Coleridge and Scientific Realism

I’m continuing to read Barfield’s book What Coleridge Thought (1971) with great excitement. Barfield includes two short chapters entitled “Ideas, Methods, Laws” and “Coleridge and the Cosmology of Science” wherein he attempts to say a bit about how Coleridge’s dynamic philosophy might be brought into conversation with contemporary natural science.

It would be helpful, before getting into Coleridge’s scientific method, to look at perhaps the two most influential philosophers of science in the last century. In their own ways, both Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper articulated anti-realist accounts of scientific knowledge. For Kuhn, what we know about the universe always depends upon the paradigm from within which experiments are designed and their data interpreted. There may appear to be something like progress within a given paradigm during periods of normal science. But once revolutionary science is taken into consideration, it becomes clear that there can be no epistemological basis for the assumption that “changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth” (p. 170, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1996). Science is not about approaching some fancied total representation of nature, but about intersubjective coordination.*

For Popper, a scientific theory can never be proven true, but only falsified through experiment. In the end, all scientific knowledge remains hypothetical, a fancied construction of the world by a human mind in such a way that action in the world based upon it proves advantageous or at least more interesting. In this way, science “progresses” through something like Darwinian natural selection by finding some way to “fit” with the experimental reality of one’s socio-historical moment. He affirms a sort of creativity in the world and in human thought, but in the end finds no place where the two–cosmos and psyche, nature and history–ever fully meet up and connect.

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), Popper writes:

“Science does not rest upon rock-bottom. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down into any natural or ‘given’ base; and when we cease our attempts to drive our piles into a deeper layer, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that they are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being” (quoted by Barfield on p. 247, n. 29.).

Popper argues that there can be no logic to the origination of new theories or paradigms in science; rather, some “irrational element” or “creative intuition” must come into play. It is here that he comes closest to Coleridge’s alchemical method by recognizing the coincidence of science, art, and nature in the creative discovery of truth:

“Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths; neither with the collection of observations, nor with the invention of experiments, but with the critical discussion of myths, and of magical techniques and practices. The scientific tradition is distinguished from the pre-scientific tradition in having two layers. Like the latter, it passes on its theories; but it also passes on a critical attitude towards them. The theories are passed on, not as dogmas, but rather with the challenge to discuss them and improve upon them” (Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 1963).

Coleridge would agree with Popper on this point, that theories are like myths when they are first taken up by a thinker. They are stories whose tale the scientist cannot take for granted have already reached their end; they must continue to tell the story, and to tell it in an experientially verifiable way, for the theory to remain a live option. The student of science must learn the secrets of the scientific initiates by practicing their experimental arts for himself, testing them, improving them. Coleridge writes:

“Every physical theory is in some measure imperfect, because it is of necessity progressive; and because we can never be sure that we have exhausted the terms or that some new discovery may not effect the whole scheme of its relations…” (Treatise on Method).

But there the similarities end, since Coleridge defended a realist account of scientific knowledge by grounding it in an intuition of the real, while Popper limited knowledge to abstract hypothesis and model building. The difference between them, you could say, is that Popper never took the Shellingian leap across the Kantian regulative/constitutive divide announced in the Critique of Judgment. What Popper means by “rationality,” Coleridge identifies as “fancy” or “understanding.” These latter two modes of knowing are contrasted with “Reason” or “Imagination,” in that the former only passively rearranges the given facts of sense perception (à la Locke or Hume), while the latter actively reach into phenomena to poetically intuit their supersensory causes. Kant’s transcendentalism goes beyond the empiricists in that he recognizes the active role of the understanding in shaping sensory perception. He intuited Reason within himself, ordering and systematizing his and humanity’s ideas about reality into a regulative system, but he still could not finally bridge the gap between aesthesis and ontos, between logos and pathos, between what shows itself and what, hidden, shines. Kant, and after him Popper and Kuhn, could not find the place where conscious light and cosmic darkness meet up and coincide. The light shines in the darkness, but the dark does not see the source of the light. Light originates, if light it be (the Kantian can’t be sure theoretically that they are free, even if practically they are forced to affirm it), always from beyond the finite immanence enacted by a Kantian poetics, whereas for a Coleridgian poetics, light originates always from within and is pregnant in everything. Science is the conscious spirit in humanity knowing the secret spirit in the cosmos. As Coleridge says in chapter 13 of Biographia Literaria, paraphrasing Schelling:

“…grant me a nature having two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of intelllgences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you.”

As a result of Kant’s influence, known or unknown, most contemporary philosophers of science believe human thought has access only to concepts derived from generalizations of sensory experience. Theories and laws are therefore considered to be abstract models of reality in the mind, rather than the mind’s participation in the ideal structure and formal power of reality itself. Some philosophically unsophisticated materialistic scientists have not even understood Kant’s injunction; they still do not know how to see through the transcendental telescope he invented, and so they cannot see their own influence on their observations of the world. They assert that their fancied model is in fact the reality, that the sun clearly rises and sets while the earth remains centered and still. In this way, they conceive of the unperceivable in terms of something perceivable; that is, they fancy that they can explain one phenomenon in terms of some other, unseen phenomenon. An “unseen phenomenon” is, of course, a contradiction in terms. As Barfield puts it, such scientists ignore the implications of post-Kantian epistemology, that “the ultimate explanation of phenomena cannot itself be phenomenal” (126). Such an explanation must be formal, or noumenal, which is not a contradiction for a philosophy of science aspiring to realism if the “real is the rational, and the rational the real,” as Hegel put it (whom Coleridge read, but not extensively). If reality is to be intelligible to us, it must itself already be intelligent. The causes and laws of the cosmos must be identifiable by powers and ideas in the mind as powers and ideas.
Coleridge defines Ideas, as opposed to concepts, in several ways. They are that which allows us to see the Universal in the Particular, and the Particular in the Universal. He also defines Ideas by way of an example:

“to the ideas of Kepler, the Correlates of the Law of the Planetary Orbits contrasted with the conception of Ptolemy–who began with the phaenomena, the apparent Motions, as data–and then sought to take them as that he might take the all together–i.e. concipere, capere haec cum illis–and the Conception or synopsis of a plurality of phaenomena so schematized as to shew the compatibility of their co-existence, is THEORY–a product of the Understanding in the absence or eclipse of IDEAS, or Contemplations of the Law, and hence necessarily conditioned by the Appearances, and changing with every new or newly discovered Phaenomenon, which Theory always follows never leads–while the law being constitutive of the phaenomena and in order of Thought necessarily antecedent, the Idea as the correlative and mental Counterpart of the Law, is necessarily prophetic and constructive–et Solem dicere falsum Audet, and turns the contradiction of the Senses into proofs and confirmations of its Truths” (a notebook quoted by Barfield on p. 238, n. 59).

Coleridge, in order to avoid the idolatry of much contemporary science, which presupposes some inanimate basis beneath all phenomena (e.g., Popper’s murky swamp water), carefully distinguishes between concepts of the understanding, on the one hand, and ideas of reason, on the other. Concepts are derived retroactively based on generalizations from particulars; they are rules derived from past events, from nature conceived of as already made (natura naturata). Ideas are Reason’s way of participating directly in the laws, or powers, of nature in the act of making itself (natura naturans). As a realist, Coleridge thinks the task of science is to seek

“that knowledge in which truth and reality are one and the same, that which in the ideas that are present to the mind recognizes the laws that govern in Nature if we may not say the laws that are Nature” (80, Treatise on Logic II, emphasis mine).


*As Latour will later suggest, Science is about building alliances with actors across increasingly global networks. Latour, of course, takes us beyond anthropocentric relativism in a way that Kuhn did not. Latour moves toward realism by arguing that, in order to perform and defend their facts, scientists have to build alliances not only with other scientists, and with military, civilian, or private funders, but also with autonomous and responsive lab mice, microscopes, particle colliders, satellites, solar flares, electrons, and ice bergs. Science is a cosmopolitical activity–something the cosmic community is co-directing with human beings.


The Role of Imagination in the Science of the Stars

Astronomer Copernicus: Conversation with God
Image via Wikipedia

Is the history of science a continuous progression from less to more accurate theories of physical phenomena? Or, as Thomas Kuhn suggested, is its history characterized by a discontinuous series of paradigm shifts? In the latter case, gradual “progress” occurs only locally within established theoretical frameworks until, through the sudden imaginative leap of a genius or two, the unthought metaphysical background of the habitualized phenomenal gestalt metamorphoses, thereby disclosing a new experiential world to consciousness. Most philosophers would side with Kuhn over the naive realist, but this is not the end of the story.

Science doesn’t simply clarify and refine already proven theories, as if the work of the modern scientific subject, or knower, was just to strain to see more clearly an already known world, the perceptual structure of which is supposed to be objective, pre-existing his attempt to see it. The positivist looks at the world only through the theoretical framework that he believes has already explained it. The world becomes a neatly defined problem set awaiting logical formulation in the language of a prefered theory.

Kuhn’s approach is essential, at least as a critique of the positivist’s self-understanding of science. The notion of a scientific paradigm is perhaps philosophy’s most important conceptual tool in the Science Wars, since it grounds idealism in experience even while it prevents the reduction of science to the sense-observation of matter. Kuhn studied the Copernican Revolution, which is undoubtedly an example of precisely the kind of perceptual metamorphosis his correlationist account of scientific history is supposed to explain. Copernicus didn’t improve upon the Ptolemaic vision of the cosmos–he entirely re-imagined it; he placed a new kind of consciousness in relation to a new kind of Universe.

But this cannot be the whole story, at least for post-Hegelian philosophers, who seem unable to dispense with the notion that the history of science, or of scientific consciousness, represents the progressive unfolding of Wisdom. Despite the fact that paradigms follow one another according to discontinuous and unexpected transformations of the theoretico-perceptual gestalt underlying science, these shifts can still be understood in retrospect as the expression of some underlying spiritual scheme. Scientific theories are originally the fruit of what Charles Sanders Peirce called abduction, or intuitive mental leaps. These leaps are not merely wild guesses, however; they are able to secure a foothold in reality, according to Peirce, only because the logical activity of the mind and the physical habits of nature secretly correspond and mutually condition one another. This implies, as Schelling put it, that philosophy is a generative (rather than deductive or demonstrative) activity granting participation in the invisible spiritual processes underlying visible nature.

In his wonderfully evocative study of the Copernican Revolution, The Poetic Structure of the World (1987), Fernand Hallyn refers to the study of abduction as a poetics (p. 14). This brings the Peircean approach to science even closer to Schelling, for whom the art of poetry was one of the primary ways that nature becomes more conscious of itself as spirit. Poetics, for Hallyn, is “…a way of dreaming works[…], of conceiving their possibility, and of working for their reality” (p. 15).

“Both Copernicus and Kepler,” he continues,

“sought explanations ordered in a vertical order: the world is the work of a divine poietes, and their project implies that one can reach back through the project to the Creator’s poetics. What they aim to reveal through their own poetics is thus truly…the poetic structure of the world” (p. 20).

The vertical order of explanation is not meant to eliminate the horizontal order; rather, as Hallyn reminds us, the former encompass the latter. In this sense, the vertical dimension interprets the accumulated facts of the horizontal dimension as “the signifying surface of a code [correlating] them to a transcendent signified” (ibid.).

Socrates suggests in the Phaedrus that written texts are a poor medium for the conveyance of knowledge, since they “cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers.” A text is dependent on its author to rescue it from unfair interpretation. By analogy, in the case of an interpretation of the motions of the planets, the ancient astronomer was at a disadvantage due to the phenomenal absence of its author, God, “the maker and father of the world” (“poietes kai pater tou pantos”)[Timaeus, 28c].

Ptolemy studied the heavens from within a vertical framework, but unlike many Renaissance scientists, he believed the human knower was situated at the bottom of the vertical axis of the world. Knowledge of the Universe from God’s perspective was impossible, since God viewed the world from beyond the world. Copernicus, Kepler, and other early modern astronomers, influenced by the sun worship and promethean attitude of the Renaissance, could be said to have aided the spiritual birth of God upon the earth by geometrically imagining the planets from His solar perspective. In other words, the heliocentric conception of Universe can be read poetically as the result of the incarnation of the divine spirit in human form, or the Christification of humanity. It retains the vertical dimension of ancient cosmology while at the same time locating the transcendent signified in the heart of the Cosmos itself.

The Ptolemaic Cosmos was a monstrosity, as far as Copernicus was concerned. It was a product reflective of the stale scholasticism of an undeveloped soul not yet capable of perceiving the hidden harmony of the heavens. The image of a great clock-work universe was Ptolemy’s before it was Newton’s. The harmony of the world becomes apparent, for Copernicus, only upon recognition of the fact that it is alive and was created for us (“mundus propter nos“). This for us sounds disgustingly anthropocentric to postmodern ears, but we must read it in the context of Renaissance hermeticism, wherein the archetype of the Anthropos is distinguished from the human species, the latter being but a unique and particular example of the former, universal tendency. As Giordano Bruno would later argue, there are undoubtedly an infinitude of planets other than our own populated by potentially wise and good beings. The world is made for them, as much as for us, since both of us can participate in the Anthropic ideal underlying the genesis of the Universe. The Universe, then, is not given to the human mind to understand (the longstanding and rather convincing illusion of the geocentric picture should be evidence enough of this), but nonetheless is at least potentially intelligible to us to the extent that we participate in the Anthropos.

The epigraph of Kepler’s earliest astrosophical work, Mysterium cosmographicum (1596), reflects well this participatory scheme, wherein the scientist remains human even while rising to the level of God:

“I die each day, and I confess it; but while my care keeps me hard at work on the roads of Olympus, my feet do not touch the Earth; in the presence of the Thundering divinity, I feed on nectar and ambrosia.”

Kepler represents an important transition in the history of science. He is credited with having discovered the elliptical paths of the planetary orbits, which stands in contradiction to Pythagorean presumptions concerning the perfection of circular motion. In bringing the divine’s solar perspective of the planets down to earth, post-Copernican science spiritualized human knowledge just as it materialized the heavens. By the time of Newton, terrestrial and celestial mechanics had been unified: the old Hermetic maxim, “as above, so below,” had been vindicated.

In the 20th century, Rudolf Steiner, another a hermetic thinker, expressed a further important transformation in the history of the scientific study of the stars (mentioned above in relation to the notion of spiritual incarnation):

Precisely herein is the secret of the new relation between ourselves and the world of the stars. Through the very fact of our descent into incarnation, we are indeed connected with the world of the stars, and yet we are no longer absolutely dependent on that world. On the contrary, in our age and in the future, we are called upon to take the world of stars, which as an individual we belong to, with us into our earthly deeds, into our earthly feeling and thinking. The transmutation which then takes place all through our earthly life, if we are a person of spiritual striving, thereby becomes a transmutation not only of ourselves but even of the world of stars.

Consciousness: Problem, Paradox, or Practice?

A quick contextualizing note for those who are just joining the tangled thread of my recent blogalogue concerning the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the nervous system and surrounding cosmos: Last month, Steve Ramirez, a PhD candidate at MIT, posted an entry on his blog ( concerning neuroscience’s supposed successes explaining the “problem” of consciousness purely in terms of electrochemical behavior in the brain. My name and some of the ideas I have expressed on YouTube were mentioned in his victory speech, so I decided to respond with a video. You can find his original entry, along with my short comment in response, here. Steve has since posted a follow-up rebuttal, to which I will respond in what follows.

Perhaps it would be best to begin by making my interests in this philosophical discussion about neuroscience clear. As a philosopher, I am not so much interested in the experimental results of neurophysiology labs across the world (which are only occasionally surprising), but in the paradigms that are employed to design and frame their research programs (i.e., to define “problems,” or what Thomas Kuhn called the “puzzles” of normal science).

Take the so-called “problem of consciousness”:  Is, or is not consciousness entirely reducible to/explainable in terms of  intracranial collisions between molecules? I will argue it is not, for philosophical reasons. Many neuroscientists, including Steve, believe it is. This belief informs the design of conceptual models and experiments, making it no surprise that results typically confirm the original hypothesis. The puzzle for neuroscience was never “what is the nature of consciousness?”, but “how is consciousness represented in the brain?” I think there are institutional reasons for this. The continued existence of the neuroscientific discipline as currently conceived depends upon framing the “problem” of consciousness in a reductionistic manner from the get go (this is not true of more interdisciplinary approaches, like neurophenomenology).

Steve sums the classical neuroscientific paradigm up well:

Your conscious thoughts really, and I mean really, are “just” the sum total of patterns of neurons firing.

My interest in claims such as this is existential, even emotional, rather than scientific. Thinking is the source of my very identity, the fount out of which all I know and am pours forth. I am unable to conceive of myself, or anyone else, as a bundle of neurons without first sterilizing my thinking, so that it gives birth only to abstractions and generalities, losing sight entirely of concrete, embodied life. Ethics is, for me like for Emmanuel Levinas, first philosophy. Only a sociopath could take literally the idea that thinking is “just” the mechanical interaction of neurons, because to do so would be to entirely ignore the radical ethical responsibility that comes immediately upon conscious recognition of another consciousness. Human beings are not objects, or the result of the activity of many tens of billions of tiny objects. No amount of objectifying knowledge about another consciousness could ever cancel his/her irreducibility as a consciousness. Thankfully, no scientist I know of actually does take literally the idea that consciousness is “nothing but” the brain. Something more complicated is encoded in their brazenly reductionistic rhetoric.

Science is not the disinterested pursuit of truth absent the emotions and feelings associated with goodness and beauty, or at least it can only be fallaciously conceived of as such. Sam Harris’ neo-Aristotelianism (or maybe neuro-Aristotelianism?–I discuss it again below) is a sign that science is beginning to realize that its findings have always had sociopolitical implications, and even Richard Dawkins gives an almost spiritual significance to the aesthetic value of science, calling it “the poetry of reality.”

So what underlies the seemingly absurd claim that thought is merely the movement of molecules? Not the truth of any empirically demonstrable theory. The reason I take issue with neural reductionism has nothing to do with a disagreement about scientific facts, and even if it did, “mountains of evidence” can easily be reduced to an ant hill by a shift in paradigmatic perspective (there was plenty of evidence for the Ptolemaic solar system for thousands of years; it took the Copernican metanoia to see it otherwise).

Then what leads some neuroscientists to claim in theory what they could never and would never live up to in practice? I believe it is a rather philosophically unreflective commitment to certain outmoded Enlightenment values (like the desire to rationalize and control all of life). The social imaginary associated with scientific materialism and the technologization of society has shown itself historically to be both dangerous and ultimately impossible.

It’s no secret. I’m an Idealist and a Romantic and am proud to carry forward, as adequately as I can, the spiritual and intellectual lineage of figures like Plato, Plotinus, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, and Emerson. I also champion science and the vastly expanded cosmological picture it continues to paint for humanity. But I conceive of science as another cultural activity alongside the likes of art, spirituality, and philosophy. These other spheres of cultural meaning approach the truth independent of the puzzle-solving of scientists. Consciousness in particular is a sort of ultimate issue, since it is, as far as we can tell, what makes us human. Steve nominally agrees that we need a multi-dimensional (or what I’d call a transdisciplinary) approach, though I think his choice of language says a lot  about how he’d like to go about collaborating (i.e., the “problem” of consciousness must be “attacked” from all sides). What if consciousness is neither a problem nor something best understood by way of assault?

The shortcoming of an overly scientistic approach to consciousness is precisely that consciousness’s paradoxical and participatory nature (paradoxical and participatory in that it manifests in different modes as both subject and object, noumenon and phenomenon) is artificially framed as a “problem” to be solved by way of reverse-engineering. But consciousness and its trinitarian panoply of thinking, feeling, and willing cannot be understood in the same way a mechanic understands an engine.

Steve writes:

A person’s (mis)understanding does not necessarily depend on how many “evident facts” they know – it depends on their ability to properly interpret a finding independent of their emotional state.

To approach an understanding of consciousness, you must fully participate in it. It is the living, breathing matrix within which everything we do and know and feel arises and subsides. Being conscious must be practiced and developed to be known, otherwise it remains not a problem but an insoluble intellectual paradox. In other words, emotional involvement is of the essence if it is our own and others consciousness we hope to understand. (Even from within the neuroscientific paradigm, research like Harris’ on the neural correlates of moral decision-making shows that the recognition of seemingly objective truths like 3-2=1 depends upon activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, associated with emotion and taste. I mention this study with some reservations about the notion of “neural correlates of consciousness” that I will explain below.)

I am not interested in the “problem” of consciousness, though I may on occasion philosophize about its paradoxicality as such. In the end, however, what concerns me most is the practice of deepening consciousness, which means not only striving to learn the truth, but to feel the beautiful and to will the good. Is neuroscience relevant to these pursuits? Of course! Do its methods, paradigms, and data have some sort of a priori authority over other ways of knowing? Of course not!  (Which is not to say that there may not be a posteriori reasons for altering a philosophical perspective because of a neuroscientific discovery–it is only to say that critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical).

I’d like to close by offering a take on the research program geared toward discovering the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC). Steve cites Crick and Koch’s research often, and writes the following in support of the general theory:

Specific qualia are evoked  from the interaction of the specific [neural] regions…depending of course on the properties of that of which we are aware. So if you’re reflecting on a painting in front of you, it involves the interaction of thalamo-visual-prefrontal networks, which transform and encode the painting (i.e. the stimulus) as a specific pattern of neural firing that you experience.

This approach to the study of consciousness conceives of brain activity as a kind of internal representation of the surrounding world. The basic idea is that some sort of isomorphism exists between the structure of things in the environment and the pattern of neural firing in the brain. The brain, it is said, generates a mental picture of the external world. This is where the paradox begins… On the face of it, the NCC approach claims that all we are finally aware of is the neural activity inside our skull, which is an encoded version of what our senses were able to perceive regarding the features of the mind-independent world. In theory, this neural activity should be sufficient enough on its own to convince a conscious subject that they were having an experience of the mind-independent world. In other words, even a brain in a vat, fed the proper electrical impulses to mimic sensory inputs, could be conscious (albeit of an entirely virtual world). The paradox is that if the neuroscientist is right about the neural basis of consciousness, he simultaneously calls into question the substantiality of the world he believes he inhabits.

But regardless of any hypothetical situation reminiscent of Descartes evil demon, the NCC approach ignores the extent to which consciousness is fully embodied and augmented by various cultural practices and artifacts (language, first and foremost). As Evan Thompson makes clear in his book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, to claim that the content of a neural state and the content of an experiential state are identical is simply a category mistake.

Thompson writes (p. 350):

Experiential content and neural content are different kinds of content…Experience is intentional (world-presenting), holistic (constituted by interrelated perceptions, intentions, emotions, and actions), and intransitively self-aware (has a nonreflective subjective character). Neural content as standardly described has none of these features. Although there are various sorts of systematic relations between experiences and neural processes, we need not assume that these relations include any content match.

Thompson goes on to criticize the “building block model” of consciousness (a phrase coined by John Searle) upon which the NCC approach is based. It is an aggregative model wherein the full richness of actual experience is analyzed into separate sensory modalities so as to isolate the specific neural regions that these modalities may be associated with. Thompson follows Searle in problematizing the the assumption that consciousness is the summation of distinct sensory events that are somehow bound together into the unity of our experienced world. Instead, he suggests a different approach, which Searle called the “unified field model.”

Thompson again (p. 351):

According to this model, the neural substrates of individual conscious states should not be considered sufficient for the occurrence of those states, for those states themselves presuppose the background consciousness of the subject. Any given conscious state is a modulation of a preexisting conscious field. An individual experience of conscious state (such as visual recognition of a face) is not a constituent of some aggregate conscious state, but rather a modification within the field of a basal or background consciousness.

With the unified field approach, consciousness is recognized to be an embodied process always already engaged with and interested in the world. Consciousness is understood not to be locally produced in specific neural regions, but brought forth through the ongoing dynamic interaction of brain, body, and world. Thompson’s approach to neuroscience is phenomenological, meaning it has roots in a Husserlian tradition where empathy, intersubjectivity, and the irreducibility of the lifeworld take precedence over the abstractions of scientific materialism. If you’re curious to know more about his approach to issues surrounding consciousness and neuroscience, read this essay about ecologically-informed epistemology, or an older blog entry about enactivism.

Here’s a clip of that ol’ rascal Alan Watts that seems relevant after all this headiness:

A personal correspondence about the universe.

The following is an email exchanged with a good friend of mine doing doctoral work on complexity theory as it applies to neuroscience at Florida Atlantic University. My email is in response to this Science Daily article about a measured variance in a specific physical constant:

Perhaps I’ll post his response when it comes if he is okay with it.


I think the next shift in human thought into whatever “integral” means will be bigger than the paradigm shifts Kuhn writes about in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. What our civilization needs is more than a new theory around which to structure a research program in enzymology or genetics or astrophysics. That so called “physical laws” do not hold constant everywhere in space and everywhen in time is no surprise to me. I think this article is reflecting a re-engagement between science and philosophy that has been going on really since evolution and thermodynamics, but without a doubt by the time relativity and quantum theories were discovered/invented. Before these revolutions within physics and biology, under the sway of Newtonian mechanism/deism, it was taken for granted by most physicists, and thinking people generally, that created nature was governed by deterministic and eternal laws decreed by a architect of infinite power and intelligence. It was also taken for granted that this same perfect architect had mathematicized the human mind just so as to give it access to the basic laws of nature’s operation, so as to give us dominion and control over it. Newton’s experimental science rests upon or implies a Cartesian cosmology, where mind and matter are separate substances which somehow still interact causally. This metaphysical picture is still the unthought background of the worldview of most scientific specialists and materialist philosophers. Dennett represents the sort of view I’m attacking, so I’ll just pick on him. He claims to be dispelling Descartes dualism, but he just reinvokes it by saying the mental substance is an illusion produced by an echo-chamber in the brain, which is itself really a causally determined physical substance. He leaves unasked how or why an entirely physical system made of inconscient bits of matter should come to experience the illusion of consciousness. Why is it that the ear and auditory cortex hears an illusory echo? He says the notion of epiphenomenalism is a waste and adds nothing to our knowledge, but his position seems to me to be precisely that consciousness is epiphenomenal. Then you have to factor in his schizophrenia, because he is also quite a liberal humanist when it comes to politics, education, and society. He believes strongly that people (who from his theoretical perspective are just very complicated machines) must in practice be treated as free actors with the right to individual expression. How does he deal with the cognitive dissonance produced by the divergence of his theory and his practice? Its as if he finds truth and goodness somehow contradictory (“in truth, the natural universe is a meaningless series of purely accidental relationships, while morally the human universe is a network of intelligible meaning and ethical action”).

To tie this all back into to the article, I’m not surprised that physical laws are not constant because the universe appears to me to be a living, evolving creature. The notion of a “physical law” is an artifact of an obsolete 17th century philosophy of science and theology. There are not and need not be such things as universal deterministic laws for science to be possible. There need only be a relative difference between rates of variance across and between space and time. Habit and regularity in nature are all you need for statistically predictive physical, chemical, biological, or even psychological theories. But when it comes to the science of spirit (call it theosophy/theology), it’s no longer about prediction and control, but about creativity. Spirit cannot be predicted. No sense trying. It can only be actively engaged and communed with.

A technical question for you: when Prof. John Webb is quoted in the article referring to the “magic number” revealing that the strength of electromagnetism “seems to vary continuously along a preferred axis through the universe”, what is he talking about?? Is he saying he has detected or can infer that there is a deeper pattern or form of order (an “axis”) that emerges out of the variance in the fine-structure constant across the universe? Is he saying, in other words, that though the universe is a process of change, and so cannot be assumed to obey fixed laws or constants, it nonetheless conforms to certain numerical patterns of order on a higher level? He called it a “dipolar” variation, which evokes in me the same sort of symmetrical asymmetry you find in a developing embryo. I think he is right, that a new theory, a deeper theory, will be discovered to account for not only this variance in the fine-structure, but for the inconsistency of gravitational laws in the context of galaxies and cosmic expansion. I’ve no doubt that a more complete mathematical formula will be discovered/invented. But it still will not be consistent with ALL the data which exists concerning the observable (and unobservable) universe. Because there are more than observable things in the universe. There are also observers.

There are numerical values to represent every physical relationship which may come to exist in the universe, but only because there exists also minds capable of thinking/discovering/inventing them. Whitehead gave up on the idea of the completion of a system, whether mathematical, logical, or metaphysical, and instead focused on a system’s or cosmology’s coherency (internal consistency) and adequacy to actual experience (experimental value). He knew that creativity, or spirit, had a role to play in the ongoing development of the universe. Nature is not a place which might be known once and for all by a disinterested intellect, but a living presence in the process of becoming more like itself (that is, more divine, more true, more beautiful, more good, more just, etc.). In the current phase of evolution, nature is doing this, at least on earth, principally through/as the human being, within whom spirit has taken up immediate residence.

Food for thought. Let me know how you digest it.

blessed be,