Science inventing the past

According to materialism, the appearances of the world around us – its colours, sounds, forms and so on – are illusions produced only by our senses and our minds. All is really particles, waves or whatever inconceivable things those models actually are, to be represented best by mathematical equations. According to reductive materialism that illusion, in the end, extends even to our minds themselves. The scientific project, then, is to get behind these “illusions” to the “reality” behind it.

OB_PlayingChessOwen Barfield, in Saving the Appearances, by no means denies the mental nature of the appearances, although he is chasing a different and far richer use of the idea than the materialists’ monotonic and ultimately dehumanizing vision. But in a whole chapter of his book he raises a specific issue that’s very relevant to origins science: if perceived appearances are only phenomena of our minds (themselves, according to materialism, an epiphenomenon) and the reality consists not of colours, sounds or shapes but of underlying unperceived realities, then what are we studying when we talk about pre-history, before there were humans to perceive anything?

What does it mean to say that a dinosaur was green if no “epiphenomenal” mental concept of either “bird” or “green” existed? What do we mean by saying a Precambrian algae was green if there was no colour vision? Or no vision at all, come to that? The picture of the past we conjure up in, say, palaeo-art or an animatronic T. rex is not the resurrection of a previous world, but the invention of a humanly-perceived world that never was. Indeed how even did mathematical “rules” exist in the absence of their construction by human minds (see the philosophy of maths paper cited here)? Barfield writes:

It can do no harm to recall occasionally that the prehistoric evolution of the earth, as it is described…, was not merely never seen. It never occurred. Something no doubt occurred, and what is really being propounded by such popular writers, and, so far as I am aware, by the textbooks on which they rely, is this. That at that time the unrepresented was behaving in such a way that, if human beings with collective representations characteristic of the last few centuries of western civilisation had been there, the things described would also have been there…

“The unrepresented” is Barfield’s term for the unprocessed reality behind our “illusory perceptions” that is sought by science. It is “unrepresented” to remind us of the gulf between the reality and the perception. Thus our optical system does not represent colours to us, but something rather inconceivable by colours.

Part of Barfield’s argument in the book so far has been that the way that human beings have perceived reality is not fixed, but has changed profoundly both between the most primitive mental processes of (human) prehistory and a significant shift beginning around three thousand years ago, and also between that and the modern view brought into being by the scientific worldview. So he goes on here:

Moreover, for those hypothetical “human beings with collective representations characteristic of the last few centuries of western civilization”, we might choose to substitute other human beings – those, for instance, who lived one or two or three or more thousand years ago. We should then have to write a different pre-history altogether.”

In other words he questions why our recent “commonsense” way of seeing things should be considered more authoritative for the reality of the distant past than the “commonsense” perception of primitive men – who were, after all, closer to it. If we reject such a conclusion, he demonstrates that our our only 3 choices are:

(a) A super-naive realism, rejecting all the rigmarole of physics, physiology and psychology as, essentially, bunk. Our commonsense perceptions are true now, and were in prehistory as well. But of course if we reject the views of those scientists, what grounds are there for accepting the views of those who reconstruct the past? And if we take that route, we should immediately stop talking about our current commonsense experience of the world as in any way illusory: we can’t have it both ways.
(b) Double-think – what’s true in physics is untrue in other fields, such as the study of pre-history. That’s problematic if you claim that pre-history is the result of physical processes, which of course is the approach that most science takes to the past.
(c) Saying like George Berkeley that the common appearance of things (ie what has been common for the past few centuries!) is maintained, in the absence of human beings, by God, whose viewpoint has eternally been that of modern western man.

Barfield accepts, of course, that such human descriptions of the vanished past may be valuable as “notional models”, but that is all they are. “For their nature is that of artificial imagery”. At least, surely, the reductive materialist must agree with that logic? Barfield actually goes on to say that if we treat these imaginary prehistoric appearances as if they are real, it’s actually nothing less than the making of idols.


Departing from Barfield, there’s an interesting correlation to be made with John H Walton’s (and others’) new insights into the Creation stories of Genesis, which turn out in the light of such discussions to hinge on very astute philosophical principles. If you remember, those insights are that the emphasis of Genesis is not on the making of “things” out of nothing, but the designation of functions for functionless or chaotic things on behalf of man. That’s actually not at all far from the idea of creating the set of representations that we recognise as reality and by which we may interact fruitfully with the world: and so the first appearance of reality coincided with the appearance of mankind. Find when that happened, and you have the date of the Genesis creation!

This differs from Berkeley’s idea profoundly, for God needs no representations of things for his own sake – he knows all things comprehensively in their original reality, unmediated by imagery. No, the appearances are created for us – as well as by us, according to Barfield’s insights. And if God has given special dignity to the human view of reality – if our reality is uniquely privileged – then of course there is no longer an epistemological problem about applying our “version” of reality to the distant past before we existed – we are simply bringing more of God’s creation within the circle of human knowledge and worship, to his glory. We are still “thinking God’s thoughts after him”, only we’re using the language of representations that he has created and authorised for us in new contexts.

Otherwise, it seems we have to speak not only of things like “the illusion of design”, but “the illusion of what appears to have been designed” in evolution. And as Barfield points out, there may well be a different kind of representation of the deep past that works better than our modern western one.

Artist's impression of Cretaceous landscape minus artist's impressions.

Artist’s impression of Cretaceous landscape minus artist’s impressions.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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6 Responses to Science inventing the past

  1. Merv Bitikofer says:

    Interesting thought from Barfield: that there is no such thing as an unseen rainbow (maybe expressed in posts subsequent to this one, though, the theme of your last posts is consistent enough, that I just happen to be plopping this comment here.)

    If we could say that the world did not exist before there were humans (or somebody) there to observe it, then by that same logic large swaths of the wilderness world today do not exist either except perhaps in the indirect effect they have on the rest of the observed world. Or more immediately, the room behind me (since I alone in the room) only blinks into existence when I spin my head to take a look, and resumes its nonexistence when my attention is elsewhere. None of us believes this in any practical level, though. We all rest solidly in our faith that there is something out there independent of our sensory experience of it, that provides the stimulus for our sensory experience.

    So I’ve never found it too enigmatic to discuss trees falling in lonely forests and the sounds they may or may not make. The answer is simple, really. If one defines “sound” as “perception only”, then of course it exists only in our heads and the uninhabited forest is silent (though I suppose one ought to also account for sentient animal life also hosting perceptive faculties). But if one defines sound as the phenomenon that stimulates our auditory perception, then yes –it seems it very much exists even when we’re not there, though that is, of course, a matter of faith. It seems in these discussions, you favor the former definition, and I’m not contesting that. Just noting that our philosophies are taking root already in our definitions.

    The unseen rainbow, though … really is nonexistent as any kind of object or even as a phenomenon. Very interesting to contemplate that. Does it exist when I imagine it?

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Solipsism isn’t the Barfield idea, Merv. The rainbow is a deliberately thought provoking example because its existence as a rainbow as an effect of human perception/figuration. The raindrops, the sun, the refraction and so on exist in “the unrepresented”.

      He goes on in the same passage to say how much harder it is to accept (or easy to accept, but harder to cling on to) that there is no such thing as an unfelt solid. Once again, it’s not because it pops into existence as you look, but because what is there before perception is not a solid but … well, whatever matter is intrinsically.

      But his point about the entire prehistoric world is that, without perception, what existed was the intrinsic whatever. To represent it according to human perception is, as it were, a sleight of hand (especially bearing in mind that as we’ve discussed human perception is highly conditioned by worldview: I see (though I don’t because I wasn’t there) an early pterosaur: Mr Aborigine sees a totemic bird. By what criteria is my representation of what we both agree existed valid?

      There is, though, as I said in the post, some relevance to when the world was created: if “Created” refers to function/order, and that is related to the stewardship of man, then in that sense both prehistory and wilderness (as Walton discusses) are “outside creation” in the biblical understanding.

  2. Merv Bitikofer says:

    I was discussing this with my son, and he also mused that maybe a sunset would be another example. But Barfield’s nonexistent unseen rainbow still strikes me as a categically better example than that or the solid too. The solid retains properties in the absence of our perception and the sunset too occurs at well defined locations. We don’t come back to our mug of tea only to discover drink all over the table because the mug had a lapse of solidity in our absence. So some of what we attribute to solidity must be independent of our perception.

    All this said, I still note well your point that there is sleight of hand going on. I do find it compelling that there is an inescapable layer between perception and reality.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      In Barfield the rainbow example was an “easy intro” to the concept of representation, since the perceived is so evidently and radically divorced from the “hard reality” (conveniently links in to my previous stuff on Newton and spectra, too). Solid objects compare by the fact that they are “really” energy fields/particles in motion that are mainly empty space and so on. The very concept of “solidity”, then, is a perceptual one that represents, like the rainbow, a very different reality. Your phrase gives it away “what we attribute to solidity” – it is independent of our perception, but its solidity is as much a function of our perception as colour is a product of our visual perception.

      Arthur Eddington describes the same thing in his first lecture, describing his office in both human and “scientific” terms to show the contrast.

      It’s not that the ground ceases to be what it is when we turn our backs – it’s that our “solidity” is a representation of something we can’t experience directly, and is as mentally constructed as the rainbow is. But for some reason (as Barfield points out) we find it a lot easier to “disbelieve our lying eyes” than “our lying touch”.

      The rainbow is just as “real”, in the sense that one could set up some kind of sensor that would form an image and respond to the relevant spectral wavelengths in juxtaposition – but it would have reacted to physical properties, not seen a rainbow.

      Your sunset example is an interesting bridge, because (like the rainbow, I suppose) it is almost paradigmatic of value-added terms like “beauty”, “sublimity” and so on. Seeing a sunset cannot be divorced from all those added aethetic and cultural contexts – and even the individual ones. To say that the colour and the shape are “physical properties” of the sunset (or the solidity of our Nobel Prize!) but our mental associations (especially those linked to culture) are “subjective” is to mistake our perceptions for the “unrepresented”.

      The choice is to downgrade the lot (all illusion except the “science” we can’t reach directly) or to recognise that they are all reality on similar terms.

  3. Merv Bitikofer says:

    Any online access (or book references if not) on walton’s references to wildernesses?

    • Jon Garvey says:


      There are probably references scattered across Walton’s work on Genesis, but I can’t reemember seeing any online. There’s some useful stuff in his Zygon article Human origins and the Bible, which is unfortuantely behind a paywall. However, he sent me a copy pre-publication, and this passage may be helpful – it starts from the point of the “good” creation:

      “Good” in this context talks about being functionally viable, as demonstrated by the statement in Genesis 2:18 that it is not good for man to be alone. It refers to the order that God was establishing. All that God ordered was very good, i.e., functional for the purposes he intended. That does not mean that everything was ordered. God chose a process that gradually brings order. When God created order, he did not transform non-order (i.e., unordered space) into order, but pushed the non-order aside to make a place for order (e.g., dry land emerges from sea). Non-order remains in the cosmos to which God has brought a degree of order (that is why sacred space needs guarding and expanding ). The Sea, a manifestation of non-order, continued to exist as part of an unordered realm. People were given a role in the continuing process to establish order as they were commissioned to subdue and rule. Less order existed outside the garden. The serpent as a chaos creature, is from the unordered realm and represented disorder, and sin brought increased disorder. This is not to suggest that sin defines or was part of the previous disorder—it is simply at this point a new manifestation of disorder, possible because full order had not been established.

      If one compares such ideas with Barfield’s, one gets some glimmering of the creation order being tied quite closely to man’s understanding and activity. Barham has somewhat to say on this (not all of which I agree with) in relation to the Incarnation: a bit on that in the next post, I hope.

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