About the Institute for the Study of Nature

The Institute for the Study of Nature is an intellectual agora, a locus of discussion, debate, and cooperation for people reconsidering the question, “What is Nature?” 

For centuries modern empirical science has provided privileged answers to that question, answers typically given in terms of mechanism, mathematicism, and reductionism. "Mechanism" is explaining nature in terms of the parts of things and motive (efficient) causes.  "Mathematicism" means seeing natural regularities in things as epiphenomena of more fundamental “laws of nature,” understood mathematically.  "Reductionism" means that wholes are explained without loss in terms of the law-like motions and mechanical interactions of their parts.

But a growing number of thinkers are reconsidering this conception of Nature and the role of modern science in its development.  Coming from the scientific side, we are anti-reductionists, “emergentists,” holists, structuralists, self-organization theorists, systems thinkers, and complexity theorists. From the philosophical side, we are non-reductionists, “anti-realists” (a term of art that does not imply pure subjectivity and constructivism), neo-Aristotelians, neo-Thomists, phenomenologists, and more generally all those who take seriously the need to account for the data of everyday human experience. On the historical front, we study especially the early modern period and crucial thinkers such as Bacon and Descartes, Leibniz and Newton, and their world-changing scientific, theological, and philosophical claims.

What we have in common is this suspicion: Nature is more than just particles in motion according to laws, more than just quantum flux and wave-function collapse. Nature seems to be a hierarchically ordered, nested, and self-reflexive system of parts and wholes in which causation is both bottom-up (parts to wholes) and top-down (wholes to parts). Mathematics is “unreasonably effective” in its ability to capture and express natural regularities, and yet at the same time it cannot fully explain the behavior of actually existing things. Things—substances, to use the old terminology—must be given their due. Many of us believe the four causes of Aristotle and perhaps even neo-Platonic types must be reassessed as we seek to understand and explain more completely the things, behaviors, and patterns we observe empirically. And many old ideas—of substance and substantial unity; of form, matter, and nature; of capacities (potencies) and causal powers—are again on the table as we seek to explore the world around us with all of our rational capacities.

What about religion? Aren't the questions we raise nothing but an odd recasting of the current fad for “science and religion” dialog? We are, like most humans, interested in metaphysics and religion. Yet the views of ISN Fellows about religion vary much more widely than their views of Nature: we are predominantly theists, but some of us are agnostics and atheists. What we tend to have in common is a belief that the “science-religion” dialog has grown sterile because of the unrecognized gap between the reductionist claims of mainstream science, on the one hand, and the transcendent, supra-rational claims of faith on the other. We want to focus primarily on understanding what we can all see, hear, taste, and touch: the natural world itself that—despite our best efforts to conquer and subdue it—still surrounds, supports, limits, and tantalizes us. 

If we can reach some consensus about Nature—about changeable being itself, “physics” in the classical sense—then perhaps later we can make progress on metaphysical (“beyond physics”) questions. Or, we may just agree to disagree. But our metaphysical disagreements may be less sharp and divisive if in the end we hold in common a more profound view of Nature, one richer than provided by today's mainstream science, one less cut off from everyday human existence. We can readily accept and even celebrate the methodological power of modern scientific reductionism. But we can also recognize modern science's epistemological limits while exploring the supra-scientific yet still fully rational evidence for a richer ontology of Nature.

More about the ISN in our printable brochure: [PDF: normal/flipped backside]


This page last updated on May 20, 2009