Logic and World View in Science
Even in a supposedly post-modern age, science still holds to the tradition of Grand Narration, an all-embracing account of life and the cosmos in which each and every phenomenon and observation is to be collected together under a single vast umbrella of scientific rationality.
But this desire of science is really part of a far more ancient dream; that mythic, archetypal quest, the search for The Philosopher's Stone, or the Holy Grail. In scientific terms, the Grail becomes the "most fundamental level", the most elementary particle. It is the quest for the final equation, that single string of symbols that will explain everything and bring closure to the enterprise of science - the final punctuation mark at the end of the big search.
Other disciplines are questioning the traditions of closure, completeness, absolute objectivity and the grand narration, and are suggesting that many of our concepts emerge out of examined social constructs and prejudices. But working scientists are still drawn to the myth of the great goal and, when they come to judge a new theory, remain firmly wedded to the aesthetic values of economy, elegance, mathematical beauty and so on.
Now all this is not to say that science should drop its traditional methodology, sliding into total relativism and subjectivity, but rather that it is a good idea to be constantly questioning our motives and methodology. One of these questions involves what could perhaps be called "the all embracing logic of a world-view."
How comforting it is to be in possession of an all embracing world-view or a defensible philosophical position. One appears to have one's feet firmly planted on the earth while others are blowing about in the wind of opinion. One has a ready answer for every question and an unshakable faith that, intellectually speaking, everything will turn out for the best. World-views, rational ones at least, are based upon the acceptance of fundamental ideas, concepts and foundations. They are pushed ahead by the power of didactic reasoning and more-or-less Aristotelian logic. In this way, and beginning from well-excavated foundations, one's world view, like a colony of bacteria, spread out until it covers the entire field of knowledge. In this sense its logic, the root of its thinking, involves incorporation and absorption within a single scheme. The result is a feeling of great security and a system of thought characterized by uniformity, elegance and universal integration with total economy of means.
This way of thinking, this use of logic, could be compared with the role of single point perspective in painting. In perspective an entire scene is subservient to a single viewpoint - (all solid objects are mapped onto a two dimensional canvas or fresco according to the rules of projective geometry). While such an approach produces a sense of spatial unity it does so at the expense of distorting the local actuality of things - the parallel lines of a road converge, the right angled corners of a buildings become obtuse or acute, the circular opening of a jug becomes oval, trees are portrayed as being of wildly different sizes depending upon their distance. Rather than seeing each object in itself, with its own unique authenticity, everything is viewed though the spectacles of a single logical scheme, "sub specie perspectiva" as it where.
In the context of other forms of knowledge, each object is always being seen within respect to its context as an aspect of a single design, the act of seeing and representation is all to do with what we anticipate about the object, what we think we know about the experience, what it is in relationship to a complex network of pre-existing knowledge. Rather, that is, in attempting to have the perception, the experience, the understanding without prior judgment and the desire to have confirmed what we already think we know.
At first sight the alternative, in painting, would appear to be to give attention to the way object appears in itself by ignoring the context in which it is placed. While this would certainly respect the authenticity of each object and its local appearance it would do so at the expense of loosing the integration of the whole painting. Is there a middle way? And, to complete the metaphor, is it possible to entertain a world-view that is constantly open, flexible and sensitive to each new experience, each new observation, yet at the same time allows for a coherence of thought?
In terms of painting a solution, a order between and beyond, was discovered, after long and painful experiments, by Cezanne. It was Rilke, or rather his companion, at the great Cezanne retrospective, who remarked that the painter sat looking like a dog. It was an act of looking that possessed an uncorrupted purity, it desired nothing except the truth. Cezanne painted in such a way that while each object is viewed locally and in itself, it is at the same time part of a greater whole. Thus, for example, to change a single brush stoke, or to fill in a tiny blank area on an apple could mean that Cezanne had to repaint the entire canvas. Each apple, within the painting, is aware of its position and role within the whole, and, at the same time, the entire canvas is aware of the apple. As Rilke said "it is as if everything knows about everything else." At the same time, Cezanne, the painter was constantly in movement, both as regards visual perception and the movements of his head and eyes, and within the movements of his "little sensations" on whose realization the entire work depended.
Cezanne was always experimenting, his canvasses are true open systems. He was constantly searching for truth to the extent that very few of his words are signed, indicating that he considered most of his work to be incomplete and unachieved. It is this authenticity, this shifting of viewpoint, this awareness of the inner life of each object and, at the same time, its responsibility to the whole (for each of those apples was a part of nature and Cezanne was allowing nature to speak though his paintings, nature was thinking through him) which makes for those remarkable dislocations in Cezanne's work - the abrupt dislocation of the plane of a table, tilting of an entire room, rotations on an axis, asymmetric curving of the two sides of a vase, the apple in the middle distance that is much large than one in the forefront. As Cezanne worked there was no fixed, rigid world-view, no single logical framework, no overarching and predetermined logic. Each painting was a risk, an experiment, and adventure, a chance for nature to speak through the painter.
I don't really think I need to complete or tie up the metaphor between painting and science. It speaks for itself. It asks if individual scientists could work in a state of risk by abandoning the need for security. The greatest have always done so, for creativity thrives on that tension which does not seek immediate resolution but is willing to live in suspension. And what is true for some exceptional individuals, could it also be true for the entire enterprise itself.
This is also a side issue here. It has to do with structuring of knowledge in a computer age. It is to do with what has been called Homo Informaticus - the new man who supposedly will evolve within the environment of cyberspace ever subtle interconnections between human beings and machines. Entering any territory one looks for a map or guide so that one can orient oneself and seek landmarks. Yet in the landscape of knowledge any fixed strategy or knowledge structure does violence to the fluidity of knowledge, to its perception, communication and the various ways in which it can be is read. Even to suggest that all knowledge, and information, is context dependent suggests something fixed, a boundary between the object of investigation (knowledge) and its context, yet always such boundaries, as those of object and subject are fluid and interactive.
A poem or a painting changes each time we confront it, yet in another sense, as it is ever the same. What strategies are we to apply to knowledge in a computer age? Can we tolerate a cubist approach of dislocated viewpoint, of aspects of knowledge? Can something called scientific knowledge ever be totally isolated and shielded from the wider context of general knowledge? And is knowledge something passive, a mere record, or is it an activity, a process and is knowledge something we learn, like a poem, by rote, or is it closer to what many Native Americans mean when they speak of "coming to knowing".
| Science |
Blackfoot Physics and European Minds
New Science, New Vision
Contact F. David Peat