September 11, 1994
The foundations of any enterprise determine the heights to which it can rise and the breadth to which it can expand. Over the past century, modern science has expanded horizontally to encompass the entire globe and extended its reach into the subatomic and inter-galactic infinity of the material universe. Yet this vast and rapid expansion has brought with it a host of new problems, both practical and intellectual, which cannot be resolved within the present framework of science. The end of the Cold War has eliminated the physical barriers to a free exchange of information and the political barriers to an open-minded evaluation of opposing viewpoints, creating a conducive atmosphere for new thinking on fundamental issues. The dawn of a new millennium is a momentous opportunity to examine freshly the foundations of science to determine in what manner they can be strengthened or altered to support a more profound and integrated synthesis of knowledge and a more harmonious, effective application of that knowledge in life. The World Academy of Art and Science -- which bridges the entire spectrum of humanity's pursuit of knowledge and seeks to integrate the pursuit of knowledge with the welfare of society -- is an appropriate body to lead the search for these new foundations.
The boundaries which constrain the further development of science are inherent limitations arising from the circumstances of its development during the 16th and 17th Centuries. Modern science emerged in post-Renaissance Europe as a natural reaction to the superstition-laden amalgam of empirical facts, metaphysical thought and church theology that characterized knowledge in the Middle Ages. In the preceding centuries, accepted knowledge had been largely governed by traditional beliefs, religious scripture and church dogma. The Renaissance period re-kindled the ancient Athenian spirit of free philosophical inquiry, unfettered by theological constraints. The growing diversity of religious thought following the Protestant Reformation created greater tolerance for the development of secular thought as well. As the Reformation represented a reaction against the monopoly of the church over knowledge of God, modern science emerged as a reaction against the monopoly of the church over knowledge of the world. The spread of elementary education, which had become universal and compulsory in many European states by the end of the 17th Century, coupled with the growing circulation of newspapers, journals and books further stimulated the rise of secular thought. After centuries of co-habitation, reason and faith parted ways and pursued their own increasingly divergent paths to knowledge.
The new disciplines of science that emerged under these circumstances were founded on several explicit or implicit premises that have governed the growth and development of scientific knowledge ever since. The first of these premises concerned the means or instruments through which man could know Reality. In place of religious faith in a Divine Plan, the new science enthroned the discerning power of mind and reason as the highest instruments of Knowledge. This resulted in a subtle change in the conception of the nature of Reality and man's ability to discover it. Mind, an intellectual instrument for organizing observations according to a rational order, naturally sought for order in the world around it. Knowledge became synonymous with discovering that order -- the Greek conception of cosmos means 'good order' -- as a single, integrated system united by universal principles. The Pythagoreans had sought for this order in a reality that lay concealed by the changing world of experience perceived through the senses. They discovered that order in the principle of numbers, mathematics. The Renaissance revived interest in Pythagoras and in the concept that the highest form of knowledge is mathematical. This naturally led to an emphasis on the study of the quantitative aspects of reality, which were best suited to mathematical analysis and measurement.
This new conception of knowledge received support from inventions such as the telescope and microscope. New observations through these instruments challenged and eventually discredited centuries-old beliefs and ushered in a new spirit of skepticism: nothing should be taken on faith, everything should be observed, measured or investigated afresh, without regard to existing dogma or philosophy. This premise was naturally best suited to examination of physical phenomena in the world around. Therefore, the quest of the natural philosophers focused on the study of physical nature. Implicit in this quest was the conception that knowledge is that which can be derived from observation and measurement through the instrumentation of the physical senses. The development of scientific instrumentation extended the reach of the senses out into the galaxy and down to microscopic levels, but the emphasis on observation of sense data remained central to the scientific method.
Copernicus shared the belief in a mathematically perfect universe. His calculation of the orbit of the earth and planets led him to put forth a heliocentric model of the universe. This discovery, in direct contradiction to the data of the physical senses, revived the ancient distrust of sense perceptions and the search for intellectually coherent concepts or laws of nature. It resulted in another subtle shift in the concept of knowledge -- from observation of physical sense data to mental concepts about the objects of sense data. But the external physical universe remained the central field for the pursuit of knowledge. This made complete the schism brought about by the division of science and theology. Science came to regard the physical world as its sole domain for study and to define as knowledge only that which could be proven by the methods it developed for examination of the physical world.
Descartes raised the mathematical conception of reality to a dominant position in science, based on the dualism between mind and matter, which gave rise to a mechanistic view of the universe. The material world is inanimate, inhabited by machine-like forms of life, and fully explicable in terms of mathematical formulae. The rational human mind, like the mind of God, is non-material, non-mechanical, and capable of perceiving the mathematical order of a mechanical universe. Since the field of scientific inquiry was limited to the material universe, this led to a practical definition of scientific knowledge as that which could be known about the material universe by a non-material mind, acting as an external observer to it. Ultimately the mechanists eliminated the dichotomy between mind and matter by concluding that mind too is nothing but a mechanical device governed by mathematical principles. This leads to the interesting notion that science is nothing but a machine observing itself.
The shift in focus from the search for general, cosmic theories of change to the study of change at the micro level in every field led to a gradual specialization of disciplines, similar to the division of labor in industry. This process, which Stephen Toulmin calls disciplinary abstraction, required the scientist to conceive of knowledge in narrow, separative terms, rather than as an integrated whole and to abstract the special field from its wider context. The compartmentalization of disciplines has narrowed the range of questions and the methods of inquiry, making the entire body of science an aggregation rather than an integration of knowledge, and ultimately eliminating from its purview fundamental issues of cosmic inter-relatedness. As a further step, the Cartesian quest from rational objectivity fostered an attitude of personal abstraction of the scientist from the world that he studied as a detached observer. The concept of the scientist as a detached and dispassionate spectator of nature has been undermined by the realization of the inseparable relationship between the subject and object of knowledge in both the physical and social sciences and by the increasingly important role of science as an agent of change in the world of nature and the world of man. These tendencies to separate and fragment knowledge and life have become barriers to further knowledge, leading to calls for a demolition of the existing structure and the emergence of alternative approaches to the conception and organization of knowledge.
The meteoric development of science to attain a pre-eminent position in this century has given rise to attitudes characteristic of the religious authority against which it developed in reaction -- a reverence for established truths, a judgment of new thought based on the position or prestige of its author rather than the rationality of its conception, and a vehement, sometimes superstitious, rejection of new perspectives that challenge the fundamental belief system on which modern science has been founded. Whereas the church insisted on the supremacy of religious explanations for the material world based on scripture over the direct knowledge of the physical senses, science insists on the supremacy of sense data and physical explanations for life and mind over the direct knowledge derived from human experience.
In summary, the early development of modern science gave rise to a conception of knowledge as the order which the rational mind can observe, measure or otherwise intellectually formulate about physical objects. This conception has resulted in a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in our knowledge of the quantitative aspects of the material world. Yet the fundamental questions of science regarding the origin and nature of matter, life and mind remain unanswered and recent theory seems to directly conflict with the underlying premises on which science has come to be based. Physics has discovered that matter does not consist of finite particles of substance, nor even probabilities of things, but only abstract "probabilities of interconnections". The very concept of matter and the traditional distinctions between matter, life and mind are now being called into question. Discoveries in molecular biology explain how instructions for protein synthesis are inherited, but have brought us no closer to understanding the appearance of life and mind in an inanimate material universe, the process of creation, the sharp differentiation of species, the morphogenesis of life forms or the inheritance of behavior. Renewed interest in the concept of the universe as an evolving organism has even led some to question the most fundamental premise of science, the existence of timeless universal laws. Many may still believe that new ideas regarding the origin of the universe, a unified field theory, and discoveries in molecular biology will soon solve these mysteries. But when viewed from a historical perspective it becomes evident the failure to find adequate answers to these fundamental questions is an inevitable product of the inherent limitations in the conception and methodology of the scientific pursuit of knowledge. The difficulties are as great in the social sciences, where specialization has led to an ever growing fragmentation of knowledge and divorce of theory from life.
From Data to Ideas
From Data to Ideas
The rapid spread of information over the past few decades made possible by new and improved technologies has had a quickening effect on virtually every field of human activity, including the development of science. The greater quantity, quality and accessibility of information has accelerated the pace of scientific research. It has also led to a greater exchange of information between different fields of inquiry, broadening perspectives and leading to the emergence of new, more powerful and comprehensive scientific concepts. At the same time, the overwhelming abundance of information makes it imperative to restore information to its rightful place in the process of scientific discovery. The advent of the Information Age has aggravated the tendency to regard the analysis of data, rather than the formulation of new ideas, as the basis of scientific inquiry and to seek the truths of existence in data, rather than in the generation of new ideas. The over-emphasis on data is a result of the circumstances in which modern science arose as a reaction to the belief systems of the Middle Ages. In its effort to establish firm and reliable foundations for knowledge, it developed an insistence on verification of truth by means of facts perceptible to the senses. This conscientious effort to found truth on fact rather than imagination has been a great impetus for human progress. At the same time it has imposed severe constraints on the emergence of higher mental faculties with greater capacity for knowledge.
If information is the raw material of thinking, ideas are the rare fruits of that mental process. Isolated facts are information that lacks organization or the capacity for self-organization, like the raw bricks used to construct a wall. Ideas organize facts and reveal their interrelationships. Seeking knowledge from below by rigorous analysis of data is a tedious trial and error method which is inherently limited in its capacity to arrive at wider truth. It is trying to discover the organization of the whole by observing the structure or behavior of some of its parts. Knowledge derived from above through original thinking and intuition, then confirmed by analysis of data, enhances the mental organization of thought, revealing new patterns and relationships, elevating and broadening the horizons of science.
All knowledge is founded upon assumptions, perspectives, information and previous understanding that consciously or subconsciously determine the pattern of our observation and understanding and, thereby, govern the acquisition of further knowledge. Mind does not create in a vacuum. It builds on pre-existing knowledge. Creativity does not involve pulling something new out of thin air. It occurs when we become conscious of the subconscious factors influencing our present understanding and transcend them. New ideas arise from abandoning the limitations of fixed notions and transcending of the constraints that limit our present outlook. A conscious effort to shift the emphasis from analysis of data to generation of fresh integrating concepts will accelerate and elevate the development of knowledge.
With each new theoretical advance, the negative practical consequences of scientific knowledge multiply. The technological products of scientific research increasingly come into conflict with life, disturbing the balance of the ecosphere and the harmony of our social existence. Chemical pollution is an obvious example of the former; the explosive growth of population as a result of improved medical technology for saving lives illustrates the latter. The utilization of scientific knowledge to evolve ever more destructive military technologies, the ever-present danger of nuclear accidents, depletion of the ozone layer, ecological damage arising from use of high yielding agricultural technologies, the unknown implications of genetic engineering, and the disastrous social consequences of applying unidimensional economic policies are but a few of the many untoward and unanticipated consequences of scientific progress.
The personal abstraction of the detached, witness scientist from the life of the world around is no longer possible. Today science is an active participant and agent in every aspect of humanity's existence and relationship with the environment. As the powers of science and technology increase, the capacity for good or ill is increasing proportionately, perhaps disproportionately. Society seeks the assurance that the power of science is used solely for constructive purposes that contribute to human welfare. There is growing concern within the scientific community regarding ethical issues arising from the destructive consequences of intended or accidental application of scientific knowledge. Leading scientists recognize their responsibility for proper use of the power generated by its knowledge, but often perceives themselves as powerless. The scientific community has not yet acquired the capacity to exercise that responsibility successfully.
The present difficulty arises directly from the disciplinary and personal abstraction of science over the past few hundred years. Science has pursued knowledge of material phenomena and process, but has not yet fully understood the vital process by which human activities develop and thrive in harmony with life, which is an expression of the process of growth and development common to all life. As every biological species instinctively is equipped to meet the minimum requirements for survival, growth and reproduction, every social activity must also meet the minimum conditions for survival and growth. Every successful individual, institution and activity possesses a subconscious knowledge of the essential requirements for harmonious adaptation. Those which fail to acquire this knowledge come into conflict with the society or the environment and eventually fail or are rejected. The current problems of science arise from an inadequate and incomplete knowledge of this process.
Science is knowledge. True knowledge is elevating and ennobling. It necessarily encompasses a knowledge of the whole and of the parts within the context of that whole. It consists of Real Ideas, which are complete ideas. The validity of any knowledge ultimately must be judged by the results of its application to life. A complete knowledge does not generate negative consequences. That which leads to partial results, failure or negative consequences is not complete knowledge. The application of complete knowledge leads to results that are creative and harmonious with life. Science has yet to acquire this wider knowledge of the process, which carries with it the capacity to ensure successful and harmonious results. This knowledge needs to be formulated as a scientific discipline, a Science of Life, and become an integral part of the education of all scientists. To do so, the basic concept of scientific knowledge and the premises upon which it is based will need to evolve.
In order to be utilized creatively and effectively, knowledge must consist of two components--right understanding and right will. The results of knowledge are dependent on the completeness of the understanding and the quality and intensity of the will with which it is expressed. The complete scientist must possess both. Knowledge which is superficial, partial or fragmentary leads to negative consequences because it fails to consider the larger context in which it is applied. The soil erosion arising from the use of mineral fertilizers is due to the application of a partial technology based on a partial knowledge of the needs of the plant and the properties of healthy soil. For the application of technology to generate only positive consequences, then the science on which it is based must be comprehensive and integrated. Powerful new technologies, such as genetic engineering, become potentially dangerous when they are derived from a narrow field of study and applied without reference to the wider context of scientific knowledge, life and human society. The same danger arises in the social sciences, when a limited concept is applied to solve complex social problems. The recent application of monetary policies to control a complex multi-dimensional political, social and economic transformation in Eastern Europe demonstrates the destructive potential of partial knowledge. Knowledge arrived at from below by analysis of data is almost always partial and incomplete.
The consequences of knowledge also depend upon the intention with which it is acquired and applied. In addition to right knowledge, there must be right will and right motive. All human activity takes place in the context of society's quest to ensure its physical survival and enhance the well-being and welfare of people. Society's sanction and support for any activity depends on its contribution to these fundamental social objectives. Any institution that divorces itself from its basic social purpose sooner or later comes into conflict with the society that gave it birth. Humankind supports the quest for knowledge in order to better human life. Knowledge sought for its own sake is unlikely to generate negative consequences, because the unfettered quest for truth seeks to discover all relationships and implications, rather than merely those which support a particular concept or sanction a particular application. Knowledge wholesomely pursued to serve the wider social purpose does not generate disharmony. Knowledge acquired in the quest for profit, social recognition or self-satisfaction of the ego serves an altogether different purpose and set of priorities, which often do not encompass other valid points of view or their social and ecological implications.
The difficulty of governing the intentions with which scientific knowledge is pursued and applied appear formidable. However, there are precedents. Medicine is a field in which the ultimate social purpose is insistently imposed on all those involved with scientific research and its applications. Negative social consequences are identified and uncompromisingly eliminated. The same must and can be done to control the increasingly powerful knowledge generated by science. As the right use of military power requires its subordination and control by the civilian government in a democracy, the right development and right application of science requires the subordination of the will for seeking knowledge to the well-being and welfare of humanity as a whole. Science will be capable of properly exercising its responsibilities to society, not when it is controlled by a regulating authority, but rather when it acquires and accepts to be governed by a conscious knowledge of the process of life. Only when science is capable of producing results that are harmoniously adapted to the society and the environment can we say that our knowledge is complete.
The rise of modern science has been characterized by an arbitrary division between faith and reason, matter and mind, science and theology, specialized empirical research and integrative cosmology. This has led to an artificial fragmentation of knowledge into separate compartments, the pursuit of knowledge in sense data, an abstraction of the scientist from the world of nature of which he is an inseparable part, and the divorce of science from life. Taken to an extreme, it has led to an exclusive preoccupation with a study of the phenomena of physical nature and an unrelenting attempt to reduce the principles of life and mind to subordinate terms of matter. The consequences of this course of development have been both beneficial and destructive. It has resulted in a greater understanding of material and biological structures and given rise to an unprecedented proliferation of life supporting as well as life destroying technologies. Together they account for the enormous material and technological advances of society over the past few hundred years, as well as the multiplication of threats to the harmony within society and between humankind and the environment.
We are now presented with both the opportunity and the necessity of seeking new and surer foundations for knowledge, free of the limitations and the negative consequences that constrain science today. What might be the characteristics of these new foundations and the type of science that would arise from them? The knowledge we seek must cease to be an aggregation of specialized information and fragmentary ideas and become a comprehensive, integrated conception of the wholeness of nature. If the universe is infinite and infinity is more than the sum of its parts, then a practical knowledge of that infinity can never be discovered by analysis of those parts. The new science should give pre-eminent importance to the development of real ideas, which are complete and integrated, rather than to preoccupation with the analysis of data. It must cease to be limited by arbitrary assumptions regarding the ultimate nature of reality by according equal status of the reality of mind, life and matter and by formulating intelligible explanations for the emergence of animate life and conscious mind in an inanimate universe.
Science must also break out of the artificial and damaging limitations that have isolated and divorced knowledge of things from knowledge of life. This self-imposed separation has severely limited the effectiveness of science and prevented it from achieving control over the consequences of its own creations. The world is not merely constituted by material objects and material processes. A complete knowledge must include a knowledge of the process that leads from original conception of an idea to its effective and harmonious integration in the life of humanity and the environment, a process common to all the sciences and all fields of activity. This knowledge is already possessed and expressed subconsciously in every successful human endeavor and is the basis for all human accomplishment. Therefore, it must be possible for science to conscious formulate and systematically apply that knowledge. A complete knowledge, incapable of inflicting damage on life, can be achieved when knowledge is comprehensive and integrated and when the will that governs the quest for knowledge is truly impersonal and in harmony with the welfare of society, which it is intended to serve. Science can acquire the capacity for mastery over the consequences of its actions and it has the responsibility to do so. The quest for the knowledge which will endow it with this capacity must be given the greatest importance and highest priority.
[ Paper presented to delegates of the World Academy of Art & Science Conference in 1994, a day following the conference.]