Biology Worthy of Life
An experiment in revivifying biology
Materialism, mechanism, reductionism — these are strange and slippery terms, easily abused by both advocates and opponents. You realize that they must be slippery when you consider how widespread the claim to be a materialist is among scientists today, and then ask yourself, "Where is the material in this passionately embraced materialism? What sort of material, for example, does the quantum physicist believe in? How material are the energies and intersections of forces that guide our thinking about the physical world today?" 1
How material, for that matter, is a machine as it is now conceived "mechanistically"? Just as the Cheshire cat slowly disappeared, leaving behind only its smile, so, too, the glitch-susceptible physical device has been disappearing from mechanistic thinking, leaving behind only its comfortingly determinate algorithm, or software. (See "The Vanishing World-Machine".) The theory of machines today is mostly a theory of algorithms, machine-states, information, and other abstractions considered without relation to real-world machines.
As for reductionism, philosopher Daniel Dennett claims that it has both bland and preposterous meanings. According to the bland reading, it is possible to unify all the sciences, including the biological and social sciences, in the sense that everything obeys the laws of chemistry, "which in turn must answer to the regularities of the underlying physics". A Supreme Court justice is bound by the same law of gravity as a mountain avalanche. On the other hand,
According to the preposterous readings, reductionists want to abandon the principles, theories, vocabulary, laws of the higher-level sciences, in favor of the lower-level terms. A reductionist dream, on such a preposterous reading, might be to write "A Comparison of Keats and Shelley from the Molecular point of View"....
Dennett goes on to say that since "probably nobody" holds to the preposterous view, and everybody should accept the bland view, the charge of reductionism is "too vague to merit a response":
If somebody says to you, "But that's so reductionistic!" you would do well to respond, "That's such a quaint, old-fashioned complaint! What on earth did you have in mind?" (Dennett 1995, p. 81).
Well, what I have in mind is the following.
The quantum physicist, David Bohm, tendered this definition of the scientist's "mechanistic philosophy": it is built upon an assumption that
the great diversity of things that appear in all of our experience, every day as well as scientific, can all be reduced completely and perfectly to nothing more than consequences of the operation of an absolute and final set of purely quantitative laws determining the behaviour of a few kinds of basic entities or variables. (Bohm 1971, p. 37)
This seems to me well-stated. By expanding on this definition we can arrive at a useful picture of the intertwined notions of materialism, mechanism, and reductionism. Then we will be able to recognize the entire complex of ideas as the expression of a particular and limiting cognitive stance.
So I will begin by suggesting that the Reduction Complex (in which I now include both materialism and mechanism) expresses the following convictions:
(1) There are a few, simple, fundamental constituent elements of the material universe (Bohm's "basic entities or variables").
(2) These elements relate to each other externally, like the parts of a machine 2.
(3) The fundamental elements and the laws governing them can be precisely characterized mathematically and logically.
(4) The fundamental elements and laws account for and ultimately explain everything that happens. This explanation proceeds unidirectionally, "from the bottom up".
(5) The constituent elements and laws of the world possess no intrinsic character of mind.
Now, there are many ways to begin thinking about these interrelated aspects of the Reduction Complex. But I want to draw upon a simple, unifying image capable of illuminating the issues in a striking way. 3
We can discover the coherence of our five reductionist propositions by recognizing in them the operation of a single gesture of the cognizing mind. The gesture itself is not pathological; rather, its singleness — its operation in conjunction with a suppression of the necessary counterbalancing gesture — is alone what renders it and its reductionist results pathological. Reductionism, at root, is not so much a body of concepts as it is a way of exercising (and not exercising) our cognitive faculties.
The cognitive gesture I'm alluding to here is the inner act of isolating something so as to grasp it more easily and precisely and gain power over it. We want to be able to say, "I have exactly this — not that and not the other thing, but this". The ideal of truth at work here is a yes-or-no ideal. No ambiguity, no fuzziness, no uncertainty, no essential penetration of one thing by another, but rather precisely defined interactions between separate and precisely defined things. We want things we can isolate, immobilize, nail down and hold onto.
How do we avoid ambiguity and approach nailed-down, yes-or-no certainty? Part of the answer is: by drawing on one of our highest achievements, which is our ever finer power of distinguishing and cleaving. Whatever looks complex and of diverse nature must be analyzed into distinct, simple parts with clearly spelled-out relations. Such analysis and clarification is the function of logic, a discipline we have carried to extraordinary levels of sophistication.
I referred above to "the inner act of isolating something so as to grasp it more easily and precisely and gain power over it". Grasping is indeed a useful description of the cognitive activity I am pointing toward. Of course, we must try to get hold of things in our understanding. But if we are too intense and one-sided in our will to grasp a thing, then we sever it from its relationships to everything else, as when we uproot the plant to study it in the laboratory. This may be helpful in its own way, but requires us to keep in mind how we have falsified and decontextualized the thing we are trying to understand.
To know the reality of the plant in truth, we would have to live with it, experience the conditions of its life, and participate imaginatively as well as physically in its habitat. We would, in other words, have to change, adapting ourselves to a different way of being. In this manner what lives in the form before us also comes to expression within us, and becomes knowledge. In all this we conform to reality with more than just our abstracting minds.
Similarly, to know water, we must learn to flow with it, as when we swim. We must know the water in part as a fish does, by allowing its laws to come to expression within us as our laws. This is not merely to know about water in the abstract, but to participate in its way of being.
Our aim in such endeavors is not so much to possess truth as to follow reality and conform to it, remain true to it. I realize that this "remain true to it" will sound a little artificial to many. Where is the imperative for us to remain faithful to water? Yet there is no truth of the world that is not in one way or another a truth of our own organism — a fact that, in the case of water, may be painfully borne in upon anyone suffering the hardening or ossification of living processes that should remain flexible and fluid. Our habits of cognition run deep beyond all current imagining. Much more needs to be said about this.
As the contrast between possessing and following already suggests, the cognitive gesture we are considering may also be seen as a moral gesture. As such, it seems to figure centrally within religious tradition 4. For example, in the Hebraic scriptures a fateful moment for humanity occurs when Eve reaches for the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. It is an attempt — perhaps necessary, and certainly successful enough in its own terms, but with severe consequences! — to grasp and possess the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The result was isolation: the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened to see themselves as separate from the world, and naked. Discovering themselves alone and cut off, they knew fear for the first time, and therefore hid from the approach of the divine Other.
Likewise within the Christian tradition, where a governing image portrays the ultimate result of the alienation that began with the Fall: the Life of the world is nailed to the now dead and rigidified form of a tree. But this Life could not be held there, just as it could not be confined by religious law that had become too external, rigid, and narrowly defined.
I suspect you could find similar images in the other great religious traditions. While the moral dimension is not the primary subject of this essay, my aim is very much to recognize the shape and movement of our dominant cognitive activity — and to recognize it in all its human fullness. Surely anyone who would know the world is obligated, by that very desire, to seek uncompromised awareness of the conscious (or unconscious) instruments of his knowing. This work becomes all the more difficult when the dominant style of knowing not only crucifies the soul of the world, but is also perfectly calculated to put such moral realities out of sight.
Moreover, we needn't look to religion to see the inner gesture of reductionism on vivid display. Just look at how people appeal to science in order to clench their arguments. You might hope that, if only by association, the invocation of science in a conversation would naturally lead people to relax their grip on hard-and-fast dogma. You might hope that the thought of science would inspire them to consider the rich, many- faceted contexts of the topic under discussion, searching these contexts for new insights — for a deeper and transformed understanding of the issues at hand.
But, no, the desire for the imprimatur of science becomes little more than competition for an authoritative word from on high. It is enough to say, "There is no scientific evidence that..." or "It has been shown scientifically that..." and the conversation is expected to halt at the stark dividing line between certainty and nonsense. If you've already "got" an unarguable truth, why muddy the waters with contextual complication?
The same drive to claim possession of a lifeless truth is evident in the intense competition for the spoils of victory in the race for scientific discovery. For example, during the early 1950s numerous laboratories were pursuing the structure of DNA. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before the issue was resolved (as resolution is counted in such matters). They knew further that if any of the investigators should drop out of the race, the remaining ones would nevertheless soon reach the goal because of the common heritage of data and understanding available to all.
But it happened that Crick and Watson got there first — whether by days, weeks, or months, no one can know for sure. With their now-famous announcement of the double helix, they won the race and were granted ownership of the discovery. Their proprietary claim brought the sort of prestige and power that put them in a class apart from all the others contributing to the same project. One social function of the Nobel Prize committees is to confer this prestige and power by designating and crowning the official owners of scientific discoveries. Knowledge assignable in this way is knowledge one wants to hold in one's closed fist while saying "mine".
The underlying cognitive gesture we are speaking of also helps to illuminate our loss of humanity's earlier, participative relation to knowledge and the world. If we can fix and possess the truth, then clearly it cannot possess us. By keeping a tenacious grip upon the truth — which only seems possible so far as, in good Cartesian style, we imagine the world to exist wholly outside the observing mind rather than in living conversation with it — we spare ourselves the worry that the truth of the world might demand something uncomfortable of us. Reality is no longer something we must follow, no longer a way. Our truth ceases to bring us into a mutual exchange with the world.
This, of course, is why ethics — for example, the entire bioethics industry — has been spun off from the main body of science. Ethics becomes a kind of afterthought, tacked on after the scientific work is done. We may, if we are so inclined, choose to worry about how the knowledge we have gained is subsequently used, but the knowledge itself is thought to be intrinsically neutral. And it certainly appears to be neutral, because we have gained it from a stance that demands and sees only what is neutral — even if this stance also propels us toward vacuity.
In an effort to characterize this vacuity more fully, I will now offer a brief critique of various aspects of the Reduction Complex — especially those aspects not adequately discussed in previous essays. I wish to emphasize, however, that it is the one-sided cognitive stance imposed as an ideology upon the scientist, that I am criticizing here — not the body of science itself, which possesses vastly more life than the reductionist position accounts for.
The desire for simple, rock-bottom, graspable entities necessitates devotion to a method of analysis for the simple reason that everything in the world is in fact wrapped up with everything else. Analysis is the means by which we try to disentangle and isolate things.
The isolation can serve our understanding — but only so far as we continually overcome its falseness through the kind of re-integration that must be achieved imaginatively. We will see later why this imaginative effort receives no credit within the Reduction Complex. For the moment, the important thing is to recognize the emptiness we would be left with if analysis were actually pursued in the pure spirit of reductionism.
To analyze is to cleave and distinguish. We answer the question, "What is X?" by pointing to the parts Y and Z of which X is composed. That, of course, raises the question, "What is part Y or Z?" each of which must now in turn be analyzed. The problem here is that, without a countermovement foreign to reductionism, one can never stop to consider a thing in its own terms. The tree resolves into root, branch, and leaf, the leaf into cells, the cells into organelles, the organelles into biochemicals ... and so on without end, down to the most remote subatomic entities.
How, without the largely uncredited countermovement, could there possibly be a satisfactory end? If the part must explain the whole, so that all understanding must be founded upon analysis, and if this analysis were ever to stop at some fundamental, unanalyzable thing, then that thing (upon which the reductionist would erect all else) must, by virtue of its unanalyzability, stand as an incomprehensible mystery, no more approachable than divine fiat. At some point, in a spirit opposite to that of analysis, we have to be able to say in meaningful terms what X is in its own right — the task we have avoided all the way down. To accept this task in its full significance would mean a revolution in science. But, as things stand, the subatomic, almost purely mathematical and probabilistic extreme of our analysis seems to have carried us as far as possible from the goal of knowing what it is we are talking about.
All this helps to explain why (in "Do Physical Laws Make Things Happen?) we heard Arthur Eddington confessing that the knowledge of physics is "only an empty shell .... knowledge of structural form and not knowledge of content" (1920, p. 200). If we do nothing but analyze and clarify our terms in order to make their content ever less ambiguous and more exact, we end up with the almost perfectly exact terms of pure logic and mathematics — and, as Wittgenstein pointed out, "every proposition of logic means the same thing, namely nothing". We learn to be more and more precise about a universal theoretical framework that tells us less and less about anything in particular.
Of course, the reductionist manages to avoid any debilitating awareness of the incomprehensible mystery he makes of the world. Two things help. One is that the analysis never does come to a fundamental stopping point. Therefore he can keep imagining that the method — despite the fact that it continually carries him away from the particular things he takes in hand to study — will, in the end, somehow provide the promised key to everything. In the second place, by progressively substituting mathematical abstractions for the world, the method strips all content from the mystery — by stripping the world of its content. The robbery is achieved through the dismissal of qualities.
In sum: analysis alone can never tell us what a thing is, but only what it is made of. And because the same limitation applies to the things it is made of, we have a perfect method for avoiding any engagement with the actual substance — the being and presence — of the world. This substance is essentially and irreducibly qualitative. If you want to say what X is, you have no choice but to speak of qualities. Every science, so far as it flees the consideration of qualities, is driven inexorably toward reductionism. Reductionism, in fact, can be understood essentially as the attempt to impoverish the world by ridding it of qualities. This, in a sentence, is the reductionism I would complain of to Dennett when he asks, "What on earth do you have in mind?"
The reductionist must turn a blind eye to qualities, for there is nothing fragmented or discrete about them. The coolness, lightness, and clarity of spring water, the eddying, vortexing, meandering ways of a stream, the soundless power of great ocean swells, the thundering and shattering force of a Niagara — these and all other qualities present us, not with yes-or-no features but with a realm of relative likeness, contrast, and interpenetration. They present an imaginal or pictorial aspect of reality. And they are inescapably freighted with psyche. We experience qualities "in here" — within consciousness.
But what is insufficiently realized is that we also experience qualities "out there," in the only external world we have. We cannot characterize a world — any sort of world — without qualities. Subtract all qualitative content from your thoughts about things, and there will be no things left. Try to imagine a tree without color or visible form, without the breeze whispering through its leaves, without the smell of sap and leaf, without felt solidity, and the tree will have ceased betraying any sign of its existence. If you are inclined to redeem the situation with talk of molecules or subatomic particles, try to characterize those without appealing to qualities! If you tell me anything at all about what you believe exists — as opposed to the quantities and formal algorithms you try to abstract from them — you will be speaking of qualities 5.
If we let ourselves think about it, this problem proves fundamental, overwhelming in scope, and decisive for everything we are talking about. The world is not there for the reductionist — or wouldn't be if he managed to live by his own principles. He can say absolutely nothing about any world content without speaking of qualities, and yet he refuses — or tries to refuse — to make those qualities a disciplined and integral part of his science. At the same time, he is reduced to dumb silence about the supposedly objective, mechanistic, non-qualitative reality he imagines to undergird our "merely subjective" experience.
It's fine to say, "Our dealing only with what can be quantified is exactly what leads us from the qualitative world of the subjective observer to the realities of hard science". But the phrase "what can be quantified" has no content except to the degree we can say something significant about the "what" we are quantifying. Given a set of quantities, we have to know what they are quantities of if we are to understand anything at all about the actually existent world. And the only way we can know this is by moving in a direction opposite to the one we took when we abstracted the quantity from its phenomenon. We must attend to the phenomenon in its own terms, but very little in science teaches us how to do this.
It is a truism that the scientist generally prefers to deal with motion by stopping it — by freeze-framing it. Photography has been a tremendous boon for those investigating everything from insect and bird flight to cloud formation to plant growth. But no one contemplating, say, a galloping horse and what it is actually doing, imagines that it is simply adding together countless freeze-framed instants. We cannot get movement from stillness, however many times we multiply the stillness. The horse's movement in time and space is seamless, transcending the static isolation of the snapshot. Once we have assembled our countless snapshots, movement remains the invisible, animating reality between them.
This is a problem for a strictly analytical science — a science that even when dealing with the motion of a planet finds itself analyzing this motion into an infinite array of infinitesimal and mutually exclusive points of time and space. It is not that this fragmentation is wrong or that it fails to contribute to knowledge. But, again, as a one-sided approach to understanding, it abandons reality. For example, by providing discrete, frozen instants that we can easily lay hold of as if they were fixed things, it discourages the more difficult work of entering into the living, willful, inner movement that alone can bridge these dead instants. Every division of time into separate and disconnected moments is a turning away from, a deadening of, reality.
The shattering of time into discrete instants deprived of their living participation in a larger whole supports various pathologies of thinking, one of which infects the common notion of cause and effect. Only when we have splintered the world can we imagine discrete, isolated causes and effects. The philologist and semantic historian, Owen Barfield, once wrote a dialogue that included this exchange between a schoolteacher (Sanderson) and a physicist:
SANDERSON: Does an effect follow its cause in time, or is it simultaneous with it?
BRODIE: It follows; otherwise it wouldn't be an effect.
SANDERSON: I know it wouldn't. Is time infinitely divisible?
BRODIE: We must assume so.
SANDERSON: I know we must. Then what happens in the instant of time that elapses between cause and effect? Alternatively, if we say they are simultaneous, how do we distinguish an effect from a cause? (Barfield 1963).
There is a puzzle here and I do not mean to suggest that it can easily be solved. But one can hardly help asking whether our preferred modes of thought fracture reality in a manner that is irreparable without recourse to long-ignored cognitive capacities. Certainly our science would be much healthier if we instructed scientists-in-training about the unworkable concepts that inform, or misinform, the most routine knowledge formulations offered in the name of science. Then, at least, practitioners would know some of the problems needing work, and some of the imbalances to be countered.
The fact is that even a "trivial" system involving three bodies interacting gravitationally cannot, in its movement and becoming (which is to say, in its reality) be faithfully apprehended by our current science. The so-called "three-body problem" points to the impossibility of isolating the elements of a "becoming" system from each other in any radical manner.
But the essence of the problem applies even to two bodies and, indeed, to everything: there is no relation, no coherence of things, without interpenetration — that is, without a need for us to overcome the fragmentation of discrete elements in our understanding. One thing cannot be affected by another without in some way being open to the other and therefore sharing in its being. This interpenetration, this sharing, means that we can never have unproblematic objects that are just one thing and not another. There are no objects that we can grasp and then hold statically in full truth. Nor can we reveal their relatedness in any deep sense by merely adding together their frozen instances.
Physicist Bohm asks us to consider two vortices side-by-side in a stream. We can readily abstract them from the larger flow as two distinct entities — and they are more or less distinct. But they also merge and unite, with one vortex swirling into the other. The two patterns gain their existence only within the context of the overall movement of the stream (Bohm 1980, p. 10). While we can treat the vortex in thought as an isolated, separately conceivable phenomenon, this is only because, in thought, we have sacrificed some of its reality and integrity.
Already in the mid-nineteenth century Michael Faraday was thinking along similar lines when he suggested that "matter is not merely mutually penetrable, but each atom extends, so to say, throughout the whole of the solar system, yet always retaining its own centre of force" (quoted in Barfield 1971, p. 245 n. 17). Despite such longstanding realizations, the inertia of thought within science (which seems to be as great as in other fields) has so far prevented the radical reconsiderations called for. So it is that Bohm can write:
When it comes to the informal language and mode of thought in physics, which infuses the imagination and provokes the sense of what is real and substantial, most physicists still speak and think, with an utter conviction of truth, in terms of the traditional atomistic notion that the universe is constituted of elementary particles which are "basic building blocks" out of which everything is made. (Bohm 1980, pp. 14-15)
Bohm here testifies strikingly to the force of intellectual, aesthetic, and, as we have seen, even moral habit undergirding the Reduction Complex. But he himself views matters quite otherwise, having concluded that we need to "give up altogether the notion that the world is constituted of basic objects or 'building blocks'" (p. 9). After all, Faraday's suspicion has been more than justified (if also rendered mysterious) by a physics that speaks of entanglement — that is, the non-local connectedness, or inseparability, of two particles. Likewise by a physics that has been driven away from the consideration of single, well-defined things and events to a statistical treatment of aggregations of possibility. The basic problem is this: how can you reasonably say that a phenomenon is built out of, or constructed by, certain elements when each of those elements already bears within itself something of the larger whole supposedly under construction? It's like saying the stream is the result of its vortices. The opposite claim makes at least as much sense: the vortices result from the stream.
Yet bottom-up, is-made-from explanation remains a central feature of the Reduction Complex, as is seen from the usual appeal to atoms (whether subatomic particles, molecules, or atoms proper). It is almost impossible for us not to think of water as being made from hydrogen and oxygen atoms.
There is no way, in a brief space, that I can hope to counter this deeply entrenched habit of thought — a habit that survives unweakened despite the unquestioned truths we just now heard voiced by Faraday and Bohm. But the fact remains that the reductionist's atom is hopelessly incapable of bearing the explanatory and causal burden assigned to it. Hydrogen and oxygen, conceived in the building-block mode, are not in any adequate sense the constituent elements of water. They are not materials from which water is mechanically constructed.
Our habit of thinking otherwise evidently arises from our experience in building things. When we construct a house with bricks, it is natural enough to think of the house as made of bricks. Then we may leap to the breathtakingly naïve conclusion that the aggregation of bricks is what explains the house. And then, with a further leap, we may assume that our combining of already-existent substances to build things like houses is the proper model for understanding how nature comes up with the substances themselves. Finally, in order to apply this building-block model to water, we have to ignore the profound, immediately given fact of transformation: water is obviously not a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gases in anything like the way a house may be (in part) a collection of bricks.
I will try to elaborate a bit. We know that, under the right conditions — say, by bringing volumes of hydrogen and oxygen gas together in the presence of a spark — we can obtain water. Of course, we may also (as a physicist-friend reminded me) obtain a devastating explosion. This, too, somehow belongs to the moment of water's creation. How easy it is to overlook the colors and sounds, the smells and textures, the characteristic happenings, that give us the distinct phenomena we observe! They disappear into the gaps between our textbook formulas. Yet they — and not just a set of inert building blocks — are part of what gets us from one side of the equation to the other.
If we were thinking in terms of the world's actual presentation of itself instead of theoretical atoms and molecules, the first thing that would strike us forcibly is that the hydrogen and oxygen gases have wholly disappeared into the water. They aren't there any longer. A transformation has occurred. This, of course, is exactly what those stick-and-ball models we are all so familiar with tend to conceal. Look! — there is the hydrogen ball, still present in the water molecule, just like a good building block! Who can argue with that? The only problem is that the model's static concreteness, which is the essential support for our building-block image, happens also to be what makes the model false.
If we want to think more truthfully than the model allows, then we must at least realize that the configuration and intersection of forces within the supposed hydrogen portion of the water molecule is radically different from what it is in a molecule of hydrogen gas — and this configuration, or, rather, the dance of this configuration, is what the new reality is. The gas molecule as such has vanished. So where, exactly, is our building block? Why should we say that the building blocks make up the water, rather than that the remarkable transformation yielding water makes the constituent elements the new things that they are?
The problem lies in the model. We have abstracted certain mathematical features from the qualitative and watery reality we started with, and now, in the model, we have re-clothed our abstractions in phenomenal, qualitative terms — but certainly not the terms of water! Water consists neither of sticks and balls nor of hydrogen and oxygen. Far too much of our scientific thinking takes place in terms of the more or less concrete and false models haunting our undisciplined imaginations. Very conveniently (for the mechanistic thinker), the reality of ground-level transformation becomes the illusion of a mere recombination of fixed, fundamental elements.
Yet scientists have long known that, once we have removed nearly all phenomenal qualities from our notional constructs, we run into endless trouble if we start thinking of those bare constructs as entities and causes in the way we think about familiar phenomena. (Recall the confusions about light as both wave and particle.) The problem is all the greater when we call our theoretical entities, not "waves" or "particles", but "building blocks". The abstractions we have arrived at simply cannot be re-clothed in this way.
This is why the physicist, Nick Herbert, felt compelled to remind us that "the unremarkable and commonsense view that ordinary objects are themselves made of [the physicist's theoretical] objects is actually the blackest heresy of establishment physics" (1985, p. 22). The heresy, unfortunately, remains firmly entrenched in the thought habits of the reductionist.
If we want a sound science, our only recourse is to retrace our steps, recover the qualities of things where we first found them, and realize that here is where we find the fundamental, irreducible starting point for explanation. This reality is not built out of atoms; we arrive at the truth of the atom (legitimately, if one-sidedly) by subtracting things from this reality. The atom reduced in this way cannot be understood as a tiny, material piece of the fuller reality from which it was abstracted. It can, however, give us valuable insight, as long as we remain alert to the narrowed scope of the reduction. We can get atoms from water, but (to recall an earlier essay) we can no more get water from atoms than we can get Lincoln's Gettysburg Address from a formal graph of its grammatical structure.
The popular notion that causation flows unidirectionally upward from fundamental building blocks, giving us successive levels of explanation as we ascend from the foundation, is wholly gratuitous. Nowhere in our experience — as opposed to the world of our models — do we find such one-directional causation. And what plausible reason do we have for assuming that the smaller the piece of the universe we are looking at, the more fundamental its explanatory value? This is to take the crudest possible reading of human experience in assembling things and to make a controlling scientific principle of it.
Yes, I know how powerfully we are compelled by our habit of taking tiny elements as most fundamentally constitutive of the world. But the habit proves upon reflection to be vacuous: no significant line of thought supports it, and I'm not even sure whether anyone has ever made a serious attempt at such a line of thought. Our compulsion is nothing but habit.
One final note on this theme, by way of the analogy pursued in earlier essays. We can abstract grammatical elements from meaningful speech, but it doesn't make much sense to say that these elements occur at a lower or more fundamental explanatory level than the speech itself. Why lower, and why a different level at all? To abstract is to wrench something implicit from its context, and this is less a change of level than a thinning, a reduction of richness. We should not confuse the elements of analysis with the elements of genesis. And if this applies to speech in general, it certainly applies as well to the speech we take to be descriptive of the world.
What we should really look for is not different levels of explanation ascending from some single, ultimate bottom, but rather different contexts of explanation. While contexts often do fall into approximate relations of subordination, they do not arrange themselves in strict, vertical hierarchies. Different contexts interpenetrate one another, and there is never a single direction of influence or explanation between any two contexts. If they stand in any relation to each other at all ... well, then, they stand in relation, and a relation is always a two-way street.
Finally, the abstraction inherent in the reductionist program — and especially in the requirement for analysis and quantification — is what enables the scientist to ignore mind. The habit of abstraction draws a deceptive veil over our mental activity. Already at the end of the nineteenth century the philosopher Rudolf Steiner noted that abstractions function within our intellect very much in the manner of things (1985, p. 163). Over half a century later the physicist, David Bohm, made the same point:
logically definable concepts play the same fundamental role in abstract and precise thinking as do separable objects and phenomena in our customary description of the world. (1951, pp. 168-72)
Think about this. The point sounds deceptively mundane, but it holds the key to the pathologies of modern thought. When we retreat into abstraction — and the Reduction Complex gives us a kind of paradise of abstraction — we retreat into thoughts that we can isolate and grasp and manipulate rather as we isolate, grasp, and manipulate the mechanistically conceived things of the world. We try to make things of our thoughts. As formal logic and algorithmic thinking illustrate so well, once our thoughts have become abstract, they can proceed almost automatically, one thought apparently demanding the next, like a chain of billiard-ball impacts. A muscular activity of imagination is no longer necessary. Our thoughts think themselves with minimal need for us to become aware of our own inner activity in thinking. In turning away from this activity, we can more easily misconstrue our thinking as a mere mechanical shuffling around of things we can possess — brain things, silicon things, bits of information, or whatever.
The irony in all this is that a science founded on abstractions in the form of equations, rules, and algorithms gives us a world that is almost nothing but mentality, even if conveniently veiled for modesty's sake. Equations are ideas, not things. Their mentality may be of a peculiarly one-dimensional and impoverished sort, but it is still mentality.
From physics to biology we see this kind of mentality given an increasingly important role as content of the world. This is evident in the continual appeal to program, computation, code, information, signal, message, and all the other terms referring back to the conceptual content of human thought and communication — to which we might add more general terms like "tendency" and "pattern". All these, Barfield notes, give us a way to smuggle immaterial influences into our system of materialism and mechanical causality. This is akin to the way Epicurus gave his atoms their famous ability to swerve. But the tactic is self-defeating:
The trouble is, that [mechanistically conceived] particles as such ... cannot even arrange and rearrange themselves without more. Yet, if one credits them with immaterial "swerves" or "tendencies" and so forth, he has forgotten that those are the very things he was purporting to explain by them. (Barfield 1971, p. 205)
The mindless world, at the hands of the reductionist, becomes a contradictory world filled with mind of the most abstract and impotent sort — so abstract and impotent that he can almost manage to forget that it is mind.
Materialism, mechanism, and reductionism: their presuppositions and tendencies are all of a piece, because they are all expressions of a single cognitive gesture 6. The aim of this gesture is to lay hold of a simple, fixed, precise, unambiguous, manipulable reality divested of the inner life and qualities that might make uncomfortable demands on us. We anesthetize the world in order to possess and control it like a thing. But despite this singleness of purpose — or, rather, because such a single-minded gesture becomes sterile without the life and movement of a counterbalancing gesture — the presuppositions of the Reduction Complex betray a striking incoherence. They offer us:
This entire body of dogma defines the reductionist ideology, not science itself. However, the dogma has tremendous power to distort the practice of science, a distortion evident on all sides. At the same time, there is reason to hope that in our day the dogma will finally collapse in upon its own absurdities. If this happens, it will not be because particular discoveries "disprove" the reductionist position, but rather because — much like during the earlier break with medieval thought — more and more people simply find it impossible to look upon the world in the old way.
We are not without promising signs. It is remarkable, for example, to hear a leading physicist such as David Finkelstein, who is editor of the International Journal of Theoretical Physics, confessing:
I feel a little embarrassed now at having spent so many years looking for something that could be completely known. It's a little undignified. I like the idea of spending the rest of my years looking for something that cannot be completely known. (Quoted in Zajonc 2004, pp. 191-2)
What we need, however, is not to draw a strict line between the known and unknown, or between the knowable and unknowable. (There can be no such line; the very act of drawing it would require at least some characterization of the unknown.) Rather, in all things we must seek a living knowledge that resists encapsulation in precise formulas. The reason it resists this encapsulation will not be that it is vague or shoddy or immature or reaches for the unknowable, but rather that it is so intensely rich and meaningful. It will seize our imaginations and, indeed, our entire being, even as we engage it through our active response.
All this will naturally sound mysterious. It will do so because science has, from the beginning of the modern period, tried to ignore the imaginative, qualitative, and participative side of cognition. What we ignore long enough eventually becomes strange and incomprehensible to us. But it is time to overcome the limitations of a science motivated by the desire for truths we can anesthetize and collect as our secure possessions. In pursuing such a science, we remain like the greedy child who picks flowers and hoards them in a jar in order not to lose them.
1. Educated people today tend to speak of "physicalism" rather than "materialism", due to the recognized inadequacy of the older view of matter as inert, tangible substance — a view that hardly works for energies or the force of gravity. But there is little agreement about the meaning of the term "physical". Moreover, it is striking how little creative thought is given to the question. There is tremendous mental inertia here, so that somehow nearly all biologists, for example, just take for granted that the true nature of physical substance must be known and understood — this despite their belief that our actual experience of the world veils rather than reveals the true character of things! Because of the mental inertia at work here, the imaginative picture sponsoring the convictions of the physicalists continues to be much like the older picture of denatured matter stripped of all qualities — except that now it is projected into a submicroscopic realm beyond direct experience. I suspect that more physicists than biologists have freed their imaginations from this faulty take on the nature of material substance.
2. If we confront a group of machine parts whose external relations to each other haven't been clarified, we lump the entire collection together and call it a "black box". This allows us to treat the collection mechanistically — that is, as a single part with clearly defined external relations. Of course, the assumption is that, upon investigation, the internal workings of the black box will yield to a proper mechanistic understanding just like the machine as a whole. It will be found to consist of independent, separately definable parts relating externally.
3. All the presuppositions of the Reduction Complex listed above mutually imply and play into one another as expressions of the same cognitive posture. For example, the quantification that gives us our desired precision also demands distinct things existing side by side and therefore relating externally, like the parts of a machine. As Henri Bortoft notes, we measure by viewing nature through a superimposed grid (scale) divided into units — our own, not nature's — which are "external to one another, separate but juxtaposed". Unsurprisingly, then, "the quantitative way of seeing discloses a world fragmented into separate and independent units" (Bortoft 1996, pp. 173-4).
Likewise, explanation must proceed from the bottom up when you are intent upon isolating a few, simple, fundamental elements, and when you want to understand the world from its parts in the way you understand the piece-by-piece construction of a machine. To start explanation from any other place — for example, from the integrity and meaning of a whole such as an ecological habitat — would be to accept as fundamental a logically "confused" reality in which one part is definable only through its mutual, organic participation, along with the other parts, in a significant whole. This requires active imagination and is unthinkable to a cognizing mind bent upon precisely defined, well-structured truth that can be passively received and conveyed mechanically from one mind to another.
We will have occasion to see more of these interrelationships. It is not easy to separate any of the five presuppositions from the others because all of them are expressions of the same underlying cognitive stance.
4. I owe the following thoughts on moral gesture to conversations with Slava Rozentuller.
5. "To abstract" is often taken to mean: "to abstract form from content". This is misleading. Content is form — qualitative form. Form is always and only a qualitative content. We move toward abstract formalism when we try to grasp this form with an emphasis on precision in preference to gestural quality. But if we know only the movement toward precise formalism, we progressively lose content, which is also to lose form. The "form" of a formalism is form on the way to disappearing. You can't have a form that isn't the form of something, that doesn't express a content. We are impressed by the "form" of a formalism only because we are enamored of our precision, and take it to mean we are getting hold of the "bare form" more definitively. But this is to ignore the fact that what we are trying to get hold of is escaping through the gaps between our precise data points. Neither a list of numerical coordinates nor an equation gives us a circle until we read the qualities of point, line, space, and circular form into the data. In fact, in order to get the actual form of a point from a numerical coordinate, we must already imagine a spherical (or other) form.
6. Each of these three terms emphasizes different aspects of the Reduction Complex. Materialism is rooted in a commitment to mindlessness. Mechanism focuses especially on the external relationships of parts — relationships that are conceived as precisely mathematical and logical. Reductionism reduces reality by abstracting quantities from qualitative phenomena and dismissing the rest; by reconceiving wholes in terms of parts and losing sight of the conceptual and imaginal unities through which the parts are constituted; and by taking as fundamental for purposes of explanation only a few, simple entities, laws, and variables operating at a submicroscopic level.
Regarding this last point, which amounts to the principle of bottom-up explanation, many reductionists today speak of the need to allow "higher- level, emergent" realities into scientific explanations. But these emergent realities are always seen as derivative in relation to the lower- level, more fundamental elements, whereas those lower-level elements are not derivative in relation to the emergent realities. All explanation remains one-directional, from the bottom up.
For other articles in this series, together with some essays not previously published in NetFuture, see my home page.
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Barfield, Owen (1971). What Coleridge Thought. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press.
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Zajonc, Arthur, editor (2004). The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Steve Talbott :: The Reduction Complex