Epistemic closure

If science is not “well-posed language only” (Condillac’s provocative dictum), this later properly however is a criterion of “scienticity”, i.e. the strict logic of formal expression in modern science.

When distinguishing between thought and language, one yet realizes that for thought – whose inherent quest is an object – necessary coherence is thus ontological and interior, while it is, for language, formal and exterior. Even, the more thought opens to being, the less adequate related discourse is. Reciprocally, the price to pay for formal scientific exactitude is to sacrifice the “openness to being”, while operating the so-defined “epistemic closure of the concept”.

Now, to renounce access to essence of things – which is philosophy, and rather metaphysics – to the benefit of “exactness” (a “fake” in Whitehead’s word) requires a motivation. What is then the end of modern science? It ultimately lies in the pragmatic domain: technology or, in more general terms, prediction and control or even, in Baconian words, a type of knowing (!) where truth and utility “are one and the same”. This profound disjunction between conception of knowledge in modern science and in philosophy results from the fact that “there are only, for a living being, two means of ceasing to think: to contemplate or to act” (Borella says).

Epistemic closure of science, broadly outlined, thus consists in filtering out essence – and therefore being –, up to reducing phenomena to “pure relations”, which soon are independent to beings (like bodies replaced by linked “mass points”). Here, we realize that a scientific object is itself a concept, when a philosophic concept essentially is transitive, and remaining ontologically open to the object it leads to.

However immense the scientific interest of “closing concepts” is, the resulting conceptual universe only is “a free creation of the human spirit”1, and, next to modern science, there still is a distinct philosophical way of knowing. Indeed, epistemic closure is invisible to the scientific point of view – whose autonomy only pertains to the pragmatic realm –, while the philosopher knows that any closure can only take place in a wider speculative field, and that metaphysics defines the most general possible speculative field.

This is what differentiates modern sciences from pre-Galilean ones, the later remained open to the general science, which is philosophy, and which for them is normative.

Application to (Modern) Science

While Borella’s objective is to defend philosophic concept openness, and save philosophy from being reduced to an observer to modern science, the “epistemic closure of the concept” furnishes a basis to a theory of science.

It is clear that it is only in the case of pure mathematics that the epistemic closure could be totally achieved. There, “we never know what we are talking about or whether what we are saying is true” (Bertrand Russell’s). In physics however, epistemic closure can never be complete, but the one related to the object-concept universe, yet a mathematical model – or an “auxiliary body of theory” – does not constitute a physical theory.

Indeed, Galilean physics was far from being epistemically closed and Einsteinian relativity has rigorously shown the mistake. That is because “relativity theory made the first serious attempt to insist on dealing with the facts themselves”, says Eddington; but one needs to ascertain what hard facts of observation are.2

Yet, the facts of observation are to be conceived in relation to the physical theory and cannot be “hard” (i.e. scientifically rigorous); “hard” rather is the modus operandi by which the object-concept universe is connected to the empirical realm.

Now there is no such thing as a mathematical physics, but one sees in time physics going though progressively higher levels of closure, current phase showing an excessive degree of formalisation and a correlative loss of empirical content3. As theoretical physics abundantly produce “many-worlds” and superstring theories, it approaches the limit of complete epistemic closure and the “theory of everything” rather becomes theories of nothing at all. Indeed, “the concept of substance has disappeared from fundamental physics”, said Eddington already in 1938 (in his Tarner Lectures); physical universe is not discovered but constructed by the modus operandi of physics: the mathematics, which “is not there until we put it there”.

However, Eddington’s so-claimed full formalization of physics (no substance left, no description of the actual universe but simply a mathematical structure defined in operational terms) has left something out, epistemic closure was not achieved4.

This means that, strictly speaking, science can never be scientific, epistemic closure can never be complete, which nevertheless is what grants creativity (insight from the outer speculative field) or that already quoted “free creation of the human spirit”.

Now, getting to pure mathematics, its epistemic closure finally is not complete either. Its “perfect rigor” finally is not fully reached, yet this limit being demonstrated with perfect rigor by Gödel (cf. his famous Incompleteness Theorem from 1931). Thus, if not even pure mathematics can be “formalized without residue”, what to speak of physics!

The Contradiction of Scientism

As substance cannot be defined in scientific terms, it is illegitimate to attribute it to a scientific object-concept universe, which is what scientism does, denounced by Whitehead as “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness”5.

Indeed, from its own logic, modern science (post-Galilean one) excludes substance from its epistemic closure, but yet reifies the universe, which inconsistency – and rather schizophrenia – not only is in the psyche of scientists but in the collective one of contemporary Western society6. We are then committed to two contradictory world-views: the one where grass is green and the one where it is not, the one where bodies are solid and the one where they are atomic aggregates, leading to truly pathological, truly schizoid conditions.

If this contradiction is to be seen in “average” men – and how to deny it –, what could explain that we see it in most scientists, even first rank ones? That is because man is made to know truth, being, and even Being (God); so, when dealing with positivistic issues within an epistemic (en)closure, best scientists cannot refrain to unbeknownly bring being in or any other substitute7, which anyway refers to the denied outer speculative field, beyond the epistemic circle that properly defines their science8. That is this unconscious contradiction that makes the scientism, and this schism that underlies the schizophrenia.

Obviously, there is no such task of separating scientific truth from scientistic falsehood, even in our universities. That is because scientism pertains to the ideology of science – kind of new religion, or rather counter-religion –, and because neither can science explain its bent towards scienticity, nor grasps the source of its own creativity.

What then is it that inspires this hegemonic and spreading passion for scienticity? The lure of technology, the promise of Baconian utility cannot explain it all. Could some satanic be at work, in phase with such schism and as the etymology of diabolos indicates?9  This would be why Padre Pio could say that « science is the bible of Antichrist », as the strict opposition between the “speculative openness of the philosophical concept” and the scientific “epistemic closure of the concept” indicates. We could even say, as neither East nor the Moslem world have produced science in its modern sense, that only a post-Christian civilization – an anti-Christian one, should we say – could have given birth to its very opposite, a cultural modern science deprived from authentic philosophy!

Application to Contemporary Quantum Physics

Coming back to the object-concept universe of contemporary quantum physics, first question is whether particles are object-concepts themselves or real entities of some kind. Although it is a mathematical formalism that represents quantum particles and their aggregates (e.g. a state vector in a Hilbert space), it is operationally interpreted in terms of an empirical procedure. Experimental physicist translates the mathematical statements of the theoretician into operational terms.

One senses that conceptual measured particles have a certain objective reality, but this issue is not scientifically meaningful. As Eddington points out: “those who associate with the result a mental picture of some entity disporting itself in a metaphysical realm of existence do so at their own risk; physics can accept no responsibility for this embellishment”10. Criteria of scienticity rules out any idea of substance (or substantial being), even if not any Copenhagenist would in full adhere to Niels Bohr dictum: “there is no quantum world; there is only a quantum description”.

Then, how do we conceive particles as entities, and how do we validate such an interpretation? There cannot be any solution within the epistemic circle. There is one only way: to call for “the general science that is philosophy” (Borella’s), which is not subject to the conditions of scienticity. “Rigor” from within the scientific circle is then substituted by a contemplative act of vision; the discursive or mental act is substituted by an authentically intellective act – able to transcend scienticity without falling into fantasy or delusion.

Yet, what we measure are not things (whether particles or waves) but rather a mathematical probability distribution. How then can one conceive probabilities in realist terms? Heisenberg gave a clue in noting that the Schrödinger wave function, interpreted à la Born as a probability wave, constitutes “a quantitative version of the old concept of potentia in Aristotelian philosophy”11. Moreover, probability is a potentia in the two Latin senses of a potential “waiting” to be actualized (a mere possibility) and a certain capacity or power to attain that actualization. As such, probabilities can be real, and exist, ontologically, in relation to the corporeal world. One must note here that this ontological conception of probabilities as potentiae does not reduce to their operational definition, as far as the ontological concept of distance, for example, does not reduce to a procedure of measuring distances. The concept of real quantity precedes the modus operandi of its measurement!

This means that the mathematical formalism of physics has, in addition to its operational meaning, an ontological significance. Mathematical symbolism must implicate an objective referent so as to develop its pragmatic sense. Truth and utility are not “here one and the same”! Truth has primacy over utility, like cause over effect.

This is why quantum description must have an objective referent, even if it falls outside the epistemic circle, outside the physical universe itself.

Ontological significance within quantum description is enlighteningly illustrated by the so-called “collapse of the state vector”, which occurs at the moment of measurement. When a particle enters the measuring space of the instrument, for no physical reason at all is violated the Schrödinger trajectory (or it is re-initialized, physicists say)12. What happens? While the instrument is, perforce, corporeal, the particle, from its physical domain, becomes an actual part of this corporeal entity. It participates to it in its substantial form. Obviously, this goes beyond physicists’ views but, yet, the significance of state vector collapse proves to be ontological, the “inexplicable discontinuity” betokens the corporeality (of the measuring instrument).

Even if quantum theory does not obviously entail a complete ontology, it unmistakably points beyond the physical domain to the corporeal one, by virtue of perforce perceptible instruments of detection and measure. Moreover, quantum theory provides a key to an ontological understanding of the physical domain itself. Inherently transitive, physical universe points to something that is not physical. Although bereft of substance, it must refer to a realm where substance is to be found. One could say that the physical has the nature of a sign, that it is a semantic entity, semantically oriented to the corporeal. While physics is indeed the science of measurement (Lord Kelvin’s), the physical as such precisely reveals its nature (far from being reducible to probability only, but being “full” potentia) in a non-physical act of measurement.

It’s a tragedy that physicists, through the epistemic closure, cannot understand the physical world itself; so they speak of “quantum strangeness” or “quantum paradox”, and even can confirm that “no one understands quantum mechanics” (Richard Feynman’s), or even that it has turned into “a kind of mystic chant over an unintelligible universe”. It is a pity that criterion of scientificity prevents modern physicists from grasping the true significance of quanta, while such impasse never occurs in traditional science where closure is merely instrumental and never absolute.

Fortunately, Professor Borella’s notion of epistemic closure, not only provides a key to understanding nature and scope of modern science, but also can provoke a true metanoia, in reopening, beyond contemporary delusive knowing – strange kind of half-knowing –, a pathway to an authentic one.


  1. Albert Einstein, The Evolution of Physics, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954, p.33.[]
  2. The Philosophy of Physical Science, Cambridge University Press, 1949, p.32.[]
  3. cf. The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology, The Foundation for Traditional Studies, Oakton, Virginia, 2003, pp.211-215.[]
  4. For example, fine structure constant was to be 1/137, when latest measurements have shown it to be 3 hundredth of a percent below, which discrepancy is fatal to Eddington’s theory.[]
  5. Science and the Modern World, Macmillan, New York, 1967, pp.51-55.[]
  6. Science influence to modern culture is obvious, as Theodore Roszak observed: “soon enough the style of mind that began with the natural scientist is taken up by imitators throughout the culture”; Where the Wasteland Ends, Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1973, p.31.[]
  7. Scientism has other legitimate connotations than reification of universe, but all logically distinct: Cartesian bifurcation (position seen in Eddington’s), Darwinism/evolutionism (also seen in Whitehead’s “process theology”), naturalism (an etiological form of scientism), or its epistemological version epitomized in Bertrand Russell’s boast: “What science cannot tell us, mankind cannot know”.[]
  8. This means that “contradiction” of modern science never can be seen (with)in any particular one – whose extrinsic justification is granted by its operational validity –, but only when one philosophically (and consciously) pursues the look for things (or object, or substance, or being), as intelligence intrinsically is oriented to.[]
  9. While “wholeness” connects to “holiness”.[]
  10. op.cit., p.71.[]
  11. Physics and Philosophy, Harper & Row, N.Y., 1958, p.41.[]
  12. This process of measurement would be more accurately described in the language of probabilities. We would then speak about the incorporation, not of a particle, but of “information”, which, from an ontological point of view, amounts to the same. See Roy Frieden, Physics from Fisher Information, pp.63-111.[]