Explain Away

Is it, then, possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the ‘natural object’ produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction? […]

The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation […]

Its followers would not be free with the words only and merely. In a word, it would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life.

Perhaps I am asking impossibilities. Perhaps, in the nature of things, analytical understanding must always be a basilisk which kills what it sees and only sees by killing. But if the scientists themselves cannot arrest this process before it reaches the common Reason and kills that too, then someone else must arrest it.

What I most fear is the reply that I am 'only one more' obscurantist, that this barrier, like all previous barriers set up against the advance of science, can be safely passed. Such a reply springs from the fatal serialism of the modern imagination - the image of infinite unilinear progression which so haunts our minds.

Because we have to use numbers so much we tend to think of every process as if it must be like the numeral series, where every step, to all eternity, is the same kind of step as the one before.

There are progressions in which the last step is sui generis - incommensurable with the others - and in which to go the whole way is to undo all the labour of your previous journey. To reduce the Tao to a mere natural product is a step of that kind. Up to that point, the kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost.

But you cannot go on ‘explaining away' for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on 'seeing through' things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it.

It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through' first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through' all things is the same as not to see.

[C.S. Lewis]
‘The Abolition of Man’, Selected Books, p.428-9

Experience means to us an activity of the intellect, which does not resignedly confine itself to receiving, acknowledging and arranging momentary and purely present impressions, but seeks them out and calls them up in order to overcome them in their sensuous presence and to bring them into an unbounded unity in which their sensuous discreteness is dissolved.

Experience in our sense possesses the tendency from particular to infinite. And for that very reason it is in contradiction with the feeling of Classical science.

What for us is the way to acquire experience is for the Greek the way to lose it. And therefore he kept away from the drastic method of experiment; therefore his physics, instead of being a mighty system of worked-out laws and formula that strong-handedly override the sense present ("only knowledge is power"), is an aggregate of impressions - well ordered, intensified by sensuous imagery, clean-edged - which leaves Nature intact in its self-completeness.

It would never have occurred to a Classical physicist to investigate things while at the same time denying or annihilating their perceivable form. And for that very reason there was no Classical chemistry, any more than there was any theorizing on the substance as against the manifestations of Apollo.

[Oswald Spengler]
The Decline of the West, Vol.1, p. 383, 394

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