Scientific Analysis and the Recovery of the Natural World

Scientific Analysis and the Recovery of the Natural World

This wonderful statement about the ultimate meaning of science is by Edwin Arthur Burtt (in he Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science).

In other words, the way we see our world is the very essence of our culture.When we look back in history, we see that what really lasts about previous cultures is their views of their world. They may leave pyramids or other buildings and bits and pieces of stuff, but what counts, essentially, is how they saw their own world. That tells us far more about them than any building ever could-and, of course, is far more important to the generations that follow.

So how do we see the world from a Western point of view? For if Burtt's premise is correct, this question is one of the most important we can ask, and its answer offers the possibility of insight into a myriad of problems and opportunities. How then can we get at this issue?

It is my contention that the scientific worldview is a major key to Western culture, particularly Christendom (as it would have been called in the medieval world). Further, that in understanding some of the preconceptions of modem Western science, we are approaching an understanding of Western culture itself. So, forming an under-standing of such preconceptions is a project that gives tremendous' rewards -- rewards which arise from asking questions that initially may seem hardly relevant, faced with modem science in all its glamour and power. But the answers, far from weakening or marginalizing our grip on the world, actually offer a real deepening of appreciation about what our culture has offered to humankind.

Metaphysical Foundations

This inquiry into the meaning of science brings us into the area of metaphysics. So, let's define metaphysics. Metaphysics has been defined in a lot of different ways. Aristotle, who first coined the subject if not the word, described metaphysics as a study of being qua being, that is, the study of being itself. Even today one can still use that definition. But I think it is more helpful in this discussion to define metaphysics in terms of the preconceptions that one brings to any experience. Because it's just a historical fact that the world into which we are born pre-dates us. There you go! The world that we perceive is given to us. Inevitably. And our views about it are colored by the views of our parents and our teachers and the world in which we live. All of those things are metaphysical to our conception, prior to it.

Now it's a major claim of science that this type of subjective coloring is removed by the objective analytical techniques it employs. But despite these claims I think it is now certain that it just isn't possible to conceive the world without some preconception. This conclusion is of quite universal importance, and has been reached by all philosophers who have examined it in recent times. Further, such a conception seems to arise from the very bowels of modern science itself, in both its biological and quantum mechanical applications.

So could there perhaps be alternatives to the way science represents the world? Might there be other ways of seeing that would be compatible with the body of knowledge as we have it today? What I shall be hoping to show is that the world of science is metaphysically colored, due to events that occurred primarily in the seventeenth century. And we've inherited that worldview lock, stock and barrel. With, unfortunately, a set of philosophical ideas that make the study of those metaphysical conceptions very difficult. But if we can get at these concepts and understand them -- get below them in the sense of standing under them -- then we can explore the possibility that there might be ways of broadening the appeal and application of science, which is, after all, one of the central themes of technological culture, rather than just rejecting the whole process altogether as some sort of dreadful mistake.

History is Verily the Queen of the Sciences

One way to explore the worldview of any age is by noting the recurrent problems of its philosophers. For the modem world a major concern is what is known as "the problem of knowledge". Since Descartes the main current of speculative inquiry takes for granted that an inquiry into the nature and possibility of knowledge itself is preliminary to the investigation of any other issue. That's to say that the question of whether we can know anything at all comes before all other issues. Now that's rather strange because if you look at the medieval world or the ancient world, this just was not the case. The "problem of knowledge" was not a problem! On the face of it that seems rather strange, given the exponential increase in factual information over the past 600 years. One would have thought it would be them rather than us with this difficulty. So what has happened to us compared to our medieval forebears?

For example the world of a philosopher of the medieval period -- of St. Thomas Aquinas or Robert Grosseteste -- was a world in which nature existed for man's sake and was immediately and fully intelligible to him. "Substance" and "essence" and "quality" were the categories used to organize facts and relations observed by man in his unaided sense perception. That is to say, the world of the medieval was a world which was instantly perceivable. There was no gap between man and what he saw.

The world of modern science, on the other hand, is a highly counter-intuitive world, in which what science tells us about the world and what we see the world to be are in two completely separate camps. Scientific categories have now become "space", "time", "mass" and "energy". Man is just a temporary and chance product of a blind and purposeless nature. His ideals, hopes and aspirations are his own creation and have no place in nature. Mother Earth is but a speck on the outer rim of a not very significant galaxy. And even man's place on it is recent, temporary, precarious.

How has this happened? How is it that we've dispossessed ourselves of the world? How is it that in developing a technology and a modem science we've lost our place in nature? I propose to discuss briefly some of the events that led up to this. Because although it seems as if the world as described by science -- the world of mathematical number and shape -- is an inevitable world, it by no means is. When you look historically at how these ideas have occurred, you can see that the origins of these categories lie not in some profound insight into the nature of reality, but rather as starting points, tools, methodological decisions, that have been taken by people to help them in their task of analyzing the world.

So, to start, I would suggest that history rather than philosophy is the best way to try to understand this process. There are countless books of philosophical analysis that argue about the inevitability of theoretical concepts in experimental discourse, and how precon-ceptions color everything we see. One can read Thomas Kuhn, say, or any philosophical historian and find these arguments laid out in great detail.

I'm convinced, however, that a much easier way to approach this issue is to try to get into the mind state of various scientists who lived before the present day. Because it's my contention that those people did have complete worldviews. And if you can understand their worldview, you can see how ours has grown by accretion, so to speak, from theirs. So what I'd like to present here is a brief history of how the chief scientific preconceptions have come to be from the earliest times and then discuss what insights about science and humankind's relation to nature such a historical treatment could give us today. I'll take the notion of the ideas that one generation has bequeathed to the next as a way of guiding us through the material, but even so the rich tapestry that unfolds must make mention of the many social and religious influences such a central activity has inevitably entailed.

The Archeology of Knowledge

One of the most intriguing questions is to ask how scientific thinking came about at all. Can we find, for example, a point in time where it began? Surely that at least will give us clues to its nature. Not surprisingly, many people have indeed asked this question, and a great deal of information has been obtained about how the ancient cultures viewed the world. Unfortunately actual texts are scant, particularly for the early Greeks, due to the tragic loss of the great library at Alexandria in which so many of their writings were held.

Probably the first people to mention are the Babylonians. Their own culture dates from about 2500 BC to 500 BC, and they founded the mathematical description of the movements in the heavens and the systematic use of herbs in situations of illness. Please excuse these rather cumbersome ways of expressing their legacy, but you see they are not normally called scientific in any formal sense. The reason is that, although they gathered an enormous amount of information, there was no attempt to order the information into any causal category that we might accept as scientific today. Specifically, they saw the explanation for what they observed in the heavens in terms of the behavior and habits of their gods (whether, for example, there was discord or harmony in the heavens), rather than in terms of the natural rhythms and laws that we would understand as scientific today.

That way of looking at nature changed, and changed very dramatically, in the beginning of the sixth century BC in the Milesian colonies on the edge of mainland Turkey. What had happened was that the ancient Greek world had been invaded from the north by the Dorians. The indigenous people had been pushed farther and farther down into the Greek peninsula, and some had been pushed out of Greece altogether to form new colonies on the edge of Asia Minor. These were refugee cultures, made up of many peoples thrown together from all over mainland Greece. This is perhaps the reason why, rather than the theocratic kingdoms that were universal in the ancient world, these communities formed themselves into an early form of democratic government in which important issues were put to a vote in an assembly of the founding elite, and city and land were called the polis.

So these people were disconnected from the old world,the world of natural magic ruled by god-kings. And it seems more than a coincidence that with the democratic structures they then formed, places where they could debate political issues, issues about citizenship, issues about law, they also originated what to a modem eye is the first attempt to create a science of nature. In a direct analogy to their own society, they saw the natural world as no longer just in the lap of the gods, but a kosmos, a lawlike world, similar in kind to the new world of human lawlikeness and order.

Now this conception of the essential lawlikeness of the natural world is the first metaphysical conception that underlies all of the Western scientific endeavor. It has been challenged many times, in the medieval period as we shall see later, and of course by the many systems of natural magic that are so important today. But a belief in the regularity of natural processes independent of man's endeavors is the oldest determinant of the Western conception of nature, and is correspondingly deeply held. Not surprising is the seemingly irrational resistance of many modem people to a different way of seeing their world.

The belief in regularity leads to two other questions, and in a way the triumvirate so created has played like a fugue through the millennia that have followed. The first of these concerns the nature of substance, and discussions about what matter -- physical stuff -- is, concerned the early thinkers in this tradition. What lies behind astronomical phenomena, earthquakes, winds and rains? Is it one thing or many? Indeed the desire to discover an enduring and unchanging reality behind the changing world of the senses was a dominant concern of all the scientific thinkers that have followed.

The first great thinker in this tradition was called Thales, a semi-mythic figure, a land surveyor, astronomer and geographer. Although remnants of the writings of this man are scant, it is clear that he proposed that underlying all phenomena was indeed one primal stuff, and that he called "the moist". Water could form ice, a hard solid, and steam, a vapor like the air, as well as the liquid in which it was normally found. Such a transformation seemed to be the essence of natural phenomena. Others who followed him proposed other solutions -- air in one system, other systems even invoking the concept of the void, the boundless. But in all these systems the universe was conceived of as a living thing, in which the rearrangement of the primal stuff gave birth to all forms. And abstract and philosophical though such ideas were, there was a continued attempt to justify them, not in terms of belief, but in commonsense analogies to natural processes. Science was being born.

Not long after, however, the other great issue entered the picture, the concept of change. And it did so not as a further development of the early ideas, but as a criticism of them. If there was indeed just one stuff underlying all things, then how could change happen at all? Surely change as such would be impossible. Such issues were raised in what are now known as the Eleatic dilemmas, named after the town in Italy where the first great Eleatic philosopher, Parmenedes, lived and taught. He argued, for example, that an arrow can't move even though it is flying through the air. The logic was simple. At any time it's occupying its own space, and since space is stationary, it must therefore be resting moment to moment. When indeed can it move? Change, as we observe it, must therefore be an illusion. He put forward other arguments too, such as those showing the infinite size of any object, and of the famous puzzle of Achilles and the Tortoise, to show that the simple analysis of ph enomena in terms of just substance could not do justice to what was to be observed in the everyday world. Arguments of this sort evidence a new rigor entering the current of Greek thought, a rigor that, combined with the continued inquiry into the nature of things, formed the background to the two giants who followed, Plato and Aristotle.

The Problem of Change

For there were two solutions in Greek philosophy to this problem of change. The Eleatics had shown that the conception of substance had to be broadened to allow for its identity to persist through change.

Plato's Solution (Mathematical Proof)

One answer to the problem came from the Platonic approach. Plato talked of the world of the senses, the experienced outer world, as the source of an illusion, the illusion of change. Of this outer world, ultimately, nothing can be said. But at the same time Plato was very influenced by the ideas of Pythagoras, and therefore developed the concept of mathematical proof as a means by which one could obtain certain knowledge. However this certain knowledge was of an inner, ideal world -- a world that lay behind the sensory world and gave it ultimate meaning. Certain knowledge could only be obtained through mathematical expression and proof; the evidence of the senses was merely a shadow of this ultimate reality. Change was accounted for by the simple rearrangement of the physical, seen in terms of five fundamental forms, themselves modeled on the five regular solids. Mathematical certainty was reflected in the physical world.

This idea was espoused in his cosmology called the Timaeus, which is a wonderful emanative system in which ideas taken from first principles, from the ideas of the roundness of shape, or the unity of number, are followed to their ultimate manifestation in the world of matter. Indeed such an enthusiasm for mathematics and the belief that stuff is ultimately mathematical can still be seen in the world of the physicist today.

Aristotle's Solution (Logical Categories)

But there is another possible approach to the problem of change and the extraordinary multiplicity of the perceived world, and this was explored by Plato's student and successor, Aristotle. He argued that the qualitative differences seen in the natural world -- the colors, the shapes, and the smells, for example -- could not be accounted for solely in terms of mathematics; other essential attributes must be included. And it was Aristotle who was the first person to realize that you could link a definition of a thing to its substance by using the concept of form, and so approach certain knowledge even through the evidence of the senses. That is to say that he realized that the shape and appearance of things, although changing, could be a source of knowledge. Both Plato and the early thinkers had looked for what lay behind the world, be it some single substance or a mathematical reality. Aristotle rejected that; knowledge for him was right in front of his eyes.

You could define things in terms of their characteristics, then arrange such characteristics in taxonomic hierarchies, and come to quite general statements, statements true of many things, the so-called universals, in terms of which any particular thing could be defined. So instead of retreating from the possibility that certain knowledge could be had from the sensory world, and positing the only true knowledge as being the mathematical, Aristotle set out a program by which the universal could be discerned in the particular, and hence true knowledge found.

This line of thought is the other major route that has come down to us in the other great pole of the sciences, the study of biology. Although the ultimate substance may be unknowable, by classifying things in terms of their shape and size, et cetera, you can organize them into logical categories. And those categories can tell you the essence of the things themselves.

Aristotle was a wonderfully rigorous thinker, and created the methodology, the mental technology if you like, to enable his researches to be carried out. In a real sense, one can say that although in Plato one sees the first dialectic argument, it was Aristotle who systematized, perhaps even invented, logic itself. Aristotle was the first scientist in this tradition to develop a logical structure for scientific knowledge wherein one can see how general principles underlie the given sense experience, and it is through Aristotle that the main structure of modem science comes.

In fact it is Aristotle and Aristotelean science that first coined the word "science". Scientia. Scientia means "reasoned knowledge through causes". However, causes for Aristotle are not causes as we might understand them. Aristotle was a biologist interested in taxonomy and shape; and Plato was a physicist interested in mathematical structure (isn't it extraordinary that these two approaches are still very much with us!). But in the ancient world these two modes of scientific knowledge were both fundamentally classificatory. For Aristotle, it was logical classification and for Plato it was mathematical classification. But in no sense was there any attempt to get at causes beyond the level of classification.

The Structure of Greek Science

The overall structure of Greek science shows this position clearly. It was organized into three parts: the study of physics, being the study of all things that change; the study of mathematics, the study of abstract quantity; and the study of metaphysics, the study of being as such.

Truly universal knowledge, simple yet profound. Thus it was that Plato could write, in three dialogues, not only a complete cosmogenesis (the Timaeus), from the Godhead to physical matter, but also a complete history of how all institutions of human society have come into existence from the beginning of time to the present (the Phaedo), and a treatment of the ideal society, from first principles to the formulation of just laws (the Republic). Aristotle was equally encyclopedic in his inquiries, with 146 works covering our modem categories of mechanics, biological topics, ethics, politics, aesthetics and metaphysics. Amazing.

This body of knowledge was added to but never surpassed in the ancient world. Aristotle's academy ran on to the fourth century AD; Plato's thought was similarly influential, and indeed was added to in the late revival called Neoplatonism that was also very important in the Roman world. Other philosophies, notably Stoicism and Epicureanism, came and went as the Greek city-states gained Empire under Alexander the Great, but for our story it is the rise of Christianity in the late Roman Empire and its survival through the ages of chaos that followed the final fall of Rome that must hold our focus.

In the tremendous upheavals that followed the fall of Rome, much of the ancient corpus was lost from its homelands of Greece and Italy, but it had spread by then, and major translations had been made into the Syrian and Arabic tongues from the great centers of learning established in Pergamon and Aleppo and other cities in the Middle East. A continuity was thus maintained via the world of Islam, and it was translations back from the Arabic, notably in Salerno in Italy and the Islamic cities of southern Spain, that reintroduced the works of first Plato, and then Aristotle, to an awakening European world.

The Natural versus the Creator

But the Europe that recovered Greek knowledge in the twelfth century was fundamentally different from the world the Greeks lived in. The early Christian church had been actively antagonistic to the secular knowledge of the Greeks, evidenced in the famous quote from the early patriarch Tertullian:

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the Academy with the Church? We have no need for curiosity since Jesus Christ, nor for inquiry since the Evangel.

In particular, the Church posited a world made by a Creator God", a world in which physical reality was subordinate to the human, and the human to the Almighty. Thus God could change the rules of physical reality any time. He could stop the Earth. He could make the Earth go backwards. He could move the planets around. The creator was both active and omnipotent in his creation.

This important element in the Christian dogma gave the medievals a real problem assimilating the earlier Greek knowledge. They could see, on the one hand, that Greek knowledge had a logical coherence that they needed. Europe was a burgeoning society, with a growing merchant class displacing the traditional structure of serf and noble that had sustained Europe through the so called Dark Ages with their continuous invasions from the peoples of the North and East. But the invasions had stopped and the population was growing in new ways. A more coherent, more universal form of knowledge was called for to supplement the traditional diet of faith and morality.

The Greeks were the obvious source to go to, but their worldview was based on a conception of order in which the natural laws were inviolable, untainted by the Creator who was seen as outside his creation. Neither could man effect them, for he was merely a part. How could such a view not be seen as essentially atheistic -- a challenge to the power of the sacraments and the role of the Church?

As we have seen, there were, in effect, two strands in Greek knowledge: the Platonic and the Aristotelean. And indeed there were two strands of European reaction to them. The first strand that was recovered came from the Platonic corpus. Plato's writings, particularly the Timaeus, were far more congenial to Christianity than the Aristotelean writings. Because the Timaeus was emanative it inherently postulated a Godhead that had created the world.

So the medievals didn't have that many problems in Christianizing this particular Greek idea. Indeed, the later developments of Plato's thought -- the Neoplatonic and Gnostic teachings that were current at the time of Christ -- were so similar to the Christian faith that the early Christian church had a lot of trouble keeping the Christian Faith a separate entity. And although these teachings had undergone further development in the world of Islam, they were nonetheless readily assimilated into what was a very different belief system.

The Metaphysics of Light

The first people in Europe to assimilate Greek ideas, particularly Platonic ideas, into a scientific structure worked in Oxford in the twelfth century and were called the Oxford Platonists. Strongly influenced by St. Augustine, the fourth-century Church father who attempted an early synopsis of Christian teaching in the presence of Neoplatonic ideas, the physics of light assumed a central importance as a symbol of the link between God and man.

Most famous of these twelfth-century thinkers was Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln. In his writings he discussed both the ideas of the Timaeus and the analytical scheme laid down by Aristotle. But something new can also be found in his writings. For although he accepted the Greek model that one can, through induction, express the particular in terms of the general, he added something else.

He added that one can confirm what one has discovered through the process of analysis by checking the new results against the natural world. That somehow one can put one's general inductions about the physical world to experimental test. This was a novel addition to the ancient writings. And yet it emerged in the work of this chap as if it's a perfectly normal conclusion to come to. He said it's obvious that one's general inductions can't be checked in any obvious sense; they're classificatory things, so how are we to know if they're really true? The only way we can know is to somehow or other put them to experiment.

Why this should have occurred is a central question if we are to understand how the modem scientific view came into being. It has been often overlooked in past histories of scientific development, which place the beginning of modern science, the process whereby nature was actively investigated rather than merely classified, firmly in the sixteenth century, in what is called the scientific revolution. They point out that it is precisely this willingness to investigate rather than merely analyze the physical that is a crucial break with the older ways of seeing the world.

Now this may in part be right, for it is certain that the experimental interrogation of nature, although seen as a logical and methodological necessity by these twelfth-century thinkers, did not in fact occupy much of their time. Grosseteste, for example, although giving the clearest examples of how experimental verifications are to be carried out, and indeed discussing the consequent problem of knowledge a full five centuries before Hume, did not mention the possibility of an exploration of nature beyond the mere confirmation of analytical conclusions. His main concern, in his high ecclesiastical position as bishop, was to make sure that the Greek knowledge did not somehow contradict the received knowledge of Christendom.

But why should the possibility of experimental verification be an important issue for him at all? Answers are hard to come by. One strand is the contribution of the Arab commentators on the ancient writings, particularly Avicenna and Averroës. These authors, whose works became available before those of the Greeks themselves, stressed the importance of the different styles of analysis needed in order to understand the functioning of natural objects as apart from the pure logic used in mathematics and geometry. But the Arabs didn't cross the boundary between the analytic and the exploratory either.

The key, I believe, for this centrally important development lies in the different conception of nature that occurred in the Christian world. The process starts in St. Augustine, who replaced the ancient interest in the study of nature as an end in itself with a different conception, that nature should be studied as a "sign" of God. Since God had created the natural, some knowledge of him could be had from its study.

For Aristotle, the natural was sacrosanct, the key to true knowledge. But for the Christian, the natural was a created entity, created perhaps in the image of God, but made for the use of man. It was this fundamental downgrading that made possible the later development of experiment. Nature was not an end in itself, it was there to be used. For Aristotle, even though he supported the observation of the physical world, the alteration of it through experiment would have implied an unnatural interference with the physical world, and hence be barred as a source of true knowledge. So verification through experimental test became a possibility for the first time in the work of these early medievals. And although it took another four hundred years, exploration using the same metaphysical justification, with all its attendant benefits and problems, was to follow.

The Synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas

But I run ahead of events. The main interest in the medieval assimilation of the ancient writings was one of religious orthodoxy rather than scientific exploration. And Aristotle posed a much greater problem than Plato in this respect. The medieval who tried to Christianize them was, of course, St. Thomas Aquinas, and problems arose because Aristotle's categories and his ways of examining nature allowed no room for a Creator God. His forms are immanent in nature. They're not mathematical, outside of nature. His categories belong in the thing he's studying. So from the very start, Aristotle's thought was threatening to the Church authorities. In fact Church officials were quite concerned that the scholastic corpus of Aristotle's thought would lead straight away to materialism, a view of nature in which no other realm than the physical existed, with no place at all for God the Creator.

Aquinas tried very hard to work around these problems. He wrote extensively on transubstantiation (how the body of Christ is meant to appear in the bread and wine at Mass), on the resurrection of the dead, on the existence of miracles -- all of which were things important to the medieval Catholic Church and yet specifically disallowed in Aristotle's writings. And indeed, in the end, it seemed that Aquinas had failed, for all his works were banned shortly before his death in 1277. But perhaps it is the way of things, for it was not long after that that he was canonized by the same authorities!

The banning of Aquinas was an epoch-making event, however. The Church fathers had realized that they would never incorporate these Greek ideas into any thoroughgoing Christianized view of nature and they really put the brakes on the further assimilation of Greek knowledge. But something very interesting happened as a result. Rather, as in the case of the Arab commentators, interest centered again on issues of method, issues of proof. What slowly developed was the logical apparatus that was to underwrite the developments to come.

The first immediate phase saw a skeptical reaction to the overwhelming reliance on logic and proof that had characterized the writings of Aquinas. Duns Scotus and perhaps more famously William of Ockham began to stress the separation of man from nature -- that there was no necessary relation between God and his creation save the impossibility of his acting in contradiction to Himself. There was no solid and unalterable base from which He and his creation could be derived, that ultimately the stuff of the outer world was unknowable and could only be studied without any preconception whatsoever. Knowledge could only come from direct awareness (of the physical) and inner guidance (for the spiritual).

It's worth pausing for a moment to dwell on the worldview of these people. The universe was believed to be a set of crystal spheres, with Earth at its center, each sphere supporting a planet, with the outermost the sphere of the fixed stars. This conception, a simplified and Christianized version of the Ptolomaic scheme of antiquity, placed man at the center of the created universe, and so combined the needs of theology with the simple requirements of navigation and astrological prediction. The size of the entire universe was small, some thousands of miles from its center (the Earth) to its periphery. Man lived in a mansized world under the gaze of the Creator God.

But that gaze was not always beneficent. This, after all, was the age of persistent famines, social upheaval, the millenarianism of the crusades. The calm categories of the ancients had to find their expression in a far more turbulent world.

The Idealization of the Natural World (Copernicus and Keppler)

The high medieval world came to an abrupt end with the Black Death, 1346. A third of the European population was decimated. Wars followed. Dispossession followed. Chaos ensued. The result was a total rejection of any interest in Christianizing Greek thought, a rejection of any concern about the struggle between the ancient and the Christian views of the world. The period that followed saw the Renaissance, and a movement away from an interest in the categorization of nature toward a more Platonic interest in mathematical expression of natural objects. Idealized expression and concepts of harmony and beauty once again replaced the need for an accurate description of what was actually observed.

Now this liberation from the complex efforts of the scholastics had some startling consequences. Why was it, for example, that in the fifteenth century Copernicus could have proposed that the Earth moved around the sun? And in the face of the most overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Isn't it just extraordinary that this chap could have written a book which proposed such an absurd idea? Why wasn't the idea just knocked out of court instantly because it went against so much of what was known? It's perfectly obvious the Earth is not moving because when you jump up and down on the Earth it doesn't move away from you! There were a lot of very good physically based arguments as to why the Earth doesn't move. And yet Copernicus wrote this book because he was convinced, and he convinced other people as well.

The reason he was convinced, the reason he put the idea forward, was because his scheme was more harmonious than the earlier Aristotelean and Ptolemaic schema. The idea of mathematical harmony in its Platonic sense had again become causal in Western culture.

In his model of the heavens, there were only 34 cyclical devices compared to something like 90 in the Ptolemaic. It was still a complicated scheme, and was actually less accurate than its predecessor as a description of what happened in the heavens. But because it was mathematically simpler, that was enough to convince him and others that his scheme was nearer the truth -- true because the truth must be mathematically harmonious in some way.

Copernicus and then Keppler, with their interest in mathematical harmony, gathered more and more adherents against the massive knowledge of Greek science and its scholastic supporters. And within these two people's work lies the first root of what one can call the modem conception of scientific causality, the modem conception of the world.

The New Science (Galileo and Descartes)

But to place mathematics at the center of the physical world rather than in the ideal was far from easy. Whilst mathematical ideas could have total sway in the activities of the heavens, events of the Earth were a much more complicated matter. The science of mechanics, the old problem of physical change, was where the main development took place, and it did so in the work of two crucial figures, Galileo and Descartes.

Motion and change: Here we have the old problems coming back. For the Aristoteleans there were terrible problems in looking at the causes of motion. Aristotelean science had trouble in describing mechanical motion as apart from growth. What was motion? Was motion a quality? How can one even talk about something in motion? After all, if it is moving, it is changing all the time -- so in what sense is it one thing at all (see the Eleatic dilemmas above)? The Aristotelean world had difficulty describing motion in any sense other than the biological -- using the analogy of biological growth and development -- and their definition of it, whilst logically coherent, expresses well the difficulty they were in. The scholastic definition of motion was that "Motion was the actuality of a potentiality that actualized itself, whilst retaining the potential for further actualization" (that is, further motion)! The notions of potentiality and actuality were fine in accounting for how the actu al acorn contains the potential oak but they provided a poor basis for the study of mechanical objects.

Galileo swept all that away. He did so in the most extraordinary fashion, which has influenced so much of what has happened since. He argued that you don't have to analyze the object in front of you. You can idealize its activity and then, having idealized its activity, analyze its activity in the idealized world and add to that idealized world extra variables -- things you propose exist -- to account for its actual activity in this one. You can thus go beyond the physical world to account for it, and explain it, if you like, backwards.

And that is exactly what he did. He mathematically idealized motion. Instead of trying to describe the motion of a ball as it rolled along, as the scholastics had done, accounting for its motion in terms of forces that lost their impetus -- wore out as time went on -- Galileo imagined the ball rolling on forever in an ideal world and then proposed a countering force of friction to account for its actual behavior in this one. The scholastics, in their description, had said, well look, it rolls to a halt, so whatever keeps it rolling must wear out in some way. Galileo said, that's not true; if you could imagine a perfect, infinitely large plane, and you rolled the ball on it, it would never stop moving. What happens when it rolls to a halt in the real world is that another force is added to it that brings it to a halt. So instead of the obvious intuition that when things move they come to a halt because whatever makes them move runs out (a perfectly commonsensical statement) Gali leo came up with a very counter-intuitive statement: Things will move forever if you give motion to them. The only reason they stop is that something brings them to a halt.

Now this form of analysis which takes the Platonic use of mathematics into the world of sensory experience was a difficult thing to justify. The problem, in particular, is that it downgrades the experience of the senses in favor of the logical analysis of mathematics, but claims, unlike the Platonic model, to provide true and accurate information as a result.

Galileo's solution to the problem was simple. He said, well, all that exists is a mathematical reality -- not an idealized reality as in Plato -- but an actual mathematical reality. What we experience in the senses are the consequence of mathematical objects hitting our senses. We are not experiencing actual reality at all. And since our perceived world is an illusion, it is therefore perfectly OK to substitute an idealized mathematical one for it in order to perfect our analysis. In Galilean science, the only things that exist are number, shape and mass. That's all that exist. Color, smell, taste, beauty -- all these things are nonexistent. They are not real in any absolute sense.

How was it, why was it, that this decision was taken? The reason for trying to split reality down the middle, to break up the perceived world into a world of mathematical form as opposed to that of the senses, was in order to enable the mathematical analysis of nature to go ahead without having to account for those awkward qualitative aspects of experience, aspects that resisted such a mathematical assault.

His medieval predecessors had made no such distinctions between the inner and the outer world -- indeed, in the previous attempts to quantify the qualities, examples of motion would, in one sentence, cover both the motion of a ball down an inclined plane and the movement of Grace in the heart; the falling of a stone and the ripening of an apple. Such an all-encompassing vision seemed a necessity to express the richness of the Creation of God. But Galileo had different aims. Universality was to give way to precision in the late fifteenth century. There was no way you could mathematically express the beauty of a sunset or the rising of an emotion; it just couldn't be done.

This form of analysis which takes the Platonic use of mathematics into the worm of sensory experience was a difficult thing to justify. The problem is that it downgrades the experiences of the senses in favor of the logical analysis of mathematics, but claims, unlike the Platonic model, to provide true and accurate information as a result.

And the philosopher who followed him, Descartes, raised Galileo's split between the sensory and the actual into a complete metaphysical system. In his writings there are primary qualities (number, shape and motion) and secondary qualities (colors, feelings and the sensory world). All that exists are bodies in motion and in collision (the primary). All we perceive is the result, colored and given meaning as a sensory hallucination (the secondary). You can mathematically express the motion of a ball down an inclined plane, as you can mathematically express the parabolic arc of a projectile from a gun. Thus the simple decision was taken to split reality down the middle. You say, OK, the things we cannot mathematically express are not real. Mathematical expression is a criterion for reality.

Thus in Cartesian science there is a complete duality that emerges in the perceptual world of man. In Cartesian science, the ego, the mind stuff, the thing that experiences, is completely cut away from the physical realm. Not only is man to be told that what he perceives isn't real, but further, the perceiver has only the most limited access to the physical world. For Descartes, consciousness is located at only one place in the physical body, the pineal gland, in the center of the brain.

Man is thus dispossessed entirely from the physical world. At the same time, with Cartesian science a completely mathematical yet certain science was a possibility. But the price of mathematically expressing the whole of the natural world was the dispossession of man from it. Simple as that.

The Great Synthesis (Newton)

If mathematical science of Descartes was the foundation, it was his chief critic, Isaac Newton, who created the first totally universal mathematical expression of Nature, an expression which had the power to predict new phenomena and explain unexpected interrelationships. In his treatment of the movement of the planets, he proposed the existence of a force so universal that it could be evoked to explain phenomena as diverse as the movement of a comet in the heavens, the swinging of a pendulum or even the notorious dropping of an apple, the famous story of how Newton came to his discovery.

Now this story of his discovery, of him sleeping in an orchard when a falling apple struck him on the head and woke him up, is worth examining for a moment. For it wasn't that Newton was the first person to see an apple fall -- responder on the weight of physical objects. What he did was more subtle, and yet more profound. He unified all these phenomena by conceiving of a force that combined events on Earth with the movements in the heavens, proposing one force alone that linked man with the stars. And in the same set of equations, he found a place for the tides, the seasons, even the effect of the atmosphere. It must have seemed to his contemporaries that true knowledge was available for the first time.

However it must be stressed that Newton, like Descartes, was no mathematical technician; they both saw their models of the universe as complete statements of what is -- ultimately religious statements of how the Creator was linked to his creation. Newton, for example, was a deeply religious man, a thinker who wrote more on alchemy and biblical prediction than on mathematical physics, and who saw in his universal force of gravity the "sensorium of God", the very means by which the Almighty communicated with his creation. And again, like Descartes, God the Creator had no merely passive role, for the so-called magnetic phenomena, and the anomalies that could be observed in the heavens, were both places where Newton saw God in action, maintaining his universe for the general good of all.

But the metaphysical grounds that made their analysis possible were there nonetheless: a conception of linear time and geometric space; a physical reality devoid of all qualities, with man, the observer, maintained by the constant vigilance of the Almighty. So unnatural are these proposals that, were it not for the extraordinary success of the mechanical cosmologies to which they gave rise, it seems unlikely that they would have been accepted at all.

The Recovery of Experiment (Bacon)

Coincident with these developments in the mathematical analysis of nature came another crucial break with the ancient world. Building, as the mathematicians had done, on the work in the twelfth century, it concerned a further reappraisal of man's relation to the natural world. The development started with Francis Bacon. For Bacon, man's role was no longer to understand nature; man's role was to change it. In the brave new world of the Reformation there was a complete departure from the motivation which had inspired Greek science. As Bacon put it, "That wisdom that we have derived principally from the Greeks is but like the boyhood of knowledge, and has the characteristic property of boys: It can talk, but it cannot generate."

Bacon saw the scientific endeavor as an attempt to wrest the secrets of Nature from her, not through the contemplative analysis that had informed the previous two millennia, but through alteration in experiment. And during the seventeenth century a whole generation of scientists began an ever-widening set of investigations, manipulating their world in the name of knowledge. In such investigators as Boyle, Huygens, Hooke, Harvey, experimental science seemed a source of endless opportunity.

Again, a highly significant development for the modern world. In Baconian science nature was no longer a given as it was for the Greeks. The physical world was something you can mess around with -- alter by putting it in apparatuses, or tearing it to bits. Whatever information you got from that process was real information, independent of how it was obtained. The idea of the natural, so central to the schemata of the Aristoteleans, was utterly rejected. And with it, of course, was the claim that science gave definite and true knowledge, as the philosophers that followed, notably Berkeley and Hume, were quick to point out.

Again, with the possible exception of Bacon, these experimenters were deeply devout men. Like Newton and Descartes, they saw their studies as revealing more of what God had written in the Book of Nature. Consonant with the recurrent preconception in Christianity of the last times, millenial sentiments were widely expressed that man had at last been forgiven for the Fall and had been allowed back to the Garden of Eden. And like Adam, who knew all things, it seemed that the new science would reveal all to the wondering eyes of the Mechanical Philosophers.

It is said that after pride comes a fall, after hubris nemesis. And despite the devout intentions of these three generations of workers, the metaphysical ground of Western man's relation to nature had been radically altered. The natural had lost all meaning; man was an onlooker to a world almost inconceivably alien, where atomic particles interacted across the empty void despite all appearance to the contrary. His place in a natural order was lost and, as the great Newtonian scholar Alexander Koyre put it: "In solving the riddle of the Universe, man had found another enigma -- himself."

Back to the Future

The enigma took its time to develop, of course. The eighteenth century saw the complete victory of Newtonian mechanics, and its full working out, particularly by the French. One by one the anomalies that found a role for God were worked out in the Newtonian universe, and even the Almighty was written out of the cosmic equation. Newtonian mechanics was a conspicuous failure in the biological sciences, and the following one hundred years saw a return, in biology at least, to the categorizing activities of the ancients -- the work of a Linneaus or a Cuvier was still in the old tradition of the logical analysis of form rather than in the new scientific mold of drawing mechanical analogies for biological processes. But then, after that lag, an abrupt arrival of the mechanical ideas did take hold in the life sciences and indeed society as a whole.

The French Revolution -- a discontinuity in every sense, in the social, the political, the medical, the biological -- can be seen as the arrival of the Newtonian analytical scheme finally displacing the qualitative world of the Enlightenment. Cell theory saw the emergence of mechanism in the bowels of living tissue, and, of course, Darwinism completed the retreat of the Divine from Nature. With that final retreat came the final disillusion; one only has to read Thomas Huxley's despairing attempt to reconcile Darwinism with Humanism in his Oxford lectures of the 1890s to see how futile the grounds for hope had become.

Yet it is perhaps ironic, for the events of the seventeenth century had all but removed the overarching truth claim in which the scientific endeavor had had its origin. A split between man and nature was perhaps inevitable if natural science and deistic theology were to be bedfellows, but as I hope I have indicated, there are strong grounds for believing that without that combination modem science, and much, if not all, of modem technology might never have happened. How much of our technology is indeed dependent on our scientific outlook is a moot point, and an interesting one to ponder, but this is not the place.

What is certain is that our century has seen the gradual dawning of the realization that the truth claim of science is not what the classical world gave to it, and many have turned away to belief systems more congenial to their actual experience. Coupled with that, there is a growing sense of alarm about our world. For there is no way you can turn the clock back to find out what Nature was before we messed with it. There is no way to turn back the clock to unsplit the atom before we split it. In an all too real sense, the scientific enterprise has made man himself part of its own experiment. We are no longer independent of what we have done. The problem of knowledge has caught up with us for real.

May You Live in Interesting Times

Classical mechanics, of course, was itself overthrown by quantum mechanics and relativity. Now, some eighty years later, we are perhaps witnessing the arrival of these new ideas in the biological realm, with the attendant social and political changes that have accompanied such events in the past. What is intriguing is that the quantum mechanical conception yet again reintroduces into nature those qualitative essences, inherent forces, that the classical mechanics of the seventeenth century tried so hard to remove. At the present state of knowledge at least, subatomic particles have inherent powers apart from the Cartesian velocities and mass, qualities that cannot be further reduced. Perhaps a reformulation of the underlying metaphysic is again overdue. That, in a sense, is the historical reason why these issues of metaphysical preconception, and the attempt to analyze causality, in fact the Institute of Noetic Sciences' Causality Project itself, seem so timely. We may be livin g through another great change in humankind's conception of our world.

So where are we now in the still surviving Newtonian model of the biological world? It is still accepted good taste to attempt to analyze all the features of living systems in terms of the underlying chemistry, and ultimately physics. Observed qualities must be explained in terms of quantities, even if this places the level of explanation at a large conceptual remove from the actual phenomena. How common it is to hear that when we have completely unravelled the genetic code, that miracle of mechanical function in the center of every cell, we will have finally come to a true understanding of the biological realm!

But the mechanical model carries with it the other features of the Newtonian metaphysic: Man is still an onlooker into his world, and his own internal workings are, as a result, banished from polite scientific society. Not only does this serve to trivialize the issues science can address, but it further isolates it from our world, even though it is one of the most important features of our culture. It is not surprising that pragmatic, and ultimately defensive, realpolitik is the only response the West can give to peoples who seem to have other, often aggressively different, beliefs.

For where can the deep sources rise in our culture? Where are the cracks in our armor through which they can seep? These sources, metaphysically isolated from the world of the natural, and lost in the main from the religious orthodoxy that replaced it, can only find a home in the modem world in the realms of fantasy and myth -- always peripheral, like man himself, to our hard and alienating worldview.

But the qualitative dragon is rumbling in the depths of the subatomic particles, the rock bottom of the universal machine. Could it reawaken and yet again inhabit the observed universe? Could man, indeed, climb on its back and find a place for himself in such a reconception of the world? That is on offer if a new metaphysical synthesis is indeed a possibility: That our own being might find a home again in the expression of our culture; and consciousness itself could become a power amongst powers, a quality amongst qualities.

In conclusion, it might be worth anticipating a little as to what such a reinclusion would entail. One problem concerns our vision of life, for if we are to reenter the world as living powers, then that must entail all our fellow creatures too. After all, there is enough evidence for it, evidence that we can quite unromantically see our planet as alive, filled with life, and that life itself is a power, not just a chemical byproduct. Such is surely the reempowering of the Parable of the Beast.

But we are the eyes of the world, our world, and here too our present preconceptions serve us poorly. Since the seventeenth century there has been a progressive impoverishment of the subjective, a lack of emphasis on the arts of memory, observation and recall. It's as though we have handed over to machines to do our living for us, as though we cannot trust ourselves. If our fundamental physical theories, our ecological insights and our increasing knowledge of the sophistication of the natural world all point to the power of the observing and interacting agent in the makeup of reality, should not this power receive attention in the only place we experience it, ourselves?

Metaphysical conceptions are powerful; they lead to changes in how all of us will live. History shows time and time again that education, institutions, human possibilities are all integrated around concepts that lie at the root of our perceptual frame, the cultural worldview. Surely it is time for us to take our place again in the natural world, but now, with our tremendous power, to take it as manager, protector, preserver of our fellows of all species. And surely it is also time for us to do the same for ourselves, to work with the inner as well as the outer. And again, this time, to develop an awareness of our inner workings, our inner potential, rather than lose it all to dogma. One has only to see the incredible richness discovered by the insight meditators of the East -- the richness and sophistication contained in the Tantras and Sutras of Tibet, for example -- and see, indeed, the signs of its study and development in the churches of the Orthodox tradition of the Christi an Church, to wonder what potential would be released if such an activity did not fly in the face of the dominant metaphysic.

Meaning can find a home beside mechanism; this, I believe, is what an understanding of the history of our metaphysical preconceptions offers us. And with that revisioning, science may once again assume its historical role.

The Chinese have a proverb: "May you live in interesting times". Perhaps we are.

Institute of Noetic Sciences.

~~~~~~~~

By Richard Dixey

Share this with your friends