Book review by David Lorimer


Roger Trigg
Templeton Press, 2015. 162 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-59947-495-3


Here is Roger Trigg at his most incisive and succinct as he returns to his examination of where the limits of the modern scientific enterprise might legitimately lie. He makes a clear and persuasive case for the validity of explanations in metaphysics, ethics, and theology, against both the reductive stance we have inherited (through various permutations) from positivism and the abnegation of universal truth claims of post-modernism.


Trigg neatly and concisely evaluates methodological naturalism (a metaphysical position not known to be such by the many working scientists who espouse it) and philosophical naturalism, with its wider claims about the nature of what can exist. Trigg cites one definition of ‘naturalism’ as asserting that all that is consists solely of the physical, spatio-temporal world, with its corollary that such a world is accessible to science. That this is hardly a scientific claim is evident. However, without the validity of the metaphysical ground assuming the existence of an objective reality, science would simply be a game of which it might be said that, for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.


The examples he deploys suggest that naïve naturalist claims are not easily substantiated in the face of quantum realities and multi-universe speculations. His case requires re-examination of the belief one has heard so often, that science is what there is any evidence to suppose is the way the world is, not what it would be nice to suppose about the way the world is. The assertion that there really is an infinite number of universes, each transcending any possibility of being known by humans, has struck practising cosmologists (even those who have never heard of William of Ockham) as rather profligate with universes, verging on mere speculation. Most working scientists would distinguish between speculation and science, without the benefit of Trigg’s arguments and well-chosen examples, though it would be to their very great advantage to have read “Beyond Matter.”


His analysis rather neatly (but again, fairly) undermines the post-modernism project (derived originally from architecture, and perhaps too-widely extrapolated) that there are many meanings, not that one universal relationship between human knowledge and “the universe” traditionally claimed by science.


Why would anyone believe that science is omnicompetent as an explanatory method? Why would anyone claim (with the Oxford physical chemist, Peter Atkins) that, if science has not objectively explained everything quite just yet, it can and will undoubtedly do so, at least in principle. Could such a claim be, in any sense, scientific? Philosophers of science will appreciate that the “at least in principle” caveat goes back to Carnap’s qualification of the Vienna Circle’s criterion for meaningfulness. Trigg valuably supplies an outline of the history of his opponents’ positions: this background illuminates his examples. For instance, Eugene Wigner’s observation about “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics (the free creation of the human mind) in the natural sciences”… “something bordering on the mysterious,” has never quite persuaded this reviewer of Max Tegmark’s assertion that “all mathematical possibilities are actual” in an infinite multiverse. Tegmark’s is notably a classically metaphysical position, though he deny it.


The weight of many of the arguments in senior common rooms and laboratories against science’s reliance on metaphysical assertions is usually not the more grandly philosophical one that science has somehow eliminated the need for metaphysics and all other forms of explanation. The banausic claim is that “science works”: it has delivered the goods and ever more shall do so. Science progresses (the evidence is all around us) by self-correction of models and hypotheses in the light of empirical data. Philosophy does not bring about change in the world; it leaves things as they are. Scientific progress rests on increasingly more comprehensive explanations and remarkable predictions. In effect, the assumption is that metaphysical explanation has been eliminated by the inductive idea of always advancing progress derived from the rapidity and effectiveness of the “the human appliance of science” over the last two centuries.


The brief overview Trigg affords us in “Beyond Matter” (its 162 pages includes notes and an index) is written in the sort of prose one longs to meet in any book one wants to put into the hands of graduate students in the sciences. Such readers may not notice, nor be dismayed by, the few but stunning lapses in proof-reading confronting one, for example on page 27, where one reads,” Physics in the nineteenth century bares (sic) little relation to contemporary physics.” No doubt that is so, but it distracts from the force of an otherwise well-developed, sustained, and comprehensive argument.


Buy Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics here.