Attitudes to Reality




Attitudes to Reality



I am interested in devising a general taxonomy of epistemic attitudes towards reality as a whole. This taxonomy can be expected to have an historical interpretation, and heuristically that is a good way to understand it. So let us consider the human attitude to reality in pre-historic times—possibly as far back as our arboreal ancestors. At this time our attitude would resemble the attitude of other animals: there would be no religion and no science, and not even any recognition of why-questions. We did not seek explanations or general causal understanding; we simply accepted the world in which we found ourselves. No one asked why things happen one way rather than another, or how things originated, or what the laws of nature are. Our relation to the world was practical not theoretical: we needed food, shelter, and other biologically given goods; and such knowledge as we had was geared to those ends. Perhaps we also had some nascent aesthetic sense, as other animals seem to today. Our attitude to reality was unquestioning and unreflective: reality, to us, was just the given.

But at some point humans began to ask questions and generate answers to them. We wanted to know why things happen as they do. How exactly we moved to this stage is obscure—other animals never seem to get beyond the first stage of unquestioning acceptance. In reply to these questions we fashioned explanations with frankly supernatural elements: spiritual forces, divine beings, malign agencies, the gods. Why does thunder occur?  It’s the anger of the gods. Why is there disease? It’s punishment for our sins. This epistemic mode continued for thousands of years and still prevails in many human populations today. It is ancient and deep-seated, if utterly misguided. But it is an intellectual step beyond blind unquestioning acceptance of reality—a cognitive advance of sorts. Even our primate relatives seem not to have entered the superstition stage.

Then came science, and none too soon (the human brain had been ready for it for a long time). In fits and starts science began to replace the supernatural mode of explanation. No divine agencies were permitted in the explanation of natural phenomena—just natural mechanisms and laws. The scientific attitude replaced the supernatural attitude as an epistemic stance, at least to some degree and for some people. For many of us now this is the attitude we take for granted, though it is a comparatively recent development. It motivates us to live as we do. We are curious about reality and we accept the scientific method of discovering the truth about it. We have become dedicated students of nature. We delight in scientific results, facts, and theories. Reality, for us, is not (merely) practical or aesthetically pleasing; it is an object of investigation, discovery, and understanding. It exists to be explained–scientifically. We regard reality as a problem to be solved.

The scientific attitude may be accompanied by a secondary critical attitude, a kind of frustration or disappointment. For all the virtues of the scientific method, we understand that it is limited and fallible. We don’t apprehend reality as God might, in one sweeping glance, directly and incontrovertibly. We proceed by cautious inference from what our limited senses reveal of the world: we generate hypotheses, conjectures or guesses—and then we seek evidence to support what we have surmised. Thus we possess the idea of a superior mode of knowledge, which is unavailable to us—godlike knowledge. Still, our very limitations spur us on, in an effort of human transcendence. We enjoy the thrill of the chase, handicapped as we are, and not just the attainment of the knowledge we seek. We feel driven by our curiosity, and our life is given meaning by it. Even though we acknowledge our epistemic limitations, we fight through them in acts of intellectual conquest. Our attitude is passionate and heroic, though tinged with self-doubt. We earnestly hope that science will yield the ultimate truth of the universe, but we have to admit that it might ultimately fail us. Our attitude is optimistic, but with an undercurrent of pessimism. We certainly feel that the scientific attitude is superior to the attitude of blind acceptance or the attitude of supernatural mythmaking. Science enhances our self-image. It makes us feel special. For some, it makes us godlike.

These three attitudes are not the only possible ones, though they are surely the most common. Another attitude would be one of total skepticism: we can ask why-questions and recognize our state of ignorance, but we cannot answer such questions—not by religion orby science. Human knowledge of how the world works is impossible. This attitude is not like the acceptance attitude, which involves no stance with respect to whether reality can be known. The skeptical attitude allows that the questions can be asked, and agrees that they have answers, but denies that we can discover the answers. Reality must remain enigmatic. We cannot know what we desire to know.

A further attitude, combining both skepticism and science, is what might be called “scientific mysterianism”: this is the idea that not all scientific questions admit of answers that we humans can discover or understand, though some do. The attitude can come in degrees, ranging from local mysteries (e.g. the fate of the dinosaurs) to broader mysteries (e.g. consciousness and the ultimate nature of matter). A person who adopts this attitude accepts that the scientific drive must be curtailed in certain cases: we cannot satisfy our curiosity about everything in nature. The attitude is nothing like the supernatural attitude, which does claim to provide answers. The scientific mysterian is someone who believes that for scientific reasonsnot all of reality can be understood by humans. This individual holds that science is a human construct, constrained by limited human intelligence, and evolved for biological purposes: so the science of science implies the real possibility of mysteries of nature.[1]This attitude is quite distinct from any of the other attitudes described so far, and deserves its own place in the general taxonomy. I believe it is the attitude that best fits the state of human knowledge at present, at least in some areas; I expect it to become more prevalent in the coming decades, as the limits of science become apparent. It results from applying the outlook of science to science itself, i.e. a particular kind of human knowledge. The science-forming faculty (as Chomsky calls it) is a natural faculty endowed with inherent strengths and weaknesses.

But what primarily interests me here is the epistemic attitude that will prevail once science comes to an end. For end it will, given some relatively obvious facts. The end of science can come about in two ways: either everything is discovered or some areas resist scientific understanding and always will. In either case there will be no more science for humans to do. Science is a finite enterprise, because the world itself is finite—there are only finitely many laws, explanations, and truths.[2]We have already discovered a great deal about the world, and we will doubtless discover a great deal more; but at some point the discovering will end, either because there is nothing left to discover or because we cannot in principle reach any further. There is only so much botany to do—and zoology, psychology, chemistry, and so on. And before the end point is reached the supply of unanswered questions will shrink visibly: we will be aware that science is drawing to a close and that the pickings that remain are slim. Quite possibly we have already discovered the major theories of nature. What reason is there to believe that science will exist forever, constantly making major new discoveries? Geography effectively came to an end once the earth had been thoroughly explored—there are no more continents to discover. Couldn’t physics come to an end in the next 50 years?[3]

However, my question is less whether and when science might come to an end than what impact this would have on our attitudes to reality and our own lives. What will this recognition do to us? How will our mental attitude change? It will, obviously, deprive us of scientific motivation. We will no longer be able to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Our curiosity will not find a rich vein in applying the scientific method to reality. We will no longer define ourselves as working scientists. Accordingly, we will have to transform ourselves into a new kind of cognitive being with a different attitude to reality. We will have to find a different meaning and purpose in life. Call this the “post-scientific attitude”. It is not like the pre-scientific attitude, because now science lies before us complete (or as complete as it can get), but it shares one trait with that attitude: we are no longer scientifically motivated. There is no reason, however, to expect that this would lead to a recrudescence of the supernatural attitude, because science has made that obsolete–and certainly it won’t lead to the old unquestioning acceptance of the world. It requires a quite new attitude, a new stance. We will no longer see ourselves as explorers of nature, put here to perfect human knowledge. All scientific knowledge will be available at the push of a button on a giant computer. There will no laboratories, no experiments, no scientific instruments, no professional scientists, no Nobel prizes, and no scientific breakthroughs. What will we do with our intellectual energy, our restless curiosity, our idealism? We will have to adjust to a new epistemic world. Children could still learn science at school, and they might well derive intellectual pleasure from doing so, but the primary drive to discoverwill no longer be one that can be satisfied. The excitement of ongoing science will no longer be there to stimulate and motivate. No one will thirst to become a practicing scientist revealing the truths of nature. No more Darwins and Einsteins.

I think this will be a difficult cultural adjustment, given our human cognitive nature and its emotional associations. There might be widespread depression and a sense of existential emptiness. But perhaps there is a more hopeful future to contemplate: all that mental energy might go into other areas of human concern. We might rediscover things that science has distracted us from; we might find a fresh sense of value in other areas. If our idealism can no longer strike out in search of scientific knowledge, then it might be channeled into art, morality, politics, the preservation of the planet, and so on. We might start to view nature (including human nature) not as a puzzle to be solved, with which we are engaged in a titanic intellectual struggle, but more as an aesthetic object, or an object requiring dedicated preservation. Instead of striving to uncover its secrets, which it zealously conceals from us (with our feeble senses and rickety inferences), we might come to celebrate nature’s beauty more than we do now and seek to preserve and enhance it. Improving the general condition of humankind (and animal kind) might also seem more compelling once we are no longer focused on trying to understand nature. There will be no conflict between searching for knowledge and improving human wellbeing (resources being limited). Art will not be merely a pastime we pursue when the day’s scientific work is done, but something to occupy our fullest attention. In other words, different values will take up the space heretofore occupied by science.

If this prediction is along the right lines, then the science-free world of the future may be a better world than the world we occupy now.[4]However, none of this might come to pass and all that will be left is a gaping hole where science used to be. It might even be that we will turn from nature in an attitude of inconsolable boredom, expressing our despair in destructive acts. Unending war might be the outcome. Nature might no longer engage our interest or even our respect, once its secrets are laid bare, and the nasty side of the human animal might come to the fore. It is hard to say, but things will not go on as before. We would do well to prepare ourselves for the end of science, taking whatever precautions seem necessary, and actively encouraging positive alternatives. Not science education, but post-science education. Philosophy might come to the rescue: it could fill the intellectual vacuum, providing challenges to ambitious young minds (assuming it has not also reached its end point).  I don’t expect science to wind down any time soon, but in a hundred years or so its demise might become a reality.[5]

Let me make a methodological point. It is worth trying to articulate and understand the kinds of general attitudes I have described because they shape the entire way we view the world and ourselves (we might call it “epistemic psychology”). Once Homo sapiensgot beyond the brute animal acceptance of nature, various epistemic options opened up, and these have shaped the course of human history.  A taxonomy of these attitudes helps in grasping them in their full generality—they are natural facts too, capable of study. And just because we are in the middle of the scientific period doesn’t mean that this period will last forever. We should begin to consider the future of the human spirit once science loses its centrality, at least as an active area of human endeavor. We should be ready for the transition.  My own view is that the era of science is a strictly temporary form of human existence, which will inevitably be succeeded by something different. We will always have the results of science (barring some terrible catastrophe, physical or cultural), but we will not always have science as a living form of human endeavor—as something that absorbs our interest and energy. Indeed, science may come to an end before religion, fading into the cultural background, because religion does not have finiteness built into it. My guess is that both religion and science will effectively end in less than two hundred years, given the rate of change we are seeing now; and then we will need to figure out where to go next. I hope that aesthetics and morality will occupy the center of our new attitude to reality, not war and personal enrichment, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Science will be safely tucked away in the reference books (if books still exist) to be enjoyed, savored, and used as need be. We will then inhabit a new form of human consciousness in which other concerns have become salient. The world spirit will have moved on.




Colin McGinn






[1]There are also limits arising from distance in time and space that may never be overcome.

[2]I don’t mean to deny the infinite—of space, time, numbers, and so on. My point is just that there are only so many scientific facts and explanations to be known, so that science won’t go on for all eternity: it has a natural end. This is especially true of natural laws and general theories: there are only so many of these.

[3]See John Horgan, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age(Basic Books, 2015) for a discussion of this possibility.

[4]Of course, science will still exist in the form of established knowledge; what will be gone is the scientist as discoverer—there will no longer be scientific research. The position of prestige currently occupied by scientists will shift to other members of society. Scientific skills will not be prized as they presently are.

[5]We should distinguish science and technology: I am talking about pure theoretical science not applied science. Technology might have a much more protracted future than science. Discovering the fundamental secrets of nature might not take much longer (or realizing that some things are inherently beyond us), but making new machines by applying scientific knowledge could go on indefinitely.

8 replies
  1. Giulo Katis
    Giulo Katis says:

    Both bold and humble.

    Am I right in reading in this piece something like “there are diminishing returns to the experimental method”? I.e. adavances in technology, together with some limit on what is knowable by us, will saturate our dataset at some point in the not too distant future?

    It is hard to know what new vistas will be opened up by the ‘telescopes’ of the future. But technologies that open up genuinely novel parts of reality will be required for your conjecture not to come true. More importantly, how we live, interact, and what’s important to us will need to change.

    Do you see the same fate for philosophy, mathematics and other formal sciences in this context? It feels like the formal sciences (though much older than experimental sciences) are still in their infancy with regards to what it means to know. For example, though we can calculate (and we have learnt nature does this too), we are only just beginning to understand what it means to calculate.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I don’t see quite the same fate for mathematics and philosophy, though there may be analogous fates. Philosophical problems seem to persist no matter how much our knowledge increases, while mathematics deals in the infinite. Empirical reality has only so much depth and extent and is comparatively easy to know (at least in some aspects). In some (simpler) possible worlds science came to an end centuries ago.

  2. says:

    Part of your conjecture, I gather is this: 1.) diminishing returns on theory informing method and 2.) diminishing returns on method informing theory. In the absence, however, of a plenum of science-based theoretical understanding (and such a plenum itself could never be proved), plausible theory will ever find a vigorous measure of elbow-room. It’s unlikely that, for any given area of aspirant scientific understanding, there exists an in-principle proof of its futility. Even in a “postulated” post-scientific world, some answers to some merely practical or technological questions might (ought!) to be informed by our aesthetic or moral imaginations (by a kind of theoretical instrumental reasoning). Our trajectory (hopefully), in the end, will not have been one From a merely practical epistemic relation to the world To a post-scientific, merely practical (technological) epistemic relation to the world. We should curse an anti-climax not even upon such as The World Spirit.

  3. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    You could also consider the diminishing returns on experiments in particle physics. How much money has to be spent now in order to extract some new information about the sub-atomic world?

  4. says:

    Having furiously canvassed the archives of ancient Egyptian scholarship in search of evidence of widespread dogmatic deductivism, I found, outside of Ptolemy, only this (a thesis widely believed, at the time, to have been derived apriori): homosexuals were uniformly to be identified—irrespective of their sexual practices—as, “eaters of garlic and melon”. A single, noble heretic, indeed, held that the supposition in question was, “merely plausible”.


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