Book review by David Lorimer


Nicholas Maxwell
Paragon House, 2017, 216 pp.


Willis Harman, the first President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences who devoted the last few years of his life to exploring the metaphysical foundations of modern science, used to say that philosophy of science is to scientists what ornithology is to birds, a discipline that seems to have no relevance to practical working scientists. Since it was first formulated by David Hume, the problem of induction has been insoluble. Hence Nicholas Maxwell’s statement that, despite the astonishing progress of natural science and improving our knowledge and understanding of the universe, philosophy seems to have made no progress at all in understanding how this progress of science as possible. He quotes CD Broad as saying that induction is the glory of science but the scandal of philosophy, and Whitehead that the theory of induction is the despair of philosophy – yet all our activities are based upon it. By this he means standard empiricism, of which more below.


Maxwell has been contributing to the philosophy of science for 50 years, and nearly 50 of his articles are cited in the bibliography. His 1984 book, From Knowledge to Wisdom was favourably reviewed in Nature, and the reviewer, Christopher Longuet-Higgins, described his work as revolutionary in terms of our intellectual goals and methods of enquiry and that there were too many symptoms of malaise in our science-based society for Maxwell’s diagnosis to be ignored. (p. 181) However, it does seem to have been ignored in the intervening period, which I think has a great deal to do with the massive resistance he refers to among scientists in acknowledging the necessity of underlying epistemological and metaphysical assumptions effectively denied by standard empiricism with its insistence that evidence alone determines what theories are accepted and rejected in science.


This technical but important book addresses these issues and provides a coherent solution. It is inevitable that science has to make metaphysical assumptions concerning the nobility and comprehensibility of the universe. This means that the claim that evidence alone determines the acceptance or rejection of new theories is false. Theories also have to be unified, simple and explanatory – hence disunified theories, however appealing empirically, are discounted. Induction and underdetermination mean that theories cannot in principle be verified by evidence, and in practice ‘scientists invariably choose that theory which is the simplest, the most unified, or the most explanatory.’ (p. 3) This means that we need a new conception of science that solves the philosophical problems of progress – and this is precisely what this book proposes in terms of ‘aim oriented empiricism’.


Given that science must inevitably make metaphysical assumptions, the best and most rigorous scheme is what Maxwell calls presuppositionism. By acknowledging that science makes a persistent metaphysical assumption concerning unity (eight criteria are articulated in great detail) it is by definition more rigorous than any standard empiricist conception that denies this. Moreover, it corresponds to the principle of intellectual integrity and making assumptions explicit so that they can be critically assessed. In a key chart on page 67, Maxwell adopts a hierarchical scheme whereby the most general metaphysical assumption is expressed at level 7 – that the universe is partially knowable – moving down through six levels including the notions that the universe is comprehensible in physical terms towards accepted fundamental physical theories and their relationship to empirical data.


An important point is that the blueprints describing the composition of reality are always changing, so that, historically, they turn out to be false and provisional. Ether was abandoned in favour of fields then a series of quantum theory culminating in the current standard model, which will in turn prove to be inadequate. Maxwell agrees with Popper that our knowledge is conjectural, but criticises his adherence to standard empiricism and his uncritical attitude towards criticism itself. He argues, correctly in my view, that his aim-oriented empiricism facilitates the critical assessment and improvement of metaphysical assumptions related to the improvement of knowledge.


One of the reasons for scientific resistance to acknowledging metaphysical assumptions is the reluctance to acknowledge that there is an element of faith in science. This becomes clear with dogmatic atheism and scientism, whose assumptions should also be subjected to sustained critical scrutiny. Maxwell is correct in saying that dogmatic religion does not have this self-critical element. Equally, he is aware of the limits of the physicalist approach in its implicit denial of qualia, meaning, value and free will. He asks how our human world imbued with the experiential, consciousness, free will, meaning and value can exist and best flourish, embedded as it is in the physical universe (p. 168). His answer is that physics describes only a highly selective aspect of existence: no physical statement can predict or describe experiential features, leading to the so-called hard problem of consciousness.


In the final chapter, Maxwell extends his analysis by formulating a corresponding aim-oriented rationality with a structured chart implying value and political or humanitarian assumptions on page 175. This addresses the aim of how to achieve a civilised, good world, about which people have very different ideas. Here, level 1 is human experience rather than empirical data, and the basic currency is actions or possible actions. We live in an era where science and technology have in fact brought about ‘almost all our current grave global problems: rapid population growth, destruction of natural habitats and rapid extinction of species, lethal character of modern war, the development of extreme inequalities of wealth and power around the globe, pollution of earth, sea and air, and most serious of all, the impending disasters of climate change.’ (p. 180) Science has enabled us to learn more about the nature of the universe, but we have a long way to go in learning how to become more civilised or ‘wiser by increasingly cooperative rational means’. Maxwell has a great deal to offer with these important ideas, and deserves to be much more widely recognised than he is. Readers with a background in philosophy of science will appreciate the rigour and thoroughness of his argument, while more general readers will find his aim-oriented rationality a promising way forward in terms of a future sustainable and wise social order.


Buy Understanding Scientific Progress here.