Friday, October 26, 2007

Very Observant

Ah, Friday. Tomorrow, my odometer turns over and I will be visiting this fine American establishment. Thoughts of taxation, business organizations, intellectual property, civil procedure, and telecommunications law will be washed away in a relentless tide of hops and barley. Before the weekend, I think it only appropriate to send the blog off with a long exercise in pure intellection. I know everyone loves that.

I’ve been reading this and reached the selections from Aristotle’s Physics. Of course Aristotelian physics is outdated for a number of reasons. First, much of the Physics itself is devoted to inquiries that are not considered part of the branch of learning called physics today. Discussion of predication, substance, and the four causes is proper to the philosophy class, not the physics laboratory, although Aristotle obviously did not make the distinction. Division among the sciences and between the sciences and non-scientific fields is a matter of judgment, but here we have some pretty clear metaphysics skulking around in a physical work:

If nothing else besides soul, and more specifically the understanding in the soul, is naturally capable of counting, then it is impossible for there to be time if there is no soul. All there would be would be the subject of time, if, that is to say, it is possible for there to be motion without soul. Before and after belong to motion, and time is these insofar as they are countable.

However, the difference between physics then and physics now is arguably nothing more than a disagreement about classification, and, ultimately, about names. Beyond the nominal differences, Aristotelian physics is simply substantively wrong in many ways. For instance, according to Aristotle, heavier objects fall more quickly than lighter objects. Of course, Galileo proved that to be wrong.

Ah, Galileo! I’m getting ahead of myself. Aristotle’s physics is more than a mere curiosity (compare, for instance, Thales, who made the grand claim that all the world is water; his physics, such as it is, is understandably not a hot topic of debate*). Aristotle’s works were preserved by Muslim scholars and reached the Christian world, whereas the works of the Atomists, whose physics was adopted by the Epicureans, were not received until much later. For the medieval period, then, Aristotle was the ancient authority on physics. St. Thomas Aquinas, who could properly be called the Aristotle of Catholicism (both for the breadth of his works and for his reliance on Aristotle), followed Aristotle to a large extent when writing on worldly matters. The official physics of the Catholic Church was a modification of Aristotle’s, and this had a profound effect on the development of science. First, it diverted all physical inquiry into Aristotelian channels; that is, whatever investigation of physics happened was likely to be viewed in light of the principles set forth by Aristotle. Second, it stifled any physical inquiry that could not (or could not easily) be reconciled with the Aristotelian worldview. Galileo directly challenged this worldview and faced the Inquisition for it, but the earlier influence (between Aquinas and Galileo) was important, while more subtle. Those who investigated physics used Aristotle’s language, concepts, and even empirical facts found in his work. If a concept could not be squared with that tradition, it had a hard time finding hold on the medieval mind.

The difficulty overcoming this dogmatism and the intellectual suppression that resulted have been much decried, and I need not add my voice to that din. Some who criticize the Church, however, are absolutely mistaken about what was “wrong” in the entire affair. It is argued that Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, and scientific pioneers like them were methodologically empiricist and were struggling against a dogmatic institution that elevated authority above observation in evaluating truth. This is plainly wrong. Aristotle made many observations, especially about biology, and his works were not the result of a priori speculation from abstract principles. Aristotle did what we might now term “field work” and derived a great many of his physical and metaphysical principles empirically. He was confused about some things, wrong about some things, drew erroneous conclusions about some things; he didn’t just make things up, though, or take the word of experts in all cases.

Contrast Atomism, the best-developed physical theory besides Aristotelianism. Atomists posited that tiny, invisible objects of varying shape, by moving against each other in great numbers, accounted for all the variety of physical phenomena that we could observe. This idea is profoundly anti-empiricist; for one thing, atoms are invisible because they are too small possibly to see. However, these minute particles, operating by blind causality, make up the whole world, including the apparently purposive movements of living organisms. On the one hand, then, is Aristotle, explaining what seems to happen by appealing to sense experience. On the other hand, the Atomists claim that the fundamental nature of reality is closed off from observation and can be described only by abstract thought. Again, for Aristotle, living things have parts that work in harmony because they have souls which order the parts; for Atomists, an organism is essentially a chance arrangement of small particles whose collisions fortunately produce something called life.

Yet Atomism was more fruitful for scientific development. Obviously, then, something other than strict adherence to empiricism is necessary for science to advance; and, in fact, empiricism can sometimes work against science. This is true because mere observation cannot serve the mind at all; the mind must supply something to the observation in order to discover the significance of the phenomena. Atomism was a brilliant idea that could not have come about without a productive effort of thought; observation of a thousand falling stones would not create, of itself, the idea that reality is atoms moving in the void.

Certainly observation is needed to correct far-flung speculation. Observe (sorry) the rise of string theory in contemporary physics. From what I understand, string theory has no theoretical or empirical foundation (I have assured myself a steady stream of hate-mail for saying this. Wait for it.) but it’s still taken seriously by an alarming number of people. Again, as I understand, most serious physicists do not find it to be a viable alternative to the quantum mechanics/relativity dualism in contemporary physics. String theory is clever, startlingly deep, unified, and without evidentiary basis. It’s probably theoretically inadequate as well (except in the extremely broad sense that it explains reality in a consistent way, unlike the theories we have now), but if someone could at least show some phenomenon that makes string theory likely, it’d be standing on firmer ground. When theory distances itself so much from fact that reality is not even consulted when building the world-system, empirical observation is sorely needed.

But observation alone will not do. To paraphrase Kant: we must approach the world not as students before a teacher, but as judges questioning a witness. Passive observation takes in all the data of experience but has no mechanism for sifting that data; in fact, it fails even before all the data are received because everything is received indiscriminately, with no prioritization and preliminary standards for what is to be observed with greater attention, what to be ignored, and what patterns to expect. We must know at least something about what we are looking for to find anything at all. Obviously there must be a balance between utter passivity and merely token empiricism with already-determined results. On the one hand, nothing will be found; on the other, what is found will be precisely what was predicted no matter what. Neither extreme provides a suitable frame of mind for using observation to enlarge understanding.

What such reasoning leads to is the idea that the scientifically-inclined person needs a suitable heuristic when approaching the world. As choosing the suitable heuristic is at least partly a philosophical problem, philosophy will never cease to be important for scientific development. One of the problems with a heuristic, however, is that people may begin to a regard an especially fruitful and well-established one as a constitutive concept, when heuristics are by definition regulative. I’ve spoken about the difference before; those curious can search in this blog for that earlier entry. When the heuristic becomes a constitutive concept, it becomes a dogma, and its value is elevated from being a mere catalyst for discovering truth to being an expression of truth itself. The history of major advances in thought is the history of fundamental changes in ways of thinking, replacing old heuristics with new. Aristotle’s teleology-based philosophy of science had to give way to the Scientific Revolution’s mechanistic view. It would be worthwhile, in a future entry, to examine closely regulative concepts in the history of science. I have especially in mind Kant’s Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science; but that must wait. Another question is the extent to which the mechanical theory of nature has become its own dogma – Richard Dawkins being the author of our century’s mechanistic canon. These threads diverge sufficiently from the topic I was discussing that they must wait for later exposition.

My own assumption whenever doing philosophy of science is that we are better off assuming that our meta-science is regulative and not constitutive. Many in the past, and many still today, probably think that certain aspects of meta-science are immutably fixed; further, it is known that they are fixed, and which ones are fixed, which variable for descriptive convenience. There is a meta-meta-scientific question here – is the human understanding of science fundamentally based on heuristics or fundamentally realist? Because, as should be clear, the idea that one heuristic is better than another is meta-science, whereas the question I just expressed is about whether one-heuristic-replacing-another is what meta-science is about.

Well, that’s far off course. It’s interesting, though. Perhaps I should say more about that later (and now I have a laundry list of blog topics to finish). Perhaps I should obliterate the questions with booze forthwith.

* But the traditional interpretation of his metaphysics has been challenged lately. In the Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy, Keimpe Algra contends that Thales’ claim that “all is from water” is capable of two interpretations. The traditional interpretation is that water is the material substrate of the universe. A better interpretation, says this scholar, is that all the matter in the world originally was water, but that it has been changed. It is incorrect to impute to Thales the belief that, at its essence, every existing thing is water in some form or another. Instead, water was the original constituent of the universe, but things have since changed. Aristotle seems to have held the traditional view, and in light of his importance for our understanding of the Presocratics, may in fact have been the originator of the traditional view.


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