KARL JASPERS FORUM
UNDERSTANDING NATURE [Peter Dear]
by Herbert FJ Müller
11 March 2008, posted 15 March 2008
Richard Dawkins’ misleading question about the mind-independent reality (MIR) of God (see TA106) is typical for some difficulties which scientists (and philosophers of science) have when they try to discuss questions that cannot be treated within the conventional ontological-metaphysical frame of reference. This applies not only to topics like subjectivity (and consequently the mind-brain relation) and holistic experience like religion, but also to the understanding of nature as studied in objective natural science.
In a recent book on the understanding of nature, Peter Dear distinguishes between intelligibility (natural philosophy) and instrumentality of science. (Page numbers in the present note refer to this book.)
Aristotelian teleology was anthropomorphic, starting from subjective experience, then dealing first with living organisms, and extending from there to non-living matter. Everything had built-in goals, for instance bodies ‘possessed gravity’, thus ‘wanted to go down’.
In reaction against this view, and against the pervasive theism of the Middle Ages, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and others instead looked for clock-like causal mechanisms, though this was then still backed-up by an anthropomorphic but omnipotent protective God ‘who would not deceive us’.
The intelligibility of nature was promoted by natural philosophy and natural theology. Robert Boyle (physics, 17th century) understood natural philosophers as the ‘priests of nature’ (p.174). William Paley (theology, 1802) promoted a creationist view : if you find a watch on the ground you know it is not an accidental lump of matter but designed by someone, and by analogy that goes for all organisms too, who were designed by God (p.93). As a student, Darwin was quite impressed by Paley’s book.
Subsequently it was recognized that some of the concepts that are used to understand nature are to some degree exchangeable and perhaps arbitrary (Neo-Kantianism, Poincaré; p.175). The instrumental view became more fully developed with mathematical techniques that made it possible to formulate natural laws and to make predictions. Proof and truth in geometry is since Aristotle and Euclid based on consequences of ‘axioms’ that had previously been accepted as ‘expressing reality’. This can perhaps be understood as an instance of intelligibility within instrumentality. The latter became still more prominent in the 19th century. In discussions about quantum physics, Einstein defended a view in which nature is mind-independent against Bohr who insisted on the observer’s active role in creating knowledge about nature (p.163). More recently, some physicists give up on trying to find ‘reality’ in quantum physics, with the motto : ‘shut up and calculate’.
The difference between intelligibility and instrumentality which P Dear advocates is not entirely convincing, and apparently it is not accepted by everyone (except perhaps as two sides of the same coin). Instrumentality tends to be more emphasized in recent years (p.192), and also, it often develops into specialized and proprietary effort for practical and financial gain, for instance in genomics (p.176). Intelligibility, on the other hand, is a general human need, but it often seems to imply an erroneous search for ontology-metaphysics, i.e., a mind-independent ‘reality-in-itself’ (MIR).
Since Darwin, natural selection replaces God’s design, but it has resulted in a quasi-teleological mechanism just the same (p.180). Similarly the ‘anthropic’ cosmological principle means that inorganic as well as organic developments have been such as to result in the presence of ‘observers’, because otherwise nothing would be observed (p.181). In a traditional MIR-view, this may appear to amount to circular reasoning, or begging the question, because one tries to explain the development of life and consciousness, from which one starts, in MIR-objective terms. But in the subject-inclusive SE of the 0-D-structuring view it is an implicit and inevitable aspect of the epistemological situation : there is no such thing as MIR, and everybody is confined to the bubble of ongoing subjective experience.
Some specific factors in ‘understanding’ were discussed in C3 to TA96. As discussed above, there is a decreasing emphasis on anthropomorphic religion and an increase on practical handling. --- Visual-gestalt formations are implicitly taken to mean physical ‘reality’, particularly when re-inforced by words which are often implied to mean ‘authority’ (‘in the beginning was the word’). The often-mentioned ‘weirdness’ of quantum physics could reflect a malfunction of the gestalt view, despite its intuitiveness. --- In all these instances, the ‘understanding’ aspect refers to familiarity, either anthropomorphic or, more generally, to visual-gestalt entities. But to my knowledge no one has proven that gestalt-entities guarantee either MIR or reliability (see C3 to TA96 for details).
Further aspects can be found in C3 to TA97. For instance <7> : if one works with 4 dimensions and ascribes MIR-characteristics to them, it means that everything past present and future is of equal and mind-independent ‘reality’ (‘block-universe’), and free will disappears - this is not only very counter-intuitive but appears to be an MIR-belief produced artefact. --- For further discussion concerning understanding of entanglement and non-locality see <9>ff and end-notes of C3 to TA97.
As with the ‘God’ question, one may conclude that understanding and meaning are an ongoing task (see TA106).
The following is a puzzle (at least for me) about relativity and MIR (= ontology) which I have not seen discussed; but somebody must have thought about it in the past hundred years. If a light ray goes from left to right at speed c, and another from right to left at speed c, how fast do they move in relation to each other ? In an MIR-view they ought to meet at twice the speed of light (and Einstein was an ontologist). Or is perhaps c+c=c ? If on the other hand reality is always subject-inclusive (à la Bohr), the speed of light is that perceived by an observer, and then the question is nonsensical, because the rays don’t see each other; the problem disappears. (But : I can simultaneously see both rays with the help of mirrors. Does that affect the question ?) --- I would appreciate help from those who are more familiar with this kind of problem.
Dear Peter (2006), The Intelligibility of Nature. How Science makes sense of the World. Chicago : Univ of Chicago Press.
Herbert FJ Müller
e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>