Not Anti-Skepticism, But It’s a Wide World



It may seem that I’m against Skepticism, what with post titles such as “Do skeptics hold science back?” Etc.  However, I believe a healthy skepticism is a good thing.  Uncritical acceptance of hair-brained positions that aren’t supported by much evidence are the domain of the non-thinker.  I’m a thinker.  And especially given my back ground in Process Thought, along with Whitehead I demand a coherent, logical system of ideas.  Science can help here, and so can logic.  HOWEVER, my issue is with a more radical Skepticism that is narrow, and even mitigates against speculation.  And ultimately, it even gives short shrift to logic if it carries on too much.



Consider Skepticism on a continuum: the far left is uncritical, credulous thinking, and the far right is an abject denial of anything which doesn’t fall safely and securely within an orthodox empirical (even positivistic) point of view.  It’s the far right I have a problem with.  As I’ve said elsewhere, one has to think “unscientifically” to make quantum leaps in scientific understanding.  So for me scientific orthodoxy should stick to making bridges and cars safe, so they don’t collapse out from underneath us, and leave speculation and advancement of scientific paradigms to the few “loose screws” (like the early Einstein) and leave it to the philosophers of science to come up with palatable, RIGOROUS interpretations.  And I agree the interpretations must be rigorous.


At the risk of too much quoting, let me set down a quote from Alfred North Whitehead, from his magnum opus Process and Reality, and then say a few words about it:


“Speculative Philosophy is the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted. By this notion of ‘interpretation’ I mean that everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme. Thus the philosophical scheme should be coherent, logical, and in respect to its interpretation, applicable and adequate. Here ‘applicable’ means that some items of experience are thus interpretable, and ‘adequate’ means that there are not items incapable of such interpretation.  ‘Coherence’, as here employed, means that the fundamental ideas, in terms of which the scheme is developed, presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless … It is the ideal of speculative philosophy that that its fundamental notions shall not seem capable of abstraction from each other.  In other words, it is presupposed that no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the system of the universe, and that it is the business of speculative philosophy to exhibit this truth.  This character is its coherence.  The term ‘logical’ has its ordinary meaning, including ‘logical’ consistency, or the lack of contradiction, the definition of constructs in logical terms, the exemplification of general logical notions in specific instances, and the principles of inference. It will be observed that logical notions must themselves find their places in the scheme of philosophic notions.” (Note that in Modes of Thought Whitehead says, “Logic presupposes metaphysics.” This shows the fundamental level at which Whitehead is aiming.)


“It will also be noticed that this ideal of speculative philosophy has its rational side and its empirical side. The rational side is expressed by the terms ‘coherent ‘ and ‘logical.’ The empirical side is expressed by the terms ‘applicable’ and ‘adequate.’ However, the two sides are bound together by clearing away an ambiguity that remains in the previous explanation of the term ‘adequate’. The adequacy of the scheme over every item does not mean adequacy over such items as happen to have been considered. It means that the texture of observed experience, as illustrating the philosophic scheme, is such that all related experience must exhibit the same texture.  Thus the philosophic scheme should be ‘necessary,’ in the sense of bearing in itself its own warrant of universality throughout all experience, provided we confine ourselves to that which communicates with immediate matter of fact. But what does not so communicate is unknowable, and the unknowable is unknown; and so this universality defined by ‘communication’ can suffice.  This doctrine of necessity in universality means that there is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality. Speculative philosophy seeks that essence.” (Process and Reality 3-4)


It will first be noted that Whitehead isn’t doing science.  Most skeptics want to stick to science.  Whitehead developed a metaphysical system that provides a BASIS by which to explain everything which is logically explainable.  This means if Whitehead were alive at the time of Christ, we would ASSUME it is possible to take a stick with some kind of substance on the end and scrap it against something and have a flame appear out of seemingly nowhere (I’m referring of course to a match). People at the time (most notably skeptics) would say he’s crazy, of course.  When he makes those analogous kinds of statements and assumptions in the 20th century, of course, people say he’s crazy.  But he’s only pushing what’s logically possible.  In fact, he published a different take on Einstein’s theory of relativity (in 1922, I think) and was one of the handful of people alive at that time who understood quantum theory, and didn’t have the issues with it that Einstein did.  He used quantum theory in his metaphysical system.  But he’s speculating about what’s possible, and waiting to see if and how science and theology catch up. 


Second, note that what Whitehead is doing is throwing out all artificial divisions in reality.  The current universe, from the big bang forward, is only the current “Cosmic Epoch” for him, and is only one piece of the metaphysical puzzle.  Mathematics shows the possibility of multidimensionality, so Whitehead’s system attempts to explain that, too. This would be similar to relative state formulation, but not exactly.  Anyway, delineating that would be too much detail in an already detailed post.


So having studied Whitehead, Hartshorne, philosophy, religion, psychology, science, quantum mechanics, etc., for the past 30 years (first informally then stating in the late 1980’s formally), the skeptics should forgive me for being skeptical (sic.) about their orthodox Worldview that looks askance at the 20th century equivalent of scraping a stick and producing fire.  The universe is much wider than most skeptics believe.  The issue that I have is that when someone tries to expand the worldview in a metaphysical and speculative sense, the skeptic comes along with their narrow scientific hammer and tries to hammer them out of existence.  Skeptics perform best when they keep the credulous in line, but they’re out of their league when they try to stifle the wider scientists and the wider philosophical thinkers.

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