Chapter 3: Purpose in the Universe
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.
John Donne (1611), ‘An Anatomy of the World’
To him who has only a hammer the whole world looks like a nail.
The astrophysicist Weinberg gives a brilliant account of the first three minutes of the universe in his book The First Three Minutes (1977). In his last chapter he contemplates the last minutes of planet earth as it faces an extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat and concludes: ‘The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless’ (p. 154).
The biologist Monod is no less pessimistic than Weinberg when he concluded Chance and Necessity (1974) with these words:
If he [man] accepts this message -- accepts all it contains -- then man must at last wake out of his millenary dream; and in doing so, wake to his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. Now does he at last realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world. A world that is deaf to his music, just as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes. (p. 172)
Why is it that a brilliant account of the origin of the universe and a brilliant account of the evolution of life each end upon a tragic note?
Neither Weinberg nor Monod find any meaning to purpose in the universe. They rightly reject the idea of a divine mechanic manipulating a mindless world machine. But both fail to find any other meaning to purpose. Haught (1984 p. 17) correctly puts the issue this way:
If the world of nature is radically purposeful it is not sufficient that its purpose be extrinsic to it. Instead any teleological influence must be felt intimately by all aspects of the world. This means that the fundamental constituents of nature must have built into them a quality . . . The name I shall give to this hypothesized quality of receptivity to meaning is ‘mentality’. . . Unless the universe is pervasively "mental" there would be no possibility of any global meaning taking up residence within it. (p. 17)
But first we must see how it is that the worldview of the universe as a mindless machine has become the dominant modern one.
The Mechanistic Worldview
The dominant model of nature for both astronomer Weinberg and biologist Monod is the machine. The universe is a gigantic machine made up of countless smaller machines, be they living organisms or atoms. The image goes back to the Greeks, but it was given its most complete expression in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the rise of classical physics. The mechanistic model is properly called atomistic (from the Greek atomos, meaning indivisible). Its method consists in subdividing the world into its smallest parts, which at one time were thought to be atoms. The essence of atomism is that these parts remain unchanged no matter what particular whole they constitute, be it a star or a brain. Having divided the universe into its smallest bits you then try to build it up again, and of course when you do that you get a machine. The reductionist principle of atomism leads to the doctrine of mechanism -- that the universe and all entities in the universe are machines. Newton’s system of the universe, as it has been handed down to us, is atomistic and mechanistic. The earth and the sun are compared to atoms. Both the smallest and the largest objects obey identical laws. The universe is thus seen to be composed of bits of inert matter moving through space according to deterministic laws. In the Newtonian universe, once the initial conditions and the laws of force are given, everything is interpreted in terms of the mechanical movements of atoms and molecules and all is calculable for ever before and after. Laplace claimed that, given enough facts, he could not merely predict the future but retell the past. The prediction of the existence of the planet Neptune, which led to its later discovery was, for many, the vindication of the so-called Newtonian universe.
Whilst the elements of this view come from Newton, he himself was not a Newtonian. His views of matter were much more complex and in many ways more organic than mechanical. However, the simpler mechanistic picture held the day, together with his name. As a basis for a methodology of science it has been enormously fruitful for physics, astronomy and engineering and certain aspects of biology. The formation and development of the laws of motion and the law of gravitation occupied two generations. It commenced with Galileo and ended with Newton, who was born the day Galileo died.
The concept of a mechanistic universe became the dominant worldview soon after the rebirth of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, it is a mistake to suppose, as many historical accounts do, that the midwives of science were all mechanists. If any one year marks the beginning of modern science it is the year 1543. In that year modern astronomy was born with the publication of Nicholas Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. The birth of modern physics comes nearly one hundred years later with Galileo’s 1638 discourse on motion and force. In that same year that modern astronomy was born modern biology was born with the publication of De Fabrica Corporis Humani by the anatomist Andreas Vesalius in 1543. Neither Copernicus nor Vesalius were mechanists. The critical experience in the early life of Copernicus was ten years away from his native Poland in Renaissance Italy in Padua and Bologna, where he came under the influence of organic concepts in Neoplatonism and the writings of Hermes Trismegistus (Kearney 1971 pp. 96-104). Vesalius, a Belgian who became professor of anatomy in Padua, drew his inspiration from some of the biological writings of Aristotle and the anatomy and physiology of Galen (second century AD). Both Aristotle and Galen were keen observers of nature. Galen was one of the first experimenters we know of in biology; Vesalius developed the tradition of accurate observation and experimentation from Galen. He was not beholden at all to the mechanistic tradition of early Greek writers such as Democritus. Nor was William Harvey, the Englishman who came to the anatomy school in Padua where he discovered the circulation of the blood in the human body in 1628. ‘It seems fair to say,’ comments Kearney (1971), ‘that Harvey developed his ideas on circulation of the blood within the general framework of the old philosophy’ (p. 86). It was Descartes who later transformed the notion of circulation into a mechanical system of pumps and pipes and used it as a cornerstone for his mechanistic philosophy.
The importance of all this is that the origin of modern science was not dependent upon a mechanistic view of the world. It was later workers such as the Dutch astronomer Huygens and Descartes, who was an engineer, physiologist and philosopher, who developed the mechanistic model of the universe. Mechanism has been fruitful as a methodology. But it is not the only tradition that led to hypothesis formation and experimentation, which we regard as the hallmarks of modern science.
The work of the mechanists Descartes and Huygens falls within the lifetimes of Galileo and Newton. The lives of all four fall between 1564, when Galileo was born, and Newton’s death in 1727. Whitehead (1933) judged that ‘The issue of the combined labors of these four men (Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Huygens) has some right to be considered as the greatest single intellectual success which mankind has achieved’ (p. 58). Yet for all its pragmatic value and its intellectual triumphs, the famous mechanistic image of the universe, of which they were largely the creators, lets us down in one major respect. ‘Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly’ (Whitehead 1933 p. 69). The point, and I make it a number of times in this book, is that there is an enormous gap between what natural science describes and what we know as living, sensing, experiencing human beings. Investigating the universe as if it were a machine has revealed much of its workings. This is methodological mechanism. To say that the universe is a machine is metaphysical mechanism. The Newtonian universe and elaborations which followed were a brilliant abstraction from nature. Its failure was to identify the abstraction with reality. This is Whitehead’s (1933) ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness’ (p. 64), to mistake abstractions for concrete realities.
What is the universe made of? The abstraction, if the Newtonian worldview were to answer it, was bits of stuff, subject only to external forces that push and pull them. It was a billiard ball universe. The creed justified itself in that it worked. It explained much of the order of nature, both the fall of the apple and the movement of the planets.
For some, the picture of the universe as a machine reinforced belief in God. The metaphor of the universe as clockwork and God as the clockmaker goes back to a French bishop Nicole Oresme in the fourteenth century (White 1975). The churches then began to put clocks in church towers and inside churches to instruct the faithful in the ways of the creator. They were far more than time-keepers. They were homiletic devices. But Hume had written that the God whom you will find in a mechanical universe will be the sort of God who makes that mechanism. A mechanism can, at most, presuppose a mechanic. This was the belief of the deists -- a mechanical universe presided over by a divine engineer, who having made it left it to run itself.
The French priest Marin Mersenne was Descartes’ chief correspondent and his forerunner in advocating a mechanistic view of nature. It was his hope and intention to replace The Imitation of Jesus Christ by The Imitation of the Divine Engineer (Merchant 1980 p 226). In his Principles of Philosophy (1644) Descartes claimed that logical thinking led to the notion that the universe was a vast machine, wound up by God to tick for ever, and that it consisted of two basic entities: matter and motion. ‘Give me matter and motion,’ he said, ‘and I shall construct a universe.’ Spirit in the form of God hovers on the outside of this billiard-ball universe, but plays no direct part in it. Already in 1630 he had written to Mersenne: ‘God sets up mathematical laws in nature, as a king sets up laws in his kingdom’ (Berman 1981 p. 111).
Robert Boyle was aware of the problematic character of the clock as an autonomous machine and the image of God as the clockmaker. For when the clock is set in motion it will continue forever and God the clockmaker will have no cause to intervene in its operation. By the eighteenth century this argument was to come to a head in debates between Leibnitz and Newton. For Leibnitz, the universal clock was autonomous. It needed no external input once it was set in motion. For Newton, God had to intervene from time to time to prevent the clock from getting Out of time or running down. In the eighteenth century an archdeacon, William Paley, takes over the arguments for a divine clockmaker. In his Natural Theology he tells us that mechanism presupposes an author of the mechanism. This was the so-called cosmological argument for the existence of God from design in nature. God is depicted as intervening in the nothing to initiate something -- creatio ex nihilo -- and thereafter intervening occasionally in the form of miracles. The latter had to be strictly limited, otherwise there would be no order of nature for science to investigate! The deists -- there are plenty of them around still -- held to the lawyer’s definition of the acts of God as things that cannot be otherwise explained.
The God of mechanism inevitably retreats with the advance of science. This is not only because the gaps, where God could be thought to act, became narrower and narrower with the advance of science. It was also because the basic understanding of the world had altered. As Cobb (1983a) has said:
When nature was understood unhistorically as essentially changeless in its structure, occasional intervention to bring about new structures made some, though questionable, sense. But when nature is seen as a dynamic process, supernatural interventions are not required to account for the emergence of novel forms. (p. 45).
This is the main argument of the physicist Davies (1983) in God and the New Physics. He makes a convincing case for the demise of the interventionist God because of the new sort of world revealed by modern physics. But Davies fails to appreciate that the demise of interventionist thinking has opened the way to the development of an alternative theology of nature (see Chapter 4).
Whilst the picture of a mechanical universe provided some consolation for the deists, it provided none for others. In the chapter, ‘The Romantic Reaction’, in Whitehead’s (1933) Science and the Modern World he points to the English poets who reacted against the mechanical universe. Wordsworth felt something had been left out. What had been left out comprised everything that was important for him. Tennyson’s In Memoriam goes to the heart of the difficulty: ‘The stars, she whispers, blindly run’. Each molecule blindly runs. The human body is a collection of molecules. The human body therefore blindly runs. All is set by mechanical laws. Where then is human responsibility? There is none. Wordsworth’s characteristic thought about science is summed up in one line -- ‘We murder to dissect’ -- from ‘The Tables Turned’:
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous form of things: --
We murder to dissect.
Wordsworth was for grasping the wholeness of nature, to laugh with the daffodils and to find in the primrose thoughts too deep for words. For the poets, any philosophy of nature must include these three -- aesthetic value, feeling and a sense of wholeness.
Challenge to the Mechanistic Worldview
While the poets were expressing their dissatisfaction with mechanism there was an alternative worldview which was strongly developed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries during the very rise of modern science. This tradition has been variously labeled Hermetic, Magical, Spiritualist, Organic, Alchemical and Neoplatonic. It had a long history, even prior to the rise of modern science.
This was a vigorous tradition in which scientific and religious concerns were inextricably combined. The movement played an important, some would say major, role in turning the world away from Aristotelian authoritarianism towards scientific enquiry. Evidence for this is provided by the following statement of the historian Trevor-Roper (1956):
The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is now generally agreed, owed more to the new Platonism of the Renaissance, and to the Hermetic mysticism which grew Out of it, than to any mere ‘rationalism’ in the modern sense of the word. Ficino, with his ‘natural magic Paracelsus for all his bombast, Giordano Bruno in spite of his ‘Egyptian’ fantasies, did more to advance the concept of the investigation of a regular ‘Nature’ than many a rational, sensible, Aristotelian scholar who laughed at their absurdities or shrank from their shocking conclusions. (p. 132)
Copernicus, Vesalius and Harvey each owe much to this tradition of thought.
The Neoplatonic renaissance in organic thinking in the latter part of the fifteenth century was under the patronage of the Medici family in Italy. One of its founders, Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), made prominent the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, supposedly an ancient Egyptian author. These Hermetic writings became the central authority for the ‘magical’ aspect of the movement. Also influential were the Jewish mystical writings referred to as Cabala which were brought into the movement by the towering figure of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94). The alchemical side of Hermeticism was revived by Paracelsus (1490-1541). In his view matter and spirit were unified in a single active living substance. As a healer he sought to perfect the natural processes. That, he said, should be the aim of good medicine (Yates 1972).
Despite their identification in later times with the mechanistic model of the universe, both Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were indebted to the organic movement. They met secretly with its representatives, even while disavowing them. Earlier work in the history of science played down this side of Newton’s thought. Yet his interest in alchemy, for example, is attested by the fact that his library contained 175 books on it, that he left 650,000 words of notes on it and that he performed many alchemical experiments (Kearney 1971, Manuel 1968).
Classical mechanistic science said the world was made of bits of matter organized into bigger bits. What was the world made of in the eyes of the tradition opposing mechanism? There was an enormous diversity within this tradition but its central thinking stressed the necessity of experiment rather than reliance upon authority for understanding the world. Nature is replete with aims and sympathies and subjective qualities. God is present in the world and the world is present in God. There is an interconnectedness of all things, the unity of the universe is organic rather than mechanical, all fundamental entities from atoms to humans contain life. One of its noted exponents, Thomasco Campanella (1568-1639), said that God was immanent in nature and all matter was alive. Whitehead could hardly have improved on the following statement of Campanella:
Now if animals have, as we all agree, what is called sense or feeling, and if it is true that sense and feeling do not come from nothing, then it seems to me that we must admit that sense and feeling belong to all elements which function as their cause since it can be shown that what belongs to the effect belongs to the cause. Consider, then, the sky and earth and the whole world as containing animals in the way in which worms are sometimes contained in the human intestines -- worms or men, if you please, who ignore sense and feeling in other things because they consider it irrelevant with respect to their so called knowledge of entities. (from De Sensu Rerum et Magia, 1591, quoted in Merchant 1980 p. 104)
The same concept is implied by the modern physicist Wheeler when he asks rhetorically ‘Here is a man, so what must the universe be?’ (quoted by Davies 1982 p. 112).
In the middle of the seventeenth century a powerful movement for the organic view of nature existed in the writings of the Cambridge Platonists Henry More and Ralph Cudworth. The arguments are considered in detail in Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe, of which Raven (1953a) says:
Cudworth, more clearly than any of his contemporaries, realized that if nature was in some sense a coherent and intelligible system, then it could not be explained in terms either of the random movements of matter in space such as Hobbes supposed or of arbitrary and incalculable acts of God and other supernatural and demonic agents. It must be an orderly whole, manifesting not only a reign of law but a continuous and rational meaning. (p. 112)
However, the dominant mood of science became mechanistic. Science reified nature. Or, as Merchant (1980) puts it: ‘As the sixteenth-century organic cosmos was transformed into the seventeenth century mechanistic universe, its life and vitality were sacrificed for a world filled with dead and passive matter’ (p. 105). The removal of organic assumptions about the cosmos constituted what Merchant calls ‘the death of nature’. This view, she claims, legitimated the manipulation of nature: ‘the resultant corpse was a mechanical system of dead corpuscles, set in motion by the Creator, so that each obeyed the laws of inertia and moved only by external contact with another moving body’ (1980 p. 195).
The Church and the Mechanistic Worldview
The reasons for the virtual subjugation of the organic for a completely mechanical view in the subsequent history of science are complex. One was elements in the organic view that had to do with magic and mystery, many of which were fanciful. But the central core of understanding did not depend upon magic and mystery. What is really surprising in retrospect is the way in which the Christian church lined itself almost exclusively with the mechanistic view of the universe. In the seventeenth century there were three major traditions competing for dominance: the Aristotelian, the mechanistic and the organic, of which the last went by the various names already indicated. The church opted for the mechanistic model of the universe, though in many respects the organic view would have been much more supportive of Christian faith.
Up to the seventeenth century there was no single tradition of thought about the nature of nature within the history of the church. This is hardly surprising since there is no single view of nature within the Bible (Baker 1979, Koch 1979). In some parts of the Bible man is put in quite a different category from the rest of the creation, as in the later creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2, 4a. In the older creation narrative of Genesis 2:4b-25 this is not so; the animals stand alongside Adam. The Adama, ground, from which man and animals are formed is itself alive and active, though not in the same sense as Adam is alive. There remains therefore in these ancient texts an ambiguity (Pannenberg 1982 p. 152).
The earliest post-biblical writers are the so-called Apostolic fathers of the church. Their writings are very relevant for our times. As Moltmann (1985) says: ‘It is the earliest traditions of Christian theology which frequently offer the most pregnant ideas for the revolution of our attitude to nature which is so vitally necessary today’ (p. xiii). The first great theological system was that of Origen (AD 185-255) who was deeply influenced by Neoplatonism. He taught in what was up to then the greatest teaching seminary in Christendom in Alexandria. He was a student of its first great teacher, Clement of Alexandria. For Origen, all things that exist come within the divine influence or Logos:
Although the world is composed of a diversity of functions, the constitution of the whole is not to be thought of as discordant and incoherent. As a body is an organism made up of many members, and it is held together by one soul, so, in my opinion, the whole world is a kind of huge and immense living creature which is united by one soul, namely the power and reason of God. (from De Principiis, quoted by Bettenson 1956 p. 260)
Origen went on to argue that divine omnipotence had no meaning for him unless everything that existed subsisted in some way in the divine. All are subjects! He introduces into his scheme the interesting idea that there probably have been many worlds before ours and there will be other worlds after this one. So God is never without a world of some sort. It is not difficult to see why interpreters of Origen such as Raven (1953a pp. 45-50) and Tillich (1967 pp. 55-63) see Origen’s God as very much involved in the whole of the natural world. Origen was a prolific writer and his ideas developed in the course of his writings (Trigg 1983). So it is not surprising that Origen’s interpreters don’t all agree. For example, in contrast to the interpretation of Raven and Tillich, Santimire (1985 p. 50) concludes somewhat surprisingly that the world for Origen had no value in itself and is there simply for man. Origen was condemned as a heretic at Alexandria and later at Rome, but despite this his prolific writings remained influential in the early church.
Gregory of Nyssa (AD. 331-89) was the only profound philosophical church father of the as yet undivided church who was accepted by the Orthodox tradition (Gregorios 1978, 1979, 1980). Gregory did not regard the universe as composed of matter in motion. Matter was an abstraction which we never encounter. What we encounter is matter with qualities. Nor was it stuff. It was process, dynamic and changing. As with Origen, the universe subsists in the divine nature. From our side we see a gap between the universe and God, but from God’s side there is none. Gregory of Nyssa abandoned the notion that God and the world are two realities. But that was not to identify God with the world. To identify God with the world is pantheism. To make a distinction between God and the world yet to find God as involved in the being of the world is panentheism.
Gregory of Nyssa’s thought is still influential within the Eastern Orthodox tradition which has a more organic view of the universe than the Western church. This is attested by the iconography and the great mosaics in the Eastern churches as, for example, in the apse of the twelfth-century San Clemente in Rome which is one of the masterpieces of Christian art. The centerpiece of the great mosaic is the cross from which the Redeemer reigns, drawing ‘all things’ to himself. And the vine which springs from the base of the cross spreads throughout the world in graceful curves as the tree of life enclosing in its branches ‘all things’: shepherds, their flocks, hens, healers, the sick, families, trees with fruits, a dolphin, fish, and other objects of the earth.
In Christian iconography in general a sharp difference emerges between the Eastern Orthodox tradition and the Western church, that is to say between the Greek church and the Latin church. As White (1972) says:
In the Greek manuscripts pertaining to Man’s Dominion the pictures show Adam sitting in the garden of Eden quite passively with the animals scattered around him. Sometimes in these Greek paintings the hand of God appears from a cloud to bless the whole situation. The Western pictures are very different in mood. God is standing with Adam and he has seized Adam’s arm in his left hand. With a very hortatory gesture God is telling Adam exactly what should be done now. There’s an urgency about this which is totally lacking in the Greek pictures, and the poor animals are far from being relaxed. They are huddled off into a corner looking scared -- and in view of the long-term impact of the attitude reflected in these pictures, I think they have a right to look scared. (p. 31)
The Eastern church had a much softer attitude to the non-human world than the church in the West. And whereas the Western church adorned its churches with mechanical clocks to remind the flock of the engineering feats of the divine artificer, they were never used this way in the East. According to White (1972 p. 33), in the seventeenth century an Englishman, on the Czar’s order, built a clock over the Savior’s Gate of the Kremlin. The Kremlin in Russian thinking had become identified with the Heavenly Jerusalem. There was a terrible reaction. The faithful rose up and complained that this was the contamination of eternity by time. As it happened the clock stayed there because the Czar had ordered it. But there were profound, highly emotional objections, and even today you do not find clocks on or in Eastern churches. They are kept at a distance. There is no doubt that from early times the West found mechanism spiritually congenial, whereas Eastern Christendom was highly suspicious of mechanism.
In the history of mechanism versus an organic view of the universe, the period from the third to the sixteenth century is virtually an interlude. Confrontation came in full force with the rise of modern science in the sixteenth century. Ever since, organic views have remained as one stream within theological and philosophical thought, though not the main stream.
The interesting question for us is why it is that the church in the West in the sixteenth century and ever since opted with the majority for the mechanistic view of the universe, particularly in view of the fact that the organic view is in many ways more supportive of Christian faith than the victorious mechanistic view.
The reasons for the choice were many and various. They could make a thesis on their own. Griffin (1986, 1988 pp. 1- 46) has discussed this extensively. He points out that the medieval voluntarist theologians Duns Scotus of the thirteenth century and William of Ockham of the fourteenth century, both Franciscans, had a strong following. The term voluntarist derives from voluntas, the Latin for will. Voluntarism emphasized what it conceived to be the complete freedom of God’s will from all constraints. God was in no way tied to the creation. He does what he wills. He can will anything. If he wanted to he could make good bad and bad good. The concept fitted well the mechanistic universe. Having made the universe God becomes unattached. On the whole it runs according to its originally divinely imposed laws. But God could change the laws, at the drop of a hat, if he so willed. The worst error was to confuse God and the world in any way. And that is precisely what they accused the organic thinkers of doing.
Among the most vehement of those who attacked the organic view of nature was the priest Mann Mersenne. He saw the upholders of this doctrine as false prophets. Part of his opposition stemmed from his desire to protect belief in miracles. If God is involved in nature all the time, how can God be involved in special ways at special times? If everything is a miracle then nothing can be. Oddly enough, Protestants attacked the organic view because it was associated at the time with magic and that seemed to protect the Catholic view that miracles were not just biblical phenomena but were post-biblical too. The Protestant reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, held a legalistic view of God’s relationship to the world. That fitted better with a mechanistic than an organic view of the universe. God makes the laws of the universe, then makes the universe and it runs forever after according to those original laws. Both Luther and Calvin stood in the tradition of voluntarism which had been on the increase in influence since the fourteenth century. Every detail of our lives, as well as those of the universe, depends upon arbitrary decisions of God. In Calvin’s doctrine of providence, chance plays no part in the universe. Not one drop of rain falls without God’s command. Calvin said that when a branch breaks off and falls from a tree, then kills a passing traveler, that too is at God’s express command (David R. Griffin 1976 Chapters 9 and 10). There were many other reasons for the rapid dominance of mechanistic thinking in the-church. Of course the organic view in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was filled with false and fantastic ideas. But so were the seventeenth-century versions of the mechanistic worldview.
What happened in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a division of the world into different realms, one material which science dealt with and the other spiritual which was the domain of theology. It was a tragic carving up of the universe with resultant wounds made even deeper in the nineteenth century with the rise of Darwinism and its clash with religion. It became pretty clear then that the God who was supposed to have made the world and its creatures and then left them was an irrelevant hypothesis. Darwinism could have opened up the way for a deeper natural theology. Instead, opponents of Darwinism were more interested in fighting a rearguard action to try to hold on to their outmoded deistic natural theology.
The point of pursuing what went wrong is to be in a better position to do something appropriate about it. Referring particularly to the rise of the mechanistic view in the sixteenth century, Griffin (1986) says
Historical understanding of the role of theology in the rise of modern science, a movement which soon resulted in the irrelevance of theology in the construction of culture’s worldview, may give theologians the perspective from which they can overcome their complicity in this irrelevance. Knowledge of the existence of a vital third (organic) tradition -- the others being Aristotelianism and mechanism -- in the seventeenth century, of its early success in promoting scientific discoveries, and of the dubious reasons for its defeat, may help embolden some theologians to revive this tradition, in purified form, in a way that would be beneficial both to the religious life of humanity and its ‘scientific’ understanding of the reality in which it finds itself (p.41)
The Accidental Universe
The alternative to a universe that is completely designed in all its details is not a universe where chance and accident reign supreme. As was elaborated in Chapter 2, neither pure chance nor the pure absence of chance can explain the world. The modern discovery is that chance and purpose can live together. Indeed, one is not possible without the other. This was pursued in Chapter 2 in relation to the living world. The same principle can be applied to the universe as a whole. In this section some attention is given to the role of chance in the universe at large. Following that we take up the role of purpose.
There was a chance, possibly a very large chance, that life might not have arisen in the universe. According to Weinberg (1977 p. 5), a slightly different sequence of events in the first few microseconds of the ‘big bang’ would have resulted in a universe of all helium and no hydrogen. Without hydrogen there would subsequently have been no heavy elements, which were formed by the fusion of hydrogen nuclei. Heavy elements such as carbon and iron are essential for life as we know it. Had the chain of events in the big bang been one micro-second different, they could not have been formed. One chain of events led to hydrogen and subsequently to heavy elements. Another chain of events led from heavy elements to the origin of life. The second chain is dependent upon the first. There were indeed many more than two such chains of causes. Pagels (1984) points out that if the relative masses of protons and neutrons were different by a small fraction of 1 per cent, making the proton heavier than the neutron, hydrogen atoms would be unstable since the protons that constitute their nuclei would spontaneously decay into neutrons. Hydrogen, which constitutes 74 per cent of the material of the universe and on which the origin of life as we know it was dependent, could not then have existed.
If the force of gravity were adjusted upward just slightly the stars would consume their hydrogen fuel much more rapidly than they do now and the sun would burn itself out faster. If on the other hand gravity were nudged downward a notch, the sun would burn more slowly and become too chilly to sustain life on earth (Pagels 1984).
These and other examples (Barrow & Tipler 1986, Davies 1982) suggest that the universe is finely tuned for our existence. The coincidence of a series of chains of physical events that are necessary for life as we know it seems to some to put too great a burden on chance. Hence the formulation of what some physicists have called the anthropic principle. The ‘strong’ form of the principle asserts that there must exist a guiding principle which ensures the fine-tuning of the cosmos to enable life to evolve. The early states of the universe are to be explained by the fact that they have made subsequent states possible. But, as Eastman and Fales (1984) point out, it is fallacious to infer that because the present is sufficient for inferring the occurrence of a given past history, it explains that history. This is no better than supposing that the symptoms of syphilis explain syphilis. The physicists who promote the strong anthropic principle seem to think that this universe has exactly those properties that ensure the eventual production of physicists! This is the fallacy of a posteriori reasoning, or thinking backwards, which is discussed further on page 120 et seq.
Davies (1982 p. 121) points out the ‘strong’ anthropic principle is akin to the deistic explanation of the universe -- that God designed it in all its details for humans to inhabit. Shades of it are to be found in Montefiore’s (1985) advocacy of the anthropic principle in his argument for the existence of God. The strong anthropic principle wasn’t invented by physicists. The biochemist Henderson (1913) wrote a book that was widely read in the first half of this century, called The Fitness of the Environment. He maintained that this world is ‘the best of all possible environments for life’, and argued that the environment of earth had exactly the properties that enabled living organisms to exist in it. If water did not decrease in density as the temperature approached freezing, the water in ponds and rivers would freeze from the bottom up instead of from the top down and lots of fish and other forms of life would perish in the winter. And if the ozone layer of the upper atmosphere were thinner it would be ineffective in shielding ultraviolet radiation and life would not be possible. The error of the argument is that organisms evolve to fit the environment and not vice versa. It is the organisms that are fit, not the environment. Their fitness is a consequence of natural selection.
In its ‘weak’ form the anthropic principle asserts little more than that the universe is such that we are able to exist and observe it. A further variant is that it exists because we observe it.
If we accept that the universe in all its details is not determined by some outside power, and if we accept a role for chance and accident, there is no need to invoke the ‘strong’ anthropic principle. The principle of natural selection at the cosmic level and secondly chance together with purpose, as organizing principles, provide another way of looking at the order of the universe. Our universe may be but one of many possible universes that could exist, have existed or exist now. Ours happens to be the one in which the physical realities are such that life as we know it could evolve. From the foundations of the universe there was the possibility that life could evolve. But it had to wait for the appropriate coincidence of many chains of physical events. Maybe it had to wait trillions of trillions of years. There was no inevitability that the chain of events that led to stable hydrogen and then to heavy elements had to occur. There was always the possibility that they would.
The dinosaurs that had dominated the earth for 100 million years became extinct about 65 million years ago. The early mammals lived in the interstices of the dinosaurs’ world. Had the dinosaurs continued the mammals would probably still be small creatures living in these interstices. A conceivable cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs is the impact of some large extraterrestrial body upon earth. Suppose that without it the dinosaurs might not have died out. We know of only one lineage of primates, a little animal called Purgatorius, that lived before this hypothetical asteroid hit. Suppose this lineage had become extinct? Many lineages of mammals did become extinct at that time. The primates would not have evolved again, for evolution does not repeat itself. In this scenario the impact of the large extra-terrestrial body, that greatest of all improbabilities, may have been the sine qua non of the development of the primates, hence of our existence. And as Gould (1983), who gives us this scenario, points out, hundreds of other historically contingent improbabilities were also essential parts of human evolution.
The different sorts of possible universes defy the imagination. There is no reason to suppose that life as we know it is the only sort of life that might exist in this universe or in some other universe. There could be other universes in which life as we know it is not possible but life as we do not know it is possible, based let’s suppose on silica and not hydrogen. Writers of science fiction have field days imagining how universes with stronger and weaker forces of gravity or different ratios of weights of protons and neutrons could lead to forms of intelligent life.
The ‘new’ physics, especially quantum theory, strongly argues against absolute determinism. Instead it provides a role for chance and the notion of probability of events occurring. Inevitability is replaced with probability. That flies in the face, not only of the mechanistic ‘Newtonian’ universe but also of deterministic fundamentalism, be its origin in Islam or the Christian churches. Pagels (1984 p. 101) tells a story of a teacher in post-revolutionary Iran who began a lecture on probability theory by holding up a die which he was going to use in a demonstration. Before he got any further an Islamic fundamentalist student called out ‘A satanic artifact’ -- referring to the die. The teacher lost his job and almost his life.
Davies (1984) says: ‘The new physics and the new cosmology reveal that an ordered universe is more than a gigantic accident’ (p. 9). His understanding of physics leads him to reject the notion of an outside designer of the details and to accept a role for chance. But it does not lead him to reject a role for purpose. His book concludes with this sentence: ‘If physics is the product of design, the universe must have a purpose, and the evidence of modern physics suggests strongly to me that the purpose includes us’ (p. 243). Davies keeps us guessing what this purpose might be.
I argued in Chapter 2 that unlimited chance produces chaos. There must be something that limits chance; otherwise there could be no order. That something has to do with purpose, which is the subject of the next section. We can anticipate the argument by asking a question. Is the universe like us? We are determined to some extent by the genes we were bequeathed at birth, which was partly a matter of chance, and to some extent by the environment in which we were brought up. We didn’t always choose that. We are nevertheless free within limits. We are free to choose the next steps in our lives. We can ourselves be creative and responsive. We can do our own thing and take advantage of those chains of events that intersect creatively in our lives. We can accept with some degree of equanimity those chains of events that intersect to our disadvantage. One is not possible in our sort of world without the other.
Is the universe as a whole so different from us? At any moment it is what it is by virtue of its history. At any moment there are new possibilities for the future. It is shaped by chance events and accidents along the way. Some pathways are blind alleys. Other chains of events intersect creatively to make a universe. What happens is not completely determined at any stage. New possibilities open up in the fullness of time. It would be a universe of chance alone, ‘a gigantic accident’, if what happened simply depended upon the juggling of inert bits of stuff. But that does not seem to be its nature. Ours is a universe where purpose can operate if the entities that are created in its evolution are themselves responsive and creative toward each new possibility of cosmic evolution. The alternative to a gigantic accident’ is not complete determination in every detail but chance and purpose together.
A Postmodern Ecological Worldview
If the universe is a lock then the key to that lock is not a measure but a metaphor. The mechanistic model puts the emphasis on substances that obey mechanical laws which can all be measured. It is called modern because it is the dominant model of the universe since the rise of modern science in the sixteenth century. The ecological model puts the emphasis elsewhere -- on relationships. But, as we shall see, the relationships are not those between substances but between events. The ecological model is thus a process or event way of looking at things. It is called postmodern because it is destined to supersede the dominant model of today.
In the mechanistic or substance model, the universe is reduced to building blocks which are the ultimate substances. We may compare this model with a building which is made from piles of bricks of different shapes. We can reduce the building to a pile of bricks again when we demolish it. The same piles of bricks could make a factory or a cathedral. It is simply a matter of the arrangement of the bricks. The bricks of the universe were, according to this model, at one time in a chaotic arrangement. Then they formed different sorts of clusters: molecules, stars, galaxies and eventually living creatures. Each brick is subject only to the laws of mechanics which are essentially Newton’s laws. That is to say the relations they have to the environment are external relations. They are pushed or pulled by neighboring bricks and piles of bricks. A motor car is pushed by the force of explosions in the cylinders of its engine. The world is substance through and through. It is mechanical through and through because it obeys only mechanical laws.
Mind and consciousness have always been a problem for this view of the universe. They have either been excluded as epiphenomena, like the rattling of the train, or they have been regarded as a peculiar sort of substance like a ghost in the machine. The latter is the dualist view of mind and matter. In some dualist schemes God is a mind outside the universe. But, whatever the version of substance thinking, they all have in common the notion that the bricks of the universe remain the same no matter what environment they are in. The atom, the electron, the proton, the cell, whatever sort of brick or combination of bricks, is the same be it located in the centre of the sun or in the centre of a human brain. The brick retains its exact identity throughout. All that changes is its external environment and therefore its external relations.
If you say that the universe is made of nothing but substances, call them what you will, you are not making a statement of fact but a metaphysical statement -- metaphysics meaning beyond physics. This is not a criticism but a recognition that every explanation has some philosophical aspect to it. The ecological model of the universe differs in two important respects from the substance or mechanical model. There are no substances. And there are two sorts of relationships, not just external relations. The second sort of relations are internal relations which we have already discussed. Descartes defined substance quite precisely: ‘And when we conceive of substance, we merely conceive an existent thing which requires nothing but itself in order to exist’ (quoted by Whitehead 1930 p. 92). And as Whitehead says: ‘there is no entity, not even God, which requires nothing but itself in order to exist’ (p. 94). So in fact there are no substances. This is now quite widely accepted in modern physics. But it seems to be news to most people. To the quantum physicist, no component of the universe has reality independent of the entirety. The physicist H. P. Stapp has expressed the quantum concept of ‘particles’ in these words: ‘An elementary particle is not an independently existing un-analyzable entity. It is, in essence, a set of relationships that reach outwards to other things’ (quoted by Davies 1984 p. 49).
Quantum physics shows that the laws of mechanics are not applicable to very small-scale phenomena nor to very large ones. Newtonian physics took for granted the separation of the world into matter and mind. Quantum physics forces us to view mind and matter as single aspects of one phenomenon. There is only one reality and it is not substance. It is mind-matter (Delbruck 1986).
So the concept of an individual, from protons to people, involves the notion that each is what it is by virtue of its relationships with its environment. There are, of course, objects that are aggregates of natural entities such as a wheel that is still the same wheel whether it is turning or stationary. That is because the unity of the wheel is a mechanical one built into it by the engineer. It is not a building block in the sense in which entities such as atoms and cells are. Nor is a brick in a factory different from the same brick in a cathedral. The brick is a relatively unorganized collection of entities quite different from an atom or a cell. When we say there are no substances we are not saying there are no bricks but that if we were to reduce a brick to its ultimate constituents we would not end up with a collection of substances. The brick is an aggregation of entities, atoms and molecules. But the atom or the cell are not adequately described as an aggregate. They have an organization that goes beyond an aggregation. They are individuals or, if you will, composite individuals.
There are no substances because the organized entities called atoms, cells, human beings and the like do not remain unchanged, no matter what their environment. This is because in addition to their external relations they have internal relations. The idea of an internal relation is a relation which is constitutive of the character and even the existence of the individual.
In substance thinking the substance is independent of relations and then enters into relations which are always external ones. In the ecological model internal relations are constitutive of the entity. Conventional thinking in terms of substance is turned on its head in a second respect in the ecological model. Since it is obviously not substances that have internal relations, what is it that has internal relations? Here we come to what is probably the most difficult concept of the ecological model. Instead of thinking of entities such as atoms as bits of matter that relate to other bits of matter, we think of atoms and other entities as occasions of experience themselves. To be actual is to be an occasion of experience. It is not to be a substance that then experiences; it is to be an occasion of experience. This is what an entity is in itself, for itself. In contrast to substance-thinking, this is called event-thinking. It is the deep meaning of thinking ecologically.
An occasion of experience has a twofold aspect. It is the experience of being what it is at this instant; that is, being sustained as an entity now. It is also creative for its future. This is the purposive element postulated for every entity or its ‘subjective aim’. It is a subject that has aims. In sustaining its being as an occasion of experience it takes account of other entities in its whole history. The central notion by which Whitehead understands this sharing of entities one by another is ‘prehension’. Consider the way in which experience of one moment flows into the next. I am always aware of being continuous with what I have been just before. The emotions of the immediate past perpetuate themselves into the present. What I am now is largely constituted by the presence within me of what I was just before. This is ‘prehension’. It is a term for the way in which present experience includes, and thereby takes account of, past experience. But, as I have said, in addition there is the possibility that the occasion will embody some quality not received from the past and one aiming toward the future. This latter element is the element of self-determination of each entity. It is not absolutely determined to this particular pathway or that. It has a degree of freedom which is its self-determination. The element of self-determination and novelty in an occasion of experience is the germ of life in every occasion. It may indeed be trivial for the hydrogen atom. It is less trivial for the DNA molecule and of profound importance for the living organism. That is why Whitehead (1978 p. 156) considered aliveness to be tied up with novelty. Aliveness is a response that introduces something new.
Internal relations are tied up with the idea of feelings. It is through our feelings that we know we have internal relations. This is the subjective element of our lives. Internal relations, wherever they exist, imply feelings of some sort, be it as memory in relation to the past or anticipation in relation to the future. All entities are subjects. This is not to say that a cell or an atom is conscious. Far from it. It is to say that these entities are related to their environment internally in a way analogous to the way we ourselves are. Feelings don’t have to be conscious, Consciousness enters only at the highest levels of organization of the living organism. We ourselves have both conscious and unconscious feelings, the latter sometimes being referred to as the subconscious. Nor is it to say that stones have feelings. They are aggregations of natural entities that themselves have feelings.
A subject, as indicated in other contexts already, is that which acts and ‘feels’ as one. This is likewise the definition of a natural entity such as an atom or a cell.
All this does not mean that the ecological model should totally displace the mechanistic or substance model. When the events at the molecular level attain the kind of stable structure they may have in a stone, the relevance of the ecological model to the stone as a whole becomes trivial. For most practical purposes the behavior of the stone can be discussed adequately in the simpler terms provided by the science of mechanics. The mechanistic model works well there. It is the working model of engineers. The quarrel is not with the practical use of the mechanical model where it is adequate, but with its misuse as, for example, applied to human behavior and the assumption of its final explanatory adequacy in any worldview.
But what is the evidence in favor of the ecological model, of entities as subjects and of entities as dependent in their constitution upon their environment?
To take the last point first, it seems that atoms do indeed exhibit different properties in different environments. Hydrogen and oxygen are toxic gases. Water which is a combination of the two is wet. According to substance thinking the atoms of hydrogen and oxygen are unaffected by their combination. Hence, in principle, all the properties of water should be discoverable in hydrogen and oxygen atoms investigated in isolation. But in fact this proves impossible. Many scientists speak of emergent properties. But as ordinarily used the doctrine of emergence explains nothing. It merely restates the problem. It assumes that atoms remain unchanged, they have only those characteristics they had in isolation, and that water is nothing but the combination of these two atoms. Yet it recognizes in water properties not derivative from the constituent atoms. With the ecological model we can do better. The events that are occurring at the atomic level are internally related to one another. The events that make up the hydrogen and oxygen atoms are affected by their environments. And when these environments include each other in appropriate ratios, the atoms exhibit properties they do not exhibit in other environments. When certain arrangements of carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen atoms, together with a few others, exhibit properties that we recognise by the name enzyme, and other arrangements of the same atoms result in cells that conduct nerve impulses, we have discovered something new about the nature of these societies of events we call atoms with their remarkably stable structures. When they are organized in these particular ways, the resultant events have characteristics they do not have when this organization is lacking. An analogous argument is quite applicable to other levels of organization such as that of electrons and protons in atoms.
What then has physics to say to the proposition that entities such as electrons and atoms are subjects that have internal relations? The new quantum mechanics opens the door to that question. Quantum mechanics did not simply replace Newtonian mechanics. It subsumed it within a broader perspective; one that called into question certain metaphysical assumptions inherent in the Newtonian universe. The universe of quantum mechanics in the first place is not the deterministic universe of Newtonian physics. There are degrees of freedom of action that mean that accident and choice become appropriate terms to use in physics. Einstein insisted that God does not play dice. ‘It seems hard to look in God’s cards,’ he said. ‘But I cannot for a moment believe that he plays dice’ (quoted by Pagels 1984 p. 148). Quantum mechanics insists that God does play dice. No way can be found when and where a quantum of energy will hit. Nor is there any way of predicting, as Laplace thought he could, the future of the universe from measuring matter and motion. Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminism tells us that if we want to observe and measure an electron or some such, we can install a device to measure its position or a device to measure its momentum but we can’t do both at the same time. Moreover, the act of measuring has an inescapable consequence for what we can say about the electron then and in the future. Submicroscopic events are conditioned by the instruments with which we observe them, and perhaps even by one’s consciousness of them. As Wheeler (1977, 1982) indicates, the detached observer is an illusion. The real observer participates in what is observed.
There is a second option for dealing with the question of how possibilities at the submicroscopic level are decided. Stapp (1972, 1977, 1979) suggests there is a randomness inherent in nature itself. This means that submicroscopic events are themselves ‘acts of decision’ by which certain possibilities for behavior are actualized and others are cut out. Whereas the indeterminacy principle of Heisenberg ‘emphasizes the role of decision at the human level, Stapp emphasizes the role of decision at the quantum level. The natural world is in a certain sense "free"’ (quoted by McDaniel 1983 p. 300). As McDaniel goes on to explain, the freedom at the submicroscopic level is minimal. Compared to human freedom it is negligible. What is possible for a given atomic event is heavily conditioned by the entire history of the universe, and by the instruments with which the event is observed if an observation is being made. McDaniel (1983) develops the thesis that quantum mechanics leads to the notion that submicroscopic events have this degree of freedom and make decisions. They are, in other words subjects that ‘take account of the environment’ internally and are so constituted. Bohr’s principle of complementarity does not tell us that matter at the submicroscopic level is either particulate or wavelike. It tells us that it is neither particulate nor wave-like. The slate is clean to start again. The new proposal which Stapp develops is that submicroscopic matter is partly life-like. ‘Sub-microscopic actualities, whatever they are, seem to be able to take into account external influences (the root meaning of sentience) and actualize possible responses (the root meaning of creativity)’ (McDaniel 1983 p. 302). A similar interpretation has been developed by Cochran (1966, 1972), who introduces the idea that life and non-life are words like hot and cold. They are positions on a scale graduated from simple (non-life) to complex (life).
The internal aspect of the submicroscopic events has been given a new depth of meaning by Bohm (1973, 1977, 1980) in his interpretation of quantum physics. Elementary particles, so called, are an abstraction. There are no particles. ‘What is needed,’ says (Bohm 1980), ‘. . . is to give up altogether the notion that the world is constituted of basic objects or "building blocks". Rather, one has to view the world in terms of universal flux of events and processes’ (p. 9). So physicists are now saying what Whitehead said long ago: nature consists in the last analysis of ‘events not things’. And further, ‘neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of "really real" things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe’ (Whitehead 1966 p. 150).
In the view of Bohm (1973, 1977, 1980, 1985a, 1985b), science as we know it describes the objective aspect of things -- the external aspect or what he calls the explicate order of the world. What it at present fails to see is that the explicate order is dependent upon what he calls an implicate order which is an inner aspect of things. For example, in the picture we see on the television screen points that are near each other in the ordered visual image are not necessarily ‘near’ each other in the form they are carried in the radio wave from which the image is translated. The function of the receiver is to explicate the order, that is, to unfold the image implicate in the radio wave in the form of a visual or explicate image. When the picture appears on the television screen, almost all its energy comes from the power plug on the wall. But its form comes from the very weak electrical wave picked up by the TV antenna. A very subtle energy picked up by the antenna moulds a denser energy picked up from the wall socket.
Another illustration of what is meant by implicate and explicate order came to Bohm (1985a p. 117) when he watched a television program which showed a device in which an ink drop was spread through a cylinder of glycerin. It was subsequently brought together again, to be reassembled exactly as it was before. When the ink drop was spread out, it had a ‘hidden’ order that was revealed when it was reassembled. On the other hand it appeared to be in a state of disorder when diffused in the glycerin. The order was enfolded or implicated in the ink when diffused in the glycerin. The order only became explicit when it was reassembled as a drop surrounded by glycerin. Generally speaking the laws of physics refer mainly to the explicate order which can be described in precise detail. Bohm proposes that the primary emphasis in physics should now turn to the implicate order. The logic of this is that the explicate order is not fully understood except with reference to the implicate order. This twofold distinction was anticipated long ago by Whitehead (1966) when he wrote:
Science can find no individual enjoyment in nature: Science can find no aim in nature: Science can find no creativity in nature; it finds mere rules of succession. . . They are inherent in its methodology. The reason for this blindness of physical science lies in the fact that such science only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience. It divides the seamless coat -- or, to change the metaphor into a happier form, it examines the coat, which is superficial, and neglects the body which is fundamental, (p. 154)
Since Descartes, people have lost sight of the implicate order and have come to think of the explicate order as self-sufficient. The sort of understanding physics has given us of electrons and atoms is of their explicate order. It leaves hidden the implicate order, of which the explicate order is an expression. It is clear from Bohm’s writings that an aspect of the implicate order of the electron and the atom is the subjective aspect of these entities; what they are in themselves to themselves.
This new physics restores a sense of oneness to the universe. It recognizes that ‘we murder to dissect’ (Wordsworth). Whereas in the old physics there was a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the animate and the inanimate, in the new physics that gulf no longer exists. One reason for this is that the new physics leads to a new understanding of cosmological evolution. It deals with entities that truly evolve and are not simply rearranged in cosmic evolution. It is the view that Whitehead (1933 p. 134) saw was logically required by any serious doctrine of evolution.
The Unity of the Universe
Physics gives a conception of the unity of the universe that is little appreciated by non-physicists. The nature of nature seems to be remarkably constant from one ‘end’ of the universe to the other. Gravity is a universal principle. Nothing in the whole cosmos escapes its grip. I drop a stone in Sydney and it has some effect on a whale in the Antarctic ocean, small though that be. It even has some effect, though smaller, on a distant star. The poet is correct:
All things by immortal power,
Near or far,
To each other linked are,
Thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star.
Francis Thompson, ‘The Mistress of Vision XXII’
Secondly there is the principle already discussed that individuals such as electrons and atoms are what they are by virtue of their relations to other individuals. So Davies (1984) tells us:
We need the universe before we can give concrete reality to the very atoms that make up the universe! Which ‘comes first’, atoms or universe? The answer is ‘neither’. The large and the small, the global and the local, the cosmic and the atomic, are mutually supportive and inseparable aspects of reality. You can’t have one without the other. The tidy old reductionist idea of a universe which is simply the sum of its parts is completely discredited by the new physics. There is a unity to the universe, and one which goes far deeper than a mere expression of uniformity. It is a unity which says that without everything you can have nothing. (p. 221)
In Galileo’s universe there was a picture of unity in simplicity. Then as knowledge grew it looked more like a multiverse than a universe. Under the influence of Descartes it became a diverse of mind and matter. And now modern physics gives a picture of the unity of the universe such as we have never known before.
The new unity goes deep, It implies a continuity in origin of the subjective elements of individuals which we recognize so clearly in our human experience. Their origin is in the submicroscopic events of electrons and the like which first appeared billions of years ago. ‘Cosmic evolution suggests that what we know most intimately, our own subjective experiences, are highly developed forms of what there, was in the beginning, submicroscopic matter’ (McDaniel 1983 p. 306). There is a continuity between matter and mind. ‘Inasmuch as mind involves spatiotemporal properties, it is matter-like. And inasmuch as matter involves creativity and sentience, it is mind-like. "Matter" and "Mind" are simply names for different types of actual occasions of experience (McDaniel 1983 p. 309).
So real is this unity, Bohm speaks of the ‘undivided wholeness’ of the universe and uses the hologram as an image (Bohm 1980 pp. 143-7). The hologram is to be contrasted with the picture from a camera with an ordinary lens. In this picture there is a one-to-one relationship between the object and the image. A particular point on the object becomes a particular point on the picture. If you cover half the lens you get half a picture. Half the points are lost. The hologram, as its name implies, pictures the whole, even if you do what corresponds to covering half the lens of an ordinary camera. But there is no lens. There is a mirror and the light is a beam from a laser. What we see when we illuminate only a small area of the photographic plate is not a partial image but a whole image somewhat less sharply defined in detail, There is no one-to-one correspondence between object and image. In the past physics has tended to build up the object from its atomic bits. Bohm now suggests its task is to perceive the undivided whole. A consideration of the difference between a hologram and an image made from a lens camera can play a significant part in the perception of undivided wholeness, as contrasted with fragmentation.
As we penetrate matter we don’t find isolated building blocks but a complex web of relationships between the parts of a unified whole. That world can to some extent be divided into parts, but the notion of independent parts breaks down. The parts are defined by their interrelations. To quote physicist Stapp again: ‘An elementary particle is not an independently existing un-analyzable entity. It is, in essence, a set of relationships that reach outward to other things’ (quoted by Davies 1984 p. 49). Because the reaching out is continuous and because the other things are constantly changing as their relationships change, the universe is moment by moment in the process of transformation.
What may appear as static to our eyes is in fact a dynamic stability of continuous transformation. Think of a crowd in a huge stadium held in awe by the performance in the arena. The excitement of the performance changes the feelings of the crowd. But they are held together as a crowd as they themselves are transformed by shared emotion. Better still, think of the players themselves in the arena. They move with great speed. Each move is governed by past moves of each member of each team and possible moves in the future open to each player. In a sense there are no players. There is only the game. As Capra (1982) says:
In modern physics, the image of the universe as a machine has been transcended by a view of it as one indivisible, dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interrelated and can be understood only as patterns of a cosmic process. At the subatomic level the interrelations and interactions between the parts of the whole are more fundamental than the parts themselves. There is motion but there are, ultimately, no moving objects; there is activity but there are no actors; there are no dancers, there is only the dance. (p. 92)
The ecological model of the universe and its entities shows the fundamental similarity of all individual entities from protons to people. In the words of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.
And Eternity in an hour.
To really know a part would be to know the whole. But our knowledge of even the minutest part of the universe is incomplete and abstract. Tennyson saw this when he wrote ‘Flower in the Crannied Wall’:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower -- but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
And that is really the point of the new physics. Indeed it is the point of the ecological model. You get to know the part as you get to know the whole.
The ecological model of the universe helps us to overcome the dichotomy between the individual and its relations to its environment, between the living and the non-living, between freedom and determinism and between nature and God. And it provides a basis for a non-anthropocentric ethic that includes nature as a whole. The doctrine of mere-matter, mere-mindless and feelingless stuff puts limits to things with which we can empathize. But if in physical nature also there is experience, then there is a universal community for mutual participation and sympathy. The degree to which a given entity requires ethical concern in its own right is relative to its capacity for experience.
The objective of this chapter has been to establish that the universe is the sort of existence in which purpose can operate. For that it was necessary to establish that the individual entities of existence are themselves of such a nature that they could be responsive to influences that can be called purposive. The nature of these influences is largely the subject of the next chapter. But this next chapter will make no sense at all unless we have grasped the distinction between the world as it appears on the one hand outwardly and as revealed by mechanistic science, and on the other hand the world that is hidden beneath appearances but is as real. The distinction is well made by Griffin (1985 p. 185) between what he calls the actual world of real causal efficacy and the world as it appears to our sensory perception, especially vision. This latter world is not the world as it actually is. It is the appearance of the actual world produced by our sensory and conscious experience. This appearance is not a total falsification of the actual world, but it involves gross simplification and distortion. ‘In particular,’ says Griffin (1985),
it presents us with a world in which things appear to be passive rather than active, to be externally rather than internally related to other things, to have no experience, no aim, no self-value. And of course natural science has largely limited itself to this world of appearance -- to the world as known to the senses and instruments designed to amplify them. Accordingly, if the world as it appears to scientific study is taken to be the actual world, we get a picture of the world as made of externally related, passive, aimless, valueless bits of stuff. And such a world can clearly provide no intelligible explanations as to why it behaves as does. Explanation, as opposed to merely descriptive generalization (which is positivism), requires resort to something hidden beneath the appearances. (p. 185)
The dominant assumption among those seeking explanations in our time has been that the actual world is composed of entities whose reality is exhausted by their appearances. What they are in themselves is not thought to be essentially different from what they are in appearance. This has produced the materialistic mechanistic worldview.
In seeking an alternative model I have drawn clues for this chapter largely from two sources. One is the ‘new’ or quantum physics. For the uninitiated like myself, modern physicists have been generous in providing interpretations of the new physics. One of the best is Pagels’ (1984) The Cosmic Code. My second main source is the thought of A. N. Whitehead and others in the tradition of ‘process thought’ who have come to the conclusion that individual entities in themselves are subjects, aiming at and realizing value, and being internally related to other actual entities in their environments. In such a universe the God of the machine is totally irrelevant. Much the same conclusion has been reached from a rather different approach by scientist -- theologian Arthur Peacocke (1984). He rejects mechanistic determinism and argues for a more ecological concept of nature and the continual involvement of God’s creative activity in the universe. It is only within a universe where determinism no longer reigns and where entities have some degree of freedom that such a God can be involved.