Throwing Down the Gauntlet on the Hard Problem of Consciousness (4): The Grand Instauration

Newton, as we have mentioned, represented the archetypal modern physicist. [1] In this manner, he was heir to the revolution in the sciences inaugurated by Galileo and Bacon, who were the Romulus and Remus of the “Great Instauration.” [2] Though Bacon was its chief advocate, Galileo was the first to developed and rigorously employ the method that physical science has perfected since the seventeenth century. This method, as we have established, functions by excluding from its scope all of those facets of potential consideration which it is now at a loss to explain in the “hard problem of consciousness.” For instance, when Galileo derived the principle of isochronous motion from the swinging chandelier in the Tower of Pisa in 1602, he had to ignore everything other than the fact of its “bulk and…motion,” as well as all of the other factors that prevent actual verification of this law by purely empirical means. Thermal expansion, a substantial increase in amplitude of the oscillation, wind resistance, pigeons, and any number of other factors ensure that no concrete instance of a swinging pendulum will demonstrate perfect isochronous periodicity. In fact, one may be surprised at insight that the following quote from Galileo offers into the actual nature of his methodology:

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 that which their reason dictated to them, to that which sensible experiments represented most manifestly to the contrary…. I cannot find any bounds for my admiration, how that reason was able in Aristarchus and Copernicus, to commit such a rape on their senses, as in despite thereof to make herself mistress of their credulity. [3]

Evidently, it is naïve to imagine that modern science is grounded in concrete empirical observation. Indeed, Galileo praises just those thinkers that he does for disregarding the concrete phenomenon in order to infer the general laws. Newton’s Laws of Motion and Universal Gravitation similarly derive their utility from their abstraction: they disregard what is moving and the concrete event of its movement in order to formulate general mathematical principles to describe and predict it. Thus, when Galileo applied this method to discover the law of isochronous motion of a pendulum (which led to the construction of the first pendulum clock by the middle of the seventeenth century) he happened to have taken a chandelier as his object of study, but he could just as well have performed his observations on a bowling ball, or a hanging possum, and derived the same principle, provided that the generic object presented a bulk which could swing with consistent periodicity and without excessive interference from accidental influences. In respect to the method of physical science, neither the quality nor the quiddity of the object have any bearing on the science of it. Instead any object is considered exclusively as Bacon prescribed: “only as to the material and efficient causes of them, and not as to the forms.” Obviously the material and efficient causes of a thing do not constitute an exhaustive explanation of it. Indeed the material and efficient causes present only those aspects of things that lend themselves to quantification. As we have noted, they fail to consider precisely what “the hard problem” of consciousness arises as an attempt to describe. Nevertheless, a philosophical quibble is a trifle of an overhead to pay for the massive predictive and technogenetic dividends that the reduction of concrete phenomena to a handful of admittedly elegant mathematical equations have delivered since the seventeenth century, and continue to do. “It works so it must be true,” will be the eternal rejoinder of the pragmatic spirit to our appeal to qualitative consideration. A comprehensive response would take this inquiry too far afield from its essential thread. Suffice it to note that history has provided us with no comparable alternative to quantitative science in respect to investment of time and resources, both spiritual and material, so we really have no idea what a more comprehensive approach might provide if we were willing to undertake it on a large scale. [4]

Bacon, whom we compared to Remus as the fraternal founder of the New Atlantis, [5] despite serving as the primary historical exponent of the scientific revolution, did not personally emphasise mathematisation as the hallmark of scientific advancement. In fact, he compares mathematics to a game of tennis: “of no use in itself,” but as to the latter, “of great use in respect it maketh a quick eye,” so too the former “in that they do remedy and cure many defects in the wit and faculties intellectual.” Compare this to Galileo’s enunciation in 1623 that “Nature is recorded in the language of mathematics!” (“La natura è scritta in lingua matematica!”)

While Bacon did not directly contribute to the mathematisation of nature, he did, however, articulate a conception of nature that facilitated such a development by scientists of the future. As the excerpts above demonstrated, Bacon rejected the medieval conception of nature as an harmonious unity. Instead, he set forth rather a conception of nature as discrete bodies with no meaningful relation amongst them. Since form is the principle of essential relation, between matter without form, only circumstantial relations can hold. This reconception provides for the substitution of “laws” and their subordinate “clauses” to externally govern these relation which were once intrinsic. Bacon obviously envisioned nature by analogy to a civil state, the behaviour of whose subjects which could be predicted and controlled by understanding the “laws” and subordinate “clauses” that governed them. Bacon was not himself a scientist, but a lawyer by profession, and therefore the quantitative legislation of nature was left to his contemporaries. Still, the spirit of natural science that Bacon set forth lent itself to the mathematisation of the discipline at the hands of the thinkers that followed him. Indeed Bacon’s Pisan contemporary had stated his own opinion of the matter in no uncertain terms, and was already making use of the mathematical method for his ingenious discoveries in the seventeenth century, just one of which we considered above. Newton’s achievements by the end of the century left little doubt as to the method of natural science, which the philosopher Immanuel Kant would articulate in the most expressive manner some decades after Newton’s death in the “Preface” to his The Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science in 1786: “[in] every department of physical science there is only so much knowledge, properly so-called, as there is mathematics.” [6]

The tradition of modern science, therefore, developed and progressed precisely by excluding from phenomena all of their qualitative aspects to study their quantitative aspects in abstracto. To develop an understanding of the significance of this fact, a contrast with an alternative conception of science is necessary for the same reason that we do not feel the orbit of our own planet relative to our resident star. We attempted to present such a contrast with our small incursion into the world of Aristotelian physics above. Next, we will briefly consider the same again from a slightly different perspective for the purpose of illustrating modern science in sharper relief. Specifically, we will consider the contrast between classical and modern science in respect to the relation of the abstract to the concrete.

[1] Cf. Newton’s regula tertia philosophandi from Principia 1713 version:

Those qualities of bodies that cannot be intended and remitted [i.e., qualities that cannot be increased and diminished] and that belong to all bodies on which experiments can be made should be taken as qualities of all bodies universally.

For an excellent insight into the sometimes violent evolution of Newton’s own views, one cannot recommend highly enough Steffen Ducheyne’s “An editorial history of Newton’s regulae philosophandi.”

[2] Tradition recounts that Rome was founded on two planes: the political and the spiritual. Romulus secured his position as the uncontested patriarch of the first, ROMA, after murdering his brother Remus. Aeneas, however, whose lineage extends to Troy and whose odyssey Virgil recounts, was the founder of the second, AMOR. Machiavelli and Dante represented respective figureheads of these lineages in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the fact that Dante was exiled in Florence symbolises the fate of this line. In our extended conceit of comparison between Rome and modern science, having likened Galileo to Romulus, whom ought we to compare to Aeneas? Goethe, perhaps? In this respect, one could only compare Rudolf Steiner to Virgil, since the former was the first to explicate Goethe’s scientific endeavours, which otherwise had been forgotten.

[3] Quoted in E.A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, 79.

[4] The Goethean science movement offers on example of a direction for the future. See bibliography for references, especially works by Rudolf Steiner, Ernst Lehrs, and Henri Bortoft. Cf. Bortoft 1996:

The science [of Goethe] which belongs to the intuitive mind and the holistic mode of consciousness can reveal aspects of the phenomena of nature which must be invisible to the verbal-intellectual mind and the analytical mode of consciousness… To be able to see the other aspects there would need to be a transformation of science itself. But this needs a transformation of the scientist. The result of such a transformation would be a radical change in our awareness of the relationship between nature and ourselves. (115)

Lehrs also quotes the physicist Werner Heisenberg’s conclusion that, in spite of factitious construals of Goethe’s lack of scientific rigour, that the only thing that that privy counsellor of Weimar can really be faulted for is that he failed to take his retaliation against Newtonian science far enough.

[5] This was the title of an unfinished utopian novel by Bacon, which envisioned a civilisation under the banner of his manifold magna instauratio.

[6] Kant is perhaps the clearest exponent of the spirit of modern science, as the following excerpt from the Critique of Pure Reason testifies::

When Galileo caused balls, the weights of which he had himself previously determined, to roll down an inclined plane; when Torricelli made the air carry a weight which he had calculated beforehand to be equal to that of a definite column of water; or in more recent times, when Stahl changed metal into lime, and lime back into metal, by withdrawing something and then restoring it, a light broke upon all students of nature. They learned that reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own, and that it must not allow itself to be kept, as it were, in nature’s leading-strings, but must itself show the way with principles of judgment based upon fixed laws, constraining nature to give answer to questions of reason’s own determining. Accidental observations, made in obedience to no previously thought-out plan, can never be made to yield a necessary law, which alone reason is concerned to discover. Reason, holding in one hand its principles, according to which alone concordant appearances can be admitted as equivalent to laws, and in the other hand the experiment which it has devised in conformity with these principles, must approach nature in order to be taught by it. It must not, however, do so in the character of a pupil who listens to everything that the teacher chooses to say, but of an appointed judge who compels the witnesses to answer questions which he has himself formulated. Even physics, therefore, owes the beneficent revolution in its point of view entirely to the happy thought, that while reason must seek in nature, not fictitiously ascribe to it, whatever as not being knowable through reason’s own resources has to be learnt, if learnt at all, only from nature, it must adopt as its guide, in so seeking, that which it has itself put into nature. It is thus that the study of nature has entered on the secure path of a science, after having for so many centuries been nothing but a process of merely random groping. [Kritik, B xii ff. Kemp Smith’s translation.]


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