Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy

    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Science’

Fritjof Capra – unity of science and spirituality

Posted by robertpriddy on May 24, 2016

Dynamic complexity theory and the understanding of what Fritjof Capra called ‘networks’, enables understanding to progress well beyond many traditional dualism-based ideas and theories (such as arrived at only by intuition, untested assumptions and argumentation) towards genuine science-based unification hypotheses and discoveries.

Some of Fritjof Capra’s key ideas go beyond dualism and lead toward the reconciliation of many a theoretical and philosophical problem inherited from dualistic thought, which also has been dominant in Western culture and which persists in many of the less than up-to-date discoveries of philosophy and science. See Networks as a unifying pattern of life involving different processes at different levels – An interview with Fritjof Capra (

Capra said: “What I am trying to do is to present a unified scientific view of life; that is, a view integrating life’s biological, cognitive, and social dimensions.“ Though many scientists considered this would be impossible, Capra bases his investigation on evolutional biochemistry which has made tremendous progress in understanding that process of molecular evolution. In evolution, symbiosis developed and led to new forms is called symbiogenesis, which continued throughout the evolution of life. Capra rejects the possibility of a master theory from which everything in existence can be deduced saying, “Even though there is a unified basic pattern of life, and we can be more precise and say that this pattern is a network pattern, these networks are not structures – at least most of them – they are functional networks.”

“The answer is the notion of sustainability. Over the evolution of life, nature has developed certain patterns of organisation that allowed life to survive for billions and billions of years, using the very same molecules of air, water, and soil. And not only to survive, but to unfold and increase its diversity, and so on. These patterns of organisation are patterns we need to understand and to apply to our human design. This is what is called eco-design today.”

Seeing sustainability as the key to unified development of the networks between man and nature, Capra says of his concept of networks: “I have included meaning, values, culture, consciousness, etc., right from the start, I can use my theoretical framework to analyse the global economy, and values are a crucial part of that analysis.” “Their importance is growing as a form of organisation whose efficiency has been enhanced by information technology. The body of knowledge that deals with them has mushroomed in the last ten years or so.”

On “the essential characteristic of Life” Capra says:”… the answer lies not in the structure of the cell, the answer lies in what philosophers and poets
have always called the breath of life. When something has the breath of life, it is alive. In scientific terms, that’s what we call metabolism. Metabolism is the ceaseless flow of energy through a network of biochemical processes, which allows the organism to maintain itself, to repair itself and to perpetuate itself. This metabolism is the essential characteristic of life.”

“With regard to complexity, I think the main characteristic of a complex system is that it is nonlinear. Complexity theory is a set of mathematical concepts and techniques that deal with nonlinear systems. A network, by definition, is nonlinear. The significance of this property was recognised already in the days of cybernetics. The cyberneticists were very interested in networks but did not have the mathematical tools to deal with nonlinearity. They invented all kinds of mathematical techniques, but they did not have the powerful computers that we now have to deal with nonlinear equations and to simulate nonlinear systems. A network is intrinsically nonlinear.”

“My firm belief is that life is a unified whole, that we don’t have biological life, and social life, and mental life or psychological life, and spiritual life. I think this is all part of the whole process of life,which has evolved on this planet for the last 3.5 billion years. It has evolved, as I said before, by using the same patterns over and over again.”

Fritjof Capra:- “We all need to better understand networks. Their importance is growing as a form of organisation whose efficiency has been enhanced by information technology. The body of knowledge that deals with them has mushroomed in the last ten years or so. The internet – network of networks – is now a significant part of the life of hundreds of millions of people. The metaphor is part of our everyday vocabulary.”
“Even though there is a unified basic pattern of life, and we can be more precise and say that this pattern is a network pattern, these networks are not structures – at least most of them – they are functional networks.”

“”Meaning” is a sort of catchword, or a label, for the whole dimension of consciousness and culture, where we have values, purpose, goals, strategies, conflicts, power, and so on. Power is actually a very interesting part.” …”meaning” is the ability of human consciousness to form mental images. That to me is the key. If I am able to form a mental image of something that either does not exist, or doesn’t exist yet, or is not here at the moment, I can say: this is what I want, and I am going to work toward it. So, the whole idea of purpose is based crucially on our ability to form mental images: strategies, plan, all that.”

Questioner: At some point you said: “The design principles of our future social institutions must be consistent with the principles of organisation that nature has evolved to sustain the web of life.” Why should it be so?

When there is a conflict between making more money or protecting human rights
– workers, all over the world need to be paid living wages
- toxic substances should be handled with certain care
– certain health considerations should be taken into account
– not trade in endangered species
– we cannot have processes of industrial production where we take natural resources, manufacture goods, create a lot of waste in the process, and then throw away the
goods themselves. This is not how nature works. The understanding of ecology tells you that species who act like this do not survive.

“How do you change the rules?”

FC — “I think that can be addressed only politically. Technically, it is absolutely possible to reprogram the global economy according to different values.”

“What we need to do is first to become ecologically literate, to understand the principles of organisation that ecosystems have evolved to sustain life, and then we have to redesign our technologies and social institutions accordingly. When you try to understand how ecosystems organise themselves, this leads you very soon to understanding how all living systems organise themselves. So, the exploration of sustainability becomes inextricably linked to the question of the nature of life, the nature of living systems.”


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Confusion over causality – some reflections

Posted by robertpriddy on March 25, 2010


Science aims at the explanation, through tangible tests of some sort, of the cause of each event it investigates. It then seeks to generalise about events to find and demonstrate regular orders (i.e. natural laws) to which they conform, whether or not this order is evident to the ordinary observer. By and large the physical sciences claim to discover just such natural laws, the main exception being micro-physics with its discovery of inherent physical paradoxes and a certain ‘indeterminacy’ in micro-events. In our day, however, the empirical scientist still tends to accept the assumption of a non-purposive universe. This is a belief, not a fact, of course and – like all beliefs – it is backed by various arguments and demonstrations, none of which are – or can ever be – conclusive proofs. The revered Law of Universal Causation which asserts that ‘every event has a cause’ came to be interpreted as ‘each event has only one prior cause’. Paradoxically, the idea of the father of biology, Aristotle, that ‘nothing in nature is in vain’, and therefore has an inherent purpose or meaning, was thus distorted and narrowed by modern science. Probably a majority of biologists, being mainstream Darwinists, still reject the notion of cosmic purpose of any sort (from Monod, Dobhanzsky etc. and on down to Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins) and largely join physics and the non-science mathematics (which is the very model of logic) in upholding the belief that ‘chance’ or ‘randomness’ and ‘sheer accident’ do occur.

However, the paradoxocal consequences of the deterministic position that is, its lack of logical consistency across the whole field of events – have caused some biologists to look towards goal-fulfillment (teleological explanation) to account for evolution. One thought-provoking instance is Rupert Sheldrake’s teleological viewpoint in A New Science of Life, which it is no exaggeration to say has not been welcomed by the mainstream. Sheldrake’s explanation of natural forms (morphology) is goal-oriented rather than causal and Darwinistic. However, this current move towards seeking teleological explanations again is part of a general apparent ‘religious revival’ and does not represent any signs of radical or extensive change in the views of world science. Time will tell whether this new religiosity is mainly an effect of access to the Internet so many underdeveloped societies where religions have always been strongly held, and whether it is more like a ‘swan song’ from a culture which is under greater and greater threat by modern education, science, technology and changing lifestyles.

When any scientist today speaks of the ’cause’ of an event, what is really meant is simply ‘that event which is always observed immediately to precede the event caused’. Explanation is thus a mere description of a series of events observed always to be regularly connected to one another. It is agreed by scientists themselves that such (detailed) descriptions are the only sort of ‘explanations’ that science can provide. What is ‘explained’ is simply how much more detailed and complex many events are than is generally perceived or thought. Once consequence of the prime importance of the temporal connection between two events is that explanations are driven to micro-temporal events (hence also often at the ultimate microscopic level). This makes it more and more difficult to establish causal connections at the level of normal, humanly-experienced events. However significant statistical connections between events may prove to be, they do not locate or explain the causal connections.

There is another sense which the idea of cause usually implies which is left unexplained… what actually creates the connection between cause and effect and, further, what sustains it in every instance? Descriptions answer questions of ‘how’ or ‘in what manner’, whereas the word ‘why’ asks for more than a description, but a proper explanation. Scientists might prefer that the word ‘why’ did not exist at all. But exist it does and, though science assumes that ‘every event must have a cause’, there must be a reason (cause?) for the concept ‘why’. The time-honoured notion of a cause, however, originally meant that there was some power, some purposeful principle or an operative Will operating on events or itself somehow inherent in events. Knowing that power, how and why it operates as it does to create and maintain order and causality in nature – rather than the reverse – would amount to explaining events fully. Both philosophers and scientists agree that such a cause is not observable by use of any of the five senses or their combinations. Since David Hume wrote his famous analysis showing how observation reveals the baselessness of the idea of ‘necessary connection’ between cause and effect, this doctrine has virtually become universally accepted among scientists.

Empiricism has consequently re-defined the ancient idea of ’cause’ to narrow its scope. The end result is that one observes that B follows A, but one does not claim it must so do, or that a connecting factor between events is understood. Science does not try to answer ‘why’, it even rejects rational explanations entirely if they have no observable cause. Sometimes – but not always – an exception is made for our explanations of our own motives or intentions, which science may or may not recognise as the sufficient ’cause’, depending on the degree of physicalistic strictness in the particular school of thought.

Scientific empiricism serves to summarise and generalise the information gathered from a plethora of different individual descriptions. Scientific experiment is no more (or less) than a method of discovering which descriptions (or generalised descriptions known as hypotheses) are based on accurate observations. If the observations are lacking, the hierarchy of descriptions (from hypotheses to theories) are thrown into doubt and require to be modified or rejected, according to the seriousness of their lack of accuracy etc. This is the essence and the extent of all scientific theory and method, however intricate, however far-reaching its observations in time and space. Beyond this descriptive understanding it cannot go, not – that is – without becoming ‘unscientific’. All this is long-established and non problematical doctrine in the history and philosophy of science. The most abstract and concise theories in any science do no more than compress and unify such ‘causal’ descriptions of physical nature. This is the whole of it; science does not really explain but rather shows us how to observe and manipulate the environment more accurately and thus effectively.

There are also anomalies that arise when trying to apply the idea of cause as it was traditionally defined, as Prof. Joad pointed out long ago, “Under the influence of the theory of relativity, twentieth-century physics tends to account for the movements of an entity X solely in terms of happenings in the immediate vicinity of X.” but the facts of nature show that “…modifications are the more intense near the place of origin, less intense as we travel away from it. Now the so-called law of cause and effect constitutes a particular case of force operating from over a distance, and the law is, therefore, affected by the abandonment of the general conception of which it is a special case.(2) Joad held that, for a variety of reasons the kind of causation which the mechanist theory of the universe requires, long regarded as untenable by philosophers, was in large measure rejected by physicists. This action from a distance is now called ‘field effect’, and is still behind a closed gate, as it were. All magnetism is field effect, with the magnetic influence of the sun and earth as impressive instances.

In summary, the basic idea of causation obviously cannot be rejected, for there is no adequate replacement for this practically unavoidable way of thought. (Kant even saw the idea of causality as one of the few fundamental functions inherent to the human mind at the deepest level). In a profound sense, though, science can even be said not to be able to explain how any event really occurs. The causes and effects described by science can themselves be said to have an unexplained cause (in the fuller sense of the word ’cause’). An example helps to illustrate this: what is the cause of the digestive processes that enable the human body to utilise the energy in foodstuffs as sustenance for the ‘inexplicable’ life force? It is certainly not just the presence of digestive enzymes, for this itself requires ‘explanation’. The bio-chemical construction and functions of enzymes do not help to explain their existence, but only which conditions are observed as accompanying their production. Nor does any such analytic observation help explain their immediate purpose (i.e. which functions they fulfil). Like all physical science, bio-chemistry is devoid of any idea of purpose in nature. It can trace the physical origins to amazing lengths, not least going far back into the past. One can surely say that the purpose is the sustenance of the life-principle in the body, but then one must answer what the purpose of the life principle is. This is doubtless a question beyond the methods and theories of science. It is not a question to which numerous and various answers can be supplied, but the question itself relies on an unproved – and most likely untestable – assumption, that life has a pre-set purpose. Meanwhile, events of the future are virtually a closed book to most of the predictions of science, and to all the prophesies of religion. It is overwhelmingly a case of ‘wait and see’. to ‘know’ how it will actually devolve.


The insistence of scientific theorists on there being one cause of each event is understandable, because this has proven a very fruitful assumption indeed to the methodic progress of analysis and experiment in physics and the allied natural sciences. Isolating one factor as the crucial factor is doubtless applicable in studying the processes of nature at an elemental level. But what of nature at the higher levels, of the bamboozingly intricate and countless interacting functions of life?

The complexity of an eco-system, even of a tiny part of eco-systems such as the bacteriological processes within a cubic inch of fertile soil, are still far beyond comprehensive observation or calculation. The same applies to the interactive system of bio-chemicals in the human body, which is a complex beyond the reaches of all analysis and calculation. The simple idea of one-cause-one-effect is evidently totally futile at the level of articulation of life reached in the human being, with its endlessly varied emotions (as described ever anew in world literature), with the billions upon billions of perceptions, thoughts, ideas, word-pictures, actions, and with the constantly changing and growing gestalts of taste, opinion, behaviour, desire, aspiration, art, music, organisation etc…

As long as we consider very basic processes between the elements in nature, the idea of ‘linear’ cause-effect chains of causation is useful for identifying and isolating regularities of connection of events. But nature has many levels of increasing articulation, such that it is both theoretically and practically quite impossible to analyse every kind of event – and often unique combination thereof – so as to arrive at any reasonable account of causes.

When people speak of causes of upheavals in nature, of wars or even of some important action by an individual, it is just not feasible to speak in terms of a single cause. Usually one points out many contributing ’causes’, which usually are seen as human motives formulated amid all manner of physical and social conditions. What is virtually a theory of multiple causation is then called for. It is simply not acceptable to argue for one single event as causing the murder of a person such as Trotsky. No single micro event can be singled out as ‘crucial’ among the mass of events that brought about that terrible act. No more does it make sense to say that one single cause led Chamberlain to decide on his famous declaration of war against the Third Reich is too absurd to be even worth considering. The same logic necessarily applies to all social events where any kind of intentional decisions were involved.

What sets going and sustains the incredibly intricate interplay of chemicals and enzymes in cell life to behave organically, attracting and repelling, bonding or destroying, initiating division or impeding it, defending and attacking… is not explained at all. Some immediate causes are so far described, yet the whole interaction of chains of events is invariably only known to a relatively minor extent. The bewildering bio-interactions within even the simplest living organisms make simple cause-effect thinking look a very inadequate and rough intellectual tool. Though molecular biology, which is highly analytical, still manages largely with the principle of isolating a single cause to each event, ecological biology cannot do so, and so rather seeks the holistic view. To try to isolate one single cause of the depletion of a particular species of insect in a rain forest is about as futile as trying to isolate one cause for the depletion of the world’s rain forests. One may even say with considerable good reason that each such event is simply caused by ‘human greed’, but this is not scientifically satisfying because it does not advance our understanding of the intricacies of the whole global process. Even to know all the inter-relations of countless billions of microscopic events within a small area of forest neglects the influence of major weather patterns, many kinds of human intervention (like logging, pollution etc.)

The above problem applies very largely in all the sciences that deal with such events which are thought to be very complex combinations of single events, which is to say most of them. Many such events, however, are unitary and have the nature of wholes or ‘gestalts’, such as with eco-systems of any kind and with most psychological, social, economic, anthropological, historical or allied phenomena.

It is possible, thinking of Wittgenstein’s apposite remarks on the functions of language in clouding thought, that sheer grammar lies behind the fixation of scientists on the singularity of causes: the phrase ‘has a cause’ may have mislead reason away from what otherwise is obvious, some events can have several or more concurrent causes (often called ‘factors’ or ‘variables’ in methodological jargon), without which those events could not have occurred.

Bertrand Russell was even of the opinion that the language of cause and effect was merely a convenient shorthand for certain purposes, but does not represent anything that is genuinely to be found in the physical world. This is basically only Hume again. One weakness of this is that it undermines the chief guiding principle of science through the ages, which has contributed greatly to its advances. More serious, though, is its rejection of a concept which is found in some form in every human culture and which is indispensable according to many philosophers, not least Kant who elevates the idea of causation to the most important of the mind’s inherent or a priori categories. To reject the idea of cause is like saying, ‘there are no grounds whatever for anything to happen as it does’.

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Links to pages on philosophy of science and psychology

Posted by robertpriddy on September 30, 2009

Understanding concepts of truth, their meaning and essence

Understanding and Truth. The multiple problem of what truth is seems so confusingly fathomless that there is quite simply no general consensus about it.

Language, communication and interpreted meaning

It is widely thought in contemporary philosophy that the limits of what is known are, at any time, determined by language.

The person as a whole – self-integration

I told him about scientists who had begged to come with me, some because they wanted to measure Bushman heads and behinds… others to study his family relationships, and one to analyse his spit; but when I asked them etc…

Holistic psychology’ outlined

With what kind of questions does a philosophical psychology try to deal? The answer is whatever concerns the problems of human life as seen and experienced from the viewpoint of a person who seeks to understand it.

Human values in psychology

Much controversy arises or is made out of the question of values; what is meant by ‘values’? Which values are good and which bad, if any? Which values are to be tolerated even if their rightness is controversial?

Intelligence in psychology

Few people are not at all concerned to improve their own level of intelligence where possible. One key to doing this is to have a balanced appreciation of what human intelligence is, what are its best qualities.

Self-awareness in psychological understanding

The understanding of what it is to be a person oneself is the natural and unavoidable basis on which any intelligible psychology necessarily builds.

The human faculty of understanding (intelligence)

The psychology of understanding has not been developed to any appreciable extent in Western psychology, neither as regards inter-personal understanding nor understanding as a basic human need.

Past-oriented therapies critically reviewed

The crucial role of self-inquiry and self-reliance in all forms of psychic improvement does not mean that therapy cannot be of assistance.

Understanding and the concept of human unity

Understanding and Unity. The need for holistic understanding is emerging with increasing persistence in subject after subject as the process of globalization…

‘Science Limited’ by Robert Priddy

(a 13-chapter book critical of the role of the sciences today) Intellectual/social problems due to scientistic beliefs on solving it by Robert C. Priddy Formerly University of Oslo (ret’d)

Critics of populistic propaganda in science presentation

Science as an institutionalised social activity and scientific theory are in a constant process of change.

The scientific problem of human subjects.

The above quote illustrates the dilemma of much contemporary social science: it studies humans physically, as psycho-physical entities.

Scientific explanation and metascience

It is evident that the vast majority of major decisions made by human beings are not based on science.

Science questioned – a metascientific challenge

On the chief causes of a serious decline in intellectual culture on a reformed model

Multiple cause effect in science

The keystone of science is that everything has a cause, yet how can an act of genuinely free will be caused…

Intellectual crisis under the ideology of scientism

The prevailing attitude of intellectuals in the last decade of the 20th century still appears to exhibit an almost unquestioning belief in science and the secular

Fallacies about research freedom in science

The necessity for the science to have freedom to research whatever scientists see as worthwhile has long been as much part of academic ideology.

Sathya Sai Baba

Information by Robert Priddy (Author of the book “Source of the Dream – My Way to Sathya Sai Baba” Born 1936. British. Researched and taught philosophy and sociology at the University of Oslo 1968-85.

Posted in causality, Free will, Holistic psychology, Intelligence, metascience, Past-oriented therapies, Science, scientism, Self-awareness, Understanding | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »