One of the most interesting questions in both the natural sciences and philosophy deals with the nature and essence of time. Here we see ourselves confronted with a remarkable dichotomy: the chronology of everyday life is almost entirely based on recurring cosmic and earthly processes, the daily course of the sun, the monthly cycle of […]
One of the most interesting questions in both the natural sciences and philosophy deals with the nature and essence of time. Here we see ourselves confronted with a remarkable dichotomy: the chronology of everyday life is almost entirely based on recurring cosmic and earthly processes, the daily course of the sun, the monthly cycle of the moon, the annual orbital movement of the earth around the sun, and last but not least the cycle of birth, aging, and death that defines all life. For this reason, most Asian as well as several Western philosophical, spiritual and mystical thought traditions describe time as cyclical: all time-dependent processes as recurring. Far Eastern Hindu, Taoist, or Buddhist traditions describe our lives as part of an innumerable sequence of becoming (born), passing (dying) and being reborn. All events in the universe unfold themselves in a sequence of periodically recurring world-ages. And even the modern Western world is by no means free of cyclical historiography – not seldom these bear apocalyptic features such as with Oswald Spengler or, more recently, in the world view of the influential advisor to the US president, Steve Bannon.
However, time also has a complementary feature: it knows only one direction. Events in our world can only proceed forward, never backward in time. A cup that upon falling to the ground bursts into pieces is a possible experience, but glass splinters arranging themselves back together again is not. From the point of view of theoretical physics, this is at first quite peculiar, since the basic equation of mechanics, electrodynamics, relativity, and quantum theory are “time reversal invariant”: they can principally describe processes from a time t1 to another time t2 (t1 < t2), as well as the respective reverse courses from t2 to t1. In other words, the fundamental laws of physics describe exclusively “reversible” processes. It was only when, at the end of the nineteenth century, they dealt with the phenomena of heat and endeavored to find the theoretical foundations of steam and combustion engines, that the physicists realized there exist necessarily also irreversible processes in mature. This realization led to the well-known second fundamental law of thermodynamics, also called the “entropy theorem”: a system of many particles can always only run in one direction, from a state of lower to one of higher entropy. Ludwig Boltzmann eventually provided the (at first rather ad hoc introduced) notion of entropy with the physical meaning of being a measure for the disorder in a multi-particle system. Thus the entropy law can also be phrased as follows: the entropy of a (closed) system never decreases with time but always increases or remains the same (an experience we also make in our daily lives, when we realize that our apartment becomes increasingly untidy if we do not it clean up once in while). Furthermore, the cosmological standard model, the “Lambda-CDM model” of the universe, also has only one time direction: it describes the evolution of the universe within the last 13.8 billion years from a singularity (the “Big Bang”) to its present structures.
It is not difficult to see which concept of time dominates our modern thinking. The main drivers of modernity have been the natural sciences, which in the last 400 years have brought about a far more dramatic change in human thought and life as this happened in any comparable period of recorded human history before. And with continuous progress, the desire of the scientists to understand the world has long turned into a determination to design, which leads us onto a rapid, ever-faster journey into a future characterized by natural science and the technologies based on them. Here people follow one central idea: the idea of progress. In the wake of ever improving – and likely further accelerating development of – digital technologies, nano- and quantum technologies, neuro-technologies, bio-technologies, and other technologies we are experiencing an historic upheaval that is likely to massively change the image of ourselves, as well as the understanding of our existence and its possible meaning. This has implications for large parts of the philosophical discussion. When it comes to the “nature of things” and increasingly the “nature of ourselves”, the leading interpretative role belongs nowadays to the natural sciences.
With all the obvious linearity of scientific progress and its reflection in our modern understanding of time the question arises nevertheless whether the dynamics of scientific knowledge advancement may not be characterized by periodicities. We want to pursue this question on two levels:
- with respect to structure and dynamics of the scientific progress itself;
- with respect to the treatment of existential questions millennia of age
It was the American science theorist Thomas Kuhn, who in the 1960s most prominently pointed out that scientific progress is indeed subject to universal rhythms and laws. For Kuhn the development of a scientific discipline describes sequences consisting of “normal phases”, the occurrences of “anomalies” and a corresponding crisis of discipline, and finally the process of a paradigm shifting revolution. Kuhn’s description of the dynamics of scientific knowledge genesis resembles processes of pattern formation in biological or social systems. Kuhn calls the basic unit of description underlying a particular scientific stage of knowledge a “paradigm”. Following a phase of pre-paradigmatic “proto-science”, characterized by an incoherent search and competition among many different approaches and theories, a scientific discipline eventually finds itself in a normal phase, in which the scientists have agreed on a single common paradigm. However, over time this “normal science” necessarily generates inconsistencies and anomalies which having reached a critical mass lead to a crisis and ultimately a phase of degeneration of the old paradigm. The following stage, characterized by the search for a new paradigm, Kuhn calls “extraordinary science”. This phase eventually ends with an agreement within the scientific community on a new paradigm, with which the cycle then begins anew. The process in which this new agreement is reached Kuhn calls somewhat solemnly a „scientific revolution”.
However, in spite of all the cyclicality Kuhn assigns to the process of scientific knowledge creation this development does not describe a perpetual return to a given starting point, as the image of a closed circle would describe. Kuhn’s cycles are circles in the space of procedural structures, but not in the space of knowledge. In the latter the circles might be rather seen as spirals whose vertical axis represent a dimension of progress (in time). For in fact science can rightfully claim to increase its knowledge over time. In order to find an historically verifiable pattern of science’s returns to ever-recurring starting points we must not look at the dynamics of the scientific endeavor or the (ever increasing) spectrum of our knowledge about the mechanisms underlying natural phenomena, but we are to examine more closely the overlaps with existential questions that employ both, scientific and spiritual endeavors:
- What is the origin of the world?
- What does everything consist of?
- Where does life come from?
- What is man?
- How can we understand the nature of our mind?
- What is the meaning of our existence (and our death)?
With these questions we find ourselves confronted with the basic existential mysteries people have been dealing with for thousands of years. They lead us to a wide range of scientific as well as spiritual perspectives, such as offered by today’s physics (quantum physics, theory of relativity, cosmology), biology (theory of living systems, genetics, evolution), and their interdisciplinary frontiers (nonlinear phenomena, cybernetics, theory of self-organization), as well as traditional metaphysical approaches to philosophy, religious belief systems, or Far Eastern spirituality. Despite today’s dominance of the scientific paradigm, they have lost neither their mystique nor their fascination, their power, or their significance. And while the natural sciences have given us some spectacular insight into the realms of possible answers to these questions, scientists have at the same time themselves always been drawn to their spiritual dimensions. Considering the work of the great physicists or biologists of the past, from Kepler and Newton to Darwin and Maxwell to Einstein and Bohr, we unanimously recognize their deep desire to give answers to these questions, thereby ever again returning to places where the ancient philosophers had already been.
Like planets unable to escape the gravitational force of their central star the scientists circle around these existential questions. Or is it perhaps rather a journey on a Möbius strip? In this case as on a sphere or a circle one does return to the same place, however on the other side of the starting point (which one can then not so easily recognize), so one looks at things “from the other side” (only a double round trip leads us back to the starting point). Or does it rather resemble a stroll on “Penrose Stairs” where one continuously climbs up just to get back to the starting point (this impossible staircase is named after Lionel Penrose and his more famous son Roger Penrose, and inspired M.C. Escher to his famous picture)? On these paths, whether they are Möbius or Penrose-like, we recognize numerous connections to spiritual searching, questions and thought, grasp references to the religious transcendent, and not least meet the deep human desire for a meaning of our existence.
However, religious and spiritual dimensions of our thinking demand their own space beyond the natural sciences as many grasp intuitively that the naturalistic perspective of the sciences may not be able to elucidate everything about the world and us. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas speaks in this context of the “awareness that something is missing”. Depending on the point of view taken, this lack corresponds to a mere human need or the possibility of a deeper access, in which our world and self-assessment must rely on non-material and non-utilitarian approaches which lie outside the methodological frame of science, the common denominator of which has been for almost 3000 years the reference to spiritual, in most cases transcendent entities. As human beings, we do not only ask about the wordily mechanisms of causes and actions, we are not only interested in our mere existence as such, but we also ask what and why we are and what we should do and should want to do in this world. Questions such as these science can not only not answer, strictly speaking it cannot even ask them. They encompass the “great whole”, which per se cannot be grasped by the particular. And if we consider this “great whole”, we need an outside perspective, an outlook form the “other side”, in other words, a transcendental point of view.
We must thus recognize that although science is the most powerful force of modern thought about nature and man, it has not reached any kind of finish line in any of its disciplines. Nowhere is it clear that it has clarified the above questions once and for all and thus revealed the secrets of our world connected with them. When they ask about the beginnings of the world, the last basic structure of matter, the origins of life, or the nature and essence of our consciousness, scientists must at last still resort to hypotheses or even speculations that resemble those of the pre-Socratics or Buddhist philosophers of antic times. This also applies to the deepest of the existential questions which in 1863 the English naturalist Henry Huxley formulated as follows:
The question of all questions-the problem which is the basis of all others, and which is deeper than any other-is the determination of the position which man occupies in nature, and his relation to the totality of all things.
The ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle attributed the origin of these questions to our astonishment, a profound astonishment in face of nature’s beauty, the might of its forces, the variety of its forms, and the mysteries and miracles of its phenomena. These “wonders” bring us “to wonder”, and this our wondering hitherto holds a common source and a lasting (and ever-recurring) motivation of scientific as well as spiritual knowledge seeking. Both natural scientists and the spiritually inspired express deep reverence and aroused curiosity in the face of the sublime in nature as well as in the phenomenology of our minds. Einstein summarized this feeling of awe in scientist as follows:
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed.
Hence, on the one hand modern natural sciences can be interpreted as a most profound challenge to spiritual self-righteousness, as a dam-breaking to the speculative treatment of existential questions. And we can thus regard the 400-year history of the relationship between religious and spiritual traditions to modern science as a history of a further and further suppression of traditional speculative answer to them (as we know today that the world was not created six thousand years ago, the earth is not the center of the cosmos, today’s life on earth has not emerged from a single act of divine creation, and that perception and thought have a material carrier in the brain). In other words, science has proved itself as a powerful correction to no longer justified metaphysical speculations of religious, spiritual, and philosophical thought movements.
At the same time, however, science has never been able to withdraw itself from wondering and astonishment. Looking closely at its historical development, we recognize that spiritual questions have always played a decisive role in its formation. Hence the beginning of the rational assessment of nature and the “discovery of the transcendent” do not accidentally fall into the same period of about 800 to 200 BC, which Karl Jaspers conceptually defined as “axial age” of mankind. It contains both, the well-known transition from “myth to logos” as well as the (somewhat less known) origin of the monotheistic religions in the Middle East, the theory of reincarnation in India, and Zoroastrianism in Persia. The intellectual mixture of empirical rationality and a transcendence based perception of reality born during this time found itself lasing until modern times. It still impelled Kepler and Newton to their theories, and at the same time provided Descartes’ and Leibniz’s modern philosophy of nature with the much desired possibility of a definite certainty in all description of nature, as we shall elaborate further down below. And although the antitheses between the scientific-empirical-rational description of the world and the metaphysical-speculative reference to transcendence became more and more apparent in the era of European Enlightenment, their connection never completely abated within today’s modern natural science.
Will science ever be able to explain to us the last details about how the universe, our galaxy, our planet, and our lives have come about? Will we one day know how thinking and consciousness emerge from the network of neurons in our brain, or how our genes explain our physiological and psychological properties? Will we know about the really very smallest building blocks of matter and whether the world can be described with a single formula? Final scientific answers to these questions would mean no less than the final break out from the 3000 year old cycle of our search for answers to the existential secrets. What would this mean for us, our self-image and our living together as humans? And lastly what would it mean for our question about the “meaning of it all”, which withdraws itself from direct scientific treatment? Or has the science of the 21st century already approached the boundaries of its own methodology? Has is already moved into areas which illustrate even to the die-hard advocates of the scientific discourse the limitations of their methodological and intellectual efforts? Where exactly then do other areas such as art, spirituality, or religion begin to provide their own answers with their equally own claim for truth? And can one dare to bring these different claims in resonance with each other somehow?
At this point it is worthwhile to remark that the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the big bang of our modern thinking about nature, was still so much permeated by religious believes and claims for absolute truth in the transcendent that these must be assigned a constitutive role in the development of science itself. Only in the last 100 years can we observe a radical change in the scientific claim for explaining the world which at last bears a profound significance for the discussion of social affairs. Let us take a closer look: The historical origins of science lie in the philosophical longing and search for an absolute and ultimate truth. The foundations of a metaphysics, which sought for the ultimate causes and contexts that lie behind the phenomena in nature, arose with the pre-Socratics, at the latest with Plato and Aristotle. For this last und unconditioned entity, dependent on nothing else, the philosophers developed their own word: “substance” (Greek οὐσία, lat. Substantia). In the ancient philosophy of nature, the question of truth was ultimately about the “first and last substance.” Regardless of the philosophical difficulties connected with the idea of an absolute and final substantial entity or a corresponding all-grounding principle of all natural existence, the intellectual drive associated with it lasted into our times. It motivated Kepler in his theory of planetary movement, it was the basis for Newton’s mathematical system of mechanics, and let the physicists still at the beginning of the 20th century dream of a possible all-encompassing unity in nature. The modern philosophy of nature, beginning with Descartes and Leibniz, also led the desire and belief in the possibility of absolute certainty – which ultimately, as the two philosophers, mathematicians, and naturalists recognized, can only be found in the transcendent beyond sensual perception. In this philosophical frame of thought the ever same absolute scale continuously applied, according to which the manifold of the individual parts can always be reduced to an all-grounding principle. It is at here where we find most clearly the continuity (or circularity?) of thought from the early first pre-Christian millennium to modern times. Only with the emergence of modern physics in the twentieth century did a process accelerate in which in the natural sciences the idea of the absolute was systematically pushed back in favor of an empiricist-positivist orientation (with a Bayesian methodological framework). In the detachment from an absolute determinateness, such as in quantum physics and the theories of relativity, one can therefore easily recognize also one of the greatest philosophical insights of the last century.
Indeed, we recognize today that the success of the sciences in the last 100 years has gained its central developmental moment by the consequent elimination of the metaphysical dream of a universal substance, respectively an absolute truth, and the thus associated radical change of its explanatory claims. Well-known examples are the replacement of Newton’s notion of absolute space and absolute time by the relational space-time in the theory of relativity or the new concept of an object in quantum physics. In addition, one may consider today’s central importance of such concepts as information and self-organization in evolutionary theory and genetics, the two pillars of modern biology.
The development of modern science and its detachment from the notion of a universal substance bears an important dimension in the political space – as Karl Popper pointed out for the first time: In the detachment from absolute scientific truth claims we find astonishing parallels to the social dynamics and legitimacy of political authority. Every time people thought they had found the perfect form of society, respectively of exercising political or economic power, the end result was the solidification of a despotic absolute. The natural sciences teach us to constantly question the status quo of our own intellectual solidity and to critically reflect our present knowledge (and believes). Accordingly, as the course of scientific research the political decision-making process is also in a permanent repair mode, in which its protagonists must question and justify themselves over and over again. A form of government in which power requires continuing democratic justification and must permanently be corrected in its actions or is otherwise threatened to be voted out of office allows for much more social (and technological) progress than authoritarian forms of government.
But with all the abstractions and intangible mathematics of modern theoretical physics did not the idea of objectivity sneak back into the ideas of the scientists, and this perhaps in an even more subtle way than before? In fact, today the great majority of physicists continues to follow a metaphysical belief in order-generating principles or in a basic substance underlying the stuff they are investigating. In spite of quantum mechanical uncertainty, they remain convinced of the objects’ independence from the observations they make of them. One could think the physicists simply replaced matter (atoms), fields, and interactions by concepts such as symmetries, invariants, conservation principles, and mathematical structures and attributed to them absolute features just as the mediaeval scholastics did with their universals. They seem to have taken over the role of the traditional metaphysical thought-figures in substantial origins and absolute foundations, without which nothing can be. Does the “metaphysical cycle of substantiality” thus not find its continuation despite all knowledge and insights we have obtained in quantum physics, modern biology, etc. in the last 100 years?
The road to genuine progress always follows ongoing corrections of wrong decisions, which ultimately led to an unsurpassed prosperity and social growth in the open, anti-autocratic and democratic societies of the 19th, 20th and 21st century. Precisely as science has given up on its demand for absolute knowledge and truth, and considers our knowledge about nature as constantly correctable and extensible, it ultimately defined for its part the unprecedented modern dynamics of social progress. The parallelism of both developments is hardly accidental. But when it comes to the truly existential equations, are we any closer to final answers than were the antique philosophers? In light of both, the advances of science and our society, as well as the lack of final answers, progress seems to have both cyclic and linear characteristics. In any case, the scientific search, the spiritual thinking, as well as society’s developments are altogether “Never Ending Stories”.
[ To be published in: “NEVER ENDING STORIES – The Loop Phenomenon in film, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, the arts, the history of art, and culture history, as well as the sciences”, Museum of Art Wolfsburg (Fall 2017) ]
 See e.g. Platon in Timaios 37d, where time is described as cyclical (and connected to the god Chronos). See also for Heraclitus in DK (Diels, Kanz), Fragments of the Pre-Socratics, Heraclitus B 52 (English translation from German: (English) K. Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels (Cambridge 1948)
 See also: L. Jaeger, Supermacht Wissenschaft, Gütersloher Verlagshaus (2017) – in German
 See also: L. Jaeger, Wissenschaft und Spiritualität, Springer-Spektrum (2017) – in German
 Th. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press (1962)
 K. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge (1945)
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