The Modern account of nature

One of the crucial notes of the distinctively Modern account of nature- the account that ran from the late Renaissance to the end of the 19th century- is its absolute and complete mechanical simplicity. No actual machine could ever be as pared down as nature described by Descartes, Hobbes, Newton, Dalton, Laplace, Lavoisier, etc. As different as all these thinkers were, they all agreed that if only our vision were a bit stronger, we would open our eyes and see a cloud of colorless, odorless, featureless, totally homogeneous particles advancing in perfectly predicable lines with all the rigid and absolute predictability of the premises of a syllogism. The particles performed their operations in something that could be called either “space” or “nothing”- there wasn’t much reason to prefer the first word over the second, and since “space/nothing” only ensured that nothing would interfere with the motion of the particles through space, there was no pressing reason to ask questions about it.

Objections to this account of nature are very old. What does it mean to say that, if we could only see nature as it is, we would see a colorless nothing? Such a description makes nature simultaneously perfectly imaginable (particles in homogeneous space) and completely unimaginable (colorless nothing?) Again, this view of nature said that nature had all the precision of a supertuned and perfectly engineered machine, and at the same time it was a sheer cloud of particles. Few ideas are more impossible than this “heap-machine”, the parts of which have at one and the same time no more order than a cloud and yet are capable of moving with thousands of times more determined precision than a particle accelerator or open heart surgery. There was a clear disproportion between the utter simplicity we attributed to the building blocks nature as it really was and the complexity of what we saw nature do: it was as if we claimed that we could make everything from fighter planes to artificial hearts from sets of plastic Legos.

But we all know why the account remained: it worked. Working, however, is all the account did. One could hardly say that there was anything commendable or even interesting in looking at nature as such. There was far more mystery and complexity in an actual billiard game than in nature (the billiard balls at least had color, and their motions existed in a world where the presence of a multitude of forces made perfect prediction effectively impossible) but we were convinced that any mystery and complexity was an utter illusion anyway. At this point, philosophy (now increasingly called science) saw it as its job to debunk all claims to mystery, unpredictability, or even to things that were difficult to understand. Any account of nature that made it more complex than a basic algebra problem was considered out of date, obscurantist or occultist, irrational, and fit for the flames.  As a result, anyone who saw something mysterious, wonderful or even interesting in nature itself felt increasingly obliged to leave philosophy/ science and express themselves in a different way. Any time experience told us we were confronted with a reality that was more complex than a colorless ball changing places in a completely predictable fashion (which happens a lot), we either had to call our experience an illusion (as we did with colors, scents, feelings, tastes etc), or we had to erect a radical and irreducible dualism (as we did between the facts of science and the values of ethics; or the determinism of science and the freedom required by Christian religion; or the banal and utterly simple nature of the scientist and the sublime thunderous nature of Beethoven and  Wagner; or the tasteless and textureless nature of science and the supple, vibrant and surprising nature of the impressionist painters and the [admittedly conflicted] Romantic poets.)

The Postmodern world is conflicted about what to do with the old modern account of nature. Many of the conclusions that were drawn from the old account are still around, but the basis they stood on has vanished. People still try to force quantum physics into the old billiard-ball mold of nature,  but such attempts are more and more the stuff of lower and lower amateurs. Philosophers no longer call themselves “materialists”- since they realize that the billiard/mechanical model of matter is no longer rational. This is a great opportunity for those of us who want to bring back the older insights into nature- insights that require us to see nature as a good deal more obscure than dots changing place in a vast sea of homogeneous chalkboard-space.


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