Throughout history philosophers have posited souls, vital spirits and other active principles in living beings in order to explain their differences from non-living beings. With the arrival of genetics and evolutionary biology, however, it now seems possible to account for these differences without assuming such principles. Living beings are henceforth to be understood mechanically, as products of self-replicating microscopic objects and selective environmental conditions, rather than pneumatically, in terms of active principles. It is very remarkable, therefore, that physics has since abandoned the mechanical model of explanation, which it gave to biology, and returned to the pneumatical model, applying it not merely to living beings but to matter quite generally. The conceptual origins and philosophical significance of this remarkable development are explored in the present work. Part One examines the crucial role played by field theory in the decline of mechanism in physics and its replacement by pneumatism. Part Two discusses the importance of this development for metaphysics and the theory of human nature.
REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
David Gunn is an intellectual virtuoso who dazzles with detailed and brisk variations on the theme that matter itself is self-directed activity. He argues extensively that modern physics has completely abandoned mechanistic explanations and that important philosophical conclusions follow from this, among them:
• That a unified account of Man and Nature is possible.
• That nothing transcends Nature, but all is immanent. He calls his philosophy “subjective materialism”.
• That freedom is nothing more than the power of self-determination and that this power is possessed by every being in Nature. It is not the ability to act otherwise, since only a different self could have acted differently.
• That the uniqueness of Man’s freedom is his ability to produce intellectual objects of theoretic, practical, and aesthetic value (the True, the Good, the Beautiful). This is Man’s vocation. (The capitalized abstractions and the unconcern with feminist objections to equating “Man” with “human beings in general” is typical of Gunn’s affinity with the grand system-building rationalists of the 18th and 19th centuries.)
• That “good” and “evil” can be defined in terms of what promotes or thwarts intellectual production.
• That the soul is mortal and that human mortality and human evil have the same origin, which, if I understand Gunn correctly, is simply that the part falls short of being the whole.
Unlike many authors who have attempted to explain the philosophical and religious or spiritual ramifications of modern physics, Gunn does not shy away from using mathematical symbols. Equations abound in the middle part of the book. However, as a relatively ignorant layman in this field, I can attest that it is possible to follow the gist of Gunn’s exposition while sliding over the details of the equations.
This is a very ambitious book that deserves to be read and discussed by everyone who is interested in the question of what modern science really has to say about man’s place in the universe. My own evaluation is that Gunn has made an impressive case for the claim that modern physics has abandoned mechanistic explanations and that this has important philosophical implications. I am not convinced, however, by his conclusions
about the nature of human freedom, his claim that it is possible to have a priori knowledge of nature, and his reversion to exalting the intellect over emotions. These are no doubt questions the reader will wish to ponder for himself or herself.
~ Jack Call, Ph.D., Philosophy Professor, Citrus College Author of God is a Symbol of Something True