International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 152 27th April 2010


I. 'Philosophy, Science, and Consciousness' by Tony Fahey

II. 'Is Nature Complementary?' by Peter Barab

III. Conference: 'Ways of Living: Culture, Identity and Difference in today's world'



I am very pleased to welcome Tony Fahey, formerly of Dublin City University and the National University of Ireland Maynooth, to the Board of the International Society for Philosophers. For this issue, Tony has contributed his article 'Philosophy, Science and Consciousness' which looks at the much discussed problem of consciousness from the standpoint of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Tony Fahey has a particular interest in the philosophy of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). He has written a book Vico's Road to Postmodernism details of which can be found on the Pathways Features Page at https:---. He has also written an article on Vico, Joyce, Beckett and Yeats which is earmarked for the next issue of Philosophy Pathways.

Another book which has been added to the Pathways Features page is The Complementary Nature of Reality by Peter Barab. For this issue, Peter has written an overview of his theory, which ambitiously extends physicist Niels Bohr's complementarity principle regarding the wave-particle duality of light to the whole of nature. According to the author, it is only as a result of accidental historical circumstances that the phenomenon of complementarity has not found far wider application.

The Philosophical Society of England is organizing a one-day conference to be held at City University, London on 22nd May. Entry is not restricted to members of the Philosophical Society of England. Topics for the symposia are: 'Culture, Religion and Identity: the new Toleration Debate', 'Is diversity really something to celebrate rather than merely tolerate?', and 'Urban fears and global terrors: citizenship, multiculturism and belonging'. If you have the chance to get to London it promises to be a very interesting day out.

Geoffrey Klempner




Whilst it is fair to say that since the seventeenth century philosophers such as Descartes, Hegel, Brentano, Husserl and Bergson, to name but a few, have dealt, in one way or another, with the issue of human consciousness, it can be argued that none have dealt adequately with the question of the origin of consciousness: how consciousness arises. In the prologue to his book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, the Dalai Lama suggests that where scientific discoveries expose weaknesses in long held traditional beliefs, these beliefs should be abandoned, and the scientific discoveries embraced.[1] Taking the view that a convergence of science and philosophy can lead to a greater understanding of consciousness, and to the dissolution of some of the more traditional views on this issue, this paper sets out to discuss the scientific view that consciousness is not some kind of mysterious entity that evades all forms of scientific analysis, but a 'biological phenomenon' that is the result of the evolution of human mental development.

What is meant by 'consciousness?

From the outset it is important to say that, in this paper, what is meant by consciousness is a particular state of subjective sentient awareness which, whilst species specific to human beings, is rarely recognised for what it is. Let me explain: very occasionally, perhaps in the quietness of morning, as we awake, we may, for a brief moment, experience the sensation of 'just being': the feeling that 'I am'. Almost immediately this experience passes as thoughts intrude to attach all kinds of appendages to it: 'I am late', 'I am hungry', 'I am a doctor' and so on. However, before these intrusions occur, in that fleeting moment, it is possible to enjoy the unique experience of what it is just to be. It is the contention of this paper that this state of awareness is an a priori mode of perception which is species specific to homo sapiens -- and which has developed through the evolution of mental development. John Searle supports this view when he describes consciousness as,

     ... the central fact of specifically human existence because
     without it all other specifically human aspects of our
     existence -- language, love, and so on -- would be
In a sense, this is a polemic against the Cartesian view that takes this a priori condition and attaches to it the predicate 'thinking', thus concluding that because 'I am thinking, therefore I am', not realising that thinking is not in itself being, but an activity which occurs as a consequence of being: to think, first one must be.

To develop further the view that, without consciousness, all other aspects of being would be impossible, I would argue that there is a case to be made that thinking is a posteriori: it occurs as a result of empirical experience or sensory perception (one's potential to think is another thing altogether, and is associated with an innate instinct to structure language in an ordered fashion -- an issue addressed in the next section). In other words, in conjunction with one's ability to see, touch, smell, hear, and speak, thinking allows one to make sense of the phenomenal world. But it is not one's essential being, it is not what I am. It is important to realise that the claim is not being made that human consciousness is in any way a 'mystical' or 'other worldly' experience. What is being argued is that each individual possesses, a priori, the experience of being: of I am -- and that this experience has developed over the course of human history through the process of natural selection.

Consciousness as a product of evolution

The modern theory of biological evolution begins in 1859 with Charles Darwin's 'Origin of the Species by means of natural selection'. According to Darwin's theory, as random genetic mutations occur within an organism's genetic code, beneficial mutations are preserved and inherited by the next generation. This process is called 'natural selection'.

Natural selection, then, acts to preserve and accumulate advantageous genetic mutations. For example, if a member of a species were to develop a functional advantage its offspring would inherit that advantage, which in turn it would pass on to its offspring. In short, natural selection is the preservation of a functional advantage that enables a species to compete more effectively in a complex and often an alien world. The basic concept of natural selection is that 'nature' (the physical and biological environment) 'selects' variations in characteristics or traits which improve individual survival and reproduction (adaptive traits) and selects against unfavourable traits which burden individuals (maladaptive traits).[3] As long as environmental conditions remain the same, or similar enough, the trait's adaptive values will remain unchanged, and when traits are heritable, adaptive traits will become more common and maladaptive traits rarer over generations. Sudden or gradual physical or environmental changes alter the adaptive value of the trait regardless of the trait's previous evolutionary history. Organisms that exist today are those that have survived to pass on their genes to the next generation. As Richard Dawkins explains:

     Every generation is a sieve. The genes that will exist
     after a million generations of sieving have what it takes
     to get through sieves. They have participated in the
     embryonic structuring of a million bodies without a single
     failure. Every one of these bodies has survived to
     adulthood... [and] every single one of them proved capable
     of bearing or begetting at least one child.[4]
According to Dawkins, the Darwinian explanation for why living things are so good at what they do is very simple: they are good because of the accumulated wisdom of their ancestors. However, this wisdom is not something that is learnt or acquired; rather it is something that first arose in virtue of some random event -- some alteration of physical or environmental conditions -- that was then selectively recorded in the genetic database of the species.

One of the arguments against natural selection was that since it was only a theory it might contain gaps for which there was no factual evidence. However, the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, and for which, along with Maurice Wilkins they were awarded Nobel Prize in 1962, led to the definitive verification of the principle advanced by Darwin almost one hundred years before.[5] The 'double helix' structure of DNA consists of two interlinked spirals of biochemical units called nucleotides (hence the name). There are four nucleotides, known by their initial letters G, A, C and T. In a molecular model of DNA, they resemble a twisted stepladder. Now, all living creatures have the same genetic code. This code translates the sequence of DNA nucleotides into amino acids, the corresponding building blocks of proteins. Random mutations in DNA, together with the genetic mixing that takes place through sexual reproduction, make possible the variations that drive evolution.

Recent studies by a team of researchers at Trinity College Dublin, adds further weight to reliability of Darwin's theory. According to the team's findings, a random genetic mutation some 100 million years ago helped to deliver the yeast species that allows us today to enjoy bread and wine. The research, which was published in the prestigious journal, Nature (16/03/06), describes how a progenitor yeast living some 100 million years ago mutated by producing an extra copy of its entire genome. The result was a collection of new yeast species including the important Sacchromyces cervisiae, the yeast used to make bread and wine. According to Trinity's Smurfit Institute of Genetics professor Ken Wolfe, this research helps to explain one of the most difficult things to explain in genetics: 'it teaches us something about the process through which new species can be formed'.[6] As Wolfe explains, an organism evolves by gaining or losing genes. If genes are duplicated they tend to be dropped as extra copies are no longer required. These genome changes either help the organism to survive, thus increasing the chances that they will be passed on to the next generation, or work against survival and cause the organism to die off.[7] In the same way that the yeast we find in bread and wine has evolved to its present form over the millennia, so too, for Searle, is the evolution of human consciousness the result of a long history of increasing human mentality.

According to Searle, consciousness, or 'the sentient awareness' of one's own existence, is a 'neurobiological phenomenon' that privileges us human beings with the wherewithal to understand the world in which we live, and our place in that world.[8] It is the sensory experience of one's own existence. It is an experience that precedes experience of the outside world, but upon which experience of the world depends. As Christof Koch and Francis Crick say:

     Consciousness is a property of the human brain, a highly
     evolved system... The function of the neuronal correlate of
     consciousness is to produce the best current interpretation
     of the environment -- in the light of past experiences --
     and to make it available, for a sufficient time, to the
     parts of the brain which contemplate, plan and execute
     voluntary motor outputs'.[9]
In this context it might be thought to be something akin to Kant's 'space and time' and the categories of quality, quantity, modality and relation, or Chomsky's 'universal grammar' in that it is an a priori condition of the human mind. But it is more than this. Before we can experience space and time, causality, and before we order language grammatically, we must have consciousness. While Kant and Chomsky may give plausible explanations for the existence of a priori conditions in the human mind, they do not succeed in explaining how these conditions arise.

To understand just how these 'conscious states' come about we must return to Darwin's theory of evolution. As Ken Mogi says, it is highly probable that the fundamental principle behind the origin of consciousness corresponds to 'random mutation' or 'natural selection' that was so instrumental in the Darwinian theory of the origin of the species.[10] Where Mogi infers a probable connection between Darwin and the origin of consciousness, for Searle there is no ambiguity. Conscious states, he says, are the result of lower level neurological processes in the brain which are themselves higher level features of the brain. As far as we can tell, 'variable rates of neuron firings in the different neuronal architectures cause all the enormous variety of our conscious life'.[11]

What should be understood is that while the lower level neurological processes lead to consciousness, the conscious states that arise from them are not themselves some added substance or entity, but a higher feature of the whole system.[12] In essence, the lower level neuronal processes in the brain lead to consciousness, and consciousness is just a higher level feature of the system that is made up of the neural and lower level neuronal elements. Thus, when it is said that certain conscious states are a priori, it should be said that they are a priori not because they were implanted in the human mind since the creation of the species by some divine architect, rather they are a priori modes of perception which have, over the history of humankind, proven beneficial to the continuing evolutionary development of the species. One has only to consider how vulnerable human beings are in the physical world to realise how essential it became for the evolutionary process to provide humans with a form of consciousness that is species specific. In a world in which the development of human beings from infant dependency to adult independency is amongst the slowest in the animal world, it became imperative that the human mind should develop a mental dexterity that would allow them to anticipate, to negotiate, and to overcome obstacles; to consider the consequences of their circumstances and, where necessary, to modify their responses and reactions accordingly.

So how does it work?

According to Searle, the stimuli the brain receives through sensory experience are converted by the nervous system into 'variable rates of neuron firings at synapses'.[13] Neurons are the basic information processing structures in the nervous system, synapses are connections between neurons through which 'information' flows from one neuron to another. Neurons process all of the 'information' that flows within, to, or out of the central nervous system.[14] Robert Stufflebaum tells us that absolutely all of the motor information through which we are able to move; all of the sensory information through which we hear, see, smell, taste and touch; and all of the cognitive information through which we are able to reason, think, dream, plan, remember, and do everything else with our minds is processed in this way. Processing so many kinds of information requires many types of neurons. It is estimated that there may be as many as 10,000 types of neurons. It is also estimated that there are as many as 200 billion neurons in the brain alone. Since each of these is connected to between 5,000 and 200,000 other neurons, the amount of ways that information flows amongst neurons in the brain is greater than the number of atoms in the universe.[15]

Ken Mogi gives us an example of how this process operates on a practical level: Let us suppose, he says, that one is watching a dog. One sees that the dog has white hair, that the ground below the dog is covered with violets, and that the dog's ears are triangular. Here, one presumes that the dog, hair, violets and so on are out there, and that one is perceiving them as a result of the causal connections that begins with the reflectance of sunlight from the surfaces of these objects, via the photoreceptors in one's retina, and finally the firing of the neurons in one's brain.[16] However, Mogi goes on to point out that while in one sense the statement 'one perceives something outside one' may be true, in another sense it is misleading. Everything one perceives: the dog, the white hair, the violets, are but phenomenological 'apparitions' caused by the neural firings in one's brain. Thus, ultimately, the perceived dog is not 'outside' one, but 'within one'. Everything one perceives, even the image of a star billions of light years away seen through a telescope, is nothing but the result of neural firings in one's brain. Even if there is a dog standing in a field of violets, if the neurons in one's brain do not fire in an appropriate way, one would not perceive the dog or the violets. Conversely, even if the 'dog' and 'violets' were not there, if the neurons in one's brain were stimulated in the appropriate manner, one would have a perception of the dog and the violets.

Hence, the entities outside one, and one's perception of these entities, are in principle separate things. It is only that in normal circumstances, a highly reliable correlation is expected between the external entities and one's perception of them. In principle, one's perception could be independent of the actual external objects that normally invoke it.[17] It must be said that while Mogi clearly makes a valid point, it still remains that the neurons must be triggered by some external stimuli, either in the present or from the past, and that the images one perceives will always be those that have their source in sensory experience: one cannot have a perception of a dog if one has never seen a dog at one time or another. This particular feature of consciousness is called intentionality.


Intentionality is that feature of consciousness by which the mind brain contemplates states of affairs in the world. As a feature of consciousness, intentionality is like a screen onto which objects and acts are projected; without this screen objects and acts would not exist. It is important to realise that this does not imply that the real world does not exist; rather that it is only realisable in virtue of this particular feature. It should be stressed that intentionality is a feature of consciousness and not consciousness itself. Without consciousness, nothing else is possible. It is before all acts and objects; and before all other a priori modes of perception and all other evolutionary mental developments.

That intentionality has arisen as a development of evolution is well aired by Darwinian scientist Harvey Whitehouse who, in his paper entitled 'Darwin and the Scientific Study of Religion'[18] explains that through the process of natural selection the human brain has evolved to a stage at which it became 'naturally biased to creationism'. 'Obsessed with intention', says Whitehouse, 'we seek to identify order and design in the world we see around us'. Allied to this 'intention' to design is a tendency towards 'narcissism': the tendency to project human characteristics onto inhuman things. These characteristics can include not only physical attributes such as heads, hearts, eyes and so on, but attributes such as compassion, intelligence, justice, beauty, as well as their opposites. It is from this property of the mind that religious beliefs arose. The human brain, says Whitehouse, 'has evolved hazard precaution mechanisms': faculties or perhaps, more accurately, instincts that warn us against dangerous substances, occurrences, and events. These 'warning signs' become crystallised in our minds into notions of 'right' or 'wrong' behaviour. Those which threaten the harmony or wellbeing of the individual or his or her environment are deemed to be wrong, whilst those that are deemed advantageous are good. For Whitehouse, science can show that human consciousness did not derive from some metaphysical source or realm; rather it arose in virtue of a random beneficial mutation that was preserved and passed on to successive generations by natural selection.

The instinct of equilibrity

Consciousness, then, privileges us with an awareness of our existence. Intentionality, as a feature of consciousness, privileges us with the wherewithal to contemplate affairs of the world. However, in order to order phenomena, nature, or natural selection, has furnished the mind/ brain with another, equally important, feature which I will call the instinct of equilibrity: an innate sense of equilibrium which is essential in the making of judgement calls necessary for our safety and development. It is this essential feature or element that allows us to intuit that which may serve us best in our struggle of the survival of the fittest. It is in virtue of this feature that we recognise those qualities in others that are worth borrowing for our own evolutionary purposes. It is in virtue of this feature that we turn away from that which we feel may affect us negatively, and turn towards that which we feel may benefit us. It is in virtue of this feature that we have developed our sense of beauty, justice, goodness, and truth, and their opposites -- qualities indefinable in themselves but essential in establishing an environment in which human beings can live and prosper. It could be argued that when Keats said that 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty! -- that is all/ Ye know and all ye need to know' it was this sense of balance of which he spoke: at its most refined beauty is truth, and truth is beauty. But it is also justice and goodness; and together they are but manifestations, even interpretations, of the unique feature which is the instinct of equilibrity.

Allied to this faculty is another faculty which evolutionary biologists call reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism has its roots in what scientists call biological altruism. At base, then, there is biological altruism. That is, it is found that an organism may behave altruistically when its behaviour benefits other organisms. Now it seems that there are selfish genes and altruistic genes. While selfish genes can, on a one versus one basis, destroy an altruistic gene, where two or more altruistic genes come together, they will gain dominance over a selfish gene. Without going into scientific detail, this process is found to through different species: there is biological altruism (as shown above), kin altruism which runs through the animal kingdom, and reciprocal altruism which is more evident in humans. This predisposition manifests more recognisably in family or group solidarity, but can extend on a wider scale, particularly where there exists some form of empathy with these other individuals, groups, societies etc. It is held that a society where the majority of people are genetically predisposed to be altruistic will exhibit more caring tendencies, even to the extent that one may be prepared to sacrifice one's life so that the group will survive -- it is said that this tendency is also evident at biological and kin altruistic level (For a more detailed account of this see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http:---).


Whilst the oldest human related fossil -- the Sahel Man from Chad -- dates back 7 million years, most anthropologists agree that Homo erectus began to evolve into Homo sapiens about 500,000 years ago, at the very last instant, of the 4.5 billion year history of our planet.[19] If we consider the life of the planet in terms of a twenty four hour clock, it can be said that human beings have only been around in the last few minutes. Thus, it follows that, for the greater part of its existence, the earth has managed perfectly well without us. On this evidence it can be argued that human beings are contingent to the existence of the planet upon which they live: the earth just doesn't need us. Even if we accept that, at the time of our appearance, nature had decreed that there was need for such a species of animal, recent evidence of man's impact on the world supports the view that that need may well be long exhausted. Given that human beings could well be the dinosaurs of the present age, and that we too, due to some physical or environmental change in the climate, will outlive our usefulness (if we ever had any, and if we have not outlived it already) and become extinct, the argument must be made that human consciousness, since it is a neurobiological phenomenon, will disappear with us -- and so will the paradigms, the ideas, and the dogmas we have devised, over the course of human history, in our attempts to understand the world, and our place in it.

Philosophy has given much attention to the roles human mental intuitions, modes of perception, and faculties play in the formation of concepts and ideas. One of the most influential of these thinkers was Immanuel Kant who held that in order to have a recognisable, discussable experience it must fall into a pattern. The very order or form of this experience, he said, belongs to the mind, and not to the outside world. We neither have nor can conceive of any possible experience except in through the a priori modes of perception of space and time, and the categories of quantity, quality, relation, modality, existence/ non-existence, and necessity.[20]

However, whilst Kant turned things around by arguing that knowledge of the world depends on certain a priori conditions, since we cannot assume that the human mind has always been privileged with such conditions, it must be argued that he fails to satisfactorily answer the question as to how these conditions may have arisen. In this paper we have seen that there is strong 'scientific' evidence to support the view that consciousness is a neurobiological phenomenon that has arisen in the human brain/ mind as a result of the evolution of mental development; and that it is through the process of natural selection that human beings have developed the mental tools which have allowed them to survive, to compete, to develop, and to evolve in a complex and often alien world. As a consequence of this evidence, those who remain convinced by the view that ideas, religious or otherwise, derive from some transcendent realm, and/ or that certain states of consciousness have always existed, may find that it is time to measure their own views on these matters against the discoveries of science. As mentioned in the introduction to this paper, the Dalai Lama holds that where scientific discoveries prove conclusively that some of our beliefs to be false, we must be prepared to eschew these beliefs in favour of science. If philosophy is to come to a greater understanding of consciousness and its manifestations, it must be at least prepared to put its own prejudices in parenthesis and examine the discoveries science has made in this area. For philosophy to ignore the inroads science has made into the area of consciousness is to risk reducing philosophy to just another form of dogma.


1. Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (New York, Morgan Road Books, 2005, p. 13)

2. Searle, John: Minds, Brains & Science, (London: Penguin Books, 1984) p.16

3. See Darwin, Charles: The Origin of the Species, (Ware: Wordsworth Literature, 1998), pp 61-86

4. Dawkins, Richard: Climbing Mount Improbable, (London: Penguin books, 1997), p. 76

5. See Carmisoni, Penni: 'From Darwin to the Human Genome', California State University

6. Wolfe, Ken: in 'Demonstrating the origin of the species' by Dick Ahlstrom, The Irish Times, 16/03/06, p.17

7. See ibid.

8. See Searle, John: 'The Problem of Consciousness'; http:---

9. Koch, Christof and Crick, Francis: '116 Consciousness, neural basis of' from Commentary on 'The Mystery of Consciousness' University of California, Chico, Nov 4, 1999

10. Mogi, Ken: 'Qualia and the Brain', Nikkei Science, Tokyo, 1997, http:---

11. See Searle op.cit.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. See Stufflebaum, Robert: 'Neurons, synapses, and neurotransmission: An introduction http:---

15. Ibid.

16. Op.cit.

17. Ibid.

18. Whitehouse, Harvey: 'Darwin and the Scientific Study of Religion', Trinity College Dublin, 10/02/06

19. See Raven, Dr Peter: "Our Planet" (UNEP's magazine for environmentally sustainable development), Vol 6, No 4, 1994

20. See Kant, Immanuel: Critique of Pure Reason, trans by Norman Kemp Smith, (London: Macmillan Press, 1996), pp. 65-91

(c) Anthony Fahey 2010




Could it be that there is a pattern of nature which pervades the universe, but which physics treats as mostly a niche phenomenon that only applies to a limited realm?

The thesis being proffered here is that the notion of complementarity represents precisely that most pervasive pattern of nature, and can therefore serve as the centerpiece for a new model of science. This means, of course, that we are talking about something which goes well beyond a set of subtle phenomena in the micro world, most notably the wave-particle duality, which is described in terms of Niels Bohr's principle of complementarity. The new approach being put forth here is that complementarity can be understood in a much broader way, such that it is able to encompass all phenomena, regardless of whether we are talking about the micro or macro world.

Yet how could this be, and why would we all not know it -- if indeed such a pattern pervades the natural world? Consider two different answers, one outside and the other inside of physics.

Regarding the former, the argument would be that most people simply do not think in terms of complementarity. While we are all aware of common patterns like light vs. dark, male vs. female, or awake vs. asleep, we tend to construe these phenomena in terms of the particular characteristic or relationship, rather than in terms of the broader pattern of complementarity which they represent. Part of the explanation may be cultural, in the sense of different western vs. eastern ways of perceiving the world -- which includes modes of thinking that are more, and less, associated with modern science.

This brings us to the inside answer, which concerns how our theories of science get built and what criteria should apply. Put succinctly, the argument would be that an expanded principle of complementarity is not needed because all the many realms of nature where it might be applied already have conceptual frameworks in place which account for the phenomena in question. Not only would the new precept be unnecessary, it is also hard to see how it could be applied in broad terms which satisfy the cardinal rule put forward by Karl Popper -- namely, that any theory of science must be subject to falsification, in the sense that it should make specific predictions which are subject to disproof.

Obviously, then, we have some explaining to do, as to just why a general principle of complementarity should even be subject to consideration -- given that most realms have already been dealt with theoretically, and the present approach does not go further in making better predictions that are subject to falsification. And since that criterion is at the heart of the phenomenal success which the established paradigm has enjoyed lo these many years, then why should we allow ourselves to get sidetracked with spurious speculation?

It should be quite evident that there is no way of dealing with these issues without reexamining the theory-building strategy of modern science -- which is why we devote considerable discussion to the topic, in a paper that is about complementarity. Thus, valuable as the scientific method has long been in countering the more lax approach to construing the patterns of nature which preceded it, this strategy has its own limitations. One of these is that our constructs and our models have been largely developed in a kind of wild west manner -- in the sense that once some phenomenological territory has been tamed or accounted for by a given set of logical structures, in terms of making accurate predictions, then that phenomenological domain is 'owned' by the associated conceptual framework and is very difficult to dislodge.

Given that many realms of nature were already owned by one or another conceptual framework before complementarity came onto the scene in modern physics, the construct was only required to account for a fairly specific subset of phenomena which could not be otherwise accounted for. One might argue that had a fully-developed concept of complementarity been put forward earlier in the historical cycle, it would have represented the basic conceptual overlay. Of course, the western mode of thinking which underlies modern science would hardly have been receptive to such an intrusion, and even today there are many scholars who reject the complementarity interpretation even in the limited realm where it is generally applied.

One serious problem with the shotgun approach to theory-building is that we end up with different sets of phenomenological territory being owned by different conceptual frameworks -- and while each may be individually justified, in terms of the falsification criterion, taken together they do not fit with one another. The resulting melange amount to arbitrary cross sections of nature which cannot be brought together in a coherent manner.

One way of discussing the issue is in terms of two different criteria for building our theories of nature -- the usual one of prediction, as opposed to the more controversial one of understanding. The position being put forward here is that these amount to narrow vs. broad ways of construing the patterns of nature -- and while the former are appropriate to particular domains, the latter are suitable for the larger whole; and that if we are ever to develop a coherent model of nature, then the latter must come into play. And for that to happen, we need the broadest of concepts that are widely applicable, rather than only the narrower ones which currently reign. Obviously, the position here is that complementarity fits the bill.

Not only that, but there is another factor regarding the broad-based approach to theory-building which complementarity represents -- and this concerns the implicit assumption that any conceptual framework which is bolstered by the prediction criterion automatically establishes such outcomes as representing immutable facts of nature which are (at least provisionally) not subject to dispute. But the reality is that any 'fact' only exists within some context or framework of interpretation, and it can appear differently when cast within some other framework of interpretation. These issues inevitably lead to questions about unprovable assumptions and underlying metaphysics, which is a point that we will return to below.

With all this background, it's time to consider some of the different ways in which complementarity is applied in the new approach. And this is an important point to reiterate; for it should be obvious that the whole idea here is not merely to take the standard principle of complementarity, as it is usually understood in physics, and simply declare that it describes everything in nature. Rather, we are talking about an expanded principle of complementarity which goes beyond that which came before it.

How? We might start by saying that there is a complementary distinction between what might be called being and what might be called seeing, with the former consisting of 'what is out there' (to speak simply) as opposed to 'how we see' what is out there. And while each factor has subsidiary complementary components, consider first just the seeing part. There are two fundamentally different ways of construing or perceiving a given pattern of nature, which will yield a very different outcome in each case. One way of seeing can be described in terms of the narrow and precise, as opposed to the other way of seeing in terms of the broad and diffuse; or one could speak about the part as opposed to the whole, or the focus/ figure as opposed to the background. Everything in nature is subject to these two complementary perspectives -- and both are required in order to comprehend the phenomenon in question.

Indeed, our concepts and theories about nature can be treated in precisely these terms, as ways of seeing the world. And that is also why we can describe the prediction vs. understanding criteria as narrow vs. broad ways of construing the patterns of nature. What we can add here is the rather obvious point that prediction and understanding can themselves be considered as complementary modalities for achieving this end, with both being essential for a satisfactory outcome.

But now let us turn to the other side of the being-seeing pair. There are various ways in which the new model would describe the world that is 'out there' in complementary terms, but one way would be in terms of two different abstract orientations -- vertical and horizontal. The vertical orientation can, in fact, be understood in terms of another basic construct, that of hierarchy. After all, any hierarchy is ultimately composed of something akin to a top and something akin to a bottom -- or at least a corresponding upward vs. downward direction or ordering scheme -- and these two are complementary to one another. Then what about the horizontal orientation? These would consist of particular levels of the hierarchy, each of which would have its own complementary components.

Now consider some other general ways that complementarity would come into play, in terms of a set of basic natural characteristics -- and these are admittedly somewhat nebulous in the brief manner that they are listed here. To start with, we can say that a given phenomenon or broad situation (e.g., a 'frame of reference') can be stable or it can be changing. Similarly, we can talk about a relationship or situation as having an inside orientation or an outside orientation. Then there is a complementary pair as between matter (e.g., objects -- or particles) and medium (e.g., emptiness -- or waves). Finally here, there is that most central of characteristics which we also describe in complementary terms -- stasis vs. motion. And to be clear about the distinction between stable and static: the former does not mean the latter, given that something can be moving in a stable (i.e., uniform) manner.

What the new model attempts to do is bring these (and other) complementary parameters together into a coherent framework, which is then applied to a wide range of topics and phenomena in nature. Along the way, many commonly accepted provisions of the established paradigm become subject to reinterpretation. The easiest way to describe this in general terms is with an argument about one-sidedness: many of the most basic constructs in modern physics are arbitrarily one-sided in their composition, and these one-sided conceptions distort the nature of reality -- for in principle they could just as easily have been framed with the opposite orientation, and also not falsified; which brings us back to the unprovable assumptions or underlying metaphysics mentioned earlier. Again, the 'facts' have been interpreted within a framework that is one-sided, when they could just as well have been interpreted in a framework which is other-sided.

Yet because the conceptual frameworks (in which these one-sided ideas are couched) have not been dislodged by means of falsification, they continue to be embraced as ipso facto representations of reality. Of course, the basic assumption of the new model is that these constructs should not be interpreted in terms of either side alone (whichever it is, in the given instance), but rather in terms of both (complementary) sides.

'So what?' someone might protest. 'Does it really matter? As long as the established theories work to do the job at hand -- make accurate predictions -- then arguments like these should not be given much credence. Unless some new approach makes better predictions than the existing one, then the rules of science disqualify it as a contender -- it simply does not matter, and only acts as a distraction from what should be the proper business of science. Not only does it not help in conducting science within the field, but it confuses and misleads the general public -- both in terms of how science should be done, as well as in terms of what the accepted outcome of that process is in the dominant theories of the day. And there are already enough problems getting people educated about science without slipping backwards like this.'

Actually, leaving the dogma aside, that last point crystallizes the issue and the problem. Thus, why is there so much scientific illiteracy or ignorance among the larger population, a point that is frequently bemoaned by the science community? It is suggested here that the source of the difficulty does not lie in a failure of the general public (the learners) to be motivated or interested -- nor does it even lie with the techniques or drive of the scientists themselves (the teachers). Rather, it is a problem with the content -- with the concepts and theories themselves. Far too many of these ideas, especially in physics, make no sense to people and have no apparent relationship to their everyday lives -- so why should they be expected to embrace them? And how could they anyway, given that the ideas are not coherent; in both senses of the term? That is, the various conceptual components do not fit together into a coherent whole, and the resulting patchwork is not coherent in terms of being meaningful.

Prediction is not enough, for by itself it also represents a one-sided approach to nature -- yet the other side of understanding is also essential. Complementarity is the key to grasping this overall relationship, as it is to so many other aspects of our work to comprehend the patterns of nature.


For a full discussion of the essential thesis, see the new book called The Complementary Nature of Reality, by Peter Barab. Published in 2010 by Open Way Press (http:---). ISBN 978-0-98822637-0-9

(c) Peter Barab 2010




A Day-Conference and Colloquium arranged by the Philosophical Society of England.

Venue: City University, Northampton Square, London EC1V OHB

Date: Saturday, 22nd May, 2010, 10.30a.m. - 6.30 p.m.

Questions about religious and  cultural  identity in today's changing world mean that liberal democracy faces a new toleration debate. While democracy requires being able to see the world from other people's perspectives, there is no longer a consensus about what this entails. Does it mean approving as well as permitting? Is it incompatible with moral judgement? Is tolerance something that is due to people themselves or to their views and opinions? And what is to be done if it turns out to be impossible to tolerate one group or viewpoint without discriminating against another? These are some of the questions that will be addressed at this conference.


Saturday 22nd May

10.30 a.m. Arrival, registration and coffee


11.00 a.m. 'Culture, Religion and Identity: the new Toleration Debate'

     Brenda Almond
     Emeritus Professor of Moral and Social Philosophy,
     University of Hull.
     Lawrence Blum
     Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education and
     Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts,
     Michael Bavidge
     Chair of the Philosophical Society of England

1 p.m. Lunch


1.45 p.m. 'Is diversity really something to celebrate rather than merely tolerate?'

     David Conway
     Civitas, formerly Professor of Philosophy at Middlesex
     Chair and Respondent:
     Jane O'Grady
     Philosophy lecturer, writer and reviewer.

3.15 p.m.  Tea


3.45 p.m. 'Urban fears and global terrors: citizenship, multiculturism and belonging'

     Victor Seidler
     Professor of Social Theory and Philosophy, Goldsmiths
     College, University of London.
     Chair and Respondent:
     Professor Christina Slade
     Dean of Arts and Social Sciences, City University, London.

5.45 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. DRINKS AND NIBBLES

Registration charge, including morning and afternoon tea and coffee, lunch and evening reception is £35.  Early application is recommended as places are limited. Cheques made out to 'The Philosophical Society of England' should be sent to the Honorary Secretary of the Society: Dr. Alan Brown, 9 Olney Court, Oxford OX1 4LZ. e-mail

Web-page of the Society: http:---



The Philosophical Society of England

Ways of Living: Culture, Identity and Difference in today's world

A Day-Conference and Colloquium arranged by the Philosophical Society of England at City University, Northampton Square, London EC1V OHB.

Saturday, 22nd May, 2010 10.30a.m. - 5.30 p.m.

To register, please fill in the following form:



Phone number:

E.mail address:

(We would prefer to have this if available, to help us communicate further details and information.)

Member of the Philosophical Society of England: Yes/ No

(Please delete what does not apply.)

I wish to register for the Philosophical Society Day-Conference and enclose a cheque for  £35 made out to 'The Philosophical Society of England'.


Please post this form, enclosing payment of £35 to the Hon. Secretary of the Philosophical Society, Dr. Alan Brown, 9 Olney Court, Oxford OX1 4LZ.


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020