Philosophical arguments shared at Veroni Lecture

Heather Bing

After suggesting the arguments of two other philosophers, Jaegwon Kim, professor of philosophy at Brown University, offered his own argument during his lecture entitled, “Why there are no laws in the special sciences: Three arguments.” This presentation was the second in the Veroni lecture series for 2005 and 2006 offered by the philosophy department.

Kim first explained that special sciences such as economics, biology and psychology are no less scientific than physics. In fact, these sciences are often more assessable and understandable than physics, he said.

“The special sciences seem to have a greater and more direct impact on our lives,” Kim said. “Physics is about comparisons, while special sciences are important entities themselves.”

The questions of whether there can be other sciences than physics, and why humans need them have been pondered by a number of philosophers who are motivated to answer these questions, he said.

“There is one world, a single reality,” Kim said. “All our scientific endeavors aim at giving a true description and explanation of that single world. Are there laws in the special sciences? Many philosophers who work in this area would say yes.”

However, Kim, along with two other philosophers he cited, Donald Davidson and J.J.C. Smart, say no.

Kim said Davidson focuses the argument around psychology and explains how physical experiences cause mental reactions.

“If I step on your toe, it hurts your toe and there is tissue damage,” Kim explained. “But too much of that physical pain influences your mental state. Thus the mental is causally open. At least some mental events are the cause of physical events.”

The special sciences do not have strict laws because they are impacted by other events, Kim said. Another example is in economics. Physical events like Hurricane Katrina impact the economy, so economics is causally open as well.

Smart focuses the argument on biology, saying that rather than laws, there are useful rules of thumb that the field follows. Biology is more like engineering than science because of the complexity of biological entities, Smart said.

“I find this diagnosis not right,” Kim said of the argument. “This cannot be the whole story. It’s not the complexity that plays a role, but what I call idiosyncrasy, or individual variability within a single biological kind.”

This is demonstrated in the study of human brains, Kim said. Psychology would not be interesting or possible if the complexities of the brain were too much alike or too different.

Kim decided not to go into his own argument, but asked how humans are to access causes in their studies if there are no laws in the special sciences.

“I think these are important questions to address,” Kim said. “Special sciences are related to physics in quite an intimate way but not because they can be reduced to physics.

“It’s OK for there to be no laws in biology and psychology. There are enough interesting similarities to get these sciences going.”

Contact College of Arts and Sciences reporter Heather Bing at [email protected].