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Mind And The New Sciences

Essay based on talks given to the Chaos Group at Lecco and Milan, Italy

What can the New Sciences tell us about the science of mind and the nature of consciousness? Of what help can the metaphors of the New Sciences be to psychotherapeutic practice?

As soon as we ask these questions we enter into paradox. The theories, explanations, facts, metaphors and ways of seeing of science are not objective in any absolute sense, for they are the creations of the human mind. In turn we are now asking how can such theories, such products of consciousness help to illuminate how that same mind works.

At the turn of the century Ernst Mach and the Logical Positivists argued that science proceeds by collecting facts and observations and, in turn, using these to construct a theory. Ideally the smallest number of steps should lead from observation to theory. Einstein, however, argued the direct opposite. A scientific theory, he said, is the imaginative product of a creative mind. In his conversation with the young Werner Heisenberg, Einstein pointed out that a theory tells us where to look. If it is a good theory it should tell us what observations to make and which facts are important. Thanks to this insight, Heisenberg went on to create quantum mechanics—a new paradigm in which the theory dictated where the observables would be found and how an observation was to be made.

If we accept Einstein’s dictum that a theory is a creation of the human imagination then it is not surprising that the factors which determine a good scientific theory are similar to those found in great art, music or poetry. A good theory should be beautiful and elegant, it should employ an economy of means and its conclusions should appear inevitable—as if the universe could simply not be arranged in any other way.

The theoretical physicist Nambu has referred to ‘postmodern physics’ because the most advanced theories are in fact ‘theories about theories about theories that are testable.’ Hence the criteria in such cases become aesthetic and concern the way ideas and theories fit together.

In this context we should not forget another great physicist Eugene Wigner who wrote about ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics.’ Wigner pointed out that pure mathematics is the free creation of the human imagination. Therefore it need bear no resemblance to our world of space and time, matter and energy, causality and chance. New mathematics is often created when people ask, ‘what is the most beautiful thing I can do in this situation?’ Or ‘what if I turn a piece of mathematics on its head—will it still make sense?’

In its abstractions, mathematics bears a resemblance to music—as a series of beautiful forms and patterns created by the human imagination. But then a miracle occurs for, as Wigner pointed out, half a century later this pure, abstract mathematics may suddenly be exactly what is needed for a new piece of physics. In placing quantum theory on a strict logical plane Paul Dirac, for example, discovered that an infinite dimensional abstract space developed by David Hilbert was exactly the way the world worked at the quantum level. Likewise in his general theory of relativity Einstein discovered that the necessary mathematics had already been developed by Reimann. Again and again free and abstract mathematics is discovered to be the precise language needed to describe the world.

But this seems to suggest that the free and imaginative products of human consciousness become the instruments by which we observe the natural world? And if it is truly the case it means that consciousness has also created the very instruments by which to observe its own functioning!! In this sense, while it still provides an objective and testable account of the natural world, at the same time science takes its place beside the great myths of history as a story we tell about the world and ourselves in order to understand and support our society and all its values.

The Newtonian Clockwork

This way of thinking about scientific theories, and the universe in general, is profoundly different from that of a hundred years ago. Today we have a participatory universe, one in which the human observer occupies a central position. Previously there was an objective universe, a mechanical universe, a universe composed of parts in interaction according to the laws of Newton. It was a science that prided itself as being value free, objective and quite independent of any human observer. The metaphor for that universe was that of clockwork. Today’s metaphor would be closer to a living system, to something organic, to a play of forms, patterns of symmetry, fluxes of energy and activities of information.

This mechanical thinking has its origins long before Newton. I would trace it back to the thirteenth century with the linerazation of time though the appearance of mechanical clocks on public buildings. Rather than living in a rich and interpenetrating space and time, time had been reduced to number and, with the contemporary invention of double entry bookkeeping and the adoption of Arabic numerals, time would next be equated with money. That same century saw an explosion of tools of consciousness—bookkeeping, number system, accurate map making, musical notion—all of which enabled people to abstract the world, hold it in the mind and manipulate it in the imagination. Time was reduced to number. Merchants could predict and quantify the outcome of a venture. Suddenly the human mind has abstract instruments that allowed it to objectify the world and in turn exert a level of prediction and control.

Inevitably science flowed out of this, and the technology produced by that science transformed human society and human consciousness—even in art the invention of perspective helped us to objectify nature and push it away from us as if it is a scene viewed through a window.


The year 1900 was a year of absolute certainty—the President of the Royal Society said that science more or less knew everything there was to know. Americans adopted the gold standard. The first Peace Conference was set up at The Hague; war would be made illegal and disputes settled by an international court. Mathematicians set out to prove the logical rigor of their subject, Logical Atomism was to define what language could say with total certainty.

By the year 2000 certainty had gone out of the window and the clockwork universe had been overthrown. As the physicist John Wheeler put it; we had placed the universe the other side of a sheet of glass. Now we have smashed that glass and reached in to touch the universe.

The seeds of the new order can be traced back to that same year 1900—the year Planck proposed the existence of the quantum and Henri Poincaré laid the first brick of what was to become chaos theory. During the years that followed Ludwig Wittgenstein in philosophy was to overthrow Bertrand Russell’s dream of defining what we can know for sure. Kurt Godel demonstrated that mathematics must always remain incomplete for there exist true statements that can never be demonstrated through a chain of deductive logic. Quantum theory argued we must live with a measure of uncertainty and that the observer can never be abstracted from an account of the universe. Chaos theory showed us that our ability to predict and control the world is limited. Freud proposed that civilization and human rationality are more fragile than we had hitherto suspected—an observation grimly illustrated by the horrors of the pogroms and ethnic cleansing that characterized the past century and show no evidence of diminishing. Add to this, post-modernism, post structuralism, deconstruction, the death of the author, the realization that our environment is finite and fragile, the transformation of work, the lack of trust we have in our politicians and the uncertainty of a global economy and we realize that our world and our consciousness has transformed forever. Even the triumphs of modern medicine appear futile to stop the global spread of viruses.

In the end our pride in the power of reason and the absolute benefits that accrue from the accumulation of ever more knowledge have led us to hubris. We have been forced to confront our limitations, to recognize that we too are biological creatures on a finite planet, that human actions transcend national boundaries, that destruction of the rain forests can change the world’s climate, that the effluence from nickel processors in Northern Canada fall as acid rain in the United States.

But now let us look at some implications of the New Sciences.

Chaos Theory

Chaos theory has radically changed our perception of the world. It has pointed us away from simple, linear and mechanical systems to systems that are more organic and complex. It tells us that biological organisms, ecologies, stock markets and societies have many features in common. Rather than focussing on the components of a system it gives attention to the links and interactions within a system. Rather than seeing the world in terms of mechanical repetition we see a world of evolving patterns and increasing complexity. Instead of systems that are closed off and isolated these are systems open to their environment through the constant exchange of matter, energy or information.

Such systems can spontaneously organize themselves, evolving internal structures, demonstrating degrees both of stability and of adjustment to chance. In this sense we can begin to apply metaphors to mind and society that also apply to ecologies and economic systems. Suddenly the similarities within the world become more important than their differences.

Chaos theory also warns us that there is a limit to the degree with which we can control a system and to the way we can predict future behaviours. It tells us that we can’t always know the long term effects of our interventions and so it is better to be open and flexible. Just as nature survives through its biodiversity it is important to have a diversity of ideas and approaches. Nature may appear to be inefficient in its proclivity, on the other hand when one avenue closes nature has many more paths to chose from. Organizations learn from nature that over-efficiency can lead to death.

Chaos theory also tells us that if we can’t predict events with absolute accuracy at least we can look for patterns and that these patterns often repeat themselves at ever-smaller scales. Carl Jung spoke of the archetypes—patterns that underlie human drives and behavior. In some ways the archetypes evoke the patterns of non-linear systems—for example, the way a woman can become involved in a series of disastrous relationships with similar types of men; or the way a man always seems to come into conflict with figures of authority. This is not to say that behaviour is causally related but the way personality has structured itself as an open system within the context of a wider society, has led to a series of repeating patterns.

This suggests that the metaphor of systems theory, self-organization and repetitive patterns could be applied within the therapeutic practice. In fact there would be several interlocking systems. Firstly there is structuring of the patient’s consciousness and all that has been internalized since infancy. Yet therapy also takes place between a patient and a therapist and so another systems open up and another dynamics. This would imply that it is not so much the therapist attempting to ‘cure’ the patient, but rather that the cure unfolds out of a complex dynamical system of which the patient and therapist are both aspects. In this sense the cure takes place in that space that lies between and beyond therapist and patient. Or, to borrow a metaphor from quantum theory, during any experimental observation observer and observed are irreducibly linked together and no cut can be made between them. Thus the observer is the observed, the patient is the therapist and the therapist the patient.

But again this self-organized system that is ‘the cure’—the therapist-patient axis—is also embedded within a community, within a society, within a web of meaning and values, within a series of economic pressures.

Communication and Discourse

At this point I would also like to introduce my own hobbyhorse—that therapy is also of the nature of a self-organized, ongoing discourse and such a discourse should be available to linguistic analysis. By seeing what speech acts are going on, how open or restricted is the vocabulary employed, how direct or tangential is the discourse may give us great insights into what is going on. How rapidly is this field of discourse established, how does the pattern repeat itself from session to session, what changes when a therapeutic breakthrough occurs?

Quantum Theory

There is far more that could be said about chaos theory and dynamical systems but I want to move on to one of the other paradigms that has transformed our thinking and that is the revolutionary way quantum theory encouraged us to think about the nature of the world. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers have speculated upon the ground of existence—is the world a void or a plenum, is it a mixture of four elements or a flux, is it a set of dim shadows on underlying Platonic forms? Until relatively recently we thought of the ground of being as based in matter. Physicists sought for elementary particles, for the elementary building blocks of all that is. But gradually that substantial world—those tiny billiard balls like the electron, proton and neutron dissolved away. In their place we have fundamental symmetries, or forms, or processes.

Was the world created in a single Big Bang as a totally featureless ground of absolute symmetry? And was the birth of time coexistent with the breaking of symmetry and the gradual evolution of structure in the world. Remember: we too begin as total symmetry—a round fertilized ovum that splits in two, then four, and on and on, gradually differentiating and building up structure and form.

The cosmos is a vast dance between the gods Apollo and Dionysius. One that draws us towards perfect order and form, the other that embraces what is contingent, accidental and unique.

Let us rewind the tape and watch one more time this story of the nature of the ground of all reality. At first there was matter in interaction. But then physicists began to direct their attention towards energy—energy is what sets matter in motion, energy is what brings about the transformations of matter—from ice to water to steam, energy produces growth, energy brings about self organization. And so matter is like the clay in a potter’s hands and the name of those hands is energy.

But now I want to go a little further and argue, as did the physicist David Bohm, that what we can do for matter we can also do for energy—for energy is also subject to transformation and the imposition of patterns. Just as energy acts on matter so something acts on energy—let’s call it subtle energy or ‘information’ (that is to give ‘form’).

Something very subtle acts on energy to give it form, in turn this formed energy then acts on matter to bring about transformations. To take a simple example, unformed or ‘raw’ electrical energy enters a TV set from the plug in the wall. In addition there is a very weak electromagnetic signal that is picked up from a TV transmitter many miles away. This weak signal is very strong in information and through the circuitry of the TV set gives form to a picture and sound.

Likewise a computer-directed ocean liner picks up radar information about a distant port. This subtle but active information directs the powerful engines of the ship, which then approaches the port.

Thus in place of the duality matter-energy we have a triangle matter-energy-information. Active Information knows about particular dispositions of matter, it then gives form to energy that brings about transformation that, in turn feedback into active information.

According to Bohm these processes take place even at the level of the electron. The quantum ground state contains a vast amount of information about the disposition of the universe, in turn this information is ‘read’ by the electrons and hence guides the electrons’ movements. Or rather, the electron itself is a complex process of enfolding and unfolding that is guided by active information. In this sense what could perhaps be called a proto-mind exists right down to the quantum level of the cosmos.

In this sense mind and matter cannot be separated or divided, they are aspects of one greater whole. Whereas to Newton the world appeared to be regulated like giant clockwork today we see the cosmos in a more organic way, almost as a living thing. The nature of matter allows for the possibility of endless subtleties and even exhibits mind-like qualities. In short there is no longer a fixed division between matter and mind.

Beyond Reductionism

At the end of the nineteenth century scientists such as Helmholtz and Sigmund Freud had a program whereby mind was to be reduced to biological drives and, in turn, biology was to be reduced to the laws of physics. Thus consciousness and biological drives could be considered in terms of energy flows and energy blocks.

Today I would argue that such a reductionist program will not work. In place of matter and energy we have matter, energy and information. The science of mind can certainly learn from biology and physics but so too physics can learn from mind. As the great physicist Wolfgang Pauli said—physics must confront the irrational in matter and physics must allow for the subjective in matter.