All Science Must Be Rooted in Experience
This is a preliminary draft of one chapter of a book-in-progress
tentatively entitled, “Evolution As It Was Meant To Be — And the Living Narratives That Tell Its Story”.
You will find
a fairly lengthy article serving as a kind of extended abstract of major
parts of the book. This material is part of the
Biology Worthy of Life
Project. Copyright 2017-2021
The Nature Institute.
All rights reserved. Original publication: April 16, 2020.
Last revision: April 21, 2020.
In previous chapters we have seen how organisms, as centered agents,
present us with rich,
contexts — mortal performances that proceed, with characteristic
expressiveness and intention, through the stages of a life drama unique to
a particular species. And yet, as we have also seen, a powerful urge
drives biologists to ignore, as far as they can, every living
feature of those performances.
They ignore, for example, what it must really mean when they say that
animals “strive” to maintain their life, or that a wound “heals” itself,
or that an organism “adapts” to its environment, or that it “perceives” a
threat and “responds” to it. (Physical objects in general — stones,
clouds, and dust storms — do not strive, heal, adapt, perceive, or
respond.) But it is all too easy for any scientist to side-step such
meanings and analyze the organism’s story into lifeless sequences of
precisely lawful molecular interactions. And since there appear to be no
gaps in the molecular-level picture, the resulting explanations seem
complete. Only the organism is missing.
In other words, seamless as they may be in their own impoverished terms,
such explanations are not in fact complete. They miss the simply observed
fact that molecular-level interactions in an organism are always caught up
in, and governed by, the higher-level pattern of a life story. We always
find ourselves watching the meaningful coordination of causal processes
in an extended
— an end-directed coordination that cannot be explained by the processes
being coordinated. This is why explanations that never move beyond
physics and chemistry stop short of biology.
Non-living explanations do, however, have one advantage: they conveniently
avoid all those troublesome words I use throughout this book in discussing
organic contexts and life stories — words such as intention and
purposiveness, idea and thought, agency and
end-directedness, interests and meaning. Most
biologists prefer to have nothing to do with such
One problem with those words is that they evoke features of our own inner
lives — our human experience. It is, of course, healthy to avoid
an anthropomorphic projection of human experience upon other organisms,
where it does not belong. But we, too, are organisms, and we have good
reason to ask: Where does living human awareness belong in our
biological science? If we ignore the character of our own life and
experience, can we fully understand a world that has been capable of
producing us? Where can we gain our scientific ideas, if they are
not empirical — if they are not expressions of our most rigorously
considered experience? And can we reasonably assume that our own
experience has nothing at all in common with that of our evolutionary
Perhaps first of all we need to ask what is meant when we refer in this
way to our own experience.
but indivisible aspects
of human experience
It is clear enough — trivially clear, it seems — that we cannot conceive
any material phenomenon, or any reality at all, that is inconceivable. If
an object or phenomenon did not lend itself to our conceptualizing — if
its true nature could not be captured in thought — we would never know it
because we would not even be able to think it. If we cannot conceive
something, it cannot appear as a definite and coherent fact of our
experience. Either the world’s character is at least partly given in
thought, or else it is alien to our understanding.
Some things are so obvious and foundational that we easily forget them in
our quest for new knowledge. The fundamental role of thinking in all our
understanding may be one such thing.
But our conceptualizing or thinking capacity is only one of the
contributors to our experience, and therefore to an empirical science.
Our senses also contribute. And here, too, we can say that, without the
qualities of sense, we have no material world to talk about. If you open
yourself to any phenomenon whatever and then (in imagination) remove all
sensible qualities from it — all the given colors, sounds, touch
sensations, smells, and so on — nothing will be left. You are confronting
an absolute void.
Not even the most rigorous mathematics can give us a world, since nothing
in mathematical thought itself tells us what the mathematics is about. We
must apply the mathematics to sensible experience if we want to see
how it is embodied in material reality. But the same applies to all
thinking, not just to the purely quantitative ideas of mathematics: only
by bringing our thought into relation with what comes through our senses
do we find the world taking shape around us. This is a key idea that we
will flesh out below.
There seems to be no basis for assigning priority either to our sensing or
our thinking. These are two aspects of a single reality, and their
separation in human experience is an aspect of the structure of our being
as cognitive agents. This structure, we will see in
has changed over the course of human evolution.
For the moment, it is enough to ask ourselves: Do we have any knowledge of
the material world that is not a marriage of sense and
It will not require much work to realize that the answer is “No”.
of thought, we
have only chaos
Many of us (especially as we grow older) have had the experience of
“losing our bearings” while driving or riding in normally familiar
territory. Suddenly a powerful sense of disorientation takes hold of us,
and the entire landscape becomes a disconcerting question mark. For a
moment we have no sense for where are are or where we are headed, so that
our usual feeling of comfort with our surroundings is lost. The confusion
that sets in, however short-lasting, is one of profound lostness. The
connections linking where we are at the moment to a wider, coherent
context have gone missing. The conceptual map through which we grasp the
meaningful arrangement of the larger landscape is no longer anchored to
our current location.
One might think that the problem here applies only to matters of spatial
location. After all, when I become disoriented while driving, all the
particular objects around me — houses, trees, road surfaces, animals —
continue to make perfectly natural sense. My disorientation applies only
to one aspect of my environment.
But the fact is that those other aspects also depend on the thinking that
weaves parts into a meaningful whole — not only spatially, but also, for
Suppose I were to lose all conceptual grasp of the relations governing the
scene outside the window where I am now writing — a scene with a white
pine tree standing just a few meters beyond my desk. I would then have no
more reason to connect the particular branch I am now looking at with the
trunk of the tree than I would have for connecting it with the contiguous
patch of blue sky. The idea that the sky is up there while the
tree is here, or that the pressure of the wind against the branches
is responsible for their waving, or that the roots in the ground provide
mechanical strength in support of the tree’s uprightness, or that the
entire tree as an integral unity is growing — these would no longer
serve to hold the tree together in my understanding as the unitary kind of
thing, or being, it really is.
The unformed content of sense perception is something we presumably never
experience as such — because it is not yet experience. It assumes
meaningful form only so far as it is informed by thought. In routine
perception, this informing is already accomplished before we are aware of
it. Through long training, our senses are educated by our thinking, so
that we do not need to reflect over and over again upon familiar elements
of our experience
We can see this more clearly when we consider cases where the normal
education of the senses has been partly lacking.
We do not see with our eyes alone
It can be hard for us to recognize all the thinking that is woven into our
perceptual experience, much of it originating far back in childhood. But
there are now well-studied cases where some aspects of the usual marriage
of sense and thought never occurred in the first place — not until
adulthood. I have in mind those individuals, born blind, who were much
later given sight through
Here, from a different angle, we find vivid evidence for the insufficiency
of “mere” sense impressions, and for the role of thinking in giving us
lucid, intelligible experience of the world.
The British neuropsychologist, R. L. Gregory describes the case of “S.B.”,
who received donated corneas to replace his own congenitally opaque ones
at age fifty-two. After the operation, when bandages were removed from
he heard the voice of the surgeon. He turned to the voice, and saw nothing
but a blur. He realised that this must be a face, because of the voice,
but he could not see it. He did not suddenly see the world of objects as
we do when we open our eyes.
He made progress while still in the hospital, but it all involved learning
how to understand what he was looking at so as to bring it to
coherent and meaningful form. He judged that he could hang from the
window ledge of his room with his feet touching the ground when the
distance was in fact at least ten times his own height. When, on the
other hand, he had had previous touch experience with objects, he could
estimate visual distances much more realistically.
S.B., like many such patients, found it stressful to adjust to his new
powers of sight. For example, he had difficulty “in trusting and coming
to use his vision when crossing a busy road”:
Before the operation he was undaunted by traffic. We were told that
previously he would cross roads alone, holding his arm or his stick
stubbornly before him, when the traffic would subside as the waters before
Christ. But after the operation it took two of us, on either side, to
force him across: he was terrified, as never before in his life.
Following his operation, S.B. fell into an increasingly deep depression.
Making sense of things was hard work, and he would often prefer to
encounter new objects with the familiar sense of touch alone. “Some of
these people”, Gregory writes, “revert very soon to living without light,
making no attempt to see. S.B. would often not trouble to turn on the
light in the evening, but would sit in darkness.” Over time “he gradually
gave up active living, and three years later he died.”
(Gregory 1978, pp. 193-8).
Such cases highlight for us the extent of work required to make rational
sense of the unformed content supplied by our senses. This depends a
great deal on the availability of relevant prior experience — that is,
experience that results from already having made sense of prior
perceptions. But the unnatural work of suddenly having to cope in
adulthood with an overwhelming mass of unfamiliar sensations so as to find
the connecting thoughts that form them into a coherent and satisfying
picture can clearly prove exhausting.
How do things around us become what they are?
We have all been exposed to so-called ambiguous figures — images cunningly
contrived like those of
so that they can come to meaningful appearance with the aid of at least
two altogether different and conflicting conceptions of their governing
relations. While the “image on our retinas” remains the same, the way we
think the image makes a huge difference in what we see.
This usefully draws attention to how we must participate with our
thinking in the appearance if in fact its potentials as an actual
phenomenon are to be realized. However, the fact that the ambiguous
figure allows different interpretations does not mean that the
contribution of thought is arbitrary or merely subjective. If we try to
think the Necker cube with the idea of a sphere, we will not come to a
meaningful image. Our thoughts must be those already implicit in the
sensible aspect of the appearance. The sensible aspect, in other words,
is already informed by thought, if only in potential.
Ambiguous figures are an unusual case. What remains true even in the more
general case of great art is that we can always deepen our thoughtful
understanding of it. Anyone as artistically unaware as the present writer
may have the experience of hearing an art historian lecture about a
particular painting or a particular cultural tradition of painting, and
then find that he looks at certain works with newly and refreshingly
informed eyes. The picture he sees now is not the same one he saw before.
But this is true also of natural scenes.
Confronted by a violent thunderstorm, Stone Age man did not actually
see the same atmospheric phenomenon we see today. Our “art
lecturer” in this case has been the scientist, whose conceptualizations
have been assimilated by the entire culture of the last few hundred years.
The lecture has ceaselessly entered our ears through the words and
meanings we have learned from infancy onward. We see with the perceptual
and conceptual resources of our own era. (As for Stone Age man and
ourselves, it may be that we both miss important aspects of the
thunderstorm. But that is a point for
I would be saying nothing unusual if I were to contend that we have no
theories except by virtue of the thinking that constitutes them as
what they are. It is a vastly more difficult matter, however, to realize,
as we surely must, that we have no things to theorize about in the
first place except by virtue of the thinking that constitutes them as what
they are. So if we are content merely to accept things as given, then
before we even begin our scientific work, we have already committed
ourselves to the particular, culturally dependent thoughts that bring to
appearance the objects and phenomena currently available to our scientific
There remains the question, then: “How adequate are the thoughts through
which our natural surroundings have gained whatever meaningful form they
now have for us?” Every bit of nature can be seen more or less
profoundly, with deep insight or a superficial glance; with an intense,
trained perception, or a lazy attention that merely glides over surfaces;
with loving, qualitative detail or with remote abstraction. We may not
easily misconceive a cube as a sphere, but we can be content to see
far less of the world than is actually available to a more penetrating
vision. From force of habit we of the past few centuries may, for
example, see merely “mindless objects”, despite the fact that it is our
own, culturally informed minds through which the objects come to the only
appearance we are given.
Recognizing the element of our own thinking in the data of science would
seem to be a prerequisite for any rigorous scientific understanding.
Do we really want an empirical science?
Thinking is already present in the only phenomena available to scientific
investigation: this is one of those fundamental truths — easily recognized
yet widely ignored — that can change everything. It tells us something
about how intimately we as thinking beings are woven into the universe
that brought us, along with our thinking, into existence. Or, in the
lower-level context of the preceding chapters: it reminds us how
intimately the world’s wisdom has been woven into the directed molecular
activity through which our bodies, including our brains, have been formed
But, important as thinking is, it cannot by itself give us a world. There
is also the “something” that thinking illuminates — the unformed contents
provided by our senses. If, as we saw above, our senses cannot give us
identifiable or nameable or recognizable things without first being
informed by thinking, neither can thinking give us any such things
without there first existing a sensible content capable of being so
A new kind of attention to the senses was the glory of the Scientific
Revolution — a revolution that was in part a reaction against the
untethered intellectual flights of the medieval doctors. The pioneers of
modern science sought to bring their thinking into disciplined connection
with careful observation and manipulation of the world around them. Thus
was born the ideal of an empirical science — a science of practical
experience rather than speculation. To this day the ideal remains
sacrosanct among scientists.
But here a curious contradiction emerges. For, the ideal is directly
belied by an entrenched conviction (elaborated in the following section)
that human sense experience is irreducibly subjective and illusory. If
this is true, how is an empirical science supposed to give us an objective
understanding of the world? Doubt on this score has been met by an ever
greater reliance on the extremely thin “experience” of instrument dials,
gauges, and read-outs.
The idea behind this reliance is that the quantitative rigor and
sensitivity of the instruments can compensate for the limitations of the
human senses. But whatever those limitations might be, the senses are
what give us access to the world. Numbers are not material entities.
They are conceptual, and the fact remains that thinking alone — including,
as I have already indicated, mathematical thinking — cannot give us a
world. We must apply the mathematics to sensible experience if we
want it to tell us something about material reality. Where are we to gain
that experience (so as to have actual things to talk scientifically
about), if not through our supposedly unreliable senses?
Our contradictory attitude toward human experience — hailing it as the
foundation of any true science, while denigrating it as the source of
confusing subjectivity — has long been an open wound in the body of
science. Yet the issue is rarely given thought by the working scientist.
Philosophers, meanwhile, continue scratching at the wound as they have for
the past few centuries, to little avail.
Nevertheless, the entire problem, having been falsely posed, can be simply
Our senses can
never deceive us
Who has not heard the various clichés about how our senses “lie” to us.
Try immersing one hand in a bowl of hot water, and the other in a bowl of
crushed ice, holding them there for a while. Then remove them both and
place them together in lukewarm water. Initially, one hand will feel the
water as cool and the other as warm. So goes the “proof” that the felt
qualities of things are subjective and misleading compared to the
objective report of a thermometer.
The conclusion is wrong. If you follow an identical procedure with two
thermometers, you get a similar result: the two columns of mercury
initially show different temperatures. Over time they move in opposite
directions until, as happens with our hands, equilibrium is reached. Nor
does hand or thermometer offer false reports during the period of
adjustment. At every moment the reading correctly reflects the changing
relations between water and measuring instrument. Such relations
must be grasped in thought, which is the only way we ever make sense of
How many school children have been given an experience of these bowls of
water! And how many have learned the lesson that their experience is
worthless and deceptive! All the better, I suppose, to prepare them for
further misconceptions of the sort we will now consider.
Earth and sun
Another classic example of our “lying” senses has to do with an appearance
we witness every day: it looks, we are told, as if the sun goes
around the earth, not as if the earth is rotating. In his play,
Jumpers, Tom Stoppard skewered this particular claim by having one
of his characters ask: "Well, what would it have looked like if it had
looked as if the earth was rotating?"
Surely it should look exactly as it does look; any other
appearance would have been false to the fact of rotation. It’s just that
we have to employ our thinking in order to make sense of any
appearance. Once we grasp this truth, we cannot help realizing how wrong
it is to declare the appearances from earth to be false. We are free to
take up any vantage point we choose. Copernicus chose to look, in
imagination, from the vantage point of the sun. This was a decisively
important step. But surely we have no more right to absolutize that
perspective than we do the one from earth. The heliocentric view is as
"parochial" as the geocentric view compared, say, to a galactocentric
view, where neither the earth nor the sun would appear to circle
Scientists, in their research, do in fact routinely employ purely local
coordinate systems for their immediate purposes wherever they happen to be
on earth. And neither they nor the rest of us have any particular
difficulty holding all the various possible perspectives harmoniously
together. When standing in a group around a tree, we all perceive the
same tree, even if no two of us see exactly the “same” image of it. Our
senses must be informed by our thinking. Only then does a coherent
appearance — as opposed to a chaotic aggregation of disconnected sense
impressions — present itself.
The atom and beyond
Here is another scientifically sanctioned “old wives’ tale”, taken from a
PBS television special written by science journalist, Timothy Ferris:
The baseball and the bat are mostly empty space. Their solidity is an
illusion created by the electromagnetic force field that binds their atoms
together … We credit the home run to the batter, but the
fundamental force responsible is electromagnetism.
The picture we are invited to contemplate is one of atoms. Each atom
consists of minuscule particles packed into an infinitesimally small
nucleus. Added to these are even more minute electrons traversing
enormous tracts of empty space as they orbit the nucleus at a vast
distance. It is, we are told, the electromagnetic force binding the
electrons to the atomic nucleus that deludes us into losing sight of all
that empty space comprising nearly the whole of the individual atom and,
all the more, the huge collection of atoms in the bat and ball.
But notice: “empty space” gains meaning here only when we picture the
nucleus and the orbiting electrons as a collection of nicely solid
particles — solid like little space-occupying bits of the actually
experienced world. We are then supposed to contrast these particles in
our minds with the great expanses occupied by no particles at all.
But this is the picture that physicists labored throughout much of the
twentieth-century to eradicate from our imaginations. For good reason:
they well know that the “particles” of atomic theory do not exist — not as
bits of material stuff we can contrast with empty space, nor even as the
“wave-packets” that are sometimes substituted for the particles. The only
“material stuff” we are given in the universe is the sensible
content of our
Look what is happening here. Ferris is trying to get us to doubt our
perception of the material world. Yet he is doing so by asking us to
imagine little bits of material stuff in the imperceptible atom. So,
rather than discrediting our perception, he is in fact illustrating the
impossibility of imagining a world without the contents of perception.
The only illusion is on his part: he is projecting the contents of
perception into a theory-laden, falsely imagined, submicroscopic realm
where in fact no perceptible content is given to us.
To reinforce the point, listen to neuroscientist and philosopher, Paul
Churchland, assuring us that our various forms of observation — sight,
hearing, touch, and so on — are not to be trusted:
The red surface of an apple does not look like a matrix of
molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wavelengths, but that is
what it is.
(Churchland 1988, p. 15)
Our senses, in other words, are said to fail us because they do not show
us the red surface of the apple as “really” consisting of unimaginably
small “billiard balls” reflecting each other and being reflected. And so,
again, apart from such sense-based imagery — the very thing that physics
today forbids us from projecting into atomic theory — Churchland’s
argument would be wholly unpersuasive.
The point is decisive, and bears repeating. Only by picturing particles
(or waves) as little bits of the qualitatively experienced world can the
reader fill in Churchland’s description in a way that makes it sound
meaningful. But this sensible perception of the world’s qualities is
exactly what Churchland is trying to dismiss. While telling us that the
familiar qualities of the world are illusions, he invites us to project
these same qualities into the sub-microscopic realm. That realm then
becomes proof that the familiar qualities aren’t to be taken seriously.
Apparently sensory qualities, such as the firmness and solidity of small
bits of reflectable matter, are illusions here (where we can
experience them), but real there (where we
The moral of the story? Even when we are trying to talk about a world
without the qualities of our senses, we end up talking about the qualities
of our senses — but in a nonsensical way.
Our “missing” bat sense
One last example. Those who disparage our experience love to point to
creatures who perceive things we cannot. Wouldn’t we live in a different
reality if, say, we had the infrared vision of some snakes or the “sonar”
(echolocation) sense of a bat? Of course we would — but only in the way
those of us who are deaf or blind would live in a different reality if our
senses were unimpaired. Perhaps the most striking thing about our
perceptual worlds is their continuity and coherence, despite the
supposedly discrete nature of the sense data and of the different senses
themselves. Adding a new sense gives us a richer picture, but it is a
richer picture of the unified world we already know.
We heard above in the case of S.B. that it can be difficult, as an adult,
to cope with an overwhelming content of sense perception through organs of
sense that have not, in the normal course of things, already been educated
by thinking. But the fact remains that the normal course of education
presents no particular difficulty at all.
We have no reason to think that the world would become incomprehensible,
or stand in contradiction to our existing experience, if we were to add
the bat’s echolocation to our own array of senses. Nor have we any reason
to think that a person born with a capacity for echolocation would exist
in a “different reality” or would find his world conflicting with
that of the rest of us. The two worlds would certainly vary in the
richness of the contributions made by the different senses, but they would
no more contradict each other than the truly vast difference between the
most sensitive musician’s ear and the dullest, least attentive ear among
the rest of us would spell a contradiction. Nor would one world of
experience be more “real” than the other.
To believe that we can truly know the world is not to believe that our
present knowledge is exhaustive, or that the world cannot present itself
within many modes of consciousness.
One reason we can be confident that newly developed senses — whether those
of a bat or otherwise — would harmonize perfectly with our previously
existing senses is that the harmony does not depend on unformed sensory
content. It seems safe to say that the education of our senses by
thinking is essential to the unity of our experience of the world.
Thinking has the quality that all thoughts can enter into harmonious
relation with all other thoughts. The thought-world knows nothing of
The world of thought is, in a profound sense, one, and it is what
enables us to have one tree despite the fact that we view the tree
from many sides and never have two identical visual impressions of it.
Even the recognition of a logical contradiction requires a perspective
wherein we can see particular thoughts joined together by a relation of
sameness as well as significant difference. There can be no
absolute opposites, for if they had nothing at all in common, there
would be no way for us to think them together in order to pronounce them
“opposite”. Only ideas with a great deal in common can share anything
about which we might have contrary things to say.
The contents of our senses — if we could somehow know them before they are
illuminated and given form by thinking — could not possibly lie to us.
They are just not in the business of being either true or false. In fact,
as we have seen above, they are not even there in any meaningful
sense until the illumination by thinking has occurred. Whatever it is
that comes through the senses — and how could we name it without bringing
concepts to bear, after which it would be more than what comes
through the senses alone — can only be an unformed potential. Such
potential cannot be true or false. Only our thinking can be adequate or
inadequate, misleading or helpful, true or false — depending on how surely
it brings to consistent and reliable appearance whatever potentials have
been presented to our senses.
Accepting the world as we
have it in our common
experience is hard to do
In normal experience, a mountain or desert or ocean vista spreads out
before us, not like the surgeon’s face that the formerly blind S.B. could
at first see only as a featureless blur, but rather as something whose
features blend into an integral unity, rich in meanings as also, perhaps,
in beauty. By means of their qualitative detail and overall impression,
we learn to recognize such scenes for what they are. Even when we
encounter a radically unfamiliar landscape, our senses have been educated
sufficiently to comprehend what we are seeing at least in a rough and
basic way. We do not easily become wholly disoriented.
And so the world, as it enters our experience, reveals itself as a
seamless unity of sense and thought. It comes to manifestation in the
only way it conceivably could — as a content of our experience, which is
also to say: upon the stage of our consciousness. The qualities of sense,
after all, are inseparable from some form of consciousness, and so also is
the activity of thinking — certainly all thinking that contributes to
In other words, the entire substance and content of the world we find
ourselves living in manifests as experience, upon the stage of
consciousness. The most natural conclusion would seem to be that it
is in the world’s nature to manifest in exactly this way.
Given that we are ourselves compacted of the world’s substance — given
that a thought-embued world has engendered us, endowing us with our
peculiar capacity for thinking — why should we not find ourselves
participating in the world’s way of being? Or (which is the same thing)
why should we not find that the world participates in our way of
Putting it more bluntly: we seem fully justified in concluding that the
world, in its objective nature, consists of appearances, or phenomena
(“appearing things”). It is fundamentally “made” of appearances — of the
contents of experience, however varied the capacities for having
this experience may be throughout the kingdoms of life. The world’s only
mode of being, so far as we know or could ever know, is its mode of
being in experience. And, whatever our philosophical positions, we
all in practice act as if we do have genuine knowledge of the
world. We do not know of any obstacle to an experience-based science that
informs us about the world’s reality.
The question, “How can we translate whatever appears to us into an
understanding of a mindless, objective reality behind the appearances?” is
badly misstated. We do not discover reality by fleeing appearances, but
by welcoming them with an open mind. We gain deeper truth only by
penetrating the appearances ever more deeply, which is always a matter of
an ever more disciplined marriage of sense and thought — just as we
understand what is going on with our hands in cold, hot, and lukewarm
water through the elucidation of concrete sensation by careful thinking.
An unjustified fear of being imprisoned in our heads
Yes, our contemporary minds, shaped by a dualistic heritage, rebel against
all this. Perhaps the first and most naive reaction is to complain, “You
seem to be saying that everything is ‘just in my head’, which can hardly
be true. In the depths of the deepest ocean trench, or on the backside of
the moon, there are solid things and real processes that no person is now
experiencing, and yet we can be quite sure that they continue on quite
heedless of our disregard.”
But this objection reflects habits of thought so obdurate that they recoil
even from a basic recognition of what is being proposed. After all, the
assumption that thinking and the qualities of things are all “just in our
heads” is exactly what I have been disputing. The point is that thinking
and the qualities of things are not merely in our heads, but are also
there, in the world to which we must conform our own thinking — the
only world we could ever know. The world itself exhibits the nature of
living experience, and the way in which we are invited to participate in
it is not altogether different from the way we are invited to participate
in the experience of another human being. The question is whether we are
open to the world’s meaningful gesturings, or have simply lost all
interest in what speaks to us from our surroundings.
We need to reckon with the intense and tyrannical grip of old habits of
thinking. As the philologist Owen Barfield has reminded us, for most
people living before, say, the sixteenth century the proposition that
thoughts are “things” isolated in our individual heads would have been
difficult or impossible to comprehend — just as difficult and impossible
to comprehend as is, for us, the proposition that thoughts belong to and
inform the stuff of the
For the student of the evolution of consciousness, the question is not,
“How can anyone arrive at the ‘crazy’ idea that thinking belongs to the
warp and woof of the world?” but rather, “How did it happen, in this last
brief, historical moment, that we have come, ‘crazily’, to doubt a world
humming with the high tension of creative thought?”
There is also the phenomenon I have referred to as biological
Biologists certainly do recognize an end-directed coordination of events
in organisms. They want to understand how cells, by means of almost
unthinkably complex organizational activity, prepare for and go through
cell division. Or how predators strategically mobilize all their physical
resources in order to capture prey. It’s just that the explanations
for such coordinated activities are, for artificial reasons, required to
consist, at bottom, of causal processes that make no reference to the
fact of higher-level coordination. See
for further discussion.
I take the phrase, “marriage of sense and thought”, from a wonderful book
of that title
(Edelglass et al. 1997).
The classic study is that of
M. von Senden.
See also the discussion of “S.B.” in
and that of “Virgil” in
Anyone who would like a fuller exposition of the role of thought in what
we perceive might want to read the three chapters by philosopher Ronald
Brady in the freely available online book,
Being on Earth: Practice In Tending the Appearances
If you wanted to speak in terms of physics, you would have to talk about
forces entirely filling the space of the atom (and extending far
beyond it). Such forces can be measured, but bits of “stuff” are
never seen. The “pictures of atoms” we are sometimes shown are in
fact graphs of measured forces. And if the space of the atom is wholly
permeated with forces, that fact gives us no basis for contrasting
substantive particles with empty space. It merely shows that particle
physicists have abstracted their understanding so far from the perceptible
world that their theoretical constructs do not refer to anything like
familiar elements of experience. These constructs are undoubtedly rooted
in meaningful structure at the submicroscopic level — structure such as that
given in the pattern of forces — but this is not yet to be speaking about
things in the sense of material reality. Things are products
of our sense perception.
Physicists, having learned long ago not to assert the existence of real
particles and waves in the sub-microscopic realm, came to speak instead of
mathematical probabilities corresponding to
various instrumental read-outs. What material reality these
probabilities correspond to cannot be meaningfully discussed. And this
should be no surprise, given that the only reality we have is a reality of
experience. Talking about contents of experience that we
cannot actually experience leads to gibberish.
Barfield 1967, p. 45.
inwardness (intention, idea, meaning)
Barfield, Owen (1967). Speaker’s Meaning. Middletown CT: Wesleyan
Churchland, Paul (1988). Matter and Consciousness. Cambridge MA:
Edelglass, Stephen, Georg Maier, Hans Gebert and John Davy (1997). The
Marriage of Sense and Thought: Imaginative Participation in Science.
Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne.
Ferris, Timothy (1985). The Creation of the Universe, PBS
Gregory, Richard L. (1978). Eye and Brain: The Psychology of
Seeing, 5th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Maier, Georg, Ronald Brady and Stephen Edelglass (2006). Being on
Earth: Practice In Tending the Appearances. Full text is available at
Hardcopy book is available from Logos Verlag Berlin (2008):
Sacks, Oliver (1995). “An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical
Tales”. Vancouver WA: Vintage Books.
Talbott, Stephen L. (1995). The Future Does Not Compute.
Sebastopol CA: O’Reilly and Associates. Full text available at
von Senden, M. (1960). Space and Sight: The Perception of Space and
Shape in the Congenitally Blind Before and After Operation. London:
Steve Talbott :: All Science Must Be Rooted in Experience