Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

The Circle of Explanation in the Sciences

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

The Circle of Explanation in the Sciences

Article excerpt


Descartes famously distinguished "res extensa"" as matter from Mind. While oceans of ink have spilt from the 17th century onward about how this distinction cannot be maintained, the fact remains that "res extensd" (literally, stuff extended in space) is an egregious over-simplification of what matter is. On the one hand, matter--while subject to Newton's laws--also shows chaotic and other dynamics that we have begun to understand only since Poincare, in a moment of genius, considered the motion of three celestial bodies. Chemistry constrains what matter can do still further, in a manner that will be recapitulated later in syntactic processes in gene-expression, themselves part of biosemiotics. With biology, we get further complexity; the failing of data-driven approaches has been above all their refusal to consider ontological distinctions

Likewise, the biological is a different set of emerging categories to the "merely" physical, although it inherits prosaic qualities like inertia and more interesting ones like chaotic dynamics from the physical. To say that one is in a sea of bliss, a statement we will investigate below now that the New age is focused on non-dualism, is to assert that Bell entanglement is somehow being mediated through the biological. The discontinuity that the biological comprises involves hierarchy (cells are part of organs are part of organisms), codes, and much else that the entanglement must traverse.

Intentionality is inexplicable in terms of anything previously seen in nature, and represents a uniquely human capacity to gain contact with a world of Ideas--or at least concepts. As such, it is distinguishable from more prosaic covariation of sensory receptor and stimulus on the one hand, and non-intentional psychological states depending on brain function on the other. These states may in turn be conscious; to be conscious does not presuppose "authentic existence", intentionality directed at real objects. Conversely, intentionality may comprise as its target "Platonic" realities. A major argument of this paper is that the human capacity for voluntary control of attention coupled with intentionality toward Platonic objects are together the main breakthrough in human existence.

While most neuroscience undoubtedly can be treated with concepts from classical physics, the recent example of quantum effects in photosynthesis has proved that quantum coherence can persist in biological systems. Can the remarkable effectiveness of our visual and auditory systems be explained under this rubric, particularly if viewed in conjunction with modern research on attention? This will be investigated at length below in the context of the challenge presented by the recent burgeoning successes of AI (Markoff, 2015).

Of course, our ontology may be event-based rather than object-based. Our metaphysics might elide subject and object or--wisely, a la Piaget--argue that they are co-constructed. Indeed, we might radically assert that only attention and the fact that mathematics refers to nature are mysterious. All of these points are topics for other papers.


My provocatively-titled 2014 monograph has been between covers long enough to warrant unpacking of its main themes. In particular, the notion that there is "One magisterium"; one source of teaching authority cutting across the areas our contemporary society divides into the arts, the sciences, morality and power politics, is deeply controversial and has famously led to incidents like the Inquisition.

However, society has often broken down sufficiently that religious authority, a notion of epistemological as well as moral truth rooted in the divine/sacred, has been the only resort for the preservation of civilization. It can be argued that Europe during the "Dark" ages became a Christian theocracy because the only administrative apparatus that preserved literacy--and indeed order--in the face of barbarism and Islam was that strange congeries of Judaism and Greek thought (the latter preserved largely by Irish monks) we later termed "Christianity". …

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