Go to the Nature Institute’s home page

Biology Worthy of Life
An experiment in revivifying biology

A Modest Epistemological Exercise

Stephen L. Talbott
This article was originally written in 2002. Copyright 2002, 2003, 2005 The Nature Institute. Date of last revision: July 20, 2005. All rights reserved.

We commonly speak of two different but overlapping worlds. The first is the familiar world, the world of phenomena (literally, "appearing things"). The pre-eminent physicist, Richard Feynman, was referring to this world when he said,

if we stand on the shore and look at the sea, we see the water, the waves breaking, the foam, the sloshing motion of the water, the sound, the air, the winds and the clouds, the sun and the blue sky, and light; there is sand and there are rocks of various hardness and permanence, color and texture. There are animals and seaweed, hunger and disease, and the observer on the beach; there may be even happiness and thought. Any other spot in nature has a similar variety of things and influences. It is always as complicated as that, no matter where it is. (Feynman et al. 1963, p. 2-1)

Feynman goes on to talk about the scientist’s search for a small number of things, and for a few rules, that can help us to explain and understand our rich, diverse experience of nature. This search, as we well know, leads to the second world -- a rather more theoretical world, the world of the physicist. It is populated by molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles; by electromagnetic waves and force vectors; by fields, energies, charges, centers of mass, and mathematical space-time; by matter and anti-matter; by quantum jumps and abstract properties given exotic names such as "charm", "spin", and "strangeness". From this theoretical world have emerged the wonders of science and technology that have so radically transformed our lives.

So these are the two worlds I’m pointing at: the realm of immediate, qualitative experience, and the theory-laden world consisting of the explanatory machinery that informs us of precise causes and, in general, helps us to make sense of our direct experience. And what I’m asking you to do now is to carry on an inner conversation with me while blocking this second world completely from your minds. Steadfastly ignoring the explanatory machinery, we will ask ourselves: what is the character of the first, or familiar, world?

The Value of Getting Clear about the First World

The scientist, as you know, was advised as early as Galileo to ignore the qualities of things, which is the same as saying: to ignore the first world. Everyone is familiar with the experiment where you put one hand in ice water for a while, and the other hand in hot water, and then plunge both hands into a bowl of tepid water. The tepid water now feels warm to the ice-influenced hand, but cool to the other hand. What we learn from this is that our experience varies according to conditions within the experiencing subject. Our experience is subjective. On the other hand, if we stick any number of reliable thermometers in the water, we will always get the same, unambiguous, and accurate readings. This objective, quantitative reading, according to the usual story, is what tells us about the true state of the water. The conflicting, qualitative reports from our two hands are misleading.

So our exercise this evening, you might say, is to reverse that advice dating back to Galileo: it is exactly the domain of qualities that we will attend to. I don’t want to hear a peep from anyone about instrument data or the molecular motions accounting for heat! It is truly the familiar world, the poet’s world, the artist’s world -- the sensuous world sustained through immediate perception -- that we will explore.

Don’t think, however, that we need to be unscientific in our exploration. In fact, I am quite confident that our characterization of the familiar world will be the very characterization any scientist who spent some time considering the matter would offer. Moreover, the exercise is a worthwhile training for all scientists, since a clear grasp of the first, or familiar world may clarify a great deal about the second, or theory-laden world. The questions arising in the first world are, after all, the occasion for our investigations leading to the second world. If we fail to ask knowledgeable and productive questions of the first world, we cannot arrive at the second world. What’s more, if we are not rigorously aware of the subjective contours of familiar experience, we will inevitably project aspects of our own subjectivity into our theoretical picture of the world.

One last preliminary remark. We really should pursue this exercise outdoors -- say, across the way there in Indian Valley, standing by the creek on an autumn day. The bright sun and the golden leaves, the many soft voices of Agawamick Creek, the rustling of the dry leaves in the wind, the silent preparations the birds are making for their coming migration, the sense of warmth infusing everything -- it all washes over you bearing poignant testimony to something that is about to pass. And the piercing cry of the bluejay -- one of those hardy creatures who will stay behind -- reminds you of the coming winter. There, by the creek, we would actually be immersed in the familiar world we will be talking about this evening. Here, I’m afraid, we will often be reduced to summoning mental images of it, which is not at all the same thing. But we will make the best of the situation, trying to stay as close as possible to immediate experience.

A Human World

So let’s begin. We want to ask ourselves what sort of world these familiar appearances constitute. And I’m sure you will agree with me that, in the first place, it is a human world -- a world, for example, where that tepid water feels warm to one of my hands, and feels cool to the other. Indeed, when Galileo and his successors turned away from qualities, it was in order to avoid seeing their neat and precise world of scientific abstractions contaminated by the humanly experienced, subjective aspects of things.

But now, of course, these aspects are at the center of our inquiry. We can readily grant that, insofar as we live in the familiar world, we live in a world permeated through and through by the human being. It is important to think this with all seriousness: there is no hidden core, absolutely nothing at all, in our familiar world that is not connected to the human being. After all, we’re talking about the world given to us in perception. If neither we, nor anyone like us, were there to perceive it, then this world -- what I’ve called the first or familiar world -- would not exist.

It’s obvious enough that each of us sees the world a little differently, if only because we see it from a different physical vantage point. You and I never see exactly the same tree. And if, in a fearful state, I walk into a dark forest at night, I will see forms and shadows differing greatly in their qualities from what I would see if I were completely at home in the forest. There are also the differences due to our individual physiology. One of us, for example, might be color blind. There are species-wide differences as well. We know that our experience of the world must be quite unlike that of a dog or bat; their senses are weighted differently from our own.

All this underscores the fact that the familiar world of our experience is unavoidably anthropocentric -- which, of course, is exactly why science has sought out a second world. But I wish to emphasize again that, while I am not describing the theoretical world of science, my description of familiar experience should be consistent with the scientist’s view of it. From the physicist to neurobiologist to psychologist, all are agreed that we participate in the construction of the familiar world and therefore meet ourselves in it.

This anthropocentrism is a two-way street. If the outer world reflects our inner life, so also our inner life reflects the outer world. As the classicist, Bruno Snell, once wrote: we could not experience a rock anthropomorphically if we did not also experience ourselves petromorphically. We can find human qualities in the rock only because there are rock-like qualities in humans.

An Objective World

But this needs to be linked, in counterpoint, with a second truth. Look out the window at the trees in the yard. It’s true that each of us sees each tree from a different angle. Our subjective perspectives differ. Yet we have no difficulty relating our different perspectives to each other -- and we do it naturally, immediately, without resorting to abstruse theoretical concepts. My trees and yard, as directly experienced, turn out to be recognizably the same as your trees and yard. That’s why we can have a coherent conversation about them. We could even abandon ourselves to a game of hide-and-seek among those trees -- this without ever having taken a physics course! If you are trying to elude me, you know very well that you cannot do so by hiding under the cover of your own subjectivity. I’ll find you in the objective realm of our mutual experience -- the familiar realm of the appearances we share.

We learn from this that, while the familiar world is suffused with the qualities of our subjective experience, it is not merely subjective. Something is given to us in perception that does not originate in our private selves, even though its only appearance is within consciousness. If a tree falls in the forest, and many of us are there, it is not only I as an individual subject who hear the sound. You also hear it, and so do all the others. Likewise, if we all kick our bare feet against a tree trunk, it is not only I who may sustain a broken toe. Remember that hardness, too, is a quality, and that the felt hardness and solidity of the familiar world shapes a common context for our lives.

So our familiar world has its own objectivity. It includes the automobiles we drive (and occasionally smash together), the sounds we share of birds and streams and radios and jet planes, the rain that wets us equally when we go out into it, the wind in our faces .... We may in special circumstances fail, but in general we have no particular difficulty disentangling our private daydreams and hallucinations from the objective qualities of the familiar world, qualities by which we are all bound.

The Place of Perception

So far, then, we have noticed two characteristics of the familiar world:

A third feature of the familiar world is a little more difficult to grasp. Where does perception occur? Look out at those trees again. There they are, clear as day. In looking at them in this way, we are never troubled in the slightest by the question whether they are really there, as opposed to in here, in our heads. (Philosophers, unfortunately, usually ask these questions while sitting at their desks, not while immersed in the world, and it’s amazing how, at the desk, a whole array of abstract and bizarre schemata can take over our thinking.)

If we remain strict and try to answer the question solely from our standpoint within the first world, then we cannot say that perception occurs in some particular organ, such as the brain. Remember that in the first world the only things we have are things as we perceive them, so if we speak of the brain, we must be referring to the brain as perceived. But how could human perceiving occur within one of its own perceptual products? That is, how could perceiving occur within a perception?

The idea that perception occurs somewhere within the world-as-perceived cannot be made coherent. Only by grace of perceiving do we gain any "wheres" at all, so we cannot look to a particular "where" for the locus of our perceiving. This may be why Henri Bergson remarked that

my perception is outside my body ... external objects are perceived by me where they are, in themselves and not in me. (Bergson 1991, p. ??)

It is less problematic, I think, simply to say that we cannot identify a "place" where perception occurs so long as we are talking about the perceived world. Perception is the prerequisite for this world; it is the starting point for all thinking about the world, and cannot be explicated as the product of anything within the world it presents to us. But as for the perceived object, it is perceived exactly where it is, and nowhere else; it makes no sense to speak of the thing perceived as being in our heads. Yes, we need our heads to be there in order to perceive, just as we need our eyes to be open in order to see -- and just as I need to remove the book in order to see the pencil lying under it. These perceivable realities all qualify our perception and may be conditions for it, but they cannot account for the act of perception itself or locate this act in space.


Another question. Where do we find thinking, or conceptual content, in the familiar world? The answer is simple: everywhere. We have no perceptions apart from thinking. The world is not there -- there are no appearances -- except in conjunction with thinking. The concepts given in thought are what enable the things of the world to manifest themselves as these particular things, and the concepts are, in fact, inseparable from the things.

The common view is that objects are simply given to us in perception, and then we think about them. Of course, we do think about objects in this way, but it is also true that some thinking already belongs to the object by the time we perceive it -- and without this thinking there would not be the perception. In other words, thinking is part of the essential constitution of the first world, and not just something that goes on in my head. For us today this is extremely difficult to get hold of. But remember again that we are talking about the familiar world -- the world, you might say, that transpires upon the stage of human consciousness. Perhaps it is not so strange, then, if this world comes to us as, among other things, an embodiment of thought.

There are several ways you can begin to convince yourselves that thinking is already part of the familiar world by the time we perceive it:

So, then, there are several angles from which we can approach the truth that the perceived world is a world of thought as well as a world of sensory input. The sum of it is that there are no appearances without the concepts that constitute the appearances as the particular appearances they are. The concepts, in other words, belong to the appearances -- the appearances we earlier recognized as objective. In fact, the concepts are what help us to make the appearances objective. You and I may perceive a tree from different standpoints -- that is, our perceptions are in some regards relative and merely subjective; but by means of the concepts that belong to the phenomenon (including the concept of a "vantage point" and the concept of a "tree"), the tree is constituted as the same tree for both of us.

It is critical to recognize the non-subjectivity of thinking. Whenever we look out upon the familiar world, we have to acknowledge that the thinking that brings the world to appearance occurs "out there" fully as much as "in here". We might say that thinking is the "inside" of the world. But never underestimate the difficulty of holding on to this truth.


Let’s review briefly. We have recognized the following features in the first world:

One World

In a moment, I’m afraid, I must confess to some mischief. But first I want you to look at this cedar tree here and ask yourself, Where or how do you find the cedar that belongs to the second world? What distinguishes it from the tree we’ve been talking about up to now? Can we have any experience of the "real", second-world tree, and if so, wouldn’t that very experience have to be part of the first-world tree? If, on the other hand, we can have no such experience of the real tree, what are we talking about when we speak of this tree? Do we really want to say that our science concerns things that lie beyond experience?

Now my confession. I spoke at the outset of two worlds: the world of appearances, and the world given to us through technical insight and rigorous scientific investigation. But the truth is, I don’t believe in two different worlds. There is only one world, and it is the first world. Science, insofar as it presents us with legitimate content -- and it contains a great deal of such content -- belongs to this first world; insofar as it claims to deal with a second, separate world, it is merely confused.

Look at it this way. The rigorous and technical thinking we engage in as scientists is simply the disciplining of the thinking I spoke of earlier -- the thinking that, by illuminating what comes to us through our senses, causes the world to light up in perception. Thinking brings the world to manifestation, and is the inside of this world. Nothing I said about the presence of thinking in the familiar world requires the thinking to be naive. Virgil was already engaged in the process of disciplining his thinking so as to make his visual experience more revelatory.

My suggestion that the only world we have is the familiar one possessing the various characteristics mentioned earlier may seem radical. So it is. Yet it remains true that by all accounts a great portion of science deals squarely and indisputably with the familiar world. Certainly, this is true of all those descriptive sciences whose whole purpose is to describe and characterize observable phenomena as carefully as possible. This kind of science includes the greater part of geology, botany, and zoology, and significant parts of chemistry and astronomy. Therefore, everything we saw to be true of the familiar world must be true also of the systematic representations submitted by these descriptive disciplines.

To reckon with this rather trivial fact would already be a revolution in scientific thinking. It would require us to overcome the prevailing schizophrenia whereby the physicist dismisses the "subjective veil of appearances" on the one hand, while the geologist and biologist compose systematic scientific descriptions of these appearances on the other hand. It would also require physiologists and neuropsychologists to clarify those myriad explanations of perception we read about every day -- explanations to the effect that perception occurs within the perceived brain. These researchers would have to tell us how one perception — that of the familiar, perceived brain — becomes the instrument for all our perceptions, including our perception of the brain. Or else they can let us know what sort of unperceived brain they are really talking about.

As I said a moment ago, confusion arises wherever science lays claim to a second world uniquely its own, a kind of parallel world alongside, or behind, the familiar appearances and not fairly characterized by the several features we have noted. We do not (so we are told) meet ourselves in this second world; we perceive it, so far as we perceive it at all, as a more or less adequate reflection in our brains of something "out there" wholly independent of ourselves. There is supposed to be no thinking or mentality in this "real" world, as opposed to "in here" in our heads.

Let’s look at the kind of thing that happens when we try to comprehend the world in this way. You have doubtless heard many times that the "real" stuff of which solid objects are made is mostly empty space. This, of course, creates a pseudo-mystery having to do with why we don’t all pass through each other’s bodies, and why the baseball doesn’t pass harmlessly through the bat, making it impossible to hit home runs. But the physicist steps boldly forward to solve the mystery for us: yes, home runs can be hit, but not in the way we imagine:

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. (From the PBS television special, "The Creation of the Universe", written by Timothy Ferris)

We see here the usual contrast between a supposed illusion presented by our senses, and the solidly reliable microcosm. The puzzle, as the writer, Timothy Ferris presents it, lies in those vast tracts of empty space between the reassuringly solid particles. But electromagnetism comes to the rescue, filling the scary void with a potent force-field.

That’s what I mean by confusion. First, our sensory experience of solidity is discredited as illusory, and then "reality" is explained by crediting the true solidity to particles and electromagnetic forces. But what does this latter solidity mean, since we have just now disowned the solidity known through our senses? What other sort of solidity can we call upon? And if we are talking about qualities not known or knowable through our senses, what saves us from the morass of metaphysics? Moreover, so far as the particle physicist is talking about something quite other than the solidity we experience, how can this other quality, whatever it is, make our experience illusory?

The fact is that, in Ferris’ world of "solid" particles bridged by electromagnetic forces, we do meet ourselves. It’s just that we meet an illicit projection of ourselves -- and not only that, but a projection of the very sense qualities we have refused to accredit in the only place where we can actually experience them, which is in the familiar world. The physicist’s explorations occur within this familiar realm insofar as they are valid -- and I am not at all suggesting that particle physics is lacking validity. But wherever it tries to describe a world wholly other than the familiar world, as opposed to deepening our understanding of this world, it produces the kind of nonsense just described.

The reason for this is simply that we could not possibly know anything except in the way we know the familiar world -- through the mating of sense and thought upon the stage of human consciousness. Every attempt to go behind these phenomena ("appearings") rather than to explore additional phenomena, leads either to metaphysics or the projection of our experience of the phenomenal world into a second, parallel world. This parallel world is spoken of as if it were non-phenomenal and non-familiar, and yet it is everywhere contaminated by projections from familiar experience (which is the only way we can give it content).

The Reality of Many Perspectives

Much of our desire for that second, parallel world results from the derogation of sense experience. This derogation produces confusion in its own right. Remember the experiment requiring you to place your hot and cold hands into tepid water? The fact that the tepid water produces different sensations in your two hands is supposed to prove the unreliability of your senses compared to the unambiguous report of the thermometer.

But this is nonsense. As Stephen Edelglass and his co-authors reminded us, if you conduct the same experiment with two thermometers instead of your two hands, you get similar results. The thermometer that was heated will adjust downward over a period of time when placed in tepid water, while the other, "cold" thermometer will adjust upwards. Just as with your hands, a period of equilibration is required before the two reports agree (Edelglass et al. 1997, pp. 24-25).

Yes, nonsense. But consider how readily we have been inclined to accept this nonsense for the past few hundred years. Clearly, for whatever reasons, we have been strongly biased against the validity of our own experience. No healthy empirical science -- no healthy science based on observation rather than a predilection for self-deception or metaphysics -- can arise until we have corrected this bias.

Think a little further about your hands and the water. Even during the equilibration period, is there anything wrong with your sense reports? Isn’t it really the case that the tissues in your warm hand are much warmer than the tepid water, so that the water ought to feel cool by comparison? The need is simply to recognize what is being sensed, which is always a relation between ourselves and something else.

If we analyze the element of thinking out of our sense experience, the one thing we can say about the pre-experiential "Given" -- the raw percept -- we are left with is that it never lies. The reason it never lies is that there is no pseudo-metaphysical realm that this Given is about. It just is what it is. The challenge is to find, through our thinking, the concepts that illuminate the perceptual Given most fully, bringing it into relation with other experience. When we realize this, we can move beyond that peculiar disparagement of phenomena, or appearances, which is owing to their relativity. When you and I look at the same tree, we see it from different perspectives. But why should this invalidate our experiences? As Ortega y Gasset has remarked, "A reality which would remain always the same when seen from different points of view is an absurdity":

Truth, the real, the universe, life -- whatever you want to call it -- breaks down into innumerable facets, into countless planes, each one of which slants towards one individual. If the latter has known how to be faithful to his own point of view, if he has resisted the eternal temptation to exchange his retina for an imaginary one, what he sees will be a real aspect of the world. (Quoted in Lukacs 1994, p. 113)

We come to understand the world only through the achievement of multiple points of view, and no single point of view can be crowned as the canonical one. It is impossible to give any coherent meaning to the idea of an absolute, non-subjective vantage point, and likewise impossible to derogate any particular vantage point as false. We need only find the right concepts through which to bring different perspectives into harmony. We need to understand how they relate to each other.

This helps us to see why the existence of differently perceived worlds -- even if the difference is as great as that between humans and bats -- does not rob the familiar world of its objectivity. What I referred to a moment ago as the "perceptual Given" (which must be understood as occurring within consciousness, not outside it) lends itself to countless phenomenal manifestations, all of which, however, are woven by the thought running through them into a single, consistent world.

The Cartesian Obstacle

"The world manifests itself upon the stage of consciousness". This statement is perfectly acceptable to our modern sensibilities as long as we can hold in reserve a second world to which the statement does not apply -- that is, as long as we can believe in a "real" world existing "out there" wholly independent of our own interior activity. But if we lose this second world and have to live with the idea that appearances constitute the only world there is -- well, this idea seems unbearably vague, insubstantial, and subjective.

Go back to any point in history up until a few hundred years ago, however, and it is the modern view that would have been inconceivable. It was taken for granted that everywhere in the world we met an interior akin to our own. We were a microcosm of the macrocosm, an embryo within the cosmic womb. The world was ensouled. Only with the Cartesian sundering of interior from exterior did we begin to confront the problem of two worlds existing side-by-side in uncertain relation -- and to progressively vest our sense of reality in the external world.

I mention this now not in order to trace the philosophical issues, but simply to point out that our extreme uneasiness with the first world as the only world is owing to the Cartesian diremption of matter from mind. If the world of appearances seems unsatisfyingly insubstantial to us, it is because we were taught to believe that all the world’s substance was vested in "solid stuff" -- Cartesian res extensa -- having absolutely nothing to do with mind or consciousness. So of course the familiar world, inescapably linked as it is with consciousness, comes to seem "merely subjective" and insubstantial. But once you overcome the Cartesian split (as nearly everyone at least professes to do today), then there is no cause for denying consciousness as a fundamental aspect of the real world.

The feeling that appearances are "mere", in other words, derives from a several-hundred-year-old failed attempt to isolate the mental from the outside world -- from everything solid, objective, and substantial. This failed attempt alone -- which, for all its inadequacy, has nevertheless been driven deeply into our bones -- is the only thing standing between us and the clear results of the exercise we’ve gone through this evening. So far as we experience our own subjectivity in the manner of the past few hundred years, the view I have articulated ought to make us feel adrift in an unstable world lacking solid reality. But the situation is radically different as soon as we refuse the Cartesian split and recognize that the solidly real world is a world of exteriors breathed through by an interior -- a world whose entire, objective character lies in its inner powers of manifestation, which is another way of saying, its powers of appearing.

I have subtitled this presentation, "How You Can Participate in the Renewal of Science and Nature". Perhaps you can now entertain the possibility that by sustaining the exercise we have begun here, you will come to experience and understand the world in a new way, and therefore you will help to make it a different world. As Owen Barfield once remarked:

I have been reminding you that, so far at all events as the macroscopic [that is, phenomenal] universe is concerned, the world itself on the one hand and the way we perceive and think it on the other hand are inseparable. It must follow from that that, if enough people go on long enough perceiving and thinking about the world as mechanism only, the macroscopic world will eventually become mechanism only1. (Barfield 1977, p. 185)

But the flip side of this is also true: if enough people go on perceiving and thinking about the world as a living, ensouled organism, that is what it will become. This is epistemology made world-shakingly practical!

Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org) is a Senior Researcher at The Nature Institute in Ghent, New York (https://natureinstitute.org). This work is partially supported by a grant from the Future Value Fund.


1. Barfield is not here hinting at a second, microscopic world lying behind the macroscopic world. The distinction implicit in his reference to the macroscopic world relates to the difference between consciousness and the unconscious, and between the actual and potential. See Barfield 1965.


Barfield, Owen (1977). The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Barfield, Owen (1973). Poetic Diction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Barfield, Owen (1965). Saving the Appearances. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Bergson, Henri (1991). Matter and Memory, translated by N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer. New York: Zone Books.

Brady, Ronald (2002). "Perception: Connections Between Art and Science", https://natureinstitute.org/txt/rb/art/perception.htm.

Edelglass, Stephen, Georg Maier, et al. (1997). The Marriage of Sense and Thought: Imaginative Participation in Science. Hudson NY: Lindisfarne.

Feynman, Richard P., Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands (1963). The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.

Lukacs, John (1994). Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Sacks, Oliver (1995). An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Steve Talbott :: A Modest Epistemological Exercise