Noam Chomsky published an essay on his web site a few years ago: Science, Mind, and Limits of Understanding. Chomsky’s thesis is that there are areas of reality that science is simply incapable of understanding. He uses as his principle example, the case of Isaac Newton’s understanding of gravity.
Chomsky acknowledges that this is a mysterian point of view, and that today it’s frequently referred to as “new mysterianism”. But he argues that it isn’t really any different from the old mysterianism, which I think is right. But he feels that current scientists are too dismissive of it, and that it should actually be called “truism.”
In the 16th and early 17th centuries, as early modern scientists started to pull out of ancient and medieval ways of thinking, one of things they developed was the mechanical philosophy. This philosophy took the position that the universe can be understood as a machine that an artisan might build (such as a supreme artisan). This meant a causal structure with only local and deterministic interactions, and without any magical or occult properties. One of the traditional properties explicitly rejected was action at a distance, such as the action planets supposedly had on people’s health or fortunes.
For several decades, the mechanical philosophy was successful. This was the scientific revolution, and much of it was enabled by that philosophy. But there was one vexing problem that scientists struggled with: what determined how the heavenly bodies moved?
Ancient philosophers had proposed that the planets were embedded in nested crystalline spheres which rotated around the Earth. Copernicus changed those spheres to rotating around the sun. But Tycho Brahe observed comets crossing through where the spheres should have been, demonstrating that they didn’t exist. So what controlled the movement of the planets? Under the mechanical philosophy, there were numerous theories, but none succeeded in accurately predicting observations.
Isaac Newton solved this problem, and his solution demonstrates the danger of approaching a scientific problem with rigid preconceptions. He demonstrated that the solution was gravity, the same gravity that makes an apple fall. And he provided the mathematics that accurately predicted observations.
There was just one problem. Newton didn’t know what gravity fundamentally was. He fully admitted this, and just had to bracket that problem for his theory. This caused many scientists to initially resist the theory. He appeared to be introducing something they had worked hard to banish: action at a distance. Eventually the predictive success of the theory forced them to accept it and move on.
Newton’s failure to fully understand gravity is Chomsky’s chief example of something scientists can’t know. But he omits something from his historical discussion. The puzzle of gravity was eventually solved. Not in Newton’s time. He and his colleagues had to just live with an awareness of ignorance of the core mechanism.
But two centuries later another scientist, Albert Einstein, in his theory of general relativity, figured out what gravity is: the warping of spacetime. Crucially, this understanding removed action at a distance. Matter and energy warp the spacetime around them, and the effects propagate at the speed of light, producing the effect we know of as gravity. (It does raise the question of what spacetime is, but solving mysteries always seems to create new ones.)
So the mechanical philosophy was vindicated. It was just that Newton and his contemporaries didn’t have the concepts yet to imagine the mechanisms involved. The mechanical philosophy was back, at least for a few years before quantum mechanics called it into question again.
All of which is to say, Chomsky’s example was a temporary roadblock, not a permanent limitation. That’s not to say that there may not be fundamental limits to what we can learn about reality. It just seems unproductive to assume it in any particular case.
And it is true that science often has to do what Newton did, bracket off something that can’t currently be understood, and work with what can, while admitting ignorance of the thing bracketed. But again, it never seems productive to assume these are permanent conditions.
Chomsky also weighs in on the mind-body problem, somewhat implying Newton proved idealism, and making comments about neuroscience and the philosophy of mind, asserting that mysterianism may have lessons for them. There is definitely a significant portion of the philosophy of mind who agree. Many seem convinced the mind has properties that will forever put it out of reach of science. In principle, as noted above, this could be true.
But many also once thought the same thing about life. With progress in organic chemistry and microbiology, that talk died away. True, we still don’t know how life started, nor do we have anything like a full accounting of all its mechanisms. But we know enough to see that life is a collection of mechanisms.
Will the mind be different? Only time will tell, but my own reading of neuroscience gives little reason to think so, and history seems to weigh against it.
What do you think? Am I being hasty in my dismissal of mysterianism? If so, what are its benefits?