Our Schizophrenic Scientific Inheritance.

 The early philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, observed a clear distinction between the forms of things and the particulars (Democritan atoms) of which those things are constituted. For Plato, those forms which Democritus dismissed as mere ‘conventions’, inhabited a world apart from the particulars, a world which he, Plato, conceived as a world of Universal Mind (Ideas). On the other hand, for his friend, Aristotle, the forms and the particulars were distinct but not separate, existing together on  the mundane level of ordinary matter,  space and time. In this down-to-earth way, Aristotle initiated what we now know as practical Physics as opposed to the Idealism of Plato.

 On both these Platonic and Aristotelian accounts, the forms enjoy a measure of persistence, or permanence, which the particulars do not. For Aristotle, forms consisted of the shapes, volumes and other physical characteristics of real things, whereas for Plato those forms (Forms, or Ideas) were celestial ‘templates’, as it were, from which the particulars take their ‘earthly’ characteristics.

 As an example of how a form endures while its particulars change, Heraclitus cites the form of a candle flame burning steadily in still air while its particulars (atomic constituents) are in a continual state of rapid and violent flux. Plato’s example of the persistence of form was different. As he put it, in the same way that throughout life we wear out and replace our garments without breaking our bodily and mental continuity, so, after death, our essential form (‘soul’ or psyche) continues to exist in celestial perpetuity. There is some support for the first part of this Platonic view in the biological estimate that no cells in our bodies survive for more than about seven years, so that our bodies undergo complete cellular replacement about eleven times throughout a normal life-span without any loss of essential self-awareness. But, of course, whether that self awareness, or ‘soul’, continues post mortem is a moot point which is not answered by the biological argument for the continuity of self-awareness throughout a series of bodily replacements.

 This Idealist ‘other world’ of Plato’s eternal forms (Forms, Ideas or ‘Universals’) was to become the ‘Heaven’ of subsequent Christianity. It would also to give rise to the notorious Matter-versus-Mind, or Realist-versus-Idealist, controversy among future generations of philosophers. The Idealist, or Platonic line of philosophers, after Locke, Berkeley and Kant, argued for the World being essentially that of Mind, whereas the Realists, such as Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Gassendi, held the counter argument that the World consists purely of Matter, with Mind being no more than figmentary – a mere ‘ghost in the Machine’, to use a well-worn phrase.

This philosophical rift between ‘Mind’ and ‘Matter’, right at the root of our Western philosophical and scientific traditions, continues to this very day in the academic separation between Science and the Arts.  While Science deals with the material particulars, such as cells, molecules, atoms, ‘electrons’ and so on, Arts deals with pure forms, in subjects such as painting, sculpture and the Humanities, including ‘abstract’ subjects such as Sociology, Psychology and Theology. Many educators such as, notably, C. P. Snow [i], have bemoaned this Arts-Science division on the grounds that it discourages holistic, free-range thinking. However, despite all contrived political and administrational attempts to merge the two disciplines, the unwritten rule persists in Educational policy that, administratively, ‘never the twain shall meet’.

 Our Western culture is therefore, in this sense, basically schizophrenic, consisting of two distinct and incommensurable mindsets. This academic ‘apartheid’ which has been established in formal Education comes to the fore with Descartes (1596—1650), known as the father of modern scientific philosophy. Descartes created an irrevocable separation, known as Cartesian dualism, between matter and our observations of it – between Matter and Mind, as usually described. However, with the rise of modern relativistic or observationist physics inaugurated by Einstein’s philosophical progenitor, Ernst Mach (1838 – 1916), that Cartesian dichotomy between things and our observations of them was seriously challenged, and in the hands of his relativist successor, Albert Einstein, it has now been all but completely erased. This, of course, is because Relativity removes the traditional separation between the world of matter and the observer, and combines the two, making the hitherto assumed absolute physical measures, mass, length and time, measures relative instead of absolute.

Meanwhile, the sheer inertia of our schizophrenic, underlying Cartesian tradition prevents this relativistic revolution from being properly assimilated, so that our ideas of physical reality are held in suspension, having fallen between the two logical stools of so-called Realism and Idealism (or  Materialism and Relativism). This state of irresolution has therefore persisted for more than a century since the Theory of Relativity first appeared. It thereby inhibits any further progress in the development of common understanding, with ‘Relativity’ remaining, for the general public, no more than a byword for egg-headed obscurity. Only in one case, it seems, is there any prospect of those two, so far irreconcilable, mindsets coming together in a wholesome logical way. This is in the Neo-Machian merger of Philosophy and Physics, defined as Normal Realism. Virtually unaware of this half-century-long development of Mach’s legacy, contemporary physicists and cosmologists carry on constructing physical and cosmological theories which utterly confound commonsense, seeking to entertain us while advancing our philosophical understanding of nature not in the least.  Striking examples of such philosophically unsupported theories are those of the ‘Big Bang’, ‘black holes’, ‘dark matter’ and ‘wormholes’ between different parts of the universe, creating ‘short-cuts’ across ordinary space and time. In this way, Modern Physics has become no more than an eclectic miscellany of hypotheses with no logical coherence whatsoever between them. However, as it is said, ‘He who pays the fiddler calls the tune’. Considering the growing irritation of the thinking public with so much cacophonous theoretical fiddling, it will be surprising if Society’s funding of contemporary Physics and Cosmology is not soon to dry up.

             In short, then, to develop a Physics without any identifiable philosophical underpinning is like trying to construct a skyscraper without foundations, an enterprise which is doomed to eventual failure. To secure a good, solid foundation on which to build a natural common understanding it will be necessary for modern physics and cosmology to reconnect with philosophy and for the public media not to kowtow to the ‘expertise’ of those theoreticians whose aim is simply to seek novelty, dazzling us and, undoubtedly, themselves, with their intellectual brilliance – ‘blinding us with science’ as it is so often said. This reconnection has to be made under the banner of Natural Philosophy as it was prior to Science’s fairly recent abandonment of the ‘Philosophy’ side of the partnership. This is essentially what Normal Realism does, that is, to recombine the two disciplines into a single logical discipline. In other words, Normal Realism is a resurgent Natural Philosophy according to the original meaning of that title. The basis on which Normal Realism is founded is the quantised relativism, or phenomenalism, of Ernst Mach who was, arguably, the last qualified physicist to combine physics and philosophy prior to the institution of the Educational apartheid which virtually split the binocular perspective supplied by Natural Philosopy into two separate one-eyed views. This merging of the two disvciplines was in the relativist or observationist tradition of Natural Philosophy in the divergent line of Berkeley, Hume and Kant. Its most recent development is the physics-philosophy of Pope and Osborne, called Normal Realism, described on this site under the acronym POAMS (the Pope-Osborne Angular Momentum Synthesis).        


[1] C. P. Snow (1905-1980) was a professional British scientist and novelist who, in 1959, gave a highly influential Rede lecture at Senate House, University of Cambridge. This was entitled ‘The Two Cultures’, the burden of which was the breakdown in communication between the sciences and the humanities in modern society. This, he argued, is a main inhibitor of progress in common understanding and social harmony.