Scientific Nihilism

On the Loss and Recovery of Physical Explanation

By Daniel Athearn

Subjects: Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Philosophy
Paperback : 9780791418086, 387 pages, March 1994
Hardcover : 9780791418079, 387 pages, March 1994

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Table of contents


PART ONE Current Outlooks in the Shadow of the Technicalization of Physics


1 The Causalist Quest in Physical Science

Early Philosophical Turbulence

Advanced Causalist Physics

The New Era of Physics and the Reign of the Cult of Surfaces

2 "Law Explanation"

Foundations of Logico-Empiricism

Instrumentalism and Antirealism: Breaking the Link

The "Covering Law" Model

Why Theory of Explanation?

3 Philosophy and the Structure of Causation

The Positivist Conception of Science

Schlick's Humean Arguments

Positivists on Indeterminism

Hobart's Defense of Hume

Is "Productionism" Anthropomorphism?


4 Causal Realist Projects, I

Composition of Causes

Ontology of Latent Properties

The Success of Critical Realism

Causality and Forces


5 Causal Realist Projects, II

The Theory of Transmission

Explanation as a Theme: A Mark of Basic Acausalism

"Probabilistic" Process


PART TWO Physical Ontology


6 Radiation and Causality

Enigmatic Physical Activity

Empty Space Events?

Causal Contour

The Transition in Interaction


7 Time, Space, and Genetic Structure

Whitehead on Time and "Process"

A Sense-Making Application

The Ontological Shift

Conclusions and Ramifications

8 Interatomic Reality

Realism and Quantum Interpretation

Richness of the Concept of Causality

Quantum Mysteries

Propagation and Spatial Representation

Explanation and Causal Composition

Summary and Transition

9 Absolute Causal Reference

History of the Problem

Whitehead's Solution

Flat Transition and Structured Transition


10 Velocity C and Emergent Extension

Relativity: Theories, Models, Explanations

The Nature of the Problem

Furnishing the Physical Context

Whitehead's Theory





Scientific nihilism is the widespread and ascendant view that the prospects for genuine understanding in scientific knowledge are distinctly negative. This view is especially characteristic of philosophy of science, and is reflected in a number of professional and popular doctrines. In the background is the growing perception that physical science is presently encountering the inherent limits of scientific understanding.

This book shows that the breakoff of narrative causal explanation in physics, although remarkable, is no basis for the negative view of scientific knowledge. It demonstrates that radiation and field phenomena, which include a wide array of enigmatic facts, are amenable to explanation even in their most puzzling details. Athearn responds fully to the assumption that narrative causal explanation in physics has suffered a permanent demise. Rejecting the dogma of a clean bifurcation of philosophy and natural science, he proposes a constructive rehabilitation of natural philosophy.


"This book is stimulating and enjoyable to read because it is strikingly original and builds a unified thesis on the importance of providing narrative causal accounts in the full explanation of physical systems. The topic is of fundamental significance to physical science, philosophy of science, and to human understanding generally. It has become clear that more abstractions in the form of simulations, models, or physical laws do not, by themselves, constitute full understanding. "—Tim Eastman, University of Maryland