THE WORLD AS PHENOMENON

spruce-trees

Previously, we distinguished between nature and world. We should further sharpen and clarify these terms. Nature refers to —

“the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.”

In this particular definition (Apple’s), nature is explained in opposition to humanity and its artifacts. We might object to the use of the outworn contrast between nature and culture. Human beings are just one species of animal among others. We can talk about human nature. Nature extends as far as we like, even to the world. Nature is all-encompassing. Notwithstanding all of this, we like the definition. Much needs to be untangled before we can safely apply the word nature to the cultural realm. We have to drill down deeply into the words to clarify what we mean by them, to lay bare what they signify. Let’s do that now.

Nature is “the phenomena of the physical world collectively.” We’ve already fallen into ambiguity with this statement. By phenomena, physicists usually understand the opposite of what it means to philosophers. Especially since Kant, phenomenon has meant appearance, something perceived or known. For example, the unconscious is a phenomenon of consciousness because it is disclosed to consciousness as what the latter is unconscious of. If we now describe the world as phenomenal, we mean that the world depends on things appearing to… It is not simply that an encounter with the world can occur as well as not occur, but that the very existence of the world hinges on something being encountered. Encountering presupposes awareness. A rug doesn’t encounter the floor. It isn’t even aware of the floor. The question concerning what degree of awareness is necessary for a real encounter — whether a plant encounters the light, a virus its host cell, or an earthworm the earth — is an important one, but need not trouble us. It suffices that some measure of awareness is needed for an encounter. With the phenomenon of encountering, we have already marked a tremendous difference between the world as world and the conception of nature found in physics. The world is possible only on the basis of an encounter with nature. Where there is no cognizance, where nothing is encountered, there is also no world. By contrast, nature subsists whether or not it is encountered.

When physicists talk about “physical (or natural) phenomena,” they obviously mean phenomena that have been disclosed either directly or indirectly. Science is built on discovery, which means it depends on phenomena. Nevertheless, by nature, and therefore also world (to the extent they conflate the two), physicists mostly mean the very opposite of phenomena: that which is entirely self-subsistent, whose existence does not depend on the existence of conscious beings. What science means by nature is, then, closer to Kant’s unknowable in-itself than to what he designated by the word phenomenon. While science does not operate on the basis of the Kantian distinction, there is a sense in which it has been noticed even in that most basic of all sciences, physics. Following Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, science has had to accept the possibility that, on its most fundamental level, nature is unknowable. Of course, in this case the uncertainty has a determinate cause: the photon bumps the electron off course and spoils the measurement. Nevertheless, science now understands that even the most objective investigator is not completely innocuous.

As even the most devout materialist has to concede, the existence of the thing as observed entirely depends on the existence of an observer. The phenomenon is what is seen, tasted, and loved, as seen, tasted, and loved. We say that a flag is “invested” with a cultural significance. It has an intelligibility that does not show up as an objective property of the object. But a value is not added to the flag like an afterthought. On the contrary, the value is what makes a flag a flag in the first place. The same is true for money — the very idea of money. It is also true of a monument. Monuments are first and foremost cultural phenomena, susceptible to strictly material specification only post hoc. It is not as if you can remove the cultural determinants of the monument and still have a monument left. It is not as if the monument as monument were at first nothing more than a hunk of matter, merely elemental. At that stage, it isn’t a monument at all. Just as a block of marble with no monumental significance isn’t a monument, so nature as conceived by the natural sciences isn’t a world. Here the distinction between particular wholes and the whole of wholes factors in. We begin the process of making a monument with the stuff from which the monument is formed, but arrive at the stuff of physics and biology only by going in the opposite direction, by starting with the apperceived whole and then eliminating all the subjective and cultural “softness” that makes it a world.

Physics arrives at its basic understanding of nature through a process of elimination. Chronicler of science and technology James Gleik describes the process:

For the purposes of science, information had to mean something special. Three centuries earlier, the new discipline of physics could not proceed until Isaac Newton appropriated words that were ancient and vague — force, mass, motion, and even time — and he gave them new meaning. Newton made these terms into quantities, suitable for use in mathematical formulas. Until then, motion (for example) had been just as soft and inclusive a term as information. For Aristotelians, motion covered a far-flung family of phenomena: a peach ripening, a stone falling, a child growing, a body decaying. That was too rich. Most varieties of motion had to be tossed out before Newton’s laws could apply and the Scientific Revolution could succeed. In the nineteenth century, energy began to undergo a similar transformation: natural philosophers adapted a word meaning vigor or intensity. They mathematicized it, giving energy its fundamental place in the physicists’ view of nature. It was the same with information. A rite of purification became necessary…it was made simple, distilled, counted in bits.

The world has to be scaled back:

world→simplification→reduction→nature→quantification→physics.

Physics is the basic scientific discipline. From it, science in general derives its fundamental fore-conception of what the world is. But, as we’ve seen, it thereby obscures the very thing that makes the world a world, distorting on aspect of it even as it clarifies another. Taking physics as our starting point, one assumes that the world exists independently of the psychological, just like nature is supposed to, completely unaffected by subjective tincturing. The world is an objective world. It is what it is in itself. With the process of elimination, the ambiguity (for instance, of language) is removed. All the feminine softness evaporates and only masculine hardness remains. Now the physicist can get to work. But what is removed along with the softness and ambiguity? That is the question we have to ask in trying to arrive at an appropriate conception of the world. The world is too rich for science alone. There is always a surplus, something falling outside science’s determinations. It isn’t only that the words Newton appropriates are “ancient and vague”; they are multivalent. As such, they lend themselves to ambiguity. Yet also to profusion.

Let’s try to understand the process of elimination phenomenologically. The investigator starts from (and as part of) a holistic phenomenon that includes his or her own being. This is the inescapable context in which science takes place. The task for the physicist is to take this primordially given phenomenon (of which one always already finds oneself a part) and eliminate the “psychological factors” — anything personal and subjective. Thus one arrives at purely objective quantities. But the world is what is given before the elimination, what includes oneself within it. At the same time, this is not a reduction to the purely psychological. We are not simply reversing the process by eliminating the physical the way physics eliminates the psychological. To understand the world (as opposed to the stuff of physics that appears within it), we have to remain with what is given just as it is given. Everything depends on not splitting the phenomenon up into separate physical and psychological spheres. It is all one world. Obviously, the psyche is not actually eliminated by the physicist in an act of self-immolation. It is merely held in abeyance, bracketed. Were everything psychological actually eliminated, the world would disappear. Things would no longer be encountered. Nature would lack access to itself. Science would be impossible. Science depends on the world as we have defined it.

Next time: apperceiving the whole.

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