Metamodern View of Science

Every self-respecting (and in this case, self-ironic) philosophy must relate to knowledge. What can we know? How can we know it? What knowledge should count as most fundamental and valuable? What to make of subjective experience, social constructions, religions and spirituality in the face of scientific inquiry?

Without further ado, let’s jump to the bullet list of insights. The metamodern view of science is:

  • To respect science as an indispensable form of knowing.
  • To see that science is always contextual and truth always tenta­tive; that reality always holds deeper truths. All that we think is real will one day melt away as snow in the sun.
  • To understand that different sciences and paradigms are simul­tan­eously true; that many of their apparent contradictions are superficial and based on misperceptions or failures of translation or integration.
  • To see that there are substantial insights and relevant knowledge in all stages of human and societal development, including tribal life, poly­theism, traditional theology, modern industrialism and postmodern criti­que. In the book The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History, I call this the evolution of “meta-memes”.
  • To celebrate and embody non-linearity in all non-mechanical matters, such as society and culture. Non-linearity, in its simpl­est definition, means that the output of a system is not proport­ional to its input.
  • To harbor a case sensitive suspicion against mechanical models and linear causation.
  • To have “a systems view” of life, to see that things form parts of self-organ­izing bottom-up systems: from sub-atomic units to atomic particles to molecules to cells to organisms.[i]
  • To see that things are alive and self-organizing because they are falling apart, that life is always a whirlwind of destruction: the only way to create and maintain an ordered pattern is to create a corresponding disorder. These are the principles of autopoiesis: entropy (that things degrade and fall apart) and “negative en­tropy” (the falling apart is what makes life possible).
  • To accept that all humans and other organisms have a connect­ing, over­arching worldview, a great story or grand narrative (a religion, in what is often interpreted as being the literal sense of the word: some­thing that connects all things) and therefore accept the necessity of a grande histoi­re, an overarching story about the world. The meta­modernist has her own unapolog­etically held grand narrative, synth­esizing her available under­stand­ing. But it is held lightly, as one recog­nizes that it is always partly fictional – a proto­synthesis.
  • To take ontological questions very seriously, i.e. to let questions about “what is really real” guide us in science and politics. This is called the onto­logical turn.

”…we don’t really have a safe ‘ground of reality’, just a strange space that tunnels in all directions. In this magnificent and frightening hall of mirrors, we must still latch on the best models of reality, and we must still respect the authority of science, which can be questioned only by yet more universal authorities of science.”

Beginning with the first two points, these are obvious to most modern people. Science is defined as that which can be studied with a rigid method and can be empirically verified or falsified by further studies. You can also come up with alternate theories that explain the phenomena more parsimoniously, accurately and in greater harmony with other existing knowledge.

This mainstream view of science of course means that whatever we think we know is always only a partial story about a greater mystery. This holds true even in the most emblematic and powerful of the sciences: physics. For instance, Newton’s laws of gravity have been shown to be better explained by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Today some physicists, like Lee Smolin, are proposing that we live in a universe where even natural laws are emergent – i.e. just long lasting “habits” of the universe, rather than “laws” inscribed prior to its existence. In a similar vein, Erik Verlinde has argued that gravity doesn’t exist, that it may be an illusion.

Even the most basic and concrete of our convictions – and the ones that best predict the behaviors of nature – are part of deeper mysteries. And science is the process of building upon what we know, which ultimately always tears down the previously known. It is a dance of consciousness, always delving into a deeper mystery. We don’t live in a universe where “science” tells us “the truth”. We live in a universe where the truth always lies beyond us as we plunge into its mystery.

This insight necessitates a holistic view of the world. We cannot easily subscribe to the reductionist view that physics grounds chemistry, which grounds biology, which grounds psychology, which grounds the social sciences. There is of course a logic to this progression, but it is only a partial truth.

There are genuinely different facets of reality: where, for instance, our subjective experience must always be part of the equation, and this consciousness is always within a social context – in the case of humans, a social context that is imbued with meaningful symbols and their interrelations. So because even the study of “physics” cannot exist as anything outside of socially mediated consciousness, its exploration of the world cannot give us all the answers. The subjective realm, and the social realm, hence merit their own, separate forms of inquiry: humanities, perspective taking, interpretation, contemplation – even meditation.

If you can’t point to a “physics” that would exist prior to anyone’s conscious understanding of it, you can no longer believe that physics alone exhausts the knowledge of nature and reality. It is simply a set of mental models of interrelations between different parts of the experienced world. This is not to say, of course, that physics is reducible to opinions and subjective experience. Rather: all physical reality exists within our socially mediated consciousness, just as that same consciousness only exists within the framework of physical reality. The different fundamental aspects of reality swallow one another. This paradox is what most observers have missed: that one aspect of reality is entirely swallowed by another aspect of reality, which is in turn swallowed by the very thing it swallows. Very few people seem to understand this.

So we don’t really have a safe “ground of reality”, just a strange space that tunnels in all directions. In this magnificent and frightening hall of mirrors, we must still latch on the best models of reality, and we must still respect the authority of science, which can be questioned only by yet more universal authorities of science.

”Our work, as metamodern philosophers and scientists, is to rewrite the very fabric of what is real, as our participatory perspectives express higher truths, as they mirror more profound insights about physics and complexity – and land us in a vast landscape of reflections, gazing deeper into the abyss.”

A New Ontological Turn

The other points on the list present some such models that are fundamental to the metamodern view of knowledge, that give us something to latch on to.

The metamemes are master patterns in our view of the reality. Societies – and their sciences – evolve by changes of bits of knowledge and cultural patterns, which Richard Dawkins famously named memes. But there are also master patterns that organize the overall patterns of these memes: there are “metamemes”. Modernism, or modern life, is one such metameme, showing up in the arts, philosophy, science, legal structures, politics and the social organization of everyday life. Postmodernism is another one that has showed up in late modern societies. And metamodernism is still being born.

So even if science reigns supreme, it is always created in social, economic, cultural and philosophical settings that determine what scientific questions are asked, what methods are used, what problems are seen as worthwhile, which questions are kosher and which ones are taboo.

From within the field of science we see the growth of increasingly non-linear perspectives and models. You have the growing study of complex, self-organizing systems that follow the logics of chaos mathematics – and it is gaining strength across the sciences. When you study systems of this kind, the “input” is generally not proportional to the “output” of the system. This is in itself, of course, a silly and rather trivial observation: of course there are lots of things that cannot be described with linear, mechanical models. But the repeated exposure to systems thinking also changes one’s general sense of reality: we leave behind a view of reality as “a machine”, and begin to see it as a large set of very different interacting systems. From molecules, to cells, to organisms to ecosystems and societies, you can study their autopoiesis, their propensity to self-assemble. And paradoxically, this is only made possible by the fact that everything in the world is entropic, that everything is always decaying.

All this means that you begin to understand how often our general propensity to think in linear terms deceives us, how our intellectual intuitions betray us. We come to expect the unexpected. We begin to understand that matters are always more counter-intuitive than we would think. We begin to focus less on perceived truths and realities, and more on open-ended processes. For instance, writing this blog entry, which uses a number of flattened and truncated theories and concepts, I still see that these half-theories feed into the process of growing a metamodern understanding of the world. An advancement of a larger intuition, if you like. This intuition can in turn lead us to new, more robust science. And across the sciences, such robust theories are appearing – from the diverse work of The Santa Fe Institute for studies of complexity, to the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, to the veritable explosion of Barabasi’s network science, which recently has made its entry into neuroscience and medicine. And you have all the people working on “deep learning”, i.e. making machines learn to facilitate the emergence of artificial intelligence. And then you have the field of complexity economics, and corresponding developments in sociology. The list goes on. It’s a veritable revolution in science, intimately tied to what might loosely be termed a metamodern sense of science. In the humanities you have people like the “enactivists” who work with similar concepts. And of course, there are all the views of complex interactions in meteorology and ecology.

But to view science through the lens of chaos, complexity, interaction, entropy, autopoeisis and emergence is not to have a “stable” view of it. Sure, so there is a “pattern that connects”, described in an increasingly wide variety of authors such as Fritjof Capra, Gregory Bateson, Maturana and Varela, Yuval Harari, Robert Wright, Søren Brier, Manuel DeLanda and so forth. But the metamodern view isn’t that this is “the correct” view or intuition about reality.

It is a proto-synthesis. It is a synthesis of the knowledge and perspectives that can be garnered at this point in history – and perhaps not the only one or the best one – and it is destined to be revised and eventually replaced, just as all former intuitions of science.

But the metamodern mind isn’t contented by a relativist view of science. It still believes that there are greater patterns and mysteries to unravel, and that some truths and intuitions are more useful, and in that sense “higher” than others. So it grasps this proto-synthesis and holds it with self-conscious naivety. Because, after all, we need direction. We need something to believe in.

And we must all bow before the dazzling elegance of science.

And as some authors, notably Karen Barad and the posthumanists, and perhaps the “speculative realists”, have argued, we cannot be contented with a view only of knowledge, only of science. Our view of science is always intertwined with our general sense of reality, of what is “really real”, with ontology.

So the metamodern philosophy tries to figure out what is really real. It thus holds that the hall of mirrors, in which fundamental aspects of reality such as consciousness and physical reality, is a higher reality. It keeps asking questions about the nature of this reality, and understands that philosophy is not being expelled to the margins by empirical science.

Nay, philosophy is reasserting itself at the very core of all scientific endeavors. The same is true of spirituality, as all philosophical endeavors must, at their core, relate to reality itself. This wordless relationship is, after all is said and done, still spiritual.

This is the ontological turn. We are taking a turn in which we base our science upon a deepening philosophical inquiry into the nature of reality. Our work, as metamodern philosophers and scientists, is to rewrite the very fabric of what is real, as our participatory perspectives express higher truths, as they mirror more profound insights about physics and complexity – and land us in a vast landscape of reflections, gazing deeper into the abyss.

And when you gaze into the abyss, it also gazes into you.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.

[i] Capra, F. & Luisi, P. L., 2014. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. New York: Cambridge University Press.