Reviewed by Sheldon Richmond
Science is cultural. Does it follow that science is culturally-relative? Science is factual. Does it follow that science is politically neutral? Those on the far right inveigh against climate scientists and Darwinism. Those on the left inveigh against the political neutrality of science. Hence, do those on the opposite ends of the political spectrum regarding climate change and Darwinism vs. Creationism, strangely agree that science is culturally relative and politically biased. Mario Bunge cuts the tangled knots of the debate between right and left by arguing that though science is far from political indifference and neutrality, science is cultural but not culturally-relative, and so factual. How, then, is science politically potent? Bunge implicitly argues that because facts bear on the moral, social, and political decisions of rational people, the facts of the social sciences, the biological sciences, the climate sciences, and even the physical sciences, have political relevance.
How does Bunge ‘s argument, in its specifics, cut through the confusions about that many on the sides of the left, and everyone on the right for that matter, have about science? My discussion below attempts to answer this basic question.
Bunge’s premise is that understanding science requires looking at what scientists do in the material conditions of their work: looking at the labs where they do their research, the offices where theoretical-mathematical physicists do their thinking, or in the field, where naturalists observe the habitats of species, or archaeological sites and museum labs, and so forth. However, Bunge proceeds at a more abstract level, similar to the many philosophical thinkers whom he derides for not having a working knowledge of physics nor any of the sciences, social and natural. According to the abstraction of science that Bunge develops, science starts with problems and problems are, minimally, questions. However, a reader will be hard pressed to find the exact question stated by Bunge, or even a set of questions, or even a general problem (or problem-situation to borrow a term from Karl Popper, the philosopher whom Bunge pounces upon most often in this book). What is Bunge’s exact problem-situation for this book? The reader will have to construct the problem-situation from the various clues in the text. I propose that the problem-situation is the following: since the standard set of views of science fails because the standard views do not look at the material conditions of the working scientists, what do scientists really do in their work as scientists—within the institutions of scientific work? (See pp. 25ff.) Moreover, this problem-situation encompasses the narrow problem that still consumes many philosophers. This is the demarcation problem (32-34) or, to use Bunge’s term, scientificity. Unlike other disciplines, especially those that are not merely non-scientific, and which are instead fake science (or pseudo-science), science is “the self-correcting intellectual process” (34, italics in original). The most widely known philosopher of science that emphasizes the self-correcting feature of genuine science is Popper. Bunge takes Popper to task at length regarding Popper’s theory of the self-correcting nature of science that is supposedly due to scientists’ constant attempt to falsify their own and each other’s conjectures. (See pp. 38-40). Bunge concisely sums up his arguments against Popper’s falsifiability criterion of demarcation: “…Popper’s advice, to try and topple one’s favourite guesses, is psychologically false in addition to being logically and met[h]odologically flawed” (39). If philosophers had focused on the materialistic question of how scientists actually operate in their places of work (or, on what scientists actually do), philosophers would have come up with the answer: scientists work within research projects. Research projects involve many factors, and one of them is that “every new research project builds on previous findings and, if successful and intriguing, it may suggest further projects in the same field” (48, my italics). Popper would say, in contrast to Bunge, that research projects engender new projects and questions not when their theories and discoveries are successful, but when their expectations or predictions turn out to fail (because they are falsified).
Though Bunge rejects falsification and falsifiability as an engine in the development of research programs, in an apparent and unadmitted concession to Popper, Bunge acknowledges that there are scientific controversies (unlike Kuhn where controversies indicate either pre-science, or the beginning of a scientific revolution followed by the supposed normal science where no controversies occur.) Moreover – and this is a huge and unadmitted concession to Popper – Bunge argues that internal criticism or endoheresy is an important engine in driving research programs (54). Falsification is a form of internal criticism or endoheresy. It entails attempting to refute scientific theories that are part of research projects, through pointing out failed predictions through experimentation and observation. What, then, distinguishes Bunge from Popper? The unique and novel feature of Bunge’s approach to the philosophy of science is that he turns philosophy of science on its head. The philosophy of science as it has usually been pursued by philosophers, including Karl Popper, sidelines metaphysics or minimizes metaphysics as inspirational for developing properly formed scientific theories and scientific research projects, or turns metaphysics into an extrapolation of science, and thereby turns metaphysics into a subdiscipline of science. Bunge flips the standard roles of metaphysics and science by making scientificity depend on the appropriate form of metaphysics.
The very first criteria for the scientificity of a research project is metaphysical. If a research project is not realist and not systemically materialist, it should be rejected. Hence, metaphysics outweighs the empirical, including empirical falsifiability. A careful reader might note here that, contrary to first appearances, Bunge is giving more weight here to metaphysics or philosophy than to science. Bunge urges philosophy to become evidence-based. Bunge says: “Everyone knows that the new science [of the Scientific Revolution and later Darwininsm] knocked down many a popular philosophical myth.” (101) Moreover, “…evidence-based philosophy is still a tantalizing research project, to which this author [Bunge himself] has made some contributions” (102). However, when the reader continues, the it becomes apparent that Bunge has still turned the tables on the separation of philosophy and science. Bunge does more than put science and philosophy on the same level as two partners in a dialectal discourse, such as Popper did in his later work, where science is used to either refute or carry forward metaphysical research programmes. Rather, Bunge puts metaphysics upfront and forward in research projects that are to be scientific. Yet Bunge does not advance just any metaphysics. He puts forward a realist metaphysics (See especially, section 8.9 pp. 111 ff.). Moreover, Bunge puts forward not just any realist metaphysics, but one that is materialist, and furthermore, systemic. Moreover, according to Bunge, systemic materialism is non-eliminative and non-reductive, and must include emergentism. Not only must matter be the ultimate condition for the existence of higher orders and the properties of the higher orders (such as: matter is the basis for life, life is the basis for consciousness, consciousness is the basis for societies and social institutions, and the social, including language, is the basis for human products such as blueprints and philosophy, and memes or themes). Rather, all such orders must emerge from matter, and as emergent, they have special properties, and systems for self-organization. An endoheretical reader might interject: Emergentism has failed so far in one basic field: quantum mechanics. How does the classical world of ordinary objects emerge from the quantum world? The classical world is the world of “…everyday life. Suffice it to recall what we do every time we wake up: we become aware of our immediate surroundings and start navigating in it, avoiding the obstacles in our way. That is, we behave like realists even while professing some irrealist fantasy” (111). The endoheretic might add: we behave like naive realists even while professing some sophisticated realism where we treat solidity as a mere appearance, especially when attempting to avoid walking into a brick wall. So, emergentism may, after all, become another philosophical myth as we develop better theories in the various sciences, natural and social. To be fair, Bunge has generously appended two essays by colleagues, one (by A. Ibáñez, et. al.) about how free will is an emergent property or function of the brain, and the other (by M. Mahner) about how the philosophy/science of mind needs a better systemic and emergent metaphysics along the lines developed by Bunge.
In sum: the originality of this book is that it reverses the tables on all current schools of philosophy, where philosophy and metaphysics are separated and isolated from the sciences. Bunge teaches that the best in metaphysics is supposed to lead the sciences in new directions. Don’t think that the last two chapters in any way reduce in Bunge’s eyes the constructive role of metaphysics in the development of new scientific research projects. The penultimate chapter advocates applying science to all intellectual endeavours (scientism). The final chapter advocates keeping technology and science as independent ventures. Technology aims for practical goals that at their best promote human benefit and democracy. Science/scientism aims for truth and the discovery of new facts in all domains of genuine learning. The bottom line for Bunge is that science/scientism must be directed by the appropriate form of metaphysics to remain scientific. The punch line for Bunge is that practitioners in all intellectual fields need to adopt the appropriate form of metaphysics. Only then will they be enabled to create scientistic research projects. Moreover, only then do we gain a factual basis for making our most important political, moral and social decisions about our environment, and about human well-being.
15 March 2018