“Where no gods are, spectres rule.”
Characteristic of the ontology general to the modern scientific worldview is a reduction of its conception of reality to one of pure quantity. As a methodology, modeling the world according to its measurable aspects has demonstrated incontrovertible utility. Nevertheless, likely enthused by the success of such model, the centuries since the Scientific Revolution have revealed a temptation to conflate our methodological abstractions with the loving world that was their source. With his 1689 publication of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the English philosopher John Locke appears as the muezzin of the new science, calling all intellectuals to worship before the “idols in Newtonian space” (to borrow the ingenious phrase of the inestimable Owen Barfield) that our abstractions have become (101). Locke issues the declaration of universal materialism from the rooftop of an newly-completed philosophical edifice whose foundation had been laid some twenty-centuries prior with the Hellenic philosopher Democritus, whose structure had been elaborated by Islamic philosophers of the Middle Ages, and to which Galileo, Newton, and Descartes had contributed the latest additions. In the most explicit manner, Locke’s distinction between “primary” and “secondary qualities” of objects (and his relegation of the latter to the dustbin of conditioned subjectivity) presented the clarion call that announced the completion of this monument. In Locke’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)
One can hardly find fault with the Englishman’s conscientious affirmation that “No Man’s Knowledge here, can go beyond his Experience” (115). Nevertheless, in strange irony, “going beyond his Experience” is precisely what Locke, as a representative of all such materialistic thinkers, has done when he asserts that so-called “Secondary Qualities…have no resemblance to [Bodies] at all.” A consideration unprejudiced by a foregone sworn fidelity to the quantitative conceit will not at once assume that redness has nothing in fact to do with the Red Planet. Direct inquiry will reveal that no “Body” appears in one’s experience whose characteristics are exhausted by its measurable aspects. Locke, again, refers to such measurable aspects as “Primary Qualities,” which he enumerates as “Bulk, Figure, Number, Situation, and Motion, or Rest of their solid Parts” (115). Basic consideration reveals that everything in the world also bears qualitative aspects—Locke’s so-called “Secondary Qualities.” To assert that all of the latter must be explained in terms of the former is the definition of reductionism and the hallmark of the post-Enlightenment scientific worldview. One gains in calculability and convenience—at the expense of everything that constitutes the world’s meaning.
An object consists in precisely 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 abstractions, not objects. For example, if one observes a green apple, it is a common and characteristically reductionist explanation if someone asserts that what one is actually seeing are electromagnetic vibrations of approximately a wavelength 501nm wavelength. While the latter might in fact be accurate as far as it goes (i.e. as a description of the electromagnetic correlate of what appears phenomenally as green light), it fails to recognise greenness on its own terms. Instead, such an analysis reduces greenness to something not green, which is to say, wave equations. Not only are ripples of electromagnetism not green, but they are something altogether colourless. Green, as such, is irreducible and therefore can hardly be explained away as a “Secondary,” or to use a more modern formulation, “subjective” quality.
A rainbow presents perhaps the quintessential demonstration of the barrenness of the quantitative conceit (though literally every phenomenon is this way): one cannot reduce the rainbow to measurable quantities of water vapour and angles of light refraction, etc… and still have a rainbow. The consequence of such an analysis is always a ghost because sheer quantity in itself bears no necessary inner connection to the phenomenon in question. For an illustration of this epistemological disconnect, one may imagine five green 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 along its equator with a machete: suddenly immanent fiveness reveals itself in the pentagramatic pericarp. This qualitative five is intrinsically connected to the phenomenon. The dawning of such an understanding casts a new light on the enigmatic statement of Pythagoras, as recorded by Iamblichus:
Number is the ruler of forms and ideas, and the cause of gods and daemons.
Therefore, just as verse can be prosaic, and true poetry may not come in the form of verse, so qualitative thinking does not preclude mathematical precision, and just because something lacks rigour doesn’t make it concrete (i.e. not abstract).
Given the emptiness of a scientific worldview that is the inevitable result of general chauvinism of quantity, the yearning for a more complete appreciation of reality prompts one to seek elsewhere.
The second space, which is within, possesseth no answers nor apologies nor tokens nor ciphers nor seals; but it possesseth only types and figures. (Mead 205)
The qualitative dimension of the world represents the lifeblood of a reality of which weight, number, and measure are, in themselves, the dimensions of its skeleton. An archetypal science returns to the world precisely what a materialistic science effaced. The ordinary Cartesian conceit of today concedes that a study of archetypes may bear relevance to objects provided that they be the products of human art or artifice, which is to say, phenomena that had their origin as res cogitans and were then made manifest through human agency. To Nature, however, such a quantitative model would deny any archetypal applicability, since Nature is conceived of as fundamentally spiritless. Materialistic science would, therefore, rather explain all phenomena of Nature according to mechanical, chemical, and material causation. Such a distinction, is, however, issued with higher regard for expedience than for truth. Ancient thinkers retained a much healthier conception of the human soul’s relationship to Nature, as for instance, the Gnostic author of Thunder: Perfect Mind:
For what is within you is outside you,
and the one who fashions you on the outside has formed you within.
What you see outside you, you see within you.
It is visible, and it is your garment. (Barnstone & Meyer 377–378)
Or in the opening of The John Gospel:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος
En archē ēn ó Lógos
“In the Beginning was the Word”
Or even the first verse of the Torah:
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם
Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz.
“In the Beginning, the Gods created the Heavens and the Earth”
All of these examples demonstrate a fundamental recognition of the immeasurable essence of all things, regardless of whether they may also contain measurable aspects. The manifest world is understood to sustain a fundamental and original relation to spiritual principles. While the quantitative aspects of reality are beholden to physical laws such as Special Relativity or Thermodynamics, its qualitative or archetypal aspects are not. The Goethean scientist Henri Bortoft describes an intentional shift that enables a recognition of the qualitative aspect of phenomena:
Whereas mathematical science begins by transforming the contents of sensory perception into quantitative values and establishing a relationship between them, Goethe looked for a relationship between the perceptible elements that left the contents of perception unchanged. He tried to see these elements themselves holistically instead of replacing them by a relationship analytically. (25)
And he further describes the experience of such a phenomenological approach when he writes that, rather than supposing that roundness is a “Secondary Quality” abstracted from particular instances, “phenomena now become like mirrors in which roundness is seen reflected (77)”. Precisely such an appreciation of symbolical resonance presents the antidote that may heal the diabolical fragmentation of the post-Cartesian worldview. Human beings, now benefitting of the Empirical and Rationalistic rigour wrought through centuries of materialistic science, may now apply this capacity to ever deeper appreciation of the spiritual dimensions of the cosmos, and actualise the prophetic insinuation of Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust:
Ich bin ein Teil von jener Kraft,
Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft.
“I am part of that power which
would do forever evil and which does eternal good.” (70)
A slightly different version of this piece was first published at The Lizard-press in May of 2017.
Thanks to Rudolf Steiner, Richard Tarnas, John Locke, and myriad sentient beings.
Barnstone, Meyer Willis, & Meyer, Marvin. The Gnostic Bible. Shambalah Publications,
Bortoft, Henri. Wholeness in Nature. Lindisfarne Books, 1996
Von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust. Translated by A. S. Byatt. Penguin
G. R. S. Mead. Pistis Sophia. Wilder Publications, Blacksburg: 1974.
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.