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.

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

  1. Markk

    The trouble with ultra-sciency philosophy that wants to be about evidence and reject all that is not based on evidence is that it is itself based on non-empirical, unverifiable assumptions, just like all other human ideas. It cuts off the branch it’s sitting on.

    “Based on unverifiable assumptions” is just a nice way of saying “based on nothing”.

    So if all human knowledge is based on nothing, what to do? One thing you can’t do is cherry-pick one batch of nothing-based knowledge and bash the rest because it’s based on nothing. Yet to my mind, that is precisely what scientism does.

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  2. SocraticGadfly

    Wait, wait … another good book for the club: “Heterodidactic Essays on the Transeuphoric Exploration of Intersectional Interstices within Neo-Pythagorean Critiques of the Pali Canon.”

    That one’s got everything, Massimo, and I mean everything.

    Hmm, if I ever do a new Devil’s Dictionary, I see an entire section about book titles could be a possibility.

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  3. Thomas Jones

    Frankly, if I encountered the likes of this: “How are we to grasp the meaning of scientific statements bearing explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and even of life – posited, that is, as anterior to every form of human relation to the world?” I go back to NY Times crossword puzzles. Sorry,

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  4. wtc48

    What would be a book describing Philosophy and Science tunneling toward each other and meeting at a level where they realize they’re talking about the same thing? Can’t think of one, but maybe someone can come close.

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  5. Massimo Post author

    Thanks for all the suggestions, in jest and otherwise. At the moment, though, I’m leaning toward one of these two:

    Ultimately, it will have to be something I haven’t read (this isn’t a class, it’s rather a good excuse for me to read something out than Stoicism…), and that I find fun (since I’ll be one of the few here to actually read the book).

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  6. Daniel Kaufman

    I’m happy to breathe. I simply was pointing out some basic conversational courtesies and manners. I mean, you don’t really expect professional philosophers like myself to participate in a conversation, in which every time a philosophical issue arises or a classic philosophical dispute is brought up, and we go to the trouble of mapping out the landscape and finding relevant sources, the resident jack-in-the-box pops out and goes “No one is interested in those issues and disputes. I see no reason to read or even consider any of the sources you’ve brought to the table. Science should answer all of these questions.”

    It’s insulting. It’s ill-mannered. And it’s ignorant. Isn’t the point to have an educational conversation here? One that actually takes philosophy seriously as a subject? So why chase the serious people away — the ones who actually know something about philosophy — just so Mr. Handy can pop off on his broken record?

    If anyone actually wants to have a serious philosophical conversation about materialism and phenomenalism, I’m happy to do so. Or feel free to email me privately, if the jack-in-the-box is too annoying.

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  7. SocraticGadfly

    Trying to remember if I’ve read the Baggini myself or not. (I’ve not read the Malik.)

    ===

    Thomas, here’s a book for you: “Deconstructionalist Discourses on the Anterior Otherness of a Holistically Manifested Philosophy of Science.” 🙂 It’s written by Wil Shortz.

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  8. Coel

    Hi Markk,

    The trouble with ultra-sciency philosophy that wants to be about evidence and reject all that is not based on evidence is that it is itself based on non-empirical, unverifiable assumptions …

    No it isn’t, as even philosophers often agree nowadays. In a Quinean-style-web view of how science works, any of the working assumptions can be examined and tested, and thus whether to retain or update those ideas is decided on the evidence. Thus they are just as much evidence-based beliefs as any others.

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  9. davidlduffy

    Thomas Jones commented: “Frankly, if I encountered the likes…”. The book strikes me as easy to read, and that statement pretty clear in the context of his argument, whether you accept it to the end or not (Clemen’s response is entitled Vomit Apocalypse; or, Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude ;)).

    The argument is something like: Scientists know that there were “ancestral” events before the emergence of intentionality and human phenomenal life. If a given realist scientific theory about these objects is rejected, it is only replaced by a similar realist theory which better explains the present state of the universe. The efficacy of scientific knowledge (eg prediction) makes the positivistic approach untenable in the long term so “science itself … enjoins us to discover the source of its own absoluteness”, where absolute presumably has a capital A. Ontologies other than naive realism (he doesn’t seem to like Heidegger) that make reality unknowable to us wrapped in our language-world cannot coherently deal with the ancestral, because there is nothing in our intentional world that directly correlates with it in a full way (he thinks temporally precedent to us is different from being spatially unreachable in an ontological way).
    Fortunately for philosophers, there is still plenty of work: “Let us call ‘speculative’ every type of thinking that claims to be able to access some form of absolute…if metaphysics is obsolete, so is the absolute”.

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  10. brodix

    David,

    ““Let us call ‘speculative’ every type of thinking that claims to be able to access some form of absolute…if metaphysics is obsolete, so is the absolute”.”

    Wouldn’t an absolute, as universal state, be neutral? As in everything balanced out, absolute zero, no delineation, thus no definitions, etc.So it’s not as though knowledge doesn’t have “access” to the absolute, it would be that knowledge, as in conscious experience of structure, definition, relations, etc, simply doesn’t apply.
    It seems to me that what people really mean, when they say “absolute,” is ideal, but they know that would make it subjective.

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  11. Sherlock

    Massimo,

    On second thoughts, as you’re down to a shortlist of two, why not just select them as your next two choices?

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  12. Coel

    Dan,

    Have some manners. And some respect for others whose interests might be different from yours.

    You are misjudging to suggest that I’m not interested in such topics, indeed I post about them precisely because I am interested. The difference is that I don’t accept your whole framing of issue, which I see as unproductive, and don’t accept that anyone should be restricted to the narrow framing of the issue that you present.

    Perhaps if your framing were able to lead to clear-cut answers to such issues, supported by evidence, then I might have more respect for such framings.

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  13. Thomas Jones

    davidlduffy, I don’t doubt what you say. But I know if such a passage is representative of his prose style–hard to say since it’s probably a translation–its turgidity would be too frustrating for me.

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  14. astrodreamer

    David — Thanks for referencing the Clemens review which I shall read with great interest. I’m afraid speculative realism is just too controversial for this venue, which is apparently devoted to defense of orthodoxy, embedded in skeptiko-humanism, and is veering now to the analysis of pop philosophical writings.

    Socratic, one of your titles reminded me that there’s a theory afloat now based on the assertion that the mathematics explaining precession by the wobble of the earth’s axis is full of fudges, proposing that the real cause of precession is the fact that our sun is one of a double star pair, the sister sun being invisible some some reason, possibly she is a dim, dying dwarf.

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  15. Michael Fugate

    Socratic, the Horgan piece is pretty funny. I must say I would have to ignore this site if John Gray shows up in any form.

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  16. SocraticGadfly

    OK, another book to review: “The Postludial Precessional of the Axial Tilt of Uranus as Secretly Encoded in the Dodecaphonal Interior Lines of Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets.'” Massimo, that one, with music, gets us aesthetics, too!

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  17. Markk

    Coel:
    I am far from an expert about Quine’s web of knowledge, but I don’t think it can answer the kind of question I’m asking.

    Imagine that goldfish have goldfish science and goldfish philosophy, as part of their webs of knowledge. If we could see their ideas, probably we would judge them as wrong or extremely limited – but the goldfish can’t see this.

    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.

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  18. Michael Fugate

    If one wants morality, then maybe we should troll this year’s CPAC. I hear it has a presentation entitled “If Heaven Has a Gate, a Wall, and Extreme Vetting, Why Can’t America?”

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