March 11th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Brian Cantwell Smith: The Conduct of Science; or, Episteme Devices for Human Calculation

"The naturalistic challenge is to explain intentionality without viciously presuming intentionality. A similar moral holds for ontology, in my view. Because ontological categories are in part intentionally constituted, attempting to explain representation while dining out on ontology is, for analogous reasons, fatally circular."
     - Brian Cantwell Smith

An interesting quote from Brian Cantwell Smith, author of a powerful book on ontology, On the Origin of Objects. His work shows how a commitment to epistemological naturalism is still a part of the correlationist program, yet his ideas on irreductionism are to me viable and empowering. Below he comes to the conclusion that scientific laws reduce things to their features as part of "epistemic apparatus involved in the conduct of science as an intellectual activity (on a par with mathematical models); they are not ontological commitments of the theory as a whole." It's obvious then that as long as science reduces things just to their features (qualities) observable from the outside through an epistemological approach that it will leave out those aspects of objects that elude the nets of the reasoning mind; yet, as heuristic devices in the pursuit of Science such distortions if seen for what they are do contain value as long as they do not pretend to displace ontology:

"As a way to muster support for simply availing ourselves of 'common-sense ontology', Dennett says 'Look, why not just assume sub-atomic particles and tables and mountains and galaxies, in the way that science does?' This leads me to mention a radical thesis that I hold, although I can't give it much defence here: namely, that science may not be committed to objects at all. Consider: an amoeba splits. Biology doesn't care about the individuals in the situation: whether one amoeba died and two new ones were born; or whether we now have a spatial distribution of unitary amoeba-ness; or whether one of the two emerging amoebae is the original one, and the other one is new; or any other possibility. Another example: in California I own an ancient redwood tree that has clumps of very substantial shoots (some as much as 50 feet high) sprouting around its base. How many redwood trees are there? Science doesn't know, and science doesn't care. Similar conclusions hold for fog, for the units of selection, for a myriad other examples. What this leads me to believe is that scientific laws (like animals) may in fact deal only in features; and that the objects we think of as constitutive of science may merely be simplifying epistemic devices that allow humans to calculate. Objects in science, that is, are in my view properly understood as part of the epistemic apparatus involved in the conduct of science as an intellectual activity (on a par with mathematical models); they are not ontological commitments of the theory as a whole."

- From: Brian Cantwell Smith - Reply to Dennett - in: Hugh Clapin (ed.) - Philosophy of mental representation - Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2002, pp. 241-242 (notes omitted).