So i’m reading a little of Alfred North Whitehead today, and looking at the history of science from his perspective.
He talks about the influence of Greek Tragedy in shaping how the Middle Ages viewed knowledge. There is an underlying sense of an inevitable, unchangeable narrative that was called ‘fate’, and this could only be expressed in terms of human life by incidents which involve unhappiness. He continues ” this remorseless inevitableness is what pervades scientific thought. The laws of physics are the decrees of fate”. And this motivated philosophers to start finding out more and unveiling secrets of the world – and in particular, looking for an exact point and sticking to it – finding the ‘irreducible and stubborn fact”.
“It requires a very unusual mind to undertake an analysis of the obvious”
Science for the sake of itself. An outcome of instinctive faith and an active interest in the simple occurrences of life for their own sake. What is instinctive faith? This is something Whitehead describes having its roots in theology as a medieval insistence in the rationality of God, and that by searching into nature we could vindicate faith in this rationale. These two are actually very different, expect when you think about the subjects of these studies – natural phenomena as materials without any vitalism and only demonstrate external relationships that impose their routines on them, a so-called scientific materialism.
Whitehead says that this mode of thought is not adequate for many reasons. One is that objects are always and in themselves agents within a system and by isolating them from these structures of cause and effect you began to abstract phenomena; which does not hold any ground by itself. The second is that thought itself is abstraction, and historically the progress of science was reaching a point where old foundations of thought were becoming unintelligible e.g. time, space, matter, ether, organism, structure etc. all required reinterpretation. And these foundations (of half-truths or undiscovered, ad hoc hypotheses) needed to be entered with thorough criticism, and embodied experience. A third, and perhaps more subtle point, is that observation is selection. What we observe and subsequently abstract into ideas and thoughts cannot be indicative of the whole scheme of nature, and therefore requires a collective harmony of logic and aesthetics.
Instead he talks about a faith in the order of nature, which has made possible the growth of science. This faith has to spring up from the direct inspection of our immediate present experience.
“There is no parting from your own shadow. To experience this faith is to know that in being ourselves we are more than ourselves: to know that our experience, dim and fragmentary as it is, yet sounds the utmost depths of reality: to know that detached details merely in order to be themselves demand that they should find themselves in a system of things: to know that this system includes the harmony of logical rationality, and the harmony of aesthetic achievement: to know that, while the harmony of logic lies upon the universe as an iron necessity, the aesthetic harmony stands before it as a living ideal moulding the general flux in its broken progress towards finer, subtler issues. ”
What is this aesthetic harmony he talks about?
is it the aesthetic experience? Is it a somewhat detached imaginative/creative presence that somewhat beguiles the evolution of nature and the shaping of the irreducible, stubborn facts. Or is it our own designs and hypothesis that direct observations and thus depictions of natural laws and physical relationships.
Whatever it is, Whitehead asserts that every system of things includes a harmony of logic rationality AND the harmony of aesthetic achievement. that all nature perhaps has a rational and successful aesthetic, designed quality.