Book club: Philosophy of Nature, ch. 6

GalileoTime to bring to an end my ongoing series on Paul Feyerabend’s posthumously published Philosophy of Nature. (Here you will find part I; part II; part III; part IV; and part V.) I don’t know how many people had the fortitude to actually follow me and read the book, rather than just my commentary, but if you are among them, congratulations, it wasn’t easy!

That’s not because the book is difficult to read. On the contrary, it reads like a chatty stream of consciousness full of personal observations and quirky remarks. But it is hard to make sense of where Feyerabend was going with this, and the last chapter, alas, doesn’t help much.

I mean, in some sense it is perfectly clear what the aim of the book was. Feyerabend himself summarizes it in the Conclusions section:

“[I have given an] account of the first phase of Western philosophy of nature, namely the phase during which thought is separated from intuition in order to impose on the latter, as well as on life in general, its laws — or whatever are regarded as its laws — from the outside. … Human beings are separated from nature as well as from their own immediacy; they regard themselves as something alien which they attempt to grasp with the help of something else that is alien and has just been discovered, namely thought.”

And he goes on to lay out the plans for two more volumes, which he however never wrote:

“Here is my plan for the two volumes to follow. The second volume is dedicated to Plato, Aristotle, and the medieval period up to the Renaissance. … Aristotle remained the only thinker who attempted to reconcile the demands of thought with intuition in such a way as to erect a complete dwelling in which we humans can feel at home and in a familiar environment again. … The third volume [will] cover the period that leads to the present time (around 1970). … The large mass of the orthodox scientific enterprise is gradually turning into a business pushed forward by unhappy, fearful, and yet conceited slave souls … [But we will soon see a] new philosophical and mythological science, the still indistinct outlines of which can be seen on the horizon. It is one of the aims of this work to clarify the historical preconditions — discoveries and errors – of this science, thus accelerating its birth.”

What the hell?!? Basically, Feyerabend had a grand vision of where Western thought — not just science — had gone wrong, a turning point that took place around the time of the pre-Socratics, especially Parmenides (see part V). He saw the progression in “life forms” from myth/poetry (Homer) to philosophy (Thales, Parmenides, Plato) to science (Descartes through Bohr) as a really bad idea, one that gave up on a holistic view of things in favor of a mechanistic one, and one that had the awful consequence of alienating human beings from their environment, which they then began to systematically exploit and destroy.

While there is much to admire in Feyerabend’s intentions, and I have learned quite a bit from his rather haphazard treatment of the subject matter, his project is ultimately a failure. The sixth and last chapter is a breathtaking panorama of philosophy and science, from Aristotle to Descartes; then Galileo, Bacon and Agrippa (don’t remember the latter? He was the author of Occult Philosophy, 1533); proceeding to Hegel; then Newton, Leibniz and Mach; and finally Einstein, Bohr and Bohm. I mean, I can hardly imagine anyone competent enough to say intelligible and interesting things about such a collection of thinkers, and yet Feyerabend pulled it off.

But to what end? You get a good sense by the end of chapter 6: “In this new world [of quantum mechanics], determinism is no longer fully valid … Furthermore, the world is no longer independent of the observer.”

Fine, sort of, but then: “The triumph of Cartesianism pushed aside not only certain theories but also a large number of obvious facts. This includes all those facts supporting an independent existence of the soul, which is not easy to explain in mechanistic terms, or the existence of mental powers that are independent of matter.” Come again? Feyerabend apparently believed in a soul of sorts, and he seriously entertained the idea of extrasensorial perception. And thought that the new discoveries of quantum mechanics and the resulting crisis of mechanistic science had “opened the door for a return of mythological forms of thought, which seemed to have abandoned human thought forever with Parmenides.”

Well, no. Sure, if we take Deepak Chopra seriously something like that may be the case, but who in his right mind would take quantum mysticism, ESP, and the like seriously?

Here is what I think was very valuable in Feyerabend’s analysis, both as conducted in Philosophy of Nature and elsewhere in his writings. He was an iconoclast who was not afraid to think outside the box, way outside the box. And his criticism of science as a potentially dehumanizing (“alienating”) enterprise that lends itself to power games and ideological exploitation was right on the mark. He anticipated the modern phenomenon of scientism. It takes some serious intellectual guts to write a book like Philosophy of Nature, where one presents a sweeping rethinking of the entire history of Western philosophy and science, and — again — I’m glad I read the book.

But Feyerabend seems to be perversely blind to some obvious answers to his own questions. At some point he claims that it is hard to fathom why Aristotelian physics gave out to its Galileian and Newtonian successor. Well, because Galileo and Newton were much closer than Aristotle to understanding how the world actually works, not to mention being able to make accurate experimental predictions.

And the idea that quantum mechanics is somehow turning science into a holistic enterprise that would seriously consider souls and extrasensorial perception may have been appealing in the ’60s, but it’s sheer nonsense today, making especially the last part of Philosophy of Nature dated and not very useful to the contemporary scientist or philosopher of science.

In a sense, Feyerabend was the last great philosopher of science of the golden age of the discipline. For over half a century philosophy of science had been in the business of proposing grand theories of how science works, from the logical positivists to Popper, from Kuhn to Feyerabend himself. After that great period it has become a more specialized enterprise, with most of its practitioners focused on specific aspects of different fields of science, from evolutionary biology to quantum mechanics. This may be an inevitable result of the fact that one simply cannot arrive at unified theories of science. Or it may be simply a transitional period before the next wave of big thinkers. Time will tell. But however things will develop, I seriously doubt they will do so along the lines envisaged by Feyerabend in his Philosophy of Nature.

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P.S.: I will accept suggestions for the next book club. Limited to philosophy in general (i.e., no straightforward science books), preferably, but not exclusively, philosophy of science.

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132 thoughts on “Book club: Philosophy of Nature, ch. 6

  1. Hi Markk,

    The goldfish, being animals, have limits. So do we, and we can’t give a complete judgment of our webs, as we are trapped inside them.

    I’ll readily accept that science and what humans can know are limited and may be flawed and erroneous. We can do our best, but science is inevitably provisional and can never be certain.

    But that does not make it true that science is: “based on non-empirical, unverifiable assumptions”. Whenever we have any such assumption we can test it. All we have to do is ask: “What would things be like if that were not the case?”. From there we can construct and test models with and without the assumption. And that process verifies them.

    The idea that science is based on foundational assumptions that we cannot then question is not the case, which is one of the points of the Neurath’s raft or Quinean-web view of science.

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  2. To follow through on the morning’s thought;

    “It seems to me that what people really mean, when they say “absolute,” is ideal, but they know that would make it subjective.”

    Because what religion, science, philosophy, math are looking for is a universal ideal. Morals, truth, order, A Theory of Everything, God, whatever, that is at the “center.”

    Obviously no one takes me seriously when I point out science makes a major booboo by treating time as some foundational dimension, experienced as narrative and measured as duration, when it is really just the effect of change. As in tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns.

    Yes, we experience reality as flashes of cognition and so think of it as the linear progression, but these thoughts are effect, as in naive intuition. Much as temperature, color, pressure are effects and also fundamental to our sense of reality.

    It was only 500 years ago we realized it isn’t the sun moving, but the earth. We still clearly observe the sun moving across the sky and can measure it.

    It’s not like I’m arguing for astrology, or esp. It really does go to show how much more effective authority is over people, than logic.

    I suppose the trolley problem is more insightful.

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  3. One expects from Baggini a smooth ride in a well-oiled machine, but I’m interested in precise philosophical definitions of reason and rationality. To regard them as ‘in practice synonyms’ strikes me as a bad start. Their syntactical difference is obvious. In certain cases in which their definitions are presupposed they are used synonymously, but far more often they are not. What is your reason for x is quite different from what is your rationale for x. ‘Be reasonable’ is not exactly ‘Be rational’. To commit to using the two words interchangeably is to begin by muddying waters.

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  4. davidlduffy (quoting Meillassoux): (he thinks temporally precedent to us is different from being spatially unreachable in an ontological way).

    Both of these descriptions apply to much of what we can see in the night sky.

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  5. Reading the Baggini preview; His faith in reason/rationality is undeniable, but weak. The fact is that reason is a tool. The presumption is it leads us to the truth, but more often than not, the truths are tautologies and facts contingent on other facts. The center is an ideal, which he aspires to.
    Consequently reason leads us in circles, like a puppy dog chasing its tail. So we use it to get from where we are to somewhere we prefer to be. As evidence, how many truly pursue nihilistic lines of reason for their own ends and not just to aggravate others, or some specific gain?

    We. are. attracted. to. the. beneficial.

    As for God, what if it is the desire, not the object of desire?

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  6. I’ll probably argue with myself on that one. There are plenty of dystopias around, following the logical consequences of where humanity seems to be headed.

    Of course, this leads many to cling ever more tightly to their Gods.

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  7. I’ve been musing in the way in which we discuss our thinking as if it were the actions of a logic machine, whereas we are in reality massive neural networks, operating fuzzily on implicit and often unexamined rules. So perhaps the Baggini.

    But then I puzzle (I really do) about how we make moral choices; I’ve read the Malik and would much value Massimo’s perspective on it.

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  8. Paul, I think Hume was partially right. I think moral choices are more than “just’ emotional value judgments, but I do think emotive issues are part of morals.

    Other than that, the
    Do not murder (within your in-group)
    Do not commit adultery (pretty much)
    Do not steal (I think even before the “invention” of private property)
    Honor your parents in some way
    Do not slander (within your in-group)

    Are likely evolutionarily grounded to a fair degree.

    Everything else is cultural evolution, is thus contingent, and probably will never be encompassed by any theory that is even close to overarching.

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  9. Paul,

    What if we are just enormous numbers of binary switches, but rather than on/off, it’s good/bad?

    Think of all the programing code possible.

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