TOWARDS A PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE
“Matter is an abstraction; we shall never be able to realise what it is, for our world of reality does not acknowledge it. Even the giant forces of the world, centripetal and centrifugal, are kept out of our recognition. They are the day-labourers not admitted into the audience-hall of creation. But light and sound come to us in their gay dresses as troubadours singing serenades before the windows of the senses. What is constantly before us, claiming our attention, is not the kitchen but the feast; not the anatomy of the world, but its countenance.”
RABINDRANATH TAGORE (Creative Unity).
“There is no more fundamental way in which reality inheres in anything finite than as an aspect of something which lies a step nearer to the absolutely real.”
G. N. M. TYRRELL (Grades of Significance).
After a survey of the data which natural science has accumulated, and the theories which it has advanced to correlate and understand them, the enquiring mind is always haunted by the questions “Why should these things be? What sort of a universe is it in which these data arise? Can they tell us anything of its nature, or what is our own relationship to it?” As soon as we try to answer these questions we enter the realm of philosophy. The humble scientist who approaches this territory seems to see the warning notice, “Enter these enchanted woods, you who dare”, and with something of the trepidation of the adventurous little boy who fears to meet a gamekeeper, he must tread softly and circumspectly.
That which can be said at the present stage of our enquiry is, in my view, very limited; for it will be the purpose of this book to show that the data of psychic research and mystical experience also demand consideration in any satisfactory philosophy of life.
I. THE WORLD OF PHYSICS AND THE WORLD OF
The plain man has no doubt that there is a real world outside him: a world of objects such as chairs and tables, rocks and trees and people, and a world of events such as cause him to hear a sound or see a flash of light. If he is asked whether his thoughts and feelings are also real, he will probably say, “Yes, but not in the same way, because they cannot be seen or heard or handled by people.” If the convenient distinction between objective and subjective were explained to him, he would probably be quite happy to accept a “real” world containing these two classes of objects: some of which existed outside himself, which everyone could verify, and of which he was not the creator, and others which existed within himself for which he was responsible. If we proceeded to ask him about his dreams or imaginations, he would probably become rather worried and wish to sub-divide the subjective realm into some things which were real and some which were not. Probably we should not elicit his views any further.
The ordinary non-philosophically-minded physicist or chemist considers that there is a real world outside himself composed of matter and energy. These two things he probably regards as different forms of one and the same thing; for he is aware that matter can be transformed into energy and that there is a quantitative relationship between them. Matter, he says, is constructed from ninety-two different kinds of atoms, and these in turn are constructed from protons and electrons—arranged in different ways. All things, he would say, are built up from these positive and negative charges in rapid motion and the radiation-energy they emit and absorb.
If he is asked how he reconciles this picture with the plain man’s world of colours, smells, tastes, etc. (which certainly electrons and protons do not themselves possess), he probably says these qualities are created and bestowed upon the outside world by the observer’s mind. He regards the objective reality as the scientist’s world, and when this impinges through the special senses upon the observer’s mind, he derives the plain man’s world of colours, tastes, smells, temperatures, etc.—which he would say is obviously subjective.
The more critically-minded scientist is, I think, in a state of bewilderment. Sometimes he is disposed to regard the plain man’s world of colours, tastes, smells, etc., as subjective, created by the Mind, and thus a world of appearance only. In this case he reasonably asks why the minds of men make that particular choice of qualities which in fact they do, with which to endow the world.
The range of creative choice is very wide: why these particular qualities? Moreover, once postulate that the Mind creates and endows the world of appearance and we must naturally feel anxious to know the limits of this kind of activity, and the governing conditions—if we are ever to find Truth. Sometimes, on the other hand, he is disposed to regard the observer’s mind as selective, not creative. This view seems persuasive when we reflect upon the extent to which the world of appearance changes with the power and range of the instruments (including the special senses) used to survey it. We amplified this in Chapter 2 (4). On this view, then, there must be a background which is more comprehensive than the world of appearance, the latter being derived from this background by the selectivity of the special senses. We used earlier the simile of Mind as a prisoner in a round tower only able to view the outside through five slits. On such a view we have to decide what is the nature of this background from which all these properties of colour, taste, touch and smell are selected. Obviously it is not material in the form of protons, electrons and energy: presumably it is of the nature of mind.
When we ask the more critically-minded scientist what status and significance he attaches to the physicist’s world-picture of protons and electrons, we shall find, I think, that he is equally uncertain. If he takes the first of the above views—that the mind is creative of the plain man’s world, which is thus subjective—he naturally regards the physicist’s world as the objective basis of it and in some sense real. There then arise to haunt him the strange discoveries of recent physics referred to in the Appendix. The “objective” bricks of the physicist’s world have not turned out to be the straight forward particles they were once pictured. They sometimes appear to behave like waves. They seem elusive in space and time, and leading physicists like Heisenberg long ago abandoned objective mechanical models of atoms, electrons, protons, etc. They are content to take the metrical data of the world and correlate them mathematically. The terms “electron” “proton”, etc., are thus regarded as symbols only—perhaps reflections of something which exists in a more real background. Thus we have left behind the objectivity of the physicist’s world. It looks as though it, too, is selected from a background by the mind and is to this extent another subjective world. We seem, then, to have two worlds of appearance: the plain man’s world, and the physicist’s world, both derived from some more comprehensive background by the selectivity of the special senses and mind. The qualitative selection gives the plain man’s world, and the quantitative selection gives the physicist’s world.
Such a view leaves unanswered some fundamental questions:
What is the nature and status of this background?
What is its relation to the world of values?
What determines the particular selectivity of Mind, both qualitative and quantitative?
Before we attempt to answer such questions, let us ask the philosopher what he has to say about the physicist’s world and the plain man’s world. This question, in fact, is a particular form of one of his major problems: the nature of knowledge. If he understood fully what was involved in the statement “I see a table”, half his problems would be solved. Most philosophers, I think, agree that what we experience every day through the use of our senses are not so-called physical objects, such as chairs and tables, but are sense-data. They are such things as patches of contrasting colour, sounds, smells, sensations of resistance to touch, etc. Such sense-data may lead us to infer something which we call a physical object as the source of them, but it seems quite clear that we must not regard our collection of sense-data as identical with this external “something”. Joad,1 for example, says, “The notion of a persistent physical object is logically no more than a hypothesis to explain the fact that the objects of a number of perceptual situations can be correlated”. Joad is not apparently able to go farther than to say,
“The direct apprehension of a sense-datum causes the apprehender to think of a physical object”.
As an algebraic expression is deduced from, and is a summary of, a large number of numerical data, so the object postulated is a deduction from, and a summary of, the sense-data which are all that we really know. This object, supposed to be in the outside world, might quite conceivably be of the nature of mind, and not crudely physical at all. I think we must admit logically we cannot directly know anything of its inherent properties. All we really perceive are the sense-data, and because other people in the same neighbourhood, as far as we can determine, have approximately similar sense-data, it seems reasonable to postulate some object of common reference, apart from the individual observers.
Similarly, scientific objects such as electrons and protons are not directly apprehended as parts of the physical world; our supposition as to their existence is an inference wholly based on a selection of sense-data (Eddington’s “pointer-readings”). They have, in other words, the same relation to sense-data and the same status as the supposed “physical objects”. Joad definitely holds that gathering knowledge is a process of revelation and not of construction; that the mind’s function is in this respect like a searchlight’s, which is to reveal what is there. He does not consider that either the so-called “physical” objects or scientific objects are mental constructions, but considers them as elements in a “subsistent world” which the mind is able to apprehend directly just as it is able to apprehend sense-data directly. It is the world of sense-data alone which Joad considers should be called the physical world. The subsistent world is considered to be composed of the objects which we know otherwise than in sensory experience. It is the world which the mind apprehends in thinking, whether in judging or imagining. It is the world of “objects of thought” a world of which minds become aware when they reach a certain stage of evolutionary development. Thus animals and babies may be supposed aware of sense-data only; men and perhaps some higher animals become aware of this “subsistent” world. More advanced types of men, such as artists, become aware, beyond this subsistent world, of objects of value.
With apologies to the reader who prefers the symbols of language to those of geometry, the appended diagram may convey a hint of these relationships.
The conical round tower is the individual mind, which, as it evolves, is pictured as rising through three orders of existence. The lowest stratum is that of all conceivable sense-data: the physical world such as it might appear to a creature with an infinite range of senses. The worlds of actual appearance are selected by the five slits symbolising the special senses.
If it be asked what determines the particular selectivity which is in fact made—why, for example, there are five senses, instead of four or six; why the eye only responds to a certain narrow range of colours; why of all possible values for the velocity of light it should be 300,000 kilometres a second, and of all possible values for Planck’s constant it should be just 6∙55 X 10-27 erg-sec. and not otherwise, no answer seems within reach. I am not sure that they are wholly reasonable questions. If one plays a game, it is reasonable enough to ask what is its aim and purpose; but not why the rules are just as they are, and not otherwise. It is only within these rules that this game can be played, and only within the framework of some rules that any game can be played. So it is only within the framework of some limitation that the individual can arise: this at least is clear.
Moreover, we have seen that the whole evolutionary trend is towards increasing awareness—an awareness of objects of increasing significance. This is important and satisfying knowledge, though its full import lies far beyond the confines of the world which science has explored.
2. LIMITATIONS OF THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
A most remarkable change of outlook has marked the thought of leaders of science in the last half-century. Up to the end of the nineteenth century science was prepared to describe itself as “organised common sense”. The plain man and the physicist both accepted their environment substantially at its face value as real, substantial and mechanical, nor were they troubled by the speculations of philosophers, which they regarded as belonging to a world apart from theirs. Then came a period of intense study of the atom, and the architecture of atoms and molecules was built up on the newly discovered fundamental particles—electrons, protons and neutrons.
Up to this point, science had taken pride in its objectivity: its truths had been rooted in the external world, and were not dependent on any observer. From then onwards the first doubts began to arise, for manifestly the plain man’s world contained data of colour, smell, hardness, etc., which the fundamental particles could not be supposed to possess. Moreover, relativity had found it necessary to bring the observer into the picture, to account for large-scale phenomena. It was still, however, supposed that mechanism, in terms of which large-scale phenomena were understood, was also the basis of the atomic order. The difference was presumed to be one of scale only. Then at last came the shattering blow to mechanism.
The fundamental “particles” proved not to be particles at all in any ordinary sense: sometimes, in fact, they behaved like waves.
Space and Time—valuable and useful concepts in the plain man’s world—became elusive concepts in the microcosm. The very objectivity of the fundamental “particles” became open to question, and they were spoken of as “shadows” or “symbols”: reality was elsewhere. No change of outlook could be more complete, and Joad 2 in surveying this speaks of the “all-fours” attitude to various forms of human experience which it is now proper to adopt.
“Conscious experience takes many forms. Of these one is the consciousness of the scientist. ... If this is in essence revelatory, and introduces us to an external reality of objective things, a similar claim must be conceded in respect of the religious and aesthetic consciousness. ... If the worlds of art and religion are subjective, mere externalisations of our minds and projections of our wishes, so too, may be the world of science. The claims of each to reveal to us an objective world must in fact be treated on merits.”
Eddington 3 expresses the same idea in the following sentence:
“Physical Science has limited its scope so as to leave a background which we are at liberty to, or even invited to, fill with a reality of spiritual import.”
Apart from its now-recognised limitation of scope, there is another limitation inherent in scientific method, which it is important not to overlook. This limitation arises from the fact that the method of science is essentially analytical: finding out more and more about less and less. It has been expressed by different thinkers in different terms. J. C. Smuts expresses it in his philosophy of Holism, and G. N. M. Tyrrell in his book Grades of Significance.
Consider our scientific methods of studying anything—say, a piece of country. The surveyor using his instruments could prepare an accurate map of surface relationships and heights. The agricultural expert could give us a map of cultivation and soil-properties. The geologist with a different technique could give us another map with quite different information. An artist using very different methods might present to us pictures of the country which stirred our emotions. Each method gives us its own aspect of the truth about the country. It is reliable as far as it goes, but it is an abstraction from the reality itself. If you went to live in this countryside you would realise its essential nature far more vividly and completely than from a study of all the maps, pictures and guidebooks. Yet you could never know it fully; for the reality is more than the sum of all the knowledge which can be gathered about it. No abstract knowledge, nor the sum of all such knowledge, can ever convey the fullness of immediate experience. It is probable that the measure of sympathetic identification achieved by a poet 4 when he can write, “It is I who bloom in flowers, spread in the grass, flow in the water, scintillate in the stars, live in the lives of men of all ages”, is as profound an understanding as can be achieved.
Every science is analytical in its character, and according to its type of technique and its instruments of analysis it sifts out knowledge. Thus in the study of Man, anatomy studies his bodily structures; histology studies these tissues under the microscope; physiology studies the modes of functioning; biochemistry studies the chemical processes involved; psychology studies his mental processes, and so forth. Each of these methods of study presents doubtless an accurate, but certainly only a very partial, aspect of Man. When you have made a complete study of all the sciences of Man, there is still something of the utmost significance missing. It is that which constitutes individuality—which makes one man different from another—and makes for the richness of human friendship. The experience of being man gives you something which the sum of all scientific study could never provide.
The method of scientific study is to abstract from the whole a certain type of data. As someone has said: “Each science is like a net which catches a certain type of fish and allows other kinds to slip through.” In thus isolating data, and making an increasingly minute study of smaller parts, we need to realise that we may be progressively leaving something out: something which depends on the relationship of the parts and may be of great significance. A work of art is an example of this. You could remove from a canvas all the red pigment, then the blue, then the yellow, the green, and so on, and by chemical analysis you might come to learn a lot about pigments—but that which gave aesthetic pleasure has vanished with the disturbed relationship of the pigments. The picture was much more than the sum of the pigments: they were all there on the palette beforehand, but the significant relationship was then absent.
Take a simple example from chemistry. We know that the ninety-two different chemical elements are constructed from various arrangements of the three fundamental particles, electrons, protons and neutrons. The number and relationships of these determine all the variety of properties known in the chemical elements: a fact so familiar that we do not find it surprising. We know the properties of sodium, a soft, shiny-looking metal which tarnishes easily and reacts violently with water. We know the properties of chlorine, a faint greenish-yellow gas with a pungent odour. No one could have predicted from this the properties of a molecule of sodium chloride—common salt. These two atoms placed in a close relationship form a new whole, with properties that do not inhere in either of the individual atoms. Millions of cells may form organs, and a complex of organs may form an organism. As larger wholes are formed, some new properties emerge because of the new relationships involved. These new properties are not deducible as the sum of the properties of the component parts. This is the essence of J. C. Smuts’ philosophy of “Holism”—a philosophy of “wholes”.
It is important to keep in mind, when we are studying some part or aspect of a large whole, that we may have no inkling from our study of the parts of the potentialities of the whole. Some of the surprising faculties of Man as a functioning being are very unlike anything which might be guessed or predicted from these partial studies. They may derive, in fact, from the relationships between different parts of his very complex structure (see Chapter 12).
The study of selected aspects, and the analytical methods which characterise the sciences, are very reminiscent of our own self’s selective relationship, which we depicted in the diagram of the round tower. It is as though within it there are miniature round towers—the scientific techniques—each selecting its own type of sense-data for study. The limitations of the knowledge which each of these isolates bears to the greater whole something of the relationship of our restricted world of sense-data to the vast world of which we regarded it as a selected part. In studying Man as a functioning whole, those of us who are trained in the partial disciplines of science should bear in mind the unpredictable properties of wholes. We should be prepared to expect the unexpected—and we shall not be disappointed.
3. GRADES OF SIGNIFICANCE
In a book with this title,5 G. N. M. Tyrrell has made a different approach to the same theme. These ideas are so important (being, indeed, a key to understanding in all fields of enquiry), and Tyrrell’s method of approach is so persuasive, that we shall here present a very brief summary of them. He points out that all things and all events can be regarded as existing on various grades of significance, and the measure of significance which they possess for the apprehending mind depends on the latter’s development. To an animal a book would be a coloured shape; to a savage it might be, in addition, a collection of a lot of black marks curiously arranged on the paper.
An intelligent savage who did not know anything of writing might investigate the symbols and discover by patient classification and analysis the external laws of ordering and using these symbols. To an educated man the book conveys meanings and ideas, a concept which our analytically-minded savage would find difficult to grasp. His facts belong to a lower significant grade, and from that level of significance the higher man’s view that the book expressed meanings would seem fanciful and mystical.
A human being may be a collection of interesting physic-chemical processes to a physiologist, a complex assembly of behaviour patterns to a psychologist, a useful servant to an employer, a lovable person to a friend, a focus of infinite spiritual possibilities to the sage. He is what the observer has the capacity to see in him. What he is seen to be is a measure of the observer’s degree of development.. A poet has truly said, “Who worships greatness passing by, himself is great”. Understanding or true knowledge is always a function of being.
This general principle is relevant to the philosophical questions we have been discussing. When the plain man and the physicist look at the world, they see different aspects, because they occupy different observation points. It is not that one view is truer or profounder than the other: both views are partial and alike abstracted from reality. They are both apprehensions of the world on approximately the same level of significance—the intellectual level, which is only one level among many. As Tyrrell says.
“Understanding is knowing on one definite grade of significance, and it is on this account that intellectual concepts are all abstractions. This is also the reason why knowledge intellectually gained is so clear and precise—so satisfactory to the tidy mind; so unsatisfactory to the mind that hungers for meanings.”
The plain man’s world and the physicist’s world (X in our diagram of the round tower) are not regarded as illusions, but as having a degree of reality arising from the fact that they are aspects of something which is more real. It is on this deeper level (Y in our diagram) that the more real essences of things are supposed to exist, and that all perception really takes place. Perception of physical objects does not take place on the physical level by means of physical organs such as eye, ear, nose and touch. The human body and its sense-organs are themselves aspects of something else—of the more real person lying beneath. Objects, events, processes—all that we project on to an external world are conceived as shadows or aspects of underlying realities, and the more real activities and relationships are located there. The more fundamental phenomena take place on level Y, but we, as incarnate beings, project them on to the level of greater separateness X, which we call the physical world.
The common sense picture of the world is adequate for the ordinary business of living, but as soon as we want to know meanings, we have got to approach on a higher level of significance, and then we discover a world very unlike the familiar one—a world of which the latter is only a partial aspect. As we have seen, X is a shadow or an aspect of Y; likewise we may assume Y is a shadow or an aspect of Z, and so on. We may regard existence as stratified —i.e., as realisable on different grades of significance. It is the recognition of this which gave rise to the Eastern doctrine of Maya, often glibly interpreted by the West as “All is illusion”. From the viewpoint of a higher grade of significance, a lower grade of interpretation is seen to be so inadequate and partial and lacking in knowledge of the larger whole, that although it is undesirable to do so, it scarcely seems an injustice to call it “illusion”.
From the viewpoint of a lower grade of significance, the very existence of any higher grade may be unrecognised, and even to postulate it may seem imaginative or mystical.
This general standpoint indicates the inherent limitations present in any type of enquiry. Natural Science has ordered and classified and correlated data on one level of significance: the physical level or level of sense-data. For long its leaders believed that they were studying a self-contained objective field, with no direct connection with the observing minds; now they recognise this is not so. They have not, however, yet come to recognise, what from our standpoint is apparent, that the continuous pursuit of physical data, their further ordering and correlation, cannot ever hope to provide answers to the profounder questions of “Why” and “Wherefore”. To answer these, and so fully to understand the physical world, we must penetrate into and interpret from a higher significant grade. The next higher significant grade is found, we venture to think, in the field of psychical research. This complex field, which we may find it necessary to subdivide, ranges between the physical on the one hand, and the mental on the other. It holds, we believe—although our knowledge of it is only elementary as yet—the clues to a full understanding of the physical world, and it becomes therefore our immediate field of enquiry in the following section of this book.
“TOWARDS A PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE” is an extract from The Imprisoned Splendour by Raynor Johnson.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published February 2013
Size: 229 x 152 mm