CHAPTER III – The Onlooker’s Philosophic Malady

PART I: Science at the Threshold

CHAPTER III – The Onlooker’s Philosophic Malady

In his isolation as world spectator, the modern philosopher was bound to reach two completely opposite views regarding the objective value of human thought. One of these was given expression in Descartes’ famous words: Cogito ergo sum (‘I think, therefore I am’). Descartes (1596-1650), rightly described as the inaugurator of modern philosophy, thus held the view that only in his own thought-activity does man find a guarantee of his own existence.

In coming to this view, Descartes took as his starting-point his experience that human consciousness contains only the thought pictures evoked by sense-perception, and yet knows nothing of the how and why of the things responsible for such impressions. He thus found himself compelled, in the first place, to doubt whether any of these things had any objective existence, at all. Hence, there remained over for him only one indubitable item in the entire content of the universe – his own thinking; for were he to doubt even this, he could do so only by again making use of it. From the ‘I doubt, therefore I am’, he was led in this way to the ‘I think, therefore I am’.

The other conception of human thought reached by the onlooker-consciousness was diametrically opposed to that of Descartes, and entirely cancelled its conceptual significance. It was put forward – not long afterwards – by Robert Hooke (1635-1703), the first scientist to make systematic use of the newly invented microscope by means of which he made the fundamental discovery of the cellular structure of plant tissues. It was, indeed, on the strength of his microscopic studies that he boldly undertook to determine the relationship of human thought to objective reality. He published his views in the introduction to his Micrographia, the great work in which, with the lavish help of carefully executed copper engravings, he made his microscopic observations known to the world.

Hooke’s line of thought is briefly as follows: In past ages men subscribed to the naive belief that what they have in their consciousness as thought pictures of the world, actually reproduces the real content of that world. The microscope now demonstrates, however, how much the familiar appearance of the world depends on the structure of our sense apparatus; for it reveals a realm just as real as that already known to us, but hitherto concealed from us because it is not accessible to the natural senses. Accordingly, if the microscope can penetrate through the veil of illusion which normally hides a whole world of potentially visible phenomena, it may be that it can even teach us something about the ideas we have hitherto formed concerning the nature of things. Perhaps it can bring us a step nearer the truth in the sphere of thought, as it so obviously has done in that of observation.

Of all the ideas that human reason can form, Hooke considered the simplest and the most fundamental to be the geometrical concepts of point and straight line. Undoubtedly we are able to think these, but the naive consciousness takes for granted that it also perceives them as objective realities outside itself, so that thoughts and facts correspond to each other. We must now ask, however, if this belief is not due to an optical deception. Let us turn to the microscope and see what point and line in the external world look like through it.

Plate 1

For his investigation Hooke chose the point of a needle and a knife-edge, as providing the best representatives among physical objects of point and straight line. In the sketches here reproduced we may see how Hooke made clear to his readers how little these two things, when observed through the microscope, resemble what is seen by the unaided eye. This fact convinced Hooke that the apparent agreement between the world of perception and the world of ideas rests on nothing more solid than an optical limitation (Plate I).

Compared with the more refined methods of present-day thought, Hooke’s procedure may strike us as somewhat primitive. Actually he did nothing more than has since been done times without number; for the scientist has become more and more willing to allow artificially evoked sense-perceptions to dictate the thoughts he uses in forming a scientific picture of the world.

In the present context we are concerned with the historical import of Hooke’s procedure. This lies in the fact that, immediately after Descartes had satisfied himself that in thinking man had the one sure guarantee of his own existence, Hooke proved in a seemingly indubitable manner that thinking was entirely divorced from reality. It required only another century for philosophy to draw from this the unavoidable consequence. It appeared in the form of Hume’s philosophic system, the outcome of which was universal scepticism.

As we shall see in due course, Hume’s mode of reasoning continues to rule scientific thought even to-day, quite irrespective of the fact that science itself claims to have its philosophical parent in Kant, the very thinker who devoted his life’s work to the refutation of Hume.

On the basis of his investigations into human consciousness Hume felt obliged to reason thus: My consciousness, as I know it, has no contact with the external world other than that of a mere outside onlooker. What it wins for its own content from the outer world is in the nature of single, mutually unrelated parts. Whatever may unite these parts into an objective whole within the world itself can never enter my consciousness; and any such unifying factor entertained by my thought can be only a self-constructed, hypothetical picture. Hume summed up his view in two axioms which he himself described as the alpha and omega of his whole philosophy. The first runs: ‘All our distinct perceptions are distinct existences.’ The other: ‘The Mind never perceives any real connexions between distinct existences.’ (Treatise of Human Nature.)

If once we agree that we can know of nothing but unrelated thought pictures, because our consciousness is not in a position to relate these pictures to a unifying reality, then we have no right to ascribe, with Descartes and his school, an objective reality to the self. Even though the self may appear to us as the unifying agent among our thoughts, it must itself be a mental picture among mental pictures ; and man can have no knowledge of any permanent reality outside this fluctuating picture-realm. So, with Hume, the onlooker-consciousness came to experience its own utter inability to achieve a knowledge of the objective existence either of a material world be – behind all external phenomena, or of a spiritual self behind all the details of its own internal content.

Accordingly, human consciousness found itself hurled into the abyss of universal scepticism. Hume himself suffered unspeakably under the impact of what he considered inescapable ideas – rightly described from another side as the ‘suicide of human intelligence’ – and his philosophy often seemed to him like a malady, as he himself called it, against whose grip he could see no remedy. The only thing left to him, if he was to prevent philosophical suicide from ending in physical suicide, was to forget in daily life his own conclusions as far as possible.

What Hume experienced as his philosophical malady, however, was the result not of a mental abnormality peculiar to himself, but of that modern form of consciousness which still prevails in general today. This explains why, despite all attempts to disprove Hume’s philosophy, scientific thought has not broken away from its alpha and omega in the slightest degree.

A proof of this is to be found, for example, in the principle of Indeterminacy which has arisen in modern physics

The conception of Indeterminacy as an unavoidable consequence of the latest phase of physical research is due to Professor W. Heisenberg. Originally this conception forced itself upon Heisenberg as a result of experimental research. In the meantime the same idea has received its purely philosophical foundation. We shall here deal with both lines of approach.

After the discovery by Galileo of the parallelogram of forces, it became the object of classical physics – unexpressed, indeed, until Newton wrote his Principia – to bring the unchanging laws ruling nature into the light of human consciousness, and to give them conceptual expression in the language of mathematical formulae. Since, however, science was obliged to restrict itself to what could be observed with a single, colour-blind eye, physics has taken as its main object of research the spatio-temporal relationships, and their changes, between discrete, ideally conceived, point-like particles. Accordingly, the mathematically formulable laws holding sway in nature came to mean the laws according to which the smallest particles in the material foundation of the world change their position with regard to each other. A science of this kind could logically maintain that, if ever it succeeded in defining both the position and the state of motion, in one single moment, of the totality of particles composing the universe, it would have discovered the law on which universal existence depends. This necessarily rested on the presupposition that it really was the ultimate particles of the physical world which were under observation. In the search for these, guided chiefly by the study of electricity, the physicists tracked down ever smaller and smaller units; and along this path scientific research has arrived at the following peculiar situation.

To observe any object in the sense world we need an appropriate medium of observation. For ordinary things, light provides this. In the sense in which light is understood to-day, this is possible because the spatial extension of the single light impulses, their so-called wavelength, is immeasurably smaller than the average magnitude of all microscopically visible objects. This ensures that they can be observed clearly by the human eye. Much smaller objects, however, will require a correspondingly shorter wave-length in the medium of observation. Now shorter wave-lengths than those of visible light have been found in ultra-violet light and in X-rays; and these, accordingly, are now often used for minute physical research.

In this way, however, we are led by nature to a definite boundary; for we now find ourselves in a realm where the dimensions of the observation medium and the observed object are more or less the same. The result, unfortunately, is that when the ‘light’ meets the object, it changes the latter’s condition of movement. On the other hand, if a ‘light’ is used whose wave-length is too big to have any influence on the object’s condition of movement, it precludes any exact determination of the object’s location.

Thus, having arrived at the very ground of the world – that is, where the cosmic laws might be expected to reveal themselves directly – the scientist finds himself in the remarkable situation of only being able to determine accurately either the position of an observed object and not its state of motion, or its state of motion and not its position. The law he seeks, however, requires that both should be known at the same time. Nor is this situation due to the imperfection of the scientific apparatus employed, but to its very perfection, so that it appears to arise from the nature of the foundation of the world – in so far, at least, as modern science is bound to conceive it.

If it is true that a valid scientific knowledge of nature is possible only in the sphere open to a single-eyed, colour-blind observation, and if it is true – as a science of this kind, at any rate, is obliged to believe – that all processes within the material foundation of the world depend on nothing but the movements of certain elementary particles of extremely small size, then the fact must be faced that the very nature of these processes rules out the discovery of any stable ordering of things in the sense of mathematically formulable laws. The discovery of such laws will then always be the last step but one in scientific investigation; the last will inevitably be the dissolution of such laws into chaos. For a consistent scientific thinking that goes this way, therefore, nothing is left but to recognize chaos as the only real basis of an apparently ordered world, a chaos on whose surface the laws that seem to hold sway are only the illusory picturings of the human mind. This, then, is the principle of Indeterminacy as it has been encountered in the course of practical investigation into the electrical processes within physical matter.

In the following way Professor Schrodinger, another leading thinker among modern theoretical physicists, explains the philosophical basis for the principle of Indeterminacy, which scientists have established in the meantime:1

‘Every quantitative observation, every observation making use of measurement, is by nature discontinuous. … However far we go in the pursuit of accuracy we shall never get anything other than a finite series of discrete results. … The raw material of our quantitative cognition of nature will always have this primitive and discontinuous character. … It is possible that a physical system might be so simple that this meagre information would suffice to settle its fate; in that case nature would not be more complicated than a game of chess. To determine a position of a game of chess thirty-three facts suffice. … If nature is more complicated than a game of chess, a belief to which one tends to incline, then a physical system cannot be determined by a finite number of observations. But in practice a finite number of observations is all that we could make.’

Classical physics, the author goes on to show, held that it was possible to gain a real insight into the laws of the universe, because in principle an infinite number of such discrete observations would enable us to fill in the gaps sufficiently to allow us to determine the system of the physical world. Against this assumption modern physics must hold the view that an infinite number of observations cannot in any case be carried out in practice, and that nothing compels us to assume that even this would suffice to furnish us with the means for a complete determination, which alone would allow us to speak of ‘law’ in nature. ‘This is the direction in which modern physics has led us without really intending it.’

What we have previously said will make it clear enough that in these words of a modern physicist we meet once more the two fundamentals of Hume’s philosophy. It is just as obvious, however, that the very principle thus re-affirmed at the latest stage of modern physical science was already firmly established by Hooke, when he sought to prove to his contemporaries the unreality of human ideas.

Let us recall Hooke’s motives and results. The human reason discovers that certain law-abiding forms of thought dwell within itself; these are the rules of mathematical thinking. The eye informs the reason that the same kind of law and order is present also in the outer world. The mind can think point and line; the eye reports that the same forms exist in nature outside. (Hooke could just as well have taken as his examples the apex and edge of a crystal.) The reason mistrusts the eye, however, and with the help of the microscope ‘improves’ on it. What hitherto had been taken for a compact, regulated whole now collapses into a heap of unordered parts; behind the illusion of law a finer observation detects the reality of chaos!

Had science in its vehement career from discovery to discovery not forgotten its own beginnings so completely, it would not have needed its latest researches to bring out a principle which it had in fact been following from the outset – a principle which philosophy had already recognized, if not in quite the same formulation, in the eighteenth century. Indeterminacy, as we have just seen it explained by Schrodinger, is nothing but the exact continuation of Human scepticism.

1 In his book, Science and the Human Temperament (Dublin, 1935).