On Observables and Subjectivity

Geertz quotes Ryle as objecting to the view that a golfer cannot at once conform to the laws of ballistics, obey the rules of golf, and play with elegance. (Isn’t Ryle wonderful!).

The first constraint pertains, of course, to the familiar notion of physical law, in a Newtonian framework. The latter two speak of human interpretation and even experience. It is worth considering just what the limits of that which may be expressed within the Newtonian framework are, and how my present approach may help to shed more light than hitherto on the relation between that and the latter two observations.

A Newtonian account ought firstly to be separated from modern physical accounts. The former speaks of physics as we observe it at the human scale. Its regularities and concepts work well at everday spatial and temporal scales: they describe the movements of things as big as oranges and as fast as dogs. Happily, they continue to bear predictive fruit at some remove from the human reference point1. That we now have a physics that supplants the entire Newtonian framework need be of no concern, for those observations one can make that speak of an understanding at variance with the classical approach are all, without exception, to be made at removes impossibly distant from the familiar time and spatial scales of phenomenal experience. For our purposes here, Newtonian physics is, in fact, a human centered physics. The supposedly objective framework is none such, for it has a human center.

On my account, we are beginning to have a story to tell about what it is to come at the world from a specific point of view, with an understanding that is anchored in a specific spatial and temporal scale. We get this from the observation of the relation between perception and action as they generate the encountered world of an active organism. The essence of this relation can be seen already in observing the relation between a single cell and its environment, and the fundamental link between perception and action in generating immediate experience of a world does not change from the bacterium to the human. In observing the lawfulness of the relation between perception and action, we also see why the encountered world has the specific scales it has, and thus why all organisms meet the world from a specific perspective. No organism encounters a pre-made world.

What we see in this framework is the regularity in the relation between specific forms of energetic gradients that impinge on the sensory surfaces of an organism, and the attendant (not consequent!) motion, or action, of the same. In this picture, the very best physical account we may come up with of nervous system activity is limited to the observation that brains move muscles. There is not, and never will be, a Newtonian account of goals, plans, the rules of golf, or the elegance of the golfer. The Newtonian account is, of course, deterministic, but it is not, nor should it aspire to be, exhaustive.

It may be less destructive to our innate sense of agency, if we look at a cell instead, for there we can already see the strengths and limitations of a Newtonian account. We can imagine, I believe, a more-or-less fully “mechanistic” description of the processes of metabolism. We can describe in exhaustive detail the dynamics that capture the lawful processes of change, distinguishing those that are proper to the cell itself (endogenous dynamics) and those that arise from interaction between the cell and its environment. But the fullest account we may obtain in this fashion is incomplete. Therein lies one limit of empirical science as it pertains to human experience. We cannot observe the agency of the cell. Philosophers have guessed wildly here. What I refer to as agency has been called Will, Vital force, Soul, Spirit, and numerous other things. No observation will reveal this. There is a mystery here, in the emergence of a temporally extended form of organization that is self-sustaining. We need new mathematics to describe it. But it does not appear insurmountable, once we locate the mystery in the right place!

For many people, a Newtonian approach to understanding observables is co-extensive with a scientific approach. Science is larger that that, and the Newtonian account is by no means an objective account that trumps all others, for it does not make reference to experience.

[1] It is worth considering how the concepts and methods of Newtonian physics work beyond the domain they arose in: that of everyday experience. We can generate a magnification of the head of a mite. Enlarged a thousand-fold, we see a monster, but an interpretable monster, with parts that are solid, built of ratchets, hooks, armour plates, hairs. We then have a paradoxical reaction. The thing is ugly and if it were to be encountered at a human scale it would terrify us, yet we find it only curious. It is no more troubling than an artistic representation of an anaethema, as in a horror film. Some may lose sleep over it, but we can all see that our emotional reaction needs to be tempered, for we recognize that we have gone beyond the bounds of possible experience.