From science to the new sciences?

From science to the new sciences?

Prior to Descartes, ‘knowledge’ was a conspiracy of Scripture, heresy, tradition, experience and speculation. Scholasticism ruled – a metaphysics of Biblical deductions made by the church philosopher Thomas Aquinas (perched on Aristotle’s shoulder).

On 10 Nov 1619, Descartes was stuck in Nueburg-on-Danube, Germany by a snowstorm. That night, in the last of three vivid dreams, he was in bed looking at books, an encyclopaedia and anthology of poems. He felt instructed to study but needed a key to link all the sciences together into a unified whole – mathematics was the key (he was a good mathematician and made significant discoveries).

Robert Boyle, as a leading member of the Royal Society (1660), was pivotal in the mid 17th C construction of what Steven Shapin calls, ‘material, social and literary technologies for the conduct of experiments and the production of knowledge.’[i] He sought to create an impression of ‘virtual witnessing’ by describing experiments in detail and with apparent honesty.[ii] (An important precursor to the English revolution was the alchemist/ chemist Paracelsus and his followers.[iii])

Many scientists were devout Latitudinarianist’, (‘notoriously hard to define’ says Robert Mayhew), but with an emphatic belief in the natural world as evidence for God’s existence.[iv] Other such believers included, Robert Boyle, William Paley (Natural Theology, 1803), and the poet Edward Young. Daston and Park call this period (the hinge of 16th/17th C) the ‘age of wonder’, which drove ‘alternative grand narrative for the Scientific Revolution’,[v] Curiosities became ‘objects of philosophical analysis,… the focus of a self-conscious sensibility, and… a nexus of cultural symbols’ in natural philosophy, medicine, literature, and art.’ [vi]

It was not until 1690 when John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was published that empiricism became a dominant epistemological theory, and it was accepted that laws of cause and effect were central to any discipline. Locke, a friend of Boyle, epitomized this new attitude; having reacted against scholasticism at Oxford, he was interested in improving the world.[vii]

Reductivism has had great success, since Thomas Hobbes recommended: ‘for everything is best understood by its constitutive causes. For as in a watch, or some such small engine, the matter, figure and motion of the wheels cannot be well known, except it be taken insunder and viewed in its parts;’[viii] David Abram notes the repercussion of reductivism for scientists: ‘Their many specialised and technical discourses had lost any obvious relevance to the sensuous world of ordinary engagements. The consequent impoverishment of language, the loss of a common discourse tuned to the qualitative nuances of living experiences, was leading, Husserl felt, to a crisis in European civilization.’[ix] Abram argues that as a result, ‘The fluid world of direct experience has come to be seen as secondary.’[x] It is hard to share Schelling’s excitement, at the dawn of a new suite of disciplines, that, ‘at the present time [1802], everything in science and art seems to be tending toward unity.’[xi]

As Mark Turner notes, ‘physics offers a representation of the world that leaves out agency, motive, intentionality… The basic elements of physics are not tied to the human scale.’[xii]

Einstein mused, ‘Insofar as the propositions of mathematics give an account of reality they are not certain; and insofar as they are certain they do not describe reality.’ [xiii] He spent the last decades of his life on a lonely path trying to unify macro and micro explanations into one explanation of everything. At his death half finished notes struggling to such a goal were found on his bedside table. As Modernism dawned, Max Planck calculated the formula for Kirchhoff’s J function – ‘theory had now deviated from experiment and was based on a hypothesis with no experimental basis.’ [xiv]

Beware of Objectivism

Lakoff attacks ‘Objectivist Metaphysics’, the view that, ‘All of reality consists of entities, which have fixed properties and relations holding among them at any instant.’[xv]

He argues that objectivity relies on two underlying flawed attitudes:

  1. ‘putting aside one’s own point of view and looking at a situation from other points of view – as many as possible’; and
  2. ‘being able to distinguish what is directly meaningful – basic level and image-schematic concepts – from concepts that are indirectly meaningful.’[xvi]

And of course other viewpoints are not all equal. J. Culler notes: ‘Objectivity is constituted by excluding the views of those who do not count as sane and rational men; women, children, poets, prophets, madmen.’[xvii] Johnson suggests, ‘Human objectivity is what characterises a reflective process by means of which we are able to take up multiple perspectives as a way of both criticising and transforming our own views and those of others.’ He points out, ‘We are creatures of process, evolving selves whose identities are tied up with social relations and are affected by historical contingencies.’[xviii] Lakoff and Johnson posit ‘the embodied correspondence theory of truth’, a contextual pragmatic approach suggesting levels of truth, and came to realise that the findings of cognitive sciences are inconsistent with, ‘most all of Western philosophy (except for Merleau-Ponty and Dewey)’, namely:

  • The mind is inherently embodied;
  • Most thought is unconscious; and
  • Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.[xix]

Science tends to be reductionist, breaking problems down to smallest parts, a program pursued so successfully.[xx]


The New Sciences

Complexity theory is not so reductive. ‘In the beginning, the pile is flat, and the individual grains remain close to where they land. Their motion can be understood in terms of their physical properties. As the process continues, the pile becomes steeper, and there will be little sand slides. As times goes on, the sand slides become bigger and bigger. Eventually, some of the sand slides may even span all or most of the pile. At that point, the system is far out of balance, and its behaviour can no longer be understood in terms of the behaviour of the individual grains. The avalanches form a dynamic of their own which can be understood only from a holistic description of the properties of the entire pile rather than from a reductionist description of individual grains: the sandpile is a complex system.’ Per Bak, How Nature Works. [xxi]


Stuart Kauffman suggests complexity extends Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, by suggesting that self-organised systems augment selection and chance as the motor of evolution.[xxii]  He even thinks that this new science will show that ecosystems, economic systems, and even cultural systems may all evolve according to similar general laws and that through this, ‘we may recover our sense of worth, our sense of the sacred.’ These novel scientific ideas provide ‘a new way to think about origins, evolution, and the profound naturalness of life and its myriad patterns of unfolding.’[xxiii]

[i] It is claimed that in the 1650s – 1660s, Boyle helped create three ‘technologies’: a material technology in the form of the air-pump; a literary technology ‘by means of which the phenomena produced by the pump were made known to those who were not direct witnesses’; and a social technology that established scientific conventions for evaluating knowledge-claims. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and The Experimental Life, Princeton UP, 1985, p25. All three combined to create what we now think of as scientific practice.

[ii] Donna J. Haraway suggests that, ‘Only through such naked writing could the facts shine through, unclouded by the flourishes of any human author. Both the facts and the witnesses inhabit the privileged zones of ‘objective’ reality through a powerful writing technology’. Modest Witness, Second Millennium: FemaleMan Meets OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience, p24, Routledge, 1997. This new circumscribed knowledge had weighty ramifications. Donna Haraway argues that through the work of Boyle, ‘This separation of expert knowledge from mere opinion as the legitimating knowledge for ways of life, without appeal to transcendent authority or to abstract certainty of any kind, is a founding gesture of what we call modernity.’p26. Bruno Latour asks, ‘What is an experiment? It is an action performed by the scientist so that the nonhuman will be made to appear on its own. It is a very special form of constructivism, as Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer have so beautifully shown, since it overcomes its own construction.’ Bruno Latour, ‘Pasteur on Lactic Acid Yeast: A Partial Semiotic Analysis’, Configurations, 1992, 1:1, p129-146. A hundred years after The Assayer, Charles Dufay the French physicist, departed from Robert Boyle’s ‘virtual witnessing’ to write scientific papers in detail but offering only essential facts of the experiment and its outcome.

[iii] These ‘chemical philosophers’ offered a new philosophy based on chemistry and chemical analogies that replaced the Scholastic model. Paracelsus (active 1510 -1540) encouraged research, observation and experiment and established chemistry. For account of debates with Galenists, Aristotelians and mechanists and importance for development of the Scientific Revolution see Allen G. Debus, ‘Chemists, Physicians, and Changing Perspectives on the Scientific Revolution’, ISIS Volume 89, Number 1, March, 1998.

[iv] Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, 1973, p65. Robert Mayhew, ‘William Gilpin and the Latitudinarian Picturesque’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 33:3, 2000, p349-366. Gilpin suggests a religious natural theology is a matter of scale. He put it in painterly terms, ‘Could we take in the whole of her landscapes at one cast; could we view the Hyrcanian forest as a grove; the kingdom of Poland as a lawn; the coast of Norway as a piece of rocky scenery; and the Mediterranean as a lake; we might then discover a plan justly composed, and perhaps beautiful even in a painter’s eye. William Gilpin, Observations on Several Parts of the Counties of Cambridge, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. Also on Several Parts of North Wales (London: Cadell and Davies, 1809), 174-75. Robert Mayhew, suggests reading the book of nature encouraged by the Latitudinarian position was the rhapsody on some part of the creation. Gilpin, quoted p360.

[v] Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750,New York: Zone Books, 1998, p18.

[vi] Daston and Katherine Park, 1998, p172.

[vii] ‘He that first invented printing, discovered the use of the compass, or made public the virtue and right use of kin kina [quinine] did more for the propagation of knowledge, for the supply and increase of useful commodities, and saved more from the grave than those who built colleges, workhouses and hospitals.’ Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV, Chap 12, Sec 12, Vol 2, p352 (written 1670-90).

[viii] Thomas Hobbes, De Cive, (II.14)

[ix] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, (1996), Vintage Books, 1997, p41.

[x] David Abram, 1997, p34.

[xi] The quote continues, ‘when matters that long seemed remote from each other are now recognised to be quite close, and a new more universal vision, encompassing almost all disciplines, is taking shape. An epoch such as our own is surely bound to give birth to a new world.’ F. W. J. Schelling, On University Studies, trans. E. S. Morgan, Ed., Norbert Guterman, Athens: Ohio UP, 1966, p7.

[xii] See above ft for further quote. Mark Turner, Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science, Princeton UP, 1996, p14.

[xiii] Quoted in Morris Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty, Allyn and Bacon, 1986, p97. Renaissance thinkers like Bacon (1561-1626) and Descartes (1596-1650) proposed an entirely new model based in reason instead of faith. Einstein is in this mode when he wrote, ‘in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.’ The World As I See It, Philosophical Library, New York, 1949, p28, One approach is to seek a different mathematics. Ian Stewart imagines a new mathematics with more flexibility than numerical discourse. It is mathematics of form, he names it ‘morphomatics’, and based on structures and images that he hopes artists will create alongside scientists and engineers. Ian Stewart, Nature’s numbers: The unreal reality of mathematics, New York: Basic Books, 1995

[xiv] Quoted in ‘The quantum age begins’, (no author given) I have A-level physics but cannot understand the new mathematical paradigms. The latest self-confessed Platonist is Alain Badiou who celebrates mathematics as foundational for both epistemology and ontology. He uses Georg Cantor’s set theory though, not arithmetic nor geometry. Jason Barker, Alian Badiou: A Critical Introduction, London: Pluto Press, 2002.

[xv] George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, U of Chicago P, 1987, p160.

[xvi] George Lakoff, 1987, p301. Megill writes, ‘It is widely held in philosophy and in social science that only knowledge of the general or universal (as distinguished from the local or particular) is truly scientific.’ Allan Megill, Review Essay on Theodore Hamerow, Reflections on History and Historians, in History and Theory, 27, 1987, p97.

[xvii] J. Culler, On Deconstruction, 1982, p153.

[xviii] Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination – Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics, U of Chicago P, 1993, p241, 135.The self struggles with its identity within the knots of ends it finds itself pursuing.

[xix] George Lakoff, ‘When Mark Johnson and I looked over these results from the cognitive sciences in detail, we realized that there were three major results that were inconsistent with ‘Philosophy in the flesh: A Talk with George Lakoff’, Intro, John Brockman, Edge 51, March 9, 1999, [DL 3.3.2000]

[xx] E.O. Wilson a key figure in biodiversity in your manual wrote Consilience (1998) to unify literature and science and thus, ‘renew the crumbling structure of the liberal arts’: ‘The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.’ This is the reductionist program taken to its limit, that the laws of physics explain sunsets, poetry, pleasure and regret and art is reduced to, ‘biologically evolved epigenetic rules.’ Wilson’s unification is strictly one-sided, being too optimistic regarding the natural and social sciences, and too pessimistic that the only contemporary role for art is entertainment – rather than one of a number of valuable tools for thinking and feeling through the world.

[xxi] Per Bak, How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Complexity, New York: Springer, 1996, p2

[xxii] ‘We stand in the need of a new conceptual framework that allow us to understand an evolutionary process in which self-organization, selection and historical accident find their natural places with one another.’ Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, OUP, 1995, p150.

[xxiii] Stuart Kauffman, 1995, p4-5.


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