Owen Barfield on the Metaphysics of Modern Science

by Jason Peters on June 10, 2009 · 26 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Philosophers & Saints



[Biographical Note: Owen Barfield was a solicitor by trade. He was a close friend of C.S. Lewis’s, the legal executor of Lewis’s estate, and a sometime member of the Inklings. But Barfield also had a distinguished intellectual career independent of the Lewis circle—a parallel vocation as a literary critic, poet, novelist, philosopher, and philologist. After retiring from the bar, he held a few visiting academic posts in the United States. He published about a dozen books in his life (and a few more posthumously), one of which, Poetic Diction, was much admired by the disparate likes of Saul Bellow, W.H. Auden, and Howard Nemerov. Barfield is perhaps best known for a very provocative book titled Saving the Appearances, which was in large part an attempt to systematize a romantic doctrine of imagination in the service of saving the perceiver (or the subject) for what he saw as a dangerously objectified world. He also wrote one of the very best books ever written on Coleridge, What Coleridge Thought. He died in December of 1997 at the age of 99.]

This is the first of a two-part post on Owen Barfield


In a little book titled History, Guilt and Habit Owen Barfield wrote, “You will sometimes hear people say that they have no metaphysics. Well, they are lying. Their metaphysics are implicit in what they take for granted about the world. Only they prefer to call it ‘common sense.’” [1] Much of the burden of that little book, and indeed of most of what Barfield wrote, was to point out, and then call into question, what he considered the assumptions of the scientific view—to point out and then call into question, that is to say, its metaphysics, which for him formed the “subliminal boundaries of the contemporary mindscape.” [2]

He pointed to Descartes—who put asunder what God had joined—as the villainous architect of this mindscape, this cosmology of science, not because Descartes invented it “but because he was the thinker, fairly near its beginning, who most competently formulated the felt alienation of matter from mind, and thus of nature from humanity” (RM 189). The two main features of Barfield’s dissent from the scientific view, or what he sometimes simply called ‘Cartesianism,’ were these:

(1) Science assumes as a matter of first business a fundamental alienation of mind from matter.

Just as Aristotelianism assumed—“assumed, not merely ‘believed in’”—“an intercommunion between man (the microcosm) and nature (the macrocosm),” so Cartesianism assumes, not merely believes in, “the felt alienation of matter from mind” (RM 189). “Whether we sleep or wake,” wrote Thomas Paine in 1794, “the vast machinery of the universe goes on.” More than two hundred years later, dissenters from this view are as scarce as virgins and equally maligned. Paine’s view is regarded in the West as a correct statement on the relation of man to nature. It is an assumption that has become a “mental habit.”

In his opposition to this assumption and the mental habit that follows from it, Barfield was at some pains to point out that the world we inhabit is not, that it cannot be, structurally different from what we think about it—that the world we perceive “is not something unshakably and unalterably given, but is largely the product of the way we collectively and subconsciously think. It is correlative to our mental habit” (HGH 71—and not, by the way, “incompatible with deep religious conviction” [RM 190]).

This essay is not an epistemological treatise; nor do I have the space fully to trace what Barfield believed about the relationship of subject to object. This essay is a reminder from Barfield of the extent to which faith is implicit in our current view of the world. But it is necessary, I think, in the service of explaining the first feature of Barfield’s dissent from the scientific view, briefly to sketch part of Barfield’s strategy for showing how the world we perceive coheres structurally with what we think about it.

He began his book Saving the Appearances [3] with a favorite romantic image—a favorite because signal feature of the romantic dissent from the Enlightenment—viz., the image of the rainbow. A rainbow ‘exists’ because light, water, and eyesight combine to create it. Your eyes are every bit as important to the construction of the rainbow as water and light are, and you can test the extent to which you are implicated in the rainbow’s ‘existence’ by trying to find the pot of gold at the end of it. As you move, so does the rainbow. It comes to rest beyond that hill there, until you yourself climb that hill, whereupon the rainbow, together with its coveted pot of gold, has moved and now comes to rest beyond the next hill. Chase it however you may, the only thing you will have in the end is the certainty that eyesight is as important to the rainbow’s being wherever it is as light and water are.

Likewise a tree, though this part of the argument is more difficult: “Recall all you have been told about matter and its ultimate structure and ask yourself if the tree is ‘really there’. I am far from affirming dogmatically,” Barfield said,

that the atoms, electrons, nuclei, etc., [and now we might add ‘strings’] of which wood, and all matter, is said to be composed, are particular and identifiable objects like drops of rain. But if the ‘particles’ (as I will here call them for convenience) are there, and are all that is there, then, since the ‘particles’ are no more like the thing I call a tree than the raindrops are like the things I call a rainbow, it follows, I think, that—just as a rainbow is the outcome of the raindrops and my vision—so, a tree is the outcome of the particles and my vision and my other sense-perceptions. Whatever the particles themselves may be thought to be, the tree, as such, is a representation. . . . This background of particles is of course presumed in the case of raindrops themselves, no less than in that of trees. The relation raindrops: rainbow, is a picture or analogy, not an instance of, the relation, particles: representation. (SA 16-17)

Barfield confessed that a “better term than ‘particles’ would possibly be ‘the unrepresented,’ since anything particular which amounts to a representation will always attract further physical analysis” and because the small stuff of modern physics can be regarded as “notional models or symbols of an unknown supersensible or subsensible base” (SA 17). But he wished to make plain that “whatever may be thought about the ‘unrepresented’ background of our perceptions, the familiar world which we see and know around us . . . is a system of collective representations” in which we as perceivers are implicated. “The time comes,” said Barfield, “when one must either accept this as the truth about the world or reject the theories of physics as an elaborate delusion. We cannot have it both ways” (SA 18).

That, in half a nutshell, is Barfield’s opening move in Saving the Appearances, and what it means, of course, if indeed it’s true, is that the felt alienation of mind from matter in accordance with the Cartesian formula is an illusion and that Thomas Paine, as was so often the case, was wrong—if nevertheless interesting.

But it also means that our world is not, that it cannot be, structurally different from what we think about it. To some extent—and I am not concerned here with what precisely that is—what we perceive depends upon a mental habit. I do not know whether any FPR readers have strong feelings one way or the other about organ donation and heart transplants; I do know that for the purposes of such procedures it is useful first to think of the body as a machine and then, just as you would swap out engines in cars, to swap out the hearts or livers from the bodies of heavy smokers and hard drinkers.

This is an example, I think, of how the so-called outer world is structurally linked to thought. In this respect Hamlet was not entirely wrong to say that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II.ii.249-50).

From the foregoing, it follows, Barfield argued, that we use the terms ‘false’ and ‘true’ far too promiscuously. We say Aristotelianism is false and Cartesianism true, animism false and Darwinism true, when we would more accurately speak of what is earlier and later. But we are a long way from saying, and working with far too little data to say, anything about what is false and what is true.


The initial false move—the Cartesian divorce—emboldened others to lie about their metaphysics, which lying has bedeviled evolutionary theory, and now I come to the second main feature of Barfield’s dissent from the scientific view:

(2) In an essay titled “The Coming Trauma of Materialism,” Barfield pointed out that the edifice of science hangs upon an “obviously unprovable but very convenient postulate”: “that no causes whatever have, from the earliest time to which we can look back to the present, ever acted, but those now acting, and that they never acted with different degrees of energy from which they now act.”

This, of course, is the doctrine of “uniformitarianism.” “So it was formulated by the geologist Lyell,” Barfield continued, “at about the time Western man was first becoming deeply interested in his own and nature’s ‘evolution.’ Adopted as a habit, and eventually by force of that habit accepted as a fact, it has determined the whole development of evolutionary theory” (RM 190-91). Barfield then pointed out—and the theorists themselves confess this [4] —that

uniformitarianism depends on Cartesianism and Darwinism depends upon uniformitarianism. This is of course not realized by more than a tiny minority, and Darwinism, inculcated from childhood as a fact, intertwines with, deepens, and spreads the subliminal roots of Cartesianism. It is the combination of the two which has been decisive for the Western mindscape and is now almost synonymous with it. (RM 191)

Which is too bad, because there’s another problem. “The one thing, above all, that we know about nature,” Barfield said (somewhat gleefully perhaps),

is that it has been, from the beginning of time or as far back as we can peer, in a constant process of evolution, of change. How is it then that this particular bit of it that we call the laws of nature has never changed? Or so we are told. How is it that we are as certain of that (for the whole current idea of evolution is based on just that assumption) as we are that the rest of nature has gone on changing all the time? One would have expected those—and their number is legion—who are convinced that everything is accounted for by biology, to perceive that difficulty. (HGH 85)

In short, he thought it foolish to build a cosmology on such shifting sands.

Barfield understood that to doubt Darwinian theory is to be called a “flat-Earther” (RM 196). Yet he doubted it. (I would say he doubted the narrative form it has taken, not the observable evidence itself, and that he thought it woefully thin on the sum of all available evidence, but that is material for another essay.) He disbelieved the “concentration of attention always on smaller and smaller units . . . [to be] the only direction in which advancing knowledge can proceed”: “however impressive may be the practical justification for [our] atomic obsession, there is no evidential justification whatever for the conclusion, or rather the assumption, to which it so often leads, namely, that the parts preceded the wholes, and that the world was actually built by putting together the units into which our minds divide it, as a house is built by putting bricks together” (HGH 13). And he found especially annoying those attempts to study the evolution of the outer world and then “on the basis of that study [to make] all sorts of unwarranted assumptions about the evolution of consciousness” (HGH 25).

For, inevitably, Barfield came round to talking about the one kind of evolution that really interested him, the evolution of consciousness, which he rightly believed to have left a kind of fossil record in language itself. Again, I have no space fully to trace his argument, and this essay is not an etymological treatise. But a favorite example of Barfield’s will suffice for now. As late as the writing of the fourth gospel, the Greek word ‘pneuma’ meant ‘spirit,’ ‘breath,’ and ‘wind,’ and indeed we rightly divide that one word in which three meanings cohere into three different words, spirit, breath, and wind. But what the history of this and any number of other words in any number of other languages tells us about consciousness is this: that at one time, not that long ago, there was no felt alienation from the outer world that is now characteristic of the Cartesian view. Anyone for whom ‘spirit,’ ‘breath’ and ‘wind’ can be expressed by a single word must surely feel not alienated but intimately linked to what we call the outer world. His spirit and to an extent his breath, both inner realities, have real, not merely metaphorical, ties to the wind, which is an outer reality. [5] Meditate such words as inspiration or atmosphere or influence or genius and you come to the same conclusion. The history of language is the history of words that at one time had both an inner and an outer meaning, cohering undivided, in them. The eventual division of those cohabitant meanings—as in ‘pneuma’—marks the moment in history when an outer world as a separate thing begins to emerge—to become at first felt and later ‘known’—and then to await Descartes’ decisive articulation that, as I said earlier, put asunder what God had joined. Now if the world we inhabit is not and cannot be structurally different from the world we think, then we don’t have much business saying medieval man was wrong and we are right. And the canons of intellectual honesty would seem to require our admitting this: that we assume to be true what our own mental habits tell us about the world only at the price of a costly intellectual compromise. Are we alienated from nature? Yes. Why? Not because we are in fact alienated but because we are in thought alienated. But we can by thought (and, Barfield argued, by careful training in the imagination) be re-united. [6]

Barfield’s philological reflections led him to conclude that whereas we, after Descartes, perceive a world filled with things, our forbears—perhaps to include St. John the Evangelist—must certainly, at some point, have “perceived images.” Now “[t]he difference between an image and a thing lies in the fact that an image presents itself as an exterior expressing or implying an interior”—wind would be an example of this—“whereas a thing does not. When what begins by being an image becomes in course of time a mere thing, we are justified in describing it as an idol. And a collective state of mind, which perceives all things and no images, may thus fairly be characterized as idolatry” (HGH 70).

On Barfield’s account it is we, the enlightened ones, the heirs of the scientific revolution, who are the idolaters.

Next Week: Some thoughts on the implications of this for Barfield’s conception of “inspiration” and “revelation.”

1 History, Guilt and Habit (Middletown: Wesleyan University, 1979), 15; hereafter, HGH.

2 The phrase is Theodore Roszak’s (from Where the Wasteland Ends), quoted in The Rediscovery of Meaning (Middletown: Wesleyan University, 1977), 189; hereafter, RM.

3 Middletown: Wesleyan University, 1965; hereafter, SA.

4 Barfield cited—as a means of showing the reach of the assumption—an article on “Evolution” from the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

5 The point is contestable; it has certainly been a matter of contention. I will point out only this: that Barfield attempted at length in Poetic Diction (1928; Middletown: Wesleyan University, 1973) and, later, in “The Meaning of ‘Literal’” (in RM) to show that the ‘metaphorical’ postulate—the notion that language is more metaphorical the further back in time we trace it until, at a certain point, it is suddenly no longer metaphorical at all but merely literal—cannot be correct. Rather, he said (after pains-taking argument), we must admit the co-presence of inner and outer meanings as representing a prior affinity, as part of meaning as it was ‘given.’ A literal meaning is the end, not the beginning, of a long historical process. This will bear upon my remarks on revelation toward the end.

6 “The reason the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps,” said Emerson, almost getting it right, “is [that] man is disunited with himself” (Nature 1836).

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bob Cheeks June 10, 2009 at 5:01 am

This is great stuff, possibly the finest essay to appear here. Barfield, who I am not familiar with, is representative of the spoudaios (aner), the mature, fully developed human being capable of intelligent thought who in a spiritual outburst revolts against the untruth of existence (Cartesianism in this instance but usually and ‘ism’ of some sort) and seeks to recover the experience of man’s reality in the tension of the divine Ground and his existence.
It is Barfiled and his coevals that have saved an entire culture from madness, if not from depravity.
Looking forward to Part 2.

avatar Empedocles June 10, 2009 at 8:32 am

Ugh. There is lots of bad stuff here but Darwinism does not rely upon Cartesianism. Darwinism is one of the strongest forces ending the mind/body split. But on another note the view that the world “is not something unshakably and unalterably given, but is largely the product of the way we collectively and subconsciously think” has been the cause of much mischief in the social sciences and “critical theory”. The view that reality is a “social construct” has lead academia to all sorts of ridiculous and embarrassing conclusions. It has generally been assumed that moral realism is a principle here are FPR. Can we please add scientific realism too?

avatar Dale Nelson June 10, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Christian readers might be interested in my (mostly favorable) assessment of Barfield written for Touchstone magazine:


avatar Matthew Gerken June 10, 2009 at 4:27 pm

Empedocles: Darwinism may be attempting to end the mind/body split, as you say, but it’s claim to doing so is to deny that there is such a thing as a mind that can be distinguished from the physical body. That’s a very different thing from what I take it both Barfield and Peters would like to see, putting back together “what God had joined” (mind and body) in our language and assumptions about the world. Darwinists aren’t helping to solve the problem, they’re denying that there is one.

Also, I enjoyed this article precisely because it dealt with the nature of subjectivity. In our haste to dismiss the relativistic postmodernism that you (somewhat correctly) scorn, I think we are forgetting that they’ve got it half right- sure, many things are “social constructs,” the relatvist postmodernists’ error is to therefore conclude that this deprives those things of any reason to exist and leaves us without any reason to adhere to their socially imbued meaning.

The full picture of reality must unite a robust understanding of both objectivity and subjectivity, just as it must unite mind and body. When we say that it is the objective truth that murdering toddlers for fun is wrong, don’t we really mean that it is subjectively true, with the subject being God? I’m inclined to think so, if only to avoid the Euthyphro problem of goods superior to God and to preserve the oft-made argument that “if there is no God, everything is permissible.”

avatar Steve K. June 10, 2009 at 5:51 pm

While I don’t entirely agree with your statement, Empedocles, that Darwinism is one of the strongest forces for ending the mind/body split (I suppose it does, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory – it does so by reducing mind to merely another material phenomenon, which is as much a defeat for humanity as Cartesian dualism), you are right about the great potential for mischief with this kind of thinking and I was exposed to a lot of it in graduate school, too. Sex differences between men and women being merely “socially constructed” or the impossibility of Truth because everyone has their own truths which must be equally true (though some are more equal than others), and so forth – I sympathize with Barfield and hate materialist reduction but as his views are stated in this piece, you can comfortably hold nutty po-mo notions on social construction of reality and be firmly within Barfield’s views. And that should not be.

Hopefully part two clears this up.

avatar Empedocles June 11, 2009 at 9:38 am

As the article mentions, there is an alternative to post-modernism or positivism, there is Aristotelian Realism, which has generally been the goal here at FPR. The current champion of which is Ruth Millikan. At the end of “Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories,” Millikan writes:

“Descartes and then Locke, it is said, opened an era in which philosophers sought vainly to reach the world through a “veil of ideas” (or, alternatively, to pull the world in behind the veil). They placed themselves behind this veil by beginning with a vision or theory of mind as a realm in which ideas lived but which was outside the world these philosophers wished to reach with their ideas–the world, at least, of nature. Today, influenced especially by Wittgenstein and Quine, there is a new school of philosophers who live behind a veil of “theories,” entangled in “language games” or in the “logical order.” They too have placed themselves behind a veil by beginning with a certain vision or theory, this time a theory about language; a theory about theories–a theory entailing that theories can be meaningful theories while (like old-fashioned “ideas” and “minds”) floating loose from the rest of the world. (P. 332)”

This idea that we are trapped by our theories and have no way of getting out from behind them is the essence of post-modernism and the source of the current great tragedy of the Western world. It leads to multicultural relativism in that since we are trapped behind our theories there is no objective vantage point from which to compare different moral and political theories, or to compare them with objective reality.

In it’s place Millikan offers a realist theory of truth and intentionality as a natural phenomenon in the world while giving up the quest for Cartesian foundations of a priori knowledge. She does this by using the tools of Darwinism to provide an naturalist account of proper functions and Aristotelian substances. So we should not see Darwinism as the enemy of Aristotelianism but as the source of its resurrection.

avatar JD Salyer June 11, 2009 at 2:24 pm

A very striking little essay; I’ve heard of Barfield but have never gotten around to reading any of his work. The effort to explore the foundations of modern science is certainly timely.

This passage:

“He disbelieved the “concentration of attention always on smaller and smaller units . . . [to be] the only direction in which advancing knowledge can proceed”: “however impressive may be the practical justification for [our] atomic obsession, there is no evidential justification whatever for the conclusion, or rather the assumption, to which it so often leads, namely, that the parts preceded the wholes, and that the world was actually built by putting together the units into which our minds divide it, as a house is built by putting bricks together” (HGH 13).”

brings to mind one of Richard Weaver’s criticisms of the modern “scientific” mindset — namely, the assumption that the best way to achieve understanding of the world is “by grinding it into ever-finer powder.”

avatar Septeus7 June 13, 2009 at 12:39 am

I have a lot of problems with ideas in this article. There just several major errors.

1. Perception is created by mental habit.
2. Cartesian is scientific.
3. The answer to Enlightenment Empiricism is Aristotelian Romanticism.

Perception is interpreted by the mind but doesn’t not proceed from the mind.

What this should tell that when we see the rainbow it is the mind that understood the principle construction of the rainbow and that same principle works to create the rainbow through light and water droplets.

Thus the perception doesn’t create anything input into the mind data which is created the by working action of the principle truth of the rainbow’s existence.

And this leads to error 2 in which you claim the science is Cartesian rather than Keplerian. Kepler doesn’t make assumptions that are Cartesian or Aristotilian but refutes both ideas starting with his work Platonic Solids.

There is nothing scientific about Decartes, Galilio, or Newton.

Science is Cusa, Kelper, Leibniz, Gauss, Riemann, Planck, Einstein.

Darwin in the degree that he agree with this tradition is a scientist (understanding the necessity of evolution) and to the degree he uses Cartesian method he is a fraud (arguing a statistical process called national selection is a cause of evolution)

As for number 3, Aristotelianism won’t help you because assuming “an intercommunion between man (the microcosm) and nature (the macrocosm)” doesn’t tell what relationship is and thus worse than assuming the polarization Decartes assumes.

The entire idea of science according to Cusa is that intercommunion is the mind of man because it reflects the Imago viva Dei and therefore we can know truth.

Science isn’t the problem the problem is that today’s so-called scientist aren’t connected to the actual history of the scientific thought because the use of the textbook learning rather than reflection on the source material of the actual discoverers.

As a results they aren’t scientists at all but mere technicians scientific equipment and computational methods.

avatar Caryl Johnston June 13, 2009 at 8:51 pm

It is refreshing to see FPR deal with this VERY IMPORTANT THINKER,
Owen Barfield. It is very difficult to summarize “Saving the Appearances,” a subtle and complex book if there ever was one,
in such a short article. I particularly feel the lack of the word
PARTICIPATION: both “original” and “final” which was the KEY CONCEPT
for Barfield. I feel that Jason Peters’ summary that “the world is not
structurally different than what we think about it” tends to be
misleading. Barfield is not a neo-Hegelian who thinks that thinking= being, nor is he a Kantian in the sense that we we merely formulate
reality according to our categories. Academic philosophy has yet
to grapple with the DEEP SENSE OF HISTORY AND LIFE which is embedded in the notion of participation.

avatar Sean S. June 14, 2009 at 8:17 pm

This article is railing at theories that have long since been discarded by most researchers and academic scientists, especially when it comes to theoretical physics and mathematics, and extrapolates out larger views on society and the world that many of the people who came up with the scientific ideas that drive our modern worlds infrastructure had no intention of implying.

You would hardly find a scientist that doesn’t agree that observation changes the equation. Theres lot of debates in physics about how exactly that happens, how the waves in quantum mechanics collapse and so on and so forth. Everett’s Many-World’s theory is just one example of the attempts to figure out exactly what external observation contributes to the world.

avatar Dale Nelson June 14, 2009 at 10:52 pm

Sean S., the correlation of consciousness and nature that you say is widely accepted, seems to be conveniently forgotten as soon as one gets away from discussing physics. But shouldn’t it be remembered also when, for example, we are given descriptions of the earth before human consciousness existed?

“It can do no harm to recall occasionally that the prehistoric evolution of the earth, as it was described in [popular accounts], was not merely never seen. It never occurred. Something no doubt occurred, and what is really being propounded by such popular writers, and, so far as I am aware, by the text-books on which they rely, is this. That at the time the unrepresented [that which exists but is not apprehended by human consciousness] was behaving in such a way that, IF human beings with the collective representations [Let's say, type of consciousness] characteristic of the last few centuries of western civilization had been there, the things described would also have been there.

“This is not quite the same thing. …the descriptions may… be valuable, not as actual descriptions, but as notional ‘models’. What is important is, to remember that that is all they are.”

I quote from Barfield’s Saving the Appearances. It becomes a pretty basic error to describe prehistoric scenarios that never actually existed because there was no human observer present.

“The record of the rocks IS a script containing stored memories of earth’s past. It is only a question of how the script is to be read.” What if, Sean, Barfield is right in arguing that consciousness has changed — not just people’s ideas about nature and self, but consciousness itself has changed? You can see that there must be implications for the phenomena to which the consciousness correlates.

A combox message or series of combox messages is not the place to try to epitomize Saving the Appearances, which you might want to look up. Perhaps take a look at some of Lanza’s new book Biocentrism to help loosen up a little first — stretching exercise. Barfield has a lot more to offer than Lanza.

avatar Sean S. June 15, 2009 at 7:02 am

Sean S., the correlation of consciousness and nature that you say is widely accepted, seems to be conveniently forgotten as soon as one gets away from discussing physics.

I don’t think its surprising that biologists and others don’t sit around wondering about the metaphysical implications of their work (though some inevitably do). Most of them tend to assume a variety of natural laws, not because its an unquestioning idolatry, but because they would be sitting around all day discussing metaphysics instead of gleaning new, potentially practical, information about their subjects. I’m sure theres plenty of geologists that have strong opinions one way or another on these very same subjects, but its not going to help them find new oil wells or mineral seams.

And the latter example is especially true in regards to your example of geologic formation. Sure, we could argue that none of that stuff ever occurred, or that primitive consciousness changed the earth’s environment. But those guys sure do seem to hit alot of the black stuff using patterns that they gleaned from a time they never witnessed themselves.

avatar Sean S. June 15, 2009 at 7:17 am

Don’t get me wrong, I think these kind of metaphysical questions are interesting. But I don’t feel they have much to do with what people practice as science, and I don’t think many scientists would feel that they were expounding on larger questions of life and philosophy by accepting basic assumptions that allow them to do their work. Certain things have to be accepted as a practical matter lest we sit around ruminating on a unitary theory of life to the detriment of the particulars.

avatar Dale Nelson June 15, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Sean, I think Barfield would have readily granted your point. Somewhere he says that a great deal of modern science could be called “dashboard” knowledge — and it suffices very well to accomplish certain limited tasks; such as those you mention.

Science properly understood so quickly becomes scientism. As Houston Smith put it in an article in Touchstone magazine (Summer 1997): “Science deserves no reproach, but scientism goes beyond the findings of science to assume that the scientific method is the only reliable (or at least most reliable) road to truth, and that the things science deals with are the most fundamental things that exist. In slipping into these assumptions, it turns into a religion … loyalty to their profession pressures scientists to exaggerate their abilities in the public eye, for this brings both prestige and funding. …Stripped of science’s prestige, which it battens on but has no right to, scientism has no leg to stand on. The astounding power of science to probe the workings of nature gives it zero credentials for pronouncing on the whole of things.” And so on.

In other words, scientism says that, in effect, “dashboard knowledge” is the only knowledge there really is. Yet science, as opposed to scientism, itself shows that the “fundamental things” cannot be understood apart from the participative consciousness. But consciousness belongs to a higher level of things than do the elementary things of physics and even of biology. The habit of scientists is to explain the greater in terms of the lesser. But even science itself now forces us to see that we cannot do this without error. We also need wisdom, and that means understanding the lesser in terms of the greater.

avatar Caryl Johnston June 15, 2009 at 12:51 pm

An addendum to my comment – readers might enjoy my article on
“Saving the Appearances” – reproduced here:

I hope that the time for this important thinker has come – bravo
to Front Porch Republic for publishing this article. Look forward
to the sequel.

avatar Don Cruse June 15, 2009 at 3:53 pm

i was fortunate enough to know Owen Barfield, and to have spent many hours in stimulating conversation with him. Our last meeting was in 1994, and it concerned mainly Darwinism. The article below is quite short (less than 1000 words), and the ideas in it are mainly my own, but I am sure that Owen would have agreed with what I have written. Comments are appreciated.

DARWIN REVISTITED: Further Exploring the Surprisingly Full Junkyards of Science

If Darwin were alive today, he might want to send to this fair, even-handed and honorable publication, a new version of his famous theory, one that employs the exact same logic as his first, but applied to a slightly different realm.

He might offer the world a theory of ’mechanical origins’ in which he claimed that all of the modern world’s vast array of man-made machinery, hugely complicated though it be, had come about entirely without deliberate intent — through the meaningless operation of chance and natural law — however, when he came to explain how all that remarkable machinery both functioned and developed, he would make copious use of the language of creativity, including technical terms of every description, and would talk loosely about nature’s ‘good engineering design’ and it having ‘invented’ this or that device, but he would justify all this by saying that such words are only being used as ‘metaphors’, and would ask us all to ignore the appearance of any logical contradiction — because after all, what does verbal logic have to do with science anyway?

His new theory would have only one serious drawback, which is that if it were true then every engineer and technician would be made immediately redundant — just as God was by his earlier theory — and we would all then stand around doing nothing mechanically creative, just waiting for all the useful ‘mechanisms’ that the modern world so highly values to materialize by themselves — and having materialized to then repair themselves — because if his new theory were true then all of mankind’s technical jobs will have been replaced by ‘words’ — words that appear to convey the presence of mechanical creativity in the universe, but only as a blind and unconscious facet of ‘natural law’ — A Blind Watchmaker? Yes indeed, a word that always carries with it a host of ‘mechanistic’ images, because we can see in our mind’s eye the intricate parts of a watch in motion. This helps us to conveniently forget that our craftsman (nature) is not only blind but supposedly also unconscious, and that ‘ideas’ are nowhere within his reach — although we everywhere use the language of creative ideas to help describe what we believe nature does. Because even in this supposedly blind unconscious state we still firmly insist as scientists that he (nature) manufactures very fine watches — would you buy a watch from this most dubious of all craftsman? If you did, surely it would give new meaning to the phrase ‘a fool and his money are soon parted’.

Yet it seems that since 1859 science has bought much more than a watch from him, it has bought an entire bill of ‘mechanistic’ goods dedicated to the notion that nature uses humanly creative metaphors disguised as natural law, to make organisms vastly more complicated than watches — to change rocks into plants and plants into animals, and then to have one species evolve out of another. All it seems achieved by one little word ‘selection,’ signifying a human mental activity the use of which in this context was irrational right from the outset, supplemented of course by all manner of technical terms — lower case intelligent design at its very best — because taken altogether they allow our blind unconscious watchmaker to appear to be slowly making a host of consciously creative ‘decisions, indeed billions upon billions of them, all going on while he is soundly asleep. And heaven forbid that he should ever wake up, because science would then be appalled and throw insults at him, like calling him an ‘intelligent designer’.

Such metaphors do indeed work, but only anthropomorphically in our own minds; they do nothing creative whatever in nature — let alone build organisms far more complex than anything man has ever made. The problem with the 1859 theory, however, is not that it cannot be disproved (I have just done so), but that the majority of intellectuals, academicians mostly, won’t allow it to be disproved no matter how convincing the arguments brought against it. So even if we were to take it from Darwin himself, as it were straight from the horse’s mouth, or from the mouth of an honest man revisiting his past and giving us the above honest reappraisal of his own mistaken logic, would it really change anything?

For the sake of science’s future it is to be hoped that it would, but so many reputations are here at stake that even if, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, Darwin himself were to reappear and take a strong stand against his own theory, in the fully rational manner outlined above, it is doubtful that anyone would pay any attention to him. They might even call him names and want to ban him, or jail him to keep him quiet, so as not to seriously disturb the topsy turvy world that he once helped to create.

But how is it that his famous theory falls so quickly into ruins when its internal logic is carefully examined? Perhaps the English philologist the late Owen Barfield had the answer to this last question:

“Chance, in fact, equals no hypothesis and to resort to it in the name of science means that the impressive vocabulary of technological investigation (associated with evolutionary biology) is actually being used to denote its [science’s] breakdown; as though, because it is something that we can do with ourselves in water, drowning should be included as one of the ways of swimming.” Taken from Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry.

Yes, all undeniably true. But I ask you, has it ever been harder for science to throw away its accumulated 19th century junk? It still gives us the appearance of truth, which is why so many are anxious to ‘save’ It. But correcting it may well be that vital central key to the next important stage in human development.

Don Cruse,

Ponoka, AB

avatar Aaron Schroeder June 16, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Don, I’ve never read The Origin of Species and I have a copy of Saving the Appearances that’s waiting on my desk to be opened, so maybe it’s my own ignorance at play here, but I’ve read your essay three times, and I have no clue how you’ve disproved the theory of natural selection. You’re saying that Darwin would re-articulate his own theory to suggest that contemporary technological achievements are products of natural selection, right? Your rejoinder is to argue that words like “selection” and other intent-laden metaphors mean that there IS intent present in the very sorts of selective activities that Darwin’s original establishes? Is that it?

Because if it is, I don’t see how it follows that natural selection is false, simply because natural (that is, intent-less) selection employs the word “selection” which implies intent. From what I know of evolutionary theory, the conditions of a creature’s existence exert survival pressures to which the creature must either adapt or perish. If it adapts and survives, nature has “selected” it from among its failed or less successful counterparts to pass its genes on to the most desirable mate (that is, those mates who have met and conquered similar survival pressures) thus ensuring that, over time, the genes best suited for survival in certain natural conditions will be “selected” for generational transferal. If it does not adapt and dies, then the creature’s genes were not “selected.”

If I’m not misreading Darwin, I don’t see how his quasi-metaphorical use of words like “selection” or “good engineering” implies that some intentional force is steering the ship of evolution. He means to say simply that particular instances of an organism’s survival will appear “selected” for particular conditions when treated generally. Why, then, should we think that Darwin’s use of metaphor implies anything other than the purely mechanistic meaning he seemed to have intended? Or have I misread your essay as well?

avatar Don Cruse June 16, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Thank you for persisting.
As you doubtless know the word ‘mechanism’ is used in Darwin’s theory as a synonym for biological complexity, where it has achieved the status of a lexical definition.

Nature in Darwin’s theory is supposedly Mindless, and man-made machines are the product of conscipous decision making, of human intelligence. To make them lexically ‘equal’, therefore, is to tell the world that there is no difference whatever between our doing a thing intentionally, and our doing it unintentionally. In one of his essays, Barfield makes it clear that if this were really the case then our legal system would also collapse in ruins, since it entirely based upon a distinction that we are now trying to say does not exist.

If you were in the dock say, charged with first degree murder, and you insisted that it had all been an accident (manslaughter) would you not be a little perturbed to find that this distinction was not allowed, that accident and intentional had identical meanings where the law was concerned?

Darwin’s theory is riddled through and through with intentional and volitional idioms (metaphors), and he even directly compares the conscious decision making of animal breeders with what unconscious ‘natural selection’ supposedly accomplishes, and this is called science?

You may also be aware that Owen was a strong supporter of Goethe’s view of evolution in which genuinely intentional ‘archetypal Ideas’ are the causal element in nature. In Prof. Alan P. Cotterell’s work Goethe’s View of Evil (1982) the following quote appears from Part 1 of Faust, in which the ‘prince of liars’ tells an earnest student how to use words to good effect:

Student: Yet in each word some concept must there be.

Mephistopheles: Quite true! But don’t torment yourself too anxiously;
For at the point where concepts fail,
At the right time a word is thrust in there.
With words we fitly can our foes assail,
With words a system we prepare,
Words we quite fitly can believe,
Nor from a word a mere iota thieve.

Cottrell then comments: “This is not only the undermining of thinking, it is its annihilation.”

It means that words are used just for their ‘effect’ on the mind, and with no regard to their real conceptual content or to rationality itself; whether one wishes to attribute this ruse to Mephisto or not is a matter of choice, but if one does it is certainly a devilishly clever one that has managed to fool at least six-generations of scientists.

Does this help?

avatar Don Cruse June 17, 2009 at 9:43 pm

Perhaps in my above essay I did not make it sufficiently clear that the contradiction I draw attention to is encapsulated within the lexical definition of the word ‘mechanism’, and as Barfield tells us in Chapter 4 of ‘Speakers Meaning’ it is when an error becomes encapsulated in this way that it gives rise to an issue that becomes subject to a “great tabu”

“The old tabu’s are gone, it is true. Thus, I should feel no embarrassment if the argument obliged me at this point to defend the position of atheism or even of aristocracy in politics, or to advance some new theory of love based on sexual perversion… But the old tabus have merely been replaced by new ones. Those I have just alluded to are dead or dying, whereas the one I shall be infringing is very much alive; and a wise man thinks twice before laying sacrilegious hands on the Lord’s anointed” SM

So I have revised my first paragraph to read:

The word ‘mechanism’ is used in Darwin’s theory as a synonym for biological complexity, where it has achieved the status of a lexical definition: i.e. “a doctrine that holds all natural processes to be capable of complete explanation by the laws of physics and chemistry.” This definition, however, conceals a contradiction in that the laws of physics and chemistry (natural law) to not entail any need for consciousness, whereas it is impossible for ‘mechanisms’ in the normal sense of this word, to exist without their being the product of consciousness.

If anyone is interested in a more thorough treatment of this subject, outside of Barfield’s own work, they may find it in my essay ‘Karl Popper and Owen Barfield’


avatar Sean S. June 21, 2009 at 3:14 pm

It means that words are used just for their ‘effect’ on the mind, and with no regard to their real conceptual content or to rationality itself; whether one wishes to attribute this ruse to Mephisto or not is a matter of choice, but if one does it is certainly a devilishly clever one that has managed to fool at least six-generations of scientists.

Or you could chalk it up to sloppy writing and an attempt to use already known concepts to illustrate a new one, apparently not to your satisfaction. Which does not undermine in anyway the research behind it. Which, for all the talk of metaphors and Faustian bargains, no one here seems to be asserting some sort of new controversial take on genetics.

Your use of the dismissive term “dashboard knowledge” gets to the heart of it; unable, or unwilling, to take the effort to actually acquire knowledge of which you’ve already denigrated, you’ve declared victory on a field of your own choosing. Its as if I were to declare myself the winner of the US Open by proving how dumb playing golf is.

avatar Don Cruse June 21, 2009 at 4:51 pm


There are two possibilities where ‘evolution’ is concerned, (A) that it is the product of ‘Ideas’ or of what the Scholastic Realists used to call ‘universals’, or (B) it that it is the product of ‘chance’ and of the unconscious workings of natural law, and what is certain on a basis of simple logic is that the latter (B) should not be allowed to use language that is appropriate only to the former (A).

Daniel Dennet is bold enough to claim that Darwinism only uses intentional idioms (A) ‘as if’ they where true (knowing all the time that they are not). Implying that they do this because without them one cannot prove the truth of (B) (see his book ‘The Intentional Stance’). Whereas I am saying that with them one cannot prove the truth of (B) because one has lapsed into extreme irrationality.

You appear to be claiming the modern knowledge of genetics for some unknown reason overrides these two choices which according to you then leaves only (B) whereas I will state that if that were the case it would leave only (A) — the rational option.

To begin with, therefore it must be admitted that where science is concerned Darwinism is a nineteenth-century worldview, and that while twentieth century discoveries in the realm of DNA have seemed, on the surface at least, to support that world view, they are themselves gradually becoming suspect for their adherence to the “central dogma of genetics,” which is “the view that an organism’s genome — its total complement of DNA — should fully account for its characteristic assemblage of inherited traits.” This dogma was strongly argued against by the octogenarian scientist Barry Commoner, in the article “Unravelling the Myth of DNA”, published in Harper’s Magazine, February 2002. He writes:

“Why, then, has the central dogma continued to stand? To some degree the theory has been protected from criticism by a device more common to religion than science: dissent, or merely the discovery of a discordant fact, is a punishable offence, a heresy that might easily lead to professional ostracism. Much of this bias can be attributed to institutional inertia, a failure of rigor, but there are other, more insidious, reasons why molecular geneticists might be satisfied with the status quo; the central dogma has given them such a satisfying, seductively simplistic explanation of heredity that it seemed sacrilegious to entertain doubts. The central dogma was simply too good not to be true.”

So there you have it ‘The Great Tabu’ at work again, but this time not from Barfield, but from an accomplished geneticist.

Richard Shelldrake also brings to our attention that ‘codes’ do not read themselves, that they are
both written and read by ‘consciousness’ which is word the word code ‘means’. So again, where simple logic is concerned Darwinists want to (must); try to ‘have their cake and eat it too’. However, no one is going to wait with bated breath while you struggle to change your mind on this issue, because we all know that that is next to impossible for any Darwinian ‘true believer’ to do that. The reason for this was long ago stated by Leo Tolstoy:

“I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would require them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted to explain to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven thread by thread into the fabric of their lives.”

Sorry Sean, to set your mind straight on this you will probably have to wait until next time around (Barfield held to the truth of reincarnation) — but according to Darwin there is no next time around, so perhaps you’d better think it over some more while your playing golf.

avatar Sean S. June 21, 2009 at 7:16 pm

To begin with, therefore it must be admitted that where science is concerned Darwinism is a nineteenth-century worldview, and that while twentieth century discoveries in the realm of DNA have seemed, on the surface at least, to support that world view, they are themselves gradually becoming suspect for their adherence to the “central dogma of genetics,” which is “the view that an organism’s genome — its total complement of DNA — should fully account for its characteristic assemblage of inherited traits.”our ability to

Again you are making up a religious argument where there isn’t one, and ascribing to others nefarious motivations they don’t have. Despite your statement on the “central dogma of genetics”, like many other professed theories in science, has undergone significant revision and change since it was first proposed by Crick. Even Crick admits that he had would have called it something else, if for no other reason than to stop hearing nonsense from other people about what they presume (though he didn’t state it) is its sacredness as a rule.

And your selective quoting of Commoner is noticeable; after all Commoner is arguing that humans shouldn’t mess with genetics because of “the harmonious relation between the two systems develops during their cohabitation, in the same species, over very long evolutionary periods, in which natural selection eliminates incompatible variants.” (emphasis mine) His argument is essentially that what we know of how genetics work does not give us sufficient competence to go messing with it; we simply do not understand the complex interactions at play in genetics simply knowing the genes of a given plant or animal.

By any reasonable measure, these results contradict the central dogma’s cardinal maxim: that a DNA gene exclusively governs the molecular processes that give rise to a particular inherited trait. The DNA gene clearly exerts an important influence on inheritance, but it is not unique in that respect and acts only in collaboration with a multitude of protein-based processes that prevent and repair incorrect sequences, transform the nascent protein into its folded, active form, and provide crucial added genetic information well beyond that originating in the gene itself. The net outcome is that no single DNA gene is the sole source of a given protein’s genetic information and therefore of the inherited trait.

I’m not quite sure how you could have read this article and then turned around and misused it to make an argument that evolution is bankrupt; hell, if anything Commoner is making even stronger arguments that inherited traits, and evolution itself, are vastly more complex than we’ve heretofore thought. He says as much:”There can be no doubt that the emergence of DNA was a crucial stage in the development of life, but we must avoid the mistake of reducing life to a master molecule in order to satisfy our emotional need for unambiguous simplicity.”

But none of this matters, because after reading your Tolstoy quote, you smugly believe me a dolt and a zealot. I don’t know what more ridiculous, your mis-characterization of others making an argument different from yours of being entranced with idolatry, or your obsession with outdated 19th century texts.

avatar Don Cruse July 1, 2009 at 9:08 pm

DARWIN vs. GOETHE and the Problem of Evolution — outline of a planned a video discussion, if anyone would like to take part in defense of Darwin please contact Don Cruse

This video will not be motivated by any support for religious fundamentalism. Instead it will attempt to examine in an open and unbiased manner the scientific and philosophical controversies that are currently at work within the academic and scientific communities, many of them unknown to the general public

It will recognize from the outset that Darwinism is the only explanation of evolution that can currently be seen as being at all well developed — but also that an alternative and ‘view of what causes evolution has long been available in the works of J.W. von Goethe (1749–1832), a view recently given renewed emphasis in The Upright Ape, a New Origin of Species, by Dr. Aaron G. Filler (2007), but without addressing the underlying issue of scientific materialism — which will be addressed here. Because they are ‘exact opposites’ only one of these two theories can be true.
The following critical issues will be among those discussed with a view to opening these subjects to public awareness and wider debate:

1. the ‘semantics’: can Darwinism rid itself of the anthropomorphic and ‘intentional/purposive’ language without undercutting itself completely — oxymoronic phrases like ‘Designerless design’ that translates into ‘purposeless purpose’; language being used irrationally to make something appear plausible. Also the unjustified use of ‘militaristic’ and ‘aggressively competitive’ language (carnivores only 3% of animals; overriding importance of mutualism and symbiosis). The fact that ‘survival of the fittest’ is a meaningless tautology: how do we know they are fit? Because they survive!

2. the refusal of biology in particular to take on the implications of quantum theory – primacy of consciousness over ‘matter’; the ‘insubstantiality’ of matter.

3. the rapid current unraveling of the genetic basis of evolution: the gene ‘coding’ for a protein – and inferred DNA ‘coding’ for the whole organism – not only structure, but also all forms and behaviors (including the breakdown of the General Cell Theory and the assertion of exclusive genetic inheritance from parental organisms

4. related to 3. – the lack of evidence (i.e. unfounded assertion) that form and behavior is all and exclusively in the DNA.

5. Richard Lewontin’s quote about the “absolute commitment” to materialism – revealing the real agenda: preventing the “Divine foot in the door”. Philosophically, there is no epistemologically sound basis for this materialism — it remains a belief system based more on faith than on science. Goethe’s thought transcends it.

.6. the lack of confirmation of the theory from the fossil record — the fossil record is not a branching tree but a series of unconnected straight lines of varying length — that which S.J. Gould called ‘stasis’ or ‘punctuated equalibria’—requiring sudden and not gradual changes, but with no explanation of how that can occur excepting the continued anthropomorphic misuse of the word ‘selection’ (point 1)
7. the unexplained problem of the multitude of extraordinary symbiotic/ mutually dependent relationships: fig trees and wasps, for example

8. the lack of evidence to extrapolate from microevolution (adaptation) to macroevolution; an unsubstantiated assumption.

9. the problem of Form represents a severe challenge to Darwinism; other sources of origin and maintenance of form are required as gene theory crumbles in this respect.

10. origin of life: no evidence for assertion of chance origin: all lab attempts to create life have failed miserably; assertion of inorganic origin comes straight out of our commitment to materialism.

11. Darwin’s ‘explanation’ of animal ‘instinct’ (unbelievably complex behavior) in the Origin is now widely seen as an “argument from authority” having no explanatory value. The ‘origin’ of language is similarly unexplained.

12. It will be necessary to emphasize that evolution is itself a fact, but that Darwinism remains an unproven theory — a purely ‘mechanical’ explanation (point 1).

13 Darwinism states as fact that there is no direction (or purpose) to evolution (S.J.Gould’s “rewind the tape and nature would come up with something quite different”). But the evidence of a continuous increase of complexity goes against the theory. In a truly ‘purposeless’ material universe everything would be mineral, but it now looks as if the minerals themselves were the product of ‘life’. “Biochemical processes may thus be responsible for most of the earths 4.300 known mineral species.” (eight member international team studying the ‘non-competitive’ evolution of minerals’ — 2008 report)

14 or whatever: the persistence of gaps — the ‘missing links’ are almost all still missing, so should not the scientific response be that there’s something wrong with the theory; that something strange must have been happening in the gaps?

15. what does Goethe have to offer science and philosophy that Darwin does not? To begin with there will be no contradictory use of language (point 1) and it will tie in more effectively with our developing understanding of the role of DNA.

16. Darwinism is the product of a Cartesian mechanistic ‘clockwork’ concept of the universe, including life, all now viewed as simplistic. It was born within a 19th century consciousness dominated by the industrial revolution, and any other theory with so much leveled against it would have long ago been abandoned by science. Is Darwinism destined to become the most successful failure in the history of science, its success based upon a 19th century commitment to material causes, its failure based on the irrational misuse of language? (Note: ‘successful failure’ is here an appropriate oxymoron, like all the rest upon which Darwin’s theory is based, in its entirety.

Owen Barfield would have loved this poem by Robert Frost:


The Universe is but the Thing of things,
The things but balls all going round in rings.
Some of them mighty huge, some mighty tiny,
All of them radiant and mighty shiny.

They mean to tell us all was rolling blind
Till accidentally it hit on mind
In an albino monkey in a jungle,
And even then it had to grope and bungle,

Till Darwin came to earth upon a year
To show the evolution how to steer.
They mean to tell us, though, the Omnibus
Had no real purpose till it got to us.

Never believe it. At the very worst
It must have had the purpose from the first
To produce purpose as the fitter bred:
We were just purpose coming to a head.

Whose purpose was it? His or Hers or Its?
Let’s leave that to the scientific wits.
Grant me intention, purpose, and design-
That’s near enough for me to the Divine.

And yet for all this help of head and brain
How happily instinctive we remain,
Our best guide upward further to the light,
Passionate preference such as love at sight.

Comments are welcome

avatar jsg November 13, 2010 at 6:08 pm

I don’t know if this thread is still active, but here goes. While I thoroughly enjoyed “Saving the Appearances” and found it refreshing, I wonder if Barfield’s basic distinction between what he calls the unrepresented (atoms) and the world of representations (appearances) is not fundamentally flawed. That is, does the mind really arrange the atoms into the observable world in the same way that the mind arranges sense impressions of suspended water droplets into the image of a rainbow?

My doubt that this really is the case is based on the concept of emergence. This principle states that matter undergoes phase transitions as it grows more complex, in somewhat the same way that water molecules undergo phase transitions to ice or steam depending on the temperature. Seen in this way, solid matter (the observable world) is a function of phase transitions that make massive collections of atoms solid, and is not simply a function of the perceiving mind. Perception is a function of the mind, of course, but the issue here is what actually is perceived.

As I’ve said, I don’t know if this thread is still active, but if anyone still reads it and has any comment on these points I would be quite interested to read them.

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