bill mckibbin

freeman dyson

richard feynman

michael polyani


Chapter Eighteen



    My youthful insights on the Golem were true: we have externalized our capacities in technology in order to effect interior changes in ourselves (warmth, comfort, stimulation.) We have designed a culture for ourselves that intentionally seeks to externalize our  internal capabilities through technology. A roundabout method. Juggernaut’s cart gets us where we’re going. But past a certain threshold of complexity, our journeys take more not less time and we waste more resources.
    First technology connected us to nature. Now it connects us to the connection. As a result, we’re facing three unintended long range con-sequences.

    o    Technological civilization pushes us away from the use of our own body systems for internal regulation. We are increasingly alienated from ourselves.

    o    Technological externalizations have built up a momentum of their own. They cannot change without calling out new externalizations. The economy relies on increasing layers of connections.

    o    The thickening membrane, while producing markets for goods and services, destroys natural habitats, including the internal human habitat of the mind’s relationship to the body. This breach keeps us from experiencing our own real needs or recognizing the encroaching pathologies that makes us ill or stupid.

    Global warming, resource depletion, species extinctions, mass migration, cultural anomie, enchantment to media, worship of celebrity, propaganda, disinformation, "truthiness", ongoing regional wars, the collapse of economies and ecological webs are signs and symptoms of it. They show that we’ve reached a limit, that the current norms of expansion and acceleration are neither sustainable, desirable nor inevitable. We don’t see this last most obvious factor because we’ve been habituated to mania. We need to sober up.


    Who needs to sober up? The usual experts, economists and politicians. But more importantly, life scientists and physical scientists. It is their research that will have the most impact on the future. Working scientists are best situated now to bridge the gap between the ethical and technical minds.
Any historically powerful reconciliation between ethics and technics would have to change the way we do science and use its findings. There is no stronger route to brong about  change. Science is the central enterprise of the fifth epoch. It upholds our standards of verification. Its directions for research shape culture and industry at the root. Our historical momentum is closely linked to the progress of the sciences and its technical applications.
    A reconfigured science, with scientists less under the thrall of successomania, consumerism, addiction and juvenile arrest, could free us to explore our creative resources in powerful new ways.
    We have no better intervention point from which to incite cultural change. Science is the fulcrum. Our hands are on the lever.


    But how can scientists rely on ethical insights in their work when to all appearances they are utterly reliant on the technical mind and its links to quantification and repeatability? The technical mind sits at the core of the scientific method. Some critics argue that the ethical grounding would have to come from outside, that we have to impose an ethic on science to keep it safe.
    In Enough!, Bill McKibbin argues for self-restraint.

“If germline genetic engineering ever starts,: he tells us, “it will accelerate endlessly and unstoppably into the future, as individuals make their calculations that they have no choice but to equip their kids for the world that’s being made. Once the game is under way, in other words, there won’t be moral decisions, only strategic ones.”1

    But the self-restraint that scientists need is not part of the doing of science. It’s outside of science. It’s human restraint. “What makes us unique is that we can restrain ourselves. We can decide not to do something we are able to do. We can set limits on our desires. We can say “Enough!”
    He argues that “poverty and illness may not require the highest tech; maybe they can be dealt with in the world we currently inhabit, with the kind of small and steady scientific and cultural progress we’re used to.”2
    How does he expect to keep things “small and steady” when the culture shows such a strong desire to push on farther, faster and bigger? Where does he get the notion that we’re used to small and steady scientific progress? How does he expect to protect us from the juggernaut? He’s not that confident. “As we’ve seen, meaning turns out to be fragile – we can either pile sandbags around it to keep it safe, or watch it wash away.”3
    This argument from the loss of meaning suffers enormously because McKibbin does not show what meaning consists in. Without dealing with the contents of human nature, with love, wisdom and aggression, his solutions seem unworkably thin.
    He may call his nostrum self-restraint, but in practice, some of us would certainly have to restrain others. We spend enormous energy restraining each other already. McKibbin’s political solutions would require new agencies, new laws and regulations and a new cadre of regulators, hopefully not dominated by lobbyists. This approach presupposes a functioning democracy with a well-informed and caring citizenry. We don’t have that now and we’re not likely to get it soon. Lacking a creative ruling class, lacking the sensitivity to recognize the moral lead of the underclasses, and unable to conceive of non-establishment types as a revolutionary vanguard, the greatest likelihood is that McKibbin would end up turning over the management of the Enough! agenda to another elite of mediocre experts, and the successomaniacs among them would quickly rise to the top.
  But why force controls from outside and disguise them as self-restraint when modern science has very sturdy moral foundations of its own? Where are they, you may well ask? They’ve been there all along in its commitments to openness and freedom of inquiry. Freeman Dyson described it as being “…based on a fundamental open-mindedness, a willingness to subject every belief and every theory to analytical scrutiny and experimental test… We scientists are by training and temperament jealous of our freedom. We do not in principle allow any statement whatever to be immune to doubt.”
    In support of which he quotes the saying carved over the door of the Royal Society of London, “Nullis in Verbia,” and translates it as “No man’s word shall be final.”4


    This commitment to truth, freedom and openness hasn’t kept us from resource depletion, pollution, climate change, weapons proliferation, etc. Why not? Because socio-economic pressures, when they drive the technical mind, erode these commitments and replace them with different goals centering on wealth, success and esteem. As Pope John Paul II observed in an apostolic letter, “The pre-eminence of the profit motive in conducting scientific research ultimately means that science is deprived of its epistemological character, according to which its primary goal is discovery of the truth.”5
    In its quest for contact with reality, the technical mind can serve science well only when it relies on the desire for truth. That desire comes from the ethical mind in science.


    Richard Feynman knew this from long experience -- and knew how problematic it was. “People are not honest,” he pointed out. “Scientists are not honest at all, either. It’s useless. Nobody’s honest. Scientist’s are not honest. And people usually believe that they are. That makes it worse. By honest I don’t mean that you only tell what’s true. But you make clear the entire situation. You make clear all the information that is required for somebody else who is intelligent to make up their mind.”6
    Corporate sponsored science obstructs the search for truth by reneging on openness, which makes the problem worse. Good scientists are forced into competitive isolation at a time when they need maximum conviviality. Competitive isolation draws one toward the four pathologies.


    In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polyani, a mid-twentieth century chemist and philosopher of science,  made efforts to restore the root of the ethical mind in science by insisting that aesthetic feelings were indispensable to its search for truth. He considered “intellectual beauty as a guide to discovery and a mark of truth.” Beauty and truth were tied together. Beauty was a way to truth.
    “Three things have been established beyond reasonable doubt,” he argued, “the power of intellectual beauty to reveal truth about nature; the vital importance of distinguishing this beauty from merely formal attractiveness; and the delicacy of the test between them, so difficult that it may baffle the most penetrating scientific minds.”8
    That suggestive phrase “intellectual beauty” harks back to Shelley’s Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, a poem that affirmed his commitment to the “awful Loveliness” of the truths of nature learned by “studious zeal or Love’s delight.”

I vowed that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine – have I not kept the vow?
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave…

 phi   I take this zeal to reflect the devotion, constancy and enthusiasm scientists have for discovery. Only the pursuit of beauty joined to the search for truth can guide the technical mind into the heart of nature. The best young researchers share this passion. But strictures on openness and loss of conviviality frustrate it.
    Polyani believed that

“… a philosophic movement guided by aspirations of scientific severity has come to threaten the position of science itself. This self-contradiction stems from a misguided intellectual passion – a passion for achieving absolutely impersonal knowledge which, being unable to recognize any persons, presents us with a picture of the universe in which we ourselves are absent.” As a result: “…it has now turned out that modern scientism fetters thought as cruelly as ever the churches had done. It offers no scope for our most vital beliefs and it forces us to disguise them in farcically inadequate terms.”9

    The misuse of the technical mind put him in “opposition to a universal mechanical interpretation of things [that} impairs man’s moral consciousness.”10


    Polyani was caught in a bind. How could scientists allow “vital beliefs” resting on subjective ethical and aesthetic considerations into their experimental work without threatening the very basis  of the scientific method? To do so, some philosophers have argued, is to commit the Naturalistic Fallacy. A. C. Ewing commented “…there seems to be no possibility of validly deducing ethical propositions by some sort of logical argument from the nature of reality without first assuming some ethical propositions to be true; or at least if there is, the way to do so has not yet been discovered by anybody.” That is, one cannot seek an “ought” from the “is” of nature. That effort is absolutely vain, misguided and fatal to scientific progress.11
Turning the tables on the naturalistic fallacy, Father Copelston, in his history of Western philosophy, wrote “the only reason for so describing it would obviously be the belief that goodness is a ‘non-natural’ quality.12


hubble space pictureThe issue goes to the fit between us and nature, a fit that in all its rhythms, patterns, parts and processes evolved over billions of years. Our senses (senses evolved by nature too) register the fit  as beauty.
To our evolved eye, evolution seems to select for beautiful patterns even where they have no survival benefit. The patterning is intrinsic in nature. It exists on every scale.
    Even mollusks buried in the mud have beautiful shells.
    And we, since we are the stuff of nature, and account ourselves beautiful too, respond to beauty by opening ourselves to it wherever we encounter it. That is to say, we look for beauty, we want it to be there; we try to create and preserve it; we search for the link between beauty and truth; we accept it as part of nature.
    The working scientist assumes that the aesthetic sensibility that makes a flower beautiful, that makes the blending of colors in the evening sky sublime, that makes an apple delicious, that makes the electromagnetic spectrum a delight to consider, that finds beauty in the Fibonnaci series and revelation in the Phi of a seashell’s curve, is in fact the way beauty expresses truth and truth manifests as beauty.
We have established that the standard of beauty comes from the standard of truth which comes, in turn, from the standards of cognition, which come from the evolved nature of our sense organs and processing equipment, which for adaptive reasons suffuse our organism as tangibly as the whorls on a seashell. It is how we order experience.
     We find beauty not only spatially but also temporally, in the flow of events. They can be beautiful too. They have their music; they dance. The beauty present in the moment unfolds in time. The great dramatists show this in their work.
    But where does goodness come in?


    Polyani thought to bring goodness into science via the sense of personal responsibility. He wrote that “…no sincere assertion of fact is essentially unaccompanied by feelings of intellectual satisfaction or of a persuasive desire and a sense of personal responsibility”13
    The link goes deeper than that I think. If openness bears on the search for truth by upholding the ethical mind, as Feynman argued, and if the ethical mind has physiological links to empathy and sympathy, as I have shown, and if beauty and truth are linked, as Polyani and many other scientists have insisted, it may be that goodness comes into the mix deeper down. Socrates tried to prove that truth, beauty and goodness were one.

    Perhaps the ravishment by beauty in the sciences that Polyani celebrated connects directly to the natural root of Agape. Socrates pointed out that we naturally love what is beautiful and want it near us, and we do not want to destroy what we love. If so, there must be a love that joins beauty to goodness. Having already admitted the aesthetic energy in truth itself, we now discover, at least through caring not to destroy, that it inclines us to goodness. In beauty, we experience the evolved power of an addictive yearning for contact with reality. We seek it because it “tastes good”. It’s a dependency rooted as firmly in our natures as the suckling infant’s connection to the mother’s breast. From that pinnacle of connectedness flows the sugary sweet milk whose flavor is both desirable in itself, necessary for survival and the root of sugar addictions.
    The broader truth here is that the beauty in a theory, at the same time that it is a mark of the correspondence between the theory and nature, signifies a correspondence between the inner and outer world of the person conceiving of the theory. That person who happens to be so lucky as to inhabit the part of the cosmos capable of reflecting on itself, makes choices between alternative understandings, feels Spinozan emotions and does something in the world.
    Our flow of passions in science, seen from this perspective, is part of a wholeness, an affirmation of full human presence in the joint field of nature-and-self.


goethe Goethe‘s science followed this line. It was his response to the mathematical abstractions of the Newtonian worldview that he thought were taking us away from reality. The greatest disaster of modern physics was its “insulating the experiment from man, and attempting to get to know nature merely through artifices and instruments.” He argued, like Kant, that the only reality we could know lay at the interface between man and nature. No matter how many instruments or layers of abstraction intervened between the object and the person, the last step of the transmission would pass through the human sensory sheath, inevitably bringing the science to the flesh, though it might come back drained and desiccated in meaning and relevance.
    Goethe believed that beauty could reveal laws of nature. He was the one major poet who lived a life of scientific research, he spent decades experimenting with optics, anatomy, geology, botany and the morphology of plants.
    As Erich Heller describes it in The Disinherited Mind, Goethe’s scientific work sprang from a faith in the connectedness of man with nature and that “Goethe’s ethical and scientific convictions are mere aspects of that faith… in a perfect correspondence between the inner nature of man and the structure of external reality, between the soul and the world.”14


    Goethe’s approach has had a curious afterlife in Wittgenstein. In collaboration with Frederich Weisman, one of logical positivists in the Vienna Circle of the late twenties the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein wrote in 1929:

“Our thought here marches with certain views of Goethe’s which he expressed in the Metamorphosis of Plants. We are in the habit, whenever we perceive similarities, of seeking some common origin for them. The urge to follow such phenomena back to their origin in the past expresses itself in a certain style of thinking…namely the arrangement as a series in time. (And that is presumably bound up with the uniqueness of the causal schema). But Goethe’s view shows that this is not the only possible form of conception.”

    Ray Monk, in his biography of Wittgenstein, explained the Goethe connection this way: “Goethe’s morphology… sought to recognize living forms as such, to see in context their visible and tangible parts, to perceive them as manifestations of something within. Wittgenstein’s philosophical method, which replaces theory with ‘the synopsis of trivialities’, is in this same tradition.”15
    Wittgenstein’s later work reminds one of Goethe’s focus on morphology applied to language usage. Wittgenstein searched for “family resemblances” in order to describe common meanings without going beyond experience.


 beauty/crone illusion   As I understand Wittgenstein’s position, when a family resemblance was pointed out, you either saw it or you didn’t. When you did, the family resemblances gelled into a “gestalt,” a term that Wittgenstein adapted from Wolfgang Kohler, who himself took it from Goethe. In a gestalt you get the image to hold fast, like those optical illusions that flip-flop between an old crone and a young woman – you get it to hold as a young woman, for example, and the crone goes away. When the gestalt changes and the other face comes back, you know you are slipping from one family of usage to another.
    With trained sensory and cognitive perspectives I believe a person can see both the crone and the beauty at once, and watch them flip-flop, and experience the changes as part of a larger pattern, a “field” including both. The field itself, with proper training, can lay open before the senses as a gestalt. It congeals when the brain learns to relax into the field of endeavor, when a person achieves what the Taoists call wu wei, spontaneous action. The trick is to have the presence of mind to stay there, make choices, do work, conduct experiments, explore, remember and describe.
    By persisting in a durable gestalt, we will be able to overcome the either/or character of experience without falling into a baffled chaos of perceptions or an obscuring metaphysical belief system. But in a bright, busy actuality.
    Whether Goethe found an alternative to grouping events along the causal time series, and whether those gestalts could produce a better way of doing science remains to be seen. In this book I follow a different path; I want to plunge deeper into the time series itself.