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Origins of Natural Science

On-line since: 29th May, 2004

Introduction

 

The nine lectures that follows were delivered by Rudolf Steiner at the turn of 1922/23 in Dornach, Switzerland. They were directed to an audience containing some professional scientists and others particularly interested in science, mangy of whom were members of the Anthroposophical Society. 1922/23 happens also to have been an historical moment in the life of the Society and indeed of the lecturer. No one reading them would suspect that between Lectures 5 and 6 both parties had been stricken by a crushing blow. On New Year's Eve, 1922, the building named the Goetheanum, in which the first five lectures had been given, was totally destroyed by fire and was indeed still burning on January 1 when Steiner delivered Lecture 6 in his private Studio. The great wooden structure, a temple rather than a mere headquarters or meeting-place, had been designed by Steiner himself, its building supervised by him at all stages, and much of its interior worked with his own hands; but this is not the place to enlarge on his personal tragedy or the courage and determination it must have required to continue with the lecture course on the following day almost as if nothing had happened. The most that critical appraisal might detect as a possible consequence of that grievous interruption is perhaps a certain repetitiveness not apparent elsewhere in either his books or his lectures; and this the translator has taken the liberty of slightly reducing.

One more preliminary observation may be desirable. Most members of the original audience would have been familiar, to a greater or less degree, with the fundamental teachings and thus with the terminology of anthroposophy, or spiritual science, as Steiner also named them. Here and there in the lectures some of that terminology is introduced, for example “etheric” and “astral,” “the Age of the consciousness soul.” Mostly their meaning is briefly indicated when they first appear; but it remains true that some previous familiarity with them is of considerable assistance towards a full understanding, not only of particular passages, but also of the radical message of the whole.

Their basic argument is that modern science, and the scientism based on it, so far from being the only possible “reality-principle” is merely one way of conceiving the nature of reality; a way moreover that has arisen only recently and which there is no reason to suppose will last forever. Many today might admit as much, but in doing so they would be thinking of modern science mainly as a theory or set of theories capable of proof or disproof by accepted methods. For Steiner modern science, including its empirical method, is a stage, and an important stage, in the whole evolution of human consciousness. And that is something different from, though it underlies, the history of ideas. Perception itself is determined by the human psyche, the consciousness which determines perception precedes the formation of thoughts based on that perception, and the human psyche is an evolving one. Only hitherto it has not been conscious of that fact. Certain ideas were formed, and could only be formed, at certain stages in that evolution. Ideas for instance or theories about the nature of the world, or the nature of Nature, are necessarily based on certain “givens” — experiences taken for granted — which are so immediate that no ideas at all can be formed about them. Isaac Newton, as Lecture Three points out, was sufficiently aware of this to declare the “givens” of his own day as the “postulates” from which he started. They were time, place, space and motion. And these remain the givens for our day, even if their slight unsettling by Einstein's relativity should be the first faint breath of coming winds of change. But they were not so for other days and other men. They were not so before at most the fifteenth century. They are given for us, because for us the outer world of natural objects and events is experienced as completely detached from the inner world of our own awareness of them, that is to say, from our humanity. Descartes was the first to formulate this — then comparatively novel — given, when he divided the world into extended substance and thinking substance.

Writing in 1818 an essay on Method, Coleridge prophesied:

“... there will soon be seen a general tendency toward, an earnest seeking after, come ground common to the world and to man, therein to find the one principle of permanence and identity, the rock of strength and refuge, to which the soul may cling amid the fleeing surge-like objects of the sense.”

The abiding thrust of these lectures is Steiner's unshakable conviction that from now on the progress of science will depend on the overcoming of the received dichotomy between man and nature just as from the fifteenth or sixteenth century up to now the progress of science has depended on that dichotomy. Incidental to that progress would be escape from the crudities of popular scientism, but the lectures are only marginally concerned with that. Their content is based on the fact that the understanding, perhaps of any phenomenon but certainly of any phenomenon so basic as to be “given,” entails a patient examination of its provenance, that is to say of the steps by which it came into being. Consequently they are, as the title suggests, lectures not on science, but on the history of science. In sum they tell the story of the origin and then of the growth of that gulf between inner and outer, between subject and object, extending from a time before Pythagoras down to our own day, as it is manifest in the writings and biographies of a selection of well-known thinkers. Particular attention is given to transitional figures, men whose perceptions were still determined by the past, while their thoughts were confronted by what was approaching from the future; and perhaps especially interesting in this regard are the observations of Giordana Bruno's cosmos in Lecture Four and Galen's theory of “fermentation” in Lecture Eight.

The story is at the same time one of the steadily increasing predominance of mathematics in determining scientific method. Perception of this is not peculiar to Steiner. What distinguishes him from other historians of science is the psychological detail into which he pursues the story and, more than that, his account of the origin of mathematics, The Cartesian coordinates are not as abstract as they seem; or rather they were not always so. Steiner sees them as an extrapolation or projection of man's experience of his own body; that is to say, of his physical body. And here is one of the places where some previous acquaintance with anthroposophy and its terminology would be helpful, though it should not indispensable. It is unfortunate that the word “body” has become, for most people, almost synonymous with “lump of solid matter;” Particularly unfortunate, where it is the human body that is at issue, since nine-tenths of that is composed of fluids, and of fluids that are for the most part in motion. “Body” in Steiner's terminology, signifies something more like “systematically organized unit or entity,” as distinct from the matter or substance of which it is composed. Thus, the fact that the frame of a living human being contains, and not at random, fluid and airy, as well as solid, substance, entails the existence of other “bodies” besides the physically organized one. These are especially relevant when the discourse turns from knowledge of quantity (measurement and mathematics) to knowledge of quality, an aspect of nature that is virtually a closed book to the science of today.

The development of that science of today, a purely quantitative one, is the main thread on which the lectures are strung, and the reader will follow it or himself. Not much perhaps would be gained by informing him in advance that, if he does so, he will be shown for example, how the projection of mathematics, and particularly the coordinates, outward from the body and thus from human selfhood, has led to the reification of space — that long-settled mental habit which advanced psychics has only recently begun to question. He will also find an answer to a question which has puzzled many thinkers: why should mathematics, a seemingly artificial construction of the human brain, have been found an effective key to unlock so many of the secrets of nature? How is it that the one has happened to fit so snugly on the other? More generally he will be led down a sort of ladder of “descent,” accompanied throughout by mathematics, from man's original psychic participation in the life of nature to his present detachment from it; to be shown at the end that an understanding of the way of ascent to reunion with that life also begins with mathematics. The last is an aspect of the matter with which Steiner was to deal more specifically in a subsequent course of lectures translated into English as The Boundaries of Natural Science.

“Descent” and “ascent” are of course loaded terms, and their use can be misleading. The same is true of the term “dehumanization” when in these lectures it is applied to the history of science. Steiner was no enemy of science, though he vigorously questioned many of its theories. “Technology” is not a dirty word in his vocabulary. Pointing to a fact is not necessarily abuse. Science has become dehumanized in the sense that it has turned its attention more and more away from human experience and human values. But in doing so it has furthered, if not partly engendered, one supreme human value — that detached, individual self-consciousness that is the pre-condition of freedom. Man has become separated from the world that gave him birth; but he needed that separation in order to become truly man. To draw attention to that separation is, says our lecturer, “a description of the scientific view, not a criticism.” He continues (and I will conclude this Introduction by quoting the closing words of Lecture Six):

Let us assume that somebody says: “Here I have water. I cannot use it in this state. I separate the oxygen from the hydrogen, because I need the hydrogen.” He then proceeds to do so. If I then say what he has done, this is not criticism of his conduct. I have no business to tell him he is doing something wrong, and should leave the water alone. Nor is it criticism when I say that since the Fifteenth Century science has taken the world of living beings and separated it from the true nature of man, discarding it and retaining what the age required. It then led this dehumanized science to the triumphs that have been achieved.

It is not criticism if something like this is said: it is only a description. The scientist of modern times needed a dehumanized nature, just as a chemist needs deoxygenized hydrogen and therefore has to split water into its two components. The point is to understand that we must not constantly fall into the error of looking to science for an understanding of man.




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