Post-Physicalist Physiocracy, Part II
Wolfgang Smith Has Entered the Game
The great Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle is reputed to have known everything there was to be known in his time. The brilliant Dutch theologian and humanist Desiderius Erasmus mastered all the languages spoken on the European continent, not to mention Ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. He, too, knew everything there was to know in his time. The English poet John Milton is said to have read virtually every book ever written. Milton, we believe, knew everything that was known in his time.
Sadly I am not the Aristotle, or Erasmus, or Milton of my day. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s possible to be the Aristotle, Erasmus, or Milton of our day. The body of “known knowledge” has become so large that a lifetime of study could not encompass it. I have myself been (overly kindly) called a “polymathic genius” on two occasions but the scope of my ignorance remains so profound that some days I hesitate to even write a blog post for fear that I will have entirely missed the existence of a major thinker.
A particularly galling example of the scope of my ignorance arose last week, when — whilst discussing Post-Physicalist Physiocracy — I firmly insisted that there weren’t any Christian or Thomistic philosophers directly tackling the type of science discussed in Irreducible Mind or Quantum Theory and Free Will. The problem being, of course, that such a philosopher does exist (as JD Sauvage politely pointed out).
This philosopher’s name is Wolfgang Smith and not only does he exist — he’s already written 14 books on the very topics I claimed no one was writing about. Not only has he already covered quantum mechanics, free will, and the irreducible non-material nature of mind, he’s also covered many of the topics I highlighted in my essays on Traditionalism, including initiation, counter-initiation, and more. And, just for good measure, one of my favorite bloggers, William M. Briggs, has already written two articles on Wolfgang Smith’s work.
Somehow, I was oblivious to all of that.
Well, as I said, I’m no Erasmus. But I am a fast reader! So in the week since I have plunged into Smith’s work. I’ve found it interesting indeed, and very relevant to my ongoing physiocratic project. Smith’s thinking is far too expansive for a single blog post to cover, so I’m just going to touch on two of his works that I found most mind-blowing.
The Quantum Enigma
Smith begins his most famous book, The Quantum Enigma, by signaling out Rene Descartes’ “false metaphysics”:
The difficulties and perplexities which beset US the moment we try to make philosophic sense out of the findings of quantum theory are caused, not just by the complexity and subtlety of the microworld, but first and foremost by an adhesion to certain false metaphysical premises, which have occupied a position of intellectual dominance since the time of Rene Descartes.
The Cartesian conception of an external world made up exclusively of so-called res extensae or 'extended entities; concerning which one assumes that they are bereft of all qualitative or 'secondary' attributes, such as color, for instance. All else is relegated, according to this philosophy, to the so-called res cogitantes or 'thinking entities,' whose constitutive act, so to speak, is not extension, but thought. Thus, according to Descartes, whatever in the universe is not a res extensa is therefore 'an object of thought; as we would say, or in other words, a thing that has no existence outside of a particular res cogitans or mind.
This bifurcation (as Smith terms it) was useful insofar as it offered a simplification of the real world that was conducive to quantitative science, but it was and is not true; and the quantum world, says Smith, cannot be understood without abandoning it.
Smith’s condemnation of Descartes initially struck me as strange — after all, Descartes was not a physicalist but rather a dualist, and most moderns condemn Descartes for believing in the immaterial. But Smith makes the case that the transition from Scholasticism to Cartesianism was the beginning of a slide down the slippery slope. To briefly summarize - for that is all I can hope to do — the course of events seen by Smith is as follows:
Before Descartes, the Scholastic tradition had maintained the philosophical tenets of direct realism in epistemology (that is, our senses are the means of perception, not the objects of perception) and of hylomorphism in metaphysics (that substance consists of both matter and form, the latter of which is immaterial though instantiated in matter).
After Descartes bifurcated mind from matter, indirect realism replaced direct realism (which was re-dubbed “naïve realism”); and hylomorphism lost its hylic character — substance thereafter consisted only of matter, with form being sidelined to mere res cogitans.
The Post-Cartesian empirical scientists, certain that physics was casually closed and unable to find a way in which mind could possibly interact with matter, eliminated mind from consideration entirely.
The founders of Quantum Mechanics then discovered the phenomenon of state vector collapse, which Smith calls “the central enigma of quantum mechanics.” The discovery that consciousness was somehow apparently interacting with matter was a discovery so inexplicable to the Post-Cartesian paradigm as to span dozens of different “interpretations” or “quantum ontologies,” some of which bear an uncanny resemblance to attempts to explain Shakespeare by way of infinite monkeys.
Smith believes that the solution to the quantum enigma can be found by abandoning the false metaphysics of Cartesian bifurcation and returning to the “sapiential” metaphysics of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas. In Thomistic terms, the quantum world does not fully exist in actuality. It partly exists in potentiality. It is not quite prima materia, which is pure potentia without any actuality, but it is not substance either. It becomes substance only when a substantial form is imposed upon it by an observer who is something more than purely corporeal. Smith labels this process, of consciousness collapsing the wave function, as an example of vertical causation. He contrasts this vertical causation, which is non-local, with the horizontal causation of ordinary physics, which is bound by space or locality.
As I delved into The Quantum Enigma, I realized that Wolfgang Smith’s Thomistic or “vertical” interpretation of orthodox quantum mechanics was extremely similar to Henry Stapp’s “realist” interpretation of orthodox quantum mechanics (which I have previously praised). Both Smith and Stapp affirm that the orthodox (Copenhagen) interpretation was fundamentally correct — and that the founders of quantum mechanics erred only in that they adopted a positivist, rather than realist, philosophy about their discovery. Both believe that the collapse of the state vector is ontological, not epistemological.
And then, on p. 79, Smith cite Stapp directly:
As Henry Stapp has expressed it, 'Everything we know about Nature is in accord with the idea that the fundamental process of Nature lies outside spacetime ... but generates events that can be located in space-time.'4
Never have I been so happy to be wrong; here then was that very Thomistic explanation of Stapp’s quantum mechanics that I had insisted did not exist!
The Mystery of Visual Perception
Long-time readers of Tree of Woe will be familiar with my various essays on epistemology, largely in the context of dealing with Munchausen’s Trilemma. As it happens, Smith takes a considerable interest in epistemology as well. He, too, is at war with the skeptics who would deny us knowledge of the world.
Having rejected the Cartesian bifurcation and its consequent indirect realism, Smith not surprisingly returns to the direct or “naïve” realism of the Scholastics. However, Smith deploys one weapon in his arsenal of arguments that the Scholastics did not: Empirical science. Smith cites the multi-decade findings of cognitive psychologist James J. Gibson, considered one of the 20th century’s most important experts in visual perception.1 During World War II, he was in charge of the U.S. Army Air Force's Aviation Psychology Program, where he devised a number of experiments to understand how pilots perceived the aerial environment. And there, as Smith explains,
[While] devising tests to ascertain whether a prospective pilot could effectively detect the aiming point of a complex motion, [Gibson] discovered to his amazement that the physical data available in the so-called “retinal image” do not suffice to determine that point. Then and there he recognized what his colleagues have apparently failed to grasp to this day: namely, that this fact alone disproves the premise upon which the prevailing “image theory” of visual perception is based.
Gibson spent the remaining three decades of his life empirically investigating these findings, and eventually concluded that human perception works by discovering invariant information (which he literally calls “forms”) within the array of ambient light. In his article, “A Theory of Direct Visual Perception,” Gibson summarizes the philosophical implication of his empirical and experimental findings:
[P]erception is direct and is not mediated by retinal images transmitted to the brain. Most theories assume that perception of the world is indirect, and that all we ever directly perceive is our retinal images.
Now it is perfectly true that when an observer looks at a painting, photograph, sculpture, or model, he gets an indirect visual perception, a mediated experience, an awareness at second hand, of whatever is represented. A human artifact of this sort is an image in the original meaning of the term. It is a light-reflecting object in its own right but it displays information to specify a quite different object. An image in this straightforward meaning of the term is something to be looked at, and it has to be looked at, of course, with eyes. Thus there can be a direct perception of a man’s portrait accompanied by an indirect perception of the man himself.
The fallacy of the standard theories of perception consists of taking as a model for vision the kind of indirect visual perception that uses pictures as substitutes for things. The false analogy should now be evident. Direct perception of a retinal image implies an eye inside the head, in the brain, with which to look at the image. But there is no little man anywhere in the brain who can do this. We do not look at our retinal images and perceive the world in the way that we look at a portrait and perceive the sitter.
Putting the objection another way, the so-called image on the retina is not an image at all, properly speaking, since it cannot be looked at, as a picture can be looked at, and cannot therefore mediate perception. The eye is a biological device for sampling the information available in an ambient optic array.
The availability of information in ambient light and the possibility that it can be picked up directly have implications for epistemology. They lend sophisticated support to the naïve belief that we have direct knowledge of the world around us. They support direct realism… they justify our deep feeling that the senses can be trusted.
Gibson’s corpus of work is enormous and by no means can I claim to have done more than the briefest survey of it. Having not read him, I cannot offer a strong opinion. However, Smith claims that Gibson is a genius worthy of 10 Nobel Prizes, and leverages him to demolish the Cartesian and post-Cartesian worldview. Certainly I now wish I had read Smith and Gibson when I was wrestling with Munchausen’s Trilemma!
Onward to Explore the Cosmos!
There are a number of other very interesting matters that Wolfgang Smith discusses, including astrology, cosmology, free will, relativity, spirituality, and more — but I haven’t delved deeply enough into them yet to be able to comment intelligently. Yet! I will certainly dive into Wolfgang Smith’s work as much as I did Julius Evola’s, so that I can use his intellectual power to strengthen the burgeoning fortress of physiocracy.
If you’re impatient to learn more, I recommend the Philos-Sophia Initiative Foundation website as the best starting place to learn about Wolfgang Smith’s work.
Let us directly perceive this information about reality on the Tree of Woe.
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Among other things, Gibson developed the concept of ambient light and the concept of affordances (which later became a major factor in industrial design and then later still user interface design).