Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs: Science, Philosophy and Their Histories by Wallace Matson

Professor Matson (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley) doesn’t just describe the histories of science and philosophy in this book. He also describes the history of life on earth, all in terms of the evolution of belief. Simple organisms react to their environment in genetically-determined ways. Complex organisms form beliefs, new ways of coping with their environments. The most complex organisms, living in groups, create languages, allowing them to form beliefs about the past, present and future, and about what does not exist. 

Matson argues that all beliefs are ways of coping with the world. He divides beliefs into the low and the high. Low beliefs are those that have “rubbed up against the world”. They can be put to an empirical test and found to be accurate or not. Arithmetic and logic are made up of low beliefs, as are cooking and carpentry. Once we possess language, we can use our imagination to form high beliefs. They concern matters that cannot be tested or that we do not have the tools to test. Religion and morality tend to be high beliefs. They cannot be tested, although they have their purpose (edification). People living in groups need morality in order to live together. They don’t need religion, however, which came later in our evolution.

According to Matson, Thales shouldn’t be known for claiming that everything is made of water. Thales of Miletus (on the coast of Ionia, now Turkey) invented science by propounding three central ideas:

 “1. Monism, Unity, Reductionism: ‘The All is One’, that is, at bottom there is only one kind of reality, in terms of which everything can be (ideally) explained.

2. Naturalism, Immanence: No basic distinction between what a thing is and what it does. Processes manifest the essential internal energies of things.

3. Rationalism, Logos, Necessitarianism, Sufficient Reason: There are no “brute” facts; everything is either self-explanatory or explainable in terms of other things; and explanation has as its ultimate aim the showing of how and why things ‘couldn’t be otherwise’.”

Some science is theoretical: high beliefs that are “tethered” to low beliefs as part of a comprehensive theory. The theory of the Big Bang, for example, is tethered to low beliefs, not logically implied by observations, but suggested by the work of radio astronomers. On the other hand, Matson argues that “theories … invoking creative gods, final causes, ‘logical possibility’, and the like, are untethered, free-floating in the heaven of pure imagination”.

Matson credits Parmenides (another Ionian) with inventing philosophy, which Matson describes very generally as talk about what it is to be reasonable. His two favorite early modern philosophers are Hobbes and Spinoza, both of whom Matson believes subscribed to the scientific approach outlined above. Matson holds that Descartes took a wrong turn by focusing on his perceptions or ideas. Not only rationalists like Leibniz but empiricists like Locke, Berkeley and Hume are part of the same misguided tradition, a tradition that gave rise to pseudo-problems dealing with the existence of the external world, other minds and causation.

Matson also argues that the idea of logical possibility is a holdover from medieval philosophy. He believes that it was the idea of an Omnipotent Creator/Legislator who could make anything non-contradictory happen that gave rise to the idea that the world is contingent, that it might have been any other way than it is. In his words: “The contention here is not that the phrase ‘logical possibility’ denotes nothing; it is that what it designates is, non-internally-contradictoriness, is not a species of possibility, any more than a teddy bear is a species of bear”.

I’m having trouble understanding Matson’s point regarding logical possibility not being real possibility. Couldn’t gravity be a more or less powerful force in another world? Adjustments might be needed in other aspects of the world to allow for gravity to be different, but that seems logically possible, even if it isn’t physically possible in our world. It seems as though Matson’s objections to the idea of an Omnipotent Creator/Legislator have colored his opinion of logical possibility. Aside from that, I found very little to argue with in this extremely interesting book.

PS — A review of the book by two philosophers at the University of Colorado:  (11/8/12)


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