Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #168                                                  April 13, 2007
                   A Publication of The Nature Institute
             Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

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The Language of Nature (Part II) (Stephen L. Talbott)
   What sort of causation is at work in a world of speech?


About this newsletter

Stephen L. Talbott

The following is Part II of a three-part essay; the next issue of NetFuture will contain the concluding part. An earlier version of this essay was published in the winter, 2007 issue of The New Atlantis ( The text below has been substantially expanded from that earlier version.

You will find Part I of this essay at

Abstract of Part I. The world is word-like - it speaks! - and the scientist is always trying to speak faithfully the language of nature. We all experience nature's speech, but we tend to dismiss it as no more than the voice of our own subjectivity. We can effectively conceal the world's objective, word-like character from ourselves by choosing to attend only to the grammar of the speech while ignoring its expressive meaning. We end up with something like pure mathematical logic, which is not about anything. This explains why the bizarre speculations by physicists concerning the nature of the world are often more levitated than the wildest speculations of medieval metaphysicians: there is not enough reality in the parameters of this science to constrain interpretation. It also explains why the computer, whose admired logic gives us virtually no understanding of the physical device we marry the logic to, has become our reigning model for understanding the physical world. As scientists seek an ever more complete withdrawal from the world's self-expression, they can scarcely help filling the void with crude anthropomorphisms, conceiving the world, for example (like physicist Steven Weinberg) as farcical and hostile.


The emptiness of scientific language, just so far as it fulfills the reigning quantitative and logical ideal, is scarcely open to dispute. It has been recognized, as we have seen, by prominent scientists and philosophers. If you still want to declare the world cold and impersonal, indifferent to human hopes and feelings, relentless and implacable in its mindless obedience to physical necessity - well, that is certainly your privilege. But the one ground least available for your contention is the ground where you celebrate the mathematical precision, certainty, determinacy, and universality of scientific laws. At least, it remains unavailable until you elucidate a path from empty formalism to a revelatory description of the world, and then demonstrate what your precision, certainty, determinacy, and universality mean for this enfleshed world. This in turn will require coming to terms with a paradox that should by now ring familiar: "As far as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality" (Einstein 1954, p. 233).

The amazing thing is how little this puzzle has been taken up by working scientists, especially in the hard sciences. If, as embryologist Lewis Wolpert suggests (1992, p. 121), "all science aspires to be like physics, and physics aspires to be like mathematics", then, at the very least, we might want to inquire about the adequacy of our aspirations. One physicist who does refer to the problem is Richard Feynman. Alluding to the same theme we have traced here, he reminds the mathematically inclined physicist of the necessity for a step beyond formalism toward real-world meaning:

Mathematicians are only dealing with the structure of reasoning, and they do not really care what they are talking about. They do not even need to know what they are talking about, or, as they themselves say, whether what they say is true .... But the physicist has meaning to all his phrases. That is a very important thing that a lot of people who come to physics by way of mathematics do not appreciate .... in physics you have to have an understanding of the connection of words with the real world. It is necessary at the end to translate what you have figured out into English, into the world, into the blocks of copper and glass that you are going to do the experiments with. (1967, pp. 55-56. Emphasis in original.)

But this should not be taken simplistically. It cannot be merely a matter of translating from the language of pure mathematics to the meaning of the physicist because, as Feynman has just acknowledged, there is nothing we can say mathematics is about - no content available for translation. Before you can "translate what you have figured out", you must have figured something out - something more than mathematical, having to do with the presence and character of an observable content. This content finds its way into our thinking by processes distinct from the abstract ruminations of the pure mathematician. A formalism itself cannot direct us to any specific content capable of embodying the formalism.

How then do we find the content of our science? The ease with which this question has been ignored stands as one of the most stunning features of our science-committed culture. Science historian E. J. Dijksterhuis, describing the shift away from medieval thought during the scientific revolution, tells us that "'substantial' thinking, which inquired about the true nature of things, had to be exchanged for 'functional' thinking, which wanted to ascertain the behaviour of things in their interdependence". For this purpose, "the treatment of natural phenomena in words had to be abandoned in favour of a mathematical formulation of the relations observed between them" (1961, p. 501). Dijksterhuis seems to find nothing at all problematic or incomplete about this.

So we must give up thinking about the nature of things and observe their relations in mathematical terms - as if we could possibly describe the relations between things without first understanding in words something about the things themselves! Yet the fact is that we cannot even see a thing, let alone determine its relations, without taking it to be a certain kind of thing possessed of its own characteristic qualities (Brady 2002). The question is only whether we will accept uncritically our half-conscious assumptions about the substantial nature of things - as when, for example, we imagine subatomic particles to be very tiny bits of the qualitatively familiar stuff we deal with every day (an imagination that has caused no end of grief to physicists) - or whether we will instead raise these notions to full consciousness, where we can subject them to proper criticism.

To one degree or another, our science always does have real content, and whatever their philosophical disclaimers, scientists always do believe they have learned something about what Dijksterhuis dismisses as "the true nature of things". And when we lay down our measuring instruments and let go of our high abstractions long enough to examine critically this meaningful content of our theorizing - when we try to understand the entities or processes, the phenomena, without which our mathematical formulations give us no knowledge of the world - then we find ourselves facing three closely interwoven aspects of the world as it becomes known to us: it is irreducibly qualitative; it is a manifestation of consciousness; and it is thoroughly contextual.


Just as we all understand words as bearers of meaning in the practical sense that we successfully read the meaning of texts, so, too, we all understand qualities. In its perceptual immediacy, the world is nothing but its qualities; this perceptual content - as opposed to the pictures we have formed of our own theoretical abstractions - is what I mean by "qualities".

Try sitting outdoors in a natural landscape for half an hour. After quieting yourself and becoming as receptive as possible, ask yourselves - not regarding your own thoughts, but regarding the content presenting itself from the world: What is the character of this content? It may present you with opportunities to measure and derive quantities, but what are you immediately given? What is it that, only subsequently, you are free to measure? From the sky and the distant hill to the grass, pine needles, or soil beneath your feet, is there anything here at all of which you can say that it is measure or can be fully expressed in terms of measure? (How many of us, during years or decades of creative work, will put the question, "What do I meet in the world?" directly to the world, as opposed to thinking about the question in our studies or laboratories, with our thought mediated and perhaps falsified by a vast network of mental abstractions?)

Or try subtracting from the content of your observation everything except measure. In the case of the tree over there, remove the green of the foliage, the gray of the bark, the smell of sap, the rustling of leaves in the breeze, the felt hardness of the trunk ... and what do you have left? Nothing at all - certainly nothing to measure. You do not even have geometric form, since without light and color there is no visible form, and without the different qualities of touch there is no felt form. Measurable form is not something independent that we proceed to flesh out with qualities; it subsists in nothing but perceptual qualities themselves.

You may want to say that the quantities we abstract from our qualitative experience of the world point us toward a reality hidden behind the world we perceive. But unless you can say something about this hidden reality - unless you can characterize it, giving your quantitative constructions some sort of content - where is your science? And how will you characterize this content without appealing to qualities?

Whereas (in Russell's and Feynman's terms) mathematics and logic as such give us nothing to talk about, it appears that the content we do have to talk about - the content scientists in fact talk about all the time - consists of nothing other than the world's qualities. So, despite our entrenched habit of refusal throughout these past several hundred years, shouldn't we undertake an explicit inquiry into how our work with qualities can be as truthful and meaningful as possible? Perhaps these qualities are the world's native way of presenting itself - not a terribly strange hypothesis, given that we cannot imagine any other manner of presentation. In any case, we could not reasonably deny the hypothesis except by investigating the qualities in their own terms.

These terms are not particularly obscure; they simply refuse to conform to our preferred scientific stance. An elementary quality such as red proves maddeningly elusive when our aim is to pin it down. My red shirt turns out to be a different color depending on the lighting and on the other colors around it, as well as on the state of my own eyes. Similarly with the qualitative nature of an entire complex organism: we recognize a single species-nature in a lowland spruce tree and an alpine one, but this common nature comes to dramatically different expression in the two cases. So qualities exhibit the one feature the logician must not tolerate: no quality is "just what it is and not something else". Qualities interpenetrate one another, manifesting themselves differently in every different context.

Since qualities lack the sharp-edged, yes-or-no, unambiguous character of logic, the question to ask about any qualitative description of a phenomenon is not so much the simplistic "Is this precisely true (yes or no)?" as the more challenging "How fully and in what way does it reveal what speaks in the phenomenon?" Serious qualitative descriptions are never merely true or false; rather, they exhibit more or less expressive depth. They give us a more or less satisfying, a more or less penetrating, insight into (and feel for) what a phenomenon is like. When we are reckoning with qualities, questions of similarity are more central than questions of identity. It's one thing to record the contours of someone's face as a set of precise spatial coordinates, and quite another to notice the distinctive character of the face. Often, however, we can read very little of this character in a frozen snapshot. That's because qualities are dynamic, not static. What they are is their inner movement, their manner of exchange and mutual interaction, so that we can catch them only in flight - by moving in a like manner along with them. They leave behind every effort to grasp them and pin them down. A sculptor of stone succeeds only by suggesting movement. Even in depicting a massive rock as a rock we must somehow capture a movement of profound rest, an ageless silence that is itself speech.

We can certainly learn to know qualities. However, our inner activity in taking into ourselves a particular quality involves much more than the play of abstractions over the surface convolutions of our brains. We can move with qualities only by acquiring some of the artist's sensitivity whereby our mobile feelings and our active will are playfully engaged. We experience qualities with our whole being, discovering, for example, that this color has something cool about it, that one something aggressive, and the other one something calming - characteristics of the sort that great artists have always had an objective ability to work with.

To look at the world with an openness to its qualities is to ask, "What kind of phenomenon meets me here? What is it expressing through the distinctive way it summons and coordinates the world's lawful grammar? What melody of its own is this phenomenon picking out upon the mathematically tuned world-lyre?"

"Quality" is in fact an approximate synonym for "meaning". But we usually speak of qualities when we are referring to the world, and we speak of meaning when we are referring to language and thought. The two usages are closely intertwined. The way we reduce the world to atomic things without qualities is by reducing our descriptive language to the atomic terms of logic without meaning. That is, we can obscure the qualitative character of the world only by obscuring the meaningful character of our words. But we never fully succeed in this. The world remains word-like because it is full of the meanings of language, just as our words remain world-like because they are full of the qualities of the world.


Everything we've noted about qualities points to the fact that they are expressions of consciousness. This is hardly controversial; the reason why the scientist fled qualities from the very beginning is that they "reside only in the consciousness" (Galileo). But given that the only "place" we have for experiencing and knowing the world is in consciousness, and given that we evidently do gain at least some real understanding of the world, the obvious thought to entertain exactly parallels the one we entertained a moment ago about qualities: perhaps the consciousness through which alone we can come to understand is in fact well suited to understanding, and for a very good reason: in the world our consciousness meets something like its own activity, something akin to its own nature. With our wide-ranging potential for conscious experience, we are ourselves expressions of the cosmos. Is it surprising, then, that we should be able to give conscious expression to what speaks in the world?

In some scientific quarters a thought like this proves outrageous, while at the same time some of those most envied of scientists, the physicists, speak casually of consciousness as in one way or another fundamental to the cosmos. Even at a time much less hospitable to this thought Sir Arthur Eddington, alluding to the problem we have been considering, could write:

[Our knowledge of physics] is only an empty shell - a form of symbols. It is a knowledge of structural form, and not knowledge of content. All through the physical world runs that unknown content, which must surely be the stuff of our consciousness. (1920, p. 200)

Presumably he means "unknown" only in terms of the accepted, one-sidedly quantitative ideals of science, for if there is one content we can know at least to some degree, surely it is the content of our consciousness1.

Can know, I say. If we choose to continue ignoring this qualitative content - if we refuse to become familiar with it and to begin learning how to approach it in a more or less disciplined and systematic manner - then it will certainly remain Eddington's "unknown content".

The prevailing refusal on this score can hardly be disputed. When as scientists we analyze sound - whether of a volcano or a musical performance - solely in terms of air waves and other mechanically conceived processes, our terms are, curiously enough, as fully available to a deaf person as to someone with good hearing (a point somewhere made by the German physicist and educator, Martin Wagenschein). In fact, the ideal of rigor within the hard sciences generally aims, rather impossibly, for the use of terms understandable by someone who has no conscious perception of the world whatever. But such a person, if he actually existed, would have no world in need of understanding! If, on the other hand, we do have a world to understand, it is a world whose nature is to present itself within consciousness.


We gain a kind of unqualified crystalline clarity by filtering our perceptions of the world through a web of logically precise abstractions. Even space and time become, through analysis, a collection of discrete points or discrete instants of time. But the quantifiable crystalline clarity we thereby achieve belongs to our perceptual filter and not to the world. Dazzled by this clarity and fixity, we become blind to context.

Go out again into a natural setting, sit down, and spend a while taking in everything you can see, hear, feel, and smell. Then ask yourself: does this world, in any meaningful sense, consist of discrete points or instants of time?

You will be hard put to find any justification in observation for these abstract notions. The world and its events present themselves - stunningly, when you compare your actual experience to the various theoretical ways of thinking about the world - as one seamless whole. Points and instants flow into each other, participate in each other, and cannot be clearly separated from each other. Likewise, the seemingly incommensurable "data" of our sight and hearing, our smell and touch, yield moment by moment a single, unified image of the world. Pick any visible object - a tree, say - and try to isolate it cleanly and without ambiguity from everything around it. It cannot be done.

Again, this is hardly controversial. The entire discipline of ecology was founded upon the awareness that organisms are an expression of their environment, and the environment is an expression of its organisms. At the largest scale, the earth's atmosphere, as it once existed, would have been poisonous to today's living forms, and only through the influence of the evolving life forms themselves has it become what it now is (Lovelock 1987). The earth's breathing and that of its creatures is one breathing, and the organism meets itself in its environment.

But it is not only organisms that require a contextual understanding. Every entity, process, and law described by physics gains its real content only by means of its context. We may be able to discern in a process a certain quantitative lawfulness that is invariant from one context to another - because the quantities have had all context and phenomenal content stripped from them. But while this absolute sort of lawfulness may be abstractable from the physical process, the observable content itself is never invariant or subject to necessity in the way we take our universal laws to be. The reason we have to abstract the content away in order to arrive at the mathematical "explanations" is simply that the content of real events is not explained by the mathematics alone. In a beautiful meditation, physicist Georg Maier offers examples, some of them very simple, of the fact that the world's material processes can be understood only contextually (Maier, Brady, and Edelglass 2006, chapter 10):

** "Warm air rises" - and so it does in a closed room, where you will find the air warmer near the ceiling than at the floor. But in the open atmosphere the air usually gets colder with height. You can understand the difference only by considering the two different contexts, one of which limits the upward movement of air, while the other does not.

** Gravity has very different effects, and must be described in different ways, depending on whether you are walking on the solid earth, "floating" in orbit around the earth, or swimming in a lake. The different effects extend even to the question whether your bones will be subject to a dangerous loss of mass - something of concern to long-term inhabitants of orbiting space stations.

** If you place a lighted candle inside a jar and then accelerate the jar (along with its atmosphere and candle), you will find the flame leaning forward in the direction of acceleration, a behavior "contradicting" our more common experience with accelerated objects.

An Important Distinction

These examples will seem either trivial or profound, depending on our ability to discern the subtle distinction they require. The statement, "warm air rises", refers to observable behavior in the world, and therefore, construed as a universally valid law, it fails. All you need to do is to change the context, and a different behavior results. This is true of any law presuming to specify, in unqualified terms, what real things will actually do. True understanding must be thoroughly contextual, so that in different contexts the phenomena will bring their lawfulness to different expression. We overcome this contextuality only by retreating from a description of phenomena to a statement of "grammatical" regularity abstracted from all concrete and particular reference.

You can see the retreat in a law such as Newton's universal law of gravitation, which might be stated this way:

Every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle with a force directly proportional to the product of the masses of the particles and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

Here there is no longer an assertion about what any particular things will actually do ("warm air rises"), and this is why the law escapes falsification by different contexts. It doesn't tell us about contexts; it is a decontextualized statement. Its potentially meaningful terms - for example, "particle" and "force" - remain more or less blank; they are the seemingly inexplicable mysteries of today's physics, leaving us only with the certainties of the mathematics. The "attraction" it speaks of is not a specific, observable behavior of any sort - not, for example, a movement of objects toward each other - but a grammar that any actual movements will be found to respect. Real bodies moving according to this grammar may approach each other, spiral around each other, or move directly away from each other.

The actual behavior of things in the world is always an expression of context. What Maier says of a gas can be said of everything we encounter in nature: it "is so intimately entangled with its environment that its phenomena can be accounted for only as part and parcel of a greater whole". If we want a lawfulness bearing on such contexts, then we will have to look for - what else? - a contextualized sort of lawfulness. The coherence to expect is more like the coherence of a picture or image than of isolated entities. It is more like the coherence of a language context (which plays into and colors every word) than the coherence of a logical or mathematical proposition. And therefore the unity of the context, or whole, is a conceptual prerequisite for our understanding of the part.

Qualities already imply context. This is because they refuse to be "just what they are and not something else", but instead interpenetrate and share something of their identity with each other. Discrete, qualitatively featureless particles can exist only in nameless, side-by-side aggregation; they can never give us the kind of contextual unity that plays into, modifies, and binds together the various elements of the context. In order for there to be a true context, something qualitative must reach across and penetrate all the elements, shaping each of them to the character of the whole. In physics, it may help to think of the hologram. In the life sciences we discover a similar but more living unity of the organism, which biologist Craig Holdrege alludes to in his study of the sloth when he writes that "every detail speaks 'sloth'" (1999). And, in fact, it makes sense to say that contextual wholes are spoken, because they are a weaving together of qualities, or meanings.

Holograms and organisms, images and contexts -- these are a long way from the kind of lawfulness we see in Newton's universal law of gravitation. However, nothing requires us to give up our extremely useful inquiry into nature's formal grammar. But the many conundrums into which this inquiry leads us - conundrums widely recognized whenever scientists temporarily extricate themselves from their dense mesh of theoretical abstractions, face nature herself, and try to understand what they have been talking about - will remain insuperable obstacles to progress until we can begin to explore what a contextual, and more imaginal form of understanding might require of us.

Reified Equations

Here we need to pause and consider the instinctive objection that almost inevitably arises at this point, rooted in stubbornly entrenched habits of thought: "It may be true that a universal law such as the law of gravitation cannot tell us everything that will happen, say, among the objects of the solar system. But that's because there are other laws at work as well. If you add in all these other laws, then, at least in principle, you will understand everything that happens. What can you point to that escapes this all-encompassing lawfulness?"

The short answer is a simple reminder: I have not been suggesting that anything needs to violate or escape the universal laws of physics - no more than a meaningful sentence needs to violate the rules of grammar. But the necessities of a sentence's grammatical form are insufficient to determine what the sentence is saying - they do not give us its content - and neither do the formal necessities of mathematically stated laws give us the content of the world. Where we have such content, it speaks forth its own coherent meaning, and while this meaning may always respect an underlying formal grammar, it can never be reduced to such a grammar.

But this short answer requires expansion. Think of the movements of the heavens, which perhaps are what most naturally come to mind when we imagine the determinism of physical law. Perfectly timed eclipses, precisely targeted space probes, the regular rhythms of day, month, and year - certainly these are real phenomena, and yet we commonly manage to predict them with extraordinary accuracy. Could any phenomena be more fully determined by mathematical law than these?

Well, again, the point is not that mathematical laws must be violated. Nor is it that there must be some element of randomness or wild, lawless disorder in the cosmos. Contextual coherence, after all, is not randomness and disorder. But neither can its significance be expressed in purely quantitative or formal terms. It is a different - a meaningful - kind of order.

How easily we overlook the ways we empty the world of its content! When we think of the heavens as explained by the mathematics of the universal law of gravitation (and other laws), we have reduced our explanatory expectations almost to nothing. Sun, planets, and moons are transformed into anonymous point-masses whose "character" or "behavior" consists of nothing but their trajectories through space. These bodies have become in our minds little more than blank reifications of their governing equations. The phenomena themselves have almost completely dropped from view. It's as if on earth we looked around at people, muskrats, squash plants, clouds, boulders, and springs, and saw no diverse challenges to our understanding, but only the one task of calculating the diverse spatial trajectories of objects.

You need only reflect upon all the scientific disciplines arising from our experience on earth to realize that, when we think of the moon or sun as mere points in motion, we have blocked from our view virtually all the reality of these bodies. If you ignore everything except points in motion - everything constituting the expressive reality of a phenomenon - then it is not the phenomenon you are describing. You are simply using an image (say, of the moon) as a token to stand in your imagination for the lawful grammar that, as we have already recognized, can be abstracted from the physical world. You may choose not to interest yourself in anything more than this grammar, but such a self-imposed restriction hardly constitutes evidence that grammatical knowledge is the only knowledge available to us.

Earlier generations spoke of various influences streaming in from the heavens, and of the humanly relevant dispositions of celestial bodies (or beings), and of the lunatic or mercurial nature of people or events, and of the heavens declaring the glory of God. If, after peeling away the layers of superstition accreted around such notions, we are to assess whatever validity they may have had - or even if (which must come first) we are to understand what sort of thing the ancients might have meant by such terms - we will have to look beyond a mere grammar of movement and open ourselves to the world's qualities. The modern denial of these qualitative judgments is not science; it is a simple expression of the choice within science to have nothing to do with qualities.

What Is a Force?

Even if we start with the words we commonly use in stating our most rigorously quantitative physical laws, and if we take these words as really meaning something, we are immediately carried toward a richly qualitative world. At mid-twentieth century the philosopher Kurt Riezler, speaking about the concept of force, chided physicists with these words: "You use the word force and, when queried, you define it by law, field, and vector; but what you really have in mind is the force you feel in commanding your muscles" (Riezler 1940, pp. 11-12).

Can we gain an adequate scientific understanding of gravity except by referring to the willful use of our muscles or our experience of pressure? A little reflection will convince us that the answer is no. Of course, many scientists will react initially to the question by citing the purely objective relationships of moving masses - relationships given in strictly mathematical terms. And it's true that objects changing their positions in space may give us certain mathematically describable relationships. But so, too, can points on a piece of graph paper. No one takes these points to be exerting a physical force upon each other. Neither could we think of planets as exerting a force unless we had independent concepts of mass and force. As the graph paper illustrates, the mathematical relationships alone do not give us such concepts. Think about it all you wish, but a force is something real in the world, and you will never find a concept for it except through your own experience of the world's forcefulness.

This experience, like all our experience, occurs within consciousness. And it is an indication of the radical and unexplored possibilities of a qualitative science that we cannot say a priori that our conscious experience of bodily forces is unrelated to our experience of the "force" of a personality, the "force" of suggestion, or even that attractive power, or "force", of love that some of the ancients imagined to be at work in the descent of heavy bodies toward the earth. Such possibilities may be crazy or not, but confirming or refuting them would require a kind of devotion to our experience of the world that we long ago lost interest in sustaining.

In any case, what we cannot escape is that without some sort of experience of force within the inner domain of our own consciousness, we have no meaning for the scientific concept of force. Of course, the law of gravity is not meaningless, and we heard Riezler explain why: we can't help bringing our conscious experience to the law, even if this experience remains more or less unacknowledged and therefore is never subjected to proper scientific criticism.

Logic and Scientific Explanation

The common notion of cause and effect in science is a denial of the experiential basis of our understanding. Reducing the expressive content of a phenomenon as far as possible to a few isolated elements possessed of perfectly definable relations, we imagine a "closed system" immune to outside influences. We shift from imaginal thinking to abstraction, from recognition of qualitative experience and the mutual interpenetration of elements to the search for isolated, well-defined parts. Then we say, "This makes that happen", and we try to get a meaningful larger picture by summing these cut-off, individual instances of what we imagine to be cause and effect. In our quest for certainty we want our "things" to play the role of reified symbols in formalisms of mathematical logic, and therefore we must empty the things of their content and isolate them from their context.

I have already noted the fundamental error in this: formalisms can give us a grammar for our description of events in the world, but the grammar by itself is helpless to provide the description. It can neither generate nor explain whatever descriptive content might be expressed in accordance with the grammar. If we discover an underlying grammar in the world's phenomena, then our task as scientists is to apprehend in full consciousness the speech from which the grammar has been abstracted. In this speech the meaning of a contextual whole takes qualitative hold of the part and raises it to a participation in the whole. And so, rather than emptying our terms of experience and meaning, we need to fill them as fully as possible, taking care to see that the experience is truly an experience of the world and not merely of our own unconscious impulses.

Paradoxical as it may sound: to the degree our convictions carry a sense of logical certainty, they are built on illusion. Or even more paradoxically: the only thing a sense of logical certainty in science proves is that we have disconnected ourselves from scientific understanding. To mistake certainty about the internal validity of a logical structure for certainty about the real-world content we project onto the structure is to have lost sight of that content in its own terms. We allow the logic to tyrannize over us, as when we imagine the "law of gravity" to dictate the actual expressive behavior of things, rather than merely to indicate a grammatical form that helps to make expressive behavior possible.

Because logic never does demand or explain a particular expressive content, the fact that it seems to us to do so bears witness to a sense of explanation on our part that is unrooted in the world - unrooted in the actual presentation of things. If we believe the things we are talking about are determined by their grammar, then the real determination of our thoughts is escaping our notice. This points to the ultimate paradox, which is that an improper trust in the logical force of our scientific explanations puts us at the mercy of irrational powers.

If you doubt that perfectly reasonable people holding perfectly reasonable opinions can be subject to irrational powers, a bit of self-reflection may prove helpful. Why is it that virtually all of us, however highly educated and critically minded, continue to hold many or most of the beliefs and values characteristic of the immediate ethnic, religious, educational, ideological, and cultural contexts in which we were raised? We may engage in sophisticated critical analysis and assessment of our beliefs and values, yet the outcome of our argumentative logic clearly depends in substantial part upon which groups we are members of. The basic and largely unexamined meanings we have inherited provide a perfectly compelling logic for our intellects to work with. Enamored by the force of this logic, we fail, in our critical reflection, to reach down to the unconscious meanings in a way that might lead us to very different understandings. Logic itself, stripped as it is of the meanings from which we abstract it, can never lead us to a fundamental re-evaluation of those meanings.

I do not say this in order to play the skeptic regarding all belief and value, or to argue that we never have any justification for holding convictions characteristic of our community. I am only pointing out that we do well to realize how naturally our routine use of logic, whether in arguments with a spouse or in defense of hallowed dogma, can be governed irrationally and from below. And this is at least as true of the scientist's materialistic dogma as it is of any other religious dogma. A satisfying sense of logical compulsion always puts the truth in peril.

To Explain or Portray?

If the kind of logical or grammatical necessity associated with precise scientific law cannot give us an explanation or any full understanding of the world's phenomena, where do we find understanding? We need first of all to accept that an understanding of whatever content is conveyed by a grammatical structure is very different in character from an understanding of the grammatical structure itself. It's the difference between a flat and a many-dimensioned view of things. In particular, we are brought to a different notion of causation as soon as we try to rise above a merely grammatical sort of understanding.

In aesthetics and in the notion of "formal causation" tracing back to Aristotle, the formal cause of a phenomenon or work of art is its unifying shape or form. But this shape is not taken to be a mere distribution of mathematical points within a spatial grid; rather, it is the overall expressive gesture of the thing. This older conception of cause points us toward the qualitative form or meaningful patterns, the governing unity, according to which phenomena unfold rather as a spoken sentence progressively unfolds to express an antecedent governing idea - an idea that informs and transforms the individual words, shaping them to itself. This meaning of "formal" is nearly opposite to the "formal" and "formalism" I have been employing till now2.

The more usual way of thinking about scientific explanation ("This makes that happen") can be useful as long as we realize we're dealing with approximations and that the more we approach an absolute precision and necessity in our cause and effect, the more we have abandoned the context with its expressive character, so that, in the end, nothing of any particular phenomenon remains. We redeem the approximations by realizing that they are approximations and by allowing them to clarify details which we then enliven by bringing them back into qualitative connection with the meaningful whole.

This is very much the way neurologist Kurt Goldstein approached the "mechanical reflex" in his several-decades-old and important book, The Organism (more recently reprinted with a foreword by Oliver Sacks). Goldstein looked at the various ways we analyze organisms into rule-based, mechanical parts and then try to reconstruct the whole from these parts. It never works. He assesses the reflex in humans and animals, showing in exhaustive detail that the "simple-minded" reflex mechanisms we so easily imagine don't really exist. For example, slight changes in the intensity of a stimulus can often reverse a reflex; a reflex in one part of a body can be altered by the position of other parts; an organism's exposure to certain chemicals such as strychnine can reverse a reflex; other chemicals can completely change the nature of a reflex; fatigue can have the same effect; consciously trying to repress a reflex can accentuate it (try it with your "knee-jerk" reflex); and so on without end.

Goldstein showed that the reflex is an artifact of our own stance as researchers, whereby we conceptually and experimentally isolate one part of an organism, cutting the part off from its whole. Moreover, he finds that higher organisms, including human beings, are much more likely to show approximations of reflexes, because it is we who can allow parts of ourselves to become isolated and de-centered. (That's what many procedures of medical assessment are all about.)

Human beings are able, by assuming a special attitude, to surrender single parts of their organism to the environment for isolated reaction. Usually, this is the condition under which we examine a patient's "reflexes".... But [regarding the pupillary reflex] it certainly is not true that the same light intensity will produce the same contraction when it affects the organ in isolation (as in the reflex examination) and when it acts on the eye of the person who deliberately regards an object .... one only needs to contrast the pupillary reaction of a man looking interestedly at a brightly illuminated object with the reaction of an eye that has been exposed "in isolation" to the same light intensity. The difference in pupillary reaction is immediately manifest. (Goldstein, 1995, p. 144)

In sum, we arrive at the law of the reflex only by isolating a separate part of the organism and confining our attention to this part in disregard of the whole. The only way we can achieve such isolation is by draining the context of its interpenetrating qualities, such as the quality of interest and the corresponding qualities of the eye in Goldstein's example of the pupillary reflex. The fullness of reality fades away, leaving the kind of logical skeleton we so easily conceive as a mechanism, with its separate, well-defined parts.

This is to suggest that we can best understand exact, fully determining causes as the skeletal ghosts of formal causes. They are more or less ineffective when juxtaposed with the sinews and countenance of reality, and reveal their impotence when we try to make them account for this reality. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was pointing to this inadequacy of cause-and-effect explanation when he remarked of his pioneering morphological research that "its intention is to portray rather than explain" (Goethe 1995, p. 57). Goethe's idea seems to be that description - or at least description of the right sort - itself constitutes understanding. This is implied more strongly in another of Goethe's oft-repeated koans, which anticipates a great deal of modern thought: "Everything in the realm of fact is already theory .... Let us not seek for something behind the phenomena - they themselves are the theory" (p. 307).

It's obvious enough that we cannot describe anything well without having a good understanding of it, and this understanding informs the description. Goethe's sage advice sounds anemic only when we cannot let go of the misplaced hope that the world might be grasped and explained in the way a logical structure, once we have purged it of descriptive content, can be grasped and explained. This is to forget that logic helps us on our way toward understanding only when, in the very act of performing its clarifying function, it sacrifices itself to the expressive content from which we drew it out. This sacrifice is the reverse of that crucifixion of the world-text upon a scaffold of logic to which I referred earlier.

To prefer portrayal over explanation is to reject the one-sided (and never fully achievable) drive to isolate restricted contexts and precisely definable causes or laws. It is to refuse to lose sight of the interpenetration and mutual participation of things, even while accepting the necessity for narrowly focused excursions. It is to let go of explanation as something fixed, as something we can have, which easily becomes a dead weight upon further inquiry. A portrayal requires a stronger, more full-bodied inner activity on our part in order to hold everything together and grasp its coherence; the portraying is something we must do, not only with thought, but also with feeling and will. We have to trace the fluid, complex way in which one contextual picture metamorphoses into another instead of the vanishingly simplistic way in which isolated (and therefore impossible) things univocally affect other isolated and impossible things.

We have to engage in this inner activity because it is the only way we can move harmoniously with the activity we encounter in the world. It is the only way we can truly understand the language of nature, which is at the same time the meaningful language of our own being.

You will find Part III of this essay at


1. The resistance to Eddington's conclusion is even odder when you consider how many authorities in different fields loudly disavow the Cartesian diremption of matter from mind. The situation becomes more understandable only when we realize how thoroughly Cartesian these authorities remain: they take their stand firmly astride the fractured Cartesian bedrock, accepting the division of things in Descartes' terms and then hoping only to make one side of the problematic divide disappear by reducing it to the terms of the other. A real solution will be found only when we go back and refuse the split altogether, finding another way forward. And this way will include the recognition that the world has a word-like character. Only in language do we find the marriage of inner and outer in a way that overcomes all the conundrums of the mind-body dichotomy. But appreciating this solution can require agonizingly hard work when you have been raised, as nearly everyone in our culture has, upon Cartesian habits of thought. My own path away from these habits was blazed by the philologist and historian of meaning, Owen Barfield. See, for example, the works by Barfield listed in the References.

2. There is a common misunderstanding of formalism and of the relation between form and content. Many believe that formalism concerns itself with the form rather than the content of things or events. But the fact of the matter is that formalism, as the one-sided drive I have been discussing, abandons both form and content. There is no form without content; form can only be the form of something. When the content is left behind, so is any form it might have displayed. Because our thought is taking ever more precise form, we may think we are laying hold of the form of things ever more precisely. But, as I have tried to show, what we are laying hold of is less and less of anything at all. Because there is progressively less content, there is also less and less form. Form and content are distinguishable but inseparable aspects of whatever is there.


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

Barfield, Owen (1973). Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press. Originally published in 1928.

Barfield, Owen (1971). What Coleridge Thought. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Barfield, Owen (1967). Speaker's Meaning. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Barfield, Owen (1965). Saving the Appearances. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World. Originally published in 1957.

Bohm, David (1971). Causality and Chance in Modern Physics. Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bortoft, Henri (1996). The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. Hudson NY: Lindisfarne.

Brady Ronald H. (2002). "Perception: Connections Between Art and Science". Available at

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Feynman, Richard P., Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands (1963). The Feynman Lectures on Physics vol. 1. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1995). Scientific Studies (vol. 12 of Goethe: The Collected Works), edited and translated by Douglas Miller. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Goldstein, Kurt (1995). The Organism. New York: Zone Books.

Holdrege, Craig (2006). "Seeing with Fresh Eyes: Beyond a Culture of Abstraction", In Context #16 (autumn), pp. 18-23. Available at

Holdrege, Craig (1999). "What Does It Mean to Be a Sloth?" Available at

Holdrege, Craig (1996). Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context. Hudson NY: Lindisfarne Press.

Lovelock, J. E. (1987). Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maier, Georg (1986). Optik der Bilder. Verlag der Kooperative Dürnau.

Maier, Georg, Ronald Brady, and Stephen Edelglass (2006). Being on Earth: Practice In Tending the Appearances. Available at:

Riezler, Kurt (1940). Physics and Reality: Lectures of Aristotle on Modern Physics. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Rozentuller, Vladislav and Stephen L. Talbott (2005). "From Two Cultures to One: On the Relation Between Science and Art". Available at

Russell, Bertrand (1981). Mysticism and Logic. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble.

Shannon, Claude E. and Warren Weaver (1963). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press.

Talbott, Stephen L. (2004). "Do Physical Laws Make Things Happen?". Available at

Talbott, Stephen L. (2003). "The Vanishing World-Machine". Available at at

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Zauner and Shapiro (2006). Untitled essay in Towards 2020 Science, Stephen Emmott and Stuart Rison, editors. Available at

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