Science not only changes the world around us by way of new technologies. Increasingly, the scientific world view transforms how we perceive ourselves - our identity as a human being. Does it matter to humanity's future when science projects an image of reality that is inherently fragmented, random, and disconnected? Could it make a difference when future science might instead unify reality's separate dimensions, including matter, life, and consciousness, without reducing one to the other? Is a scientific world view possible that is deeply integrated and fundamentally relational?
The Fetzer Franklin Fund explores this possibility of a new synthesis and seeks breakthroughs towards scientific views of reality that are integrated and relational. In conducting its program of open exploration, the Fetzer Franklin Fund focuses on foundational questions at the frontiers of physics, biology, and consciousness research. In addition, the Fund supports work that re-examines the foundations of science, including metascientific and metaphysical work, and the development of novel methodologies for both conventional and frontier research.
What are ‘scientific views of reality that are integrated and relational’?
The idea of the unity of knowledge, and of the unity of reality, has been part of both Eastern and Western traditions for thousands of years, including in ancient philosophies, pre-modern science, and mystical teachings as well as many spiritual systems. The modern scientific approach shares with previous traditions the goal of the unification of knowledge and of achieving a unified vision of reality in all its dimensions. This includes the scientific understanding of material existence, of living phenomena, and of human consciousness with its capacity to experience meaning. It is far too early to tell, however, whether a future, unifying scientific perspective could find common ground with age-old human intuitions about the interrelatedness and wholeness of reality. In particular, the question remains wide open as to whether modern science, in the manner presently conceived, is capable of providing “scientific views of reality that are integrated and relational”. The Fetzer Franklin Fund considers the possibility, and explores the theoretical and practical feasibility, of developing scientific views that are integrated and relational in the specific sense as described next.
What do we mean by ‘relational’?
The scientific view we call ‘relational’ is grounded in a relational theory of reality. Speaking abstractly, a relational theory is a way of understanding reality so that an object’s properties, behaviors, or qualities, are meaningfully understood only in relationship to other objects. An ‘object’ in the above sense may be any concrete phenomenon or activity, including the results of a scientific measurement, but also any distinct human experience in general.The relational view implies that the separation and isolation of an object or some observed phenomenon from the surrounding web of relations invariably alters its “essential” nature, even if this is not immediately apparent. In the relational view, therefore, a specific phenomenon is “what it is” because of its fundamental relatedness to other phenomena. Technically speaking, “relata – the elements that make up a relation – do not precede the relation”. Popularly speaking, the phenomenon owes its existence as much to phenomena beyond itself as to itself.
Could science discover a new kind of causality in nature?
The relational perspective, as considered in the scientific program of the Fetzer Franklin Fund, investigates whether there are circumstances in nature when the individual and the collective, the local level and global level, may share powers of causation. For example, the formation of a ‘relational continuum’ might be explored, one that distributes power to both levels: neither ‘top-down’ nor ‘bottom-up’ causality. A specific phenomenon may be a function of relational co-causal dependencies across levels. The conventional scientific view does not embrace such a relational approach as a viable option at present. Specifically, the physicalist position of standard science is ‘bottom-up’ only, allowing causal flows to propagate in only one direction – from the lower, local level towards the higher, global level, such as from atoms and molecules to living cells and finally thinking brains. As a consequence, conventional science conceptualizes human consciousness, for example, as an ‘epiphenomenon’ that arises subsequently to material brain processes and therefore necessarily lacks any causal or co-causal powers.
A future science might proceed differently with an awareness of the relational nature of existence. Complexity or emergence theory, for example, begins to reveal why a phenomenon such as ‘cellular life’ can only make sense in terms of relational entities, i.e. entities as-a-whole (see our program in biology). The same goes for certain quantum phenomena, including nonlocal quantum entanglement, which calls for the treatment of two physically separated particles as a single entity. Possibly, a radically new conception of reality might emerge based upon a novel type of "quantum causality" (see also our program in physics). Both the biological and physical examples reflect the possibility that there may operate in nature a new kind of causality still to be understood and defined. The Fetzer Franklin Fund seeks to advance breakthroughs towards a new scientific understanding of causality in nature and the person. This includes the possibility of causal or co-causal relations beyond conventional causality as defined by local, i.e. ‘bottom-up only’, causal flows.
As said before, to recognize the primordial interdependency of all that exists has been a major goal of the pursuit of relational approaches throughout history. In the 21st century, the Fetzer Franklin Fund stands for a new approach to relational thinking, one that explores, as a novel scientific possibility, whether phenomena such as matter, life, and mind, including the phenomenon of being an ‘individual person’, exist primarily as a function of “being relational”. When applied to the “big questions” such as to the quest to understand the fundamental nature of matter, life and consciousness, how does the relational approach apply? For example, viewed from within a relational theory, might science conceptualize the phenomenon of consciousness differently? (see our program in consciousness research)
Are relational approaches to reality consistent with scientific rationality?
Importantly, the relational approach as researched and developed by the Fetzer Franklin Fund must not be in opposition to scientific rationality. To the contrary, we view the advancement of a relational theory of reality to be advancement of scientific rationality. The notion of scientific objectivity, however, as conventionally understood, might appear in a new light. Future developments in relational, i.e. non-reductionist, scientific approaches may reveal the normally hidden influence of the subjective element of consciousness in the formation of scientific facts, interpretations, models, and truths. Critically, this “influence” should not be misconstrued as some kind of forceful mind-over-matter action on reality, but reflects the core idea that consciousness invariably provides “formal structuring” to any kind of human experience, including the scientific experience of a concrete material reality and its subsequent scientific conceptualization. In alignment with this proposal, the emerging concept of a ‘model-dependent reality’, for example, is starting to receive serious attention by scientists and philosophers in the academic mainstream (see our program on the foundations of science).
Finally, at a minimum, the relational approach represents a powerful method of thought – a relational epistemology – for the integration of normally isolated ideas, events, or entities, and for combining them into a unified whole. It is also conceivable that the relational approach, when applied to science, might advance a new foundational account of reality – a relational metaphysics – revealing that “being is relational being”.