Through a Glass Darkly

In yesterday’s post I touched on epistemology, “the study of the nature of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief”. I have been touching on the subject for a while. (See, for example, “Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge“, “Further Pretensions of Knowledge“, “The Fragility of Knowledge“, “Deduction, Induction, and Knowledge“, “The Pretence of Knowledge“, and especially “Words Fail Us“.)

The most compelling writer on the subject is Alfred North Whitehead, whose concept of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” I apply in “Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge“. The fallacy, as described by Wikipedia, is this:

[O]ne commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness when one mistakes an abstract belief, opinion, or concept about the way things are for a physical or “concrete” reality.

What, then, is physical reality? According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Whitehead sees it thus (citations omitted):

Whitehead was dissatisfied with Hume’s reduction of perception to sense perception because, as Hume discovered, pure sense perception reveals a succession of spatial patterns of impressions of color, sound, smell, etc. (a procession of forms of sense data), but it does not reveal any causal relatedness to interpret it (any form of process to render it intelligible)….

Whitehead rejected Newton’s conception of nature as the succession of instants of spatial distribution of bits of matter for two reasons. First: the concept of a “durationless” instant, “without reference to any other instant”, renders unintelligible the concepts of “velocity at an instant” and “momentum at an instant” as well as the equations of motion involving these concepts. Second: the concept of self-sufficient and isolated bits of matter, having “the property of simple location in space and time”, cannot “give the slightest warrant for the law of gravitation” that Newton postulated….

In Whitehead’s eyes, however, the development of Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism constituted an antidote to Newton’s scientific materialism, for it led him to conceive the whole universe as “a field of force—or, in other words, a field of incessant activity”. The theory of electromagnetism served Whitehead to overcome Newton’s “fallacy of simple location”, that is, the conception of nature as a universe of self-sufficient isolated bits of matter. Indeed, we cannot say of an electromagnetic event that it is

here in space, and here in time, or here in space-time, in a perfectly definite sense which does not require for its explanation any reference to other regions of space-time.

….

Whitehead … noticed that, in a sense, physicists are even more reductionist than Hume. In practice they rely on sense data, but in theory they abstract from most of the data of our five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) to focus on the colorless, soundless, odorless, and tasteless mathematical aspects of nature. Consequently, in a worldview inspired not by the actual practices of physicists, but by their theoretical speculations, nature—methodologically stripped from its ‘tertiary’ qualities (esthetical, ethical, and religious values)—is further reduced to the scientific world of ‘primary’ qualities (mathematical quantities and interconnections such as the amplitude, length, and frequency of mathematical waves), and this scientific world is bifurcated from the world of ‘secondary’ qualities (colors, sounds, smells, etc.). Moreover, the former world is supposed, ultimately, to fully explain the latter world (so that, for example, colors end up as being nothing more than electromagnetic wave-frequencies)….

Whitehead’s alternative is fighting “the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness”—the “error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete”—because “this fallacy is the occasion of great confusion in philosophy”. The fallacy of misplaced concreteness is committed each time abstractions are taken as concrete facts, and “more concrete facts” are expressed “under the guise of very abstract logical constructions”. This fallacy lies at the root of the modern philosophical confusions of scientific materialism and progressive bifurcation of nature. Indeed, the notion of simple location in Newton’s scientific materialism is an instance of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness—it mistakes the abstraction of in essence unrelated bits of matter as the most concrete reality from which to explain the relatedness of nature.

Inasmuch as human beings are incapable of knowing the true essence of reality, true knowledge is beyond our ken. We can only see the world through a glass darkly.

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