Customer Review

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mysticism on the rocks, January 29, 2001
This review is from: The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (Paperback)
Reichenbach pulls no punches. By the time he's finished, traditional, speculative philosophies are dead, buried and left without a headstone. (That these "undead" philosophies continue stalk the land, well, that's another story...)
According to Reichenbach - and his logic is impeccable - while the rationalist philosophers painted their mystical canvases, the parallel development of science, and scientific method handed the empiricists the tools they needed to produce the first grounded philosophic view. The search for certainty had the classic philosophers barking up the wrong tree. And meanwhile, the exploration of the microscopic world, coupled with the creation of a new mathematical tool - statistics - bootstrapped the scientific community into a model of the universe that was not causal, but probabilistic.
And what of ethics? Just as there are no absolute answers to the physical world, Reichenbach leaves the moral bucket empty as well. Your ethics, he argues, are ultimately what you choose to posit for yourself.
There is much more, lurking in this dense and difficult book. Published in 1951 - two years prior to his death - this is a tour-de-force of a man who was a contemporary of Einstein, and a participant in the famed "Weiner Kreiss" (Vienna Circle) which included such mighty minds as Kurt Godel. (See my review of D. Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach...") Reichenbach was one hot potato, armed with superior weaponry, and ready to take on the world.
The tragedy of this pursuit of consistency, which is the trademark of the scientific view, is that it probably will never come to guide society at large. Empty as it is, it is unacceptable to the majorities, whom Reichenbach was certainly not writing to, and who have no working concept of the scientific method. Most people do not want to hear that there are no ultimate answers.
One very big problem I see with this philosophy lies not with its truthfulness, but in its usefulness. We humans have a tough situation all around. We have a state of awareness which far exceeds that of our animal brethren, but we are bound with all the other animal traits, including mortality. Therefore, since we became aware of our frailties, we have consistently sought a coping mechanism. The rationalist view offered some hope - be it a blatant lie - but scientific philosophy, alas, does not. In truth, it runs counter to any coping mechanism one might choose to create. It is certainly not a philosophy for the weak and sick. This is the largest difficulty I see with its acceptance. As correct as Reichenbach may be, how can we stomach sending our children into a world where there's no intrinsic good or bad? How can we prepare them? The search for an easy answer may be wrong - but it's easy! And like water, humanity will likely take the easy path. There are many sweeter smelling flowers out there. Why choose this one? The author could have spent some effort making this philosophy more appealing to the masses, but he chose not to.
So is it just for scientists after all? The implications of scientists, blindly searching for more empty knowledge, as pawns of the capitalists, guided by a philosophy of blind greed, creating new and better tools and toys for the rest of us, yields a rather uncomfortable image in my mind of the future of the human race. But, after all, it truly doesn't matter what we do. And even though the truth is sometimes a bit scary, I do like the concept of creating my own vision and values.
Now it's true that humans created both traditional and scientific philosophy, and however different their origins may have been, they are both here to stay. Are there any implications for the future of society in general? After reading this book, I would have to say: "Probably".
Very interesting book, but not for everyone.
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