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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.