I have recently been overwhelmed by a large number of scientific topics that bear one very important relation to one another. The relationship is the theme of holism; or, more accurately, the debate between reductive and holistic science. Plato’s notion of carving nature at its joints is one that the early modern through present scientific ventures embrace and take for granted. The point of the following post is not to rehash any of the points in the reduction/anti-reduction debate, but to present some perspective, without actually going into the debate. More or less, I was to touch on some of the philosophical features that have jumped out at me, as of late.
The major feature that has jumped out at me is one of alienation of common human experience and the sciences. Quantum mechanics is exemplar science that upsets and rejects common experience. This doesn’t bother me so much: even if small scales behave incredibly differently than what is experience on large scales —i.e., even if there are ontological and metaphysical differences between the scales—, I am not bothered, because there is some logos that will likely connect them. I am really not at all concerned or threaten by coherence and reduction within a sufficiently uniform science. Biology is a different story, as far as I am concerned. No, what concerns me is the alienation instituted by philosophers and scientists that seek to negate some part of experience to make their respective philosophy of science and science sufficiently comprehensive. Let me give an example. I just read “Life after Kant: Natural Purpose and the Autopoietic Foundations of Biological Individuality” by Weber and Varela, in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences (2002). In it, the central point is naturalization of teleology. If you don’t know, Varela was coauthor (with Maturana) of the original work on “autopoiesis”, which sought to establish a holistic philosophical basis for organismic biology, wherein the organism is viewed as a self-sustaining and comprehensive whole in which the parts cannot be viewed as non-purposive to the whole. Quoting Webster and Godwin (1982), they say, “The organism as a real entity, existing in its own right, has virtually no place in contemporary biological theory.” This should be particularly bothersome to one that is not trained in the sciences. What is it that biology intends to study? I would say life, but, by the time you have been inculcated and systematically acclimatized to the discipline of biology, there is no such thing as a living thing —unless you are a closet holdout. I am being a little cynical; there are plenty of biologists that think there living things are somehow different from inanimate. However, the literature, beyond the first year biological texts, rarely ever talks about life; and it is most definitely the case that the scientists, themselves, seek to dismantle organisms into functional parts throughout the literature. The debate between strong adaptationists and bauplan adherents rages on. A philosopher who surreptitiously infiltrates a biology lecture hall will almost assuredly find herself overcome by this-is-nothing-but-that talk, and where the concept of life is pitched, part and parcel. At a fundamental level, my concern isn’t even initially questions about bridge laws or anything like that. Here’s my concern, in brief: life is common to human experience, so what is it that we are doing by stripping the science of these natural conceptions of human experience? I would claim that it seems as though we are unnecessarily turning science and its philosophy into an occult practice, alienating humanity from understanding of the natural world. Not to mention that I think science that scientists and philosophers want to annihilate all such conceptions that they can’t explain. My question is, is that what we are doing —annihilating concepts natural to human experience, because the fall outside the scope of our best efforts to try to explain them within the reductionist model? I think it is quite possibly so.
The point that Varela and Weber essentially skirt in their article is the historical and social forces that pushed for a naturalized teleology, without the teleology, namely, the post-Enlightenment, Victorian scientific impulse, driven by mechanistic visions Nature. They do well to point out that Darwin, for the most part, was the Newton to the blade of grass, contra Kant’s opinion that organisms could not be understood as mechanized. Their view is that Hans Jonas’ phenomenologizing Kant’s teleology of natural purpose, was progenitor to the science of autopoiesis, which readmits the talk of “purpose” in the science, and does so in a non-theologically charged fashion. For my part, it is that theological charge which served as a strong compulsion for social forces to naturalize teleology, not admitting the teleological part —which is traditionally done in just the way that Dawkins has explained, by inserting teleonomic language, while not taking serious the metaphysical equivalent to the phenomenon, that of teleology. With ideas arising in physics (see “criticality”) that may end up supporting autopoiesis, it makes me wonder whether science should ever (I can’t think of a good hypothetical case for the contrary) deny a concept of common human experience. After all, autopoiesis, if it holds up as a well-founded scientific idea, presents a de facto demarcation of animate and inanimate objects. Why explain away the idea of life, if there are conceivable avenues for explaining such phenomena. I think there is a strong push in academia to develop frameworks of thought that sufficiently adhere to the fundamentalist monism, the implicit thinking, to my mind, being that there can be no such thing a top-down, transcending (or even transcendental) materialism. It’s understandable, to a degree: science is so ideologically charged, with virtually everyone wanting to ensure there is no room for “theological powers.” Autopoiesis, and other brands of thought, sufficiently naturalizes teleology for this fear to be realized, though.
This sort of explaining away of common human experience can be seen elsewhere. In probably my all-time favorite article —an article which is a brilliantly argued as it is creative—, “Quining Qualia,” Dennett has oft taken my mind to the point where I all but accept his conclusion. It really is a compelling argument that he presents. It only takes me to the brink of acceptance, because, perhaps, pragmatism is too strong in my blood (and mind) to accept that qualia can be explained away. Once one does this, accepting the illusory nature of qualia, the individual has been completely alienated from his or her most fundamental level of experience, the phenomenal level. Compare this to the kind of thinking seen in Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, and one sees the phenomenal world put first. For instance, the treatise essentially begins and ends with the “observer”. van Fraassen, too, places a considerable amount of weight on the phenomenal level, in his The Scientific Image, advancing such ideas as pragmatics of explanation; which brings one to the question, what is the real difference? There is slightly more to it than the simple statement I made earlier, that it is an issue of adhering to fundamentalist monism. No, it goes well beyond that. The heart of the matter, I contend, is physics chauvinism, the thinking that physics, being most closely related to the fundamental behaviors of matter, must dictate the terms of scientific play. It is this physics chauvinism that serves as the metaphysical and methodological underpinnings of science as it is known today. Carving nature at its joints is all the rage, trust me. Nevermind that there is no “objective” way to establish where these joints are —or, more importantly, if we can see them (and know where they are), we can’t even tell how we know that they are, in fact, there. This kind of thinking doesn’t even stand up to the bullshit-at-the-bar test, yet it pervades academic thought.
I will close by stating the worst nightmare of physics chauvinists, which is that, if physics is the heart of all the sciences, then there is the problem that Nature cannot be a formalized axiomatic system that is also complete —and, thus, physics isn’t the whole story, anyways. Gödel told us so much. However, you don’t need mathematical logic to begin think we live in a world that is ontologically incomplete (or a non-static ontology). There have been a number of rather creative ways in which the incompleteness of the World’s ontology has been suggested. Amidst the literature, one of the fascinating ways in which this has been suggested is “The Genesis of the Transcendent: Kant, Schelling, and the Ground of Experience” by Adrian Johnston, where Johnston proposes the problem of transcendental priority and genetic priority in Kant, which Schelling tried to resolve, yields an incompleteness. If, between the incompleteness arising from the physics chauvinistic view and the alienation of common human experience, you are not brought to question the current views about how Nature or the sciences are structured, then there may be nothing that will.
 In mentioning Bas C. van Fraassen, I am glazing over another animus, that of anti-realism, which, to my mind, seems to be a contributing factor to ideological adherence to fundamentalist monism. I don’t think the realism/aniti-realism debate needs to be involved in this. If you have read my paper on the onto-epistemic stance, you would see why I think this. There are realist positions that also place the phenomenal level at their foundation.