Those seeking to rebuild our crumbling civilisation need to rethink not only the foundations of politics, economy and society, but also science and technology. Many critics of the Enlightenment and scientific rationalism have felt that the science given to us by Newton and Darwin is reductionist, concerned with analysing phenomena in terms of parts and losing sight of interconnectedness. There have been extreme forms of this reductionism, with, believe it or not, most academic philosophers proposing that all that really exists in the world are the entities of “fundamental physics”. It was an acute embarrassment to them when part of “fundamental physics”, namely quantum mechanisms could not be reduced to ‘atomism” and materialism. The observer played an irreducible part in physics. It was not lost on some modern “romantics” that this meant that there was a place in nature for mind, and to maintain objectivity, God, the universal quantum observer.
Philosophical, reductionist materialism is logically contradictory as quantum theory and the theory of space, time and motion – Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity – conflict. The two positions are incompatible, with relativity having a “block universe” of determinism and quantum mechanics an indeterministic view. There is an attempt to build a new theory, string theory, which involves postulating many more dimensions of “space”, but not only is the theory unfinished, but it may be empirically untestable. That is, if any sense can be made of say 26 dimensions of space.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a German dramatist and poet second only to William Shakespeare, was a romantic who rebelled against the mechanistic science of his day, particularly the Newtonian account of colour. Goethe found Newton’s reductionist account of white light, that is was composed of colours as profoundly wrong. In fact Newton did not think of sunlight as being made up of different colours because “the rays to speak properly are not coloured. In them there is nothing else than a certain power and disposition to stir up a sensation of this or that colour,” he said.
By contrast Goethe saw colour as a relational phenomena, not merely the product of a certain frequency of electromagnetic radiation. He noted that the colours appearing through a prism only appeared when there was a boundary, which meant that there must be the contrast of light and dark for colour to be manifested. The details of his alternate theory are given by Henri Bortoft in “The Wholeness of Nature” (1996). For our purposes it is sufficient to refute Newton by noting that he can see perfectly dark things, that is, black things. The phenomenal experience of seeing black is the same as seeing any other colour. But – there is no black electromagnetic radiation, only its absence. Hence not all colours can be identified with a capacity to cause certain sensations of colour, a concept itself which seems to be logically circular.
This self-refuting nature of the reductionist materialism perspective is not just a mere theoretical matter, but is seen in the implosion of modern techno-agriculture, which is destroying the very basis of the biological systems needed for sustainable food production, and in modern medicine, where a misuse of antibiotics is now leading to “superbugs”, bacteria completely resistant to all of Big Pharma’s drugs. An alternative holistic paradigm would seek to understand phenomenon in all its complexities, including its history and relationship to its environment. It would therefore seek richness, rather than the poverty of atomism and analysis. Further, the world would retain its value and sense of mystery and wonder which analysis destroys by dissecting the butterfly without observing and delighting on its place in the natural scheme of things.
A holistic view thus allows beauty and value to exist in the world, unlike the dehumanised and mechanical world of reductionist “science”.