Science and the Great Chain of Being
I toyed with titling this paper "Science and Neoplatonism," but because I will be making few explicit references to Plato and his successors, I have chosen the Great Chain of Being as a more general designation for the hierarchical ontology that ascends from lesser existences through intermediate planes up to the ens perfectissimum at its top. Arthur Lovejoy said that most educated persons everywhere accepted this groundplan of the universe without question down to late in the eighteenth century, 1 and Ken Wilber has added that belief in it has been "so overwhelmingly widespread that it is either the single greatest intellectual error every to appear in human history—an error so colossally widespread as to literally stagger the mind—or it is the most accurate reflection of reality yet to appear." 2 My object is to match it with the scientific world view that in the eighteenth century replaced the Great Chain of Being (hereafter the GCB) as the presiding ethos in the West. I want to consider how they do and do not mesh.
As mine is the opening presentation in this conference, it seems m order to direct a few words to the theme of our conference as a whole, "Neoplatonism and Contemporary Thought," before I turn to my specific topic. Neoplatonism—I shall be using that word and the Great Chain of Being interchangeably—is a hierarchical metaphysics, and few words are in less favor today than those two, "metaphysics" and "hierarchy." So I feel we need to begin our conference by manning the barricades and insisting that they are re spectable words.
SCIENCE AND THE GREA T CHAIN OF BEING 2 NEOPLA TONISM AND CONTEMPORAR Y THO UGHT
Regarding metaphysics, I recently heard a theologian tell of a tour he led to the main geographical centers of the Protestant Reformation. The participants were a select group of well-informed Christians. They were keenly interested in, and knew a lot about, Wittenburg and Guttenburg, Luther's Ninety-five Theses and his plan of salvation. My informant was surprised, therefore, to find that from his point of view his tour members missed the main point. They were not aware that Luther had a world view, a theological system that he thought spanned everything—all human life and the universe as well. They thought in terms of individual statements—justification by faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the like. These isolated doctrines they held important, and they gave them their wholehearted assent. But not only did they not have what Calvin called "the Christian world and life view." They were hardly aware that such a thing existed, much less might be important if not essential. This marks a change, my informant concluded. Whereas earlier in this century Christians of many denominations vigorously opposed Darwinism as having naturalistic and atheistic implications, the situation today is different. It is not so much that most Christians have been persuaded that evolution is true and can be reconciled with the truths of Christianity. The two have been compartmentalized, so that not only do they not conflict. They don't even seem to impinge on each other. report as providing an instance of the indifference I relate this to world views that characterizes not just theology but our ethos as a whole today. At bottom the indifference derives from an incomprehension of what world views are and can contribute to life, and we have to admit that philosophy in our century has furthered that incomprehension. If we follow Jean-Francois Lyotard in defining postmodernism as "incredulity toward metanarratives," twentieth century philosophers have fostered that incredulity. There are three kinds of postmodernism, three degrees of it we might say. Minimal postmodernism contents itself with reporting that we have no world view today, none that remotely approaches consensus. Mainline postmodernism goes on to argue for the permanence of this condition. Never again will we have a believable world view; we know too well how little we can know. Lastly, Hardcore postmodernism adds to this contention, "good riddance."
Metanarratives totalize, and in so doing marginalize minorities. They are oppressive power-plays, so we are better off without them. What do we say to this three-pronged attack on metaphysics? We can say that each prong voices a half-truth, but not the full truth, 3 while adding what Jacques Maritain said a half century ago; namely, that "a loss or weakening of the metaphysical spirit is an incalculable damage for the general order of intelligence and human affairs." 4 If we are to say more than that, I so often find myself agreeing with the critics of metaphysics if metaphysics is what they say it is, that I feel the need to cut back behind technical definitions to common sense understandings of the project. Claude Levi-Strauss tells us that one of the differences between mythic and scientific thinking is that myth-makers think that you don't understand anything unless you understanding everything; and when we think of the way context controls meaning and peripheral vision affects focal vision, I think we can say that those myth-makers, our ancestors, were on the right track. Their insight can be expanded as follows: Minds require econiches as much as organisms do, and the mind's econiche is its world view, its sense of the whole of things, however much or little that sense is articulated. Short of madness there has to be some fit between the two, and we constantly try to improve it. Signs of a poor fit are the sense of meaninglessness, alienation, and in acute cases anxiety that postmodernity knows so well. The proof of a good fit is that life and the world make sense. When the fit feels perfect, the energies of the cosmos pour into the believer in startling degree. She knows that she belongs, and this produces an inner wholeness that is strong for being consonant with the wholeness of the All. As for hierarchies, relentless unnuanced assaults from what Frederick Crews calls the eclectic left have all but wrecked this once noble and still etymologically perfect word (in which we in this Society have a vested interest, we might add, it having been coined by one of our own number, Dionysius). I say etymologically perfect word, because I know no other single word that j oins the two virtues—holiness, hieros; and sovereign power, arkhes—which, conjoined, announce the central religious claim. For as William James put the matter, "religion says that the best things are the more e ternal things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the final world." 5
SCIENCE AND THE GREA T CHAIN OF BEING
Three years ago Judith Plaskow, the feminist contributor to the journal Tikkun, wrote an essay titled "What's Wrong with Hierarchies." 6 It said important things about the dangers of hierarchies, but it was so unadmittedly one-sided that it wrung from me a rejoinder titled "Is Anything Right about Hierarchies?" A graduate student who read my piece said, "They will agree with you, but they won't print it because it doesn't serve their political agenda." What I said in my rejoinder was that, apart from the obvious facts: first, that we live in a hierarchic universe (or holarchic universe as Arthur Koestler preferred to say) wherein gradations of size, power, and complexity confront us at every turn; and second, that the social world (animal as well as human) couldn't last a week without accepted chains of command—aside from these two obvious facts the decisive point is that hierarchies can be empowering as well as oppressive. A loving family with small children is an example of an empowering hierarchy, as is a well-run classroom. The definitive example of a benevolent hierarchy is God's relation to the world and its creatures. In Christian idiom, "God became man that man might become God." With metaphysics and hierarchies reaffirmed, I turn now to science where I will begin by stating my strategy for relating it to the Great Chain of Being.
I do not think we can get to the Great Chain of Being through science. But if we start with the GCB there is much in science that can encourage us, shoring up our conviction that it is true. Looking at the findings of science through Neoplatonic eyes, we often find ourselves exclaiming, "Why, of course! This is what we might expect in a world that in its entirety, metaphysically as well as physically, is hierarchically arranged." Science doesn't prove the GCB. It's rather that its findings symbolize it. Approached from the Neoplatonic angle, they deflect our gaze in its direction. If there are sermons in stones and Allah did not disdain to use even a gnat for a symbol, may not science too have symbolic possibilities? This brings me to the heart of my paper where I shall target five scientific findings that have Neoplatonic "feel" to them.
1. Science finds that its part of the whole—the part it deals with, the physical, material universe—carries the hierarchical signature of the whole itself. Mirroring the Neoplatonic metaphysical hierarchy—which in Plotinus's scheme descends from the One, through Nous, then Soul, to Matter—science finds that on the rung of the hierarchy it deals with, matter, the hierarchical pattern of the whole reappears. As Stephen Jay Gould puts the matter, "nature is organized as a hierarchy—genes in organisms, organisms in populations, and populations in species."7 Beginning with size, the picture expands from the micro-world of quantum physics, though the macro-world our senses register, to the mega-world of the astronomers. And there are levels of complexity as well. Aristotle's mineral, plant, animal, and rational kingdoms name them in one way, and the academic disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology refine the list. Here as everywhere a level is defined by two things. First, it has a distinctive population; physicists deal with particles but not with chemical compounds or biological cells. Second, each population is governed by its own distinctive laws. Newton' laws of motions do not hold for Brownian movements. I mentioned that Arthur Koestler preferred "holarchy" to "hierarchy." This has the advantage of avoiding the coercive connotations that have been foisted on the word "hierarchy," while at the same time implying, accurately, that complex objects surround and contain simpler ones. The obvious model for a hierarchy is a ladder of ascent, or a chain composed of links of decreasing size; whereas holarchies suggest concentric circles in which atoms are inside molecules, genes are within organisms, and so on. There is a trade-off, however. Among spatial metaphors it is verticality—the vertical axis—that monitors worth, as phrases like "superior intelligence" and "the higher things of life" attest. In science, where questions of values are secondary if they appear at all, holarchy is clearly the better word, whereas in metaphysics hierarchy has the edge for keeping the qualitative issue central. 2. Only seemingly does science invert the Neoplatonic hierarchy. The preceding point—that the physical universe retains (holographically, we might say) the hierarchical structure of the
SCIENCE AND THE GREA T CHAIN OF BEING
whole in its part; "as above, so below," as the hermeticists used to say—seems obvious. But there appears to be a glaring difference between the hierarchies of science and the Great Chain of Being. In the latter, the less derives from the more, whereas science shows the more as deriving from the less. Or does science show this? In popular understanding, it does. Dramatically obvious in biology where life begins in slime and ends in intelligence, the sequence seems to apply across the board—from cosmogony (where molecules arrive after atoms) all the way to developmental psychology where maturation takes time. But interesting things have been happening in our century. Even in classical physics, order comes first and is the "more" that precedes the dissipations of entropy. (I don't think Ilya Prigogene's work retires the second law of thermodynamics. Time will tell.) Be that as it may, 20th century science carries the issue of "less from more" beyond the question of entropy. Plotinus speaks of the fall of soul into matter, and that fall can be given a scientific reading. In Neoplatonism the fall occurs because, out of its generosity the One veils itself progressively to allow the Many to appear. But 'veils itself is only a metaphor. What actually goes on in the veiling? Science answers as follows: Photons are the bridge from the immaterial to the material. (The immaterial as such will be the topic of my next, third, point.) Photons pump power into the spatio-temporal world, but are not themselves subject to space and time. A photon that reaches the earth light years after it left Sirus arrives with the same energy it had when it left home. Time exacts no toll from it; how could it when all clocks stop at the speed of light? The nuclear particles that photons produce are subject to time, but not to space, for no definite position can be assigned to them. They are definitely material, though, in having rest mass and charge, which photons lack. Atoms, for their part, are even more fallen, even more material, for being locked into both space andiime. Still, they are not as "fallen" as molecules are, for atoms are free to absorb and release energy which molecules—almost completely imprisoned in the determinism of our macro-, inanimate world—cannot. (I say almost completely imprisoned, for molecules can become excited, but the conditions are unusual.) 8
You get my point. Science seems to show that the more derives from the less, but when we look carefully, this "less" derives at every step from what is demonstrably greater in power, and seemingly in freedom as well. When science bumps into places where the less seems to produce the more—life from non-life; animals from vegetables, language where none previously existed—it explains the progressions with a word, emergence, which actually has no explanatory power whatsoever. To say that an attribute emerges describes what happens, but doesn't explain what happens. I am surprised at how many philosophers, even, fail to notice this. They join the scientists in trying to cover the nakedness of emergence-asan-explanatory-concept by covering it with metaphors. The standard one is water. Neither hydrogen nor oxygen are wet, but H20 is, which is taken to prove that a new ontological category has been produced. But wetness is a subjective experience, as is dryness, the presumed state of molecules in isolation. Chemically speaking, H^O isn't wet. It is simply molecules configurated differently from the way they were before hydrogen and oxygen combined. Subj ectively speaking, dryness changes into wetness; chemically speaking H + H + O changes into H 2 0. No new category of being—ontological category—has emerged. 3. Science now concedes that Reality is not exclusively material. I shall be using the words material and visible interchangeably and will define the visible as that which impacts our physical senses, with or without the help of instruments such as telescopes and electron-microscopes. In the Great Chain of Being matter is an island in the sea of sentience which in itself isn't material. Modern science reverses that picture. For science, sentience exists only (as far as we know) on our planet, and on that planet only in the stream of organic life that inhabits it; so sentience (or consciousness) is the island speck in the fifteen-billion-light-years-across sea of dead matter that envelopes it. Hardcore materialists and behaviorists do not acknowledge that that island exists. Since the demise of positivism things have changed markedly on this front. It is a confusing topic, for matter and energy are primitive terms in science and cannot be precisely defined, which makes it difficult to define their opposites, the invisible and
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SCIENCE AND THE GREA T CHAIN OF BEING
immaterial. Still, it is obvious that invisibles occupy a larger and more respected place in science than they previously did. A mere catalogue must suffice. a) Whatever preceded the Big Bang is invisible if not immaterial, for what we recognize as matter derives entirely from it. b) Dark matter, which is known only by the gravitational pull it exerts on detectable matter, is invisible for eluding even the most sensitive scientific instruments. Scientists call it matter because that's all they know that exerts gravitational pull, but for all they know about what dark matter is, it might just as well be Aristotle's Unmoved Mover; Stephen Hawking refers to it as "absolute elsewhere." Be that as it may, the entire universe is now calculated to consist almost entirely of this invisible X, for the current recipe for the universe reads, "70 parts cold dark matter, about 30 parts hot dark matter, and just a pinch for all the rest."9 c) Dark matter may eventually become visible through improved detection devices—the issue is still up in the air—but no scientist expects that the wave packets (from whose collapse particles derive) will ever be seen. d) What about psychosomatic medicine? From the common sense (and even medical) point of view this important development of the last half-century looks like a clear case where science now takes invisibles seriously, for no one has ever seen a thought or an emotion, yet demonstrably they can affect the body's immune system. In ordinary language, stress creates ulcers, but in philosophy this whole issue remains ambiguous because mainstream philosophers of mind are epiphenomenalists (John Searle) where they are not rank materialists (Daniel Dennett); dualists like Karl Popper and John Eccles are out of fashion. So even where the mainliners concede that thoughts are not material, they continue to assume that they derive from their neurological underpinnings. By this account, ulcers are caused by neurological disturbances in the brain which we experience as stress, not that experience itself. "Mental materialism is back, with a vengeance. It is not only back, but back in an unapologetic, out-of-the-closet, almost exhibitionistic form. This later incarnation might be called 'exuberant materialism.'"10 Given this neuroscientific triumphalism, we cannot unambiguously cite psychosomatic medicine as a domain where science countenances invisibiles.
4. Returning from living forms (where the working assumption in biology and psychology is that the more has to derive from the less) to physics, my fourth point is that in making room for the immaterial/unseen, science also honors it. In two ways: first, by granting it causal priority; and second, by crediting it with greater power than its material derivatives possess. Causal priority has already been mentioned. Whateverpreceded the Big Bang is presumably immaterial, for everything that we recognize as matter has proceeded from it. As for greater power, in nature power is inversely related to size. The well-founded law that the shorter the wavelength the larger the energy that is compressed into it, produces the conclusion that "in a thimbleful of vacuum there is more energy than would be released by all the atomic bomb fuel in the universe." 11 Expressed in terms of particles instead of waves,
the amount of energy associated with light corpuscles increases as the size is reduced. The energy necessary to create a proton is contained in a light pulse only about 10"13 centimeters in diameter. And the energy of a million protons would be contained in a light pulse a million times smaller.
5. My fifth and last point is that science has joined Neoplatonism in being, in the end, apophatic. If "to penetrate into the transintelligible is the deepest desire of our intellect," 13 science has come to honor that dictum. I will let a single quotation, from John Wheeler, the father of superspace, make my point.
A drastic conclusion emerges out of quantum geometrodynamics: there is no such thing as spacetime in the real world of quantum physics.... On this picture physics is a staircase. Each tread registers a law. Each riser marks the transcendence of that law. The staircase climbs from step to step: density, and density found alterable; valence law, and valence law melted away; conservation of net baryon and net lepton number, and these conservation laws transcended; conservation of energy and angular momentum, and these laws likewise overstepped; and then the top tread displaying all the key constants and basic dynamic laws—but above, a final riser leading upward into nothingness. It bears a message: With the collapse of the universe, the framework falls down for every law of physics. There is no dynamic principle that does not require space and time for its
NEOPLA TON1SM AND CONTEMPORAR Y THO UGHT formulation; but space and time collapse; and with their collapse every known dynamic principle collapses. 14
SCIENCE AND THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING
My conclusion? As I said at the outset, if we proceed from the whole (The Great Chain of Being) to the part of the whole that science deals with, science's findings seem not only compatible with that Chain, they seem actually to support it, to incline in its direction, in that from the Neoplatonic perspective they turn out to be the kinds of things we could expect science to discover. The opposite does not hold, however. We can no more get from science to the Great Chain of Being than we can get from that Chain to the specifics of science, DNA and the like. For quality eludes science, and the Great Chain of Being is above all else a qualitative hierarchy. Playing upon the vertical dimension, which (as I noted) among spatial metaphors always and everywhere monitors degrees of worth, the Great Chain of Being proclaims that its higher levels are better and more real than the lower ones. But the notion of degrees of reality, while easily grasped by children and the general public, has no place in science and therefore—I am asserting a causal connection here—is currently suspect in philosophy. That disparity, between children and the general public on the one hand (who accept as a matter of course that some things are more real than others) and on the other hand scientists and intellectuals who can't make head nor tail of the notion, says a lot about how out of touch with life philosophy has grown. So I want to insert two examples to drive that out-oftouchness home. A former chairman of mine, after arguing well into the night against degrees of reality, toward the end of his diatribe grew suddenly thoughtful as he recalled that the previous evening his six year old son had introduced the notion in a context where (my chairman had to admit) it did seem to make sense. His son was watching a TV western. As the gunfire and fatalities mounted, he became alarmed and asked his father, "Dad, is this real?" In some region of their psyches, adults too respond to the idea that reality is graded. Marketing agents know this well and turn it
to their advantage. On the day that I left for this conference, the cereal box on my breakfast table carried (as its inducement for costumers to select it over competing brands) two words that could have been scripted for our gathering: "Get Real!" But to complete my conclusion: If the idea of a hierarchy of meaning, worth, significance, and in the end reality, has no place in science and has become suspect in philosophy, all the more need for a society dedicated to preserving the idea: The International Society for Neoplatonic Studies. Syracuse University NOTES 1. Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936), p. 59.
2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. Ken Wilber, "The Great Chain of Being," Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Summer 1993), p. 53. I spell out this retort in "The Religious Significance of Postmodernism," Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 11, No. 4 (October 1994). Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959), p. 59. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: The Macmillan Company). Judith Plaskow, "What's Wrong with Hierarchies," Tikkun, 7:1, 1992. S. J. Gould, The New York Review of Books, November 19, 1992, p. 47. This paragraph has followed closely Arthur Young's The Reflexive Universe (San Francisco: Delacorte Press, 1976). See especially the diagram on page 9. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, October 1, 1992, p. A16. The New York Review of Books, April 8, 1993. Quoted in Harold Schilling, The New Consciousness in Science and Religion (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1973), p. 110. Arthur Young, Which Way Out? (Berkeley: Robert Briggs Associates, 1980), p. 2. Jacques Maritain, op. cit., p. 219. "From Relativity to Mutability," in Jagdish Mehra (ed.), The Physicist's Conception of Nature (Dordrecht, Holland; Boston, U.S.A.: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1973), pp. 227, 241.