Neuroscientist Michael Egnor reflects on philosopher Edward Feser’s recent, rather sharp review of cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, noting the ways in which what we look for from science has changed:
Feser gets to the heart of the shift in perspective in the Scientific Enlightenment. Aristotle and the classical philosophers were interested in wisdom about causes in nature — they were interested in understanding the Big Picture, and about questions of ultimate cause. The Enlightenment philosophers and modern scientists are more interested in power over nature, and thus a focus on material and efficient causes (mechanical causes) suits their purposes.
A focus on power, to the neglect of wisdom, is fine, as long as it is recognized that mechanical philosophy is incomplete, and is merely a tool used for understanding some natural phenomena in a restricted sense. If you are trying to predict the course of a cannonball, Newtonian mechanics are adequate. If you are trying to understand the mind of the guy who fired the cannon, or if you are trying to understand the quantum states of electrons in the gunpowder or the moral status of war or the cause of the Big Bang, you need to look much deeper than mere mechanics.
A comprehensive understanding of nature entails an understanding of primary causation and of secondary causation, which entails material, formal, efficient, and final causation. Shortcuts — mechanical explanations — are fine for some purposes, but the Enlightenment philosophers and modern scientists of a materialist bent make a fundamental error when they mistake their mere shortcut for a comprehensive understanding of nature and of nature’s Source. Michael Egnor, “Knowledge, Power, and the Scientific Enlightenment” at Evolution News & Science Today
Note: Dr. Feser’s review is called “Endarkenment Later.”
Also by Michael Egnor: A computer scientist responds to my parable: Jeffrey Shallit argues that a computer is not just a machine, but something quite special
Michael Egnor: A further response to Jeffrey Shallit: Brains don’t learn either. Only minds learn. Learning is an ability of human beings, considered as a whole, to acquire new knowledge, not an ability of human organs considered individually.