The Image of Science and Metaphysics

Nina Yulina, D.Sc. (Philos.)

The connection between different metaphysical and, still more broadly, philosophical theories and a leaning to one or other concrete image of science has long been registered by philosophers. As far back as Hegel we find speculations regarding the connection between the "rational" forms of metaphysics and limited empirical scientific understanding. Hegel distinguished between the direct reality of science and the notion of science as a reflective form of rational‑theoretical activity. Developing further the idea of the historicity of the notion of science, Marx indicated the multiformity of the factors which contribute to its formation, and in doing so, pointed out the impact of the adopted image of science on the character of the theory of reality and on the understanding of man. [1]

It is to be noted that until the 20th century the idea of a lack of coincidence between the conception of science and scientific rationality on the one hand, and science itself on the other, remained alien to empirical and positivist thought. Although by the 20th century the metaphilosophical reflection of this thought tradition is acquiring a more developed aspect, it still remains largely within the limits of a naive realistic conception of the mode of existence (and perception) of the forms of culture in social consciousness. As applied to science, this is expressed in the fact that the image of science is taken for science itself, for "science as such". In other words, science in its disciplinary, linguistic, theoretico‑methodological and socio‑cultural aspects is taken for the only possible form of scientific knowledge, for a kind of absolute, the stable reference point of rational knowledge.

Today, when both the theoretical and the social life of science has become immeasurably complex, the notion of the image of science is acquiring particular relevance in analysing the complex mediating connection between science and other forms of culture, and, in particular, in understanding the dependence of the types and forms of metaphysical theories on the adopted "image" concept of science.

In the aggregate system of knowledge known as "science" it is necessary to distinguish the real content of scientific knowledge and the images of science. [2] The real content of scientific knowledge is a system of logically interconnected objective assertions regarding nature, society, man and knowledge (in this particular case the author is abstracting this problem from the structure and character of this system, the regularities of its growth, etc.). However, this real content never exists in a pure form, in the form of the "kingdom of truth". Possessing a certain "genotype”, which determines the existence and development of the content of science, the content itself is always entwined in the changing fabric of the culture of some concrete historical period and depending on the philosophical, moral, religious, socio‑psychological and everyday‑life conceptions of concrete social groups and scientific communities. For the latter this content is always specifically coloured and they regard it from some specific point of view, seeing it in the form of an image.

The following components of the image of science can be identified: fundamental metaphysical assumptions within which scientific hypotheses are constructed, the concept of the status of a particular scientific discipline and the significance of its theoretico‑methodological arsenal, the concept of the norms of scientific activity, an estimation of epistemological possibilities and applied social results of science, the socio‑psychological perception of the institution of science, etc. In identifying such components it is important to bear in mind two factors: first, the image of science and the content of science appear jointly, as forming one whole. The image of science is not simply science (and knowledge) considered in terms of certain concrete parameters. It is the re‑creation or reconstruction of the integral picture of science as seen through the prism of its concrete aspects and manifestations. All historically formed and established images of science exhibited both specific one‑sidedness and integrity (developed structure, multifacetedness). As distinct from the content, of science, the image of science is “humanized”. To this image, explicitly or not, is added the human understanding of the meaning of science, its social embodiment, its role in human life‑activity.

Thus, as a phenomenon of culture, science is comprised of a multitude of components at various levels and has a multitude of facets—logical, epistemological, methodological, semantic, ethical, socio‑applied, etc., each of which, in the process of the self‑understanding of science, philosophical reflection upon it, socio‑psychological perception, etc., can be focused, inflated and presented as the determining picture of science, as "science in toto", as the essence of rational‑theoretical activity. In other words, science, in its concrete cultural‑historical, disciplinary, linguistic or applied aspects, can be taken for science as such, for a standard of "scientificness".

Such a direct or naively realistic approach to science derives not only from its objective multifacetedness, but is also rooted in the specific features of the mode of perception of cultural forms. The point is that the characteristics of any object of culture including of science, exist not as themselves, but through the activity of a social subject, who exercises his transforming activity in the context of cultural‑historical practice. By socialising and ideologising the content of science and by converting the latter into the image of science the subject “objectifies” science, aggregating its content with the meaning of his practical activity. Therefore, in the sphere of practice, the objective content of science on the one hand, and its perception, interpretation and assessment, on the other, are fused together and appear in an undifferentiated form. These mediations are not visible to individual scientists or scientific communities: to them the image of science is combined with science itself. Only developed philosophical reflection—reflection using dialectical thought structures—can distinguish the objective content of science from the components of its image.

What has been said concerning the mediating character of the image of science sheds light on the mechanism of the assimilation of science by philosophy.

The organic inclusion of philosophy, alongside other components of culture, in the "body of science" signifies that what presents itself to each new generation of philosophers as "science" in reality appears to them not in a "crude form", not in the shape of some "absolute science", but in the form of an image, more exactly, images, i.e., in a philosophically interpreted, ideologically processed and socially assessed form—the only form in which, strictly speaking, science can become a subject of philosophical reasoning proper.

Therefore all attempts to liken philosophy to science and imitate both its conceptual and its methodological aspects have invariably been found to be illusory. All "science‑oriented" philosophers (empiricists, Machists, naturalists, neo‑positivists, etc.), who strove to construct philosophy after science's likeness, to introduce into it, often fairly mechanically, principles and practices which had justified themselves in some concrete science, were, in reality, dealing with images of science—mental structures which arose from the absolutisation and inflation of some concrete facets of science.

In a philosophy having developed self‑reflection (the author has in mind its dialectical variants), the assimilation of images of science is far from mechanical and direct. The concept of the world embodied in a concrete image of science is interpreted philosophically, i.e., is subject to processing in accordance with the specific features of philosophy. By the latter is understood a specific disciplinary structure, a specific set of categories, their ontological, epistemological and value reference, the critical and communicative activity of philosophy. The particular content which is incorporated into philosophy as "science" is compared with the types of analysis and the forms of reasoning evolved in extra‑scientific spheres, as a result of which science's own sphere (both its objective content and its image components) is clarified. Simultaneously, certain aspects of science, primarily those pertaining to the basis of its world‑outlook, are assessed as a subject to philosophical analysis proper. When presented in philosophical language (with the use of categories such as being, the single and the multiple, subject and object, value and goal‑setting, etc.) properly considered in then ontological, theoretico‑cognitive and axiological aspects, and correlated with the world‑cognizing and world‑relating functions of philosophy (man's attitude to the Universe and man's attitude to man), they acquire a truly philosophical‑universal character.

It appears to the author that consideration of the historico‑philosophical process through the prism of the notion of "image of science" can be used as a methodological principle in explaining the sources of the pluralism of metaphysical theories. Naturally, this principle should not be oversimplified or interpreted sketchily. Philosophy has its own logic of development, its own method generating ideas and its own methods of augmenting knowledge. By virtue of its world‑outlook and, consequently, cultural‑communicative character, philosophy conceptualises not only the sciences, but also other branches of culture. The concept of science, just as those of religion, art, etc., is powerfully influenced by the class‑ideological orientations of the thinker, the established cultural traditions, the specific features of the ideological conflicts of the given historical period and a multitude of other factors.

Nevertheless, the attitude to science, or more exactly, to some concrete image of science, to the picture of the world contained within it, to the explanatory means and socio‑ethical meaning, is, given the dominant character of scientific knowledge in the modern type of culture, an essential guideline which helps reveal the genesis of metaphysical theories and determine confronting types of metaphysics.

As early as the age of classical philosophy, when the rule of Newtonianism was essentially unchallenged and the monism of science unquestioned, philosophers proposed alternative concepts of science.

From the second half of the 19th century onwards, as the content and social manifestations of science became more complex and as revolutionary shifts became a constant factor in the development of science, there has been increasing pluralisation of the images of science and competition between metaphysical theories orientated towards different images of science has been intensifying. It is particularly important to note the significance of specific, established disciplinary features of science, and primarily of physics and biology, in the formation of images of science. Philosophical consciousness found itself facing a choice between the physicalist (energist) and biologico‑evolutionist images of science. The former took shape under the influence of the physical theories of the time, primarily, those connected with the development of the law of conservation of energy (Helmholz, Thomson), the latter under the influence of the Darwinian theory. Apart from their natural‑scientific content proper, these images crystallised ideas and methods drawn from other branches of culture. The Darwinian image of science incorporated within itself the ideas of historicity present in Hegelian philosophy, and the sociology and culture anthropology of that time, while the physicalist image absorbed the ideas advanced by Spinoza, 18th‑century materialism, positivism and the psychology of that period. The philosophical substantiation of these images proper was linked with the metaphysical interpretation of the ideas and methods which formed part of some concrete image, i.e., they were turned into a universal explanatory principle.

These images of science included different paradigms, a different understanding of the fundamental limits of knowledge, different methodologies and "established" different types of metaphysics. Physicalism set up a "rigorous" type of metaphysics—mechanicalist, determinist, reductionist and, more often than not, phenomenalist. A typical example is furnished by the "energist" natural philosophy of W. Ostwald, in which the notion of "energy" was converted into a universal explicative principle extended to the physical, the psychic, and the social. The biologico‑evolutionist image of science presupposed a different metaphysics based on the genetic method and leaning towards the idea of development, teleologism, the indiscreteness of the natural and the social, historical optimism, etc. The evolutionary‑biological image of science—by virtue of the spread of the notions of biology to man—had a great "metaphysical potential" and great plasticity. Under the aegis of this image there arose numerous philosophical theories—naturalistic (H. Spencer, Th. Huxley, E. Haeckel, pragmatism), speculative‑idealistic (H. Bergson, Ch. Pierce, J. Royce, S. Alexander), theistic (J. Fiske, F. Abbot, etc.).

Although both physics and biology have undergone enormous changes, and metascientific reflection has risen to a qualitatively new level over the past 100 years, the specific disciplinary features of science remain a source of disciplinary tinged images of science (indicating the relative independence of the images of science, their capacity for development, extension and change of content).

The conflict between the physicalist and the biologico‑evolutionist images of science has acquired particular tension in recent decades. In philosophy this has manifested itself in the confrontation of the physicalist‑reductionist and biologico‑emergentist concepts of reality. The physicalists have made the physical picture of the world the basis of the philosophical theory of reality, physics the paradigm of philosophical knowledge and its language—mathematics—that of modern ontology. In a word, in physicalism the place of metaphysics is occupied by physics. In the physicalist model of metaphysics the Universe is uniform, consisting exclusively of objects postulated by theoretical physics and being subordinated exclusively to physical laws. Only "ascending" causality and rigorous determinism operate in this model. Therefore all phenomena are, in principle, reducible to a physical basis. This universe has no place for consciousness: the latter is either identified with the physical or is totally eliminated as epiphenomenal" (W. Quine, J.J. Smart, P. Feyerabend, J. Armstrong, P. Churchland, etc.). The notions of "personal" and "subjective" are expelled from the new language of ontology, the categories of "freedom" and "moral responsibility" are declared pseudo‑concepts which only serve to confuse any understanding of the nature of morality and delude jurisprudence (E. Wilson). The initial epistemological premise of the physicalist models of metaphysics is the thesis of the basic opposition and absolute incompatibility of the language of modern science and the traditional language of philosophy, which uses the concepts of everyday‑life experience. Physicalists refer to the latter in different ways—as "available image" (W. Sellars), as the language of "everyday psychology" (P. Churchland), as orthodox‑animist image (E. Wilson)—but give these different terms one and the same meaning, emphasising the archaism of this language as compared to that of science.

The conversion of the scientific method of reduction into a universal explicative principle can also be observed in orientation towards the biological image of science. In the last few decades the spectacular successes achieved by biology have brought into existence various socio‑biological concepts which purport to explain human behaviour (egoism, altruism, aggressiveness, etc.) and all its social manifestations, as well as human morality and culture, by reducing the given biological community to the evolutionary genotype, i.e., by the conceptual means of genetics, population biology, ethology, etc. (K. Lorenz, E. Wilson, R. Trivers, S. Alexander, etc.). There is talk of the need to convert "evolutionary epistemology" based on neo‑Darwinism into a genuine end even superior science, which would derive from traditional philosophy only the formulation of problems, their solution having to be formulated by the joint efforts of scientists from various fields—biologists, physicists, psychologists and sociologists (K. Lorenz).

The example of sociobiology shows how the concept within a particular scientific community of the status of a scientific discipline (or even the accepted theory of the given discipline) and its theoretical‑methodological possibilities is overlayed with philosophical, ideological and socio‑psychological interpretations and becomes an "image of science". An organic component of such a process is the absolutisation (and metaphysicisation) of particular theories and methodological means. Whereas "scientific materialists" try to turn physics into the total science of the Universe, modern social‑Darwinists consider biology to be a total science of man, society and culture. In either case the monist tendency (reductionism is always connected with monism) manifests itself. However, monism is attained by the usurpation of philosophical problems and functions and the claimed withdrawal of traditional philosophy and its centuries‑old methodological means from the task of dealing with essentially philosophical problems.

In contrast to physicalist and biologistic reductionism, the bourgeois philosophy over recent years has given rise to numerous emergentist concepts which are being developed both by philosophically‑oriented scientists and by naturalistically oriented philosophers (D. Campbell, K. Popper, etc.). Emergentist concepts are also being constructed that are based mainly on the ideas and theories of modern biology. These various concepts have different points of emphasis and set forth different focal problems. The evolution of the Universe, emergentism, the rise of qualitatively irreducible levels of reality, their integrity and irreducibility, the principle of descending causality all are regarded as cosmological principles., The "struggle for existence", "natural selection" and "the survival of the fittest" have been attributed the role of the motive forces of the Universe bearing a universal character. They are being extended both to animate and to inanimate nature, to culture and to man.  Evolutionism and the Darwinian metaphor of "natural selection" are being used to explain the phenomena of consciousness, language, the freedom of the creative process, the growth of rationality, etc. (D. Campbell, K. Popper, M. Delbrük, E. Sober, etc.). Emergentism is fairly frequently connected with ontological dualism and pluralism. Particularly indicative in this respect is the metaphysical concept of "three worlds" proposed by K. Popper. In it Darwinism assumes the form of a "metaphysical research programme", consciousness, the self, language and culture being derived from the operation of biological laws.

A consideration of bourgeois philosophical theories through the prism of the concept of the image of science can serve an the methodological principle for revealing the sources and guiding factors in the construction not only of types and forms of metaphysical theories, but also of shifts in the creative endeavour of individual thinkers resulting from a change in the images of science. It is important to bear in mind that this change involves a change in the essential aspects of philosophy‑-in the nature of the focal problems and categorial structure, in the understanding of the fundamental limits of knowledge, in its pro‑metaphysical or anti‑metaphysical orientation, etc.

Such a change can be observed, for example, in the philosophy of K. Popper. His reorientation in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, when he abandoned the one‑sided physicalist image of science (and  knowledge) created under the influence of physics and mathematics (Logik der Forschung, 1934), in order to embrace the biologistic and evolutionistic image of science and knowledge (Objective Knowledge, 1972; The Self and Its Brain, in co‑authorship, with D. Eccles, 1977), was connected with a serious change of the content of his philosophy. The change of images involved a change in the key problems—from an analysis of the logic and methodology of science to an  analysis of cosmological and metaphysical problems. In effect, any dividing line between science and metaphysics was denied. The key problem of falsification gave way to ontological problems of "objective knowledge", "consciousness", "the self", etc. The genetic method was given priority over logical and epistemological analysis, etc.

In substantiating their principles both physicalists and biologicists refer to science and contemporary scientific data. At the same time, they draw essentially different pictures of the world. In the author's opinion, the sources of this divergence are to be found not only in their orientation towards disciplinarily tinged images of science. The explanation could appear to be much more complex. Modern scientific cognition exhibits two integrative tendencies. In one, the centre of the integrative process is the physical picture of the world and the structural systems characteristics of material being, while in the other this central point is the idea of the self‑development of matter, of the evolution of nature, which is completed with the rise of consciousness and the world of culture. Physicalism and biologism register these two tendencies as opposites, whereas they actually exist in close interconnection. Instead of communication and integration—the traditional function of philosophy—these forms of metaphysics provoke the division and disintegration of knowledge.

However widely different the orientations and conceptual postulates of the physicalist and biologicistic types of metaphysics, the mechanism of their formation have a great deal in common, deriving from the naively realistic approach to forms of culture. Physicalism ontologises the mode of description of the world characteristic of the physical sciences, subsequently presenting this philosophically interpreted picture as one created by science itself. The mechanism of the biologistic philosophy of K. Popper is approximately the same. Epistemological categories (primarily, the notion of falsificationism) are introduced into the conceptual apparatus of evolutionary biology, the laws governing the growth of knowledge are identified with the laws of biological evolution. Then, already in a biologistic form, these categories and laws return to philosophy. However, here they have imparted to them the status of universal (metaphysical) categories of being. Such a mechanism for creating metaphysical theories, in spite of a number of advantages (the identification of new philosophical problems raised by science) is also potentially very dangerous, as it confuses the scientific and a philosophical view of the world, often replacing the letter with the former. Such a substitution exercises a negative effect not only on philosophy, but also on science.

In summing up, the author would like once again to emphasise that, in understanding the types and forms of Western philosophy and the conflicts within it, it is vitally important to identify the image of science being adopted as the determining one. On this image depend not only monist and pluralist, scientist and anti‑scientistic orientations, but also the models of metaphysics, its key metaphors, the nature of its central categories, its understanding of the fundamental limits of knowledge. Although in recent decades essential changes have taken place in the philosophical reflection of science, in bourgeois philosophy the picture of science is still identified with its concrete aspects and manifestations (the ideas and methods of concrete discipline, primarily physics and biology, its ethical assessments, applied social results, etc.).

Such a perception of science is wholly the result of a naively realistic, non‑dialectical understanding of subject-object relationships, which makes it possible to identify forms which belong to the object itself and those derived from the object‑transforming activity of the subject. Whereas in a general form this view in epistemology has been an object of criticism since the days of Kant, it continues to dominate the understanding of such a subject‑object relationship as the perception of cultural forms by the social subject. As a result, the attitude of bourgeois philosophy to science becomes contradictory, assuming the form of the antinomies of scientism and anthropologism, absolutism and relativism, physicalism and biologism.

The other side of naively realistic attitude to science is that it ignores (or underestimates) the dialectical (communicative, critical, integrative, translational) function of philosophy in culture, which consists in the approbation, comparison, juxtaposition, assessment and synthesis of different types of knowledge and understanding, of the different pictures of the world created by the language of the natural sciences, the humanities, art and common consciousness. Meanwhile, it is precisely in the execution of this function, and not in the absolutisation of concrete aspects of the life‑activity of science, that the monistic intention of philosophy is realised. Its most adequate forms are to be found in dialectico‑materialist philosophy.


[1] Marx, for instance, noted the essential differences between the materialist views of Bacon and Hobbes, resulting from their different understanding of science. Bacon identified science primarily with experimental physics, with its direct sensuous perception of reality. "Matter, surrounded by sensuous, poetic glamour," he wrote, "seems to attract man's whole entity by winning smiles." In contrast, Hobbes said: "Knowledge based upon the senses loses its poetic blossom, it passes into the abstract experience of the geometrician. Physical motion is sacrificed to mechanical or mathematical motion; geometry is proclaimed as the queen of sciences. Materialism takes to misanthropy (K. Marx, F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 4, Moscow, 1975, p. 128). [—> main text]

[2] In Soviet philosophical literature the notion of "image of science" has been studied by A. Ogurtsov (A.P. Ogurtsov, "Images of Science in Bourgeois Social Consciousness", Filosofiya i nauka, Moscow, 1972, pp. 339‑384). [—> main text]

SOURCE: Yulina, Nina.  “The Image of Science and Metaphysics,” in: Civilisation, Science, Philosophy: Theme of the 17th World Congress of Philosophy (Montreal, August 1983) (Moscow: "Social Sciences Today" Editorial Board, USSR Academy of Sciences, 1983), pp. 223-235. (Problems of the Contemporary World; no. 111)

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

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