Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs: Science, Philosophy, and Their Histories

Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs: Science, Philosophy, and Their Histories

Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs: Science, Philosophy, and Their Histories

Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs: Science, Philosophy, and Their Histories

Synopsis

After a Darwinian-type account of what beliefs are and how they arose in animals acting to cope with their environments--"low beliefs," virtually all of which are true--Wallace Matson here shows how the invention of language led to imagination and thence to beliefs formed in other ways ("high beliefs"), not true though thought to be, which could be consolidated into mythologies, the first Grand Unified Theories of Everything. Science began when Thales of Miletus produced a Grand Theory based on low ("everyday") beliefs. Matson traces the course of science and philosophy through seven centuries to their sudden and violent displacement by Christianity with its Grand Theory of the old type. Against the widespread opinion that modern philosophy has slowly but completely emancipated itself from bondage to theology, he shows how remnants from the medieval 'interlude' still lurk unnoticed in the purportedly neutral notions of logical possibility, possible worlds, and laws as commands, to the detriment of the natural harmony between science and philosophy, including ethics. Accessibly written, this is a book for all who are interested in the foundations of 21st century thought and who wonder where the cracks might be.

Excerpt

Paul Grice said that at bottom there is only one philosophical problem, namely, all of them. Renford Bambrough said that philosophy is talk about what it is to be reasonable. These thoughts put together imply that the philosophical Big Bang is what Karl Popper named the Demarcation Problem: How to separate sense from nonsense.

The problem preoccupied the Logical Positivists of the first half of the twentieth century. A. J. Ayer notably held that only those propositions are meaningful that are verifiable in principle. “Purported” propositions, on the other hand, such that no possible experience could settle (or render more or less probable) whether they or their negations are true, are nonsense, to which terms of opprobrium like “pseudo-propositions” and “metaphysical” should be applied. They really have no meaning, cannot either describe or misdescribe reality, no matter how profound they may seem to be, or how many wars have been fought over them.

Though in sympathy with the aim of Ayer and the rest, I felt that they could not make their case stick, mainly on account of a Catch-22 embedded in that word “purported”: plainly they had to know what a “purported” proposition meant before they could even begin to decide whether it meant anything. And it is just too implausible to claim, for instance, that “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” has no meaning. Surely it is true, and consequently meaningful, if and only if God’s in his heaven all’s right with the world, just as “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. But the Positivists had to deny meaning, not merely truth, to their rejections, because of their conception of philosophy itself, which is still current:

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