by Tom Mellett

Dept. of Physics
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tennessee
April 10, 1999


Goethe’s Faust as the "Metamorphosis of a Single Human Being"

       In considering Goethe as a scientist, we may naturally look at his color theory and his essays on the metamorphoses of plants and animals. But why not include his magnum opus, Faust, as the culmination of his scientific writings? After all, if we extend the perspective of Goethean science, could we not call Faust: "The Metamorphosis of a Single Human Being?"

       And what a human being Goethe gives us! Henry Faust, a single, middle-aged professor at a major central European University who is so bored by his life that he conjures up the devil Mephistopheles to rescue himself from his academic ennui and depression?

       Is this hitting too close to home here? If so, perhaps I should generalize more. Might we not see the appearance of Mephistopheles to Faust as the appearance of chaos and complexity to modern science and academia which is equally bored with the inane intellectual ordering and gross oversimplifying of the universe we all inhabit together?

       I would now like to present a passage from my translation of the Study Scene 1 in Faust Part 1 where Mephistopheles first appears to Prof. Henry Faust. Listen for the Devil’s praise of Chaos after Faust’s initial fear subsides.

FAUST: So, therefore, who are you?

MEPHISTOPHELES: A party to that power that always wills the Evil, and always creates the Good.

FAUST: What do you mean by this enigma?

MEPHISTOPHELES: I am the spirit that always denies. I have the right to do so, since everything that comes into being deserves to be annihilated. Of course, it would have been much better, had nothing started in the first place. So therefore, everything that you call Sin, Destruction, Evil, is my proper element.

FAUST: You call yourself a part, and yet you stand before me whole?

MEPHISTOPHELES: I speak to you the humble truth. If humanity, this insignificant world of fools takes itself to be the whole — well, I am a part of that part that in the beginning was the Whole. A part of the Darkness, Darkness that gave birth to Light. The proud Light that now competes with Mother Night, concerning her more ancient rank and place.

FAUST: Now I know your worthy duties. You cannot wreak destruction on any grand scale, so you focus on the insignificant.

MEPHISTOPHELES: Freely, I admit it, I have hardly done a thing— If you compare this idiotic world of "Somethingness" with that other world of "Nothingness!" I had not realized how nearly futile were my efforts! I sent tidal waves and storms and earthquakes, holocausts — when all was done, the sea and land remained as quiet as before. And as for that accursed trash, that progeny of animals and men, there is absolutely nothing I can do with them! How many of them have I so far buried in the earth! Yet fresh new blood is always circulating! On and on it goes! I should be driven mad! Seeds by the thousands, bursting forth from Air, from Water, even Earth, Dry! Moist! Warm! Cold! If I had not reserved the element of Fire for myself, I would not have a thing to call my own.

FAUST: So you set yourself against eternal action. Yes, against the healing power of creation! How spitefully you clench your frozen Devil's fist against it all— in vain! You marvelous Son of Chaos, look for something new to do! 2  

       "You marvelous Son of Chaos!" "A part of that part that in the beginning was the whole." That "idiotic world of Somethingness and that other world of Nothingness." "Darkness that gave birth to Light!" Darkness, not defined as the absence of light but rather the MOTHER of Light, i.e. Mother Night, more primeval and more real that Light itself!! May I now formally rename Mother Night, Mother Chaos! We shall mention her again— along with her sometime lover, Father Time.

Part I

The Epistemology of Goethean Science

       Before jumping from Goethe to present day chaos studies, let me first acknowledge the pioneer in the field of establishing Goethe’s scientific epistemology. In the early 1880’s, a young science student at the technische Holchschule in Vienna was invited to edit Goethe’s scientific writings for Kuerschner’s monumental publication of German literature with special focus on Goethe’s works. The young scholar was Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) an Austrian by birth who became one of the minor figures of German Idealist philosophy of the late 19th Century.

As a philosopher, Steiner took dead aim on the fallacy of Kant’s dogmatic belief in the complete subjectivity of human sense perception. Steiner saw in Goethe someone who had never fallen into the epistemological trap of Kant’s essential canonization of Rene Descartes as the patron saint of subjectivism.

       Steiner saw that Goethe made a clear distinction between the inorganic sciences and the organic sciences. In a book published in 1886, Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung (English title: A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception) Rudolf Steiner, in 1886 mind you, clears the epistemological decks for a science of organics which I believe is now ready to apprehend directly chaos and complexity by training human intuition as a scientific mode of cognition.

       "The sense world as inorganic does not arrive at individuality. Only in its totality is it complete in itself. We must strive therefore, if we would have a whole [for the inorganic world] to conceive of the assemblage of the inorganic as a system. Such a system is the cosmos [or universe]." A thorough understanding of the cosmos is the goal and ideal of inorganic natural science. Every scientific endeavor which does not attain to this is merely preparatory: a part of the whole, but not the whole itself. 3  
       However, for Steiner, organic science must take as its starting point the endpoint of the inorganic, which is the absolute completeness or wholeness of the entire cosmos, the wholeness of the entire universe— as its point of departure!
       "Therefore a science of organics that sets out to be scientific in the sense that physics or mechanics is scientific must show the Type as the most universal form. Just as we trace a phenomenon in the inorganic to a natural law, here in the organic we evolve a specific form from the primal or archetypal form. 4  

       "An organics is possible which will be scientific in the strictest sense just as mechanics is scientific. Only the method is different. The method of mechanics is that of proof. But through this method of proof, however, we can make no headway in the science of the organic. The type does not require that under certain conditions a definite phenomenon occur; the type does not fix anything in regard to a relationship of elements mutually alien which confront each other. The type determines only the conformity to law of its own parts. It does not point beyond itself like a natural law does. 5  

       "Here the evolutionary method must replace the method of proof. Here it is not to be established that the external conditions act upon one another in this way and for that reason bring about a definite result, but that a special form has been developed under definite external conditions out of the type. This is the radical difference between inorganic and organic science. This distinction is not made basic in any other method of research so consistently as in Goethe’s. No one else recognized as Goethe did, that an organics must be possible apart from all vague mysticism, without teleology, without the assumption of special creative thoughts." 6  

       Goethe stated: "One should not see anything further behind the phenomena: they themselves are the theory." 7 Thus to Goethe, there was no separation between the form of a theory and the content of that theory. As Steiner puts it:
       "the [organic] type does not determine the content in a merely formal way as does the [inorganic] law… The task which is required of our mind is to participate productively in creating the content while dealing with the formal. A mode of thinking in which the form and content appear in direct connection has always been called intuitive." 8  

       "…the mind must work with far greater intensity in apprehending the [organic] type than in grasping the [inorganic] natural law. [The mind] must create the content with the form. The mind must take upon itself an activity which is the function of the senses in inorganic science and which we call "Anschauung" (perception). The mind itself therefore must be perceptive on this higher plane. Our power of judgment. ‘anschauende Urteilskraft’, must perceive in thinking and think in perceiving. 9  

       "As the type in organic nature replaces natural law in the inorganic, so intuition replaces the power of judgment through proof. 10  

       "Every single organism is the molding of the type in a special form. It is an individuality which governs and determines itself from a center outward. It is a totality complete in itself— which in inorganic nature is true of the cosmos alone.
       The ideal of inorganic science is to grasp the totality of all phenomena as a unitary system in order that we may approach each phenomenon with the consciousness that we recognize it as a member [or part] of the universe. In the organic science on the contrary, the ideal must be to have in the utmost entirety possible in the type and its phenomenal forms, that which we see evolving in the series of single beings. Tracing the type back through all phenomena is here that which matters. In inorganic science the system exists; in organic science the comparison of each single form with the type.
       Spectral analysis and the perfecting of astronomy extend to the universe the truths attained on the limited sphere of earth. Hereby these [inorganic] sciences approach the first ideal. The second will be fulfilled when the comparative method applied by Goethe is recognized in it full scope." 11  

Part II

Bringing Chaos to Order

       As I now proceed to light this candle in front of the lectern, let us move two centuries from Goethe and one century from Steiner to arrive at contemporary chaos and complexity studies. But first, I need to focus on chaos the way a physical scientist or mathematician would. What is chaos to a mathematician? It is a non-linear equation with small terms that iterate, or loop back or feedback into the main equation. Non-linear equations are equations of interconnectedness, or of coupling where one small term may feed back over and over again and plunge the solution either into chaotic instability from positive feedback or else into well-ordered stability from negative feedback.

       What is chaos to a physicist? Exactly one century ago, Henri Poincare discovered inherent mathematical chaos when he tried to solve Newton’s equations of celestial mechanics for more than two bodies! You see, with just two isolated bodies like earth and moon and no other influences, the equations are solved perfectly and for all time. But just introduce a 3rd body, let alone 4th, 5th or more and the equations cannot be solved because of the reciprocal influences of each body on all the others. Their behavior can only be approximated by what is called "perturbation theory." But Poincare found that even a tiny, tiny perturbation, like the now proverbial butterfly’s wing flapping in Hong Kong, could actually feed back into the whole system, amplify and actually knock a planet out of its orbit.

       Can we bring chaos to order or are we just stuck teetering on the edge of Occam’s Razor 12  because we subconsciously harbor such a phobia against chaos and complexity? Why are we so afraid to make that epistemological leap from passive approximation of reality to active intuitive perception of reality? If we don’t make that leap of intuition, then all science beyond the inorganic will remain a reductionistic rubble of useless information— except for technological progress. I’m not knocking technology; but technology will answer no questions beyond the closed system its own self-consistent and therefore self-satisfied inorganic realm.

       I think the first step beyond the inorganic realm is to realize that the cosmos beyond the inorganic is incalculable. The mathematician Kurt Goedel proved in 1931 that any mathematical system is incomplete for a description of reality. That incompleteness is built into every computer because every computer, now matter how big, must approximate the numbers it crunches. And by so doing, it lops off a tiny piece that might just feed back into the system and drive it to chaos, unpredictable chaos, yet such a chaos that can equally and inevitably spontaneously self-organize into a stable orderly system again.

       Notice the word I emphasize: approximate. We live in an approximate universe, don’t we? We don’t figure things exactly; we approximate. We round off. We truncate. We have to. Otherwise, we could never complete a single calculation and without completing calculations, how could we have brought about the tremendous order we have in this our corner of the universe? But what kind of order is this calculable universe we have created? According to Rudolf Steiner, it’s the inorganic universe, the one that keeps on expanding outward and outward until it finally encompasses the entire universe itself in a Grand Unification. Yet even beyond that unification there, he says, at that infinite periphery, we take our point of departure for the science of organics that Goethe pioneered.

       If there is a figure living today who might be called a mythical son of Mother Chaos and Father Time, it is the 82 year old Nobel laureate in chemistry, Ilya Prigogine, at the University of Texas at Austin. Ilya looks more like his father, because he speaks of the irreversibility of time, the idea that time cannot be reversed; "time’s arrow" can only fly in one direction: forward. Why? Because everything orderly in the universe, including the order of the universe itself, i.e. cosmos, is born out of chaos, chaos that can never be reproduced — except in some approximate calculation. But isn’t that what we call memory or history? Everything in the universe is so interconnected in its past and in its present that the future is open to all possibilities and the past cannot be recreated, except in memory because memory is, well, a reversible approximation to an irreversible universe.

       Prigogine shows how chemical systems far from equilibrium can create order spontaneously and then, such order can dissipate again into chaos. What we call order is a balance between two extremes of chaos, a creative chaos and a destructive chaos. If you look at the candle flame here, notice that the rather orderly flame is suspended between a chemical chaos of wax igniting wick below and an swirling chaos of heated air rising above. The point is that chaos enfolds order and order in turn enfolds chaos again. Thus complexity can hide simplicity, but that same simplicity can harbor a deeper chaos. Occam's Razor is not only double-edged, it may shatter to bits if we don’t balance properly on its edge.

       There is another living, mythical son of Mother Chaos and Father Time, a physicist who also works in Austin, Texas. He takes more after his "mother." Hal Puthoff at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) in Austin is completing the work of the late Russian physicist Andrei Sakarhov in the field of quantum physics called "Zero-Point Energy." What is ZPE? It is the energy of the vacuum, the infinite energy of the vacuum, as predicted by early quantum physics and experimentally verified today. But isn't the vacuum supposed to be empty? Void of energy? Zero energy to be exact? Well, in the approximate fictional inorganic universe, it is, but in the exact intuitive organic universe, the vacuum is anything but empty. In fact, the vacuum is the source of all creative chaos, some of which spontaneously ordered the universe we inhabit even to the point that we, like Faust, become bored with and depressed by it.

       Are you feeling uncertain about all of this? Well, perhaps you should be. Is the glass of water half empty or half full? For one person's uncertainty is another person's freedom. And it is directly due to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle that ZPE has been recognized. Yet, despite all that uncertainty and unpredictability, don’t we all live in a certain, predictable deterministic universe? I believe we all do. The question is: who does the determining?

Part III

Looking Phenomena Right in the I

       Who am I anyway? I mean, how far out do I extend? Am I really bounded by this limited body I seem to inhabit? All around me, outside of me seem to exist objects and beings who are not I. Myself the rest of the universe. Inner, intensive Subject—outer, extensive Object. Forever cut off from each other? Yet if we are all part of this inorganic "Grand Unification" scheme that leads us out to the ends of the universe — only to take an intuitive leap to organic wholeness and incalculable completeness — might we then not then conclude that whatever constitutes my self, my I, my ego and your self, your I, your ego, is out there, too? Is this pure solipsism on the road to megalomania or are we simply anthropomorphizing the universe?

       Admittedly and undoubtedly, the Cartesian/Kantian dualism that defines the epistemology of modern Western science degenerates into solipsism whenever it attempts to answer "ultimate questions" such as: "Who am I?" or "Where do we all come from?" The big problem with such questions is the explicit self-reference which contradicts the mutually exclusive logic of the rigid dualism. In fact, I might characterize such logic as the logic of NON-self reference precisely because it "excludes the middle," which is the self-reference to the human thinker who created the dualism in the first place!

       In science, any biological theory of evolution or astrophysical cosmogony implicitly asks such self-referential questions. Solipsism then arises if the paradox of self-reference is either ignored or denied. Science then operates under a "don’t ask; don’t tell" policy with regard to these questions but the price of denial is that science in its solemn solipsism ends up subjectively anthropomorphizing the entire universe — a phenomenon I call "post-modern scientific animism."

       Goethe did not fall into this trap for the simple reason that he saw no reason to build it in the first place. Goethe realized the scientific experiment itself as the mediator or fulcrum balancing Subject and Object, thus giving equal ontological status to both the subjective and the objective. His insight prefigured the observer-created reality of quantum physics by more than a century, albeit even quantum physics itself is still trapped by and large in the same Cartesian "cage" that still keeps other sciences today in epistemological captivity.

       Goethe avoided this problem by looking into the phenomena directly, without the "animism" of projecting analogous phenomena which ipso facto were not directly perceptible to the scientist. E.g. Goethe would reject both the wave and the particle aspects of light because such phenomena are conceptually inferred and not directly perceived by unaided human senses. Goethe saw the Aristotelian "immanence" in the object because for him the object included the subject. Therefore, he rejected the object’s Platonic "transcendence," which demands not only the mutual exclusion of object from subject, but also leaves the subject no choice but to anthropomorphize the object.

       But maybe this anthropomorphizing is not a bad thing. Is there anything in the Platonic/Cartesian dualism that we can and ought to anthropomorphize — because it points to the most human part of us? How about the very activity we engage in to anthropomorphize anything? How about the activity of human thinking itself, expressed in our subjective-objective world by the phenomenon of light — the one "object" which we may look right in the "I" and have it look right back at us? If a photon is an idealized, inferred Platonic object, then is not the activity of "seeing the light," or "photonizing" by the Platonic subject the very anthropomorphic activity of idealizing and inferring the photon in the first place? Subject and Object may be forever separate in their Platonic transcendence, but they are two sides of the same coin to be spent in the Aristotelian realm of Goethe’s pure phenomenology.

       In the field of optics, Fermat’s Principle states that light travels between two points in the quickest time possible. Max Planck said this about light:

"Thus the photons which constitute a ray of light behave like intelligent human beings: out of all possible curves, they always select the one which will take them most quickly to their goal." 13 

       This is called the principle of "least action." And another alias for the photon is: "quantum of action." Now let me quote Goethe:

"The eye was made by the light, for the light, so that the inner light may emerge to meet the outer light." 14  

       Look at these human attributes projected on to light: it behaves intelligently; it has a definite purpose; it makes choices; it even creates the eyeball itself. Yes, this is solipsism, this Platonic anthropomorphizing of light? But I believe we are forced to do so only because of the Cartesian/Kantian dualism which underlies our inorganic conception of the universe. And that, according to Steiner, is the great value of the dualistic thinking. It gets us off our localized terrestrial duffs and out there into the wide open universal frontier of the entire Cosmos!

       So, what if we were to stop being so miserly and give back to that objective world the "I" that we hoard so deeply within our subjective Kantian fortress? What if we were to lend some of that subjectivity to the phenomena of that external world so that they might "observe" us humans as the "Selbst an sich" (Self-in-itself) just as Kant observed the object as "Ding an sich" ("Thing in itself"). A Goethean science would then balance these two polarities according to the title of Goethe’s essay: "The Experiment as Mediator between Subject and Object."

       Just as we anthropomorphize light into an object, so does light itself enlighten us as subjects— at least as far as we think. The key, to me, is expressed in Goethe’s dying words: "More light!" 15  


       Like this candle flame, I am standing in the midst of order, but I am also standing on what I used to believe was a totally empty and void vacuum. Instead, quantum physics tells me about the infinite energy and potentiality of this teeming vacuum of chaos— below me.

"Darkness that gave birth to light; the proud light that now competes with Mother night concerning her more ancient rank and place." 16 

       Above me is this vast, mostly orderly, I hope, spatial universe that came into existence out of that primeval chaos. But it and I could plunge into chaos at any time. I am truly standing on the edge of Occam's Razor and it is precarious, indeed. And if there is a simple explanation for it, then complex chaos lurks on either side of that simplicity and order.

       ZPE tells me that emptiness is not a constituent of the vacuum, so might emptiness then be the constituent factor of my own subjective mind, my mental processes? Following Descartes, we closed ourselves off from that teeming fullness of the vacuum and created a little island of orderly emptiness we could call our own: "I think; therefore I am." It is my subjective mind that is the vacuum, not the objective universe. But in order to survive, my subjective mind had to shut down against that objective chaos "out" there and "under" here and "over" there, so that I could recognize some stable and orderly semblance of myself "in" here. I made myself internal to the external world. But only because I used that approximating mind— useful for this inorganic universe— to get stabilized and orderly "in" here. But couldn't I equally now overcome that duality? Especially since I created it in the first place with my thinking? Can't I uncreate it? Can't I share some of that miserly self I've hoarded in here, within this empty subjective mind for so long, share it with the universe, the external world I so egotistically abandoned in following Descartes and Kant?

       Or might I trust myself, not as a mere reflective thinker of empty finite approximate thoughts about the universe, but as a conscious active participant immanent in the very process of everything that is happening now, has ever happened in the irreversible past and will happen in the open-ended and uncertain future? A co-worker with all my fellow human beings in the ever evolving process of that universe "out there" yet equally "in here?" Fractal complexity tells me that reality is independent of scale. Self-similarity at the microscopic level; self-similarity at the macroscopic level. The ancient Hermetic saying: "As above; so below!" How true today with fractal chaos! But also equally true: "As out there in the objective universe, so in here in my subjective I."

       We’ve heard it said that we human beings are all "drops in the Ocean of God." But Goethe, Steiner, Prigogine, et al. remind us of the converse truth as well: The Ocean of God exists equally in every drop, in every last drop of us.

       Here are the last 4 lines of Goethe’s Faust, part 2, the Mystical Chorus singing:

Alles vergaengliche ist nur ein Gleichnis.
Das Unzulaengliche, wird hier’s Ereignis
Das Unbeschreibliche, hier ist’s getan
Das ewig-weibliche, zieht uns hinan. 17 

       Please excuse the liberties I take with this translation, which I make as a kind of anthem to intuition as it begins to grasp the wholeness of the universe.

Everything past is but a metaphor!
What cannot be calculated is happening right here!
What cannot be described is being accomplished right here!
The Eternal Feminine (Mother Chaos, Mother Night) evolves us ever more and ever more. 18 


[click on number to return to the text]

1  My translation of the Study Scene is part of my own one-act stage play adaptation in which I have translated a few scenes of Faust Part 1 and then tied them together by writing monologues in the character of Mephistopheles. I have tried to be as literal as possible in my direct translation of Goethe's German text, but simultaneously had to tune my playwright's ear to the more naturalistic speech patterns and rhythms of modern American stage actors. Furthermore, the play itself makes Mephisto more central than Faust as a character. Hence the more expository and naturalistic tone of my translation of Mephisto's lines. In short, Mephisto's imitation of a human being becomes just as good as Faust's actual status as a human being -- a device which shames and taunts Faust much more intensely in my one act play than of course occurs in Goethe's entire opus.

2  Tom Mellett: Mephistopheles, Faust and Gretchen, a one act play of Goethe's Faust, Part 1, unpublished manuscript, 1985,1999, pp. 3-4

3  Rudolf Steiner: A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception, Spring Valley, New York: Anthroposophic Press,3rd ed., 1978, p. 81

4  Steiner: A Theory of Knowledge, p. 92

5  Steiner: A Theory of Knowledge, p. 93

6  Steiner: A Theory of Knowledge, pp.93-94

7  J. W. Goethe, Scientific Studies, ed. and trans. Douglas Miller, vol. 12 of Goethe: Collected Works in English (New York, Suhrkamp, 1988), p. 307

8  Steiner: A Theory of Knowledge, pp. 94-95

9  Steiner: A Theory of Knowledge, p. 95

10  Steiner: A Theory of Knowledge, p. 96

11  Steiner: A Theory of Knowledge, pp. 98-99

12  Occam's (or Ockham's) Razor, a heuristic principle of modern scientific epistemology first attributed to Nominalist theologian William of Occam (1284-1349), student of Duns Scotus and a veritable pioneer of Kantian epistemology 400 years before Kant. William felt that the positing of objective universals beyond the subjectivity of human perception was an exercise in multiplying unnecessary and thus unprovable metaphysical entities. One of his statements: "Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora." (tr. "It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.") has been appropriated by modern science to mean that if 2 scientific theories compete to explain the same phenomenon, then the simpler one is to be chosen, because it will inevitably contain less unprovable "metaphysical baggage" than the more complicated one. Occam's Razor has also been called the "law of parsimony" in that it strives to reduce phenomena down to their simplest parts. For that reason, staunch scientific reductionists enshrine the principle as a law, while more holistically inclined phenomenalists recognize that Nature is often times more objectively complex than our subjective oversimplifications of that reality.

13  Max Planck: Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers. NY: Greenwood Press, 1968, p. 178

14  Goethe: Scientific Studies, p. 164

15  Friedrich von Mueller in Lexikon der Goethe Zitate, ed. Richard Dobel (Zurich: Artemis Verlag, 1968), p. 534, no. 25

16  Mellett: Faust, Mephistopheles, Gretchen, p. 4. (See Note 1)

17  R-M. S. Heffner, Helmut Rehder, W.F. Twaddell , eds.:Goethe Faust, Volume 1; Part 1 & Part II, University of Wisconsin Press, 1975, p. 249

18  Tom Mellett, trans., unpublished fragment, 1999


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