Two Different Methods of Science

Yesterday, I pointed out parts of the scientific colour theory of the poet, statesman and early scientist Goethe. That theory is based on the belief that a science built from a foundation of wholeness will deliver far different (and in Goethe’s mind preferable) results from one built on breaking wholeness into its component parts, measuring the behaviour of those parts, and reassembling them again through logic. The latter is the kind of science we have. Goethe’s science became the kind of art we have, at least in the intellectual European tradition. The distinction, however, is largely cultural. It is entirely possible to have a science built on Goethe’s principles, which are based on measuring the wholeness of light (its white appearance to the human eye) rather than its spectrum after it has passed through a prism. To Goethe, the latter only measured the kind of light that had passed through a spectrum. To Newton, it was the foundation of an entire technical form of science. Goethe preferred measuring light with the human eye, and recording the effects it had on human measuring devices, rather than the effects that technical devices had on it. Following Newton’s kind of science, we could examine the ant lion trap below by measuring the dryness of the sand, the particular size of its grains, the exposure of the slope its on, the degree of shade offered by the Douglas fir tree above, the particular species of ants being hunted with this trap, and so on, in comparison with other locations in which ant lions are found, to derive a set of principles about the behaviour of ant lions, which could be expanded into a set of principles about desert adaptation, or hunting behaviour, and so on. Fair enough. That is certainly a scientific approach. Following Goethe’s method, we could also, however, measure the totality of this scene, the human response to it, and (among many other non-quantifiable qualities) its predominant greyness…P1390816… and even, perhaps, compare it to the greyness (and brown balance) in this image:


… and in this one …


… and this one …


… and this one …


These areas are all sharing a band of light energy in one landscape, to varying degrees, and mixed with other spectraI (again, to varying degrees), as observed by a human. Let it be noted that on the day most of these images were made (the grasshopper was found 2 days later, on a different slope of the same old seabed, but one ground up and mixed with young glacial clay to form a roadbed) one measuring device (me) found these grey images especially worthy of note. Together they speak of something no science has yet put terms to, because no science has built those terms. Goethe asked us to. Certainly, narratives of life on earth, narratives useful for organizing society and human relationships with other humans and with the earth, are capable of being built out of such attention. Take the grey values in the image below, for instance…


This is a wire crib, which holds soil, so that grass will build a stable slope and allow more housing lots above, with greater views over the lake below. Unlike the greys in the previous images, however, these are new greys, not ancient ones, and they are built, largely, out of zinc-coated wire and dead algae — a sea plant, that is growing here in the desert. That observation, derived from an attention to colour, and the kind of understanding of what this intervention into the life of the grassland slope is doing (returning it to ocean conditions, just like the conditions of the old seabeds protruding through other parts of the slope), has the ability to profoundly alter future interventions in the grassland slopes. This kind of observation is also called inspiration or a creative hypothesis in Newton’s form of science. In Goethe’s form of science, there is no inspiration and no bolts from the blue. There is, instead, a continuum, of which humans are a part. It is worth noting that after three centuries of Newtonian science, societal understandings of the earth, and many of the earth’s simplified processes (oceans stripped of fish, the great plains of North America reduced to millions of acres of one single species, where there were once hundreds, and now relying totally on petrochemical supports, and so on) are reactions to Newtonian science. If Goethe were alive today, he would point out that the outcomes of sciences are predicted by its methods; if we want different outcomes, we need to choose a different method. We don’t know what that is, because we haven’t explored that path, but one possibility is illustrated by the following images. First, three beautiful moth-like insects (perhaps they are moths) fertilizing a Canada Thistle, as taken through the lens of a Newtonian device (a Panasonic digital camera) …

can thistle

Have Fun Finding Those Insects Now!

Hint: 1 is out of focus and looking rather yellow.

And here is the same thistle, with a different focal length…



Blurry Thistles!

Useless in terms of Newtonian measurement, but very interesting indeed in terms of human measurement of context within wholeness.

Since Goethe isn’t here to make his point, I would like to make it in his stead. We have the capacity to renew ourselves. To do that, the first step is to revise our methods. We might find that the way forward is not through art but through the multiplicity of methods which art still champions, to the chagrin of the deconstructionist theorists who would like it to choose one Newtonian method forever. The human drive for multiplicity makes any ultimate success of deconstructionist theory highly unlikely. I will go one step further: continued development of society on lines leading away from multiplicity will lead to increased diminishment of the earth. To chose that is highly unethical.



2 thoughts on “Two Different Methods of Science

  1. Thanks for this post! After yesterday, I was going to ask you to write a bit more about Goethe’s ideas. The more you can show and explain these views, the more we who follow you can grow new eyes.


    • Aha! Would you like to know more yet, or are you full up now?

      Goethe can be overwhelming. Heck, I can be overwhelming. I try to self-regulate. Ha ha ha ha, do laugh along. A post a day, on 3 blogs, ha ha ha.


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