Science and agency

Jim Kalb writes that:

“Scientific knowledge is knowledge of mechanism that enables prediction and control. If you treat that kind of knowledge as adequate to all reality, which scientism has to do to be workable, then human agency¬†disappears.”

I think it is more accurate to remove “of mechanism.” Science is about prediction and control. If one can predict that one cannot predict (for example, if something is random), though, then that is also a part of science.

Currently, human agency hasn’t disappeared in the scientific worldview – rather, when trying to understand or explain human agency, scientists tend to work within the current repertoire of scientific concepts. Right now, those aren’t classical mechanisms, but various electro-magnetic phenomena or cause-effect processes from quantum physics, say. Are all these things mechanisms? Yes, in that there is some sort of cause-effect relationship which can be described, and technologies created based on that description.

Consider creating robots: the robots can move about a room, decide whether to go left or right, and so on. There is agency there in some sense, and it all appears to be explicable in terms of contemporary science. So, when scientists are trying to understand human agency, they might look at how computer agents work. This might not be plausible (humans probably work in very different ways from any robots nowadays), but that’s not the point: the agency does not ‘disappear’ – it is just explained in terms that might work. If we find out that those terms don’t work, then scientists will postulate other ways in which human agency works.

I think Kalb underestimates how flexible ‘science’ has been – it changes once we figure out that certain representations don’t work. If there is something like an unpredictable human agency, then it will be included like other unpredictable phenomena in science. So, there might be new concepts developed to describe this. Nothing rests on this.

3 thoughts on “Science and agency

  1. James Kalb

    Thanks for the comments.

    I think we agree that in science the limits of mechanism, the limits of prediction, and the limits of knowledge are all the same. You seem to say though (in effect) that we can maintain the universal jurisdiction of science by saying e.g. with regard to atomic decay that the mechanism has a random element, so we can predict that specific timing is unpredictable and know that it’s unknowable until it happens.

    I’d agree with that, but I’m not sure where it leads. It seems part of our concept of agency that human actions are neither random nor fully explicable by mechanistic concepts. That seems to exclude agency from science as it now exists, which at most tries to explain behavior.

    If that’s right, then if people want to maintain something like our concept of agency while accepting something like science as it now exists as a sufficient general approach to understanding the world they’re going to end up with some pretty odd and irrational ideas. That was my other point.

    You point out that if the current repertory of scientific concepts like mechanism and randomness isn’t enough to explain agency, intention, consciousness, etc. then other concepts may eventually be added to science and in that case agency etc. will be adequately explained within the limits of what is considered science. That may be so, but we have no idea what that future science will look like so the speculation doesn’t help people understand their world today.

  2. admin Post author

    That makes sense.

    Perhaps the difference is: I think that science (if it continues to its logical limit) will come to include human agency and have an accurate description of how it works (as far as can be had), because human agency (unlike phenomenal consciousness, say) is by definition something which affects the cause-and-effect network, and science really is about that whole network. In the case of human agency, there isn’t the option for science to say that it is an ‘illusion’ (like is currently sometimes done with intentionality or phenomenal consciousness – things that can be ignored from scientism’s perspective or conceptually ‘reduced’, such as saying that phenomenal consciousness really just is these chemical or electromagnetic processes).

    That is, if humans really do work in a way that isn’t predictable in a mechanistic way or isn’t random, science will have to include some novel concepts that refer to this, because it will make a direct difference to the things science studies proper.

  3. James Kalb

    Oh, I agree. But maybe we’re just saying that man strives for an overall account of things and tries to make it as complete and accurate as possible. And that any satisfying overall account we arrive at will undoubtedly include something very much like present-day science (based on mechanism plus randomness) as at least a very important component.

    FWIW, my own view is that phenomenal consciousness, which is obviously real and can’t without arbitrariness be identified with physical processes, causes physical events. Otherwise it couldn’t be one of the causes of my utterance “hey guys I’m experiencing phenomenal consciousness.” So I’m on the “science is gonna have to be extended” team.

    These are notoriously deep waters though.

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