Where no gods are, spectres rule.
The most precise investigations of folklore place the following fateful event in the autumn of 1666: it was one sultry English afternoon in that season when the infamous imaginary apple was loosed from its imaginary bough and proceeded to knock the celebrated Sir Isaac Newton about the sconce withal. “Eureka! I’ve found it,” the famous physicist cried, “and I shall call it ‘Universal Gravitation.’” As an apple presupposes a seed, so every answer presupposes a question of which the former is its ripening and fruition. Newton penned the often-quoted words in his day, “if I have seen far, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” More recently, in the same spirit, standing upon shoulders upon shoulders in the beginning of the twentieth century, Werner Heisenberg found himself poised atop something a grand intellectual edifice; a cathedral of the age, built not by hands, but by centuries of inquiring human minds. Heisenberg employed the advantage of his position to admonish us: “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” A contemporary of Newton indeed corroborates this necessary connection between question and answer. One William Stukeley recounts that the great seventeenth century scientist’s epiphany was precisely a response to an initial query from his teeming mind. “We went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some appletrees, only he, & myself,” wrote Stukeley, and continued to recount that Newton had confided in him the very question that been niggling him and which gave impetus for his formulation of Universal Gravitation in the fall of 1666:
why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground?
Newton had wondered.
Our world discloses itself according to of our method of questioning, and questions appear when something ceases to be self-evident. I hope to demonstrate in this consideration that self-evidence is a function of our state of consciousness, and that humanity’s general state of consciousness has undergone profound metamorphoses, even in the brief scope of time that recorded history affords. Finally, by situating our moment in its evolutionary context, I hope to offer a perspective into the peculiar challenge of our time and perhaps even offer some insight into a direction for the future. If we return to Newton’s question as William Stukeley reported it in his The Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life, we will be struck by the fact that, in the face of the given phenomenon (i.e. falling fruit), this is by no means the only question one could have asked. One might just as well have wondered about what is arguably the far more wonderful question—and the necessary correlative of the one which Newton actually asked—namely, how did the apple get up there in the first place? Further still, one might wonder how there came to be such an altogether ingenious jewel of Nature to speak of. Given the fact of a fruiting apple-tree, it is not insignificant that Newton’s question entirely ignored the living and qualitative aspects of the phenomenon and instead addressed itself exclusively to its lifeless and quantifiable side. This brief excursion through the history of what might figuratively be called “the Aristotelian thought current” (i.e. in contrast to the Platonic one, which we have examined in a sister paper titled “The Twilight of the Gods”) will reveal how Newton’s peculiar angle of inquiry has become the standard of scientific inquiry today.
Science in our time is—for very obvious reasons like the invention of penicillin and the Internet—recognised as the vanguard of human knowledge. As a result, we have naturally come to employ scientific principles as the standard by which we evaluate all spheres of life. Precisely because of this situation, however, science remains blind to its own biases. There is no science of sciences. A “Mephistophelean magic” that opiates the masses in the form of technological advancement only contributes to an Iron Curtain of epistemological criticism in respect the the scientific method, both in theory and in practice. With these statements, it is by no means my intention to denounce science except insofar as it has become strayed from its own spirit in becoming axiomatic and one-sided, and for this reason in need of a counterposing viewpoint as a corrective. Most certainly, such criticism as we have levelled above would have been irrelevant before the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, precisely the nature of the transition that the intellectual and spiritual culture of the West has undergone in the centuries since that time renders such criticism all the more urgent today.
Thus, as tempting as it is in our time to frame the development of the sciences as an indefatigable march of progress—an heroic ascent of human knowledge out of the grottos of ignorance—to do so would be to artificially shape one’s scope of evaluation in order to attain a pre-established conclusion. In this way, one may manage to elect our own values as the paragon of intellectual achievement, but only by means of historical gerrymandering. For instance, from our throne in the technocratic heights of 2018, we commonly dismiss the world-conception of the Middle Ages as childish. We conceive of the medieval period as an intellectual “darkness” before the dawn of physical science in the Enlightenment, or as a winter of superstition before the springtime of Classical learning in the Renaissance. Nevertheless, as the old saw expresses it, “history is written by the victors” and one need not limit one’s recognition of this principle to its interpretation of material conquest. Indeed manifest history often represents the shadow cast by the interplay of deeper ideologies, which are themselves the reflection of gradual shifts in consciousness. It takes an uncommon act of sympathy to comprehend a culture and viewpoint that is not one’s own. Still, we can make an initial gesture of understanding if we acknowledge that people certainly noticed apples rising and falling before the Scientific Revolution. Why then, one may wonder, was it necessary to wait for the seventeenth century for it to occur to someone to formulate the Law of Universal Gravitation?
Anything more than a superficial answer to this question will demand that we consider deeper impulses of intellectual history than a mere catalogue of historical events can provide. The Scientific Revolution represented far more than a revolution of knowledge. Instead, 17th century thinkers like Galileo and Newton truly ushered in a revolution of consciousness. For example, before Galileo’s scientific publications gained popularity, people experienced motion as an immanent (i.e. in contrast to accidental) quality of a given body. No less could roundness be divorced from a circle than growing, fruiting, and falling from an apple. Motion was understood as a specific mode of change. Change, in turn, was conceived of as an entity becoming more fully itself—potential becoming actual, or an unfolding of a being’s entelechy, to employ “The Philosopher’s” (i.e. Aristotle) ingenious term for this phenomenon. Thus, as a mustard seed becomes a shoot, stems, leaves, and blossoms, etc…, so a bust of Dionysus falling off of a stone altar and shattering into smithereens was experienced to be undergoing a comparable development. Likewise the germination, growth, and maturation of an apple-seed was understood in a similarly integral manner. As a result of slow developments in consciousness over the last centuries, the intellect of today can only comprehend this integral conception of movement and matter with great difficulty, and instead often manages only to recreate an abstract synthesis of an object with its qualities. The German poet and scientist Johann von Goethe was keenly aware of this difficulty and thus gave very clear expression to the inability of the modern intellect to comprehend living nature:
Who would know aught that’s living and describe it well
Seeks first the spirit to expel.
He then holds the component parts in hand
But lacks, alas! the spirit’s band…
Faust (Part 1, chapter 5)
The protagonist of Goethe’s Faust represents, in many ways, the archetypal struggle of the modern consciousness to overcome its alienation from a world that it has stripped of it qualitative dimension. We will now attempt to understand the nature of this alienation.
As I suggested above, consciousness is an expression of the deepest and most basic questions that the human spirit poses to the world in which it finds itself. As one does not see the eye, but rather sees through it, so often these fundamental questions go unnoticed except at certain pivotal moments in world history. One such pivotal moment marks the dawn of the Scientific Revolution. By posing—and thereby receiving a correlative answer to—a revolutionary question, Galileo Galilei, like Newton, stands at a threshold of sorts at which this gradual evolution in consciousness may appear with unusual clarity. Galileo’s ingenious achievement was to ask how one might save the given astronomical appearances if one were to conceive of the solar system as an aggregate of inert planetary bodies, which just happened to be in motion, but were not inherently so. Galileo’s intentionality was to become the new standard for Western consciousness. In other words, Galileo’s way of looking was to become our way of seeing. He writes as follows:
I cannot sufficiently admire the eminence of those men’s wits, that have received and held it to be true, and with the sprightliness of their judgments, offered such violence to their own senses, as that they have been able to prefer what their reason dictated to them to that which sensible experiments represented most manifestly to the contrary.
In a general sense, the Scientific Revolution ushered in a new conception of Nature wherein change was no longer intrinsic to bodies, but rather circumstantial and ultimately arbitrary. It is important to recognise that thinkers of the Middle-Ages felt no reason to ask the sort of questions that would come to define intellectual inquiry after Galileo. For this reason, the greater part medieval science was a continuation of Aristotelian physics in the form that it was inherited from the Near East at that time (after translation and elaboration by Islamic scholars who had preserved it following the collapse of the Roman Empire). Thus the Scientific Revolution represented a transition whose significance was amplified by the fact that the new thinkers were overturning physical and metaphysical notions that had persisted not only for centuries, but for millennia. One can scarcely overestimate the significance of this difference that the Scientific Revolution heralded, since it was not merely a new set of ideas, but the disclosure, in consciousness, of a new world in response to a new method of questioning, which to this day defines our ordinary lived experience.
This point deserves repeated emphasis, so powerful is the temptation to interpret other world-conceptions according to the one which we hold at present. To deepen our appreciation of the fundamental difference between the Ancient and the Modern/Scientific modes of cognition, we could consider a river as an example. We can say: “the water flows.” It would make little sense, however, to make such a claim about the river itself. To claim that “the river flows” is problematic precisely because to flow is immanent to the concept of a river as such. When we abstract the material substance of dihydrogen-oxide from its context as a river, then we are compelled to append a predicate which the entity otherwise would have born inherently. In the most essential way, it was precisely this new capacity for conceptual abstraction that provided for the shift in consciousness that began during the sixteenth century. It was through this new mode of cognition that Galileo was to able to abstract the general principle of isochronous motion of a pendulum when confronted by a swinging chandelier in the cathedral of Pisa, for instance. As we noted in Newton’s case, countless others had visited the same cathedral and doubtless beheld the same phenomenon, but it took Galileo’s intellectual acuity—in particular his capacity for analysis and abstraction—to conceive of a body as distinct from its qualities and thereby to derive such an universal law from observations of discrete particulars. If we, in the interest of philosophic inquiry, manage to briefly suspend our cognitive inheritance and enter into an artificially naïve condition of consciousness, we will discover, as in the case of Newton’s apple, that it is by no means self-evident that one should be able to divorce a given body from its qualities. Indeed, the conception that most of us take for granted today—that the fundamental constituents of the material world are particles or waveforms totally bereft of the qualities most obvious to our immediate experience—seems especially counterintuitive to a naïve viewpoint. In other words, how could one strip a body of every one of its observable qualities and still have that body? Or similarly, suppose one could divide a given body to apparent oblivion so that all that remained was a roughly-quantifiable number of imperceptible pseudo-particles to which were given such occult names as “electron,” “quark” or “gluon:” why should the latter be regarded as any more real than what was immediately obvious before this analysis? It would seem reasonable to conclude that, to the first question, you cannot, and to the second question, one would be hard-pressed to provide sufficient reason. One may insist on such procedures, but then one has departed from object of one’s original inquiry and substituted a world of mathematical ghosts in a universe of mostly dark matter.
Before the pivotal change in consciousness inaugurated by the Scientific Revolution and proceeding right up to the present day, what would what later appear as measurable physical objects (or pseudo-particles, in certain contexts), human beings still experienced as quality-saturated condensations of meaning. In this way, human beings felt themselves in spiritual relationship with everything in their surroundings. Such a mode of cognition presents a stark contrast to our ordinary experience today, in which the human soul finds herself thrown into a world of material objects to which she discovers no qualitative relation. Instead objects appear as brute, independently-subsisting matter in an indifferent space-time manifold. Modern physics assures us that everything we experience is ultimately an aggregation of blind and fungible elementary particles. No electron is irreplaceable. If the soul does not feel alienated in its very essence from such a world, it is only because science has also assured her that she doesn’t exist and is instead an epiphenomenon of neurochemical activity.
Contrast this conception to Jesus’ words in Luke 12:7: “But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” and one may begin to comprehend the radical departure that the Scientific Revolution represented from the medieval world-conception. This contrast naturally also finds expression in stylistic changes in the visual arts, since the latter indeed stem from the same humanity that discovered the Laws of Planetary motion and initiated a transition from astrology, which is to say, reading starry relationships as letters that spell out ordeals of destiny and the sagas of the gods, to astronomy: calculating the spatial coordinates of discrete celestial bodies. In short, the former presents an inquiry into meaning, the latter into calculability. Consider, for an example of this great transition as it appears in the arts, the difference between the seemingly (to the modern sensibility) malproportioned illustrations of medieval manuscripts, with the breathtaking depth and anatomical realism of Renaissance painters. While the former reflected a mode of cognition that emphasised spiritual comprehension, the latter presented an increasing interest in the quantifiable. To claim that perspective was invented in the Renaissance is to misunderstand the subtlety of the situation. The novelty of Renaissance painters consists in their application of the spatial perspective to a medium in which the former was originally taken to be irrelevant. Medieval painters employed their own form perspective in their work; theirs, however, was a dimension not of physical space, but of but of meaning. Medieval perspective was not spatial, but spiritual.
In this light, Copernicus’ publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543 also appears as a natural elaboration of humanity’s development. Contrary to popular imagination, Copernicus was not the first person to formulate an heliocentric world-conception. Aristarchus of Samos, for instance, had already propounded such a model some eighteen centuries before Copernicus in the third century B.C. Also contrary to what we ordinarily imagine, very few people even read Copernicus’ argument for an heliocentric world-conception until many years after its publication. Moreover, the Ptolemaic model of the universe (which placed the Earth at its center) actually afforded for far more accurate calculations of observable astronomical phenomena than did the heliocentric model that was to become its successor. Indeed it was not until Newton’s day—nearly a century after Copernicus’ death—that the heliocentric theory gained more general acceptance. At this time, it was refined such that its accuracy for prediction of celestial events finally surpassed the Ptolemaic model. This is to say that, well into the seventeenth century, the geocentric model of the solar system provided a more accurate depiction of manifest, empirically observable planetary motion than did the model that was subsequently to supersede it.
The context that this investigation has provided may now allow us to further deepen our understanding of why the heliocentric model gained acceptance at that particular time in history and not at any other time in the roughly eighteen centuries that elapsed after it was first posited by Aristarchus of Samos. In pith, we could say that the worldview that the Pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras famously enunciated in the fifth century B.C. with the words “Man is the measure of all things,” had first to unravel into “Man is the measurer of all things.” More precisely, to appreciate the heliocentric model demanded an ability to place ontological credence in an model that manifestly flouted the immediate testimony of direct experience. The latter did not become a general ability of humankind until the evolution of human consciousness had achieved the necessary capacity for abstraction that could support it. Approximately four hundred years ago, the evolution of consciousness arrived at this condition, and this condition was announced in the evolution of ideas as an acceptance of those particular ideas which constituted the Scientific Revolution.
A philosopher who expressed with special clarity the new way of thinking that arose and which would support the theories of Copernicus and Galileo was John Locke. Specifically, Locke’s distinction between “primary” and “secondary qualities” of objects, and his relegation of the latter to the dustbin of conditioned subjectivity, represented a clarion call of sorts in enunciation of this great shift in consciousness. In the philosopher’s own words:
The Ideas of primary Qualities of Bodies, are Resemblances of them, and their Patterns do really exist in the Bodies themselves; but the Ideas, produced in us by these Secondary Qualities, have no resemblance of them at all. There is nothing like our Ideas, existing in the Bodies themselves. They are in Bodies, we denominate from them, only a Power to produce those Sensations in us: And what is Sweet, Blue or Warm in Idea, is but the certain Bulk, Figure, and Motion of the insensible parts in the Bodies themselves, which we call so. (137)
Locke also writes that “No Man’s Knowledge here, can go beyond his Experience” (115). It is an hallmark of post-Copernican thinking, however, to mix this maxim with its converse and mint a strange amalgam indeed, and moreover to circulate it as the epistemological currency of the day. To wit, “going beyond his Experience” is precisely what Locke, and so many great thinkers since the Scientific Revolution, has done when he asserts that so-called “Secondary Qualities…have no resemblance to [Bodies] at all.” The immediate testimony of experience reveals no single object whose characteristics are exhausted by its measurable aspects. Locke calls such measurable aspects of a body “Primary Qualities,” and he enumerates them as “Bulk, Figure, Number, Situation, and Motion, or Rest of their solid Parts” (115). Galileo had argued for a similar conception several decades before, and in the centuries since, it has become second-nature, epistemologically speaking, to presume that the most basic constituents of reality are elementary particles that possess none of the qualities most familiar to us in ordinary experience. To deepen our appreciation of this contrast, we can take the following example: if one were to imagine Newton’s proverbial apple, a typical scientific explanation of today would assert that the red colour that confronts one most immediately in one’s experience is actually a sequence of electromagnetic vibrations whose wavelength is approximately 666nm. While the latter might in fact be accurate as far as it goes (i.e. as a description of the quantifiable, electromagnetic correlate in physical space of what appears in experience as the colour red), it fails to recognise redness on its own terms, however, and rather reduces redness to something not red, which is to say, wave equations. Not only are ripples of electromagnetism not red, but they are something altogether colourless. Thus a typically “scientific” study of colours might just as well be undertaken by someone who was utterly colourblind. Red, as such, is irreducible and therefore ought hardly to be explained away as a “Secondary,” or to use a more modern formulation, “subjective” quality.
To construct a model of an object that includes only its quantitative aspects and then to relate to this model as though it were the true object may be called an idolatry of abstraction. The nature of this intellectual idolatry is to mistakenly hypostasise objects of pure thought into physical reality. The philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead identified this operation as “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” We have preferred to follow the ingenious Owen Barfield and therefore to describe this epistemological cultus as a worship of lifeless “idols in Newtonian space.” A science founded on such a category mistake increasingly tends to turn its back on reality in an ostensible quest for understanding. The sentiment that the physicist David Mermin articulated with his notorious advice to anyone who questions the sense of these rites to “shut up and calculate,” captures the essence of modern science’s disregard for whether its calculations bear any relationship with reality. The error of such enterprise would be patent were it not permissible for physicists to invent new particles and fundamental forces at their convenience to maintain coherence between “the standard model” of physics and the observational data that continually seems to flout it.
For a further illustration of misplacing concreteness onto abstract entities, consider that no one would expect to encounter the number five in outer reality. Thus, five is real as an idea but not as a physical object. In other words, five, by itself, does not belong to the aspect of reality that the senses behold, and if one should expect to find it there, one would be mistaken. This is because, as we indicated above, sheer quantity does not exist except in a context that always includes qualitative aspects. To posit entities in physical reality that consist purely of quantity is incorrect. This is what Galileo and Locke did, and the entire tradition of modern science that followed them inherited this conception. To develop an intuitive sense for the manner in which quantity appears in actual reality and not in a mistaken model of it, one may contrast two cases. First, one may imagine five apples. The latter could have been persimmons, or avocados, or gravel-pellets for that matter. Quantitative five is not intrinsically connected to the objects. But suppose one selects one of the said apples and slices it along its equator with a machete: suddenly immanent fiveness reveals itself in the pentagramatic pericarp. This qualitative five is intrinsically connected to the phenomenon. We could call this immanence “Pythagorean five,” and contrast it to the “Lockean” or “Newtonian five” that is most familiar to us today. The first scenario that we presented above provides the all but irresistible temptation to idolatry, which is to say, to ignore the actual objects to which the measure pertains and to treat the quantity as an object in its own right.
A rainbow presents the quintessential demonstration of the such idolatry of abstraction (though literally every phenomenon is “a rainbow” in this sense) that has become the hallmark of post-Enlightenment thought. One simply cannot reduce the rainbow to measurable quantities of water-vapour and angles of light refraction and still have a rainbow. The consequence of such an analysis is always abstraction because sheer quantity in itself bears no necessary or inner connection to the phenomenon in question. “If rainbow, then water-vapour,” one might justifiably express the situation in the form of a logical proposition, but to reverse this statement is to perform an illicit conversion and stand the entire situation on its head. “In the beginning was the Word,” not the letter, nor the elementary particle. To be clear, this is not to suggest that water-vapour is not a necessary condition for a rainbow, nor that letters are also such to spell out a word. Instead, the above is meant as an admonition to intellectual precision so as to avoid mistaking necessaryconditions for sufficient ones.
Just as an human individual undergoes fundamental changes between the various periods of her life, so too does the worldview of humankind experience similar metamorphoses. What is self-evident at a particular stage may be entirely disregarded in another. In this consideration, I have tried to depict one of the most important transitions in recent Western history in the development from the Medieval to the Modern world-conceptions as a window into a larger trend. I have tried to indicate how the development that this trend illustrates is an image of a more fundamental transition towards increasing freedom for abstraction and an ultimate fall into idolatry when these objects of abstraction are hypostasised into physical nature. This transition is a reflection, in thought, of an evolution of consciousness. In the eighteenth century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant, a notorious champion of abstraction, epitomised the modern scientific worldview when he wrote in the preface to perhaps his most famous work, The Critique of Pure Reason:
Reason must approach nature with the view, indeed, of receiving information from it, not, however, in the character of a pupil, who listens to all that his master chooses to tell him, but in that of a judge, who compels the witnesses to reply to those questions which he himself thinks fit to propose. To this single idea must the revolution be ascribed, by which, after groping in the dark for so many centuries, natural science was at length conducted into the path of certain progress.
In this way, Kant exemplifies the relationship between question and answer, intentionality and disclosure, manner of looking and matter of seeing that we have attempted to illuminate in this consideration, and he does so in an expression that is exquisitely characteristic of the scientific consciousness that has unfolded since the sixteenth century. In a slightly different context, Kant also wrote that “there will never be a Newton of the grassblade.” All things considered, one can hardly assert that there was a Newton of the apple, since it might as well have been an avocado, or a generic brigade of elementary particles. It is an abstract and reductionistic conception of the world that seeks to explain away phenomena on terms other than their own. Nevertheless, the latter is precisely the manner by which modern science tends to proceed: ignoring the phenomena in their immediacy and rather seeking to explain them through analysis of their component parts. Goethe, who in fact has offered us a viable alternative to the scientific conventions of today (see bibliography and other posts at Le Lizard-presse), described this tendency in a letter to his secretary Johann Eckermann:
But as a rule men are not satisfied to behold an Urphänomenon (i.e. “original” or “archetypal phenomenon”). They think there must be something beyond. They are like children who, having looked into a mirror, turn it around to see what is on the other side.
To seek exclusively for elementary particles behind manifest entities is akin to analysing the dots in a composer’s notebook without taking into account that it is a musical score. Similarly, I do not get to know my neighbour by analysing his vital statistics. Such enterprises are inappropriate not because they are inaccurate, but because it would miss the point. Indeed accuracy through analysis is often won only at the expense of understanding.
Nevertheless, the parables above present the general methodology and world-conception that have become the de facto metaphysics of conventional science over the centuries since Galileo, Newton, and Locke first championed it. Basic consideration reveals that everything in the world bears qualitative aspects to accompany the quantitative ones—Locke’s so-called “Secondary Qualities.” Just as little as one could derive a cube of salt from Euclid’s definition of a cube can one imagine that quantity alone can provide a comprehensive explanation of anything but an abstract world of lifeless “idols in Newtonian space.” The quantifiable effects of life lend themselves to measurement and analysis, but life as such, and as effectual cause, is immeasurable. A science that depends exclusively on quantitative measurement, therefore, will find itself blind to life. Every object is engendered precisely as the dynamic and proportional interplay of all of its qualities. To artificially rend reality asunder into its measurable and its immeasurable aspects leaves one with mere ghosts, not objects. One gains in calculability and convenience, but one forfeits one’s ability to recognise most of reality, in particular its living aspect—we only notice the fall of the apple and not its generation. Perhaps most tragically, such a worldview encourages a disregard for our fellow beings, whom our ontological model will increasing influence us to abstractly conceive of as economic producers and consumers, bundles of biochemistry optimised to perpetuate of genetic material, or as means to fulfill our sensual desires.
Originally published in March 2018 on the Lizard-press, which is to Theoria-press as Zeus is to Athena.
Bibliography, thanks to:
Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances. Wesleyan Press, 1988.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1690. Edited by Peter
Nidditch. Oxford University Press, 1975.
Novalis. Fragments. Translated by Margaret Mahoney Stoljar, State University
of New York Press, 1997.
Bortoft, Henri. Wholeness in Nature. Lindisfarne Books, 1996
Von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust. Translated by A. S. Byatt. Penguin
Steiner, Rudolf. Goethean Science, Mercury Press, Spring Valley, N. Y., 1988. translated from the German by William Lindeman,
—The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception, Anthroposophic Press, New York and Rudolf Steiner Publishing Co., London, 1940, 118 pp. plus notes, translated from the second German edition of 1924 by Olin D. Wannamaker
Matter alone (hyle) is a potential, something which is not yet, does not yet exist. Matter appears as reality only through the form (morphe or eidos). Form is energy due to its innate actuality. This energy reaches its highest perfection as entelechy.