Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview
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Scientific Explanation and the Evolution of Time

Conrad Dale Johnson

Summary Since the origins of Western science, it has been generally assumed that to be intelligible, the cosmic order must have a foundation that is both timeless and determinate. This assumption is not arbitrary; it follows directly from the dominant role of causal explanation in our scientific tradition. But in view of the discoveries of quantum physics, it has become necessary to rethink the ontological assumptions implied in this kind of explanation.

In fact, today it is only in the physical sciences that causality and determinacy still play an indispensable and primary role. Biology, for example, has been revolutionized by an evolutionary theory that operates with an entirely different explanatory strategy, the ontological implications of which remain largely unexplored. Between biology and quantum physics we can draw no direct analogy; but, as J. T. Fraser has shown, the evolutionary mode of explanation can be extended throughout the range of the natural sciences by means of the notion of "the evolution of time" and of temporally constituted modes of being.

This paper sketches such an extended evolutionary schema, to the point where a significant analogy to the structure of quantum physics appears possible. It suggests that explanation in the quantum realm may depend upon the very absence of any timelessly given, determinate foundation, since the lack of such an a priori ground of determinacy sets powerful constraints on the evolution of primitive temporal structure.

The most basic presupposition of any form of science is that the world somehow makes sense: that it constitutes an intelligible order. This is an ontological presupposition, an assumption about the ultimate nature of "what is." But how we make this assumption depends on something else, namely, what counts for us as intelligible. In the Western scientific tradition stemming from the ancient Greek philosophers, the intelligibility of the world was construed in a very particular way, and the whole array of fundamental ontological concepts evolved in the course of that tradition reflects this basic sense of what it means to "make sense." The essence of this orientation is summed up in the concept of determinacy, which in turn presupposes a very particular way of conceiving time.

What I want to suggest in this paper is that the kind of science that grows out of this ontological orientation, governed by the equation of intelligibility with determinacy, has definite limits to its scope and explanatory power. Today we are coming up against these limits quite explicitly and dramatically in theoretical physics, the traditional stronghold of "exact science" and the deterministic view of reality. But what is more important than merely recognizing these limits is to find a way beyond them--to find an alternative approach to explanation, grounded in another sense of what it might mean for the world to be intelligible--and such an alternative seems especially difficult to envision within the


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