Does the Copernican turn obscure nature?

In Aspects of Plant Intelligence, Anthony Trewevas claims that plant intelligence is much harder to see in laboratories since plants in such an environment act in a much tamer manner and don’t exercise the full palate of their powers. The reason for this seems pretty clear: a plant in a laboratory isn’t fending for itself but is being either cared for or killed off by the researcher. A grad student in a laboratory experiment won’t use the full palate of his powers either, and the artificial environment – with the necessary need to hide what exactly is being asked of him or what the researcher is really looking for – will tend to lead to a half-hearted application of even the powers he is asked to exercise.

If we can generalize this principle to include even plants, then the path seems open to generalizing it even to matter itself. To have a nature at all seems to involve some ability to receive information and respond to the world, and the artificial world of the laboratory has a tendency to make this information processing far less profound than it actually is. At the limit of this, we get a view of matter as mere stuff, which is supposed to have no interaction at all with the world beyond being pushed around in a completely extrinsic manner. Matter, on this view, is purely inert: a car with no gas and no driver, and in fact with no structure at all beyond what allows for a very primitive set of responses to being hit. But this is not the description of a nature but of a heap.

We can see this account of matter as false while still recognizing that it has borne an impressive amount of knowledge. But false it is. To exist at all – to be more than a mere heap or extrinsically denominated whole – requires some sort of information processing structure and therefore something that will count as knowledge. We can keep the strata of existence (inanimate, plant, animal, human), but they are not divided by knowing/ unknowing binary but by various analogues of knowledge.

If this is right, then the attempt to isolate various phenomena, so that the nature in question can answer only the question we put to it, will open up a new vista of understanding only by occluding another perhaps more profound reality in the nature we seek to understand. On this account the experimental method is only one move in a larger philosophical attempt to understand nature, one that needs to include a phenomenological and ontological move as well.

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1 Comment

  1. Kristor said,

    October 9, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    Thus Whitehead, Wheeler, Dembski, Stapp, Hartshorne.

    “Obscure”? Not necessarily, perhaps, but the risk of doing so is pervasive. We have to choose some methodology or other, and method is a protocol for what we shall emphasize, what we shall deem to be important for the purposes at hand. We can’t emphasize just everything there is to emphasize in your subject of inquiry, and still be or say something definite. So we have no choice but to neglect some aspects of whatever it is we confront.

    Important methodologically, then, to be sure to notice and remember what choices of emphasis we have made in order to have a method in the first place. Put another way: important to remember that our model is nothing more than a model, our map just a map.


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