Latent Order and “The Advancement of Learning”

Among the characteristically mystical dicta of Heraclitus which scholars have preserved through the millennia, one may discover the following fragment recorded by the Roman theologian Hippolytus in the third century:

Latent order is the master of obvious order.

According to the nature of experience in the most basic sense, our knowledge will be the measure of our comprehension—what we cannot conceive, we will not perceive. In this way, the words of the enigmatic Ephesian will mean as much to us as we can call forth from them. They may serve, therefore, in their being read, as a mirror to make manifest the wisdom we have managed to unfold within our own souls.

“All philosophy begins in wonder,” according to the earliest thinkers of this discipline. To initiate the eventual unfolding of the interior wisdom that we hinted at above, therefore, we may begin by wondering what “obvious order” might designate. Francis Bacon of Verulam offers a possibility in a 1605 treatise in which he delineates the principles of natural science. In The Advancement of Learning, Lord Bacon pens an ex cathedra proclamation that will come to define scientific inquiry even to the present day:

Natural Science doth make inquiry, and take consideration of the same natures [as Natural Philosophy]: but how? Only as to the Material and Efficient causes of them, and not as to the Forms.

To comprehend the spirit of Bacon’s letters, lexical literacy is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition. Instead, one must also develop an higher literacy; one must learn to read the script of history as it is written in the evolution of ideas. One important element in this respect is the partition of natural science from natural philosophy. All cultures of the world (with the possible exception of modern global culture) cultivate a more or less elaborated natural philosophy. This is to say that all cultures possess an intimate wisdom of nature in her deeds and sufferings. The Greek thinkers of antiquity evolved a particularly ingenious system of natural philosophy, which European intellectual culture had subsequently inherited in the centuries before Bacon’s time. Of singular importance to this tradition of natural philosophy was the work of Aristotle. Indeed, Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the preëminent thinkers of the Middle Ages, simply referred to Aristotle as Ille Philosophus—“The Philosopher,” and by Dante, he was simply called “il maestro di color chi sanno” (“the master of those who know”). If we again consider Bacon’s statement from above, therefore, we discover that, by inaugurating the discipline of natural science, Bacon is both (1) breaking with centuries of Aristotelian natural philosophy before him, and (2) that his decision was to determine the tenor of natural science for centuries to follow, reveals the significance of his declaration above.

To understand the implications of the transition that Bacon heralded, it is necessary to consider the essential differences between natural science and natural philosophy. Bacon indicated one of the crucial distinctions in the quote above when he wrote of various “causes.” In his work titled Physics, Aristotle had delineated four causes. “Cause,” in modern times, has come to mean precisely what Bacon stipulated it to mean, namely “obvious order.” To understand Aristotle’s meaning, however, will require one to reïntegrate into this concept the aspects of “latent order” which one first had effaced. The word that Aristotle used, which ordinarily appears as “cause” In English translation, was αἰτία, aitia. This Greek word survives in the word “etiology,” and also “diet,” which is literally, dia + aitia, or “take apart the causes.” “Cause,” however, in its meaning today, fails to capture the scope of aitia. Importantly, αἰτία, aitia, encompasses the entire nebula of necessary conditions from which a given event is born, and not merely the ones that lend themselves to physical measurement. To briefly recapitulate Aristotle’s conception of causality, one may imagine a statue of Perseus. The Material Cause is precisely the matter of which the being is constituted. This statue happens to be an hologram and thus light is the Material Cause. The Efficient Cause appears as the force that was marshalled in order to effect the realisation of Material Cause; in this case the artist’s skill supplied the Efficient Cause. The Formal Cause was the design, or the intelligence that informed the application of this skill. In this instance, the Formal Cause was the idea of the Greek hero as it stood the holographer’s mind. Lastly, the Final Cause is same as the purpose of all art, which is ultimately no-less ineffable as the Divine Name, but approximately: in reciprocal action, to incarnate the spiritual ideal in perishable matter and to render earthly substance transparent to the light of meaning, which is to say, an emulation of the gods.

After this short explanation of Aristotle’s conception of causality, we can reconsider the significance of Lord Bacon’s decree. The scientific method that Bacon sets forth shall concern itself with the obvious causes at the exclusion of the latent ones. Specifically, the formal and final causes, which are “the master” of the former in that they account for its very being and intelligibility, will forthwith be ignored by scientific inquiry. As a consequence, natural science restricts its considerations to external causation. This decision implies an utter disregard for causation that is intrinsic. In other words, natural science will concern itself with what things do and refuse to consider what those things are in the first place. The above by edict of Lord Bacon, in the interest of “advancement of learning.”

Given that natural science declines to conceive of anything but accidental, extrinsic  relations, investigation in this discipline will naturally not perceive any other order than that which is the result of such relations. As a consequence, the model of reality that natural science may generate is, in the final measure, haphazard. That the atomic weight of elemental gold can be measured to be 79 is entirely arbitrary; it could just as well have any other weight. All observational data will appear to confirm this fundamental arbitrariness. Clear thinking, however, will recognise that evidence is always a function of the theory that informs it and which defines the former as such (i.e. otherwise it would not be evidence, but observational data). For this reason, apparent confirmation of exclusively mechanical and material relations in the universe disclose more about the mindset of the investigator than nature herself; the latter serving as a mirror in which the former finds his intellectual countenance reflected.

Natural philosophers of the Middle Ages appeared especially susceptible to the censure of Bacon and other natural scientists for the former’s theological theory of nature. This criticism is essentially over the same point that led to natural science’s rejection of formal and final causation, since the gods, like these types of causation, constitute the latent powers that inform the obvious order. For this reason, one might suppose that the Scientific Revolution had revealed that the obvious order could, in fact, explain itself and escape the logical impossibility of infinite regress. In other words, one might expect that natural scientists had found a way to explain the manifest concatenation of efficient causation without appealing to the notion of an “original cause” or “an unmoved mover.” Such a solution would consist in providing a cogent and empirically-consistent alternative that would explain the causal chains that natural scientists hold to determine all of the material processes in the universe.

Such an expectation, however, would prove incorrect. Instead, natural scientific explanation has simply papered-over this most basic of philosophical questions with a veneer of elaborate nomenclature. Inside of this “papier-mâché Mephistopheles” of natural laws, mystical particles, and scientific principles, one finds “a little loose dirt, maybe.”* Natural science refuses to acknowledge the God of natural philosophy, or the Venus of Lucretius (see below). It must, nevertheless, recognise the obvious order that appears as the consequent nature of what the philosophers called “God.” As a result, natural science counters the theological explanation of natural philosophy with the assertion that the manifest cosmos is the result of blind chance. Obviously, to explain something as “chance” is like offering stones for supper simply because stones are something you can put on a table. In short, “chance” is a non-explanation.

An universe that is founded on chance is an universe that is essentially unintelligible—illegible to human understanding—and only accidentally so. Such would almost certainly be the default stance of a modern natural scientist. We might borrow the physicist Emil du Bois-Reymond’s term and call this stance “the doctrine of ignoramus et ignorabimus.” Before the Berlin Academy of Sciences in 1880, du Bois-Reymond delineated “the seven world riddles,” first among which was “the ultimate nature of matter and energy.” In these notions, one may discover an elaboration of the material and efficient causes that Francis Bacon identified as the only concern of natural science. Natural scientific consensus to this day holds “matter” and “energy” to constitute the fundament of reality despite the unknowabilty of their “ultimate nature.” That this mystery should persist is hardly a surprise given that, in its inception, natural science specifically set out to disregard precisely those causes (aitia) which could render the material and efficient ones intelligible. To know something is unknowable is an implicit refutation of the very doctrine of ignorance which such a claim espouses, since it depends on a faith in precisely the capacity for knowledge that it expressly degrades.

In contrast to the exponents of ignorabimus amongst modern natural scientists, the physicist David Bohm offers a more comprehensive perspective into physical nature. In his description of the “implicate” and “explicate” orders, Bohm unfolds the maxim of Herclitus that we began this consideration withal in almost perfect fidelity. Bohm even goes so far as to expressly state: “the subtle is what is basic and the manifest is its result.” With these words, he posits the latent order as “the master of the obvious” one. The latter, which appears as physical reality, bursts forth like foam on the implicate ocean—the measurable is continually born from the purely intelligible. Dante describes this implicate order as “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars,” the “latent order [that] is the master of obvious order.” To Lucretius, this love finds a symbol as the goddess Venus. Thus he addresses his hymn to nature, De Rerum Natura, to her:

Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
Kind after kind. And since ’tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
Which I presume on Nature to compose

Lucretius is ordinarily hailed as a father of atomism and, by extension, the Baconian natural science founded entirely upon external relations between discrete bodies as we characterised it above. Professor of philosophy Thomas Nail points out, however, that Lucretius’ own views on the world had nothing in common with those that hail him as their ancestor. On the contrary, as one may gather from the excerpt above, Lucretius almost certainly belongs to the lineage of natural philosophy. In the most essential sense, this means that the human intellect participates the same implicate order as the cosmos and, for this reason, the latter cannot be fundamentally unintelligible. We may therefore call the notion of the universe’s intelligibility “the doctrine of the Lógos,” in contrast to “the doctrine of ignoramus et ignorabimus” that remains quite popular amongst experts. If the latter could be perfectly mistaken about Lucretius’ standpoint, perhaps they may be mistaken about their own as well. David Bohm encourages a metanoia in this respect:

Indeed, the attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that is confronting us today.

Naturally, Heraclitus offers a similar perspective:

Things are both whole and not whole; what is drawn together is drawn asunder, the harmonious becomes the discordant. The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.

The waves of becoming lap the eternal shores, and Venus is born anew upon the foam.

*”I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing but a little loose dirt, maybe.” (Heart of Darkness 100)

Works cited, special thanks to:

Aristotle. Physics.
Bohm, David. Wholeness and the Implicates Order (1980).
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness (1899).
Dante. Divine Comedy.
Heraclitus. Fragments 54, 10.
Nail, Thomas. Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion (2018).


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