Cosmos & Transcendence

Wolfgang Smith, Cosmos & Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief, (La Salle: Sherwood, 1984).

Objective of the Book

Smith makes an important distinction between scientific knowledge, that which is observable and emperically verifiable, and scientistic belief, that which is presupposed in science and not subject to scientific analysis. Scientific knowledge can be rigorously verified through the scientific method. It relies on tangible evidence and is continually subject to scrutiny and validation. In contrast, scientistic beliefs are not able to be empirically verified, but form the philosophical underpinnings of scientific endeavors.

From there, he seeks to demonstrate that many of the metaphysical scientistic tenets upon which science rests are volatile and groundless. Looking at the fields of cosmology, evolution, and psychology, Smith traces the origin of the scientistic unconscious that has formed an unfounded, dogmatic confidence in science.

Finally, having revealed the limitations of emperical science and scientistic belief, he considers the metaphysical concept of transcendence, thus "breaking through the barrier of scientistic belief." In presenting this idea of transcendence, he gives an enlarged picture of the universe and of what lies beyond it.


I use Smith's distinction between scientific knowledge and scientistic belief as a springboard for my own analysis. I also follow the general outline of the book for my own research so that Smith's book can be easily referenced on any topic. I also provide extensive footnotes for further research.

The Physical Universe

Metaphysical Bifurcation

Typical explanations of what the physical universe is made of include space, time, and matter, or matter and energy, or something more complicated and inconceivable.1 But all of these explanations share in common that the universe is conceived of in an abstract mathematical way. Light is electromagnetic radiation with a certain range of wavelengths. Sound is a pressure wave created by vibration. Odor is a mixture of tiny chemical particles released into the air. Thoughts are patterns of neurons firing.

This physical picture of the universe cuts out nearly everything involved in the human point of view. The outside world and our perceptions of that outside world become completely seperate, distinct things.2 This bifurcation into primary qualities, the noumenal, and secondary qualities, the phenomenal, is at the heart of science. Primary qualities such as size, shape, and position are seen as those things which are real about the object. Secondary qualities like color, taste, and smell then are mere products of the mind, and the mind is reduced to the primary qualities of the brain.

The result of this position is that everything is reduced to an abstraction. No longer do we have a universe because all that's left is a model, and we've mistaken the model to be all that there is.


Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the first known to give an argument for a version of the primary/secondary quality distinction, uses many examples like the oar in the water to argue that the various appearances of a body are inessential while the primary affections like size, shape, and number are essential to bodies.3 Likewise, René Descartes (1596-1650) distinguishes between sensible qualities and material bodies.4 This is seen clearly in his ideas that the mind and body are distinct, independent substances and that matter and motion can explain everything in the physical world.

This set the stage for Isaac Newton (1642-1727) to popularize a philosophy of Cartesian metaphysics and extreme empiricism.5 This primarily took place through the Principia which was seen as the exemplar of scientific achievement.6 By the end of the 19th century, Newtonian physics appeared unassailable, and his philosophy followed uncritically with all the authority that his physics did. Despite this significant achievement, certain insoluble difficulties remained. It wouldn't be long before a paradigm shift took place in physics with the advent of the special theory of relativity of Albert Einstein (1879-1955).7 Despite this theoretical shift away from Newtonian physics, Newton's questionable metaphysical bifurcation still loomed large.

Quantum Mechanics

Physicists in the early 20th century began to reassess the foundations of Newtonian physics. This reevaluation revealed that Newtonian physics was not dealing with absolute entities that exist independently of observation. Instead, it focused on what could be observed, marking a significant shift in the understanding of the physical world.8

Quantum mechanics is built on the foundations of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.9 The uncertainty principle, a key element of quantum mechanics, imposes strict limits on our ability to simultaneously know certain pairs of properties, such as an object's position and momentum.10 This limitation underscores the intrinsic subjectivity of quantum physics, as it implies that our knowledge of the physical world is inherently statistical and uncertain. Thus the wave-function in quantum mechanics represents a system but doesn't describe the system itself; rather, it embodies our knowledge of it.

Quantum mechanics also introduced the concept of wave-particle dualism.11 This means that particles, such as electrons, can behave both as discrete particles and as continuous waves depending on the experimental context. This challenges classical ideas of distinct, solid particles. This wave-particle dualism defies classical determinism and highlights the inherent complexity of the physical world.12


The scientific depiction of the universe as primarily a configuration of matter, energy, space, and time, stripped of human-centric qualities, presents a profound metaphysical riff in reality. This division relegates the experience of humans to mere secondary phenomena, products of the mind's interaction with a fundamentally impersonal world. While this perspective has driven vast scientific progress, it inevitably renders the cosmos an abstraction—a model devoid of the qualitative aspects that comprise the entirety of human perception. Thus, science, in its quest for objectivity, leaves the universe unrecognisable to the beings trying to understand it because of its fundamental philosophical assumptions.

The history from Galileo to Einstein reveals a trajectory of thought that progressively abstracted the universe into mathematical laws and principles. This underscores a certain philosophical undercurrent wherein the sensory qualities experienced by humans are systematically divorced from the 'real' qualities inherent in the physical world itself. Galileo's primary qualities, Descartes' dualism, and Newton's empirical framework set the stage for a world-view heavily predicated on quantifiable phenomena at the expense of the qualitative aspects of existence. As such, the achievements of classical physics, while significant, left unresolved tensions and gaps that only began to surface with the seismic shifts brought about by Einstein and the quantum revolution; however, the basic philosophical difficulties still remain.

The uncertainty principle and the concept of wave-particle duality introduce challenges to the clear-cut distinctions of classical physics. In this light, reality is no longer a static entity to be dissected into primary and secondary qualities, but a dynamic and partly unknowable interaction that resists full comprehension through traditional scientific means. Quantum mechanics thus reveals the limitations of deterministic laws and the crucial role of the observer.

These three considerations demonstrate that science rests on certain philosophical principles that are not self evidentally true. Its presuppositions can be tested on philosophical grounds. We will proceed by first examining which scientistic beliefs can be supported or discredited and then look at what philosophical account can best explain the scientific data.


1. Christopher Smeenk, Philosophy of Cosmology, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2017.

2. Lisa Downing, George Berkeley, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2011. Cartesian dualism opened the door for the idealism of Berkeley.

3. Martha Bolton, Primary and Secondary Qualities in Early Modern Philosophy, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2022.

4. Lisa Downing, Sensible Qualities and Material Bodies in Descartes and Boyle, 2010.

5. Andrew Janiak, Newton’s Philosophy, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2021.

6. George Smith, Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2007.

7. Imogen Clarke, How to manage a revolution: Isaac Newton in the early twentieth century, The Royal Society, 2014.

8. Jenann Ismael, Quantum Mechanics, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2020.

9. Jan Hilgevoord, The Uncertainty Principle, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2016. See also Physics Explained, What is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? A wave packet approach, (YouTube), 2023, for the most in depth video explanation.

10. Fermilab, Demystifying the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, (YouTube), 2023. This video demonstrates the underpinnings of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in a simple way. Because waves govern the quantum world, we can make certian observations about waves to demonstrate uncertainty: (1) A wave function tells you the location of an object with the uncertainty of Δ‌x in the position. (2) All wave functions can be made out of sines and cosines which is seen in Fast Fourier Transform (FFT). (3) FFTs show the connection between uncertainty in position and the number of waves. (4) Momentum is related to wavelength.

Image from user137661, Is this explanation for the uncertainty principle correct?, (physics.stackexchange), 2019. See also 3Blue1Brown's But what is the Fourier Transform? A visual introduction (YouTube), 2018 and The more general uncertainty principle, regarding Fourier transforms (YouTube), 2018.

11. Meinard Kuhlmann, Quantum Field Theory, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2020.

12. Wayne Myrvold, Philosophical Issues in Quantum Theory, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2022.

The Cartesian Dilemma

Scientific Dualism

The concept of scientific dualism, emerging in the 16th and 17th centuries, is rooted in the resurgence of Platonic thought, significantly influenced by Renaissance figures such as Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. This revival emphasized numerical and harmonic principles, impacting notable thinkers like Nicolaus Copernicus during his studies in Bologna. Copernicus's astronomical theories, pivotal in the evolution of modern physics, underscored a growing conviction in the era that mathematics was the foundation of true knowledge. This view was shared by Kepler, who posited that the human mind was inherently designed to comprehend the universe in quantitative terms.

This shift represented a departure from medieval scholasticism, paving the way for groundbreaking discoveries in the Newtonian era. However, Kepler's work remained imbued with Platonic transcendentalism, as he focused on celestial harmony and eternal laws governing the solar system.

The scientific paradigm further evolved with Galileo, who shifted focus from celestial to terrestrial phenomena. Upholding the significance of mathematics, Galileo diverged from the Platonic ideal by applying mathematical principles to earthly phenomena, like the motion of falling objects. The European fascination with mechanical devices, such as astronomical clocks, likely fueled the concept of the universe as a vast, intricate mechanism—a notion that became central to the European intellectual landscape and significantly influenced scientific thought.

Galileo contributed to the concept of a divided reality, interpreting secondary qualities subjectively. However, it was René Descartes who fully crystallized this new vision. As a mathematician, physicist, and philosopher, Descartes pursued a mechanical science grounded in mathematical principles to explain natural phenomena, ranging from planetary movements to animal motion. He contended that only a mechanical universe could be understood in mechanical terms, arguing against the notion that physical attributes like size, shape, and motion could produce entirely different qualities, as some philosophers of his time believed. This approach marked a decisive turn in scientific thought, emphasizing a dualism between mind and matter and laying the groundwork for modern scientific inquiry.


Descartes' philosophical contributions, particularly in the realm of mind-body dualism, profoundly influenced the development of modern science and philosophy. He challenged the traditional notions of substantial forms and real qualities, which many philosophers believed inherently existed in objects. Descartes argued that these secondary qualities, such as color and sound, could not be explained mechanically, leading to his famous distinction between res cogitans (thinking substance) and res extensa (extended substance). This distinction underpins Cartesian dualism.

Descartes posited that the universe must be fundamentally mechanical to be understood in mechanical terms. He envisioned the universe as composed entirely of matter (res extensa), operating in space according to mechanical laws. In contrast, everything else, including thought and consciousness, belonged to a different realm of existence (res cogitans). He famously arrived at the certainty of res cogitans with his cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"), considering it the only immediate certainty. The existence of a mechanical universe outside of res cogitans was later deduced through logical arguments involving the concept of God and His truthfulness. This foundational premise of modern materialism ironically relied on theological principles.

However, Descartes faced significant challenges in explaining the interaction between the non-physical res cogitans and the physical res extensa. The problem lay in reconciling how the mind (a non-physical entity) could interact with the body (a physical entity), especially in contexts like sense perception and voluntary action. While mechanical causes couldn't produce substantial forms and real qualities in objects, Descartes struggled to coherently explain how res cogitans and res extensa could interact. He sometimes resorted to theological arguments, which were not universally convincing, and at other times, he confidently asserted that physical processes alone could produce all sensations.

Despite these challenges, Descartes' philosophical framework significantly influenced his successors, including Newton. Scientists began to emphasize res extensa, accepting it as an absolute truth while largely disregarding Descartes' arguments for the existence of res cogitans. Over time, the concept of res cogitans, initially considered an unextended substance, was first localized to a specific brain area in Newton's theories (the Newtonian sensorium) and eventually marginalized or discarded in scientific discourse. This evolution marked a significant shift in Cartesian logic, with res extensa becoming more prominent than res cogitans, almost as though the hypothesis had overtaken the original concept. This transformation laid the groundwork for the materialistic view of the universe that came to dominate scientific thought.

Mechanical Universe

As the 17th century came to an end, the concept of a mechanical universe was increasingly accepted as the prevailing scientific theory. Most, except a few discerning philosophers, regarded every success in physics as further proof of this Newtonian perspective. Scientists, more focused on expanding their analytical knowledge than examining its underlying principles, did not challenge this view. This was a time marked by extraordinary optimism.

However, some intellectual mavericks resisted this trend. In 1710, George Berkeley, a dynamic Irish thinker, raised compelling objections against the Cartesian idea of a universe that exists without being perceived. He argued that the existence of things like the table he wrote on depended on their perception. To Berkeley, the essence of the universe lay in its perception, not in an isolated mechanistic existence.

This debate shifted in 1781 to the German town of Konigsberg, where Immanuel Kant published his critical work, "Critique of Pure Reason." Like Descartes, Kant aimed to solidify the theoretical foundation of mechanics. He realized that a fundamental problem in philosophy was the separation between the scientist and the objects of study. Kant's approach was to conceptually bring these objects closer to the observer. He argued that space, as perceived by us, is not derived from external experiences but is a precondition for experiencing the external world. According to Kant, space and time are not properties of things in themselves but forms imposed by our intuition.

Kant's analysis extended to time, which he described as the 'pure form of inner intuition.' He concluded that our understanding of space and time, and the objects within them, is shaped by our perception and that the true nature of objects, independent of our perception, is unknown to us.

Kant's revolutionary ideas dramatically changed the philosophical landscape, offering a new perspective that potentially resolved the bifurcation dilemma and provided a foundation for scientific knowledge. His insights were particularly relevant to modern physics, emphasizing the relationship between nature and our perception of it. Though the scientific community may not have directly engaged with Kant's philosophy, his critique of Newtonian principles significantly influenced 20th-century physics and European philosophy. His work, just like Hume's influence on him, awakened subsequent generations of thinkers to new philosophical possibilities.


Despite rigorous critiques, Cartesianism's influence persisted into the early 20th century, with major Western philosophical schools still burdened by a key Cartesian bias. Even critics like Berkeley and Kant, in their efforts to challenge Descartes, inadvertently adopted his fundamental assumption. For centuries, this deep-rooted idea exerted a strong influence on European philosophy, with few philosophers managing to break free from it.

This central Cartesian belief posits that the true object of sense perception is confined within the human mind. It suggests that perception doesn’t extend beyond immediate sense data or mental constructs derived from them. This assumption leads to the notion that the external world, if it exists, is conjectural and inaccessible. In this view, the external world becomes a thing-in-itself, either doubtful as per Descartes or outright denied as per Berkeley. Consequently, the familiar world of everyday human experience is deemed subjective and somewhat illusory, essentially a personal fantasy, as Berkeley noted with his principle of esse is percipi, to be is to be perceived.

Once this Cartesian premise is accepted, the concept of bifurcation becomes feasible. One can then imagine an external universe devoid of anything but mechanical properties, dismissing the obvious objection that the real world doesn’t match this description. The objective world turns into an enigma to be unraveled by philosophers and scientists. However, the more one probes, the more insurmountable the divide between the external realm and its subjective representations seems. Berkeley's denial of the external world's existence is based on this Cartesian foundation, arguing that if perception ends in a mental image, the idea of an external universe is inherently contradictory. Even Kant's philosophical revolution couldn't bridge this gap, leaving the external world as an ultimate, unknowable entity.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that serious philosophical criticism began to challenge the Cartesian premise. Philosophers increasingly recognized that the true object of perception is not merely a mental image. Perception involves both passive reception (the datum) and active understanding (the intentional object). While this process may involve mental representations, what is perceived is the intentional object itself. To assume this object is merely a subjective representation or appearance is to fall back into the Cartesian trap. For instance, the three-dimensional nature of visual perception suggests that the object perceived isn't just a visual image. To insist that it must be a subjective representation is an unwarranted assumption, implying that the soul has no windows and, ultimately, questioning the possibility of objective knowledge altogether.

Beyond the Kantian Riff

These remarks about perception and intentionality are meant to initiate a discussion, not conclude it. The issue is complex and significant, and has been the focus of intense study by leading philosophers, starting with Edmund Husserl in the early 20th century.

Husserl, originally a mathematician, delved into philosophy by analyzing logical concepts fundamental to mathematics. He robustly defended the objectivity of these logical entities against subjective doubts, suggesting he had identified the transcendence of certain intentional acts. Husserl later expanded his research to other forms of intentionality, developing a general philosophical method for such analyses. His phenomenological analysis highlighted the limitations of Cartesian ideas, challenging the assumption that the external world is unperceived and unperceivable.

Alfred North Whitehead, another mathematician-turned-philosopher, also contributed significantly to this critique of Cartesianism. Initially focused on the foundations of mathematics and a pioneer in mathematical logic, Whitehead later examined the underpinnings of physical science. He identified a philosophical disorder in the foundations of science and criticized the continued adherence to Newtonian concepts despite their denial in modern thought. Whitehead's central critique was the 'fallacy of misplaced concreteness'—the mistake of treating abstract concepts as concrete realities, leading to a misunderstanding of the actual world.

Whitehead noted that scientific methodology is limited, only addressing part of human experience and thus blind to certain aspects of nature. He attributed this limitation partly to Cartesian dualism, which separated mind and body and hindered a fuller understanding of nature.

Husserl and Whitehead suggest a return to more natural and intuitive human understandings of the world, opposing the Cartesian view. However, recognizing that perception transcends the subjective realm does not fully explain how this happens. The core mystery remains unsolved, and it's important to acknowledge that these issues are not trivial. The errors of Descartes and his followers stemmed from complex and difficult issues.


Overall, the later developments in philosophy, which were briefly outlined, have had minimal direct influence on the scientific mindset of the present. Despite the breakdown of classical physics, the Newtonian worldview and positivism largely remain dominant. Scientists, influenced heavily by Newton's "Principia," have ingrained these modes of thought to the extent that they seem self-evident, leading to the dismissal of any differing viewpoints as incomprehensible. While there have been exceptions, the scientific community has generally been resistant to philosophical influences post-Newton.

Nevertheless, there has been a shift in understanding the role of the scientist, who is now seen as more than just an observer, contributing creatively to the scientific process and shaping scientific knowledge. The concept of "models" in science has gained popularity, acknowledging that science deals with theories representing aspects of truth rather than the physical world itself. This understanding suggests that even Newtonian physics, despite its success, is just one theory among many, each with its own uses and limitations. The scientific mindset is becoming more pragmatic and less inclined to idolize its creations, recognizing the limitations and potential for change in scientific theories.

However, this sophistication doesn't necessarily enlighten us on fundamental issues or resolve the confusion in scientific thought, philosophical cosmology, and epistemology. It might even encourage a superficial pluralism that avoids rather than solves the core problem. This attitude aligns with pragmatism or what Whitehead described as 'popular positivism,' where utility replaces truth.

Focusing on the logical content of science, it's evident that science promotes a doctrine with significant claims about the physical universe that influence other thought areas. Science continues to assert truths based on discoveries, a practice that began in the Newtonian era and persists today. This scientific worldview, despite recent developments and a shift towards pragmatism, still fundamentally reflects the original Newtonian and Cartesian doctrines.

On the technical level, physics might seem indifferent to these metaphysical foundations, as positivism and operationism suggest that physics deals with concrete procedures rather than metaphysical speculations. However, this perspective doesn't represent a worldview but rather a methodological approach, akin to the mindset of a computer. A strictly positivistic perspective is unlikely, as it would require a complete detachment from metaphysical notions.

The scientific worldview, including positivistic ideas, is more complex and cannot be reduced to operational definitions alone. It's meant to provide a view of the real world and a doctrine on the physical universe's nature. Despite criticisms and attempts to establish new theoretical foundations (like Whitehead's metaphysical doctrine), these new theories remain confined to specialized circles and have not significantly influenced the broader scientific community. The prevailing intellectual climate tends to avoid deeper questions, allowing Cartesian confusion to persist unchallenged.

This means that the worldview associated with precise science is riddled with fundamental misconceptions. The supposedly scientific worldview is built on hidden philosophical or a priori assumptions, ultimately self-contradictory, leading to the acceptance of a fantasy in the name of physics.