Restoring Sense to the Universe: A Review of ‘The Vertical Ascent’

15 April 2021

Michael Dominic Taylor

With this new book, Wolfgang Smith cements his reputation as a profound and original thinker whose proposals do not admit indifference. What he lays out demands attention; it could very well be the head of the spear for the reorganization and reinterpretation of modern science into what Stratford Caldecott called “a science of the real”:  a science more accurate because it is more true, more Goethean than Galilean, a science that values qualities as well as quantities, that recognizes the knower and the known as intrinsically related, and that has been liberated from materialistic determinism to the service of the highest calling of human person. What is at stake is not only the truth of science  over the ideology of scientism — and it is crucial to distinguish the two — but the very theophanic capacity of the cosmos, which has been under assault since the so-called Enlightenment and which we are becoming increasingly incapable of recognizing.

In the work of reunifying human wisdom in all its dimensions, Smith’s appointed task is twofold: to awaken modern scientists from their dogmatic slumber in scientism and to recruit those who have long since rejected scientism for the consolations of philosophy and theology. Though there is considerable distance between the two groups, this collection of essays goes a long way towards both goals and a return to a semantic and sacramental cosmos. The interlacing of Smith’s reflections, which approach central issues from multiple angles, allows the reader to come to a fuller appreciation of his vision. This combined with numerous references to other chapters and his other works makes this text a valuable entry point into or capstone for Smith’s thought.

By now, the diagnosis is clear. The dominant worldview of Western Civilization has been in place for nearly 400 years, based firmly on the idea that the surest route to the truth is the scientific method, freed from the strictures of any other considerations — whether they be “secondary” qualities, philosophical concerns, or, more recently, even logic itself. In order to turn the world into an idealized laboratory for empirical analysis, Enlightenment thinking required a bifurcation of reality, which was promptly provided by René Descartes in the form of the infamous res cogitans – res extensa  dualism.  Reducing the physical universe (albeit methodologically) to mere extension, empirical science was free, not so much to learn the truth of the world, but to subjugate and manipulate it.

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This method, with its voracious appetite for converting all fields of human activity into empirical ones and its undeniable physical efficacy, would metastasize into a philosophy, a worldview, and a veritable anti-religion, as Smith incisively describes. Among the method’s fruits are modern medicine, the Internet, the atomic bomb, the smartphone, industrial farming, spaceships, and the greatest man-made ecological crisis the world has ever seen. It is easy to be hypnotized by its achievements and never consider the costs, especially in the form of the wisdom that was forgotten in order to make way for our current state of affairs.

This story has been told many times and the concatenation of philosophical and theological errors has been laid out by many great minds, holding the materialistic conclusions of modern science at bay, at least on paper. As Aquinas pointed out, even if our world were eternal, as Aristotle thought, this would not release it from the logical need for a Creator — an ontological source of its being — since creation and generation are two ontologically distinct causal relations. Though discredited on philosophical grounds, the scientistic edifice that houses the technocratic paradigm of modern and even, despite its protests, postmodern culture appears to stand firm. However, as Smith points out, the discovery of the quantum realm — precisely where an idealized Newtonian atomic realm had been theorized — has fundamentally undermined the integrity of the entire scientistic conception of the cosmos: a fact that much of the scientific establishment has yet to come to terms with. Under current evolutionary presuppositions, quantum particles are conceived of as actual particles that, in addition, are responsible for conferring existence to everything else from the bottom up, even consciousness itself. Smith describes convincingly why empirical results do not coincide with this notion, giving rise to a patchwork of increasingly unscientific and absurd sub-theories that have been floated to cover the clay feet of the scientistic worldview.1See The Vertical Ascent  (Philos-Sophia Initiative, 2021), chapters 1–4. Much of modern science has truly run aground, and this is not only evident in quantum physics but in numerous other areas also.

Alas, the scientistic edifice has, so far, proved too big to fail. The spillover of evolutionary materialism into Western culture has all but drowned out the voices of philosophical and theological resistance. Without a new scientific  understanding, one that could demonstrate its superiority on empirical grounds, those resistant to scientism on philosophical or religious grounds have been forced into a de facto  dualism, giving credence to “science” on physical matters while believing “privately” what they would on the meaning of those facts. Into this tenuous situation stepped Smith, who since the mid-1980’s has worked to bring to light what might best be described as an ever-ancient, ever-new scientific paradigm: one deeply informed by authentic scientific principles and the latest empirical evidence as well as intimately integrated with humankind’s longstanding philosophical traditions. It takes time and significant toil from a new class of scientists to replace an old paradigm. Smith is certainly to be considered among those on the forefront of this effort.

What is perhaps most surprising about the vision presented by Smith is not its novelty but its familiarity, especially to those readers more philosophically or religiously inclined who have long since rejected the scientistic worldview. To those incognizant of their own Cartesian and Darwinian presuppositions, Smith’s work will prove foreign, and yet, his propositions are far more palatable and realistic — on purely scientific grounds — than what popularly passes as “science” today. No doubt Smith’s work is complex; he is working at the very cutting edge of modern science to lay down the groundwork for an entirely different way (relative to the dominant worldview) of comprehending the cosmos that is philosophically profound and theologically rich. There are few whose expertise is quite as broad, especially in our fragmented and specialized culture. Many references to other great philosophical traditions are to be found, particularly the Vedic, into which Smith has delved deeply. Though some of his insights might seem foreign to Western readers, let us recall with St. Paul that the philosophical truths of the cosmos are on display for all to see, for, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”2Rom. 1:20

Among Smith’s achievements revisited in this book are the resolution of the quantum enigma through a reintroduction of Aristotelian potentiae  and  Thomistic materia quantitate signata  into scientific discourse, and the recognition that the fundamental (though unacknowledged) scientific presupposition — namely the real existence of res extensa — is unfounded. Smith says that once one has comprehended that quantum particles do not confer being but rather receive  it through a “vertical” causality from corporeal entities, which in turn possess a substantial form, and that res extensa  exists nowhere in the real world but only in the mind and mathematics of the physicist, the way is now open for a return to a science of the real.

While Smith has expounded upon vertical causality and his distinction between the “physical” and the “corporeal” realms in other works, this new publication centers on his complementary comprehension of the cosmos as an integral whole, yet tripartite in its relation to space and time. This vision is depicted by what Smith calls the “cosmic icon” that adorns the cover of the book. Consistent with the ancient affirmation that the human being is a microcosm — an image of the cosmos in miniature — to whom pertain the three dimensions of corpus-anima-spiritus,3See, e.g., 1 Thes. 5:23. Smith sees the cosmos itself as similarly and seamlessly ordered. The circumference of the circle corresponds to the corporeal dimension, subject to both time and space; the central point corresponds to the spiritual or “aeviternal” dimension, subject to neither; and the inner disk corresponds to the intermediate “animate” dimension, where only time holds sway and substantial forms mediate between the aeviternal and the corporeal dimensions. The aeviternal dimension is not to be confused with the Kingdom of Heaven, which will not be made manifest until the Parousia.4See The Vertical Ascent, op. cit., chapter 12.

This conception of the cosmos, which Smith calls Platonist, brings to light the radical difference between the mere pushing and pulling of horizontal causality on the corporeal plane and the many forms of vertical causality that are at work in the universe (first among them, the actus essendi). Though Aquinas describes the order of the cosmos in two ways — intrinsically according to the hierarchy of participation in being and extrinsically according to creation’s teleological end in God — Smith’s representation of this ancient icon does not seem to contradict either and facilitates the seamless integration of modern science into a holistic understanding of dimensions to which it has long postured itself as antithetical. The other principal deviation from Thomistic doctrine is anthropological: Thomas adheres to the body-soul hylomorphism. On these points, Smith’s work deserves further consideration and discussion with all philosophical traditions.

Certainly modern science is in need of a radical reinterpretation, one that the dominant paradigm will resist. However, the arguments’ strengths principally lie not in their philosophical or theological merits, but precisely in their ability to resolve innumerable empirical  and  scientific  problems in a logical way that corresponds both with our lived experience and with the perennial wisdom of the great traditions. We’ve already discussed the Gordian knot that was quantum interpretation, but there are countless others — for example, visual perception, which was resolved in the last century by James J. Gibson only through the abandonment of Cartesian principles and the empirically-necessary embrace of a qualitative realism that Smith incorporates into this new paradigm.5See ibid., chapter 10.

The consequences of this paradigm shift would be radical (from radix, “root”) to the core and will certainly cause unease in readers who are skeptical or have not fully grasped the extent to which Enlightenment dogma has shaped our worldview. For, if Smith is right, common modern notions such as material evolution,6See ibid., chapter 8. heliocentrism, and even whether there is something in astrology beyond mere superstition7See ibid., chapter 7. would need to be reinterpreted — not merely on philosophical grounds, but on empirical grounds as well. Mathematics itself, which thanks to Descartes considers both “rational” and “irrational” numbers as making up the category of “real”  numbers,  would also need a radical reinterpretation in which the qualitative  aspects of numbers — as they relate proportionally to wholes — can be appreciated alongside their quantitative natures.  Deeper considerations of philosophical and theological import find their place in the final third of The Vertical Ascent, addressing topics regarding Gnosticism, eschatology, teleology, and Christian spirituality. The critique of neo-Gnosticism, especially as it took form in the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin, but also as it continually manifests itself in Western culture, is particularly potent and pressing.8See ibid., chapters 8 and 11.

Thomas Aquinas, nearly eight centuries ago, stated it clearly: “An error about creation is reflected in a false opinion about God.”9Summa Contra Gentiles  II, 3.1. Never before have we been in more urgent need of an integrated understanding of the cosmos. Philosophy and theology must be reunited with the sciences, which in turn must be salvaged from the modern Cartesian and Darwinian scientists who, having no recourse to the world beyond the physical dimension, have by all accounts abandoned true scientific pursuit for the propagation of scientistic dogma through ever-more absurd science fictions. Wolfgang Smith has spent the better part of four decades dedicated to this integral understanding and his work merits serious consideration and thoughtful development. Though one can, and should, debate the precision of his arguments on the empirical, philosophical and theological levels, what ought not to be in question is the need of a reintegration of human knowledge and a return to the real world of qualities, symbolic meaning, and theophany.


Michael Dominic Taylor lives with his wife, Cassandra, in Granada, Spain, where he works as the Executive Secretary of the International Laudato Si’ Institute and teaches Metaphysics for the Edith Stein Philosophy Institute. He holds degrees in biology and environmental studies, bioethics, and philosophy, and took his doctorate in philosophy in 2019. He is the author of The Foundations of Nature: Metaphysics of Gift for an Integral Ecological Ethic (Cascade: Veritas Series, 2020).

 

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References
1 See The Vertical Ascent  (Philos-Sophia Initiative, 2021), chapters 1–4.
2 Rom. 1:20
3 See, e.g., 1 Thes. 5:23.
4 See The Vertical Ascent, op. cit., chapter 12.
5 See ibid., chapter 10.
6 See ibid., chapter 8.
7 See ibid., chapter 7.
8 See ibid., chapters 8 and 11.
9 Summa Contra Gentiles  II, 3.1.