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The Physics of Human Experience
Lectures and an Essay

Stephen Edelglass
Published by Adonis Press/NY in 2006
Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2007


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"Having imagined a machine-like world, scientists now haunt this machine uneasily. Their plight is paradoxical: They have realized their world only through intense mental effort, yet this effort finds no legitimate place in the world it so painstakingly comprehends."
Stephen Edelglass in The Marriage of Sense and Thought

Stephen concluded from the above that the systematic excluding of human qualities from science will lead to a world in which humans no longer exist(1). This is a conclusion which Rudolf Steiner reached over a hundred years ago and about which he spoke in many lectures. Science deals with dead objects. The physicist deals with metals and electrons, the biologist dissects dead frogs, the physiologist dissects human corpses, the engineer builds non-living devices such as buildings, bridges, and computers. Science thinks dead thoughts. What usually qualifies as a rational scientific thought is some abstract model, some dead concept of the real world. Where can one today find a living scientist who deals with living concepts? Stephen Edelglass was an exemplar par excellence of such a scientist until his death in 2000. This book contains a detailed biographical introduction to his life by John Barnes followed by five lectures and an essay by Edelglass.

In the biographical sketch, we learn that when he was four, his parents built a home in Shrub Oak, New York. Like Thoreau(2) loved the shrub oaks which grew in Concord, Stephen loved his Shrub Oak community in the Peekskills. Not just a summer home away from the city, but "stimulating community and cultural oasis." (Page 3) After Stephen got married, he and his wife were on a camping expedition in the Adirondacks and met a couple who introduced them to Rudolf Steiner's Waldorf Education. Inspired by what Stephen saw as a chance to bring humanness back into science education, they moved to Spring Valley, to allow their children to attend the nearby Waldorf School. As Stephen began to study Steiner's philosophical works, his scientific outlook began to change. He began to understand that the distinction between primary and secondary qualities begun by Galileo was artificial and unnecessary that the so-called secondary qualities of sound, color, smell and taste were as objective as the primary qualities of spatial extension, weight, and motion.

[page 11, 12 John Barnes] When examined critically, no one type of sense has a greater claim to objectivity than any another. The conclusion that perceptions arising in our consciousness are subjective is based on the naïve assumption of the "objectivity" of the chain of events leading to these perceptions. But these "objective events" are themselves based on sense perceptions. Thus the conclusion of the argument: that sense perception is subjective, undermines its foundations: the objectivity of the events that give rise to perception and the argument collapses. Steiner concludes that all sense perceptions are simply given.

As a physicist myself, I can empathize with the changes that Stephen went through. There is ample evidence that one perceives in the world what one expects to find there. This shows us clearly that what we think about effects what we see. Stephen had already been seeded by his supervising professor, Frank A. McClintock, with the idea that one must understand the role of observer in scientific research. Steiner nurtured that idea and brought it into fruition in Stephen.

[page 13 John Barnes] Steiner's understanding of the role of sense perception in human cognition was complemented by his insight into the vital role of thinking. Thinking, an activity produced only through our own inner volition, is paradoxically at the same time the element that provides the central core of our insight into the world of our experience. Our senses provide various avenues to our environment. Through them, we have access to initially unconnected experiences of sound, touch, color, etc. It is only through our thinking that we reconnect these disparate impressions into meaningful wholes. The meaning of the world, its essential nature, its inherent lawfulness and in this sense its most objective aspect is discovered through thinking, and in no other way. Even our experience of space our most powerful experience of externality is achieved only through the learned cognitive integration of visual and/or tactile perceptions. Thus Steiner showed that, far from being detached onlookers in a given, objective world, we are deeply and fully engaged in all aspects of our knowledge. Steiner's epistemology endows human sense perception and human thinking capacities severely discredited by reductionist science with new integrity, dignity and cognitive potential.

This brought a vision of a new paradigm to Stephen which replaced the so-called "objective" world of mechanical forces impelling objects around to create observed phenomena.

[page 13 John Barnes] . . . he now saw the possibility of apprehending their lawfulness through rigorous observation and intuitive thinking. For example, instead of explaining colors or sounds in terms of electromagnetic or mechanical waves (reductively), one could intuit the lawfulness that manifests directly through the dynamic world of color or through the world of sound. A whole new vista of phenomenological science opened up before Stephen's imagination.

After a visit with Frances Wools, a science teacher from England who was experienced in teaching science in Waldorf Schools, Stephen left his job as college professor and became a high school teacher. This was his personal testimony to the value he saw in Steiner's phenomenal approach to scientific understanding and education.

In the preface to his book, The Marriage of Sense and Thought, Stephen writes about how the change in himself first began:

[page 20] Increasingly during those early years, I was disturbed by the chasm between the world of professional life and that of inner experience and personal ideals. If science was the method and measure of objective truth, then it seemed as if my personal conduct and humanity were meaningless . . . A few years later, while teaching a graduate course in quantum mechanics, I finally saw the fallacy in thinking that science had the last word concerning the nature of reality that somehow philosophical questions came in the form of trying to understand the results of science, after the fact so to speak, while the presuppositions upon which science was built were left unexamined and taken for granted. . . With this realization I felt freed to explore new possibilities.

One of the new possibilities was as a Waldorf teacher of science blocks. There he began to experience personally the "same sense of empowerment and joy in his adolescent students as they learned to trust their own experience and their own thinking." The models he had been taught in the academy, he thenceforth began to call "pseudo-phenomenal" models.

[page 21 John Barnes] From this point onward Stephen vehemently rejected explanations of phenomena in terms of what he called "pseudo-phenomenal" models. When people began to speak about atoms as though they were actual phenomena, actual things, Stephen could become very irritated, even angry. He accepted models as such, as aids in calculating certain effects, but he realized that thinking in terms of models was a diversion away from the richness of the actual phenomenal world into a world of mechanical abstractions. For Stephen, this was not merely a theoretical distinction, it was a moral one. He loved the phenomena and felt a commitment and responsibility toward them. For Stephen, "the marriage of sense and thought" was more than a metaphor, it was a deeply felt experience. "Explaining away" a phenomenon by reducing it to a hypothetical mechanism meant obliterating and falsifying its essential nature.

What are the steps to an ecology of education? Stephen gives us a simple answer: when the education proceeds from the whole to parts. How does one teach multiplication and division? Steiner begins first with division and a simple demonstration in which children are asked to place an equal amount of apples in front of two people, then three people, etc. From the whole to the parts. Division is then seen to Waldorf students as simpler than multiplication, whereas in the way I was taught division was made to seem more complicated. Stephen illustrates the difference between the textbook way of teaching about mirrors using lines representing rays of light versus using a holistic photograph of mountains reflected in a lake (Page 43). The rays of light are pseudo-phenomenal and one can see the child's eyes glaze over as a teacher begins talking about these non-objects undergoing a non-objective event. Replace that with a photo of a real lake, and even elementary students' eye will light up when they see the relationship of the real mountains to the ones reflected in the lake.

Most physicists are taught that Isaac Newton wasted the last several decades of his life dabbling in occult sciences such as alchemy, but Stephen shows us how Newton ushered in the possibility of human freedom in his lecture on "Isaac Newton and the Chickens". One needs to read the entire lecture, but here is a brief summary of the lecture:

[page 71] In the old picture of the world as cosmos, however, the structuring forces stream in from the periphery. In contrast, the Newtonian structuring force resides within matter and emanates from the center. As mathematically formulated, the action of this force is mechanical in nature. As a result, the image of the universe as a clockworks replaced the organic view of it as cosmos.
       But there is another aspect of this image that has yet to be fully appreciated. If, true to the alchemical spirit in which Newton worked, we try to read the outer macrocosmic picture in order to understand Man (the microcosm), gravity is an image of a potential spiritual force that resides not only within matter, but also within Man. Its centric force symbolizes the ability to act independently and therefore the possibility of freedom!
       Oh yes. What about the chickens in the title of this lecture? They are the alchemical hens, that is, the fire that Newton used to hatch the philosophical egg (his vessel or cauldron). What Newton hatched outwardly was gravity, a force that held the world together. But he also hatched a seed image of the possibility of human freedom.

Steiner wrote in many places about the importance of understanding the evolution of consciousness in humankind, especially the emergence of our "I" in recent centuries. Apart from guesses made by anthropologists from the shape of the human skulls in prehistorical humans, our best physical evidence is found in our historical documents. Stephen points out how Julian Jaynes in his book, "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", claims that one can not find a single example of someone making a decision without consulting an oracle or having some god appear to them. Even Homer could not start writing "The Iliad" without pleading, "Speak to me, O Muse, of the wrath of Achilles." Stephen took up Jaynes's challenge and examined the Gilgamesh legend. He found "there is not a single example of a person or a being making a decision as a result of going through some kind of self-conscious examination(3)." On the other hand, one can point to many egregious acts which should not have stood the glare of intense self-conscious examination, such as that of Agamemnon who executed his daughter at the advice of the gods to get the winds blowing to sail towards Troy for battle.

[page 86] Well, from the point of view of the evolution of consciousness here we are. Where are we? If we compare ourselves to primitive people, what we discover is that we have gained individuality. By the world becoming objects, we also become an object and we have this boundary between ourselves and the world. If you experience yourself as part of the world, you no longer have that boundary, you don't have that individuality. The baby says "I" at a certain age, and from then on we all very strongly feel our own individuality. But there has been quite a payment for it. That payment is that nature is devoid of what I am going to call spirit. We gain our individuality at the expense of the loss of the experience of spirit in the world, which means that the objects of the world are simply things, they have no symbolic content. And if you live in a world of objects in empty space, you live in a meaningless world. Everything that gives life meaning is experienced within our selves. Are you getting some sense of the change? Just think of the Aristotelian idea of motion: motion was a becoming.

Goethe rejected living in a world of objects in empty space. He envisioned and applied a living connection with the phenomena of the world and eschewed what Stephen calls "pseudo-phenomenal" explanations of world events. He could look at a plant and visualize its progression from seed into mature fruiting plant, even seeing the leaves turning into the colored portions of flowers.

[page 132] The goal of Goethe's science is the discovery of the primal conditions responsible for specific appearances. Other than the generating conditions being present, there is no expectation that primal phenomena themselves be "explained," for example, by an objective mechanism thought of as working behind the appearances. Sky color is not explained by scattering of light which, in spite of the fact that it can not be seen or otherwise sensed, is imagined as if it were an object-like entity traveling through space. Similarly, refraction is not explained as a consequence of the bending of objectified light at the boundary of a medium through which the light is imagined to travel more slowly. The archetypal conditions for the appearance of primal phenomena are sufficient in themselves. Pseudo-phenomenal explanatory objectifications are rejected in the methodology of Goethe's science. This rejection is strongly implied in Professor Brady's examination of direct experience. There simply is no need for employing pseudo-phenomenal models. According to this methodology, mathematics is employed to represent relations between phenomena rather than properties of hypothesized underlying models.

Stephen came to appreciate deeply Goethe's approach to science and saw that it offered a means for science to bring a living presence into its world-size black box full of empty space with scattered objects bouncing around. One gains a new purchase on the world with Stephen Edelglass's Goethean approach to science. One can enter the mirror called science and find, as Alice did, a living world inside that otherwise could only exist as deathlike abstractions.

[page 32] My purpose is neither to give a further description of the principles of Goethean science, nor to discuss Goethe's science within an historical context. Instead, I wish to suggest that a viable scientific methodology that rejects pseudo-phenomenal hypotheses is possible and desirable. That is, a rejection of objectification need not hamper scientific cognition. On the contrary, it encourages presence in the world rather than alienation from it.

With the advent of the twentieth century and its quantum mechanics paradoxes, physicists were in a dilemma as to which model to believe the particle or the wave model for light. They had reached the limit of their object-based models of the world and had to step back and reconsider the usability of such models at all. They adopted Goethe's model-free approach to science as soon as they were forced to focus solely upon creating relationships for the phenomena they observed, and they reluctantly tossed their object-like models of quantum mechanics into the dustbin of history.

[page 134] No longer could physicists feel that they were cognizing reality. Their models were merely models, their knowledge merely operational. Modern physics makes clear the inability to gain reality through an object-like mechanistic basis conceived as the causation behind the phenomenal world.

Einstein sought to achieve an acceptable model for quantum mechanics and was confronted with such incommensurable enigmas as his famous Einstein-Poldosky-Rosen (EPR) Paradox. If one describes the EPR Paradox from a purely phenomenal standpoint, it is understandable, even though it seems to describe that any two objects in contact with one another remain in contact no matter how far they are separated in space. The problem is the use of the pseudo-phenomenal term object in the above explanation. Objects in the real world have no definable boundary they extend outward infinitely and thus there is no complete separation in the phenomenal world, only in our abstract pseudo-phenomenal world of objects.

We have come to learn that there are no suitably imaginable models of quantum mechanics. Once we let go of our unsuitable object-based models, the paradoxes disappear. It is time for us to retrofit earlier science with this knowledge gained in quantum mechanics and discard all pseudo-phenomenal models and ways of talking about reality.

[page 134] However, the paradoxical nature of quantum mechanics is connected with the unimaginability of the model. Pseudo-phenomenal model-free epistemologies are therefore not subject to such paradoxes and thus do not undermine our sense of reality.

Reductionism, which worked so well for scientists in the field of mechanics after Newton's time, no longer works in the new world science has led itself into. It must now let go of reducing all phenomena to mechanical explanations and trust its direct perception of reality. By doing so, science may once again regain its senses.

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. Note how different this view is from the materialistic scientists who claim that by damage and neglect that humans will somehow make the Earth unlivable for themselves. Rightly understood, it is the scientists' pervasive materialistic viewpoint which can lead to an Earth upon which no humans exist because they have lost all contact with their own immortal life-giving spirit.

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Footnote 2. See comments about Thoreau love of the lowly shrub oak in my review of Thoreau's Journal, Volume 9.

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Footnote 3. One might observe a similar thing happening in today's teenagers. They claim to be independent and yet the first thing they do is call a friend when faced with a decision to find out what they should decide. Teenagers today have progressed in their maturity, I expect, to the level of that of the average mature Greek in Homer's time. Instead of the gods, teenagers seek answers from the examples of rock stars or movie stars via their friends' databases. One might attribute the prevalence of teenage suicides to their accepting the word of someone who contemplated suicide as the right thing to do. Critical self-examination could have shown them that such thoughts were never written by someone who, previous to writing those thoughts, had actually committed suicide! Adult suicides could be thought of as those who were acting as if teenagers.

Return to text directly before Footnote 3.



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