Intuition in Science, Pt. 2

The Abyss Between the Self and the World – a Science that Does Not Know Itself is Blind to the Ultimate Causes of Anything

Modern science has taken on such a stature that it is rare to seriously question its fundamental assumptions. Here, Matthew Kenyon, a senior technologist at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and longtime student of anthroposophy, explicates the core, untenable paradox of modern science: that it doesn’t understand its primary tool, thought. This is part two of a four part essay. Part one can be found here.

Redrawing the Boundary Around Knowledge to Find the Paradox in Modern Science

The modern attitude toward knowledge of the natural world feels wholly justified in concluding that the atom and DNA are the foundations of the world and of life, respectively, and in relegating the formal and final causes of bygone eras to the rubbish heap of unenlightened and prejudiced concepts of nature. The modern attitude sees no blueprint (e.g. formal cause) that nature follows and no goals (e.g. final cause) it strives to achieve outside of human action. But is such a weighty matter as the foundation of the universe and the teeming plant, animal, and human life on Earth settled by the extraordinary discoveries of quantum physics and evolutionary biology based on genetics? Surprising as it may be to hear, the answer is clearly no, as long as we free ourselves from the prejudices of the modern approach to knowledge regarding nature. Making the atom and DNA the foundation of the universe and life, respectively, is an impossibility. Why? In searching for the ultimate explanations of the foundation of the universe and life, we must explain how atoms and DNA can give rise to our capacity to think that atoms and DNA are the foundation of the world. If we think that the ultimate material and efficient causes of atoms and DNA are really sufficient to explain our capacity to think, then we are wrong; however, the wrongheadedness of this conclusion is only clear after our entrenched modern preconceptions about thinking are overcome. Let us explore how to overcome these preconceptions.

We can start with how the boundary line that defines the domain of modern scientific knowledge is usually drawn. Suppose that, instead of including only the things in space (e.g. sun, flowers, birds, brain) within the boundary line as is typically done today, we extend the boundary to include our thinking as well. If we really reflect on this new boundary that includes our thinking, then we must ask the question ‘why’ can we think thoughts about atoms and DNA in the first place. The modern attitude toward scientific knowledge will dismiss this question by saying that it is nonsense to draw this hypothetical boundary to include thinking. The modern approach considers it unnecessary to extend the boundary line to include thoughts because objective science generally concludes that thoughts are ‘secreted’ by the brain like bile is secreted by the liver. Science sees the objective nature of thoughts only in matter. Nerves are what thoughts are made of (e.g. material cause) and neural processing along complex neural networks are how thoughts evolve in a lawful manner (e.g. efficient cause). This entire approach of modern science in explaining the process of thinking is called intellectual materialism. Intellectual materialism rests on the assumption that the only valid way to study thinking is through studying processes in the nervous system.

But if we set aside the presuppositions of intellectual materialism, it becomes self-evident that if we include thoughts in our field of observation and not just the things in space revealed to us by our senses, then we can only know our thoughts through thinking thoughts. If we eliminate all we know about the cerebral cortex, electrical impulses carried by synapses, or other preconceptions we may consider as the foundation of thinking like the unconscious or the Godhead itself, then we come to experience pure thinking. In pure thinking, we stand in the field of our conscious experience and make the activity of our thinking the object of our observation, where we experience how one thought follows the next in a lawful way (i.e. logic). In pure thinking, we can observe directly that the process of thinking about thinking cannot be reduced to the material (nerves) and efficient (neural processing) causes of intellectual materialism. We can never step outside our thinking to grasp our thinking. This is impossible, but the modern scientific paradigm attempts to do just this when it adopts intellectual materialism.

The consequences of directly observing our thinking are difficult to appreciate because we cling tightly to certain notions about the nature of thought itself, which have emerged with the rise of the modern era. When the modern era, under the sway of intellectual materialism, exclusively draws the boundary line around the outer world which includes the brain in this context, it does so because it thinks thoughts themselves are not real things. Thoughts are subjective, so it says, and simply mirror in some way the facts of the sense world. The modern approach to the knowledge of nature dismisses thoughts themselves and looks to the objective facts of the nervous system. This approach turns to atoms (or the molecules of the brain to study thinking) and DNA as the ultimate causes which we discussed above. Atoms and DNA exist without considering our thinking itself because atoms and DNA are objective facts, while thinking is a dependent byproduct of these primary causes.

But this entire approach to explaining the world and life is indefensible because something subjective (thinking) cannot tell us about something objective (atoms and DNA). Intellectual materialism is an untenable paradox. Either atoms and DNA are not the absolute foundation of the objective world and life, respectively, or thinking is not merely subjective in the sense upheld by modern science. This paradox that emerges when we consider our own capacity to think about nature reveals that modern science has not settled the formal and banished the final causes as necessary explanatory factors of the natural world because our science does not know the most important thing in its striving for knowledge. Our science does not know ourselves. Our science does not know the thinking human-being. Science merely asks ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions but forgets to ask ‘why’ it can ask questions in the first place. The entire modern approach to scientific knowledge feels justified in avoiding this ‘why’ question because this approach views thinking as a kind of mirage that reflects the real objective facts it can study in the laboratory.

Thinking Must be Considered a Real Process in the Universe

Anyone who earnestly wants to understand the ultimate causes of things to address the existential problems of life mentioned in the introduction cannot be satisfied with this paradox. We must try and resolve the above paradox. Let us start with the assumption that thinking itself is a subjective process. It has not always been so that thinking was viewed as we view it today. The medieval philosophers who were so strongly influenced by Aristotle wrestled with this very issue of the nature of thinking. Two viewpoints emerged during the Middle Ages with the nominalists in one camp and the realists in the other. The nominalists saw thinking itself as a subjective process. This viewpoint evolved through the centuries and reached a kind of zenith with Immanuel Kant (b. 1724) which, in turn since Kant’s time, has evolved into today’s intellectual materialism which sees thinking resting solely on the objective factors of nerves (material cause) and neural processing (efficient cause). Thoughts themselves are not studied directly in the paradigm of intellectual materialism.

The realists, on the other hand, saw thinking as a real process. Whereas it is possible to trace the nominalism of the Middle Ages into the modern era through Kant, the realist perspective came to full flower in Rudolf Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom.1 If we follow Steiner’s lead and start with the activity of thinking itself as the foundation for all knowledge, we reach the self-evident conclusion that thinking itself transcends the categories of subjectivity and objectivity. Thinking itself is a determinative factor in defining what is subjective and objective so it cannot be reduced to only one of these categories. Thinking must be included as a real process in the world. Appealing to any source of thinking outside of thinking like atoms, the brain, the unconscious, or God cannot reduce thinking to merely an unreal process or some kind of illusory mirror reflection of a real process like atoms, the brain, etc. that are assumed to underlie it.

Again, if we draw from Steiner, we can call the activity of thinking about thinking “intuition”. As Steiner writes in the Philosophy of Freedom, “Only through an intuition can the essence of thinking be grasped.” The point here is that it is a nonsense to adopt the stance of modern science which overlooks the fact that thinking itself is an unavoidable and necessary factor in knowledge and cannot be reduced to matter or material processes. If science attempts to find the ultimate explanations of what things are made of through atomic physics (material causes) and how things change in inorganic (forces) and organic (DNA and natural selection) nature, then it cannot do so without providing an explanation of thinking itself. It has to become a science that works directly with intuition because only intuition can grasp thinking itself.

Of course, it goes without saying that modern science thinks it grasps thinking through neurology and related disciplines. However, we need to emphasize again that the knowledge acquired through the latest brain imaging techniques from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to magnetoencephalography (MEG) cannot be a substitute for thinking itself. It is a mistake to conclude that because MEG shows certain lesions in the brain of persons suffering from dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease, for example, we demonstrate thinking is produced by organic processes. This example only shows that thinking reflects itself through organic processes and when the brain is abnormal, normal thinking does not occur like a distorted mirror unfaithfully reflects real objects.

Our intellectual materialism cannot see this distinction. Instead, evolutionary theory is typically invoked to interpret these kinds of MEG studies. Evolutionary theory views the morphology and function of our brain as always transitional due to long-term interactions between the body and the environment. There is nothing final or complete about the brain today for it continuously evolves. Consequently, as this argument goes, the normal thinking of today which is produced by the brain is dependent on today’s morphology and function of the brain so intuition cannot be an essential way to reach objective conclusions about the world in general. Instead, modern science concludes we must study the brain and devise neurological models based on brain studies to know thinking. But this means we cannot know our own thoughts as we use our thoughts to elaborate these neurological models. If we cannot know our own thoughts, then how can we know the neurological models? This nonsensical circular thinking simple reveals the paradox of intellectual materialism again.

Photos Sofia Lismont

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  1. Rudolf Steiner, Die Philosophie der Freiheit: Grundzuege einer modernen Weltanschauung,(Berlin: Emil Felder, 1894).

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