Trouble at the Foundations (Part 2 – Relationality and Uncertainty)

In this post, Part 2 of “Trouble at the Foundations,” I will try to show why I believe developments in genetics and in physics further contribute to the vision of a contingent historical "onion” world. A creation that is “self-made,” though within primordial constraints, with a comprehensive inclination, and characterized by creative uncertainty.

In 1866 a paper entitled “Experiments in Plant Hybridization” was published in an obscure natural history journal in Moravia. It reported the experimental findings of the Augustinian monk, Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), on the reproductive patterns of pea plants and presented his “laws of heredity.” It was the beginning of the science of genetics. But Mendel’s discovery was unrecognized for 34 years until three researchers – Hugo de Vries (1848-1935), Carl Correns (1864-1933), Erich Tschermak-Seysenegg (1871-1962) – independently rediscovered his laws.

When Charles Darwin developed his theory of biological evolution he did not know the means by which characteristics were passed from one generation to the next nor the originating source of biological innovation. Although Mendel described discrete units of inheritance, the term “gene” was not coined until 1905 by Wilhelm Johannsen (1857-1927). In the early 20th century Darwinian evolution by means of natural selection was integrated with Mendelian genetics, in particular with population genetics, to form what has come to be known as the “modern synthetic theory of evolution.”

Although genetics was at one time considered a possible alternative to Darwinian evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life, it became one of the primary sources of evidence for the evolutionary unity of all life.

Today, we know that our closest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees and bonobos, have genomes that are 98.7% similar to our own.

But Homo sapiens are 93% genetically similar to rhesus monkeys,

80% similar to cows,

61% similar to fruit flies,

and even 60% genetically similar bananas.

Living organisms on Earth are not simply related ecologically but, more profoundly, are one family of life whether ecologically related as interdependent symbiotes or competitive challengers and sometimes both.

For example, strains of the bacterium, Escherichia coli, inhabit the human lower intestinal tract and produce vitamin K as we’ll as providing some defense against invasive pathological bacteria. However, there are also strains of E.coli that are themselves pathological and are a source of food poisoning.

However, the relational character of the creation extends beyond biology. Earthly life is carbon based. The carbon in the universe was and is produced in the fusion furnaces of stars. When some of these stars reach the end of their lives, they explode showering space with the elements they have produced. It is literally true, as Joni Mitchell wrote in the lyrics of her song, Woodstock, “… we are stardust ….” The atoms and subatomic particles that comprise our bodies connect us to the history of the creation from Big Bang onward.

Between 1905 and 1916 Albert Einstein (1879-1955) developed the theories of special and general relativity. In these he challenged both common sense and Newtonian notions of space and time. No longer could it be taken for granted that measurements of either distance or duration in one frame of reference would be identical to those taken in another. In fact, Einstein argued that the motion of the reference frame determined the measure (i.e., as velocities increase yardsticks become shorter in the direction of motion and clocks run slower).

Further, Einstein proposed that we should not think of gravity as a mysterious and “spooky” mechanical-like force operating at a distance. In his Principia Newton had made no effort to explain what gravity was. In the General Scholium, an addition to the 2nd edition of the Principia, he wrote:

I have not yet been able to discover the cause of these properties of gravity from phenomena and I feign no hypotheses .... It is enough that gravity does really exist and acts according to the laws I have explained, and that it abundantly serves to account for all the motions of celestial bodies.

Einstein, in contrast, proposed an explanation. We should understand gravity as an acceleration that depends on the curvature of space/time. As physicist John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008) succinctly put it: “Space/time tells matter how to move; matter tells space/time how to curve.”

With the advent of quantum mechanics or quantum theory, common-sense notions of a substantial universe in any sense (i.e., a universe comprised of self-sufficient things) became highly suspect. For example, the expression "particle physics" exhibits something of a misnomer. Although contemporary physicists continue to use "particle" language to describe the entities that they investigate, these entities themselves seem far from what we would ordinarily call little bits of stuff. At its most fundamental level the universe does not seem to be composed of stuff or things at all but instead of dynamic relating.

As quantum theory developed it became evident that certain characteristics of the entities being investigated were coupled in such a way that to determine one characteristic with great accuracy was to reduce the accuracy by which the experimenter could determine the other. Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) expressed this finding in his "principle of uncertainty." It is important to recognize that this "uncertainty" does not result from clumsy observation or inadequate observational instruments or techniques. Instead, it seems that at the core of reality there is an indeterminacy that no amount or quality of observation can overcome. This conclusion runs sharply counter to the Modern presupposition that the cosmos is open, in principle, to full and complete description. It suggests that at the core of reality is an unfathomable mystery.

Another consequence of the development of quantum physics has to do with the issue of objectivity. From the Modern perspective, the sciences deal with objective knowledge that derives from detached, impersonal observation of the facts of nature. However, while there can be a relative objectivity in the practice of science (i.e., one due to the adherence of the individual scientist to a set of procedures accepted by the scientific community), contemporary physics has effectively shown that there is no observation in which the object observed and the subject observing can be absolutely separated.

So, there are no "facts" in nature independent of some particular observer. To paraphrase physicist Wheeler: nature must be allowed to answer for itself, but it is always we who form the questions. And the form of the questions determines to a significant degree the kind of answers we receive. Wheeler provided an anecdote that metaphorically illustrates the kind of interaction between observer and observed that quantum theory describes. I’m quoting it here at length:

What is the difference between a "participatory" reality and a reality that exists "out there" independent of the community of perceivers? A homely example may illustrate a little of the difference. Edward Teller and I, and a dozen other guests, were sitting in the living room of Lothar Norheim in Durham after dinner. From general conversation we moved on to the game of twenty questions. One, chosen as victim, was sent out of the room. The rest of us agreed on some implausible word like "brontosaurus." Then the victim was let back into the room. To win, he had to discover the word with no more than twenty yes/no questions. Otherwise, he lost.

After we had played several rounds, my turn came and I was sent out. The door was closed, and was kept closed for the longest time. I couldn't understand at all why they were taking so long. Moreover, when at length they let me in, everyone had a grin on his face, sure sign of a joke or trick. However, I went ahead innocently asking my questions. "Is it animal?" "No." "Is it vegetable?" "No." "Is it mineral?" "Yes." "Is it green?" "No." "Is it white?" "Yes."

As I went on with my queries I found the answerer was taking longer and longer to respond. He would think and think. Why? That was beyond my understanding when all I wanted was a simple yes or no answer. But finally, I knew, I had to chance it, propose a definite word. "Is it cloud?" I asked. My friend thought for a minute. "Yes," he said, finally. Then everyone burst out laughing.

My colleagues explained to me that when I was sent out of the room, they agreed not to agree on a word. There was no word in the room when I came in! What is more, they had agreed that each respondent was permitted to answer my question as he pleased -­ with one small proviso: if I challenged him, he had to have in mind a word compatible with his own and all previous answers! The game, in other words, was just as hard for my colleagues as for me.

What is the symbolism of the story? The world, we once believed, exists "out there," independent of any act of observation. The electron in the atom we once considered to have at each moment a definite position and a definite momentum. I, entering, thought the room contained a definite word. In actuality the word was developed step by step through the questions I raised, as the information about the electron is brought into being by the experiment that the observer chooses to make; that is, by the kind of registering equipment that he puts into place. Had I asked different questions or the same questions in a different order I would have ended up with a different word as the experimenter would have ended up with a different story for the doings of the electron. However, the power I had in bringing the particular word "cloud" into being was partial only. A major part of the selection lay in the "yes" and "no" replies of the colleagues around the room. Similarly, the experimenter has some substantial influence on what will happen to the electron by the choice of experiments he will do on it, "questions he will put to nature"; but he knows there is a certain unpredictability about what any given one of his measurements will disclose, about what "answers nature will give," about what will happen when "God plays dice." This comparison between the world of quantum observations and the surprise version of the game of twenty questions misses much, but it makes the central point. In the game, no word is a word until that word is promoted to reality by the choice of questions asked and answers given. In the real world of quantum physics, no elementary phenomenon is a phenomenon until it is a recorded phenomenon. [John A. Wheeler, "Bohr, Einstein and the Strange Lesson of the Quantum," Mind in Nature, Richard Q. Elvee, ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982), pp. 19-21.]

According to Laplace at the turn of the 19th century, the whole history of the cosmos past and future could, in principle, be determined mathematically given the position and velocity of the objects within it. However, by virtue of quantum mechanics, the universe is not deterministic but rather probabilistic at its foundations. Like a true dice, there may be determined foundational elements (e.g., the number of numbered sides). But one cannot know ahead of time what side will show until the dice is actually thrown and has settled with a particular side face-up.

Famously, in a 1926 letter to fellow physicist, Max Born, Einstein wrote:

Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but it does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the “old one.”

I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice.

To which, apocryphally, Niels Bohr is purported to have replied, “Albert, don’t tell God what to do.” As it turns out the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics has been broadly and deeply confirmed observationally.

Another criticism that Einstein had of the wierd world of quantum mechanics is that of non-locality. This is the implication that particles at vast distances can show immediate and intimate relations. This is manifest in particle entanglement. Perhaps, again, a homely metaphor can help illustrate this phenomenon.

Imagine that you have a dime. If you flip it in the air and catch it, the chances are 50/50 that it will show heads or tails. Now, let’s say you have two dimes that are entangled and you separate them a vast distance, when you flip one and get a heads, then the other, when flipped, will always be a tails, or vice versa. This will be so even though the chances of a heads or tails for either dime remains 50%. The dimes manifest a relationship that transcends space/time. This weird relationship has also been experimentally demonstrated for subatomic particles. It is another provocative example of the existential relationality of the cosmos.

Creative Uncertainty

These 20th century discoveries in biology and physics have contributed to a shifting in cultural worldview. Yet, in the 19th century Immanuel Kant foreshadowed this emerging vision when he proposed that we never know things-in-themselves but only as they are mediated to us through our senses in conjunction with the cognitive structures and functions of our minds. This idea of mediated knowledge was largely ignored in the positivist understanding that objectively real knowledge could be achieved though the logical analysis of observational data. As I have interpreted Kant’s position elsewhere, scientists are caricaturists who aspire to be portraitists. Yet no scientific theory, like no painting, captures the full reality of its object of interest.

There have been a number of philosophers provoked by these 20th century findings in the sciences. I’m going to focus here on two:

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

and Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).

Wittgenstein trained to be an engineer, worked as a gardener in a monastery, taught primary school, and served as a front-line officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army during WW I. However, his philosophical interests, for which he is best known, came to focus on the nature and meaning of language.

At first Wittgenstein sought to develop a philosophical theory of language based on “atomic facts.” This position was attractive to the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle that viewed the meaning of language built up from logical relations among observed facts. He presented this proposal in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) that he wrote while serving in WW I. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) judged it to be of sufficient philosophical significance that he urged Wittgenstein to present it as his thesis for his PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge. On its basis he received his doctorate in 1929.

Wittgenstein closed the Tractatus with this enigmatic passage:

[6.54] My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

[7] Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

The positivists took this to mean that that about which one could not give logical description grounded in observed “atomic” facts was meaningless (e.g., metaphysics and by association religious discourse). On the other hand, this passage could be an intimation that Wittgenstein sensed a domain of meaning beyond that rendered by logical empirical description.

Eventually, he concluded that language was best understood not in terms of a formal logic, but rather as a form of human activity (a game) that was instrumental to a set of human purposes (a form of life). These ideas he presented in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) [], which was published posthumously. It is worth noting that in the introduction to this work, Wittgenstein wrote:

Four years ago I had occasion to re-read my first book (the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) and to explain its ideas to someone. It suddenly seemed to me that I should publish those old thoughts and the new ones together: that the latter could be seen in the right light only by contrast with and against the background of my old way of thinking.

For since beginning to occupy myself with philosophy again, sixteen years ago, I have been forced to recognize grave mistakes in what I wrote in that first book.

The significance of a particular language game (e.g., science) was not that it somehow captured in explicit expression something of the nature of reality, but instead that it served to support the achievement of certain ends. This contextual or relational understanding of the character of language sharply undercut any form of positivism (scientific, philosophical, or theological). The Positivists assumed that language could have absolute meaning independent of the context. For Wittgenstein the meaning of language was inherently context dependent.

The Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations were the only full works written by Wittgenstein, the former being the only one published during his lifetime. However, he left behind a large amount unpublished material. This material was subsequently edited and published in a variety of volumes. Among these works is one entitled, On Certainty (1969).

In this work Wittgenstein again challenged the assumption that there could be definitive empirical or logically justifiable grounds for knowledge.

Giving grounds, justifying the evidence, comes to an end; but the end is not certain propositions strikingus immediately as true, i.e., it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game.

If the true is what is grounded, then the ground is not true, nor yet false.

As I noted in the previous post in this series, Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) also explored the nature of knowledge with a focus on scientific practice. His contribution was to show that the Modern distinction between objective and subjective knowledge was an illusion. For Polanyi, the ground of all knowledge was not indisputable facts but rather an act of faith, the commitment of trust by the knower within a community of shared values. Wittgenstein like Polanyi shook the assertion of the Positivists that knowledge could have indubitable logical foundations. In doing so they also undercut Modern common sense that knowledge can be proved without a doubt.

Lastly, Wittgenstein was also critical of metaphysics. As he wrote in another posthumous collection of his writings entitled Zettel: "The essential thing about metaphysics: it obliterates the distinction between factual and conceptual investigations." However, unlike the positivists who dismissed speculative philosophy all together, Wittgenstein went on to say, “… in a certain sense one cannot take too much care in handling philosophical mistakes, they contain so much truth." Wittgenstein’s critique of speculative philosophy finds resonance in what Alfred North Whitehead called the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness” or treating abstracts like beliefs, opinions or concepts as though they were concrete physical things.

In 1913 Alfred North Whitehead and his former student, Bertrand Russell, published Principia Mathematica. In it they sought to provide the foundational axioms and logical inferences from which all arithmetic truths could be proved.

However, in 1930 Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) presented his “incompleteness theorems.” They demonstrated that axiomatic systems (i.e., systems based on “self-evident truths”) like arithmetic could be complete (i.e., answer all relevant questions) or coherent (i.e., fully fit together) but not both. In the area of the philosophy of knowledge this seems to me to be similar to Heisenberg’s “principle of uncertainty.”

Even prior to Gödel’s work Whitehead turned from mathematics to philosophy, in particular speculative philosophy and philosophical cosmology. Process and Reality, which is subtitled An Essay in Cosmology, is his most comprehensive statement of a worldview that describes reality not in terms of things but in terms of events (i.e., temporal units of relatedness). Here was a vision of the universe in which temporally dynamic relations, rather than static substantive things, is the central fact of existence.

Traditionally, we talk about a timeline with the past to the left, the future to the right, and the present at some point in the middle. Such an image makes sense for something like reading a book or playing a musical score. In each case the words or notes are predetermined.

But in the 20th century the cosmos has come to be seen as probabilistic rather than deterministic, more like a comedy or jazz improv where the next expression or riff, though related to the past, is unknown until it occurs and can be very surprising.

It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Whitehead’s cosmic vision is sufficiently foreign to current common sense, that I hope the following illustrations help make it clearer.

For Whitehead the past is comprised of “actual occasions,” established or fixed moments of history. The future for Whitehead was not a line segment or even a series of alternative line segments but rather a domain of potentiality. Technically the future does not exist.

Each past occasion leans forward anticipating a subsequent occasion. When you take a step, you are already anticipating where your next step will be (or even whether there will be one). However, this leaning influences but does not completely determine the next occasion.

What Whitehead called an “enduring object” was a serial ordering of moments that were relationally very similar.

A moment of being, an “actual occasion,” has a quantum character; that is, it happens all at one. Still, there is an order to its becoming. It comes into being by actualizing potentialities in relation to the past actual world. As Whitehead described the process concisely, “The many become one and add to the many one more.” He called this process “concrescence,” becoming concrete.

An occasion comes into being by actualizing particular potentials but not any potentials. The next throw of a standard die will not be a seven; on my morning walk in Summerville, SC, my next step will not be in Beijing, China; in the next moment of my biological life I will not become a kumquat. Yet just as we do not know ahead of the throw of a die what side will be up, likewise I do not know exactly where my next step will be nor what will be my biological status in the next moment. In the cases of my next step or my biological status, my intentions limit where my next step will be among all the possible steps and the homeostatic processes of my body will constrain to some degree the possibilities of my next biological state.

For Whitehead there was a more foundational constraint that mitigated against the process being absolutely chaotic. He held that there was a fundamental qualitative directionality to the process. Its aim was toward what he called the “harmony of harmonies” or peace, the integration of the Platonic qualities of truth, goodness and beauty. This directionality he represented as the “initial aim.” Each becoming moment was given an “initial aim" at the outset of its concrescence. Yet, each moment was not coerced or forced to actualize this aim, but it could not actualize itself apart from relation to this aim. The aim served as a “lure” to its becoming.

So, each moment makes itself in relation to a fixed past, a domain of potentiality, and a given aim toward a particular manifestation of the integration of truth, goodness and beauty.

These images are my effort to give visual sense to Whitehead’s speculative cosmology. In a technical sense they are cartoons of his vision (no humor intended). It helps, I hope, to display the relationality of his vision. Unfortunately, without animation these display nothing of the dynamism of his vision. But these should also make clear that, to paraphrase Wheeler again, a moment is not a moment until it is a concresced moment.

It is important to emphasize that for Whitehead this speculative vision was not a cosmological declaration but a cosmological confession. It was a profession of his vision, a cosmological statement of faith. It is one that I have found myself drawn to confess as well.

In the story I have been telling in this series of blogs, in contrast to the Classical worldview and the Modern worldview, vestiges of which are still present, I am calling our present cultural state an Emerging worldview, one not yet fully formed but well into its formation. As a consequence, I think that several general features of this emerging worldview can be discerned:

  • Knowledge is neither objective nor subjective but personal, acquired within the context of some community in which we place our trust.

  • Truth is determined between subjects within a community committed to know the truth; truth, then, is never absolute but always contextual.

  • Causes are primarily historical — the free actualization in the present of possibilities, conditioned but underdetermined by the past.

  • Reality is synergistic; wholes are more than the sums of their parts. The integration of the parts is their wholeness that cannot be adequately understood by reductive analysis.

  • Metaphysical faith is a precondition of knowing. However, it can only be confessed. It is not a form of knowing that can be declared with absolute certainty.

As I have suggested metaphorically earlier in this series of blogs, I believe that what has been emerging over the past two centuries or so is an "onion" view of the world, a view of the world as fully constituted of its relations. If you peel an onion, removing layer after layer. When you reach the center, there is nothing left. There is no cultural essence, but rather a dynamic convergence of relations that form historical moments in which there is the relative opportunity for novelty or creation.

So, that is my story of the cultural journey that has gotten us to the present moment. What may not be obvious in the telling is that the various stages of the journey overlap one another. We can observe in contemporary ecosystems forms of life that first appeared millennia upon millennia before the coming of mammals. Similarly, elements of the Classical worldview can be observed in contemporary culture (how many of you know your astrological sign?) and the perspectives of the Modern worldview remain very prominent in our language and socio-cultural systems. The stages of the journey overlap one another such that the beginning of the Emerging worldview was not at the end of but in the midst of its predecessor and drew upon even earlier cultural visions.

One of the reasons that the 19th century was such a culturally tumultuous period is that it was like a whirlpool in which Classical, Modern, and the newly Emerging worldviews were all contending currents. Our situation today is, if anything, even more dynamic.

My final final post in this series, "Singing the Lord's Song," will be a theological reflection on the implications of the Emerging world vision for an understanding of God, of Jesus, of the Spirit and of Homo sapiens.

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