Imagination and Science

Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 52,  No. 3, (Sept 1984),  pp. 585-89

The Boundaries of Natural Science1 is a translation by Frederick Amrine and Konrad Oberhuber of eight lectures by Rudolf Steiner delivered to an audience of scientists in 1920. Briefly, it amounts to a patient exposition of the reasons why, if science is to advance further in the direction needed by humanity, and in the long run if it is to advance at all, it must add a new dimension not merely to what it thinks, but also to how it thinks. That it is not exactly easy reading is not surprising, since if it were otherwise, what is presented would not be a new dimension but merely the old one in an up-to-date dress.

In the sixty and more years that have elapsed since these lectures were given, what was then a dawning suspicion has become almost a commonplace among thinking people. It is not only that in the realm of pure physics conceived “reality” keeps dissolving into mathematical equations, it becomes more and more apparent that the cognitional mode, which has determined our thinking on all subjects from the nineteenth century onward, is altogether inadequate to answer the moral and the social, let alone the religious, needs of the actual life of humanity. The practice is to observe and analyse sense-perceptions (or “matter”) and to form theories about it by induction and experiment, and then to apply the same method to the inner world (whether it is conceived as real or not) of consciousness, so as to form sociological and ethical theories. In both realms the cause-and-effect model reigns supreme.

The “boundaries” from which the book takes its title were first succinctly formulated by Du Bois-Reymond in 1872, when reductionism was approaching its culmination. There are two opposite directions, he maintained, in which science can never make any further advance, two concepts which must be simply accepted without any further inquiry: matter on the one hand and consciousness on the other. Ignorabimus was the word in which he epitomized his findings: we shall remain ignorant. Science will remain aware of using these two concepts, and they must simply be accepted. As to what they are, and consequently their relation to one another (how, for instance, consciousness could ever have arisen out of inanimate matter), it is useless to inquire. It may be recalled that Lenin based his “philosophy” on a similarly axiomatic acceptance of matter as an absolute, any metaphysical analysis of it being prohibited.

Steiner points out – what was even truer of 1920 than it is of today, though it is still true enough – that the Western mind is becoming more and more paralysed under this deadweight of assumption. And the crow-bar he inserts to begin the lifting of it, is – the nature of mathematics. He takes pains to demonstrate that mathematics, as such, is “sense-free thinking.” There is not space in a review to do justice to the kind of detail into which he enters for the purpose, notably the distinction between analytical and empirical mechanics, the former sufficing for the parallelogram of resultant motion, since it is purely geometrical, while for the latter experiment is needed to verify the parallelogram of resultant forces. We are faced with the fact that this “sense-free,” mathematical thinking is nevertheless applicable to the outer world. Otherwise how could we use it for investigating and controlling that world? Not only is it applicable, but the deeper we penetrate with our investigations, the more it appears that mathematics is that very world’s basis.

No one who takes an objective view of the whole phenomenon of modern scientific method can have failed to notice that there is one category, one realm, where its inadequacy has been growing more and more obvious: that of becoming. It speaks of such things as “latent” heat, “latent” energy, and in doing so pushes under the carpet the whole mystery of the immaterial becoming material, while it comfortably retains the tacit assumption that what is not perceivable does not exist. The inadequacy is particularly noticeable in its attempts to encompass within its physical method not only the inanimate but the animate world, where growth and form simply do not fit the model of cause and effect. It is here, I think, that Steiner parts company with, or outdistances, the many others who are dissatisfied with the present state of scientific thought. Others, such as Michael Polanyi, Rupert Sheldrake, David Bohm, Karl Pribram, demonstrate persuasively that immaterial process must indeed exist and must be taken into account. Steiner’s thinking, his spiritual science (Geisteswissenschaft) (of which he observes here that “those who pursue [it] have less cause to undervalue modern science than anyone”) is geared to becoming. It transpires through the texture of his language that consciousness itself, both of the individual and of the race, is perceived by him not as problem but as process.

Thus, where other acute thinkers may arrive at important conclusions and throw out sensational pronouncements such as “God is a mathematician,” Steiner perceives, he tells us, that mathematics or mathematicizing, only appears as intellectual faculty after the first seven years or so of life, together with the change of teeth. Up to that point it has been structurally “latent” in the physical body as “an inner mathematics not abstract like our external one but full of active energy: … Up to this point in time there exists within us something that mathematizes us through and through.” To perceive in this way is to overcome, not simply in metaphysical theory but in actual experience, the unaccountable coincidence between the mathematicizing that goes on in our heads and the mathematicizing found in the structure of the universe: “There enters into mathematics, which otherwise remains purely intellectual and, metaphorically speaking, interests only the head, something that engages the entire man. This something manifests itself in such youthful spirits as Novalis in the feeling: that which you behold as mathematical harmony, that which you weave through all the phenomena of the universe, is actually the same loom that wove you during the first years of growth as a child here on earth.” The gulf between matter and consciousness is bridged, not simply for the intellect but for the imagination too.

Since the days of Bacon and Descartes science has consistently and exclusively pursued accuracy at the expense of wisdom. Knowledge demands the union of both. The result is that “we have, as it were, stepped out into the light but lost the very ground beneath our feet. … We have achieved clarity, but along the way we have lost man.” If he is to achieve any significant further advance, the scientist will have to progress beyond abstract thought (which is ultimately based on sense-perception) to “sense-free thinking,” which at present he barely glimpses in the restricted realm of pure mathematics. The principle aim of the lectures is to encourage scientists to begin taking precisely that step. This involves the difficulty that sense-free thinking is not easily conceivable until it has actually been experienced. It can however be suggested in a variety of ways, one of which was his opening disquisition on the nature of mathematics. Another is to draw attention to the familiar experiences of sleep, dreams, and awakening. But Steiner’s fundamentally genetic approach to his subject is phylogenetic as well as ontogenetic.

His other method of suggestion therefore is to deal at length with the historical transition from oriental to occidental psychology and epistemology, which he holds can best be understood on the analogy of awakening. “And what has happened in the spiritual evolution of humanity, in man’s gradual acquisition of knowledge about external nature, is actually nothing other than what happens every morning when we awake out of sleep or dream-consciousness by confronting an external world.” Here the distinction between Steiner’s thought and that of others who are insisting that, even in the realm of science, we may have much to learn from the East is, to my mind, very apparent. It resides precisely in his firm grasp of the fact that human consciousness is a process in continual evolution. And it is the absence of this dimension that fixes a wide gulf between, for instance, the excited inkling of a relation between Vedic wisdom and advanced modern physics to be found in Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, and Steiner’s sober exposition here. Human consciousness, in its earlier stages, was not yet fully detached from the life of nature, as is our waking consciousness of today. Its participation in natural process amounted, epistemologically speaking, to a “given” Inspiration, which by its nature excluded the full self-consciousness man was later to enjoy. It is the task of science in the future to recover that Inspiration and the wisdom inherent in it (because inherent in nature herself) while retaining the self-awareness and self-control which its temporary retreat has enabled. But for Western man, and increasingly for mankind as a whole, the way back – or rather forward – to Inspiration cannot be a direct one. It lies through Imagination. “Just as the Eastern temperament strives initially for Inspiration and possesses the racial qualities suitable for this, the Western temperament, because of its peculiar qualities (they are at present not so much racial qualities as qualities of soul) strives for Imagination.”

The Imagination here adumbrated cannot be wholly equated, though it has close affinities, with the creative Imagination discerned by the Romantics and in this country mainly by Coleridge. Goethe’s scientific work and his philosophy of science are used to illuminate the affinity and ease the mind’s transition from one to the other, and the last two chapters are devoted mainly to an exposition of the nature of Imagination and some account of the kind of training and exertion required for its development. It is shown, for example, how its acquisition will entail an imaginal experience of the internal organs of the physical body. These chapters are tough reading, and indeed the whole book demands a degree of attention and objective receptivity beyond the ordinary. Certainly a grasp of its content will come more easily to those who already have some acquaintance with Steiner’s psychology and the Christocentric cosmology that embraces it. Apart moreover from the difficulty inherent in its novelty, others may feel themselves confronted here and there with bare assertions which demand to be accepted, at least, ex hypothesi, if the quest for the total message is to be pursued.

Steiner himself refers fairly frequently to two of his books, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (now renamed in English The Philosophy of Freedom) and Knowledge of Higher Worlds and its Attainment. But besides consulting these, statements for example about the evolution of consciousness, of the kind already alluded to here, will fall very differently on the ears of a newcomer and on those of a reader who has encountered their substantiation in such books as Riddles of Philosophy and Mystics of the Renaissance, to mention only two.

If there should be amongst the readers of The Boundaries of Natural Science one or two scientists unpractised in metaphysical argument, who nevertheless feel in their bones that Steiner is here saying something very important, I think I would recommend them to supplement their reading with another line of inquiry. I would suggest their acquainting themselves with some of the activities both practical and theoretical, based on his spiritual science, which have developed in the sixty years or so that have elapsed since Steiner’s death: Waldorf school education, the curative education and treatment of handicapped children, bio-dynamic agriculture, anthroposophical medicine, some of the literature issued by the Mathematical-Physical Institute, from Dornach, Switzerland, the home of the international School of Spiritual Science.

It is a matter of urgency, so let us hope there will be more than one or two. It is a matter of urgency because, if Steiner is right – and it seems all too probable that he is – much more depends on the development of Imagination in science than the future health of natural science itself. Sociology is gasping for it, as the traditional bonds of society, rooted in the Inspiration of past ages, disintegrate before its eyes. It is on the old Inspiration, crystallized as recorded Revelation, that the religions of the world are founded, and they are already disappearing beneath the rising tide of universal scepticism. When the guiding principles bedded in tradition are no longer absolutes, and there is as yet nothing to replace them, every social, every legislative concession to man’s lower nature (of which he is not ignorant) becomes the precedent for a next and darker one. The book makes it clear that this grim prospect was always at the back of the lecturer’s mind, while with the forefront of it he was patiently analysing the cognitive inertia implicit in the currently exclusive methodology of natural science.

Owen Barfield

1 By Rudolf Steiner, translated by Frederick Amrine and Konrad Oberhuber, with a foreword by Saul Bellow (New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1983), xiii+125pp. Return.