Thursday, 27 October 2011

Why I resisted fields and forms

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Having recently become convinced by Rupert Sheldrake's ideas of morphic resonance made me wonder why or how I resisted their validity for so long.

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I came across the ideas of morphic field from a lecture by Sheldrake in about 1986, then around five years later began to read about the branch of theoretical biology which focused on form - first in the historical writings of Timothy J Horder, then in Science as a Process by David L Hull - I realized this went back to Aristotle, via Goethe up to Conrad Waddington (the king-maker of British biology mid 20th century).

A few years after this, from about 1993, I read some popular accounts of chaos and complexity theory, with their field-like thinking in terms of strange attractors etc. - scientists such as Stuart Kauffman and Brian Goodwin

But I instinctively - and I think correctly - recognized that most of these thinkers evaded the fundamental questions of: 1. where these forms or fields came from (Did they evolve? Were forms 'just there'.); and 2. how we knew about them.

The material I read either evaded this question altogether, or else dealt with it so obscurely and inexplicitly that I never could discover anybody's real views. The argument boiled down to something like:

"Look, it's obvious, there are forms: see this, and this, and this - they all have the same form!"

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Presumably forms were finite in number, but how could we discover the nature of a form or detect a field, how could an assertion be proved or disproved? And what were forms or fields made of?

The answer came when I encountered Thomas Aquinas for whom (I simplify, but then my own understanding is simplistic) the forms were in God, and we knew about them because such knowledge was put into us - built-into usby God.

This, of course, propels the whole discourse away from science and into theology, which most modern philosophers will not do. Nonetheless, it seems the only coherent answer to the question which stopped me from accepting forms and fields; and I think only someone who will accept this kind of answer can consistently proceed.

(Sheldrake also argues that forms can evolve - though I am unsure to what extent. Presumably the major and basic forms are finite and intrinsic to the universe (although not necessarily all actual or possible forms are active at any time or place), but new versions of old forms can evolve and strengthen e.g. by morphic resonance).

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What emerged, for me, was the idea that forms are prior to all else, and they exert their effect on matter (or substance) by fields which organize the matter. The matter is stuff, the field is what shapes the stuff.

Before I began thinking in terms of fields as the main cause of things, then I had pretty much a 'billiard ball' model of causation, of one thing as causing another in long chains of cause and effect.

But now it seems to be obviously impossible to account for the regularities of the world in terms of such chains of cause and effect; because there are innumerable interacting chains of causation in the world, and each chain is exquisitely sensitive to the specifics of its initial event - such that imprecisions expand with each step in the chain or with distance from the cause - to become chaotic and/ or noise overwhelms the signal.

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We could never make sense of the world (or so it now seems), could never predict or control things, if reality really was constituted from vast numbers of interacting causal chains.

Isolating, studying and understanding one specific linear causal pathway out of dozens which also interact is futile (looking for a needle in a haystack), yet studying them all would take too long and even if we did then how could we understand the vast possibilities for interaction including the interaction of imprecision and error?


Only if these multiple specific and interacting causal pathways are ordered by larger scale principles (fields) could we make sense of such overwhelming complexity and indeterminacy as the world present.

For the world to be understandable, predictable and controllable I therefore think that (if we insist on such meta-explanations - as apparently I do) we rationally need to assume a metaphysic which begins with form, where forms are finite (in principle), and where we ourselves begin with an inbuilt knowledge of (at least some) forms.

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Sheldrake emphasizes that we understand the world (when we do understand it ) in nested hierarchies.

So we understand biology in terms of living things, the various families, order, species etc, individual organisms and their organs, cells and the cellular components.


But for such understanding to be more than detached factoids, the explanation must include (whether implicitly or explicitly) form, fields, or principles of organization which descend from the higher to lower levels.

Such forms are not detected, nor discovered, they are recognized.

Once recognized they can be used. If there has been an error, and a form falsely recognized and ascribed, then they imputed forms will not be very useful - will lead to internal contractions, failed predictions, inability to control.

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And it seems that the different sciences, the different specialties, and sub-specialties within science, could never amount to anything ordered (anything comprehensible) unless they were in nested hierarchies of fields.

Lacking this, the different scientific disciplines or specialisms (such as the scores of branches of 'neuroscience' or 'brain science') are incommensurable, atomic factoids (as, in practice, they currently are).

So, instead of merely accumulating findings ad infinitum, science needs to proceed in a theoretically-informed fashion, recognizing that facts are worthless unless organized by form: form structuring fact-finding, facts and what count as facts.

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At present, as anyone who works in theoretical branches of biology knows, none of this discussion has any traction - because what counts as 'science' is the bureaucratic process of allocating resources and conferring esteem markers for 'doing' stuff (=employing people and running machines).

But the analysis helps clarify why in - say - neuroscience, decades of international activity on an unprecedented scale has led nowhere (nowhere in terms of scientific understanding, nor indeed of medical breakthroughs - although of course there have been hundreds of thousands of careers built on it).

But to enter this arena and to have this discussion entails stepping outside of 'science' and into metaphysics - into discussing the nature of reality, the nature of science and of the human condition, and from these and the evaluation of science as a human activity.

Yet modern man, especially modern scientists, think (or think they think) that there is nothing outside of science, because they that science fills the whole world - supreme, subordinate-to (or structured-by) nothing else.

Hence un-critiqueable.

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(Or, at least, that is what they say when pushed.

(In practice, of course, 'science' is merely professional research subordinated to Leftism, to political correctness; and practiced only within the envelope of careers which means bureaucratic constraint. In practice, nobody (well, hardly anybody) cares a jot for 'science' when it comes into conflict with professional research careerism. Because where peer review is the bottom line, as it certainly is now, then 'science' is nothing more nor less than what professional researchers say it is.

(But I am talking here about real science.)

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The excitement of a perspective based on form and fields is therefore that of a wholly different concept of what it is to understand. A move away from the endless business of accumulating empirical data and a clarification of the kind of thing that we should be trying to do - the kind of understanding (the kind of theory) we should be seeking when (in biology) we try to understand the brain, or development, or genetics.

The metaphysics of science has no direct impact on the specifics of science (which is how people get away with ignoring it for long periods); but it is vital for ordering of the whole process of evaluating what counts as the specifics of science, and what to do with specifics if or when you have them.

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