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Goetheanism in Science

 

By Konrad Rudnicki

 

Appendix to The Cosmological Principles

 

a.0l. The inconsistencies of some theories of knowledge

There is a widespread belief that a sharp distinction must be made between thinking (something entirely subjective) and perception (something having an objective origin but thoroughly contingent upon man's physiological and psychological constitution). It is through the interaction of perception and thinking that a gradual development of the process of the cognition of reality (Immanuel Kant called this a thing-in-itself inaccessible in any direct way) comes about. The subjective character of thinking is usually taken as an axiom. The conditioning of perception by physiology (it is electromagnetic waves that are really there, and we perceive them as colors, heat etc.) is supported with evidence from the natural sciences. Various theories of knowledge lead to various, even diametrically opposed conclusions - from the belief that the thing-in-itself is absolutely beyond any cognition to the assumption that there are ways of obtaining some knowledge of it.

Theories of knowledge thus rely on particular research disciplines (neuropsychology, electromagnetism, acoustics etc.) while it should be the other way round. Any particular research discipline should be first verified by the theory of knowledge. So here is a vicious circle. This poses considerable difficulties in constructing a self-consistent and reliable theory. Due to this, even the very term theory of knowledge is seldom used nowadays. The methodologists prefer to use the term "paradigm" (i.e. some pattern of scientific procedure), leaving aside the question of justification. If a given procedure proved successful in the past, then we too hope to succeed using it. It is the pragmatic criterion of usefulness that is at work here, not that of truth. Furthermore, it is not possible to define "what is truth" (cf.: John 19,38).

a.02. The Goethean theory of knowledge

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe achieved recognition primarily as a poet who during his life had also published some papers on science. However, Goethe himse1f claimed to be a scholar who had written some poetry at his leisure. Goethe’s papers are mostly small contributions to science. However, it is not the results of Goethe's research, but his specific method of thinking and research which is of special interest to those scientists who cal1 themse1ves Goetheanists and who apply in their verification of truth the Goethean ideas based on an alternative theory of knowledge.

A theory of knowledge should not rely on data of any particular research discipline. A theory of knowledge must logically be prior even to logic; it cannot depend on any logical or scientific assumptions. To construct such a theory, the Goetheanists propose a picture of the process of cognition, which can be taken for granted as obvious or rejected outright. This is a matter of personal attitude. One who is not ready to accept the Goethean view is just not a Goetheanist, and there is nothing to argue about.

a.03. Pre-scientific base; mental experiment

The foundations of a theory of knowledge must be of a pre-scientific character. A description of the process of cognition can be obtained by the following thought-experiment. Make an effort to forget for a while that you know anything, and scrutinize your cognitive process. One should not pretend to have become a child or a primitive man. We want to have a theory of knowledge for a civilized, adult person of the current century. Thus, let us look upon ourselves such as we real1y are, leaving aside al1 the stock of accumulated knowledge, and observe a small interval of our own life. An aid for such experiment may be found in Johannes Volkelt (1879), a philosopher who described a few minutes of his own life as fol1ows:

"Now, for instance, the content of my mind is that I have done a good deal of work today; and with that goes the idea that now I should have a well-deserved walk; in this very moment I have the perception of the door opening and a postman coming in; the postman’s image undergoes changes; once he holds out his hand, once he opens up his mouth, once he does the opposite; the perception of opening mouth is accompanied by various sound perceptions including that it has just begun raining outside; the postman’s image disappears from my consciousness, and in turn come the following ideas; seizing scissors, cutting the envelope open, objection to the illegible hand, shapes of particular letters and words, and various thought and mental images connected with them. As soon as this series is over, back is the idea that I have done much work and the perception that it is still raining accompanied with the feeling of dissatisfaction; then both vanish from my mind and there appears the idea that one problem which I believed to have solved during today's work has not been solved at all, in fact, there are other ideas; freedom of will, empirical necessity, responsibility, the value of virtue, pure chance, incomprehensibility, etc.; all the ideas associate with one another in various, most complex ways. And it goes on further like that."

a.04. Thoughts as perceptions

I cite this passage by Rudolf Steiner (1886), who first presented the Goethean Theory of Knowledge in an easily understandable form. From these few sentences from Volkelt we can see that in the field of our consciousness we find, originally on equal footing, perceptions of various kinds such as sensations, reminiscences of the past, feelings, acts of will, and thoughts. Initially none is more important than any other; none is better explained or accounted for than any other. Yet we immediately feel the need for providing some explanation, associating and grouping details of this much diversified, but quite flat, field of conscious perceptions. A more detailed description of the Goethean cognitive process can be found in the work of Steiner cited above. The most important thing for us is that in this approach thoughts are treated as perceptions; they are not placed in opposition to perceptions. Our thinking may and does have particular qualities not shared with other kinds of perception, but we perceive our acts of thinking in a way similar to how we perceive our sensory impressions, our feelings, our acts of will, our reminiscences....

We'll feel a sort of anxiety when a new perception appears within the field of our consciousness. And then we feel satisfaction when we succeed in associating a particular perception (which is not perception of a thought) with the relevant thought. This is a basic act of cognition. Only in exceptional cases can such an act be followed as it proceeds in time. For example, I see some blue thing on a distant tree in my garden; I wonder what it could be: a bird, an empty can, the cover of a book, a piece of plastic, or just my son's pants; and then I recognize it: my wife’s cap; now I have found cognitive satisfaction. An elementary cognitive act of this kind is usually too momentary to follow or (in the case of some scientific research) too extended over time to grasp as a single unity. However, this is the picture which appears (to some persons) as a result of the proposed mental experiment.

a.05. Particular properties of thoughts

A detailed inner inspection of cognitive acts shows that, in general, every perception has, symbolically speaking, a kind of shell, which can be penetrated to the core by another perception, (i.e. by adequate thought). Thoughts differ from other kinds of perceptions in that they have no shell, or, rather, their shell is identical with their core. Every thought is accounted for by itself; there is nothing concealed in it. If the thoughts triangle, cause, effect appear within the field of my consciousness, they need no external explanation. Of course thoughts can be associated with each other. The thoughts equidistance from a point and homogeneous curvature can be associated with the thought plane figure, and it can be considered that they are all inherently associated with the thought circle. We feel cognitive anxiety when contemplating whether and how a certain set of given thoughts can be associated in a natural way, and we are satisfied when we combine thoughts properly. However, a single thought, unlike the other kinds of perception, does not cause such anxiety. A thought gets to the very essence, to the foundation of things; there is nothing beyond.

a.06. Subjectivity and objectivity of thinking

Thoughts are subjective in that they can be freely moved around within the field of our consciousness. They are objective in that they cannot be associated in a manner other than that determined by their proper nature. One can think of anything one wishes, but having chosen some particular set of thoughts, one is unable to influence the result of the thinking process. Of course we are concerned here with .actual thinking, with perceiving and putting together thoughts (i.e. notions and ideas), not with dreams or dreamlike imaginations. The thought My football team must win belongs rather to the domain of imagination or feelings. Wishful thinking is no thinking at all. It is an objective fact that two times two makes four, and it is accepted by everyone, whatever imaginings one may have, when one is able to perceive the notions: two, times, makes and four. It is true that in some systems of formal arithmetic there is, for example, 2 x 2 = 5. However, here thoughts quite different from the common two, times, makes, and five are associated with the symbols 2, x, =, and 5.

a.07. Cognition as revelation

The process of cognition (i.e. association of some perception with the perception of a thought (in particular cases, the association of two thoughts) is a kind of "revelation." Goetheanism sees no fundamental difference between research done in mathematics, physics, humanities, or theology, provided we mean actual research, not just the construction of arbitrary images. However, this does not mean that there are no differences at all.

a.08. Various levels of thinking

It follows from a detailed observation of the cognitive process that thoughts of the simplest kind, notions (i.e. thoughts subject to propositional calculus and the theory of quantifiers), are able to explain the perceptions in the domain of physical and chemical phenomena. If we proceed to the domain of the simplest living beings, plants, we must pass to a higher level of thinking - that of ideas. Ideas are complex associations of notions in constant movement and include whole classes of concepts subject to inner metamorphoses. The difference between a notion and an idea is like that between an individual house and a town. The problems of planning a house are far different from those of planning a town, though a town consists mainly of houses. However, in both cases there are objective rules to be followed. A higher level of thinking must be applied when we want to investigate feeling creatures - animals, and still higher ones when studying self-conscious creatures - human beings. Of course one may be interested only in the physical and chemical structure of man, and then the first level of thinking is sufficient. In a similar way, one may take interest in the animal nature of man, or in the vegetative nature of animals; then the respective lower level of thinking is sufficient. In physical cosmology, in fact, we do not go beyond the physical phenomena. Even the Anthropic Cosmological Principle has so far been applied only to the physical shape of the Universe. Therefore, I will not discuss here the problems related to those higher levels of mental activity. However, when we want to comprehend the Universe with its life and consciousness beyond the abstract, formal way as proposed by the Anthropic Principle, then we have to develop these higher levels of thinking - which are by no means to be confused with vague, or worse, self-delusionary kinds of comprehension.

a.09. Reality constituted of perceptions

Our perception of the Moon's shape is qualitatively equal to our thoughts of the Moon. A thought concerning the Moon is not less objective than any other perception of it. If I am able to think anything about some object - truly think - not just form some arbitrary image - then I already know something of it. Hence there is no thing-in-itself which is unknown in any aspect. If we were to think that the thing-in-itself is a thing that cannot be thought about, we would have to admit that our thinking is inherently contradictory; it would be no thinking at all.

Reality is constituted solely of perceptions. Indications of measuring devices and the output of computer calculations are perceptions, too. And thinking enables us to obtain knowledge of objective reality out of that immense variety of perceptions. No limits of human understanding can be set, though there are individual limits to the knowledge of a particular person or temporarily limits to the knowledge of humanity as such. Beyond these limits, there are perceptions not penetrated by thought and perceptions not yet made. Goetheanism sees no limit to knowledge. Thus, a cosmological horizon cannot be accepted as such a limit.

Everything around us is constituted of various perceptions. Therefore, there is neither the need nor the possibility of distrusting them by raising objections that they distort reality. The perception of a red light is as correct as the perceptions connected with studying the corpuscular or undulatory nature of that red light. The fact that the redness can be perceived in a different way by a normal man, a partial daltonist, and an absolute daltonist or that light involves both undular or corpuscular phenomena can be ordered by appropriate thinking and relevant associations. Thinking is able to overcome illusions of the senses as well as logical errors by recognizing and explaining them.

After all, the illusions are real illusions, and the errors are actual errors; in other words, they too belong to reality. The phenomenon of the Sun moving around the Earth is commonly perceived and as real as that of the Earth moving around the Sun, which is established by mental ordering of other perceptions. By thinking we decide which way of looking at things is the most suitable one for a particular problem. Thus it does not surprise a Goetheanist that geocentric coordinates are still used for some astronomical purposes (cf.: 2.13).

a.10. Basic phenomena

For a thinking person the pitfall of misinterpreted phenomena seems to be a much lesser threat than that of considering the phenomena as non-real (as opposed to any "objective reality" or, as Kant puts it, to the "thing-in-itself"). Scientific research in the Goethean sense consists of reducing complex perceptions, observational phenomena, to basic (or fundamental) phenomena, which may, but do not have to, belong to the domain of sensory perceptions. Looking for simple phenomena and simplifying other, more complex, phenomena constitutes the very essence of research work for a Goetheanist.

A thrown stone is the classic example used when reducing complex phenomena into basic ones. Rudolf Steiner in his book on Goetheanism (1886) uses it, too. A thrown stone traces a complicated trajectory and falls back to the earth. We can divide this phenomenon into the following basic ones. First, we have the free fall component. If nothing else were involved, this motion would occur along a vertical straight line with velocity changes described by the familiar physical law. Yet we also have a horizontal component. If only this were to govern the trajectory, the stone would move along a different straight line with a constant velocity. Air resistance is also at work here. The first two basic components govern the main properties of the stone’s motion. The third one only modifies them, not changing it in any qualitative manner. One can find still other modifying factors such as the motion of air (wind), the shape of the stone itself, etc. One can describe the motion of the stone without dividing it by providing a ready mathematical equation of motion. But then the trajectory would remain not accounted for. Thus in almost all physics textbooks this division is performed.

There are much more complicated phenomena than that of a thrown stone. Many phenomena in astronomy, physics, chemistry as well as some in botany are already considered in a Goethean sense. This work has not been accomplished yet in cosmology. Only some first attempts have been published (ef. Rudnicki 1992), but they do show us clearly that it is possible to think about the Universe as a whole without the help of philosophical assumptions - without cosmological principles. Some cosmologists think that work with cosmological principles, though fruitful, will be replaced by grasping the universe with the help of basic phenomena belonging to the realm of perceptions, but not necessarily physical perceptions. [1]

a.11. One hypothesis versus a totality of hypotheses

Another important feature of the Goethean approach consists of dealing not with just one individual hypothesis concerning a given problem but with a number of hypotheses, all the plausible hypotheses, if possible. The general custom in science is just the opposite. One usually sticks to one hypothesis and looks for positive arguments supporting it. This brings science to the situation which the great Goetheanist Fritz Zwicky (1957) described as follows:

"If rain begins to fall on previously dry areas on the earth, the water on the ground will make its way from high levels to low levels in a variety of ways. Some of these ways will be more or less obvious, predetermined by pronounced mountain formations and valleys, while others will appear more or less at random. Whatever courses are being followed by the first waters, their existence will largely prejudice those chosen by later floods. A system of ruts will consequently be established which has a high degree of permanence. The water rushing to the sea will sift the earth in these ruts and leave the extended layers of earth outside essentially unexplored. Just as the rains open up the earth here and there, ideas unlock the doors to various aspects of life, fixing the attention of men on some aspects while partly or entirely ignoring others. Once man is in a rut he seems to have the urge to dig even deeper, and what often is most unfortunate, he does not take the excavated debris with him like the waters, but throws it over the edge, thus covering up the unexplored territory and making it impossible for him to see outside his rut. The mud he is throwing may even hit his neighbors in the eyes, intentionally or unintentionally, and prevent them from seeing anything at all."

a.13. The shape of a problem

Zwicky and other Goetheanists propose the following: When a scientist approaches a new prob1em, he should first establish the shape of it (from the Greek word for shape - morphe - Zwicky called this approach the morphological approach; cf. Zwicky 1959, 1969). The limits of the investigation must be clearly established. In the real world everything is related to everything, but we are not able to investigate all the complex interconnections at once. For instance, if one is to study the perihelion shift of a planetary orbit, one must decide whether to take into account all plausible gravitation theories, all gravitation theories known, or just one of them, whether to consider only the known masses, or to acknowledge the presence of hidden ones, etc. Such a well-defined, limited domain of investigation should be put to closer scrutiny in selected places (since we cannot look at everything at once). Thus, even prior to any actual investigation, we can perceive the shape of the problem within the limits we have established for ourse1ves. It is good to study every problem from the beginning in order not to be led astray by existing views, artificial constructions and hypotheses. Only the proper performance of this step can lead to the right result in the next steps, which vary in different research disciplines.

a.13. Morphological box

In exact sciences - and we want to develop cosmology as such - one has to divide the total problem into individual e1ements, which may be continuous (e.g. the variability range of some physical constant) or discrete ones (e.g. number and kind of symmetries of hidden space-time dimensions in Kaluza-Klein cosmology). Of course any problem can be represented parametrically in an infinite number of ways. The choice of relevant parameters is crucial. If our perception of the problem’s shape has not been clear enough - if we have selected the wrong parameters - we cannot hope to obtain anything significant. Unfortunately, there are no ready specifications of how to select parameters. Important research cannot be done by merely following ready prescriptions.

After that, a morphological box may be constructed. It is a multidimensional parametric space, whose particular dimensions may be continuous or not, infinite or finite, according to the nature of the parameters chosen by us. Each point represents a possible solution of the problem, a set of values of our parameters. Every point is an explanation of the complex phenomenon under investigation, a hypothesis. If we assume that there is just one reality, then only one hypothesis can be true.

A morphological box in the form of discrete points is rather rare. In most cases, at least some of the parameters are continuous ones. Accordingly, we obtain a continuum of hypotheses and have to deal with many possible classes of them at once. Now we remove from the box the areas corresponding to the classes of hypotheses which are to be excluded within the given formulation of the problem because they do not agree with the observational experimental evidence available. In the ideal case, the procedure would yield a unique point, corresponding to the correct theory of the investigated fragment of reality. Such an ideal situation is exceptional. In most cases one obtains a number of detached domains or, at best, one large domain including an entire class, a continuum of hypotheses. Thus we have a qualitative result, delimiting the domain where the truth is, yet we still are not able to determine the truth unequivocally. The antagonists of Goetheanism find this situation unacceptable. The Goetheanists reply that it is better to know the truth in an approximate way (the broad domain within the box) than aspiring to the unequivocal truth, to investigate just one hypothesis (an individual point within this domain), which may actually correspond to the truth but most often does not.

a. 14. Theory and reality

Even if the morphological box yielded a unique theory, we could hardly claim to know all the truth. Any theory is no more than a representation of reality as determined by the particular formulation of the problem. If, for example, we solved in an unequivocal way the problem of galaxy formation based on Newtonian mechanics, then we can broaden our perspective by using other theories (General Relativity, Dicke-Brans, Milgrom etc.). If we solved it assuming the Generalized Copernican Principle, we can then extend our investigations to other principles. A theory is always only an approximation, which may be better or worse but never completely exact. A theory can fit only some fragment of reality. Reality is ever much more complex, rich, and fascinating. In the best of cases, we can obtain an iterative sequence of theories, of which none is the conclusive one: A theory can be the object of interest for a methodologist or philosopher. For a scientist, a theory is but a tool, not the object to be investigated. In one of his famous aphorisms Goethe said: Whoever cannot distinguish theory from reality is like someone who cannot distinguish between the scaffolding and the building itself. A Goetheanist working in cosmology hopes to obtain a new perspective on the construction of the Universe as a whole; ideally, he does this with the help of basic cosmological phenomena and without any cosmological principles. However, he knows that this task is not an easy one. But even when he works in a "traditional way" (i.e. with cosmological principles) he tries not to stick to one of them but to consider all of them as various values of one parameter within the morphological box used.

[1] To avoid misunderstanding: under "not physical” perceptions are here understood as not vague "mystical" feelings but conscious products of a "daylight" thinking process (laws of nature are not physical objects; we perceive them mentally). For details, see Steiner (1886).


Bibliography

© Konrad Rudnicki

Konrad Rudnicki is a professor at Jagiellonian University, Cracow, Poland. He is a member of the Free European Academy of Science (Holland), member of the Commission of Galaxies of the International Astronomical Union and member of the Mathematical-Astronomical Section at the Goetheanum, (Switzerland). Prof. Rudnicki has been Senior Research Fellow at the California Institute of Technology (1965-67), visiting professor at Rice University, USA (1988-89). His areas of interest are: extragalactic astronomy, cosmology, philosophy of science and methodology of science.