Humanists and Scientists: a Response to Nelli Thomas

By Jeremiah Reedy, Professor Emeritus of Classics

Kudos to you for promoting a dialogue between humanists and scientists with your opinion piece of Dec. 11, 2009. Since, to my knowledge, no one else has responded, I thought I would.You deny that science is a search for truth. Let me recommend to you a book by John Searle entitled Mind, Language and Society. Searle is one of the most distinguished philosophers in the English speaking world, and he is a realist. He calls realism the “default position” in philosophy, i.e. it is the position people hold before they study philosophy and the position they fall back on in living their lives, regardless of what they may say in lectures or write in books and articles. Here, quoting Searle, are the “default” positions on some major questions: 1. “There is a real world that exists independently of us . of our thoughts and of our language.” 2. “We have direct perceptual access to that world through our senses .” 3. “Words in our language have reasonable clear meanings . Because of their meanings, they can be used to refer to and talk about real objects in the world.” 4. “Our statements are typically true or false, depending on whether they correspond to how things are, that is to the facts of the world.” 5. “Causation is a real relation among objects and events in the world .”

Suppose I say that the moon is made of cheese, and you say the moon is not made of cheese. Both of our statements cannot be true at the same time and in the same sense (because of the principle of non contradiction). The statement that is in conformity with reality, with the facts, will be true. Since men have gone to the moon and brought back samples of lunar material, we now know that your statement is true and mine was false. This is a simple example of discovering the truth. I could give many more from science, medicine, law, and everyday experience.

I assume that you have been influenced by postmodern notions of reality and truth, e.g. “Each culture creates reality for itself,” “Truth is just what those who are in power say it is,” and “Words refer not to things actually existing outside our minds but to other words which in turn refer to other words, and so on ad infinitum.” But postmodernism, even according to former adherents, peaked in the mid-1980s and has been on the decline ever since. In future histories of philosophy it will have a footnote in a chapter on Heidegger, and that’s about it. Those “new ideas you were exposed to about science” may already have been rejected. Richard Rorty once said, “Science is nothing but our mythology.” As one who taught mythology for twenty-five years, I can say that that statement is utterly absurd.

Realism, on the other hand, is the “natural philosophy of the human mind;” it is common sense rendered explicit. Realists make a claim that champions of no other philosophical school can make: everyone is a realist in practice including scientists. Realism was systematized by Aristotle but had existed in the thoughts and actions of humans from time immemorial. If our perceptions of the world around us were not accurate, the human race would not have survived.

Recent scandals such as “Climategate” and Glaciergate” and malfeasance at the IPCC reveal that scientists are human, but that doesn’t undermine the “default” epistemology and ontology of science.

You say you are a “biology major with a premedical emphasis.” Is this statement true, or are you trying to deceive us? If I wanted to play scientist and “search for the truth,” all I would have to do is visit the Biology Department to see if your statement corresponds to the facts.

Jeremiah Reedy can be reached at [email protected]