Evolutionary Duality and the Limits of Science

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 7 Comments

Next week I will be giving an afternoon lecture in Philadelphia about the relationship between philosophical inquiry and the challenges of our time, and the roots of Integral Theory and Evolutionary Enlightenment in Classic American Philosophy. (Find out more here.) In preparation for this I have been rereading some of the papers written by Charles Sanders Peirce and I think they have something to add to the contemplation we are in the middle of.

Charles Peirce was a brilliant mathematician and scientist. Peirce was educated at Harvard during the second half of the 19th century and worked a great deal of his life for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. In this position he did extremely significant scientific work including making the first attempt to determine the shape of the Milky Way Galaxy as determined by the relative brightness of stars. He also was the first to think to measure the length of a meter in wavelengths of light, the standard that is still used today. In addition he was the first American to represent the United States in an international conference on physics.

Besides being a scientific genius, Peirce was also a brilliant philosopher although he never held any official full time position in philosophy. He was a lifelong friend of William James and was enormously influential in the thinking of virtually all of the classic American Philosophers including John Dewey, Josiah Royce and George Herbert Mead. Peirce was also the originator of the philosophical conception behind the American philosophy of Pragmatism. In short he was a creative genius who is probably only a lesser known figure than some of his contemporaries because of having lived such a troubled life.

Through his work with the Coast Survey Peirce was very aware of the limits of science. He recognized that our understanding of the world was largely obtained through measurement sampling and generalization. In other words we take a few measurements – say depth to the bottom of the ocean – and from that sample we try to generalize a topographical map of the ocean floor. The larger our sample size is, the more accurate our map will be.

Peirce was aware that an understanding of the nature of the universe gleaned from the measurements that we are able to make from this one planet would most likely be grossly inaccurate. As an example, he felt that our belief in Euclidian space would someday be found untrue. It didn’t make sense to him that space would extend infinitely in three dimensions. He felt that space must curve so that the universe would ultimately be bounded and not infinite in extension. Because of this he was sure that if we could measure a triangle that was large enough we would find that it’s angles would measure either less than or more than 180 degrees, depending on whether the curve of space was concave or convex. He knew that the largest triangles that had been measured in his time were those whose points were formed by the Earth and two distant stars and he believed that we were not yet able to measure accurately enough to see the deviation from 180 degrees.

Analogously he believed that the idea that the process of evolution was governed by “natural laws” was also erroneous. His work was done in the wake of Darwin’s Origin of Species and he certainly believed in the power of Natural Selection to guide the evolution of species. But when it came to the universe itself he felt that there could not be natural laws that govern the whole process because the natural laws would have evolved as part of the process.  For Peirce thinking that the universe evolved due to natural laws represented a kind of evolutionary duality. It is easy to think that the laws of time and space and energy etc. exist and govern a process of evolution that occurs within those laws. Peirce was asserting that those laws evolved within the universe and therefore could not have governed their own evolution.

Peirce attempted to create the foundation for an evolutionary philosophy that could be used to describe our evolving universe. He believed that there were three characteristics that must exist for evolution to take place, chance, continuity and habit. Chance means the possibility for novelty, somehow something new must be able to come into existence. Continuity means that things that come into existence must have the ability to remain in existence. And habit means that when something comes into existence it becomes more likely to happen again and the more it happens the more likely it is to happen more times until it becomes a permanent fixture in the universe.

Peirce believed that this evolutionary thinking could produce a completely different philosophical description of reality, but that it would take centuries to work out. Many of his ideas have been dated by the advancement of science, but I do think he was essentially correct. Charles Sanders Peirce was a profound intellect and a true evolutionary and integral thinker.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

For me what is at stakes here is the old issue of reconciling the Ground of Being with the Authentic Self and the Evolutionary Impulse. Can the Absolute Evolve ? Physicists believe in Absolute laws, and then they try to find the universal ( or Absolute) law for Evolution itself. Probably we can push this philosophy further and say that the absolute laws themselves can evolve, but their Evolution will be subject to another set of absolute laws;which themselves can evolve and whose evolution will be subject to yet another set of absolute laws…. like this ad infinitum A few… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Science has no limits other than human ability.

Mette
Mette
11 years ago

Hi Catherine. Not that I get all your deep knowledge of science, but I have some kind of intuition that what we are talking about here is close to this mystical passage from the bible (first corinthians 13): “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.”

Carl
11 years ago

Wow! Catherine, what you say is most interesting in so many ways. For Skinner, the behavior scientist, the breakthrough was the measure of probability of behavior of an organism as the rate of response (e.g., count per minute) of responses in various classes of behavior that come out in a continuous stream. He recognized that the environment creates “natural lines of fracture” between the instances of a response class that are emitted from moment to moment. And because of that, the environment in the form of antecedents and consequences can alter the probabilities (or relative rates) of those responses over… Read more »

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

Thank you Jeff to introduce Charles Peirce who already questioned ” the universe evolved due to natural laws represented a kind of evolutionary duality”.How come the evolutionary thinker like Charles forgotten for long time?.This Evolutionary philosophy like Charles attempt to demystify the law of universe which is really intriguing,to say honestly,he is rather outrageous,courageous and ambitious . For me the most fascinating part is the beginning,(initial of creation,birth of existence,life) .Just put “Chance” or “Possibility” seems too simple by considering the significance of all,yet Time-“Future” start to merge which is interesting because I see the link between .”Chance/ continuity/habit”and “Future/Present/Past”.… Read more »

Daniel Schulman
11 years ago

That notion of habit is a major plank in Rupert Sheldrake’s contribution. He calls ‘habit’ a ‘morphogenetic field’ and suggests as you have stated, that the more often something new is manifested, the easier it gets to manifest. I recall an example in one of his books of a study in England on a tiny bird called a tit – that one day in one particular corner of England, figured out it could enjoy a meal of fresh cream by pecking through the foil cap on milk bottles left on the doorsteps of people’s homes. This was novel behaviour for… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Carl, I am fascinated as well about the question of universal laws, and by the fundamental question: is there a constant or not ? This is one of the most interesting questions I know. Yes, like you I believe in universal laws. If this belief is not present, it is almost impossible to be a creative scientist. Speaking form my own experiences, at times when I loose faith in universal laws, my research starts to go into circles of irrelevant results with no clear directionality. Now, can we say that the laws are static ? this I am not sure.… Read more »