Book club: Philosophy of Nature, ch. 5


We now get to the next to the last chapter in Paul Feyerabend’s recently (and obviously posthumously published) Philosophy of Nature. (Here you will find part I; part II; part III; and part IV.) Recall that the point of this rather idiosyncratic book is to provide a broad account of the transitions among three major “forms of life” representing three ways in which humans have made sense of the world: myth, philosophy, and science. This chapter is about the pre-Socratics until Parmenides, while the last (very long) chapter will cover everything that has happened over the past couple of millennia, up to modern physics. (Yes, I know.)

Feyerabend begins where pretty much everyone does when talking about the pre-Socratics: Thales of Miletus, who proposed that the world is, ultimately, made of water. Though the specific notion obviously strikes us as silly, he was the first Western thinker to decidedly turn away from mythological accounts, and to propose that everything is, at bottom, made of the same stuff. It was the beginning of natural philosophy, or what we today call science.

Anaximander, who was a student of Thales, built on his teacher’s system, and came to regard the gods as symbolic representations of natural phenomena. Moreover, he thought that everything originates from the apeiron, the indefinite, which added a further level of theoretical abstraction to his thinking when compared to that of other pre-Socratics. He also introduced the concept of “orbit” in astronomy, another speculative entity.

This seems to almost bother Feyerabend: “For contemporaries [of Anaximander] a world without gods was not ‘natural.’ Matter rotating in isolation in between Heaven and Earth without the help of gods would have been a terrifying monster and certainly not ‘familiar’. … A smooth materialism was everything but ‘natural’ for Anaximander’s contemporaries — and this for good reasons, for they simply did not experience the world that way.”

Anaximander established a pattern that later became the norm for modern science, and in particular physics: “Just like Anaximander, the father figures of later science — that is, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein — paid little attention to striking discrepancies between observation and theory so long as their positions were coherent, productive, and in harmony with certain not always clearly articulated metaphysical assumptions.” Feyerabend suggested that Anaximander’s move toward the speculative also prepared the way toward the later philosophical distinction between the real world and deceptive perception, again a distinction that marks much of physical, and then later increasingly also biological, science.

Here is a passage that seems to clarify what bothers Feyerabend about the pre-Socratic move: “None of the aforementioned ideas pays much attention to the events described in poetry, which were originally regarded as historical or cosmological facts. The structure of the physical universe or of ‘reality’ has pushed poetry further and further into the realm of entertainment. A new physics would have to reintroduce poetry as a tool to explore reality.” I’m not sure, to be honest, what he may have been thinking about in the latter sentence.

Feyerabend then proceeds to examine the work of Xenophanes, whom he labels a critic of religion and epistemology. “Xenophanes represents the delightful type of thinker who is rarely admired by ‘serious thinkers.’ Aristotle called him ‘somewhat too crude’ (agroikoteroi – Metaphysics 986b27), and modern authors regularly place him alongside Parmenides as the latter’s ‘inferior likeness.'” But, Feyerabend suggests, this is a mistake, as Xenophanes was actually a sophisticated thinker. His aphorisms were often caustic, and he wrote a number of admonitions and critical comments about the works of his contemporaries. “The admonitions reveal arrogance and anticipate the later institutionalized tyranny of intellectuals.” Moreover, “a Greek of the sixth century, [Xenophanes] dared to dismiss myths as an ancient invention.”

Xenophanes criticized naive reliance on empirical evidence, in the process producing the first known theory of epistemology, one that leads to a sophisticated form of empiricism, dominated by abstract theoretical concepts, and leading to “the revolutionary admission that something we see clearly does not, after all, have to be the way we see it.”

Feyerabend summarizes Xenophanes’ move in this fashion: “Here we have for the first time a most interesting phenomenon that today belongs to the basic principles of scientific concept formation. An object is introduced [say, orbits, or the apeiron] because certain rules of the game can be applied to it and because the application yields exciting new results, and not because we encounter it in sense perception or tradition. In Xenophanes the object thus artificially constructed also superseded the empirically observable gods, thereby declaring essential parts of sense perception to be unreliable.” Of course, contra Feyerabend, the gods had actually never been “empirically observable.” Only natural phenomena had, and people had conjured up hypothetical entities called “gods” to account for them. It is baffling that Feyerabend doesn’t see that Xenopahens’ move was less radical in this sense, he simply substituted supernaturalistic with naturalistic unobservable entities.

Feyerabend is probably right, though, when he says that Xenophanes made the concept of God itself into an abstract one, removed from the everyday perception of an animated nature, so to speak. This, in turn, paved the way for the philosophy of Parmenides.

Before turning to Parmenides, though, here are a few sentences that plainly explain Feyerabend’s attitude: “[Xenophanes’] trick would have been acceptable and even commendable if it had resulted in an improvement of the situation. But why should we regard Xenophanes monster as ‘purer and more refined’ than, for example, the Thracians’ blue-eyed, red-haired gods? Does a being become more refined by losing human traits and acquiring inhuman ones? And in what way is the experience of a junk room — for this is, after all, what Xenophanes’ world resembles — superior to that of a world animated with gods? It seems that viewing Xenophanes’ admittedly quite quirky and intelligent step as progress would require the one-sided and very narrow approach of today’s science nuts.” Well, either that, or it would require appreciating that the Thracians’ blue-eyed gods do not, in fact, exist, and that quarks probably do.

And we finally arrive at the last great philosopher discussed in this chapter, Parmenides. One of his crucial contributions to Western thought was to select the most general quality possible — Being — as the basis for his theories.

“Parmenides’ arguments and traditional intuition becomes clear in the corollaries: Being cannot grow out of Being, since that would not constitute growth in the first place; neither can it grow out of nothing, since the latter does not exist. … [which leads him to conclude that] despite all the intuitive diversity and change the world is, after all, an indivisible and unchangeable whole.”

Moreover: “Coming into being and perishing were no longer qualitative changes — this had been ruled out by the principle of conservation of Being — but rather compositions and decompositions of the basic substances.” In other words, Parmenides was the inventor of the first principle of conservation.

According to Feyerabend — and this seems sensible to me — Parmenides’ philosophy led immediately to a love of paradoxes, as we find in Zeno, and then in Gorgias. But this, again, doesn’t make Feyerabend happy: “Note the tendency here that is commonplace in contemporary science: the thinker, that is, in antiquity the philosopher, deals with things that do not occur in intuition and that have paradoxical qualities. These are the things that are ‘real’ for the thinker.”

At this point, the nature of Being can be described by way of the introduction of axioms, a procedure, of course, that immediately becomes characteristics of mathematics, not just natural philosophy.

“From then on, conceptual considerations were at the center of studies on human nature and determined the essence of things surrounding us. This is how Western philosophy of nature started. There were no further major transformations, and we can restrict ourselves to an outline of the development up to the present time.”

Next (and last) installment: Western philosophy of nature from Aristotle to Bohr.


27 thoughts on “Book club: Philosophy of Nature, ch. 5

  1. Let me immediately admit to not quite seeing the point that Feyerabend is making. Is he criticising my conviction that I am being moved eastward by the Earth’s rotation (at around 800 miles an hour at my latitude) on the grounds that this is contrary to my naive observation that I am standing still? Or is he criticising it because it would be cosier to imagine that some god or gods (red hair and blue eyes optional) took responsibility for pushing the Sun across the sky?

    Or is the whole point for us (not ofc for him) that of course he is wrong, but what is interesting is why we feel entitled to claim that he is wrong, as with solipsism?


  2. Paul,

    All of them good questions. I’m reserving judgment once I get through the final and most beefy chapter of the book. However, my take is that Feyerabend is worried about the unspoken trade-offs inherent in the myth > philosophy > science moves, in terms of quality of human life, not amount of knowledge. This should not be taken as a call to turn back the clock, but to be more aware that scientific advancements don’t come for free, in terms of human welfare. As for being anti-science, Feyerabend does have that reputation, but I think it is fair to say that he was rather anti-dogmatism, and that he perceived science as been too dogmatic for his taste.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Paul,

    I am an epileptic and you might say I’ve spent considerable amount of time under the hood of my own mind, as opposed to driving it from point A to point B. One thing I find is that the basis of any thought, no matter how seemingly objective, is an emotion. Some burst of expression, desire, insight, feeling. Then as it cools and consolidates, it takes on some form and that is the thought.
    So possibly religion might be considered a thought that emerges from some primal emotional insight, i.e. a God. Then when it is clothed in some form, it starts to look silly to some, but deadly serious to others. Possibly what Feyeraband is trying to say, is that while those Gods might look silly on the surface, especially the more straw man type Gods the scientistic types like to shoot down, but that we ultimately lose something very important, if we dismiss them totally, because they are essential to understanding that emotion at the basis of thought.

    If you think you have it all figured out, consider the Super Bowl last night. Say toward the end of the third quarter.


  4. Popper was very interested in the Presocratics, and discusses how the “Parmenidean research programme” (only invariants are truly real) extended into modern physics (he boasts of calling Einstein “Parmenides” in conversation). His essay “The Unknown Xenophanes” portrays Xenophanes as a founder of the Greek Enlightenment:

    …fighting for truth and against obscurity; … talking and writing lucidly and modestly; … practising irony and especially self-irony; …avoiding the pose of a deep thinker; … looking critically at society; … looking upon the world with wonder, and with an infectious curiosity.

    It would interesting to know how Feyerabend and he bounced off each other.


  5. I think you are on to something very important. Science teaching that fails to cultivate the sense of wonder does great harm. As to whether an appeal to the gods stimulates that sense, or dulls its effect by appearing to satisfy it, is another matter.


  6. A new physics would have to reintroduce poetry as a tool to explore reality.

    It is a staple of scientismic thinking that empiricism is the one and only means of investigating reality. The ubiquity of this attitude is demonstrated by the fact that most of the present day investigators into ‘paranormal’ phenomena, as well as the purveyors of most ‘new age’ nostrums like to cast their efforts in sciency language and concepts.
    Even theology and metaphysics generally, while they may address concepts that seem outlandish to many, do so in language that aims to be acceptable to the rational mind.
    Perhaps Feyerabend sees poetry as a medium that tries to express the mythic in its own terms rather than shoehorning it into more ‘rational’ concepts and all he means by the quote above is that that aspect of reality that is not accessible to scientism needs its own language in order to be faithfully investigated and depicted.

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  7. Paul,

    To continue that thought, it isn’t that perception, the reception of information, is an emotion, but the response to it.

    I suspect that what we moderns would perceive as herd behavior, group think(even among scientists and philosophers!), memes, political affinities, etc, as responses larger than one’s self, the ancients would identify as gods. So to dismiss the concept is to dismiss the history and evolution of sociology, among other areas.


  8. ps,
    As an example of how these emotions turn into thoughts, the effort groups then put into rationalizing their behaviors and beliefs.


  9. Brodix, I think we have several different things here. All societies have a tendency to suppress questions about their own superiority. Consider how impervious Americans are to recognition of the fact that their health system gives the worst value for money of any in the developed world.

    Religions do not have a monopoly of the emotionally blackmailing argument “if you’re a real X, then you must believe Y”. So it is a matter of accepting the group shibboleth, which may or may not involve belief in gods.

    Beliefs also tend to come in clusters, so that if I recall correctly Dawkins compared memes that are transmitted together but logically independent to genes ( I should probably say alleles) with different function that tend to be transmitted together because they are close together on a chromosome. For example, in the US, people who favour stricter abortion control also tend to oppose stricter gun control.

    Belief in a particular God is central to some belief clusters, but irrelevant to others.

    I was thinking more of the emotional motivation that drives enquiry, as well as the emotional satisfaction that arises when the enquiry is productive, and the emotional pleasure, for me somewhere between the devotional and the aesthetic, that arises in response to some discoveries, leading us a call them “beautiful”. And the question of whether or not belief in gods facilitates such emotions. I know some scientists who see themselves as working for the greater glory of God, while others are keen to drive Him out of business.

    But perhaps we should postpone further discussion until we have the next instalment.


  10. Sherlock,

    I like your charitable reading of Feyerabend, yes, maybe that’s what he meant by that phrase about poetry. More generally, I do agree with the scientimists that science — even narrowly defined — is our only reliable source of knowledge about the world. But, i) there is knowledge about other things (e.g., math, logic) which are not science (Coel, don’t even think about it…); and ii) there is understanding, which is broader than knowledge. I think philosophy — a field straddling the sciences and the humanities — is crucial there, and there is a large role also for the remainder of the humanities (history, for instance), and likely for the arts, including poetry (though I must admit that’s my least favorite form of artistic expression).

    One example that comes to my mind is when I was teaching a course on epistemology across the curriculum, comparing ways of knowing (ah!) and methods in different disciplines. One of my guest lecturers was a colleague who talked about his research on colonialism. While some of it relied of course on historical documents, and much of it on social science research, he said that it was extremely important also to read the autobiographies, and even fictional works, of people who had witnessed colonialism, on both sides. He said those documents add greatly to our understandin, in a way that straightforward scientific research simply doesn’t.

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  11. David,

    Feyerabend was definitely at odds with Popper. It was an interesting time in philosophy of science, with giant figures such as Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, and Feyerabend battling against each other. Popper, and to a lesser extent Lakatos, where the rationalists of the day, approaching science from a formal-logical perspective; Kuhn triggered the so-called historicist turn, making the point that one cannot understand science without looking at its history and practice; and Feyerabend was the “against method” enfant terrible of the group.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Massimo,

    He said those documents add greatly to our understandin, in a way that straightforward scientific research simply doesn’t.

    I know you are quoting someone here but I sense you agree with the point being made?
    Understanding something (as I understand it – infinite regress alert) is seeing how that ‘something’ fits into the greater scheme of things; how it came to be, what impact it has on other things, how it might shine some light on other things and they on it, and so on. But the ‘greater scheme of things’ must consist in other pieces of knowledge about the world and if ‘those documents’ (autobiographies, works of fiction etc.) contribute to our understanding of ‘something’ they do so by virtue of being other pieces of knowledge that provide context for the ‘something’. It follows that those documents represent other ways of knowing about the world.
    Does your ‘ah’ following the plural ‘ways of knowing’ earlier in your comment suggest you disagree with your own assertion about science being ‘…our only reliable source of knowledge about the world’ or is the word ‘reliable’ your get-out-of-jail card?


  13. Sherlock,

    Right, I guess I disagree with myself! Like Walter Whitman put it, I’m large, I contain multitudes… Okay, more seriously, all that means is that science isn’t a substitute, but rather a complement, to personal experience. You can’t do experiments on on an individual has experienced and perceived certain events. And since the latter testimony is sometimes crucial for our understanding, then science is incomplete. I wouldn’t, however, go so far as to claim that personal experience is in any way more reliable, more fundamental, or more illuminating than systematic observations and experiments.

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  14. Where would most of our understanding be without poetic language? Think of all the metaphors used in science – none perfect – but able to give us a glimpse of the complexity.

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  15. Paul: “Consider how impervious Americans are to recognition of the fact that their health system gives the worst value for money of any in the developed world.”

    A bit off topic, but this makes me wonder if this correlates to the enormous quantity of OTC drugs and supplements in American pharmacies.


  16. Massimo: “I wouldn’t, however, go so far as to claim that personal experience is in any way more reliable, more fundamental, or more illuminating than systematic observations and experiments.”

    The preceding discussion puts me in mind of the dichotomy reasonable/rational. “Reasonable” is understood by everyone on a sort of consensus basis but eludes an absolute definition, whereas “rational” connotes something that is derived from a traceable logical chain.


  17. Massimo quotes Feyerabend:

    “None of the aforementioned ideas pays much attention to the events described in poetry, which were originally regarded as historical or cosmological facts.”

    But, how sure do we really know this interpretation is? Speaking in terms of biblical criticism, and a quasi-poetic passage, many critical scholars claim Genesis 2-3 was never understood as “literally” true. Whether such critical scholars are right or not is basically impossible to determine. But, they do at least raise the idea that Feyerabend may be wrong on this.

    Yes, Adam and Havvah ben-Eretz may have understood them as literally true, under such thinking, but a poetic author, such as the Yahwist, always had a more “sophisticated” take. So, at a minimum, things are more nuanced, I think, than Feyerabend claims.


  18. To extend further on my comment above, it doesn’t appear that Feyerabend distinguished between the original oral history of poetic concepts and their final written form, either. Certainly, a poem, or, when sung, with or without instrumental accompaniment, a hymn, may well have been considered as literal in oral transmission, even by the “intelligentsia.” But, at some point after the act of writing such things down, in all likelihood their “concretization” started undercutting their perception as having historic value and literal truth. This, in turn may relate to things like the priests of ancient Brahmanism looking askance at putting the Vedic hymns in written form.


  19. Oh, indeed, Michael. Plus, there’s a huge difference between editing a written document before the printing press and afterward, and even more about editing multiple pre-existing documents into one. That’s doubly true with parchment scrolls vs. printed paper books, although true enough with papyrus codices.

    And, at the risk of sleeping dogs, etc., I think this is something else that a “certain group” of people with certain biblical criticisms don’t totally get.


  20. Paul,

    My point would go more to where the concept of god/s came from in the first place. What conceptual, psychological, social, political issues did assigning a spiritual entity solve. Today the issue has enormous baggage and totally dominated by monotheism, but thousands of years ago we had the same emotional and intellectual capacities, but in a vastly different context. Today we like to dissect everything down to the nth degree and often live in fairly sterile environments. What conceptual tools and metaphors did the ancients have to work with?
    I’m not saying it is a correct concept, but dismissing it out of hand might be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


  21. Another point to consider is that in our rational tendency toward reductionism, we seem to assume reality is ultimately composed of units; Atomism, theisms, individualism, Big Bang theory, etc It always seems we see an object as foundational, rather than processes, or connections as foundational. We favor the node over the network.
    The Eastern paradigm seems to go the other way, so there don’t seem to be gods as singular metaphors. More about relationships; Yin/Yang, The Way, etc.
    As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, even the concept of time is reversed, in that while in the west, we see the future as in front of us and the past behind, the eastern view is the past is in front, because it is known and what is in front is seen, while the future and what is behind are unknown. So our view is of us, as individual beings, moving through our context, while the eastern view has one embedded in their context, since we do see events after they occur.


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