Philosophy of The Distinction

Editor’s Note:  The article reproduced here was first published as “The Distinction and the Priority of Philosophy” on the website of the Philos-Sophia Initiative.

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A key element of Wolfgang Smith’s thought is his ontological distinction between the physical  and the corporeal  domains. This distinction proceeds from the observation that there are two ways of knowing the external world. The first and more manifest way is sense perception, by which we know the world in direct experience; the second way consists in the modus operandi of physics, based on mensuration. What we know via sense perception is the corporeal world, while what we know by way of physics is the physical world—and the two are remarkably different. The claim generally put forward by physicists (which has generated mass confusion) is that the universe per se reduces solely to the physical, and that the corporeal is somehow illusory or ‘merely subjective’. In addition to the fact that this contradicts what from time immemorial has been held to be—from the commonest to the wisest of men—manifestly self-evident, it happens that this reductionism is a philosophical  judgment, not a scientific one, and it can by no means be made on the basis of physics. The reduction of the corporeal to the physical is in fact a category error: We mustn’t conflate, for example, the ‘corporeal baseball’ with the ‘physical baseball’. In this reckoning it is patently absurd to say that the baseball which we hold in our hand, pitch, catch, or hit with a bat is a mere ‘aggregation of subatomic particles’, to wit, a ‘physical’ baseball.

Let it be said forthwith, however, that despite its enormous importance for an appropriate understanding of physics, and indeed all of the sciences, my purpose here is not to discuss the scientific import of the distinction between the physical and the corporeal (hereafter, ‘the Distinction’). My purpose here is to discuss its implications for philosophy. For as Seyyed Hossein Nasr has rightly pointed out, the core doctrine of Wolfgang Smith is “of great importance not only for the philosophy of science, but also for the whole domain of human knowledge.”

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What led Wolfgang Smith to the Distinction to begin with was his exploration of the so-called ‘quantum reality problem’. The issue was to understand what accounted for the paradoxes of quantum theory, and Dr. Smith’s achievement is to have discerned that it is the very nature of the central conundrum in quantum mechanics—the so-called ‘measurement problem’—that insists upon the Distinction. The solution to the problem rests upon the rejection of the most basic epistemological assumption of modernity, namely the bifurcation of René Descartes—i.e., the division of reality into a dualism comprising ‘qualities’ and ‘quantities’—which has since the 17th century taken on the force of an indisputable axiom, in both the sciences and philosophy. Dr. Smith’s philosophy of physics rests squarely on the rejection of Cartesian bifurcation, and indeed he has demonstrated that quantum paradox is itself a by-product of the bifurcationist assumption. The upshot of the Cartesian presupposition is that the most foundational realities are strictly quantitative in nature. In light of the terms discussed above, this consists in the reduction of the corporeal to the physical: the corporeality of the object is taken to be sheer mental ideation, while the object’s quantitative or ‘extended’ (i.e., measurable) aspects are taken to be more fundamental than its qualitative content. The quantitative is understood to have ontological priority over the qualitative, insofar as the latter is merely a figure of ‘thought’ or mere ‘ideas’. Under the bifurcation principle, the only indubitable certainties are those which are accounted for in strictly mathematical terms. The conscious mind is severed from that objective world which would be, in the absence of bifurcationist assumptions, taken for granted in naïve experience as ‘real’ vis-à-vis sensory perception.

The notion that the ‘really real’ is described and discovered solely by physics has made the lion’s share of philosophers in the past century highly susceptible to what one might characterize as ‘mathematics envy’. Remarking upon the condition of philosophy in the English-speaking world in the early decades of the 20th century, T. S. Eliot explained that “the philosopher was beginning to suffer from a feeling of inferiority to the exact scientist. It was felt that the mathematician was the man best qualified to philosophize. Those students of philosophy who had not come to philosophy from mathematics did their best … to try to become imitation mathematicians—at least to the extent of acquainting themselves with the paraphernalia of symbolic logic.” Even today, one needn’t look very far to find philosophy departments in contemporary universities offering courses with titles like ‘Philosophical Thinking’ which are little more than excursions into the selfsame symbolic logic, à la Frege, Russell, et al. And alas much of what passes for philosophy today is a trite amalgam of puzzles, paradoxes, and logical ‘games’—something like an intellectual Rubik’s cube. All of this is a far cry from the “insight  and wisdom” which, as Eliot pointed out, characterized Western philosophy in the premodern era.

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Perhaps the best way of introducing the implications of the Distinction for philosophy, or its implications for the philosopher, is by a brief discussion of my own discovery of Wolfgang Smith and what his work has meant for me; for indeed I am no physicist, nor any great student of the sciences, but of philosophy tout court.

Ever since the early days of my studies I was cognizant of the differences between modern and premodern thought. Modernity always presented itself to me as problematic, and this in so many ways that to try to enumerate them here in summary fashion would be futile. Suffice it to say, as soon as I became aware of the modern qua modern, I immediately found myself in vehement opposition to it. However curious it might seem to some, the sciences were never much of an active concern for me: my objections to modernity were largely metaphysical and epistemological, moral and political. It was ultimately under the aegis of Wolfgang Smith that I finally came to extend my inquiries into the sciences. Unlike the common fare, here was a physics that positively called for—indeed insisted upon—those very same ontological principles with which I was already so familiar and held so dear. Dr. Smith’s work thus filled a large gap in my own knowledge, and extended the areas of inquiry into which I was willing to venture.

Recalling the situation of contemporary philosophy outlined earlier, it had always been my expedient to dismiss the ‘mathematics envy’ problem as a non sequitur.  I did not suffer from it. Quite often I ridiculed it, describing those who fell prey to it as having missed entirely the true nature of philosophy. But in Wolfgang Smith one found that not only did he present the sciences in a manner befitting metaphysics—unveiling a value in them which I had not hitherto appreciated—but he was able at the same time to validate my initial position. The ‘corporeal sciences’, if you will, were indeed ontologically prior to the physical sciences. Furthermore, in proper fashion for a ‘philosopher of science’—meaning one who shows where science fits in the larger scheme of things—Dr. Smith showed how the partial sciences fit into the whole, which comprehensive context is the domain of philosophy proper. For me the importance of his thought was not restricted to his decisive conclusion concerning the so-called quantum reality problem (in all honesty, before reading Wolfgang Smith I was scarcely aware there even was a quantum reality problem!); it was the philosophical gravity  of the Distinction itself. And here at last we approach the threshold of the point I’ve wished to make since the beginning of the essay, to wit, the implications of Dr. Smith’s thought for philosophy and the philosopher.

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The rejection of bifurcation and restoration of the primacy of the corporeal entails the reclamation of that whole repository of wisdom and truth which has been forgotten, even eschewed, in the modern era under the hegemony of the physical. The Distinction shows that the physical scientist is by no means the exclusive proprietor of skepticism. Wolfgang Smith’s insight into what he calls the ‘extrapolated universe’ of the contemporary physicist demonstrates that so many of these physical theories ought to be regarded as just that—theories. The ‘corporeal scientist’ has just as much right—arguably more right—to skepticism as the physical scientist (in the Galileo affair, for instance, it was Galileo that was the ideologue, and the Church the skeptic). When carried out in a logically and metaphysically cogent manner, it is not the corporeal sciences which are endlessly prone to groundless speculation; in our time that honor more often goes to the physical scientist.

It is necessary to see and be able to account for the difference between the two domains because in the end the philosopher and the physicist address two very different ‘universes’, as it were. The Distinction in fact validates both: the physicist may go about his physics, the philosopher about his metaphysics, and neither will be the worse for it. Nay, they will be the better, understanding more clearly the nature and meaning of their own preoccupations. However, it should be emphasized that the physicist qua physicist does not know this, while the philosopher does; to the extent that the physicist does know this, it is only insofar as he steps outside his professional purview and begins to think philosophically—which is, after all, proper to human nature as such.

Most of all what has been restored—and badly needed restoring—by the Distinction is the primordial dignity of the true philosopher, who can once and for all jettison the inferiority complex which had been dogging him for so many decades: the shackles of ideological mathematicism are off. Given the ontological primacy of the corporeal, the philosopher need no longer suffer under the trompe-l’oeil  that intimacy with the sciences is the exclusive prerequisite for knowledge of reality. Recalling once more the observations of the Poet, in his own time as a student of philosophy T. S. Eliot noted that philosophical arguments that had illustrations from physics or biology were more highly valued than those that did not—even if the illustrations had no actual bearing on the weight of the arguments being presented! The Distinction, however, stands as a vital ‘check’ on the sciences, reminding us that the philosopher has no greater obligation to physics or biology than to moral and political philosophy, fine art, psychology, or any other of the arts and sciences. The Distinction reaffirms that philosophy is the science of the whole, whilst all other sciences—in the modern or the premodern sense—are partial, and as such incapable of comprehending the nature and scope of their own methods. Finally, far from discrediting those 20th-century philosophers who happened not to weigh and consider the implications of the new physics, the Distinction serves nonetheless as a sort of retroactive validation of their work, accounting for the fact that there never was any primary obligation to the sciences, nor any unquestionable necessity to ‘live up to’ their demands, in the first place.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Wolfgang Smith. Though you might already know it under its more familiar moniker: the real world.

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