Having indicated the biological and cultural relativity of the categories of experience and cognition, we can, on the other hand, also indicate the limits of this relativity, and thus come to the third topic stated in the beginning.
Relativism has often been formulated to express the purely conventional and utilitarian character of knowledge, and with the emotional background of its ultimate futility. We can, however, easily see that such consequence is not implied.
A suitable starting point for such discussion are the views on human knowledge expressed by von Uexkiill in connection with his Umweltlehre which we have discussed earlier. According to him, the world of human experience and knowledge is one of the innumerable ambients of the organisms, in no way singular as compared to that of the sea urchin, the fly or the dog. Even the world of physics, from the electrons and atoms up to galaxies, is a merely human product, dependent upon the psychophysical organization of the human species.
Such conception, however, appears to be incorrect. This may be shown in view of the levels both of experience and of abstract thinking, of everyday life and of science.
As far as direct experience is concerned, the categories of perception as determined by the biophysiological organization of the species concerned cannot be completely “wrong,” fortuitous and arbitrary. Rather they must, in a certain way and to a certain extent, correspond to “reality”—whatever this means in a metaphysical sense. Any organism, man included, is not a mere spectator, looking at the world scene and hence free to adopt spectacles, however distorting, such as the whims of God, of biological evolution, of the “soul” of culture, or of language have put on his metaphorical nose. Rather he is a reactor and actor in the drama. The organism has to react to stimuli coming from outside, according to its innate psychophysical equipment. There is a latitude in what is picked up as a stimulus, signal and characteristic in Uexkiill’s sense. However, its perception must allow the animal to find its way in the world. This would be impossible if the categories of experience, such as space, time, substance, causality, were entirely deceptive. The categories of experience have arisen in biological evolution, and have continually to justify themselves in the struggle for existence. If they would not, in some way, correspond to reality, appropriate reaction would be impossible, and such organism would quickly be eliminated by selection.
Speaking in anthropomorphic terms: A group of schizophrenics who share their illusions may get along with each other pretty well; they are, however, utterly unfit to react and adapt themselves to real outside situations, and this is precisely the reason why they are put into the asylum. Or, in terms of Plato’s simile: the prisoners in the cave do not see the real things but only their shadows; but if they are not only looking at the spectacle, but have to take part in the performance, the shadows must, in some way, be representative of the real things. It seems to be the most serious shortcoming of classic occidental philosophy, from Plato to Descartes and Kant, to consider man primarily as a spectator, as ens cogitans, while, for biological reasons, he has essentially to be a performer, an ens agens in the world he is thrown in.
Lorenz (1943) has convincingly shown that the “a priori” forms of experience are of essentially the same nature as the innate schemata of instinctive behavior, following which animals respond to companions, sexual partners, offspring or parents, prey or predators, and other outside situations. They are based upon psychophysiological mechanisms, such as the perception of space is based on binocular vision, parallax, the contraction of the ciliary muscle, apparent increase or decrease in size of an approaching or receding object, etc. The “a priori” forms of intuition and categories are organic functions, based upon corporeal and even machine-like structures of the sense organs and the nervous system, which have evolved as adaptations in the millions of years of evolution. Hence they are fitted to the “real” world in exactly the same way and for the same reason, as the equine hoof is fitted to the steppe terrain, the fin of the fish to the water. It is a preposterous anthropomorphism to assume that the human forms of experience are the only possible ones, valid for any rational being. On the other hand, the conception of the forms of experience as an adaptive apparatus, proved in millions of years of struggle for existence, guarantees that there is a sufficient correspondence between “appearance” and “reality.” Any stimulus is experienced not as it is but as the organism reacts to it, and thus the world-picture is determined by psychophysical organization. However, where a paramecium reacts with its phobotactic reaction, the human observer, though his world outlook is quite different, also actually finds an obstacle when he uses his microscope. Similarly, it is well possible to indicate which traces of experience correspond to reality, and which, comparable to the colored fringes in the field of a microscope which is not achromatically corrected, do not. So Pilate’s question, “What is Truth,” is to be answered thus: Already the fact that animals and human beings are still in existence, proves that their forms of experience correspond, to some degree, with reality.
In view of this, it is possible to define what is meant by the intentionally loose expression used above, that experience must correspond “in a certain way” to “reality whatever this means.” It is not required that the categories of experience fully correspond to the real universe, and even less that they represent it completely. It suffices—and that is Uexküll’s thesis—that a rather small selection of stimuli is used as guiding signals. As for the connections of these stimuli, i.e., the categories of experience, they need not mirror the nexus of real events but must, with a certain tolerance allowed, be isomorphic to it. For the biological reasons mentioned above, experience cannot be completely “wrong” and arbitrary; but, on the other hand, it is sufficient that a certain degree of isomorphism exists between the experienced world and the “real” world, so that the experience can guide the organism in such way as to preserve its existence.
Again, to use a simile: The “red” sign is not identical with the various hazards it indicates, oncoming cars, trains, crossing pedestrians, etc. It suffices, however, to indicate them, and thus “red” is isomorphic to “stop,” “green” isomorphic to “go.”
Similarly, perception and experience categories need not mirror the “real” world; they must, however, be isomorphic to it to such degree as to allow orientation and thus survival.
But these deductive requirements are precisely what we actually find. The popular forms of intuition and categories, such as space, time, matter and causality, work well enough in the world of “medium dimensions” to which the human animal is biologically adapted. Here, Newtonian mechanics and classical physics, as based upon these visualizable categories, are perfectly satisfactory. They break down, however, if we enter universes to which the human organism is not adapted. This is the case, on the one hand, in atomic dimensions, and in cosmic dimensions on the other.
Coming now to the world of science, TJexkiill’s conception of the physical universe as but one of the innumerable biological ambients, is incorrect or at least incomplete. Here a most remarkable trend comes in which may be called the progressive de- anthropomorphization of science (von Bertalanffy, 1937, 1953b). It appears that this process of de-anthropomorphization takes place in three major lines.
It is an essential characteristic of science that it progressively de- anthropomorphizes, that is, progressively eliminates those traits which are due to specifically human experience. Physics necessarily starts with the sensory experience of the eye, the ear, the thermal sense, etc., and thus builds up fields like optics, acoustics, theory of heat, which correspond to the realms of sensory experience. Soon, however, these fields fuse into such that do not have any more relation to the “visualizable” or “intuitable”: Optics and electricity fuse into electromagnetic theory, mechanics and theory of heat into statistical thermodynamics, etc.
This evolution is connected with the invention of artificial sense- organs and the replacement of the human observer by the recording instrument. Physics, though starting with everyday experience, soon transgresses it by expanding the universe of experience through artificial sense organs. Thus, for example, instead of seeing only visible light with a wave length between 380 and 760 millimicra, the whole range of electromagnetic radiation, from shortest cosmic rays up to radio waves of some kilometers wave length, is disclosed.
Thus it is one function of science to expand the observable. It is to be emphasized that, in contrast to a mechanistic view, we do not enter another metaphysical realm with this expansion. Rather the things surrounding us in everyday experience, the cells seen in a microscope, the large molecules observed by the electron microscope, and the elementary particles “seen,” in a still more indirect and intricate way, by their traces in a Wilson chamber, are not of a different degree of reality. It is a mechanistic superstition to believe that atoms and molecules (speaking with Alice in the Wonderland of Physics) are “realer” than apples, stones and tables. The ultimate particles of physics are not a metaphysical reality behind observation; they are an expansion of what we observe with our natural senses, by way of introducing suitable artificial sense organs.
In any way, however, this leads to an elimination of the limitations of experience as imposed by the specifically human psychophysical organization, and, in this sense, to the dean thropomorphization of the world picture.
A second aspect of this development is what is called the con- vergence of research (cf. Bavink, 1949). The constants of physics have often been considered as only conventional means for the most economic description of nature. The progress of research, however, shows a different picture. First, natural constants such as the mechanical equivalent of heat or the charge of electrons vary widely in the observation of individual observers. Then, with the refinement of techniques, a “true” value is approached asymptotically so that consecutive determinations alter the established value only in progressively smaller digits of decimals. Not only this: Physical constants such as Loschmidt’s number and its like are established not by one method but perhaps by 20 methods which are completely independent of each other. In this way, they cannot be conceived as being simply conventions for describing phenomena economically; they represent certain aspects of reality, independent of biological, theoretical or cultural biases. It is indeed one of the most important occupations of natural science thus to verify its findings in mutually independent ways.
However, perhaps the most impressive aspect of progressive de-anthropomorphization is the third. First, the so-called secondary qualities go, that is, color, sound, smell, taste disappear from the physical world picture since they are determined by the so-called specific energy of the diverse and specifically human senses. So, in the world picture of classical physics, only the primary qualities such as mass, impenetrability, extension, etc., are left which, psychophysically, are characterized as being the common ground of visual, tactual, acoustical experience. Then, however, these forms of intuition and categories also are eliminated as being all-too-human. Even Euclidean space and Newtonian time of classical physics, as was noted previously, are not identical with the space and time of direct experience; they already are constructs of physics. This, of course, is true even more of the theoretical structures of modern physics.
Thus, what is specific of our human experience is progressively eliminated. What eventually remains is only a system of mathematical relations.
Some time ago it was considered a grave objection against the theory of relativity and quantum theory that it became increasingly “unvisualizable,” that its constructs cannot be represented by imaginable models. In truth, however, this is a proof that the system of physics detaches itself from the bondage of our specifically human sensory experience; a pledge that the system of physics in its consummate form—leaving it undecided whether this is attained or even is attainable at all—does not belong to the human ambient (umwelt in Uexkiill’s sense) any more but is universally committal.
In a way, progressive de-anthropomorphization is like Muenchhausen pulling himself out of the quagmire on his own pigtail. It is, however, possible because of a unique property of symbolism. A symbolic system, an algorithm, such as that of mathematical physics, wins a life of its own as it were. It becomes a thinking machine, and once the proper instructions are fed in, the machine runs by itself, yielding unexpected results that surpass the initial amount of facts and given rules, and are thus unforeseeable by the limited intellect who originally has created the machine. In this sense, the mechanical chess player can outplay its maker (Ashby, 1952a), i.e., the results of the automatized symbolism transcend the original input of facts and instructions. This is the case in any algorithmic prediction, be it a formal deduction on any level of mathematical difficulty or a physical prediction like that of still unknown chemical elements or planets (cf. von Bertalanffy, 1956a). Progressive de-anthropomorphization, that is, replacement of direct experience by a self-running algorithmic system, is one aspect of this state of affairs.
Thus, the development of physics naturally depends on the psychophysical constitution of its creators. If man would not perceive light but radium or x-rays which are invisible to us, not only the human ambient but also the development of physics would have been different. But in a similar way, as we have discovered, by means of suitable apparatus and supplementing our sensory experience, x-rays and all the range of electromagnetic radiations, the same would be true of beings with an entirely different psychophysical constitution. Suppose there are intelligent beings or “angels” on a planet of the Sirius who perceive only x-rays; they would have detected, in a corresponding way, those wave lengths that mean visible light to us. But not only this: The Sirius angels would possibly calculate in quite different systems of symbols and theories. However, since the system of physics, in its consummate state, does not contain anything human any more, and the corresponding thing would be true of any system of physics, we must conclude that those physics, although different in their symbolic systems, have the same content, that is, the mathematical relations of one physics could be translated by means of a suitable “vocabulary” and “grammar” into those of the other.
This speculation is not quite utopian, but, to a certain extent, seen in the actual development of physics. Thus, classical thermodynamics and molecular statistics are different “languages” using different abstractions and mathematical symbolisms, but the statements of one theory can readily be translated into the other. This even has quite timely implications; thermodynamics and the modern theory of information obviously are similarly isomorphic systems, and the elaboration of a complete “vocabulary” for translation is in progress.
If, in the sense just indicated, the system of physics in its ideal state, which can be approached only asymptotically, is absolute, we must, however, not forget another and in some way antithetical aspect. What traits of reality we grasp in our theoretical system is arbitrary in the epistemological sense, and determined by biological, cultural and probably linguistic factors.
This, again, has first a trivial meaning. The Eskimos are said to have some 30 different names for “snow,” doubtless because it is vitally important for them to make fine distinctions while, for us, differences are negligible. Conversely, we call machines which are only superficially different, by the names of Fords, Cadillacs, Pontiacs and so forth, while for the Eskimos they would be pretty much the same. The same, however, is true in a non-trivial sense, applying to general categories of thinking.
It would be perfectly possible that rational beings of another structure choose quite different traits and aspects of reality for building theoretical systems, systems of mathematics and physics. Our main concern, probably determined by the grammar of Indo- European language, is with measurable qualities, isolable units, and the like. Our physics neglects the so-called primary qualities; they come in only rudimentarily in the system of physics or in certain abstractions of physiological optics like the color cycle or triangle.6 Similarly, our way of thinking is conspicuously unfit for dealing with problems of wholeness and form. Therefore, it is only with the greatest effort that holistic as contrasted to elementalistic traits can be included—although they are not less “real.” The way of thinking of occidental physics leaves us on the spot if we are confronted with problems of form —hence this aspect, predominant in things biological, is but a tremendous embarrassment to physics.
It may well be that quite different forms of science, of mathematics in the sense of hypothetico-deductive systems, are possible for beings who don’t carry our biological and linguistic constraints; mathematical “physics” that are much more fit than ours to deal with such aspects of reality.
The same seems even to be true of mathematical logic. So far, it seems to cover only a relatively small segment of what can easily be expressed in vernacular or mathematical language. The Aristotelian logic, for millenia considered as giving the general and supreme laws of reasoning, actually covers only the extremely small field of subject-predicate relations. The all-or-none concepts of traditional logic fall short of continuity concepts basic for mathematical analysis (cf. von Neumann, 1951, p. 16). Probably it is only a very small field of possible deductive reasoning which is axiomatized even by the efforts of modern logicians.
It may be that the structure of our logic is essentially determined by the structure of our central nervous system. The latter is essentially a digital computer, since the neurons work according to the all-or- nothing law of physiology in terms of yes-or-no decisions. To this corresponds the Heraclitean principle of our thinking in opposites, our bivalent yes-or-no logic, Boolean algebra, and the binary system of numbers7 to which also the practically more convenient decadic system can be reduced (and is actually reduced in modern calculating machines). Supposing that a nervous system were constructed not after the digital type but as an analog computer (such as, e.g., a slide rule), it may be imagined that a quite different logic of continuity, in contrast to our yes-or-no logic, would arise.
Thus we come to a view which may be called perspectivism (cf. von Bertalanffy, 1953b). In contrast to the “reductionist” thesis that physical theory is the only one to which all possible science and all aspects of reality eventually should be reduced, we take a more modest view. The system of physics is committal for any rational being in the sense explained; that is, by a process of de- anthropomorphization it approaches a representation of certain relational aspects of reality. It is essentially a symbolic algorithm suitable for the purpose. However, the choice of the symbolisms we apply and consequently the aspects of reality we represent, depend on biological and cultural factors. There is nothing singular or particularly sacred about the system of physics. Within our own science, other symbolic systems, such as those of taxonomy, of genetics or the history of art, are equally legitimate although they are far from having the same degree of precision. And in other cultures of human beings and among non-human intelligences, basically different kinds of “science” may be possible which would represent other aspects of reality as well or even better than does our so-called scientific world picture.
There is, perhaps, a deep-lying reason why our mental repre- sentation of the universe always mirrors only certain aspects or perspectives of reality. Our thinking, at least in occidental but possibly in any human language, is essentially in terms of opposites. As Heraclitus has it, we are thinking in terms of warm and cold, black and white, day and night, life and death, being and becoming. These are naive formulations. But it appears that also the constructs of physics are such opposites, and that for this very reason prove inadequate in view of reality, certain relations of which are expressed in the formulas of theoretical physics. The popular antithesis between motion and rest becomes meaningless in the theory of relativity. The antithesis of mass and energy is superseded by Einstein’s conservation law which accounts for their mutual transformation. Corpuscle and wave are both legitimate and complementary aspects of physical reality which, in certain phenomena and respects, is to be described in one way, in others in the second. The contrast between structure and process breaks down in the atom as well as in the living organism whose structure is at the same time the expression and the bearer of a continuous flow of matter and energy. Perhaps the age-old problem of body and mind is of a similar nature, these being different aspects, wrongly hypostatized, of one and the same reality.
All our knowledge, even if de-anthropomorphized, only mirrors certain aspects of reality. If what has been said is true, reality is what Nicholas of Cusa (cf. von Bertalanffy, 1928b) called the coincidentia oppositorum. Discoursive thinking always represents only one aspect of ultimate reality, called God in Cusa’s terminology; it can never exhaust its infinite manifoldness. Hence ultimate reality is a unity of opposites; any statement holds from a certain viewpoint only, has only relative validity, and must be supplemented by antithetic statements from opposite points of view.
Thus, the categories of our experience and thinking appear to be determined by biological as well as cultural factors. Secondly, this human bondage is stripped by a process of progressive de-anthropomorphization of our world picture. Thirdly, even though de- anthropomorphized, knowledge only mirrors certain aspects or facets of reality. However, fourthly, ex omnibus partibus relucet totum, again to use Cusa’s expression; Each such aspect has, though only relative, truth. This, it seems, indicates the limitation as well as the dignity of human knowledge.
Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.