The Core Problem with Natural Science: ‘Nature’ is Not ‘Natural’


The most basic issue with natural science is simple, and devastatingly so.  What natural science intends by the term ‘natural’ is simultaneously what makes ‘nature’ understandable via empirical method.  However, ‘nature’ for the most part is not ‘natural’ in the requisite sense.  

If we drop the term nature for a moment, since it’s a heavily overdetermined word, and use instead ‘reality’, and then compare the two, we can see the problem more clearly.  Reality at its simplest, which is the subject matter primarily of physics, for the most part behaves as if its behaviour were necessary and not contingent.  Modern physics of course has to treat this necessity as both local and statistical, both of which curtail the ‘necessary’ character of reality in a significant way, but for the most part local, statistical ‘necessity’ can still be treated as necessity.  In most ways chemistry can treat its matter in the same way, which makes it amenable to empirical study.  There are certain things that both have to avoid, although neither make their reasons for doing so explicit.

Going back to ‘nature’, the reality of the planet Mars, a rocky landscape with a thin, poisonous atmosphere, while part of ‘nature’ in scientific terms, is not what is immediately brought to mind by the term.  When prodded for an initial description of ‘nature’ we are more likely to think of forests, grassy plains, oceans teeming with life from algae to whales, etc.  Natural science wants to look at those things, too, through biology and zoology, as ‘natural’, i.e. necessary and not contingent.

Ironically, the mythology of Darwin is that the man himself, and his theories of nature are natural science at its apogee.  Darwin’s vision of nature as historical, though, is anything but natural in the sense of necessary.  Instead it is a historically contingent interplay of historically contingent beings.  As such it is teleological to its core – Darwin found one way in which teleology functions, the myth that he dispensed with teleology is nothing more than a myth.  

Teleology and contingency relate in that the telos determines the being.  Even within the most naively mechanistic of zoologies one telos remains and appears to be impossible to remove, the telos of survival, however Darwin’s work cannot be reduced to a survivalist teleology.  

The fatal assumption of the natural sciences, present and detrimental to all of them, but most noticeable where the matter under study is most complex, is that ‘environment’ is treated as if it were necessary.  The obvious contingencies in nature are ascribed as a conformation to environmental necessity.  However environment, consisting as it does for the most part of contingent beings and their contingent effects, is as radically contingent as the beings that, by separating themselves from it, first make it an environment at all.

 Very little of the environment of the Earth is necessary even in the limited sense of local and statistical necessity. The oxygen in the atmosphere and water, indeed even the water itself that makes up two thirds of the planet’s surface, are effects of prior living beings.  As such the environment, historically, is as contingent as the beings within it, and the result is a result of a historical interplay between an innumerable variety of contingent living beings.  Survival is of course one telos that remains, but the historical increase in diversity and complexity, precisely those things that make natural history evolutionary, rather than simply different or even devolutionary, are also teleological in the extreme.  The problem with the view of natural science can be seen expressly in neo-Darwinism: precisely what makes evolution evolutionary is not even asked, much less answered.  It cannot be asked, in fact, without removing the invalid asusmptions of simple mechanical causality and the necessity of the environment on which it is based.  

Herbert Simon, in studying economics, administration and other aspects of human life raised the question of a ‘science of the artificial’.  The importance of this question, both whether ‘science’, as empirical science, is possible in terms of the artificial, and if so how, is more general than he realized. What is intended by the term ‘artificial’ is not simply the technical, that created by artifice, as Simon assumed.  His assumption arose from the notion that only what man creates is teleological.  A ‘science of the artificial’, then, in Simon’s terms would include any science of nature, since even at the simplest levels, those studied in physics and chemistry, a tendency to increased complexity can be observed.  Simultaneously the difficulty increases in the sense that the teleology of nature cannot then be thought in technical terms, since nature does not in fact arise via techne but via phusis.  

The further irony is that the technical view of reality held by natural science is itself limited to things created via techne, the intentionally artificial artificats of man.  Precisely where natural science wants to find necessity, it a priori posits contingency.  The necessity of the contingent, when reality is thought technically, resides in a non human aware intentionality, that of a creator-being.  Only where such a being is assumed can reality as technical, i.e. contingent, be questioned for invariant laws, for necessity.  Natural law, in the way it is thought by natural science, is based on divine law and nothing else.

The key in going about creating a science of reality, rather than a science of creationist fantasy, lies in the notion of schemas of recurrence and their probability within a context of retroactive causality.  It requires a more complex understanding of causality than simple cause and effect, an understanding that has to first become possible via a reappropriation of the complexity of temporality itself, an understanding of which allowed ontological priority to appear different, even opposite in many cases, to temporal priority.  They can appear as opposed precisely because temporal priority has itself been misunderstood ontologically.  It is this misunderstanding that makes teleology appear paradoxical.

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