EDGE 15 April 29, 1997
THE THIRD CULTURE
"A NEW SCIENCE OF QUALITIES"
A Talk with Brian Goodwin
Goethe as an artist knew that intuition was
terribly important for organizing the data that we accumulate
through sensory perception. We need a balance between the analytical
way of knowing and the intuitive way of knowing, both of which
can be cultivated systematically. In our educational system today,
we focus on the analytical, and we just leave the intuitive alone.
In fact we tend to deny or ignore it. Just as we've been kicking
shit out of Nature for 400 years, we've been doing the same to
that part of our own nature that we call subjectivity or intuition.
THE REALITY CLUB
John Horgan Responds to George Johnson and Kevin
THE THIRD CULTURE
"A NEW SCIENCE OF QUALITIES"
A Talk with Brian Goodwin
JB: Brian Goodwin looks on biology as an exact science, and sees
the "new biology" less as a historical science than as an enterprise
similar to physics in its emphasis on principles of order. He represents
the structuralist approach, which resonates with D'Arcy Thompson's
idea that evolutionary variation is constrained by structural laws;
not all forms are possible. These ideas are now connected with new
principles of dynamic emergence from complex systems, as developed
within the sciences of complexity. Goodwin is strongly opposed to
the reductionist view of the ultra-Darwinians, and much more comfortable
with the complexity ideas of Stuart Kauffman and with Francisco
Varela's holistic approach to biology. In this interview he explores
the need to develop ways of perceiving and understanding wholes
that are required within a science of qualities.
BRIAN GOODWIN, a biologist, is a Scholar in Residence at Schumacher
College, and the author of Temporal Organization in Cells,
Analytical Physiology, How The Leopard Changed Its Spots: The
Evolution of Complexity, and Form and Transformation,
a new book written with Gerry Webster. Dr. Goodwin is a member of
the Santa Fe Institute.
"A NEW SCIENCE OF QUALITIES"
A Talk with Brian Goodwin
JB: What have you been up to?
GOODWIN: Let me preface it by saying that I've
just left the Open University, and I've taken a new job down in
Devon, at a place called Schumacher College. E.F. Schumacher is
the guy who wrote Small is Beautiful, and this college is dedicated
to education for the 21st century. It's developing concepts and
methods appropriate to the issues of sustainability, ecological
sensitivity,and the participatory world view. Instead of the traditional
science of control we are involved in the science of participation,
which is where complexity leads us, involving sensitive participation
with nature. This requires cultivation of intuitive ways of knowing
about wholes as well as analytical ways of knowing about parts,
which takes into what mat be called a science of qualities.
For me, a lot of the ferment that's going on in science is around
this problem of how we deal with the subjective and the intuitive.
Everybody knows that the subject is primary. 'Objectivity' is something
that comes out of consensus between subjects who have agreed methods
of practicing science. Scientific
objectivity is a democratic consensus between practitioners of science
that such and such is the case, based upon experimental method and
modelling. If there's no consensus in science, there is no agreement
about facts and hence no 'truth'.
There's another important component of science, and that is what's
philosophers refer to as realism. Scientists virtually all agree
that there's a real world that's being investigated by science.
Science itself, and the tools of science, are social constructs.
But the methods of science address something that is real and independent
of human beings. I believe in such a world. The knowledge you get
from science is real knowledge about the real world. It's not absolute
truth, which is never attainable; it's an approximation to it. So
there's this strong element of social construction in science, but
I'm not a relativist.
JB: So define yourself.
GOODWIN: I'm a pluralist. I believe that there are different ways
of getting reliable knowledge about the world. But because they
refer to the same world we can compare them and decide which is
more appropriate for particular forms of action. This implies that
knowledge and (ethical ) action are connected, unlike the usual
assumption in current science that facts and values are quite separate.
JB: But it sounds like you may fit in with the debunkers.
GOODWIN: I am certainly critical of many aspects of science, but
I remain a believer in our ability to gain reliable knowledge about
a real world. Consider the difference between this and the position
presented by John Horgan in his book The End of Science,
for example. In this he describes a crisis he had when he was an
English major and suffered an overdose of literary criticism. He
suddenly realized that everything was relative, every viewpoint
valid in its own terms, so that there was no firm foundation of
understanding. He decided to concentrate on science, to find out
the truth, something solid about reality. Then, in his middle age,
he had a second crisis, which is that science doesn't deliver this
truth that he was looking for. He decided that much of contemporary
science is just untestable story-telling with the same characteristics
as literature. He seems to feel that he's been betrayed by science,
which has become nothing but literature again for him.
That's his own psychological journey, and he's quite frank about
that in his book. But nobody seems to have made much of it. He describes
these experiences at the beginning and at the end of the book, and
that for me brackets the whole thing. That's his own testament of
two crises in his life, which seem to have given rise to his book.
I don't for a moment buy his notion that string theory and modern
astrophysics won't tell us anything about reality because we can't
do experiments on them.
I remember going to the Scientific American offices in New
York to meet John when I was promoting my book (How The Leopard
Changed Its Spots) and we had a great talk. He's a very interesting
guy. I really enjoyed our conversation it seemed to me he was onto
something important, but I don't think he got there in his book.
John is caught by an incredibly effective journalistic style. He
knows what sells well, and he's got this wonderful way of capturing
vignettes of scientists, characterizing them, but I feel the book
is ultimately superficial. There's a deeper problem about science
which is the involvement of the subject in the acquisition of knowledge.
As described above, 'objective' knowledge comes from consensus between
subjects who agree on particular methods of getting knowledge, as
scientists do in acquiring quantitative knowledge about parts of
the world by measurement procedures. This gives us a science of
quantities, a Galilean science. But we experience more than quantities;
we also experience qualities such as color, texture, pain, joy,
health, beauty, coherence, and a host of other properties. Science
tends to dismiss these as 'subjective', outside the realm of scientific
investigation. But people are hankering after a better quality of
life not just the quality of air and water and food, but quality
of experience, relationships with people, community values. Subjectivity
is getting squeezed out by science, and everything's being turned
into this counter-intuitive objective way of looking at the world.
JB: Is this a reason for a backlash against science?
GOODWIN:I think so people have tuned into a real malaise in our
culture. These movements aren't there for nothing; they're telling
us something quite important. For me, one of the things they're
pointing to is that science is contributing to this illness, in
that people are not allowed to acknowledge their own subjectivity,
and their own intuition. Consider medical practice. Somebody gets
ill, they go to a doctor, the doctor analyzes it in terms of some
causal agent such as a virus or other pathogen. Or a blood sample
is taken and analyzed everything is done objectively. Of course
this is useful information, but in general we don't pay attention
to the subject, don't do what a really good practitioner does including
a good western general practitioner: listen to the person, and give
a holistic diagnosis that comes from both knowledge of 'facts' and
intuitive insight. Now what does this mean, intuitive insight? Well,
it's a way of somehow organizing into a meaningful whole the knowledge
you get from looking carefully at the history of the person together
with an analysis of pathogens and body parts. That's the essence
of subjectivity: taking in relevant aspects of your environment
and turning it into something that has meaning for you in relation
to your experience and intuition.
There's a bit of this in my Leopard book, in the last chapter called
"A Science of Qualities". I believe that there is a whole scientific
methodology that needs to be developed on the basis of what is called
the intuitive way of knowing. It's not something that's vaguely
subjective and artistic, it's a definite way of knowing the world.
In fact, it's absolutely essential to creative science. All the
great scientists, Einstein, Feynman, you name them, would say intuition
is the way they arrived at their basic insights, their new ways
of putting parts together into coherent wholes. The famous guys
are allowed to say this.The rest of us have to pretend that we're
really basing everything on hard fact, proceeding to generalize
by induction as Francis Bacon told us to, not seeing a new whole
intuitively. What really interests me is the possibility of systematically
cultivating this way of knowing. Now this is part of traditional
cultures. In our own culture, one of the first to develop it was
Goethe, towards the end of the 18th century. Goethe had his own
way of doing science, and people didn't understand it; it seemed
to be completely opposed to the dominant scientific method which
came from Galileo and Newton. Goethe had a long conflict with Newton's
way of understanding color because he was proceeding systematically
with his experiments in quite a different way. Only in the past
20 years or so has the reason for this conflict become clear, as
discussed in books that examine carefully the difference between
Goethe's way of science and that of Galileo and Newton: he was developing
a different way of understanding the world of phenomena, a way of
studying wholes and their relation to parts that can be called a
holistic science. It seems that Goethe's time for recognition as
a scientist has come. His novels, his plays, his poetry are well
known, and for these he is recognized as a genius of the first rank.
But Goethe said that what he really valued was his scientific work
his theory of color, and his theory of form plant and animal form,
i.e. morphology. He actually introduced the term morphology into
Goethe as an artist knew that intuition was terribly important for
organizing the data that we accumulate through sensory perception.
We need a balance between the analytical way of knowing and the
intuitive way of knowing, both of which can be cultivated systematically.
In our educational system today, we focus on the analytical, and
we just leave the intuitive alone. In fact we tend to deny or ignore
it. Just as we've been kicking shit out of Nature for 400 years,
we've been doing the same to that part of our nature that we call
subjectivity or intuition. In order to get a purely objective, reliable
view of the world, science has denied subjectivity, and yet you
can't do science without intuition, as discussed earlier. Goethe
developed ways of cultivating intuitive, holistic knowledge. I've
tried this with students, and it works remarkably well. It requires
going on a somewhat different journey than that pursued in present
science and deliberately include all the qualities that Galileo
left out of science, including the feelings.
As you can imagine, there's a lot of darkness associated with this
territory. In our present educational system, we split every student
in two. When learning science, they use the senses and learn to
think analytically, separating systems into parts and measuring
them with great precision. When doing art, they use their intuitive
faculties and their feelings. Don't let feelings get into science,
don't let intuition get into science it'll mislead you.
This is a self-inflicted wound. We've invested in this particular
way of knowing, the analytical mode, for 400 years, and we've developed
it to a very high degree. But of course there's an enormous sacrifice
that's made the other half of our nature. That's why people are
now, I feel, very suspicious of science, because it is fundamentally
wounding, splitting scientists in two and alienating people from
nature by turning it into an object. People have an instinct to
heal this separation. They want to add holistic medicine to the
analytical tradition, they want holistic styles of living. You don't
hear much about holistic science, but that's in fact what we're
exploring and developing.
JB: Brian, if I didn't know you better, I'd say you're beginning
to sound like a quack.
GOODWIN: Holism has a bad name because it has been associated with
a rejection of precision and the disciplines of science without
anything systematic to put in its place. But I believe that a science
of wholes and their qualities can be developed as systematically
and reliably as our science of quantities. When Galileo came along
and showed people how to measure things precisely, and how you could
get intersubjective agreement on quantitative matters, people said,
What the hell are you trying to get us to do? We don't understand
what this is all about. It took a long time for that way of thinking
about the world, that degree of precision, to actually get into
peoples' heads and actions, resulting in our present-day science.
It still needs a lot of training. The same slow process will be
required to develop a precise science of qualities, which requires
a different way of relating to the world.
JB: What's the scenario that would lead to great discoveries and
experiments how would it change the way a theoretical physicist
GOODWIN: It's not with theoretical physics that the 21st century
lies. Theoretical physics is a beautiful structure, the essence
of the intellectual adventure that characterizes current science.
But now what we face is crises of the environment, crises of health,
crises of community. These are the problems that we now face and
we need a science that will actually address these issues and give
us ways of being in the world that will allow us to live a life
The steps as I see it will be to have an integrated educational
system, in which children as they learn about the world are encouraged
to use all their senses, their feelings, and their sense of beauty.
Everybody knows that biologists are attracted to nature because
of the incredible beauty of natural phenomena. And yet when they
become scientists they're told to put that aside and just pay attention
to the quantitative aspect. Now what a more integrated approach
can do is to open the door to a way of relating to the world that
heals our relationship with nature. We've been alienated from nature
by turning nature into an object. Restoring the whole person will
allow us to relate to organisms, to trees, to flowers, to squirrels,
to badgers, to coyotes, whatever as beings with their own intrinsic
nature. That means recognizing their subjectivity as well as ours
in other words, recognizing them as subjects that have a sense of
quality in their own lives, acknowledging that in order for a badger
to be a badger, it's got to be able to live its life in a particular
environment in a particular way.
It's the same thing with a cow, or indeed domestic animals. Here
we are busily manipulating farm animals, and farm plants, with genetic
engineering. According to current biology, genes determine organisms,
and organisms are simply accidental collections of genes that are
functionally useful, allowing organisms to survive in some environment.
Therefore it's perfectly legitimate to change the genetic composition
of an organism to fit into a new environment, for example, the environment
we define. It's just an extension of evolution. So we can create
chickens or turkeys with enormous amounts of breast meat, even though
they can't reproduce, they can't actually function properly, can't
live a normal life. But we can create an environment in which we
can bring about their reproduction, so it's OK to change them in
Such things are deeply wounding to our relationship with the natural
world and with each other because it means turning everything in
life into a commodity. It encourages me to think of you as just
a bunch of commodities your blood cells, your skin, your genes.
These are all just commodities that have potential commercial value.
As far as I'm concerned, that's suicide. A lot of people share that
intuition. This is where science is going too far. I don't want
to stop science; I just want to balance it. One of the things I
love about science is its self-correcting quality, which is really
a property of human activity. We always go to extremes and then
we reach a brink, reach the edge of the cliff and say, oh shit,
we didn't intend to come here! so we turn around, if we can, and
go off in another direction. We've reached one of these brinks,
and so it's time to re-balance to get this other part of our natures
back into functioning order.
People are very distressed about this, and quite
rightly so. People in Europe and the States are very concerned about
genetically engineered food. Industrialization of food has actually
had incredible effects on our health. There's the recent outbreak
of mad cow disease, bovine E. coli contaminating cooked meat and
causing human deaths, and rapid spread of antibiotic resistance.
Human fertility is dropping fast, and the viability of human sperm
is pretty perilous at the moment because of the effects of environmental
contamination from chemicals. And now we've got a whole new level
of possible contamination, genetically engineered organisms in agriculture,
some of which will cause serious ecological damage and food allergies.
We are dealing here with an unpredictable science because of the
complexity of genomes. You simply cannot predict what will happen
when you move a gene from one organism to another, so this technology
has to move very slowly and carefully if we're to avoid disasters.
I'm not against biotechnology. It can function responsibly and serve
important needs, like inserting the human insulin gene into bacteria
so that you get a more plentiful and cheaper source of insulin than
by previous methods.
JB: You're proposing a new science of qualities.
GOODWIN: It will take time, involving a growth and learning process.
JB: How will things change?
GOODWIN: I honestly can't predict in detail, John. My experience
in this area is very limited. This is what I'm doing now at Schumacher
College, which, by the way, is now seven years old. It is a place
where this kind of educational innovation can be explored. This
month we are running a course called "Living Science Creatively"
and it's precisely on this issue of balance. On one hand there is
the new set of ideas about complexity, health as a balance of order
and chaos, dynamical disease, emergent phenomena, the nature of
self-organizing systems and so on. That's still within conventional
science the third person, objective perspective. But complexity
and unpredictability invite a move into a participatory way of being
in the world. This takes us on an inner journey as we call it, where
you cultivate your intuition and holistic ways of understanding
yourself and the world.
You can do that in systematic ways you can follow for example some
of Goethe's procedures in respect to experiencing light. When people
do Newton's experiments with prisms they do them in a particular
way and they come up with Newton's formulae, his correlations between
color and wavelength. This is a consistent way of describing certain
aspects of light, but it doesn't actually give you the experience
of color itself. Goethe was primarily interested in investigating
light in such a way that the process of color production in experiments
with prisms, and our experience of the qualities of the color produced,
result in a coherent whole that provides an understanding of the
phenomena as a self-consistent unity. This is a rather different
goal and method from the analytical procedure that seeks to describe
light in terms of quantities such as the wavelengths of the colors.
They are not actually in conflict with one another; they are different.
Goethe also worked with organisms, particularly with plants. As
a biologist I find this work very interesting and revealing. Goethe's
goal was to understand the relationships between the parts of the
plant (leaves and flower organs) and the whole plant as a dynamic
process; and at the same time to understand the intrinsic (organizational)
principles that connect all plants as an expression of a type of
dynamic living order. I have found that my own work on the organizational
principles of plants and animals comes quite close to Goethe's in
many ways, but there is a dimension missing which is the experience
of the particular qualities expressed by plants of different species.
This is where things begin to sound rather strange to the scientifically
trained person. But the experience of wholeness and coherence carries
with it a quality of meaning that refers to something quite precise.
I believe that one aspect of this is understanding what qualities
of healing particular plants have i.e., their herbal properties.
Traditional cultures have developed this capacity to read plants
to a high degree, and it is an area where it is possible to make
some systematic studies on the relationships between holistic and
analytical ways of knowing.
THE REALITY CLUB
John Horgan Responds to George Johnson and Kevin Kelly
From: John Horgan
I just discovered, belatedly, the responses by George Johnson and
Kevin Kelly to my posting here of a few weeks ago. Lest they think
I was ignoring them, I'd like to respond, as briefly as possible.
You know George, it must drive scientists crazy to hear you and
me going at it. One guy thinks science is all over, and the other
thinks it never really got anywhere in the first place. Some choice!
And they work for the New York Times and Scientific American,
no less! No wonder science is having so much trouble!
As for your characterization of me as a Platonist, well, I don't
think that's quite right. I'd call myself a functionalist, which
I define as follows. If a theory works so well that it does everything
asked of itprediction of new phenomena and extremely accurate description
of old onesyou have to grant that it is true in a functional if
not absolute sense. As it survives test after test, it becomes increasingly
unlikely to be displaced by any better theory, and therefore it
becomes de facto a final theory. That seems to be the case with
quantum mechanics and general relativity, which are theories that
you find implausibly odd, and with good reason. I don't think these
mathematical formalisms are absolute truths, or "discoveries," in
the same way that the existence of galaxies or cell structures or
elements are discoveries, but they come close just because they
work so damn well. In my review of your book (and thanks for citing
that in your note, because I go through all this in much more depth
there) I call them "virtual discoveries."
Kevin, I agree that my style is bumptious, excessively
so, no doubt, at times. But I get frustrated (and I think George
Johnson does too) by the excessively fawning stance of much science
writing these days, and by books and articles that pass off philosophical
speculation as science. If you don't want to take my word that superstring
theory is unverifiable, in the same sense that the standard model
is, read Weinberg's Dreams of a Final Theory or Hawking's
Brief History of Time. They concede that the Planck scale,
where superstrings supposedly dwell, can never be directly accessed
General relativity, although not nearly as well
established as quantum mechanics, has been verified by plenty of
different experiments. In fact, the Global Positioning System makes
relativistic corrections in calculating positions. Relativity is
plain old engineering now.
JOHN HORGAN, a senior writer for Scientific American, is
the author of The End of Science : Facing the Limits of Knowledge
in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (Helix Books).