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Science and Truth

Philosophy and Scientific Realism

by J.J.C. Smart
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 160 pp., 25 shillings

The Oxford-style philosopher, so influential nowadays, turns his good ear to the dictates of unspoiled common sense and his other to science. Historians of science itself, not to be outdone, take to belittling the force of evidence and saying how fashions spin the plot. Even leading quantum physicists have been known to impute reality primarily to ordinary things, their experimental equipment, as against the diminutive objects of their theory.

In refreshing contrast, South Australia’s professor of philosophy here propounds “an unashamedly realistic view of the fundamental particles of physics…Indeed,” he pursues, “I would wish to go further than merely to defend the physicist’s picture of the world as an ontologically respectable one. I would wish to urge that the physicist’s language gives us a truer picture of the world than does the language of ordinary common sense” (pp. 18, 47). With science dominating our lives and progressing ever faster on ever more frontiers, it is strange that such a view needs urging. Strange but true.

In fact Smart declares not just for science but for physics. There have been materialists who held that living things, though material, were subject to biological and psychological laws that were irreducible in principle to laws of physics. Such was the materialism of emergence. Smart’s materialism is more robust.

Seeing how right-minded the book is, how congenial to one’s own way of thinking, one expects its value to lie rather in persuading others than in instructing oneself. But on this score there are pleasant surprises. One of them comes on the heels of Smart’s denial of emergence in biology and psychology. “Not only do I deny the existence of emergent laws and properties,” he writes (p. 52), “but I even deny that in biology and psychology there are laws in the strict sense at all.” The propositions of biology and psychology are local generalizations about some terrestrial growths of our acquaintance. In principle they are on a par with natural history and geography, or with consumers’ reports. This is true, he urges, even of propositions about cell division. If they “are made universal in scope, then such laws are very likely not universally true. If they are not falsified by some queer species or phenomenon on earth they are very likely falsified elsewhere in the universe. The laws of physics, by contrast, seem to be truly universal” (pp. 54f).

Biology runs deeper, he grants, than cell division. There are the chromosome, the virus, the gene, nucleic acid, and the genetic code. Propositions on these matters are presumably broader in scope, admittedly more theoretical, and potentially more explanatory than other propositions in biology. Just so; and they are more nearly physico-chemical.

Physics investigates the essential nature of the world, and biology describes a local bump. Psychology, human psychology, describes a bump on the bump. Remarkable it is, and a matter of philosophical bemusement down the ages, that some parochial sensory responses and thought processes up in that bump of a bump should be equal to the physicist’s business of encompassing the essential nature of the world. It takes an ingenious bit of triangulating from away off center.

This reflection goes well with a point that Smart makes about color. Color dominates our sensory experience; things that contrast in color are emphatically in contrast. Yet, and here is Smart’s point, color differences seldom bear interestingly upon physical laws. The reason is that a mixed color can look to us like a pure one, and yet its looking like that pure one hinges on special mechanisms in us which could be otherwise and perhaps are otherwise in other creatures. “Extraterrestrial beings could be expected to have a similar concept of length or electric charge to ours, but we would not expect their colour concepts, supposing they had any, to correspond to ours in any simple manner…. To see the world sub specie aeternitatis…we must eschew the concepts of colour and other secondary qualities” (p. 84).

It is along this line that Smart makes sense of the traditional philosophical distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and simultaneously accounts for its importance. The primary qualities—length shape, weight, hardness, and the like—are the ones that enter most simply into physical laws.

Largely the book is given over to standard topics of controversy: physicalism versus phenomenalism, the mind-body problem, man the machine, freedom and responsibility, the reality of the future. I have hinted how the first one comes out: physicalism wins. For arguments the reader is referred to the book, and Godspeed. In each of these further confrontations likewise, as the reader will have begun to guess, right wins out: the body, the machine, responsibility, the future.

In the mind-body affair it is restful to see mental states identified unapologetically with bodily ones, and no semantic hedging. There are answers, simply, to stock objections.

On man as machine, latter-day anti-mechanists have invoked Gödel’s theorem, which says that no formal proof procedure can encompass number theory. Smart, defending a mechanistic view, takes issue with this rather wistful application of Gödel’s great theorem. Where man rises above the limitations of formal proof procedure, Smart suggests, is in the informal and largely inconclusive maneuvers of scientific method; and a computing machine could in principle be programmed to do the same.

Smart agrees with Hobbes that freedom and determinism are not antithetical; determined acts count as free when mediated through the agent in certain ways. The division of acts into some for which a man is regarded as responsible, and others for which he is not, is part of the social apparatus of reward and punishment: responsibility is allocated where rewards and punishments have tended to work as incentives and deterrents.

Such, in important part, is the use of “he could.” There is also another use, as Smart observes: one which is on a par with “it could,” as in “it could have broken.” He links this use to incompleteness of information regarding the causal circumstances. I applaud this as a general attitude toward the modalities of possibility and necessity; they turn upon our own abstraction from particulars, for instance through our ignorance of them, rather than upon the nature of the world.

There is a conception, which Smart scouts, of the present moment as advancing through time at an inexorable pace of sixty seconds per minute. There is a notion also that sentences about the future are as yet neither true nor false, and that otherwise fatalism would reign and striving would be useless. These confusions are popular and in part Aristotelian. In the writings of Donald Williams and others they have been set to rights with all clarity. Still, Smart adds distinctive touches in setting them to rights again. There incidentally emerges in the course of this exposition an arresting contrast between probability and truth. “Probable,” he brings out, is an indicator word like “I,” “you,” “now,” “then,” “here,” “there”: a word whose reference depends on the occasion of its use. For a statement of specific fact is true once and for all, if at all, whether we know it or not, but even so it may be more or less probable from occasion to occasion. The modality of probability ends up thus in a limbo of subjectivity, where the modalities of possibility and necessity just preceded it.

The book is couched in words unminced though uncontentious. A tendency to mince, in such rightminded writings, may be due in part to writers’ awareness that people think these ideas are morally pernicious. But Smart handles this moral dilemma rather by taking it by the horns, in five final pages on materialism and values. I am happy to report that the materialist gains his moral victory hands down.

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