Monopolizing Knowledge by Ian Hutchinson (Fias publishing, 2011) paperback 261 pages.
Review by Mike A. Robinson
Regarding knowledge, nobody can plead we haven’t been warned. Rene Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, Michael Polanyi, W.O.V. Quine, and a myriad of others have cautioned against its perimeters, but Hume called the combined understanding of “relations of ideas” and “matters of fact” alone knowledge (of course that bit of proposed knowledge lacks such a qualification; thus self-destructs). So much then for Hume’s crack snubbing knowledge: “Custom is the great guide to human life” (He favored habit and custom over knowledge).
Nonetheless, there is a fine reason for caution. Epistemologists fight over warranted and justified knowledge; some scientists, devoid of proper training in epistemology, blindly bum-rush epistemic issues. Despite such recklessness, knowledge and its justification are crucial areas of study. We assume it, take it for granted, and seek it, and we feel foolish if we lack it. Knowledge—broadly speaking, warranted or justified true belief—would seem to be vital to the contemporary conception of an intellectually virtuous life.
But how do we know? What do we know? How do we attain knowledge? How do we know what we know in relation to scientific advancements? Moreover, do science and its conclusions corner the market vis-à-vis knowledge? In Monopolizing Knowledge, physicist Ian Hutchinson attempts to answer these questions in a captivating metaphysical and scientific survey and scholarly analysis.
Hutchinson demonstrates that scientism (the view that science yields all the knowledge that exists) actually inhibits not just religion but reason too. He sketches the history of scientism as well as its confusion with science. Hutchinson highlights the great successes of science, but reveals its limitations relating to the pursuit of knowledge and many of life’s delights. Distinguishing science from scientism and identifying its boundaries helps the progression of science and non-scientific knowledge.
Hutchinson (professor of nuclear science & engineering MIT) inscribes on page one: “Science is the most remarkable and powerful cultural artifact humankind has ever created. What is more, most people in our society regard science as providing us with knowledge about the natural world that has an unsurpassed claim to reality and truth. That is one reason why I am proud to be a physicist, a part of the scientific enterprise. But increasingly I am dismayed that science is being twisted into something other than what it truly is. It is portrayed as identical to a philosophical doctrine that I call ‘scientism.’ Scientism says, or at least implicitly assumes, that rational knowledge and everything else that claims that status of knowledge is just superstition, irrationality, emotion, or nonsense.”
He then observes that scientism conflates science and knowledge as it assumes that they are equivalent and identical: “It confuses knowledge with science and implies that they are one and the same. I am not at all interested in limiting the ways of obtaining knowledge to those avenues that we call ‘scientific.”’
He argues for the need to define nature and how it relates to science: “Instead, I believe, we must use a functional definition of science. Once we have a clear view of what science is, we will have a definition of what we here mean by nature. Nature is what we are studying in natural science. The result of this definition, as we’ll see, is entirely consistent with what Boyle was arguing for: the established order or settled course of things” (p. 23).
Another vital characteristic, natural science needs, he presses is Clarity: “Clarity is a requirement for the expression and communication of reproducibility; so these two scientific traits are partners. The results of any scientific investigation have to be expressed in terms that are unambiguous. Otherwise it is not possible for other investigators, or indeed even the same investigator, to tell whether repeating the experiment or observation gives the same answer as on the prior occasion” (p. 49).
He rejects brute reductionism asserting that it is “helpful, instead of focusing on reductionist explanation in science, to think in terms of the integration of new phenomena, specimens, or models into the overall network of scientific description.”
He has a fascinating section regarding Efficient Causes and Final Causes: “There is another sense of reductionism that is probably more appropriate to apply to science. It is the principle of seeking to describe events in terms of Efficient Causes. Aristotle’s science depended upon Final Causes, even for inanimate objects. In modern science the effects follow the causes in accordance with the impersonal, reproducible dictates of natural laws, not because there is any aim in view but because of a specific microscopic causal chain. Seeking Efficient Causes is the modus operandi of science” (p. 67).
In his discussion of evolutionary metaphysics he rightly quips: “Some Christians reject evolution by natural selection because of metaphysics. But it is not, I believe, Christian metaphysics that is the most important cause of suspicion of evolution. It is evolutionary metaphysics.”
He then offers this query: “Why then, do references to evolution appear in five separate places in [a] physics paper? It is because of scientistic metaphysics.” Thus, much of naturalistic Darwinism is based on a metaphysical position and not hard science.
He adds this Polanyi influenced epistemic observation: “At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing.”
The author proceeds as he exposes the epistemic problems of E.O. Wilson, Pinker, Evolutionary psychology, militant atheists, a host of other notable strict naturalistic scientists, and modern disciplines (pp. 183-201). Perhaps one could go further, as I would, and argue that naturalistic scientism lacks the ontological resources to account for knowledge apropos anything, since it rests upon mere matter and motion.
Even though this volume focuses on knowledge, but does not interact with epistemology proper (epistemology is noted only one time in the index), Hutchinson’s range is extraordinary—his insight, erudition, and gift of reflection give credence to judgments that might otherwise strike us as just a tad, well, unscientific. Yet, our vexation with science is really a frustration with scientism, he says, it is itself a mere “confusion”—a kind of conflating of upright scientific pursuits with a false exclusivity of scientism as the lone source of knowledge. For much of this genuinely pleasurable work Hutchinson makes the reader aware of the great joys found in the sundry fonts of knowledge. In contrast, scientism’s emphasis on brute empirical knowledge, he shows, led to a climate of suspicion and ferocity concerning religious and non-scientific knowledge claims—as if these potent truths could be swept away by naturalism. Ultimately, though, the author comes down in favor of science, but within a worldview that offers a wide spectrum of knowledge resources. He accomplishes such with clarity and humility.
Review by Mike A. Robinson author of dozens of Apologetics Books including Truth, Knowledge, and the Reason for God (available on Amazon) and the innovative new E-Book: