From arithmetic, geometry and kinematics through mechanics to life.

Steiner’s first lecture of the First Scientific Lecture-Course, the so called, ‘Light course’, given in Stuttgart, on the 23rd December 1919, can be read here and it can be listened to here

He explains how the natural scientists of his day proceeded. They were interested in categorising, looking for causes behind phenomena, and observing phenomena to arrive at the ‘laws’ of nature. Goethe did not proceed in this way. He was not interested in looking for and speculating about unknown causes or categorisation. He looked at nature and observed how it was forever changing and studied this metamorphosis in great detail. He wished to stay within the observable to ask what it could tell him without speculating about any laws or hidden world behind the one observed.

The natural science are forever looking for pointwise forces to explain life. But, according to Steiner, life cannot be explained in this way. Life is formed out of the universal peripheral forces. These forces are not the same as the mechanical pointwise forces which are open to measurement. Steiner explains it thus:

Say you were studying the play of forces in an animal or vegetable embryo or germ-cell; with this method you would never find your way. No doubt it seems an ultimate ideal to the Science of today, to understand even organic phenomena in terms of potentials, of centric forces of some kind. It will be the dawn of a new world-conception in this realm when it is recognized that the thing cannot be done in this way, Phenomena in which Life is working can never be understood in terms of centric forces. Why, in effect, — why not? Diagrammatically, let us here imagine that we are setting out to study transient, living phenomena of Nature in terms of Physics. We look for centres, — to study the potential effects that may go out from such centres. Suppose we find the effect. If I now calculate the potentials, say for the three points a, b and c, I find that a will work thus and thus on A, B and C, or c on A’, B’ and C’; and so on. I should thus get a notion of how the integral effects will be, in a certain sphere, subject to the potentials of such and such centric forces. Yet in this way I could never explain any process involving Life. In effect, the forces that are essential to a living thing have no potential; they are not centric forces. If at a given point d you tried to trace the physical effects due to the influences of a, b and c, you would indeed be referring to the effects to centric forces, and you could do so. But if you want to study the effects of Life you can never do this. For these effects, there are no centres such as a or b or c. Here you will only take the right direction with your thinking when you speak thus: Say that at d there is something alive. I look for the forces to which the life is subject. I shall not find them in a, nor in b, nor in c, nor when I go still farther out. I only find them when as it were I go to the very ends of the world — and, what is more, to the entire circumference at once. Taking my start from d, I should have to go to the outermost ends of the Universe and imagine forces to the working inward from the spherical circumference from all sides, forces which in their interplay unite in d. It is the very opposite of the centric forces with their potentials. How to calculate a potential for what works inward from all sides, from the infinitudes of space? In the attempt, I should have to dismember the forces; one total force would have to be divided into ever smaller portions. Then I should get nearer and nearer the edge of the World: — the force would be completely sundered, and so would all my calculation. Here in effect it is not centric forces; it is cosmic, universal forces that are at work. Here, calculation ceases.

This lecture was given just over a century ago and so the terminology is a bit dated and science has made a vast amount of progress since then, but his points still stand.
The difference between Goethe’s scientific method and the standard methods of natural science is the same difference that separates the practice of Euclidean geometry from that of projective geometry. In the former, lengths and angles are measured and calculated, in the latter there are no measurements as such, it is concerned with the mobility and transformation of form as it is expressed between point and plane.

Goethe takes natural science beyond its self-imposed limits just as projective geometry takes Euclidean geometry beyond its limits.

Feel free to read or listen to the lecture linked to above and comment as you see fit.

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212 thoughts on “From arithmetic, geometry and kinematics through mechanics to life.

  1. Alan Fox:

    CharlieM: Now if we allow a validity to this way of thinking instead of thinking about various wavelengths associated with light we remain within the phenomena and study it as it is we observe that it has certain qualities.

    Nope. This is delusion

    So in your opinion colours can have quantities but not qualities? Or are you saying that they do have qualities but studying them will tell us nothing about reality?

    In what way am I deluded?

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  2. CharlieM: So do you think that there are people who are in a position to do so?

    Not from their own sole perspective. We can report our perceptions and those reports can be used to build hypotheses. See my link to Dennett.

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  3. CharlieM: Dennett’s idea here is a step towards Barfield’s idea of “final participation” as progressing from an “onlooker consciousness”. Final participation is a position in which the perceivers knows that they perceive and their standpoint has a great deal to do with how the perception is interpreted. The object under study can never be isolated from the perceiver.

    Well, you see the problem.

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  4. CharlieM: So in your opinion colours can have quantities but not qualities?

    I think there are ways of describing colours both quantitively and qualititively. How else would colour matching and paint blending work.

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  5. CharlieM: In what way am I deluded?

    You said it youself:
    Dennett’s idea here is a step towards Barfield’s idea of “final participation” as progressing from an “onlooker consciousness”. Final participation is a position in which the perceivers knows that they perceive and their standpoint has a great deal to do with how the perception is interpreted. The object under study can never be isolated from the perceiver.

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  6. Alan Fox:

    CharlieM: If I look at a dog, I recognise it because combinations of sensations are brought together in my brain.

    Confident assertion. Are you sure about this? How did you decide a “dog” is a dog?

    Good question.

    I decided through a process of learning, memory retrieval, thinking and visual perception. My idea “dog”, my visual image of the hairy moving object coming out of my neighbours house, and my memories of this happening in the past all come together to allow me to make this confident assertion.

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  7. CharlieM, You don’t think the main element was learning to call a dog (the reality on the end of a lead) a dog (the word)? We perceive the world through our senses but categorise and share the experiences linguistically.

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  8. Corneel: So you were not conceived by your parents but cooked up by an Intelligent Designer? Perhaps He should have gone a bit more easy on the nuts.

    Just because stuff happens to you, doesn’t mean you have much control over it. And don’t be so greedy over them nuts. You got plenty.

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  9. DNA_Jock to : Alan Fox,

    Ah yes: those are terpenes! Strange how many complicated naturally-occurring molecules are made up from the same branched C5 building block. It’s almost as if…

    …chemistry is geared towards producing life in all its various forms.

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  10. Kantian Naturalist:

    Kantian Naturalist: I don’t know if you picked up on this, but the bit you quoted “tiny, indivisible, ultimate particles . . . from which everything is composed” is exactly the view that Ladyman and Ross think we must reject if we are to take the science seriously.

    CharlieM: Yes I did pick up on that. That’s why I added the bit about their beliefs. Ladyman and Ross obviously think that in general modern scientists believe in “tiny, indivisible, ultimate particles”.

    I don’t think that’s quite right. Ladyman and Ross think that philosophers who claim to be “naturalists” or “physicalists” tend to believe very silly things about quantum mechanics. Their point was that a correct understanding of quantum mechanics undermines belief in tiny, divisible, ultimate particles.

    Okay. But the general population seem to be slow to grasp the implications of quantum mechanics. Searching for fundamental physical reality involves recognising the polarity of point-wise, infinitesimal, matter and plane-wise, infinite, peripheral, fields. It took quite a lot of probing in the direction of the point before the periphery became apparent and exclaimed, “remember me, I’ve been feeling a bit neglected”.

    Though they don’t put their point in historical terms, one could also put it as follows: if a naturalist is someone who accepts contemporary fundamental physics as their ontology, then a naturalist should not be an Epicurean.

    I don’t see why they shouldn’t be compatible. Didn’t Epicurus believe in matter as particulate and multiple while the void was an infinite unity? One could not exist without the other.

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  11. CharlieM: I don’t see why they shouldn’t be compatible. Didn’t Epicurus believe in matter as particulate and multiple while the void was an infinite unity? One could not exist without the other.

    They aren’t compatible for the following reason: a naturalist is someone who accepts contemporary fundamental physics as their ontology. But contemporary fundamental physics shows that the very idea of ‘atoms’ as tiny little billiard balls, colliding with each other, is completely mistaken. Therefore, a naturalist should not be an Epicurean.

    CharlieM: Searching for fundamental physical reality involves recognising the polarity of point-wise, infinitesimal, matter and plane-wise, infinite, peripheral, fields. It took quite a lot of probing in the direction of the point before the periphery became apparent and exclaimed, “remember me, I’ve been feeling a bit neglected”.

    This interpretation of the history of physics looks like sheer nonsense to me. But whatever, enjoy your nonsense. It seems to give you intellectual sustenance, and we all need that.

    As for me, I’ve read enough Steiner from your many voluminous quotes that I have no interest in reading any more.

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  12. CharlieM,

    I think it will not surprise you that I am in agreement with Helmholtz. In that article, “Goethe’s Scientific Researches,” Helmholtz remarks as follows:

    But this step into the region of abstract conceptions, which must necessarily be taken, if we wish to penetrate to the causes of phenomena, scares the poet away. In writing a poem he has been accustomed to look, as it were, right into the subject, and to reproduce his intuition without formulating any of the steps that led him to it. And his success is proportionate to the vividness of his intuition. Such is the fashion in which he would have Nature attacked. But the natural philosopher insists on transporting him to a world of invisible atoms and movements, of attractive and repulsive forces, whose intricate actions and reactions, though governed by strict laws, can scarcely be taken in at a glance. To him the impressions of sense are not an irrefragable authority; he examines what claim they have to be trusted . . . the result of such examinations, as at present understood, is that the organs of sense do indeed give us information about external effects produced on them, but convey these effects to our consciousness in a totally different form, so that the character of a sensuous perception depends not so much on the properties of the object perceived as on those of the organ by which we receive the information. . . . We see that science has arrived at an estimate of the senses very different from that which was present to the poet’s mind.

    Interestingly, Helmholtz goes on to point out that one of the reasons why Goethe thought that Newton’s theory of light was absurd was that in Goethe’s time, electricity had not yet been discovered, and as a result, no one was in the slightest position to start figuring out how nerves work.

    In any event: my view is that despite Goethe’s towering genius as a poet and phenomenologist of nature, he was not in any sense a scientist. The scientific attitude as represented here by Helmholtz consists of inquiring how external objects cause our sense-impressions, rather than taking sense-impressions as disclosing how things really are.

    But does it follow, therefore, that a Helmholtzian psycho-physicist must regard the world of the senses as unreal, as illusion? Absolutely not! This is, I think, the real error of the whole Steinerian project: to infer that if the world of the physicist is regarded as what’s ultimately real, then the world of the phenomenologist (the world as experienced) is illusory. This does not follow.

    A Helmholtzian psycho-physicist can (and should!) regard the world of the senses as objectively real but also relative to a perspective. The world of the senses that the poet intuits and the phenomenologist describes is exactly how external objects appear to animals with our kind of evolved neurophysiology. It is not illusory or ‘mere appearance’.

    In fact I suspect that Steiner’s error here is not understanding the crucial difference between Erscheinung and Schein. Schopenhauer also makes this blunder. The former, Erscheinung, is appearings — how things look to beings that have minds like ours. The latter, Schein, is illusion. These are not at all the same kind of thing. The fact that the cover of my book only looks blue to me because I have trichomatic vision does not put the color of the book’s cover in the same category as mirages or hallucinations.

    The difference between the world of immediate sense-perception and the world of scientific models is neither that the former is ‘illusion’ and the latter is ‘real’ nor the inverse, that the world of the senses is what is concrete and real and the latter is mere abstraction.

    Rather, the difference is between reality as seen from a very limited perspective and reality as seen from a more encompassing, more inclusive perspective.

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