Monday, 15 February 2010

Successful Method to Blindness. — “But the point to which I wish to draw attention is the mass of evidence lying outside the physiological method which is simply ignored in the prevalent scientific doctrine. The conduct of human affairs is entirely dominated by our recognition of foresight determining purpose, and purpose issuing in conduct. Almost every sentence we utter and every judgment we form, presuppose our unfailing experience of this element in life. The evidence is so overwhelming, the belief so unquestioning, the evidence of language so decisive, that it is difficult to know where to begin in demonstrating it. For example, we speak of the policy of a statesman or of a business corporation. Cut out the notion of final causation, and the word ‘policy’ has lost its meaning. As I write this lecture, I intend to deliver it in Princeton University. Cut out the notion of final causation, and this ‘intention’ is without meaning. Again consider the voyage of the battleship Utah round the South American continent. Consider first the ship itself. We are asked to believe that the concourse of atoms, of iron, and of nitrogen, and of other sorts of chemical elements, into the form of the ship, of its armour, of its guns, of its engines, of its ammunition, of its stores of food,—that this concourse was purely the outcome of the same physical laws by which the ocean waves aimlessly beat on the coasts of Maine. There could be no more aim in one episode than in the other. The activity of the shipbuilders was merely analogous to the rolling of the shingle on the beach.
     Pass on now to consider—still presupposing the orthodox physiological doctrine—the voyage of the ship. The President-elect of the United States had nothing to do with it. His intentions with respect to South American policy and goodwill in the world were beside the question, being futile irrelevancies. The motions of his body, those of the bodies of the sailors, like the motions of the ship-builders, were purely governed by the physical laws which lead a stone to roll down a slope and water to boil. The very idea is ridiculous.
     We shall of course be told that the doctrine is not meant to apply to the conduct of men. Yet the bodily motions are physiological operations. If these latter be blind, so are the motions. Also men are animals. Surely, the whole fight over evolution was about this very latter point.
     Again we are told that we should look at the matter historically. Mankind has gradually developed from the lowliest forms of life, and must therefore be explained in terms applicable to all such forms. But why construe the later forms by analogy to the earlier forms. Why not reverse the process? It would seem to be more sensible, more truly empirical, to allow each living species to make its own contribution to the demonstration of factors inherent in living things.
     I need not continue the discussion. The case is too clear for elaboration. Yet the trained body of physiologists under the influence of the ideas germane to their successful methodology entirely ignore the whole mass of adverse evidence. We have here a colossal example of anti-empirical dogmatism arising from a successful methodology. Evidence which lies outside the method simply does not count.
     We are, of course, reminded that the neglect of this evidence arises from the fact that it lies outside the scope of the methodology of the science. That method consists in tracing the persistence of the physical and chemical principles throughout physiological operations.
     The brilliant success of this method is admitted. But you cannot limit a problem by reason of a method of attack. The problem is to understand the operations of an animal body. There is clear evidence that certain operations of certain animal bodies depend upon the foresight of an end and the purpose to attain it. It is no solution of the problem to ignore this evidence because other operations have been explained in terms of physical and chemical laws. The existence of a problem is not even acknowledged. It is vehemently denied. Many a scientist has patiently designed experiments for the purpose of substantiating his belief that animal operations are motivated by no purposes. He has perhaps spent his spare time in writing articles to prove that human beings are as other animals so that ‘purpose’ is a category irrelevant for the explanation of their bodily activities, his own activities included. Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.”

Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1929), pp.9-12; original emphases.

To which may be appended a fitting word from Lord Acton:

“There is not a more perilous or immoral habit of mind than the sanctifying of success.”

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, “The Puritan Revolution”, Lectures on Modern History (London: MacMillan & Co., 1906), p.204.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Unmechanical Phancy. — “These men have been sometimes indeed a little Troubled with the Phancy, Apparition, or Seeming of Cogitation, that is The Consciousness of it, as knowing not well what to make thereof; but then they put it off again, and satisfie themselves worshipfully with this, that Phancy is but Phancy, but the Reality of Cogitation, nothing but Local Motion; as if there were not as much Reality in Phancy and Consciousness, as there is in Local Motion.” [1]

Ralph Cudworth alludes most pertinently to Thomas Hobbes, whose all-encompassing mechanistic philosophy rejected any place for intentionality or final causality in the world. Yet, by this denial, it makes no sense to say that intentional happenings are fancies or illusions; for these are themselves intentional happenings, that is to say, they are about something, albeit not true about the world outside the mind.

[1] Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe (London: Richard Royston, 1678), p.846.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Lost without Landmarks. — “Up to the present in everyday discourse the habit of speaking of moral judgments as true or false persists; but the question of what it is in virtue of which a particular moral judgment is true or false has come to lack any clear answer. That this should be so is perfectly intelligible if the historical hypothesis which I have sketched is true: that moral judgments are linguisitic survivals from the practices of classical theism which have lost the context provided by those practices. In that context moral judgments were at once hypothetical and categorical in form. They were hypothetical insofar as they expressed a judgment as to what conduct would be teleologically appropriate for a human being: ‘You ought to do so-and-so, if and since your telos is such-and-such’ or perhaps ‘You ought to do so-and-so, if you do not want your essential desires to be frustrated’. They were categorical insofar as they reported the contents of the universal law commanded by God: ‘You ought to do so-and-so: that is what God’s law enjoins.’ But take away from them that in virtue of which they were hypothetical and that in virtue of which they were categorical and what are they? Moral judgments lose any clear status and the sentences which express them in a parallel way lose any undebateable meaning. Such sentences become available as forms of expression for an emotivist self which lacking the guidance of the context in which they were orginally at home has lost its linguistic as well as its practical way in the world.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 2007), p.60.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

A Radical Shift. — “It is obvious, from a casual observation of the medieval and modern methods of attacking the difficulties of metaphysics, that a radical shift has been made in the fundamental terminology used. Instead of treating things in terms of substance, accident, and causality, essence and idea, matter and form, potentiality and actuality, we now treat them in terms of forces, motions, and laws, changes of mass in space and time, and the like. Pick up the works of any modern philosopher, and note how complete the shift has been. To be sure, works in general philosophy may show little use of such a term as mass, but the other words will abundantly dot their pages as fundamental categories of explanation. In particular it is difficult for the modern mind, accustomed to think so largely in terms of space and time, to realize how unimportant these entities were for scholastic science. Spatial and temporal relations were accidental, not essential characteristics. Instead of spatial connexions of things, men were seeking their logical connexions; instead of the onward march of time, men thought of the eternal passage of potentiality into actuality. . . . It might be that the reason for the failure of philosophy to assure man something more of that place in the universe which he once so confidently assumed is due to an inability to rethink a correct philosophy of man in the medium of this altered terminology. It might be that under cover of this change of ideas modern philosophy had accepted uncritically certain important presuppositions, either in the form of meanings carried by these new terms or in the form of doctrines about man and his knowledge subtly insinuated with them—presuppositions which by their own nature negatived a successful attempt to reanalyse, through their means, man’s true relation to his environing world.”

Edwin Arthur Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1925), pp.12-4.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Eddington on the Limits of Exact Physical Science. — “Let us then examine the kind of knowledge which is handled by exact science. If we search the examination papers in physics and natural philosophy for the more intelligible questions we may come across one beginning something like this: ‘An elephant slides down a grassy hillside . . .’. The experienced candidate knows that he need not pay much attention to this; it is only put in to give an impression of realism. He reads on: ‘The mass of the elephant is two tons.’ Now we are getting down to business; the elephant fades out of the problem and a mass of two tons takes its place. What exactly is this two tons, the real subject-matter of the problem? It refers to some property or condition which we vaguely describe as ‘ponderosity’ occurring in a particular region of the external world. But we shall not get much further that way; the nature of the external world is inscrutable, and we shall only plunge into a quagmire of indescribables. Never mind what two tons refers to; what is it? How has it actually entered in so definite a way into our experience? Two tons is the reading of the pointer when the elephant was placed on a weighing-machine. Let us pass on. ‘The slope of the hill is 6o°.’ Now the hillside fades out of the problem and an angle of 6o° takes its place. What is 6o°? There is no need to struggle with mystical conceptions of direction; 6o° is the reading of a plumb-line against the divisions of a protractor. Similarly for the other data of the problem. The softly yielding turf on which the elephant slid is replaced by a coefficient of friction, which though perhaps not directly a pointer reading is of kindred nature. No doubt there are more roundabout ways used in practice for determining the weights of elephants and the slopes of hills, but these are justified because it is known that they give the same results as direct pointer readings.
     And so we see that the poetry fades out of the problem, and by the time the serious application of exact science begins we are left with only pointer readings. If then only pointer readings or their equivalents are put into the machine of scientific calculation, how can we grind out anything but pointer readings? But that is just what we do grind out. The question presumably was to find the time of descent of the elephant, and the answer is a pointer reading on the seconds' dial of our watch.
     The triumph of exact science in the foregoing problem consisted in establishing a numerical connection between the pointer reading of the weighing-machine in one experiment on the elephant and the pointer reading of the watch in another experiment. And when we examine critically other problems of physics we find that this is typical. The whole subject-matter of exact science consists of pointer readings and similar indications. We cannot enter here into the definition of what are to be classed as similar indications. The observation of approximate coincidence of the pointer with a scale-division can generally be extended to include the observation of any kind of coincidence—or, as it is usually expressed in the language of the general relativity theory, an intersection of world-lines. The essential point is that, although we seem to have very definite conceptions of objects in the external world, those conceptions do not enter into exact science and are not in any way confirmed by it. Before exact science can begin to handle the problem they must be replaced by quantities representing the results of physical measurement.
     Perhaps you will object that although only the pointer readings enter into the actual calculation it would make nonsense of the problem to leave out all reference to anything else. The problem necessarily involves some kind of connecting background. It was not the pointer reading of the weighing-machine that slid down the hill! And yet from the point of view of exact science the thing that really did descend the hill can only be described as a bundle of pointer readings. (It should be remembered that the hill also has been replaced by pointer readings, and the sliding down is no longer an active adventure but a functional relation of space and time measures.) The word elephant calls up a certain association of mental impressions, but it is clear that mental impressions as such cannot be the subject handled in the physical problem. We have, for example, an impression of bulkiness. To this there is presumably some direct counterpart in the external world, but that counterpart must be of a nature beyond our apprehension, and science can make nothing of it. Bulkiness enters into exact science by yet another substitution; we replace it by a series of readings of a pair of calipers. Similarly the greyish black appearance in our mental impression is replaced in exact science by the readings of a photometer for various wave-lengths of light. And so on until all the characteristics of the elephant are exhausted and it has become reduced to a schedule of measures. There is always the triple correspondence—
     (a) a mental image, which is in our minds and not in the external world;
     (b) some kind of counterpart in the external world, which is of inscrutable nature;
     (c) a set of pointer readings, which exact science can study and connect with other pointer readings.
     And so we have our schedule of pointer readings ready to make the descent. And if you still think that this substitution has taken away all reality from the problem, I am not sorry that you should have a foretaste of the difficulty in store for those who hold that exact science is all-sufficient for the description of the universe and that there is nothing in our experience which cannot be brought within its scope.”

Sir Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), pp.251-4.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

First Chinaman in England. — “I was at London constantly for some years last past, where, in the years 1687 and 1688, I chanced to have some conference in Latin with a natural Chinese whom I did sundry times meet with, by reason that he went to the Latin school at the Savoy. He told me that he was a native of Pekin, and that he had been about eight years absent from China. He told me that he judged Pekin to contain about double the number of the inhabitants contained in London, where he had been resident about eight months. I had formerly seen his picture admirably well painted at Windsor Castle. He appeared to be aged more than thirty years, though he pretended (and perhaps very truly) to be but five or six and twenty. He spoke to me imperfectly in Latin, as having learnt the same without any rules. I do not take him to be a competent judge of the number of people either in Pekin or in London. His stature was low and his complexion very swarthy. His nose was very flat, and his eyes, by reason that his face in that part was also flat, stood outward somewhat oddly, and were very brown; yet his countenance was pleasing and smiling. I did likewise see in London, and had a short and free conference with Father Couplet, a Jesuit that had lived in China about twenty years. He was a native of the Spanish Netherlands, and although he was ‘Sexagenario major,’ he was waiting for an opportunity to pass over again to his beloved China, which was so much in his mind that, whether he was waking or sleeping, he was in a manner continually thinking of it. I did then hear him hold some short discourse in the Chinese language with that very same Chinese whom I have mentioned above, who came in unto us (when we two were only together) to ask some questions, as it seemed, of the said father.” [1]

The Chinaman was Shen Fo-Tsung, the first to visit England, and of whom King James II had a portrait made. It was Father Philippe Couplet who had brought Shen Fo-Tsung to Europe.

[1] William Blundell, Crosby Records: A Cavalier’s Note Book, being Notes, Anecdotes, & Observations of William Blundell, of Crosby, Lancashire, Esquire, ed., T.E. Gibson (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1880), pp.140-1.