Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Sunday 30 July 2017

Why and how European Western philosophy begat the scientific revolution

I’ve been reading a book, The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent, subtitled A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. At close to 450 pages, it’s a weighty philosophical tome, both literally and figuratively. According to the back fly leaf, ‘Jeremy Lent is a writer and the founder and president of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on the earth.’ A very noble goal in itself, and the book goes some way towards describing a ‘manifesto’ to achieve it. ‘Lent also holds a BA in English Literature from Cambridge University and an MBA from the University of Chicago.’ In a former life, he was ‘the founder, CEO and Chairman of a publicly traded internet company.’

I acquired the book after reading a review in New Scientist. I knew from the outset that I would have disagreements with Lent, yet I believe his tome is worth reading for a number of reasons. Besides, no one ever completely agrees philosophically with someone else, which includes everyone who reads this blog.

He essentially traces the development of human civilisation in both the West and the East, using the premise that culture determines largely how we think and, by giving a brief yet not superficial history lesson, attempts to understand, if not explain, why we are historically and culturally, in the West, where we are today.

He gives particular emphasis to the Platonic Christian cultural evolution in the West and the Neo-Confucian evolution in China, which incorporated Confucianism with Taoism and Buddhism. I have a particular interest in both of these developments, though I wouldn’t call myself a scholar. I have read widely in all these areas and even studied Western philosophy along with science and mathematics without the academic qualifications to make me an expert in any specific area. It is this interest that originally led me to produce this blog.

I’ve made the point in earlier posts that we all think in a language, which both determines and limits what we can actually conceptualise, and provides the basis for much of our cultural norms. Lent makes the same point and illustrates what he means with a very good example.

Australian Aborigines in their indigenous languages don’t have words for left, right, front and back. Instead, directions and relative positions are always given by compass directions even though they don’t use a compass. It’s well known that Aborigines have an uncanny sense of direction (by Western standards), which has been essential to their survival for millennia. I once read a description of someone (a White Fella) stopping a Land Rover on a track so that he and his companions (Black Fellas) could pursue and kill a kangaroo in the scrub. When they turned to go back with their kill, he naturally went to return the way they had come, whereas they went in a straight line back to the Land Rover even though they couldn’t see it. In AFL (Aussie Rules football) Aboriginal players are known for having a strong sense of direction on the field and where everyone is. Anyone who’s seen a game of Aussie Rules would appreciate what an advantage that could be in the run of play.

The curious thing is that we don’t know if the language determines the innate ability or the other way round. One suspects it’s a combination of both. The language reinforces the specific cultural requirement that the individual needs, not only to ‘fit in’, but, in this case, to survive in an unforgiving landscape with limited visual markers, and where the terrain changes, revealing and hiding specific markers as one travels.

Lent has been influenced by George Lakoff, whom he references more than once. I’ve encountered Lakoff in my own reading and even had correspondence with him. These encounters are partly chronicled elsewhere, but essentially Lakoff explains virtually all knowledge from the perspective of metaphor, including all of philosophy, science and mathematics. Lent also talks about the significance of metaphor in its cognitive role of elevating humans above all other species. Just on that point, metaphor is a form of analogy and many of them become what Lakoff calls ‘frozen metaphors’ and what I’d call clichés. I’ve written about this elsewhere as well, but analogy is our first and most important method for explaining something new to someone else. It’s our ability to integrate new knowledge into existing knowledge which allows us to learn unfamiliar concepts; and analogies, including metaphors, are our key means of achieving this. As Lent points out, we use metaphors all the time without even thinking about them. How often do we say we ‘see’ something when we mean we ‘understand’ it, yet the context of the word allows one never to be confused.

But Lent also borrows from Lakoff, whether intentionally or not, in another way when he reinterprets a scientific discovery in a context of his own making. He talks about Neo-Confucianism as effectively foreseeing modern scientific developments because of its gestalt approach to the Universe. For example, he cites Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, as evidence that ‘The traditional Chinese notion of qi [sometimes called chi] as an all pervasive force of energy and matter could now be related to the findings of modern science.’ In other words, Einstein’s mathematical discovery apparently confirms an ancient Chinese principle. It’s very easy to reinterpret a discovery (like Einstein’s equation) in the context and language of an ancient tradition which never came close to acquiring the mathematical genius such a discovery entails. In fact, Einstein’s discovery rests on millennia of mathematical and scientific developments in the Western world that Lent is effectively arguing is inferior to Neo-Confucianism.

Now, I need to point out that I have also called myself a Neo-Confucianist, but I see its importance in a psychological context rather than as a worldview that somehow trumps modern scientific thinking. As I said in my introduction, I’ve read widely in this area without becoming a scholar because I see it as an alternative philosophy to Western monotheistic religion, which is the psychological context I refer to above. It is in this context that I can find some agreement with Lent.

In particular, Lent argues that monotheism lends itself to genocidal activity against other religions and he quotes from both the Old Testament and the New Testament to support his contention. He makes the point that such genocidal activity was not just reserved for non-Christian religions, including Judaism from whence it was derived, but also within Christianity itself. We find similar issues within Islam in the modern world. Monotheism, according to Scripture, will tolerate no other God or Gods. Historically, this has led to some of the worst atrocities, and, in Islam, still does. I have my own issues with monotheism from my upbringing, some of which was resurrected when reading Lent’s account. He makes the point, by quoting renowned Christian thinkers, like Augustine among others, that the body with its sexual and base desires represents the opposite of spiritual purity. The obsession with sex in the Church has led to its own problems that are finally being revealed in the full light of the law in many countries, including Australia. The self-loathing that Lent cites in some Christian thinkers is something I can identify with. No one taught me self-loathing; it just came with the territory. I’ve had a strong aversion to the Bible and its teachings ever since.

I’ve always been a seeker of knowledge in many forms, including religion. So it’s not surprising that I read Buddhist scholars like Daisetz Suzuki, and have read various texts on the I Ching, including the renowned Richard Willhelm translation (English translation by Cary Baynes). I’ve read the full works of Carl Jung who was arguably more religious scholar than psychologist. He was the first to make me consider that God is something internal, not external, which makes the idea totally subjective.

Many famous scientists dabbled in what we would call occult practices, which were partly a reflection of the age in which they lived and partly a consequence of their striving for ‘truth’ wherever they may find it. Johannes Kepler was an astrologer as well as an astronomer and once took the stand in court to defend charges against his mother for being a witch. Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest scientist ever, was also a numerologist and alchemist, much of which he kept secret. Erwin Schrodinger studied the Upanishads, the classical Hindu text, which he briefly discusses in his book, What is Life?  According to Lent, Niels Bohr incorporated the Taoist Yin Yang symbol into his coat of arms when he was knighted, because it represented the inherent and inexplicable complementarity (or paradox) of wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics. Einstein, in his own words, was not religious in the conventional sense, yet he wrote the following:

A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitutes true religiosity, and in this sense, and this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man.

Einstein was also influenced by the philosophy of Spinoza. But perhaps the greatest walking contradiction in science was a contemporary of Einstein, Bohr and Schrodinger: Wolfgang Pauli. Pauli was notably the most critical of any theory put forward, no matter by whom, and made famous contributions to quantum theory – in particular, the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which explains, among other things, why objects (including human beings) don’t simply meld into each other when everyone knows that all atoms are mostly empty space. But Pauli was also a personal friend of Carl Jung and studied the I Ching.

Getting back to Lent’s book, and his subtitle, Humanity’s Search for Meaning, one could argue that religion, in all its variants, is the consequence of this search, but only science and mathematics have provided us with real knowledge of our origins and the mysteries of the physical Universe. This leads to the next aspect of Lent’s discourse.

Before I go further, I should point out that I’m not a history buff and I would concede that Lent’s knowledge of history would almost certainly outweigh mine. However, I think his interpretations and reasoning of relative cultural evolution and comparative developments, especially in science, are speculative and therefore open to challenge.

He makes the relevant point, not lost on most history of science scholars, that there were times (not concurrent) when both the Arab world of Islam and the Chinese world of Neo-Confucianism were ahead of Western civilizations in the pursuit of science-based knowledge, like astronomy, mathematics and technology in general. Lent provides his own rationale as to why the scientific revolution occurred in Europe and not Asia. In the case of Islam, conservative religious scholars hijacked the debate, which happened in Christendom too, one could argue, but more on that later. In the case of China, Lent argues that the Neo-Confucian philosophical approach was not so much a failure to discover science, as we tend to perceive it, but that they had a different objective. He effectively argues that if we had adopted their approach the world would be a better place. I’ll return to that point at the end.

Arguably, Lent’s most contentious point is that Christianity and Science had a certain synergy that facilitated the advancement of science. For most of Western philosophy, science and religion were not dichotomized like they are today. But even today, scientists with religious beliefs will incorporate their beliefs into their science, usually in a way that only makes sense to them. But back in the day of Galileo, Kepler, and even Newton, this was the norm. Scientists of that period also had religious beliefs, and if they were European, then those religious beliefs would have been Christian. I don’t see any mystery or controversy on this point.

The major difference between the Western philosophical tradition and its Eastern counterpart is the role of the ancient Greeks, specifically Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, which Lent acknowledges. This was also the influence on the Arab world along with Hindu mathematical advances (particularly the adoption of zero) but science in Islam became a heresy under conservative religious leadership (at least according to Lent, and I suspect he’s right). Lent points out that it was the Greeks who coined the term ‘natural law’, astro-nomos (nomos is ‘law’) which, of course, gives us ‘astronomy’. Lent argues that, in the West, we adopted this as being ‘God’s law’, hence the tradition, even in the 20th Century, with Einstein and Hawking (an atheist) referring to the ‘Mind of God’, and Paul Davies, a self-confessed deist, even writing a book with that title.

What really gave us the scientific revolution is the appreciation of the role of mathematics in understanding all aspects of the natural world and its cumulative revelations from Galileo, Kepler and Newton to Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein, culminating in the so-called golden age of physics in the 20th Century. Lent acknowledges the cultural origins of this paradigm in ancient Greece, starting with the Pythagoreans, but sees it as a cultural metaphor (like Lakoff) that we have come to accept as ‘truth’, effectively replacing conventional religion. As anyone who regularly reads my blog will attest, that’s pretty well my intellectual position.

Not surprisingly, Lent challenges this paradigm, specifically the ‘truth’ part, citing the mathematical relationship between π and a circle’s area (for example) as being true, yet does not axiomatically constitute a universal ‘truth’. However, I argue that there are innumerable universal truths in mathematics – look no further than the primes. To be fair, Lent is not alone among philosophers or even mathematicians; Stephen Wolfram, who famously created Mathematica, argues that mathematics is a cultural artefact, just as Lent describes.

Lent argues that if we were jellyfish, for example, with the same intelligent and cognitive capacities as humans, living in a fluid environment then the mathematics we know may not have developed if there was nothing ‘discrete to count’. I’ve met this argument before (though different analogy). It’s the relationships between numbers rather than the numbers themselves that constitutes mathematics and it’s those relationships that have allowed us to describe, if not understand, such natural phenomena as electromagnetism, gravity, the life cycle of the sun, the chemical attributes of every element; and so it goes on. So even if there was nothing to count, it’s hard to imagine mathematics not existing in a form that allows us to comprehend the Universe on such a diverse range of scales. In fact, even the very notion of scale and its significance in determining the dominance of specific natural forces suggests that mathematics is intrinsically woven into the fabric of the Universe. 

Lent, among many others, contends that we’ve imposed mathematics as a human-made structure onto the Universe, and argues that discoveries in the 20th Century in the field of chaos and complexity reveal the inadequacy of Newtonian based physics to explain the natural world.

First of all, science, of all human disciplines, appreciates that knowledge is not fixed; it’s a neverending endeavour. In fact, Lent gives examples of Einstein’s physics overturning Newton’s and Riemann’s geometry replacing Euclid’s as evidence that mathematics and the science it spawns as not representing universal truths. I find this argument disingenuous when it’s well known that Riemann’s geometry is effectively an extension of plane geometry onto curved surfaces; Euclidean geometry is flat. And Einstein’s theories of relativity reduce mathematically to Newton’s physics when the speed of light is not relevant, which is most of the time as we all know. In fact, in both cases it demonstrates that mathematical consistency is a feature of advances in physics. Euclid’s geometry is still a universal truth that can actually be used to decide a feature of the Universe. For example in flat geometry a triangle’s 3 angles will sum to 180˚ but on a positively curved surface will be greater than 180˚ and on a negatively curved surface will be less than 180˚. In principle, this should allow us to determine if the Universe is negatively or positively curved or neither.

The discovery of chaos, fractals and complexity in the 20th Century are just another set of discoveries in both mathematics and nature that open new doors onto our understanding of the world, including so-called self-organising phenomena that are prominent in biology, cosmology and mundane objects like whirlpools. Lent talks about these phenomena as if they challenge science at its core, and argues that Neo-Confucianism and indigenous cultures effectively foresaw this new brand of science with their holistic view of the world. Paul Davies gives a very good account in his excellent book, The Cosmic Blueprint, published in 1987, where he argues that this self-organising principle represents another ‘arrow of time’ alongside entropy. Whilst Lent acknowledges the contribution to this new field by Lorenz, Mandelbroit and others (he doesn’t mention Poincare’s seminal role), he fails to point out that they are all mathematicians and it’s fundamentally a mathematical field.

Lent is not the first to point out that the idea of a Platonic realm fits neatly into the Christian view of Heaven, and argues that this is what distinguishes Christendom from other cultures like Neo-Confucianism. I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s only mathematics that provides a cultural link to Platonism. I’m not aware of anyone, including mathematical Platonists (like myself), who believe that there exists a world of ‘ideal forms’ for everything on Earth and that our psyche recognises them from previous lives or some-such. This has more in common with Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ than anything else in science or religion. Arguments for mathematical Platonism rarely cite Pythagoras or Plato, but more likely Godel or Wigner or Penrose.

To address Neo-Confucianism, Lent acknowledges that there is a triumvirate of Earth, Man and Heaven, without acknowledging its obvious similarity to the Christian view. The major difference is that Christianity sees Christ as an essential link between Man and Heaven, whereas, in Neo-Confucianism, the link exists without the necessity of a monotheistic God. The point is that there is a transcendental realm (with or without God) and Man is the only connection between it and Earth. One could say the same holds true for mathematics if one was a mathematical Platonist.

The Neo-Confucianists, for whatever reason, never made the link between mathematics and the natural world and that is why the scientific revolution didn’t happen for them. For example, chi or qui is an energy source or flow, which is a concept used in traditional Chinese medicine and elsewhere. The point is that chi is never quantified as it would be in Western science. In fact, Raymond Tallis, who writes a regular column for Philosophy Now, argues that it’s only because we are able to quantify ‘stuff’ that the field of physics exists. In other words, mathematics as a tool in physics only came about because we can measure things. This is also a touch disingenuous when one looks at all the examples where mathematics predicted physical phenomena and objects rather than the other way round. Maxwell’s equations gave us the constant speed of light in a vacuum; Einstein’s special theory of relativity gave us the mathematical equivalence of energy and matter; Dirac’s equation predicted the positron; Pauli mathematically predicted the neutrino; and more recently Higgs predicted the Higgs Boson.

But Lent’s overall thesis contains ideas that I actually agree with: humans have demonstrated a capacity to be too successful for their own collective good. Naturally, I haven’t done Lent’s arguments full justice, given obvious self-imposed limitations, but basically he infers that science, being the most successful endeavour in the history of the world, also contains the seeds of our potential doom. He doesn’t make this point so dramatically, but I doubt he’d disagree with my synopsis.

It should be noted that Lent and I don’t disagree that the scientific revolution is a direct consequence of our Greek neo-Platonic heritage. We don’t even disagree, I would suggest, that science could be part of the problem or part of the solution. We disagree on whether science truly tells us something about the natural world or whether it’s fundamentally a cultural artefact that provides just one view of reality with no special significance. According to Lent, the Neo-Confucian philosophy provides another view of equal if not superior importance. There is a fundamental problem with this stance, however - throughout the book, he cites modern scientific discoveries as justification for the Neo-Confucian worldview.

The last 2 chapters are worth reading on their own. In particular, the penultimate chapter would make an excellent essay, where he discusses the trap of ‘perpetual economic growth’. The last chapter ventures into science fiction, though more dystopian than utopian. It’s worth reading just for the discussion on ‘society collapse’, with particular reference to the Roman Empire. From my perspective, these chapters are almost divorced from the rest of the book, though, obviously, the author wouldn’t think so. I found them depressingly prescient, and are probably worthy of their own post.

I don’t think Lent is anti-science, neither is he ignorant. But where he sees science as a cultural artefact, I see it as a quest for ‘truth’ that is largely successful but unbounded. It’s important to appreciate that science is never complete. Mathematics is the key; I see this as obvious, whereas Lent would see me as delusional.

Addendum: I received a very generous and gracious reply from Jeremy Lent, which you can read in the comments, along with my response.


Jeremy Lent said...

Thank you, Paul, for your insightful and deep reflections on my book. I appreciate how closely you read it, and how carefully you present both your agreements and disagreements with it.

My only real issue with your critique is when you suggest that I am in some way antagonistic to science, such as when you say: "Lent is effectively arguing that.. millennia of mathematical and scientific developments in the Western world" are "inferior to Neo-Confucianism," or suggest I claim that "science... also contains the seeds of our potential doom."

My argument is not at all with science, of which I'm a great fan, but with a.) the ways in which reductionists such as Weinberg or Dawkins apply the practical success of reductionism to make ontological claims about the universe itself; and b.) the underlying metaphors of "conquering nature" and "nature as a machine" which lead many in today's world to move our global civilization towards possible catastrophe.

Neither of these are criticisms of science. Rather, I believe that the advances in systems science in recent decades offer a way of making sense of the universe that could help our society to harmonize more with the natural world, by recognizing the importance of connectivity in all living systems. And I'm not suggesting that Neo-Confucian thinkers had the same mathematical insights as, say, Einstein, but that the congruence of modern systems thinking and Neo-Confucian cosmology allows us to apply some principles of traditional wisdom to the modern world through the lens of scientific rigor.

Just wanted to make these points for clarification. While we may continue to hold some differences on the "truth" of mathematical Platonism, I want to note my sincere appreciation for your thoughtful analysis, and I'm glad that my book catalyzed such expansive and profound reflections.

PS I'm also posting this on Facebook author page:

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks for responding to my 'discussion'. I must say up front that I could never write a book with that scope and level of erudition, despite my criticisms at a philosophical level, and I appreciate your good natured response. I think we agree on more than we disagree, which is why I gave particular emphasis to your last 2 chapters, even though I didn't discuss them in detail. I felt they were worthy of another post, which I may write one day or combine it with other authors I've read on that topic.

I deliberately avoided addressing your metaphors of 'conquering nature' and 'nature as machine', even though I admit they drive capitalist ideologies. But I'm also aware that they 'demonise' science in the eyes of some people, even if that's not your intent. All the way through your book, I was thinking the real problems we face today, and in the immediate future, are determined by our economic paradigms, which you specifically address in the penultimate chapter with more erudition than I could muster; and I think, in that respect, you hit the nail on the head.

I also wrote something on the so-called singularity as well, some time ago.

In a similar vein, I recently read Cosmo Sapiens by John Hands, subtitled Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe, which covers, cosmology, evolution and the rise of humanity in 3 parts. I didn't write a post on my blog but I wrote an extensive critique on Amazon UK. One of the 'themes' he addresses throughout parts 2 and 3 is that evolution is more successful under collaboration than competition, which I thought was interesting and probably true.

And yes, I'll check out your FB page.

Best regards, Paul.