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True Enough: To the Physicist

"Into the core of Nature" -
O Philistine -
"No earthly mind can enter."
The maxim is fine;
But have the grace
To spare the dissenter,
Me and my kind.
We think: in every place
We're at the center.
"Happy the moral creature
To whom she shows no more
Than the outer rind,"
For sixty years I've heard your sort announce.
It makes me swear, though quietly;
To myself a thousand times I say:
All things she grants, gladly and lavishly;
Nature has neither core
Nor outer rind,
Being all things at once.
It's yourself you should scrutinize to see
Whether you're center or periphery.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe[1]

The subject (Latinsubiectum; Greekὺποκείμενον hypokeimenon "the underlying") has been conceptually understood in different ways in the history of philosophy. Today it is largely taken as an expression of the conscious, self-determining individual I, which confronts the objects, the non-I. Insofar as the subject thereby seems to have exclusive access to its inner world, i.e. to its own thinking and thus also to the motives of its actions, in epistemology and ethics one speaks of the first-person perspective, which is fundamentally inaccessible to an external observer from the third-person perspective.

„The first person is, at least to many of us, still a huge mystery. The famous "Mind-Body Problem," in these enlightened materialist days, reduces to nothing but the question "What is the first person, and how is it possible?". There are many aspects to the first-person mystery. The first-person view of the mental encompasses phenomena which seem to resist any explanation from the third person. Such phenomena include some famous philosophical bugbears: subjective experience, qualia, consciousness, and even mental content...“

What the subject experiences subjectively cannot claim general validity at first. Subjectivity is therefore largely avoided in the sciences and considered a possible source of error. This is especially the case when it is a mere personal opinion. Here, at least, intersubjectivity is required. Irrefutable knowledge is also not given by the formation of theories that are conceptually clear, but still built on hypotheses and logically founded. Here, too, truth is not yet confirmed beyond doubt; the principle of falsifiability applies. Only by becoming aware of the idea within reality is true knowledge given through the direct insight into its essence, which expresses itself in man, and thus one-sided subjectivity is overcome.

The objective world of ideas

Only when the objective world of ideas shines forth in consciousness with the evidence associated with it, as it can be found, for example, in mathematical proofs, is the bridge to objectivity and thus to reality found, in which the opposition of subject and object is abolished.

„The cognitive faculty appears to man as subjective only so long as he does not notice that it is nature itself which speaks through it. Subjective and objective meet when the objective world of ideas comes to life in the subject, and that which is active in nature itself lives in the spirit of man. When this is the case, then all opposition of subjective and objective ceases. This opposition only has a meaning as long as man artificially maintains it, as long as he regards the ideas as his thoughts, through which the essence of nature is represented, but in which it is not itself active. Kant and the Kantians had no idea that in the ideas of reason the essential being of things is directly experienced. For them, everything ideal is merely subjective.“ (Lit.:GA 6, p. 55f)

In contrast to classical physics, which methodically adheres to the strict separation of subject and object and regards the latter as the sole reality, quantum physics has shown that for a consistent description of nature, the observer, i.e. the cognising subject, must be included. For example, the physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958), who used the Pauli principle named after him to explain why atoms can be understood with some justification as spatially extended objects, writes in a letter to Markus Fierz (1912-2006):

Wolfgang Pauli (1900 - 1958)

„If one analyses the preconscious level of concepts, one always finds ideas consisting of "symbolic"[2] Images with generally strong emotional content. The preliminary stage of thinking is a painting vision of these inner images, the origin of which cannot be attributed solely or primarily to the sensory perceptions (of the individual concerned), but which are produced by an "instinct of imagining" and reproduced independently, i.e. collectively, in different individuals.... The former archaic-magical point of view is only a little below the surface; a slight abaissement du niveau mental is enough to make it come completely "up". But the archaic attitude is also the necessary precondition and source of the scientific attitude. To a complete cognition belongs also that of the images out of which the rational concepts have grown.

Now comes a view where I am perhaps more of a Platonist[3] than the psychologists of the Jungian direction. What is now the answer to the question of the bridge between sense perceptions and concepts, which is now reduced to us to the question of the bridge between external perceptions and those internal pictorial conceptions. It seems to me - whichever way one turns it, whether one speaks of the "participation of things in ideas" or of "things real in themselves" - a cosmic order of nature must be postulated here, withdrawn from our arbitrariness, to which both the external material objects and the inner images are subject. (Which of the two is historically the earlier is likely to prove an idle joking question - something like "Which was earlier: the chicken or the egg?") The ordering and regulating must be placed beyond the distinction of physical and psychic - just as Plato's "ideas" have something of "concepts" and also something of "natural forces" (they produce effects of their own accord). I am very much in favour of calling this "ordering and regulating" "archetypes"; but it would then be inadmissible to define these as psychic contents. Rather, the inner images mentioned ("dominants of the collective unconscious" according to Jung) are the psychic manifestation of the archetypes, which, however, would also have to produce, generate, condition everything natural in the behaviour of the body world. The natural laws of the bodily world would then be the physical manifestation of the archetypes.“ (Lit.: Meyenn, p. 496f)

Becoming aware of the idea within reality

„Whoever recognises that thinking has a perceptive capacity that goes beyond the sensory perception must of necessity also recognise objects that lie beyond the mere sensuous reality. But the objects of thought are the ideas. By taking possession of the idea, thought merges with the source of the world's existence; that which works outside enters into the spirit of man: he becomes one with objective reality at its highest potency. Becoming aware of the idea in reality is the true communion of man.

Thought has the same significance towards ideas as the eye has towards light, the ear towards sound. It is an organ of apprehension.

This view is able to unite two things that are now considered completely incompatible: empirical method and idealism as a scientific view of the world. It is believed that the recognition of the former entails the rejection of the latter. This is not at all correct. If, of course, one holds the senses to be the only organs of apprehension of an objective reality, then one must come to this view. For the senses supply only those connections of things which can be traced back to mechanical laws. And thus the mechanical view of the world would be given as the only true form of such a view. In doing so, one makes the mistake of simply overlooking the other equally objective components of reality that cannot be traced back to mechanical laws. The objectively given does not at all coincide with the sensually given, as the mechanical conception of the world believes. The latter is only half of the given. The other half of it is the ideas, which are also the object of experience, albeit a higher one, whose organ is thought. The ideas, too, are accessible to an inductive method.

Today's empirical science follows the quite correct method: to hold fast to the given; but it adds the unstated assertion that this method can only deliver what is sensibly factual. Instead of stopping at how[4] we arrive at our views, it determines from the outset the what[4] of them. The only satisfactory conception of reality is empirical method with idealistic research results. This is idealism, but not the kind that pursues a misty, dreamed unity of things, but the kind that seeks the concrete idea-content of reality just as experientially as today's hyperexact research seeks the factual content.“ (Lit.:GA 1, p. 125f)

On the supposed subjectivity of perception

According to a view that is still widespread today, the sensory qualities given as perception, the qualia, namely what John Locke called the secondary qualities, which include colours, sounds, warmth, taste and smell impressions (i.e. the sensory modalities of the classical five senses), are denied any objective character. They were only subjective reactions to external stimuli caused by the sensory organs and the brain, which as such had no resemblance to the sensory qualities experienced in consciousness. This view was essentially underpinned by the law of specific sensory energies formulated by the biologist Johannes Müller in 1826 on the basis of empirical investigations, according to which every sensory organ, no matter by what kind of stimulus it is excited (for example, mechanically, by light, electricity, etc.), always responds with the sensory modality peculiar to it. Thus, for example, the eye, no matter how it is stimulated, always delivers only light/dark and colour impressions, the ear only sounds or noises, etc.

According to Rudolf Steiner, this view is based on a fundamental error. It is in the very nature of the sense organs that they withdraw so far in their own being that they are, as it were, completely transparent for the objectively given perceptions. And this applies not only to the eye, but to all the senses. It is completely wrong to assume that the perception experienced in consciousness is a mere subjective reaction to the objectively given stimulus. The distinction between subjective and objective is not given by perception, but only by thinking - and this shows that the peculiarity of the sense organs consists precisely in the fact that they eliminate themselves in their own being to such an extent that they open up access to the objectively given perception for consciousness. The stimulus as such has nothing to do with the objectively given quality of perception, but only creates the opportunity for it to be perceived. For example, the electromagnetic wave of a specific wavelength reaching the eye has nothing to do directly with the experienced colour quality, but together with the eye as a sensory organ it forms the necessary prerequisite for the colour to be perceived sensually. This is no less objectively given than the electromagnetic wave, which only paves the way, as it were, for the consciousness to connect perceptively with the colour. The eye, however, is an organ of perception for colours and not for the electromagnetic wave, for the latter is precisely not perceived by the eye, but is completely blocked out. This is also the difficulty that physicists usually have with Goethe's theory of colours, because it deals directly with colours and not with electromagnetic waves, which are examined in physics by means of suitable measuring instruments. In fact, it is very characteristic of humans that they have no direct organ of perception for electromagnetic processes, but can only register them indirectly through appropriate measuring instruments.


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References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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  1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ernst Beutler (Hrsg.): Gedichte. Ausgabe letzter Hand, Artemis-Verlag, Zürich 1949 [1] (German)
  2. Cf. C. G. Jung's definition of symbol in his book "Psychological Types". The symbol expresses a "conceived but as yet unknown state of affairs."
  3. It is no accident that you quoted Plato on page 13.
  4. 4.0 4.1 cf. Goethe's well-known saying: The what consider, more consider how. (Faust II, Act 2)