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The Boundaries of Natural Science

Boundaries of Natural Science: Forword

On-line since: 31st July, 2007


The audience attending this series of lectures in 1920 was at once informed by Steiner that he proposed to consider the connections between natural science and social renewal.

Everyone agrees, he says, that such a renewal requires a renewal of our thinking (one must remember that he was speaking of the groping and soul-searching that followed the great and terrible war of 1914–18), yet not everyone “imagines something clear and distinct when speaking in this way.”

Steiner then sketches rapidly the effects of the scientific world-view on the modern social order. Scientific progress has made us very confident of our analytical powers. Inanimate nature, we are educated to believe, will eventually become transparently intelligible. It will yield all its secrets under scientific examination, and we will be able to describe it with mathematical lucidity. After we have conquered the inorganic we will proceed to master the organic world by the same means.

The path of scientific progress however has not been uniformly smooth. Steiner reminds us that by the end of the 19th century doubts concerning the origins of scientific knowledge had arisen within the scientific community itself, and in a famous and controversial lecture the physiologist du Bois-Reymond asked the question, How does consciousness arise out of material processes? What is the source of the consciousness with which we examine the outer world? To this du Bois-Reymond answers, Ignorabimus — we shall never know.

In this Ignorabimus Steiner finds a parallel to an earlier development, that of medieval Scholasticism. Scholastic thinking had made its way to the limits of the super-sensible world. Modern natural science has also reached a limit. This limit is delineated by two concepts: “matter”— which is everywhere assumed to be within the sensory realm but nowhere actually to be found — and consciousness, which is assumed to originate within the same world, “although no one can comprehend how.” Can we fathom the fact of consciousness with explanations conceived in observing external nature? Steiner argues that we cannot. He suggests that scientific research is entangling itself in a web, and that only outside this web can we find the real world. The great victories of science have subdued our minds. We accept the all pervading scientific method. It has transformed the earth. Nevertheless it seems incapable of understanding its own deepest sources. Scientific method as we of the modern world define it can bring us only to the Ignorabimus because it is powerless to explain the consciousness that directs it. In our study of nature, and by means of our concept of matter, we have made everything very clear, but this clarity does not give us Man. Him we have lost. And the lucidity to which we owe our great successes in the study of the external world is rejected by consciousness itself. For in the depths of consciousness there lies a will, and this will revolts when lucid science tries to “think” Man as it thinks external nature.

To conclude from this that Steiner is “anti-science” would be a great mistake. To him science is a necessary, indeed indispensable stage in the development of the human spirit. The scientific examination of the external world awakens consciousness to clear concepts and it is by means of clear conceptual thinking that we become fully human. Spiritual development requires a full understanding of pure thought, and pure thought is thought devoid of sensory impressions. “Countless philosophers have expounded the view that pure thinking does not exist, but is bound to contain traces, however diluted, of sense perception. A strong impression is left that philosophers who maintain this have never really studied mathematics, or gone into the difference between analytical and empirical physics,” Steiner writes. Mathematical thought is thought detached from the sense world, and as it is entirely based upon rules of reason that are universal it offers spiritual communion to mankind, as well as a union with reality. It is moreover a free activity. Spiritual training, says Steiner, reveals it to be not only sense-free but also brain-free. The operations of thought are directed by spiritual powers. Pure thinking leads to the discovery of freedom and leads us to the realm of spirit. And Steiner tells us explicitly that out of sense-free thinking “there can flow impulses to moral action. ... One experiences pure spirit by observing, by actually observing how moral forces flow into sense-free thinking.” This is something very different from mystical experience, for it is a result of spiritual training, of a sort of scientific discipline through which we discover more organs of knowledge than are available to those who limit themselves, as modern philosophers do, to scientific orthodoxy and to ordinary consciousness. In the last lecture of the present series Steiner speaks of advanced forms of consciousness, of a more acute inner activity, and of higher forms of knowledge.

Contemporary thinkers are often strongly attracted to these higher forms. They approach them enthusiastically, frequently write of them vividly but in the end reject them as retrograde or atavistic, unworthy of a fully accredited modern philosopher.

Paul Valéry, a poet who devoted years of his life to the study of mathematics and who wrote interestingly on Descartes and Pascal, provides us with an excellent example of this in his Address in Honor of Goethe. Goethe fascinates Valéry, for Goethe too was a poet who found it necessary to go beyond poetry — “the great apologist of the world of Appearances,” Valéry calls him. He says, “I sometimes think that there exists for some people, as there existed for him, an external life which has an intensity and a depth at least equal to the intensity and depth that we ascribe to the inner darkness and the mysterious discoveries of the ascetics and the Sufis.” Goethe is an investigative and not merely a reactive poet. Valéry greatly admires his botanical work, seeing in it one of “the profound nodal points of his great mind.” He goes on to say, “this desire to trace in living things a will to metamorphosis may have been derived from his early contact with certain doctrines, half poetic, half esoteric, which were highly esteemed by the ancients and which, at the end of the eighteenth century, initiates took to cultivating again. The rather seductive if extremely imprecise idea of Orphism, the magical idea of assuming the existence of some unknown hidden principle of life, some tendency towards a higher form of life in every animate and inanimate thing; the idea that a spirit was fermenting in every particle of reality and that it was therefore not impossible to work by the ways of the spirit on everything and every being insofar as it contains a spirit, is among the ideas which bear witness to the persistence of a kind of primitive reasoning and at the same time of an impulse which of its nature generates poetry or personification. Goethe appears to have been deeply imbued with the feeling of this power, which satisfied the poet
in him and stimulated the naturalist.”

What Valéry assumes here is that there is only one single legitimate method of examining natural phenomena. As a poet he sympathizes with imaginative knowledge, as a thinker he strikes a note of regret and even condolence. “It is one of the clearest examples of transition from poetic thought to scientific theory, or of a fact brought to light by way of a harmony discovered by intuition. Observation verifies what the inner artist has divined. ... But his great gift of analogy came into conflict with his logical faculties.” And the logical faculties, strictly circumscribed, must be obeyed. Magic and primitive reasoning, alas, will not do says the analytical intellect of Valéry.

Steiner had devoted many years of study to Goethe. He was the editor of Goethe's scientific works and in his lectures often refers to him. And there is no nostalgia for “Orphism” in Steiner, no “magic” or “primitive reasoning.” He too is a modern thinker. What distinguishes him from most others is his refusal to stop at what he calls “the boundary of the material world.” And how does one pass beyond this boundary? By a discipline that takes us from ordinary consciousness and familiarizes us with consciousness of another kind, by finding the path that leads us into Imagination. “It is possible to pursue this path in a way consonant with Western life,” he writes, “if we attempt to surrender ourselves completely to the world of outer phenomena, so that we allow them to work upon us without thinking about them, but still perceiving them. In ordinary waking life, you will agree, we are constantly perceiving, but actually in the very process of doing so we are continually saturating our percepts with concepts; in scientific thinking we interweave percepts and concepts entirely systematically, building up systems of concepts. ... One can become capable of such acute inner activity that one can exclude and suppress conceptual thinking from the process of perception and surrender oneself to bare percepts.” This is not a depreciation of thought. Rather, it releases the imagination. One “acquires a potent psychic force ‘when one is able’ to absorb the external world free from concepts.” Steiner says, “Man is given over to the external world continually, from birth onwards. Nowadays this giving-over of oneself to the external world is held to be nothing but abstract perception or abstract cognition. This is not so. We are surrounded by a world of color, sound and warmth and by all kinds of sensory impressions.” The cosmos communicates with us also through color, sound and warmth. “Warmth is something other than warmth; light something other than light in the physical sense; sound is something other than physical sound. Through our sensory impressions we are conscious only of what I would term external sound and external color. And when we surrender ourselves to nature we do not encounter the ether-waves, atoms and so on of which modern physics and physiology dream; rather, it is spiritual forces that are at work, forces that fashion us between birth and death into what we are as human beings.” I have thought it best not to interpose myself but to allow Steiner to speak for himself, for he is more than a thinker, he is an initiate and only he is able to communicate what he has experienced. The human mind, he tells us, must learn to will pure thinking, but it must learn also how to set conceptual thinking aside and to live within the phenomena. “It is through phenomenology, and not abstract metaphysics, that we attain knowledge of the spirit by consciously observing, by raising to consciousness, what we would otherwise do unconsciously; by observing how through the sense world spiritual forces enter into our being and work formatively upon it.”

We cannot even begin to think of social renewal until we have considered these questions. What is reality in the civilized West? “A world of outsides without insides,” says Owen Barfield, one of the best interpreters of Steiner. A world of quantities without qualities, of souls devoid of mobility and of communities which are more dead than alive.

Saul Bellow 

Last Modified: 29-Aug-2017
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