A meditation on the potentially positive benefits of the loss of
certainty in the postmodern era.
S. David Stoney
November 24, 1999
In this context, it becomes practically impossible to avoid the erroneous conclusion
that 'the observer' is imaginary whereas the stuff of the universe is 'real.'
Polanyi's criticism (see below) still applies: Worship of the ideal of objectivity
presents us with a world devoid of living human beings and, due to a failure to accredit
those human characteristics that have led to the successful pursuit of knowledge, must,
paradoxically, lead to the demise of science (Polyani, Personal Knowledge). I fear
that civilization, and, with it, individuated self-awareness, will also disappear.
- What or who is "the observer?"
- An idea that seems not to have crossed anyone's mind is that, for classical physicalism,
exclusion of 'the observer' is a perspectival error due to the conscious or unconscious
adoption of the metaphysic of mind-body dualism. A god-like perspective, from which a
complete accounting of all that is, is presumed possible. This is a logical fallacy: The
Fallacy of Impossible Perspective. This criticism is a distinctly postmodern one,
reflecting the realization that no knowledge is theory independent and no theory is
metaphysic independent. So be it.
- To add a disembodied 'observer' back in will simply not do. Adding the observer back in
maintains the dualistic paradigm, but now with an imaginary, quite ghostly, "third
person" doing whatever it is that 'the observer' is supposed to do and, in the
process, rescuing the physicist's right to claim objective certainty.
- A claim of objective certainty, usually implicit, can only be maintained if 'the
observer' is objectified. Claiming objective certainty is tantamount to a claim of being
- If 'the observer' is fleshed out into a living, feeling, self-aware person, then it is
much harder to avoid the implications of Godel's theorem with regard to the claim of
- In fact, 'the observer' as used in some formulations of quantum mechanics can as easily
be a measuring instrument as a person.
- In fact, is 'the observer' more than just a 'wild card' in the contemporary quantum
mechanical schemes? At the least 'the observer' represents one additional variable.
However, being a full-fledged wild card it can be much more.
- This leads to great confusion and intellectual milling about.
- This situation is a logical result of trying to tack an 'observer' onto a scheme whose
very existence was, in the beginning, based on its exclusion.
"The ideal of strictly objective knowledge, paradigmatically formulated by
Laplace, continues to sustain a universal tendency to enhance the observational accuracy
and systematic precision of science, at the expense of its bearing on its subject
matter... [Science may be characterized as harboring] a misguided intellectual passion - a
passion for achieving absolutely impersonal knowledge which, being unable to recognize any
persons, presents us with a picture of the universe in which we ourselves are absent. In
such a universe there is no one capable of creating and upholding scientific values; hence
there is no science. The story of the Laplacean fallacy suggests a criterion of
consistency. It shows that our conceptions of man and human society must be such as to
account for man's faculty in forming these conceptions and to authorize the cultivation of
this faculty within society. Only by accrediting the exercise of our intellectual passions
in the act of observing man, can we form conceptions of man and society which both endorse
this accrediting and uphold the freedom of culture in society. Such self-accrediting, or
self-confirmatory, progression will prove an effective guide to all knowledge of living
beings." (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy,
12. So, what to do?
- First, since it is hopelessly tainted, stop using the term "matter," except
when using an explicitly acknowledged dualistic scheme. Use alternative terms, e.g.,
event/matter, event/particle, etc., terms explicitly acknowledged to apply within a
particular context - in this case a Bohmian/Whiteheadian context. No doubt other terms
will arise, but brute fact will presumably limit the total number applicable to this
world, now. A useful convention might be to use a dash (-) for entities separated by a
logical divide (like mind-body) and a slash for utilitarian distinctions (like short/tall,
little/big, small/large, internal/external, subjective/objective, man/nature, etc.).
- Second, since it, too, is hopelessly tainted, stop using the term "mind,"
except when using an explicitly acknowledged dualistic scheme or one of its two offspring,
idealism (all is mind) or neuralism (brain = mind). Instead use the term
"consciousness" with the understanding that a self-aware person in the world is
the referent for the term. One approach would be to restrict use of the term
"mind" with the understanding that it is a high level abstraction representing a
reification of the process of consciousness. For example, someone acting consciously can
be described as acting mindfully, as if they possessed a faculty called "mind."
Someone involved in problem solving can be described as performing operations of said
faculty, a.k.a. mental activities, but what is actual is a human agent in action.
- Give up the quest to be God, i.e., the quest for absolute certainty. We must be resolute
in our understanding that, because of our humanity, each approach reveals aspects of the
actual and that at any given moment our own particular world-view is limited. We must be
willing to focus our attention on actual and potential human problems, problems taking
place in the actual world, for which we have all the tools, if not the will, to deal with.
The unintended consequence of looking away from the blinding light of certainty for a
little while just might be a rediscovery of those aspects of things that are most precious
to us as human beings.
* * * * * * *
In closing, I am well aware that a great many people are, to some extent, doing or
trying to do this already. Many others are doing it better than I could ever dream of. As
a friend recently said to me, "David, everybody is trying as hard as they can."
However, the process of science, which we all cherish, sometimes reveals things to us that
we might just as soon have not known, things that threaten to force us out of our dogmatic
slumber, if we are willing to engage them, if we are willing to participate. At such
times, being conscious gets harder.
In such a fashion is the business of doing science dangerous to beliefs, including our
beliefs about the business of doing science, about the world, about ourselves, and about
the nature of embodied human consciousness. This is entirely appropriate because science
is not and never can be about beliefs, it is about our best guesses as to the nature of
things, including ourselves, in the context of our aims and goals. Science was begun by
God-fearing men who fully expected the world to end, perhaps soon, in a sudden, unknowable
cataclysm. For them, science revealed the mind of God. Paradoxically, science has
discounted the idea of an omnipotent God directing the affairs of the planet and has now
shown us exactly what the expected cataclysm is: abrupt global climate change.
Science remains, nevertheless, one of the most powerful tools we can use to help find
our way toward the future we desire. Science itself is mute about that future, although it
reveals limits imposed by the fundamental nature of things, including the very slight
access that, via our wills, we have to the implicate order. Science is not and never can
be a pathway to a strictly predetermined end. Unless, that is, we are unable or
unwilling to try to select the future we want. Then the two most successful products
of the modern era, the cooperative businesses of being conscious, i.e., becoming and being
self-aware human persons, and doing science, may end in failure as the future becomes