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A Philosophy for Interdisciplinary Studies

Dr Meynell is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Leeds; his books include 'An Introduction in the Philosophy of Bernard Lonergan", "Sense”, Nonsense and Christianity", "Grace versus Nature" and “New Theology and Modern Theologians.”

The open-mind Interdisciplinary researcher will frequently find it necessary to reject the canons of established disciplines as restrictive dogmas.  Is there a set of criteria that can be substituted as a guide to the scientific enquirer?

Readers of this journal know that an increasing number of scientists and scholars from a wide range of disciplines believe that Velikovsky has made discoveries of outstanding importance, or at least that his proposals merit careful consideration.  On the other hand, an even greater number say or have said that he is a crank, and that his theories are simply not worth serious examination.  If this disagreement is to get beyond the stage of mutual mudslinging, it would seem necessary to clarify the question of when and why a theory which is radically at variance with accepted beliefs is to be taken as a possible candidate for being true, or at least closer to the truth than its rivals.

Is there any general method of objective enquiry, that is, of the sort of enquiry which is liable to lead to the truth about things; and if so, what is it?  To put what is in effect the same thing in another way, by offence against what canons does the crank show himself to be a crank?  Considering that all of us, and not only scientists and scholars, assume that we can set out methodically to find out what is the case, it is curious how much difficulty philosophers have found in setting out, to each other and to the lay public, just how it is that we can do so.

Someone might express the doubt whether we do really assume that we can set out methodically to find out what is the case.  I think it is presupposed by the belief, which is surely universal, that at least on some matters, one has knowledge of something of which one was previously ignorant.  It is certainly implied by the very generally held belief that, on some topics at least, educated men of the twentieth century know more than did any of their predecessors.  And every now and then persons change their beliefs about what is the case, and, however much they may admit to being swayed on occasion by inaccurate information or wishful thinking, they would say that such changes are at least occasionally for adequate reason.  So I think it can be taken as established that what I have called objective enquiry can and does occur.

It is in spelling out what such objective enquiry consists in that the difficulties arise.  Very roughly, philosophers may be divided up into empiricists and rationalists, according to whether they stress rather the role of experience, or that of ratiocination, in the objective enquiry by which we may come to know what is the case about the world.  A great many examples of what it is to come to know where we were previously ignorant in the affairs of ordinary life seem to support the empiricist view.  Suppose I wish to know whether there are tufted duck on the nearest reservoir.  All the reasoning in the world will not resolve the matter; but if I look, and see the birds there, that will resolve it immediately.  I was previously ignorant on the matter; now I know; the crucial difference between conjecture and knowledge is made by the experience of seeing.

Still,.this kind of account will scarcely do for all matters on which one could reasonably be said to pass from ignorance, or false belief, or mere conjecture, to knowledge.  It is now established, with as much certainty as is available in such matters, that the air which we breathe contains a small quantity of the inert gases argon and neon.  Now I certainly cannot see, smell or feel the argon in the air in the same sort of way that I might see or smell the smoke in the neighborhood of a wood fire.  That air contains argon and neon has been found out as a result of a series of enquiries, hypotheses, and tests of these hypotheses; experience, what people in laboratories saw or heard, certainly came into it, but was by no means the whole story.  To judge by this example, to come to know is not just a matter of (I) experience, but also of (II) propounding of a range of hypotheses, and of (III) determining which of the hypotheses is liable to be true by appeal to such experience.  At this rite, empiricists and rationalists would both seem to be partly right; to come to know is partly a matter of attention to experience, partly of ratiocination.

Similar principles apply to historical knowledge as to this scientific example, and perhaps more obviously so.  If I want to find out what happened at the Battle of Actium, or at the Second Council of Constantinople, I cannot go and take a look at either event, however, I can take a look at evidence in documents and on monuments which will enable me to determine, with some degree of confidence, among the many hypotheses as to what might have happened at the Battle of Actium or the Second Council of Constantinople, what actually did happen.  In this example, too, knowledge is come by exercise of the three capacities mentioned in the last paragraph.  It is by the persistent application of them—by (I) attending to experience, (II) intelligently concocting a range of hypotheses, and (III) reasonably affirming the hypothesis best supported by the evidence of experience—that the human race has come by natural science and scientific history.  Let us call these capacities, following BERNARD LONERGAN, "attentiveness", "intelligence", and "reasonableness"[1].  In fact, it is Lonergan who is the pioneer in the kind of interdisciplinary philosophy whose nature and implications I wish to describe shortly here [2].

The exercise of these capacities, to a greater or lesser degree, is of course not peculiar to scientists and scholars, but common to men at large.  A human movement or noise does not count as action or speech strictly speaking unless it expresses or presupposes some judgement based on some understanding of some experience.  The bushman who correctly concludes, from a scratch in the sand scarcely visible to the naked eye of the average European, that an animal of a certain breed has passed in the last few hours, has been attentive, intelligent and reasonable in a high degree.  So, to a lesser extent perhaps, has the small child who detects his mother in a lie in the following example.  He has attended to the sound of his father slamming a door and stamping his way out of the house; he has intelligently canvassed the possibilities both that his parents have been quarreling. and that they have not been quarreling (the latter earnestly asseverated by his mother); he has reasonably concluded on the evidence, including his mother's likely motivation in the matter, that the former possibility represents the truth.  That human beings, when they act and speak at all, are at least to a small extent attentive, intelligent and reasonable, is the basis of the distinction between the natural and the human science.  In the case of the human sciences, not only the investigator himself, but the individual or group or community which he is investigating, is more or less attentive, intelligent and reasonable.  "Ideology" is a term which is much abused; but one may properly stigmatize a particular judgement or overall view as "ideological" so far as it is based on avoidance or restriction of attentiveness, intelligence and reasonableness in deference to emotions or desires.  When in the grip of ideology, I dare not risk considering a judgement of fact or value, which is perhaps part of the basis of my whole way of life, on its own merits; so, to preserve my own peace and comfort, I refuse to attend to inconvenient evidence, and avoid consideration of frightening possibilities.

How do these considerations apply to Velikovsky's work and its reception'?  In recent work about t the philosophy and sociology of science, we have heard a great deal about "paradigms" [3].  These are very general accounts of their fields held by communities of scientific specialists, which undergird all particular theories about these fields and direct research within them.  It seems quite useful and unexceptionable to say that all sciences beyond a certain stage of development (except in periods of crisis and fundamental change) are characterized by "paradigms" of this kind; but other statements made about them seem much more questionable.  For example, it is argued that "paradigms" cannot be justified by appeal to what is independent of themselves; the reason given for this is that it is only within and in terms of the paradigm itself that justification can take place [4].  If a proponent of Aristotelian dynamics is arguing with a champion of Galileo's ideas on the matter, there is no common ground on which the contestants can meet; what is counted as evidence by one party will not be counted as evidence by the other.  Further, and in consequence of this last view, it is maintained that it is misleading to say that one paradigm is more "true" than another, or that one gets closer and closer to the truth as one paradigm succeeds another—say, when the pre-Copernican cosmology is succeeded by the Copernican, or that of Newton by that of Einstein [5].

If to defy a reigning paradigm is to be a crank, then VELIKOVSKY, who has defied at least three paradigms, in astronomy, paleontology and ancient history, is triply a crank.  But then, Copernicus and Galileo were cranks for exactly the same reason.  It might be. objected that the scientific community later came round to accepting the main contentions of Copernicus and Galileo, so therefore they were not cranks.  But if this is the criterion, then we simply do not know whether Velikovsky is a crank or not, because we do not know what the scientific community of the coming decades or centuries will make of him.  If it is claimed that Copernicus and Galileo had good reason for rejecting the paradigms which prevailed in their time, and commending alternatives, it has to be asked of what nature these "good reasons" were, which render their innovations examples of scientific progress, Velikovsky's not so.  In any case, to talk as though them could be good reasons for choosing between paradigms is to have abandoned the principle that reasoning and the evaluation of evidence in an established science (apart from the exceptional circumstances of "revolution" when there is for a time no reigning paradigm [6] can only take place within a paradigm.

And to accept that principle, especially if one makes the very natural inference that the question of whether any one paradigm is true, or at least truer than some alternative, is a pointless or senseless one, is to be driven to some pretty paradoxical consequences.  According to the astronomical paradigm of the 1970's, quasars and pulsars exist, and indeed have existed for many millions of years; whereas according to the paradigms which reigned in the 1950's and at all earlier times, there were no such things.  But if they exist, and have existed for a very long time, then the earlier paradigm was false so far as it failed to acknowledge their existence, the later is true so far as it acknowledges it.  Similar examples can be taken from paleontology.  A few centuries ago, if someone had been given a description of a dinosaur, and asked whether such a thing had ever existed on earth, he would certainly have said no, whereas most educated people would now say yes..  There is thus a perfectly clear sense in which, if dinosaurs really did exist, the earlier paradigms were false as regards the matter, our own paradigm true.

If there is thus a clear sense in which one paradigm may represent the truth better than another, the question inevitably arises, by what token does it do so, and how can we know whether it does so or not?  This question leads, it seems to me, to a much saner doctrine of paradigms, in accordance with which they are to be accepted only in deference to what one might call the "super-paradigm".  This is, in a nutshell, that the truth about things is to be known only by dint of the unstinting application of the mental capacities already described, of attentiveness, intelligence and reasonableness.  What the exponents of each of the mature sciences take for granted is due to sustained and intensive exercise of these capacities in the field by generations of specialists.  Attention to the super-paradigm indicates why once the geocentric cosmology was a reasonable option for educated people, as an explanation of the data then available, but is now no longer so.  We do not feel as though we were on a globe spinning and hurtling through the heavens.  There are not constant gales of above hurricane force blowing always in one direction; the oceans, give or take a few tidal waves, remain in general remarkably stable, rather than pouring incontinently over the whole surface of the earth.  From early times, it was known that there were phenomena somewhat awkward to explain, like the motions of the planets; but no alternative explanation presented itself which seemed in the least adequate.  In course of time, the number of awkward phenomena mounted up; and the heliocentric cosmology, when it came, and once its full implications were worked out, was found to explain not only the phenomena which were awkward on the earlier point of view, but those which seemed most obviously to confirm it as well.  A view of the matter which was obviously reasonable when less data had been attended to, and when relatively few possible explanations had been thought of and tried out. is by no means reasonable when these conditions no longer obtain.

In the light of the "super-paradigm", the thing to bear in mind about any paradigm is that it is the fruit of attentiveness, intelligence and reasonableness as exercised by the community of specialists concerned so far.  It is always possible that more evidence will turn up; that more theoretical possibilities will be thought up to cope with the evidence available; or that it will turn out to be more reasonable after all to accept as probable a possibility which previously seemed against the evidence.  The consensus of the community of specialists does indeed have a relative authority within a field; one is not a specialist except in so far as one has been in a better position to attend to the relevant evidence, to survey the accounts of it which have been suggested, and to make a reasonable choice of the one most likely to be correct.  But it may be that some solitary specialist, or even someone outside the specialty [7], may advert to evidence which was previously unknown or overlooked, or is struck by some fresh explanatory possibility.

When this happens, and the alleged evidence or the fresh theory is rejected, especially when they are rejected with contempt, it is worth considering the other reasons why people hold beliefs besides their being the most intelligent and reasonable ones to hold on the basis of the available evidence.  Groups of specialists, like other human groups, have been known to hold views for ideological reasons rather than in deference to the super-paradigm.  Those whose whole mental life has been formed by a paradigm, whose reputations are staked on it, or who have taught it assiduously to students over decades, have a heavy emotional investment in it; they will not be liable to welcome the suggestion that the evidence is mounting up against it and in favour of some rival account.  Influential figures within a field, with jobs and money in their gift, cannot quite always be relied upon to have the highest motives in penalizing or discrediting those who disagree with them; the dismantling of long-established courses, and the junking of venerable textbooks, can require a degree of self abnegation of which by no means all are capable.[*]

It is true that scientists and scholars simply would not be able to get on with their work if they attended to the work of every crank who has views on their subject.  The crucial question, as I have already suggested, is who is a crank and why.  Consideration of the super-paradigm enables one to articulate the distinction between the crank and the man who is to be taken seriously as a possible discoverer.  A crank properly speaking, on the account I am proposing, is one who not merely rejects a paradigm or important aspects of it, but one who does so without deference to the super-paradigm. To test whether a man who rejects a paradigm is or is not a crank, one has to ask: Does he understand the paradigm from which he differs, its implications, and the evidence upon which it is based?  Does he understand why it was originally established, and why, if it did so, it supplanted some earlier paradigm? Is the evidence which he adduces genuine, and does it really support his alternative proposal against the paradigm?

The controversy over the possibility of Velikovsky's theories from the point of view of celestial dynamics has been well aired, and needs some specialist knowledge to deal with properly; anyone who thinks that, however brilliant Velikovsky may be as a speculator, and however scurvily he has been treated by the scientific establishment, the evidence here is more or less conclusive against him, should read ROBERT BASS’s articles [8].  The question of whether Velikovsky's proposals on the redating of ancient history make him a crank is at least equally instructive, and illustrates the principles which I have just sketched in a way which is probably much more intelligible to the average layman.  I suppose most of those who have read a very little about the kingdoms and dynasties of ancient Egypt assume without question, as I did before reading Velikovsky on the subject [9], that centuries, decades or even years assigned to events by historians were reliably established and confirmed by a great deal of mutually supporting evidence.  Now Velikovsky has not only drawn out the implications of the accepted dating for the events of ancient history with which he is concerned, and the rival dating which he advocates himself, with respect to a very wide range of phenomena; but he has also given a well-documented account of how the accepted dating was arrived at.  This is to the effect that on a number of hypotheses, none of very great probability, and taken together very improbable indeed, astronomical data could be and were used to fix exact dates for a very few events in the late Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom of Egypt.  A rather remote possibility was, faute de mieux, accepted categorically; this was the easier since no independent checking which afforded any degree of precision was possible.  The apparent mutual support which now exists between the dating of these events and that of many others is entirely deceptive, since all the other relevant dates have been assigned on the assumption that the initial hypothesis was correct.  Independent checking of a less precise kind gave rise to anomalies from the first, which have been increasing in significance and quantity ever since; taken singly, each of them can not unreasonably be shrugged off—there has seldom been a hypothesis with any scope in history or natural science which did not give rise to some difficulty—but taken together, as Velikovsky presents them, their effect does seem overwhelming.  The period of the domination of Egypt by the Hyksos, traditionally, and consistently with all other available evidence, reckoned to have lasted about 500 years, comes out either as embarrassingly short (about 100) or absurdly long (about 1600); the Greek. the Cypriot, and the Syrian (Ras Shamra) datings which have been brought into conformity with the Egyptian result in a "dirk age" of some five to six hundred years, in which nothing seems to have happened, in the history of these places; archaeologists have, with quite monotonous regularity, found articles in adjacent levels in these places which have strong indications of coming some from the beginning of this "dark age", some from the end; surprises in the radiocarbon dating of relevant material have been numerous and bewildering, the more so when one takes into account results whose publication has been withheld; and perhaps above all, there appears to he no correlation whatever between the histories of Egypt and Israel, for all that each of them is apparently very well documented.  One is inclined to say that, if such a multitude of anomalies does not constitute a case for re-examining the basic assumption which gives rise to them, especially when an alternative view which copes with them perfectly well is available, it is difficult to see what such a case would be.

It would seem that, on the criteria which I suggested earlier, Velikovsky is not a crank in relation to the field of ancient history.  He has adduced a vast amount of amply documented evidence which tells against the "paradigm"; he has advanced an account of his own which seems to cope with the evidence perfectly well; and he is able to give a convincing account of how the paradigm was arrived at in the first place.  An account by a defender of the accepted chronology of how it was arrived at, which makes it seem more worthy of credence than it does on Velikovsky's account, seems urgently called for.

Study of the reaction of the scientific community to Velikovsky's theories—of what is known as "The Velikovsky Affair"—is notoriously inclined to provoke people not only into speculations about matters of fact and theory, but into the making of value judgements.  It is one thing to aspire to know the truth; it is another (though certainly a related) thing to aspire to do what is good and right. (One ought, among other things, to try to ascertain the truth. arid one can hardly do the right thing without knowledge of the relevant facts.)  Bernard Lonergan has distinguished what he has termed "the four transcendental precepts", the first three, which I have already described as constitutive of  the "super-paradigm", concerned with the finding out of what is true, the fourth necessary in addition if one is to do what is good: "Be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible “[10].  It is one thing for me to come to the conclusion that I have wronged another person, and that I ought to make amends; it is another for me to decide actually to do so.  It is one thing to judge, on the basis of the available evidence that a man has been badly treated by the scientific or scholarly community; it is another to decide to do something about it.  And it may be a highly responsible act for a scientist or scholar seriously to re-examine the case for the paradigm on which he was brought up, and on the assumption of the truth of which he has made his reputation; to make sure whether strenuous exercise of attentiveness, intelligence and reason will really indicate that it is still the best option available.

And it is no wonder, in the circumstances, that there should often occur what Lonergan has called a "flight from insight". a refusal to consider a possibility when the consequences of doing so would be too frightening, or inconvenient, or disturbing to one's ingrained habits of thought and behaviour [11].  There are all sorts and degrees of flight from insight, ranging from the virtually: inevitable reaction to extreme trauma in the infancy of the individual (as described by FREUD) or the history of the community (as postulated by Velikovsky), to the habit of shirking inconvenient evidence and avenues of enquiry which might be established over the course of time by a tyrannical parent or employer or a privileged race or class.  In both types of case, some restriction or misdirection of attentiveness, intelligence and reasonableness will be engaged in to make life tolerable;  the community which has survived will evolve a myth, the individual or class who lives a life at the expense of others will construct a respectable story of what he or it is up to.

A central problem both for the historian and the psychoanalyst is to get at what really happened from the myth or the respectable story.  Lonergan has in fact applied his philosophy to constructing theories of interpretation and history; the general outlines of these will probably be clear to the reader from what has already been said [12].  Every account of things held by an individual, or shared in common by a society or group within it, is to be understood as due to a mixture of attention and inattention to evidence, of intelligent understanding and lack of understanding, of reasonable judgment and absence of judgment, of responsible decision and refusal to decide.  How do these principles apply to the reconstruction by an historian of a catastrophic event of the past from a myth'?  Those who underwent the catastrophe did not have the range of explanations of the arrival of comets, the coming of earthquakes, etc., available to men of later generations.  The forms of explanation which they took for granted—the family commotions and squabbles of very anthropomorphically conceived gods—, quite apart front the sheer terror to which they were subjected, would certainly affect what they thought they, observed, as well as what they thought worth remembering and telling their children.  What we would regard as a crucial clue might have been reckoned by them as a mere flounce by a goddess in the course of a celestial family row.  The contemporary investigator must exert his attentiveness, intelligence and reasonableness to the uttermost—in assembling the relevant evidence, in thinking up a range of possible explanations, and in preferring the explanation which copes with the evidence best—to determine on what combination of attention and inattention, of intelligence and deficiency of intelligence, of reason and failure of reason, the myths were constructed on the basis of what was observed and undergone, and so, bit by bit, by comparison of a large number of myths from a wide range of cultures, a probable account of what actually happened can be built up.  It may be noted that exactly the same general principles should be applied in the discovery of what really happened in the infancy of a neurotic patient; his own recollections, which would be of a nature to render the actual events tolerable to himself, would have to be compared with those of members of his family, each of whom would have a bias of his own to be taken into account.  Investigation of how a nation formed an empire, or how a ruling class established itself in a society, would follow the same lines.

The interdisciplinary philosophy due to LONERGAN. which I leave been trying to sketch, may be commended as doing justice to the opposed viewpoints of empiricism and rationalism; as taking account of the great achievements of Western science without the slightest tendency to rule out a priori views of the world which are more "primitive"; as being neither positivist nor relativist, but promoting a kind of "objectivity," which adequately accommodates our knowledge of human  “subjects"; as offering a solution to well-known problems in contemporary philosophy of science; and as providing the basis for a practical philosophy through which rival moral and political views may be impartially compared and evaluated.  It does have other applications; the case of religion ought just to be mentioned, where the conclusions drawn by Lonergan from his principles, whether validly or otherwise, are thoroughly, subversive and shocking.  But what I have been specially concerned with is with the bearing of these principles on the proper evaluation of Velikovsky's work; if I persuade anyone to investigate the matter a little further, this article will have achieved what it set out to do.


[1]  B.  J. F. Lonergan: Method in Theology (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1972), pp. 20, 53,  55 ,231-2.

[2] The principal source for this philosophy is Lonergan's Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Longmans, Green & Co., 1957).  For a simplified account of the basic argument, cf. H. Meynell: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Bernard Lonergan (Macmillan, London, 1976).

[3] The term used in this sense was put into currency by T. S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[4]  Kuhn, op. cit., p. 93.

[5]  Ibid., pp. 169-70.

[6]  Ibid., pp. 5-6

[7]  Kuhn says that really important discoveries in a specialty are often made by comparative newcomers to it: ibid., p. 90.

[8]  R. W. Bass: "Did Worlds Collide?", Pensee IVR VIII (1974), pp. 8-20:  "'Proofs' of the Stability of the Solar System", ibid., Pp. 21-26, reprinted in Kronos Vol. II, No. 2 (1976), pp. 27-45 and in this issue of SISR. [See also idem,;"Can Worlds Collide?".  Kronos Vol. I, No. 3 (1975). pp. 59-71 — Ed.]

[9]  On the manner in which the conventional chronology was established, cf. I. Velikovsky:"Astronomy and Chronology", Pensee IVR IV, pp. 38-49, reprinted as a Supplement to idem.: Peoples of the Sea (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1977).

[10]  There is an elegant philosophical argument which can be used against those who would deny the indispensability or even the existence of these basic mental capacities.  Do they do so as a result of having attended to the relevant evidence, of having intelligently grasped the possible explanations, of having reasonably judged that the thesis which they are advancing is to be preferred to its rivals on the basis of the evidence, of having reasonably decided to speak their minds accordingly?  If they do not, there is no point in taking them seriously; if they do, they have exercised these capacities in the very act of arguing against them.  Cf..  Method in Theology, pp. 17-18.

[11]  Insight, pp. xi-xiv, 199-203.

[12]  Ibid., chapter XV; Method in Theology, chapters 8 and 9.


[*]   For a survey of some aspects of the response of scientists to unorthodox ideas, see also Brian Martin: "The Determinants of Scientific Behaviour", in SISR 11:4, pp. 112-8 —Ed.

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