primitiveness is glossed over by focusing on scientific theories and making them do double duty as theories of metaphysics (without using that dreadful word). This amounts to codifying the na´ve metaphysical assumptions of current scientists as empirically verified truth, so the content of analytic philosophy will shift with the metaphysical whims of scientists, without any sound theoretic basis for these shifts. So we merely assume everything is a particle or a field because it is mathematically expedient, or assume evolution accounts for ontogeny because… well, just because.

Searle denies that he is a Cartesian, though his assumption that everything in the natural world is made of particles and fields evokes comparison with Descartes’ vortices. Descartes, at least, had a rich enough metaphysics to recognize that consciousness is not reducible to any res extensa. The fact that Searle believes all forms of dualism (by which he means any non-materialist account of the soul) are not viable betrays a breathtaking illiteracy of our Western philosophical heritage. Aristotle’s hylomorphism and all other non-materialist accounts of the soul are unceremoniously lumped together with Cartesian dualism, as if to refute the latter sufficed to refute the others. There is no way to invalidate hylomorphism empirically, since matter and form are physically inseparable, so it is difficult to understand the basis for its rejection, aside from an a priori preference for materialism. Correlation between brain activity and mental experience does not establish psychological materialism. Such correlation was known even to the founder of modern neuroscience, C.S. Sherrington, yet he, being philosophically literate, recognized that the mind-body problem remained basically where Aristotle had left it. Mental reality remains just as qualitatively distinct from material extension as it has always been.

The analytic subterfuge is to claim we have made a mistake in thinking mind to be different from matter. Yet if that were so, why should we trust the far less self-evident truths of science, which are entirely mediated through a reasoning process whose validity depends on a distinction between mind and matter? Drawing our attention to complex scientific technicalities does nothing to address this fundamental epistemic problem of materialism, and only serves to mask the philosophical crudeness of their Epicureanism. Ironically, the analytic philosophers effectively practice a sort of idealism by valuing the abstract mathematical models of science as more fundamentally real than our direct experience of different kinds of substance and qualities.

8.4 Limitations of Materialist Anthropology

As an example of how the analytic focus on science adds technical content without adding any philosophical content, consider the expression, “It’s in their DNA,” where ‘it’ refers to some voluntary human behavior. Philosophically, this crude statement is equivalent in content to “It’s in their blood,” a comment that would only be made by the ignorant or racist. The only difference is that DNA more accurately describes the chemical where genetic material resides, but this is only an improvement in technical knowledge. In both cases, the essence of the statement is the same: the referenced voluntary behavior is considered a product of heredity. The person who looks with scorn upon the phrase, “It’s in their blood,”, but takes seriously the claim, “It’s in their DNA,” is an inconsistent fool. Both statements contain the same anthropological fallacy, yet this crudeness is masked by the technical precision of the latter statement. So it is with the philosophy of mind and other subjects considered by analytic philosophers. They may discuss technical matters with precise jargon, giving the illusion of a sophisticated philosophy, when the actual philosophical content of their discourse is little more than base Epicureanism. All the scientific precision in the world is mere window-dressing for a bankrupt philosophical core that is unchanged in over 2000 years, just as saying “It’s in their DNA” serves only to mask the racism or otherwise crude anthropology of the speaker.

Analytic philosophers, like physicomathematical scientists, tend to regard high intelligence as the ability to deal with complexity. In earlier ages, it was subtlety and acuity, not complexity, that was the measure of a man’s intellect. Modern reckoning of intelligence views the mind as a machine or computing device, and whoever computes best is most intelligent. This banal sort of intelligence is not intelligence at all, but computation, which is easily replicated and surpassed by electronic computers. Those who suppose that human intellect is a matter of complexity should note that computers surpassed us in complexity of computation decades ago. Real intelligence is ineffably subtle—we understand. Deep Blue can play chess far better than I, as can more ordinary chess programs, but it does not know it is playing chess, whereas even the dullest human is capable of knowing. Being one-trick ponies who are helpless without mathematics, modern scientists and their analytic water-carriers must suppose that different ontological categories or qualities “emerge” from each other quantitatively, as a mere matter of complexity. Yet a complex is but a composition of entities, so it can never yield anything other than what is contained potentially in its parts.

Understanding, eo ipso, does not require composition or complexity—it is simple and direct. That the thinker’s body is made of cells or atoms does not mean thinking is composite—this is a fallacy of composition. Similarly, just because a foot is not alive and a head is not alive, and so on, it does not follow that the whole human cannot be alive. The analytics implicitly rely on such fallacies of composition when they assert that “dualism” is empirically untenable. Modern discoveries that bodies are composed of cells composed of atoms add nothing to the discussion, for we have always known (at least since Aristotle) that the individuated parts of the body are not alive by themselves. Adding biological precision does nothing but create the illusion of improved philosophy, when in fact it is the same old fallacy of composition.

Analytic philosophers are not teachers of first philosophy; they are mathematical logicians generally lacking the subtlety and acuity that are the marks of highest intellect. Some among them possess these greater gifts, yet remain stunted by an intellectual climate that uncritically accepts scientism. Those who lack or suppress such gifts will critique their opponents with mathematical logic, supposing that non-materialists are guilty of some elementary fallacy, rather than admit that anything might slip between the planks of their formalism, which presupposes a barren ontology. This self-imposed constraint on intellectual activity makes them little better than computers, parsing arguments without understanding. It is only fitting that such thinkers should reduce intelligence to mechanistic activity, and conversely ascribe intelligence to machines. Their formalism has rendered the human intellect little better than a computer, and about as good a philosopher. Yet not all of us choose to abide by such senseless constraints.

9. The Poverty of Empiricism

Since empiricism is a limited epistemology, it can actually be harmful when empiricist positivism is applied to fields requiring other ways of knowing, as Jens Mende discusses in his article “The Poverty of Empiricism.” [Informing Science Journal, (2005) Vol. 8, pp. 189-210.]

Mende mentions that most research methodology textbooks omit non-empiricist epistemologies that are regularly used in science. These include: (1) serendipity, where a discovery is made while investigating a different matter; (2) conjecture, i.e., a pure guess at a solution to the problem; (3) thought experiment, “to generate theoretical models by imagining a situation and then using its features as premises of an inductive or deductive argument;” (4) logical deduction, explaining observed regularities from unobservable first causes; and (5) teleological methods, identifying human purposes to connect them to human actions. A strictly empiricist account of scientific methodology falsifies how science is actually conducted in practice, and omits the important and fruitful methods of discovery mentioned above.

These non-empiricist modes of discovery will be more immediately recognizable to engineers and those involved in the study of human behavior and culture. Such intellectuals tend not to be as ideologically committed to positivist empiricism, and at any rate, the exigencies of their disciplines make the need for repeated appeal to non-empirical methods practically unavoidable.

In pharmaceutical research, nearly every major drug on the market is serendipitously found to have uses unrelated to its original design. It would seem that serendipity, being purely fortuitous, cannot be an intentional methodology, yet history shows that researchers help create their own luck by repeatedly fishing for new uses. Despite the unquestioned fruitfulness of this method in medicine, empiricist bias in the basic sciences leads reviewers to condemn proposals that are “fishing expeditions,” i.e., experiments where the researcher does not know what he will find, but hopes to find something. Although such research is not necessarily driven by any specific hypothesis, it can and often does lead to useful discovery. By taking an unduly narrow view of scientific method, sponsored research risks becoming needlessly limited only to safe, predictable lines of inquiry.

Often a hypothesis is little more than pure conjecture, a guess not yet supported by any fact. We are reminded of the thousands of filament types and corresponding theories tested by Edison via trial-and-error. While there is nothing systematic or empirical about guessing, it is nonetheless a frequently necessary precondition for discovering anything new. The irrationality and non-analytical nature of guessing is an asset, precisely because this makes it possible to discover realities that are not analytically or empirically derivable from existing knowledge. This poetic ability to “think outside the box” entails a high risk of error, but when it works we are sometimes rewarded with our greatest and most paradigm-shifting discoveries.

Great advancing insights in theoretical physics, from Galileo to Einstein, have often been made through thought experiments. This continues to be a favored method among theorists today. These are generally not pure conjectures, but apply known principles to a hypothetical scenario, and then draw out the apparent logical or mathematical consequences of that scenario. There is almost always an element of conjecture in the thought experiment, since we are not sure that the hypothetical scenario can really occur. Often, however, it is not even necessary to suppose that the thought experiment ever occurs in nature; it is just an idealized situation that enables us to draw out some implications of established physical principles. The repeated success of this mode of inquiry gives us confidence that our theoretical principles give real insight into the causes behind reality.

All scientific theory worthy of the name, not just that which uses thought experiments, explains the observable in terms of the unobservable. Our intelligible, mathematical principles are believed to be the real underlying basis of the regularity of what we observe, even though we almost never see them operating in ideal conditions. Observed reality is messy: there is always friction or air drag or other complicating factors, as well as measurement error, leading us to results that at best approximate the mathematical ideals of our theories. Yet we consider the terms of our mathematical theories to have real explanatory force, and do not regard them as mere descriptions of observations. These theories have their own internal deductive logic which, when followed, can lead to predictions of things not yet observed. This has been repeatedly the case in physics for the last century, as theory, for the most part, has been ahead of observation. Sometimes the theory is so firmly established that scientists speak of certain entities (e.g., black holes) as definitely existing even before they have been unequivocally observed.

Teleological methods are most eminently useful in studies dealing with human behavior. It should be uncontroversial that much human behavior is purposive, notwithstanding some failed attempts to reduce human history and culture to material exigencies. Thus it is frequently fruitful to explain human actions in terms of underlying intentions and purposes. Often we can infer a purpose from a regular set of actions consistent with such purpose. This is based on the general supposition that humans do what they intend to do. Like any other form of theorizing, this is fallible, and it becomes especially dubious when we try to apply such analysis to collective behavior, which can often be the result of unintended consequences. Identifying the proper role of the teleological in human behavior holds particular importance in the study of history, economics, and anthropology. Positivism would be an absolute detriment to these sciences, since it would impose an anti-teleological methodology where it emphatically does not belong.

We should not be scandalized that the social sciences must introduce human purpose into their methodology, for in fact all science is human-oriented. “Science,” after all, is knowledge or wisdom, but this is not a knowledge that can be detached or abstracted from its human subjectivity. We may seek and attain knowledge about objective reality, yet this knowledge is always from a human perspective. The Victorian myth of objectivity has obscured the subjectivity of scientific knowledge, so that we often speak of “science” as if it were a solemn, objective authority, over and above its human practitioners. Yet if we are to call science by its true name—human wisdom—we can immediately see how laughable it is to revere science. For what is more fallible and contingent than human wisdom? To show awe before science is to worship an idol of one’s own hands. Science is no wiser than humanity, and humanity has constantly proven to have a tenuous grasp on wisdom.

When we make a scientific claim, we should not state simply and dogmatically, “X is Y,” as if it comes from a super-human authority. To say “I believe in science” as if it were an enlightened, secular faith is really to say, “I believe in human wisdom,” which is to be a slave of one’s peers. Every scientific claim such as “X is Y” should really be written as “X is Y from a human perspective.” As Heisenberg noted, this has always been the case in science, but relativity and quantum mechanics forced physicists at last to state explicitly what had long been implicit or hidden. There is no longer room for the myth of objectivity to cover the epistemological limitations of science.

10. Paranormal and Supernatural Claims

Having seen that empiricism is not sufficient even in the physical sciences, there is no reason to insist that it possesses sole competence outside the study of nature. In other words, it is no indictment against paranormal or supernatural claims that they are not verified by empirical methods. The character of the reality described by such claims often precludes such verification. Nonetheless, it is not therefore automatically irrational to examine such claims seriously. In fact, the dominant approach of great thinkers from Aristotle to Newton was to give such claims their due, rather than dismiss them on a priori epistemological grounds.

A distinction between the natural and supernatural becomes intelligible only when we accept that the natural order as a whole did not have to be the way it actually is. This raises the question of why it is this way rather than another equally valid possibility. Whatever power is responsible for nature being this way rather than another should be capable of altering or suspending the natural order, even acting outside of it, causing properly supernatural events. To arrive at this distinction between natural and supernatural, the natural order must not be a product of fatalistic necessity. This is why it was not the pagans but the Christians who first articulated this distinction, since the latter believe in a transcendent God who created freely, not out of necessity.

Where do divine explanations fit in the scheme of things? For Aristotle, they certainly belong in first philosophy, but not in physics. Nature, he says, is not divine, though it is divinely planned. That is, the ultimate goal achieved by nature is that sought by God, but in its ordinary operations nature acts on its own, containing its own principle of motion (physis). This is not to deny that Divinity might act directly in the world from time to time. His treatment of such questions can be seen in his less read essay on dreams.

In De Divinatione per Somnum (On Prophesying by Dreams), Aristotle expresses skepticism toward the claim that people can foresee the future in dreams, but he does not dismiss the claim out of hand. After all, many wise men, including Socrates, were great believers in divination. Aristotle does not object to direct divine action as such, but doubts it in this instance, because he thinks it absurd that God would send such prophecies to commoners, rather than to the best and the wisest. After eliminating the likelihood of divine causation on this ground, he shows why natural causes are unlikely to give rise to genuine prophesying, especially when the event predicted is not caused by the dreamer. He posits that most accurate dream predictions are but chance coincidences.

Nonetheless, he offers a possible naturalistic account of how non-coincidental prophesying may be effected by dreams. Perhaps the same natural cause that will result in the predicted event may also cause subtle motions in the air, affecting the mind of one sleeping. This would account for why commoners are more likely to have prophetic dreams, since their minds are vacant and more easily affected. A modern version of this explanation is the notion that some people are psychically or spiritually “sensitive,” being emotionally moved by and acutely aware of their natural environment on a non-materialistic level.

This belabored attempt by Aristotle to find a natural explanation for something he evidently did not believe shows that the evidence of prophetic dreams was a bit too substantial for him to dismiss summarily. We see further evidence of this deference to human testimony over theoretical predilections in some early Christian thinkers. St. Augustine, for example, could not see how it was possible for evil angels to cause women to give birth, yet he found himself forced to admit that he had experienced credible testimony about the phenomenon. It must be recalled that, as bishop in the fourth century, he had to deal with civil, legal, and familial matters on a regular basis, so he was constantly engaged with ordinary people. Similarly, St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century felt compelled to admit the truth about ghosts appearing in Roman baths, even though there was no neat explanation for them in Christian revelation.

These acknowledgments of the paranormal were not motivated by religious na´vetÚ; on the contrary, these occurrences were difficult to harmonize with the authors’ existing theological or philosophical preconceptions. What we have here is humility before facts that contradict theoretical assumptions. This is in sharp contrast with the modern “skeptic,” who will dismiss these things summarily, simply because they do not harmonize with his physical theories, which he assumes to be all-encompassing and admitting absolutely no exceptions. Strictly speaking, it is not a logical requirement for a paranormal claimant to posit a physical explanation of what he observed in order for the observation to be credible. It is not necessary to understand the universal cause of a particular fact in order to establish that the particular fact is true. It is perfectly coherent to establish that ghosts do in fact exist without understanding how this can be so or why it is so. After all, hypotheses and theoretical constructions are generally posterior to observation, which is the fount of knowledge.

We see here that the skeptic is actually the least empirical, since he values theoretical knowledge over observation, and demands that a theoretical mechanism be supplied before he will accept the truth of an observation. This is hardly different from those Aristotelian philosophers who denied Galileo’s empirically grounded theses because they contradicted existing theory.

Standard scientific tests are useless for non-repeatable occurrences. If something does not obey a physical law, we cannot subject it to statistical tests, since it will not occur with regularity. When a free-willed being is an agent, this is especially the case.

One common objection to paranormal or supernatural claims is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This handy aphorism does not hold up under scrutiny, however. If I win a million dollars in the lottery, I only need to present the winning ticket as evidence, which is no higher a standard than for the more ordinary claim of winning five dollars. “Extraordinary,” then, cannot mean merely improbable. We should not demand extraordinary evidence for improbable claims. Rather, it seems this way only because we do not bother demanding evidence for pedestrian or uncontroversial claims. If I claimed to have won only five dollars, even a stranger might believe my word, but if I claimed to win a million dollars, even a friend would ask to see the ticket, to make sure I was not joking.

The demand for a special standard of evidence for paranormal claims cannot be grounded merely in the supposed improbability of such claims. Rather, it is the belief that such claims would involve a contradiction or refutation of well established laws of physics. In physical science, any experimental finding that contradicts a well established theory is subjected to extra scrutiny, to make sure this was not a fluke or a result of systematic error. The reason for such scrutiny is that well corroborated theories are not to be discarded lightly, since they are already established by numerous experimental observations.

Yet claims about paranormal or supernatural events do not necessarily require us to deny known physical laws. Such an implication would follow only if we insisted a priori that laws of nature admit no exceptions whatsoever. In that case, paranormal claims should be treated with the same scrutiny reserved for iconoclastic experimental findings. If we admit that so-called “laws of nature” are just descriptions of what usually happens, then there is no reason to demand a higher standard of evidence, since no one is proposing to replace existing physical theory with some new theory. Instead, paranormal claims should be held to the same rules of evidence as any other merely improbable claim. If the reported event is non-repeatable, it cannot be tested by scientific experiment, but must be evaluated according to the standards of forensic inquiry.

Some paranormal claims are testable by scientific methods, insofar as they describe a supposed reality that is repeatedly occurrent according to some fixed rule. Examples of such claims include those of psychic abilities and sightings of large unknown fauna or cryptids. In the first case, individuals claim to have some extraordinary ability that they can employ regularly at will. Such a claim is testable in controlled experiments, unless the supposed psychic pretends to have no control over when the power works. Similarly, the existence of a sustainable population of cryptids is also testable, since large fauna should be observable repeatedly, and should leave physical evidence. Negative findings can reduce the probability of such a cryptid species’ existence.

Other paranormal claims are not testable scientifically, because they refer to non-repeatable occurrences, or they involve operations beyond the ordinary course of nature. This lack of testability is not grounds for presuming the falsity of all such claims. After all, practically all historical, biographical, and personal knowledge pertains to non-repeatable events, yet these classes of knowledge are not thereby false or uncertain simply because they are not scientific. On the contrary, the reliability of scientific knowledge depends on the general reliability of human reports through observation. If we could not trust our own senses or sanity, we could not be trusted to interpret experimental observations reliably.

Likewise, the mere invocation of an order of operations beyond the nature described by accepted laws is not grounds for dismissal. Indeed, we are fortunate that so many things operate according to universal laws, though there is no a priori logical necessity that nature should be so ordered. We have no reason to demand such good fortune in absolutely all aspects of reality. There could well be odd occurrences that do not comply with so-called universal laws. If we are to be truly empirical, making experience the touchstone of reality, we must accept even those experiences that seem to contradict known physical laws.

Hume famously said that he would not believe a man was raised from the dead, even if all of Paris—which then included many irreligious scoffers and atheists—should testify that they had seen this. The basis for this strong position against the miraculous was that it is impossible for the laws of nature to be violated, so the skeptic must instead accept the fantastically improbable thesis that all the witnesses are mistaken or lying. Here we see how naturalist a priorism results in an anti-empirical stance. Instead of making experience the test of a theory’s truth, we invoke theory to test whether experiences are real.

Someone who adopts Hume’s position will live in a reality hermetically sealed from the possibility of the miraculous. Such a person may confidently assert that there is no evidence whatsoever of the supernatural, since anyone who presumes to present such evidence is automatically to be discredited. If I should claim to have witnessed an unambiguous “according to Hoyle” miracle, the “skeptic” will assert that I must be mistaken, lying or deluded, no matter how impeccable my intellectual and moral character may be. Credibility is assessed based on an a priori prejudice against the content of my assertion, irrespective of the ordinary standards of assessing a witness’s reliability. Since lying is more common than miracles, so the sophistry goes, it is probable that I am lying. Yet by this standard, no uncommon occurrence whatsoever could ever be made credible; the argument proves too much.

What then, should the witness himself believe? Should he accept the miraculous nature of the event he has scrutinized, or should he deny his own sanity? I might say that in general it is more likely for me to be deceived than to witness a miracle, but this general uncertainty may be dissolved by the facts of the specific occurrence in question, so that it is not at all likely for me to be deceived in this instance; indeed, it may be as certain as anything that I am not deceived.

From my own experience, there have been times where I appeared to be soundly mistaken on a point of fact, as there was no corroborating evidence to be found anywhere, despite the certainty of my memory. In such instances, my conviction in the correctness of my memory later proved to be well founded, though I might have been tempted to think myself deluded, in accordance with Humean skepticism. These trials may establish good cause for me to have confidence in my more solid memories, so that I should trust them even against an apparent absence of external evidence. Indeed, without such basic confidence in one’s own faculties, it is impossible to keep a grasp on any knowledge, including the scientific.

Insofar as testimonies about the supernatural and paranormal refer to particular occurrences rather than universal patterns, we should not expect well founded certainty to be always transferable from the witness to others. For example, someone who has witnessed water being turned into wine may have an empirically well founded belief in the miracle. He may present the wine to others as proof of the miracle, but they will not share his certainty, since they were not present when it was merely water. There is no question of one person being more rational than another, but rather different people are exposed to different experiences.

Those of us who have lived fairly long and interesting lives will have realized that things that should not be possible occasionally do happen in the presence of our credible, sober acquaintances, and even in our own presence. These “events that don’t fit"—be they ghost stories, miracles, or creature sightings—may be handled in different ways psychologically. We may speculate that the occurrence fits into our worldview in some way we do not know, or we may acknowledge that there is more to reality than our theoretical framework allows. In either case, the true empiricist should not deny what he or his reliable friend has witnessed, simply because he cannot make it fit neatly into his worldview.

Sometimes the principle of parsimony is invoked against paranormal claims. In this line of reasoning, if it can be shown that a naturalistic explanation is at least theoretically possible, then that explanation is always to be preferred as more parsimonious. Yet this appeal to parsimony can sometimes cause us to do violence to the evidence. For example, one might dismiss an out-of-body experience as mere delusion, only by ignoring that the claimant accurately reported events during his unconsciousness. Alternatively, one might regard a stigmata claim as a hoax only because in general such hoaxes are physically possible, notwithstanding that the particular circumstances of the claim render a hoax morally impossible. Insisting on a naturalistic explanation simply because of a general physical possibility, rather than deriving this conclusion from the particular facts of the case, is parsimonious only in the sense of not needing to add non-naturalistic principles to one’s cosmology. It is not necessarily parsimonious in the analysis of the particular case, for it may ignore or disregard specific facts that render the naturalistic explanation implausible.

The principle of parsimony, or Occam’s Razor, is an important presupposition of much scientific thinking, which will be scrutinized more carefully in a separate essay. Even if we accept the idea that the simpler explanation is always to be preferred, it is far from obvious that the naturalistic explanation is always simpler. Often, a naturalistic explanation involves accusing simple people of impossibly complex hoaxes, or faulting numerous intelligent witnesses for simultaneously becoming incompetent. The naturalistic explanation can be so contorted or contrived that we must wonder what the skeptic means by “simple.” If that is just a byword for metaphysical naturalism, then the invocation of Occam’s Razor is really an appeal to a particular metaphysical theory, not a general principle of reasoning.

The inability of strict empiricists to deal with many kinds of paranormal claims derives in part from a failure to recognize that such claims require a different mode of investigation. Since many such claims pertain to non-repeatable incidents, they must be investigated forensically, as is done in criminal investigations and in the historical sciences. The methodology of the physical sciences, being designed to investigate general principles of nature, is ill-suited to determining the truth of claims about specific events. The criterion of repeatability is inapplicable; at best, a scientist can show that said event is consonant or inconsonant with the laws of nature. He cannot prove whether it actually did or did not occur at the time and place reported, at least not in his role as scientist. He must instead act as a forensic investigator, an archaeologist, or an historian. His conclusions will have only the weight of moral probability, not the certainty of physical law.

11. Non-Repeatable Experience

We take for granted many historical facts for which there is no archaeological evidence. The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain and the Arab invasion of North Africa have left us no physical artifacts, so we know these events only through historical testimony. The entire corpus of Greco-Roman literature and history is known only through medieval manuscripts, which are copies of copies of copies. If human testimony were as unreliable as scientific skeptics claim, we should have to disavow any certain knowledge of the bulk of human history. It is only because most non-historians are unaware of the state of the evidence that it can be pretended that our history is “scientifically” established.

Yet the historical facts mentioned are certainly true and rationally well established, proving that the scientific method is not the only path to certain knowledge. How does one prove that Caesar invaded Britain, if there is no physical evidence of this event, save a single Roman shield? There is only human testimony, to be believed or disbelieved. The historical method consists in determining the greater or lesser reliability of various testimonies, and arriving at a tentative synthesis. It examines the provenance of source documents, checks for internal and external consistency, and relies on assumptions about human psychology in general and the character of the witnesses in particular. Its conclusions range from the speculative to the probable to the morally certain.

A similar methodology is used in criminal investigations, in order to obtain the probable facts about past events. Human testimony again is indispensable. Even when there is physical evidence, this needs to be introduced by a forensic expert capable of interpreting it. No inanimate object “speaks for itself;” the analysis of such evidence requires human interpretation. Forensic science may determine whether a certain scenario is physically possible or impossible, but it almost never can prove uniquely what occurred. We can almost always concoct an alternative scenario that fits the physical evidence, which is why we need the testimony of witnesses to link the physical evidence with specific individuals at a place and time.

A purely scientific method cannot be used to determine concrete past events, since the methodological criteria of repeatability and controlled experimentation are inapplicable. Even if we could replicate a past event in laboratory conditions, this would prove only that the event is physically possible, not that it actually occurred at a determinate time and place. In order to complete the proof, scientists interpreting the past must supplement their methods with a forensic approach.

Paleontologists, for example, may use purely scientific methods when they are studying the anatomy of extinct species, but they must rely on forensic methods when trying to determine a specific phylogenetic history. There is no way to test directly if radiological dating is really accurate for prehistoric evidence; this is only a probable assumption based on extrapolation. Even if we assume as facts that a certain distribution of species existed at various times and places (where “place” depends on a particular history of continental drift), we cannot uniquely specify a phylogenetic family tree. The cladistics method tries to find the most parsimonious tree of descent, minimizing the number of mutations required. Yet even cladistics requires the investigator to begin with subjective choices about which traits to analyze and assumptions about which traits are products of convergent evolution. We can see why phylogeny is much more controversial than ordinary physical science, even among those who accept a Darwinian theory of evolution. It is misleading to give phylogenetic claims the authority of “science,” when in fact they rely in part on non-scientific methodology.

The same is true of geology and cosmology, insofar as these sciences involve making determinations about concrete past events. Numerous possible histories might have resulted in the mineral configurations we examine. The plausible interpretations put forth by geologists can never be put to the test of direct experimentation or observation. The most we can hope for is some consensus that a particular geological history proposed for a formation is most probable and parsimonious. In cosmology, at least, we can directly observe the past, since the light from distant stars departed their sources millions or billions of years ago. Naturally, such assessment of age and distance depends on inferences about the likely cause of redshifts and the relative uniformity of magnitudes for each class of stars. Granted that we are really looking at the past, we still see only fixed snapshots of cosmic history, and must infer the trajectory of stellar evolution from the various stages we observe.

As an example of how weak the scientific method for general physical principles is when applied to concrete histories, consider the ever-changing hypotheses about the formation of the planets and other objects in our solar system. It is absolutely remarkable that there is controversy about such matters, considering we have fully understood the gravitational force in its elegant simplicity for over three hundred years. (General relativistic phenomena are not relevant at this scale.) Even with staggering computing power that enables us to model countless scenarios under Newtonian mechanics, we cannot arrive at planetary histories that are convincing to a consensus of cosmologists. This is because such models can show only what is physically possible, not what actually did happen. Cosmologists, despite their scientific rigor in other areas, must become forensic investigators when trying to determine a concrete history.

The use of forensic methods is not grounds for impugning the conclusions of such investigations. On the contrary, non-scientific methods may arrive at a degree of probability approaching certainty, much as one can sometimes establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt with purely circumstantial evidence. Yet we should be clear about what we are doing, and not pretend that the success of forensic investigations is to be credited to the scientific method. Similarly, the conclusions should not be portrayed as though they had the weight of scientific authority, or the certainty of physical necessity. Physical certitude rests upon the universality of natural law, but when we are making assertions about determinate histories, we are dealing with the realm of the particular and contingent, not the universal.

In the days of scientific strong determinism, it was held that the history of the cosmos and all its contents was strictly determined by physical law. We have long since abandoned such na´vetÚ, and now find that a knowledge of the laws of physics radically underdetermines the actual course of cosmic history. Much less do we suppose that human history is fatalistically determined by laws of physics. To find out what really happened, we must rely on the testimony of our fellow humans.

Not only human history, but all forms of personal experience rely on a way of knowing that is non-scientific. We know our own biographical details and our internal psychological experiences as certainly as we know any scientific thesis, even more certainly. It is common for scientific skeptics to dismiss such experiences as “anecdotal.” This is a valid criticism toward someone who pretends to establish a general principle through a single anecdote, but there is no reason to dismiss anecdotal knowledge as worthless. After all, we must deal with the particulars of life, not just the general principles.

Personal experience might be characterized as “subjective,” since it is subjectively experienced, but this does not mean that the referent event was not an objective reality. I know many details about my grandfather with a certainty that cannot be shared with those who never knew him. This does not mean that these details are only subjectively real. Rather, not everyone is exposed to the same objective realities. We each live in determinate places, times and circumstances, so each of us has a different knowledge set of concrete events. If I have witnessed something that others have not, my knowledge is not thereby less certain, nor is the object of my knowledge less objectively real. Not everyone is privileged to witness the same events.

This pluralism of experience makes necessary some means of verbal communication to relate our experiences to others. Here is the basis of storytelling, with varying degrees of historical literalness. Sometimes we intend to relate the objective events of personal, familial, or national history. At other times, we wish to convey the moral or religious significance of some event. At still other times, we try to relate our subjective psychological experience, using fictional events as a means of evoking the proper ideas and feelings.

Properly subjective experience may also be considered a kind of knowledge, though it is a knowledge only of our interior mental life. Experiences are no less real simply because they are not extramental. Our minds have just as legitimate a claim to reality as any corporeal, inanimate object. It is only the Victorian bias in favor of “objectivity” that causes us to make inanimate matter the primary locus of reality, while the “subjective” is disdained as unreal or uncertain. Our subjective experience may be faulted with falsity only if we pretend that it represents extramental concrete reality. Valued for its own sake, however, psychological experience is as real as anything else in this universe.

While subjective knowledge is not always an accurate representation of extramental reality, it should not be disdained as a mode of knowing. Indeed, it is the only mode of knowing, for only subjects can know anything. This is why, for most of history, philosophers made the mind rather than matter the central locus through which reality is known. After all, what knowledge could exist in a universe full of particles without mind? It would be an empty statement to describe such a universe as real. Judgments of truth and falsity, reality and unreality, presuppose a mind that can make such judgments. In the absence of mind, it is a matter of utter indifference whether particles are real or unreal.

The mind is capable of knowledge even without direct appeal to objective reality. We can contemplate logical truths and other abstract knowledge without depending on any ability to represent physical objects accurately. Yet the objects of abstract knowledge might also be considered extramental, though they are not physically concrete. The evidence of this is that other people can independently arrive at the same truths. When two people contemplate the same mathematical principle, we do not say there are two principles, but only one. This means the principle is ascribed a reality distinct from the act of subjective psychological experience. There may be two distinct thoughts about the same principle, but only one principle.

Plurality of experience also accounts for the lack of agreement on religious matters. Different people witness different events, so they cannot all be equally certain about some determinate religious revelation. Some religions do not depend so much on objective historical events, but on subjective experiences through contemplation. This too depends on personal contingencies, as not everyone will choose to pursue the path of psychological experience that leads to the requisite religious insight. Note that there is no question of religious thinkers being necessarily irrational or arbitrarily subjective. Rather, different people have different experiences, so it is perfectly cogent for one person to know a truth that is unknowable to another.

Those who restrict epistemology to scientific empiricism tend to be uncomfortable with religion for the same reason they cannot handle other approaches to knowing determinate reality. Science requires repeatability and controlled experiments, both of which presuppose universal principles that can be discerned by anyone anywhere. Yet determinate histories, revelations, and experiences will not submit to such criteria, for they are not determined by general principles alone, nor are they equally accessible to all men regardless of circumstance.

We might acknowledge that the scientific method is inapplicable to the non-repeatable aspects of reality, but this is to concede a gigantic exception. Practically all of reality has concrete and determinate aspects, and we might even say that primary reality lies precisely in this concreteness. If something were merely general and abstract, we would not consider it to be as solidly real as that which is concrete and kickable, situated in a determinate time and place. This concreteness constitutes our primary intuition about what it means to be real. When we look out at the world of physical objects, without ideating about them, we are wordlessly impressed with their reality, their concreteness, their this-ness, their here-ness.

Remarkably, empirical science has nothing to say about haeccity or thisness, though this is what makes things most really real. It also has nothing to say about the act of existence, so it is blind to metaphysics and any need for a Deity to bring formal essences into concrete reality. While modern science is often characterized as anti-essentialist, in their epistemology naturalists can be radically anti-concrete, preferring general theory over inconsonant facts. Their insistence on physical laws having no exceptions is nothing but essentialism by another name. The only difference from medieval essentialism is that now the essences correspond to relations rather than substances.

It might be said that I have been fighting a straw man. Surely, no one with any level of philosophical sophistication seriously maintains that empiricism is the only epistemology in science. If that is the case, then there are many philosophically unsophisticated intellectuals, for this error, clumsy and easily refuted though it may be, is prevalent almost everywhere. I have taken the time to address this obvious error only because it obstructs any discussion of metaphysical questions, killing the infant in the womb. There are many highly intelligent people who uncritically assume this error, and if they are freed from it, they will find much broader intellectual horizons than they judged possible. The ultimate empiricism is really to recognize, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

© 2012, 2017 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.