Geoge Walford: Metaphysics of Modern Science

The indivisible atom, solid and reliable, vanished in the first glimmer from Rutherford’s cathode-ray tubes, and physicists seeking a replacement have found only ghosts wandering in a fog of probability, such dreams as stuff is made on. One ‘fundamental’ particle after another has refused to be pinned down. Among workers at the growth-point of physics belief in a rigidly law-bound world went out with the old atom, and the consequent lack of external, objective guidelines has rendered clear thinking and self-restraint even more necessary. Much ‘alternative’ writing, ignoring this, repels by its undisciplined enthusiasm, but not the article we summarise below. None of the authorities seem certain any longer just what scientific method comprises, but to the extent that the phrase implies critical reasoning and a level of intellectual coherence that justifies careful attention, it appears here. (Having had to look up two words we can perhaps spare readers a little trouble. Noetic: of or pertaining to the mind or intellect. Telic: directed or tending to a definite end; purposive).

Written by Willis W. Harman, President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Sausalito, California, the article appeared in the Newsletter of the Scientific and Medical Network, No.47, December 1991, under the title: ‘The Issue Before Us: Reassessment of the Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science.’ It begins by pointing out that although physics starts with the assumption that ultimate reality consists of fundamental particles, attempts to establish this have rather indicated the contrary: ‘The search for the ultimate reductionist explanations seems to point to a wholeness.’ Living systems exhibit a tendency towards self-organisation, and puzzling events seeming to imply action at a distance appear both under the rigorous conditions of nuclear experimentation and as paranormal phenomena in daily living. Science appears to be incomplete in that it allows no place for consciousness and its altered states, for free will or for the self which is ineluctably involved in observation; no place for what Nobel laureate Roger Sperry has termed ‘downward causation.’

W. V. O. Quine has argued that since any scientific expectation involves metaphysical assumptions, when observation fails to confirm it the reason may lie in these. Harman comments: ‘Most scientists today would assert that science has moved away from the strict determinism, reductionism, positivism and behaviourism of a half century ago. But it remains to be discerned what scientists are moving towards.’ He suggests a change in the ontological assumption of separateness and the epistemological assumption ‘that our sole empirical basis for constructing a science is the data from our physical senses.’ A growing consensus holds that science needs to move beyond ’cause’ and ‘effect’ – limited explanations that depend upon context – to the conception of a whole system evolving. And such a system, embracing human beings, would necessarily include also the noetic and telic qualities they exhibit.

This ‘wholeness science’ would not exclude the reductionist, cause-and-effect approach, for that works amazingly well when the object is to gain control by manipulating the environment. But it would recognise that no comprehensive world-view can be constructed without incorporating noetic, telic, mystical, intuitive and aesthetic factors. Even now science does not totally exclude these; it takes the elegance of a theory into account.

Looking beyond the particulate universe of positivistic science Willis Harman adduces a world of unity, of cooperation and collectivism: ‘Understanding comes from identifying with the observed; becoming one with it.’ Here ‘the observed’ indicates the cosmos and its constituents. In advocating identification with these Harman is putting forward (to use the technical jargon of systematic ideol- ogy) the eidodynamic attitude to complement the eidostatic. In order to locate his thinking more accurately than this in the ideological range we need to consider the antecedents of reductionist science.

Both historically and logically science’s pursuit of precision develops out of the responsible, systematic thinking first introduced by authoritarian religion. This, in turn, emerged from the primal mental attitude, that of expediency. This first ideology tends strongly to accept appearances, without entering into such ‘abstract’ questions as whether the world is best understood as systematic or random, particulate or unitary, distinct from, or united with, the subject. It has not undergone extinction in the course of development but remains with each one of us today as the default approach, to be used whenever nothing more strenuous is called for.

The developmental series runs: Unquestioning acceptance, authoritarian religion, reductionist science, ‘wholeness science.’ Harman’s article goes no farther, but it leaves its account of wholeness science carefully open-ended. Unusual states of consciousness ‘may be… a window to other dimensions of reality.’ ‘The ultimate explanations… will probably turn out to have to include something in consciousness analogous to ‘image’ or ‘idea.’ ‘May be,’ ‘will probably’; such guardedness make a refreshing change from the irresponsible asseveration so common in this area. Can we carry the argument farther?

To judge from his present text Harman expects further advances to focus on mysticism, telepathy, psychokinetics and kindred phenomena, and in this he may well prove right. Yet so far as present knowledge goes these phenomena occupy only the margins, and it is not clear that substantial advantages would result from greater understanding or control of them. The possibility that telepathy may come to outperform the fax machine, or psychokinetics enable us to dispense with container ships and juggernaut lorries, may induce some to turn their energies in that direction, but investigation of it cannot sensibly claim any large part of social resources. Another route seems to offer more hopeful prospects.

In developing and expressing their ideologies human beings have created society. The thought-governed and purposeful (noetic and telic) behaviour of social groups – firms; parties, armies, states, movements, professions, scientific communities, industries, nations – now provides both our most brilliant prospects and our most urgent problems. These forms of social behaviour, and the ideologies that govern them, rather than any further powers that individuals may be capable of developing, seem to offer the most promising field of advance for systematic study.

from Ideological Commentary 56, May 1992.