15 minutes

Must the natural scientist become a political philosopher?

J. Eric Wise is to be praised for his forceful defense of consulting ordinary experience in our pursuit of knowledge of nature, particularly the experience of unity in the natural world and all that this experience evokes linguistically, mathematically, scientifically, and politically.

Though I will take issue with Wise’s interpretation of the evidence he adduces in advancing his argument, it should be noted that my intention in so doing is to complicate rather than reject the return to ordinary experience he proposes. Anyone who finds modern science’s tendency to alienate us from our experience troubling, or who wishes to take seriously the possibility of natural science more generally, would do well to read Wise’s work with care.

At the core of Wise’s essay is a question: “One what?” This question emerges naturally from “common prescientific experience,” which, beginning as it does with the counting of things, is rooted in the experience of unity in the natural world.

Yet also at the core of Wise’s essay is an answer to that question, namely, Aristotle’s answer. According to Wise’s interpretation of that answer, the unity experienced in nature, “which may form a common ground of understanding across cultures,” is the hylemorph, the combination of matter and form accessible in every child’s experience of the world of things.

Modern science tends to view such inductive reasoning from experience to thing-in-itself as hasty, “a projection onto experience by human thought that has no underlying truth to it.” Yet, as Wise rightly points out, such a skeptical approach to ordinary experience relies, whether acknowledged or not, on principles of reasoning derived from ordinary experience, most importantly the principle of non-contradiction.

This implicit reliance is present, too, in the theories of contemporary philosophers of science like Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, whose “authoritative claims on falsification and the structure of [scientific] revolution,” respectively, require that their own thought be exempted from these claims: no falsification of falsification or revolution of revolution is permitted. Behind the apparently radical skepticism of modern natural science, Wise neatly shows, hides a conservative appeal to self-evidence.

Wise thus gives us a choice between modern natural science’s superficial denial and tacit affirmation of the ordinary experience of unity, on the one hand, and Aristotelean natural science’s open avowal of that unity, on the other. Such a choice is of course not difficult to make, though it relies on our having accepted Wise’s interpretation of Aristotelean causality.

There are good reasons for not accepting that interpretation, the principal reason being that Aristotle is far more skeptical than Wise lets on of the unity of the forms present in ordinary experience.

In Book I of Metaphysics, Aristotle sets out to show his audience of enterprising natural scientists that his account of causality from the Physics is complete, only to discover that first philosophy “consists of nothing but questions.” Even Aristotle’s attempt in Book III to give a thorough and thus definitive exposition of these questions appears to fail, as the mounting problems increasingly test his confidence and eventually truncate his exposition.

As Seth Benardete noted in his 1995 article, “The First Crisis in First Philosophy,” “there lurks within [Aristotle’s] four causes one cause that is not an answer but a question, and the question is, What is?” Even when Aristotle appears to answer Wise’s question in Book VII, he does so merely by substantivizing the question: the one thing is its essence; in Aristotle’s puzzlingly tautological formula, each thing is what-it-was-to-be (in Greek, to ti ēn einai, τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι).

This is not to say that Wise is wrong to take Aristotle as openly relying on ordinary experience. It is only to indicate that Aristotle appears to combine such reliance with a healthy skepticism as to whether the unity present in ordinary experience is in nature herself. Perhaps this is what Wise means when he remarks that “the genius of Aristotle’s account is not that it is authoritative. Rather his account of nature is flexible and, importantly, consistent with the actual experience of it.”

But whether that is really what Wise means I am unsure.

Skepticism Ancient and Modern

Skepticism about the unity in common experience appears to be of two kinds, the one modern and the other ancient. The most revealing modern critique of form is to be found in the second of René Descartes’s Meditations, in which he argues that everything the senses communicate to us about the world is subject to doubt, including the unity of form manifest to the eyes. To elicit this doubt from his reader, Descartes famously examines a piece of wax as an example representative of corporeal things generally:

Let us consider those things which are commonly (vulgo) thought to be comprehended most distinctively of all: that is, the bodies that we touch, that we see; not bodies in general, of course,…but one in particular. Let us take, for example, this wax here.

Suspicion is certainly merited whenever a judgment is made about a general class of things on the basis of a single example of that class, especially when the class is as general as all corporeal things and the example as particular as wax—as particular as wax recently taken from a honeycomb. No doubt, the mutability of wax allows Descartes to induce greater skepticism about the forms of ordinary experience than would be possible with another example. Descartes suggests as much when he asks, a little later,

What was distinct in my first perception [of the wax]? What didn’t seem capable of being possessed by any animal? But truly, when I distinguish the wax from external forms,…I am not able to perceive [it] without [the] human mind.

On this basis, Descartes establishes that the essence of corporeal things is to be a mutable “extended thing,” that is, to be a thing that necessarily has spatial properties but whose other properties are subject to change and thus to further doubt. Descartes is certainly aware that the forms of animals are not as mutable as those of wax; indeed, the very fact that he uses the plural “forms” with the singular “wax,” though he could not as easily have done so with any particular animal, shows that Descartes’s choice of wax is specious in the deepest sense of the word.

This is not to say, of course, that animal forms are immutable, as any living thing would lose its form upon contact with a sufficiently powerful source of heat, such as the sun. Descartes’ choice is specious not because it abstracts from putatively immutable natural kinds, but because it discounts the manifest differences in degree of mutability that these natural kinds exhibit. And that same difference of degree, evident in ordinary experience, is worth taking seriously as scientifically relevant. Wise’s remarks on reductionist biology are germane here.

Descartes’s deliberate abstraction from this feature of ordinary experience thus points, obliquely, to a skepticism sister to his own, according to which the independent existence of the natural kinds evident in ordinary experience is neither accepted as self-evident nor dismissed as arbitrary.

In the Parmenides, Plato has the elder philosopher Parmenides instruct a youthful Socrates as to the possibility of intelligible wholes. Parmenides argues that pure unity is unintelligible, as any attempt to understand that unity requires parsing it, so that it becomes many. Accordingly, the only intelligible unity is mediated by plurality: it is a whole of parts.

But the apartness of such parts indicates some difference between them, such that our speech about an intelligible whole necessarily exhibits a corresponding contrariety. Consequently, to be intelligible is, paradoxically, to elicit contradiction, which is to say that all knowledge of wholes and, by extension, of the whole takes the form of a question or problem. This means, however, that there is always a temptation to view such wholes as arbitrary in a manner akin to the dogmatic skepticism of modern natural science.

This view, according to Parmenides, takes such wholes to exist only on the level of mere appearance to sight, whereas when examined up close in thought they dissipate into limitless complexity. They are mere aggregates or collections.

What this view presumes, however, is that thinking can step outside of appearance and take a bird’s eye view on its own activity. Even if all unity is “a projection onto experience by human thought that has no underlying truth to it,” there appears no way of stepping outside of such projection so as to observe it. One cannot observe being outside of appearance but must approach it from within.

That is, being and appearance are not opposed but coextensive: to be is to appear to be and to appear is to appear to be. Nothing prevents, therefore, the whole from appearing one even upon closer inspection. In this way, Parmenides resurrects the possibility of knowledge of the whole, but at the price of establishing a horizon to that knowledge, mediated as it must be by appearance and opinion.

Knowledge of the whole thus takes the form of an examination of the contradictions in our opinions about the whole and thus of the recalcitrance of the whole to being intelligible under the strictures opinion imposes on it. Modern natural science mistakes the elusiveness of the whole for its unintelligibility.

Opinions About the Whole

It is with some such consideration in mind, I believe, that Leo Strauss (in 1959’s What is Political Philosophy?) defined philosophy as “the attempt to replace opinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole” (emphasis added). As an attempt to attain knowledge of the whole, philosophy necessarily lacks that knowledge and must therefore turn to common opinions about the whole. These include such opinions as disclose the sort of natural kinds that Wise justly demands modern natural science take more seriously.

Yet, as Strauss points out, taking such opinions about the whole seriously would require an examination not only of natural kinds but also of God. Strauss says that the “quest for knowledge of ‘all things’ means quest for knowledge of God, the world, and man—or rather quest for knowledge of the natures of all things: the natures in their totality are ‘the whole.’”

Does natural science require a natural theology?

If so, then it seems that the modern natural scientist must do much more than Wise demands of him: he must go beyond taking the unity in ordinary experience seriously and ask, in addition, whether the whole is governed by immutable laws of nature and natural kinds or rather by a God, and, if the latter, whether that God is intelligible to human understanding.

Perhaps he must go further still and consider what such a God has to say about the attempt to understand Him and the natural world—perhaps he must even ask what response God would have, in speech or in deed, to that attempt.

Strauss does not comment on whether this attempt to replace opinion with knowledge could ever be successful, though he is also silent as to why not, if not. Nevertheless, it is clear that the natural scientist seeking coherence in his principles must take seriously claims that would appear to him far more unscientific than the unity of common experience.

Aristotle suggests something similar when, in his exposition of the problems facing his audience of enterprising natural scientists, he details a universally underappreciated difficulty—rather, the universally underappreciated difficulty.

This difficulty, he notes, received its fullest expression hitherto in the views of “those around Hesiod and all the theologians.” More specifically, the difficulty turns on the question of whether the universe is eternal, the very question at the heart of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. According to Maimonides, the true physics is the account of creation and the true metaphysics the account of the chariot—that is, of divine providence.

Standing in the way of Aristotelean natural science, according to Aristotle himself, is the question of whether God created the universe and how he governs it. Perhaps Wise’s demand that natural scientists take ordinary experience more seriously requires a far more radical turn to prescientific experience than he surmises or lets on. Perhaps to be most truly scientific the natural scientist must become a political philosopher.

is an instructor in the Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics, and Society at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of Becoming Socrates: Political Philosophy in Plato’s Parmenides, as well as a number of articles on the history of philosophy. His academic work can be found here.

Origin of this feature


Nature’s Algorithm?

The Deepest Chasm in our Political Landscape