Thursday, March 3, 2016

Putting nature on the rack


What was it that distinguished the modern scientific method inaugurated by Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Co. from the science of the medievals?  One common answer is that the moderns required empirical evidence, whereas the medievals contented themselves with appeals to the authority of Aristotle.  The famous story about Galileo’s Scholastic critics’ refusing to look through his telescope is supposed to illustrate this difference in attitudes.

The problem with this answer, of course, is that it is false.  For one thing, the telescope story is (like so many other things everyone “knows” about the Scholastics and about the Galileo affair) a legend.  For another, part of the reason Galileo’s position was resisted was precisely because there were a number of respects in which it appeared to conflict with the empirical evidence.  (For example, the Copernican theory predicted that Venus should sometimes appear six times larger than it does at other times, but at first the empirical evidence seemed not to confirm this, until telescopes were developed which could detect the difference; the predicted stellar parallax did not receive empirical confirmation for a long time; and so forth.)
 
Then there is the fact that the medievals were simply by no means hostile to the idea that empirical evidence is the foundation of knowledge; on the contrary, it was a standard Scholastic slogan that “there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses.”  Indeed, Bacon regarded his Scholastic predecessors as if anything too quick to believe the evidence of the senses.  The first of the “Idols of the Mind” that he famously critiques, namely the “Idols of the Tribe,” included a tendency to take the deliverances of sensory experience for granted.  The senses could, in Bacon’s view, too readily be deceived, and needed to be corrected by carefully controlling the conditions of observation and developing scientific instruments.  And in general, the early moderns regarded much of what the senses tell us about the natural world -- such as what they tell us about secondary qualities like color and temperature -- to be false. 

So, it is simply not the case that the difference between the medievals and the early moderns was that the latter were more inclined to trust empirical evidence.  On the contrary, there is a sense in which that is precisely the reverse of the truth. 

Where empirical evidence is concerned, the real difference might, to oversimplify, be put as follows.  Both the medievals and the early moderns regarded sensory experience as a crucial witness to the truth about the natural world.  But whereas the medievals regarded it as a more or less friendly witness, the moderns regarded it as a more or less hostile witness.  You can, from both sorts of witness, derive the truth.  But the methods will be different.

Hence, a friendly witness can more or less be asked directly for the information you want.  That doesn’t mean he might not sometimes need to be prodded to answer.  Even if he is honest, he might be shy, or reluctant to divulge something embarrassing, or just not very articulate.  It also doesn’t mean that everything he says can be taken at face value.  He may be forgetful, or confused, or just mistaken now and again.  A hostile witness, by contrast, though he has the information you want, cannot with confidence be asked directly.  Even if he is articulate, has a crystal clear memory, etc., he may simply refuse to answer, or may persistently beat around the bush, or may flat-out lie, seriously and repeatedly.  Thus, he may have to be tricked into giving you the information you want, like the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men.  Or you may be tempted to threaten or beat it out of him, like one of the cops in L.A. Confidential would.  So, you might say that whereas the medieval Aristotelian scientist has a conversation with nature, the early modern Baconian scientist waterboards nature.  Hence the notorious Baconian talk about putting nature to the rack, torturing her for her secrets, etc. 

Of course, this is melodramatic.  And to be fair, Bacon himself seems not to have put things quite the way commonly attributed to him (i.e. the stuff about torture and the rack).  All the same, the medievals and moderns do disagree about the degree to which the world of ordinary experience and the world that science reveals -- what Wilfrid Sellars called “the manifest image” and “the scientific image” -- correspond.  For the Aristotelian, philosophy and science are largely in harmony with common sense and ordinary experience.  To be sure, they get at much deeper levels of reality, and they correct common sense and ordinary experience around the edges, but they don’t overthrow common sense and ordinary experience wholesale.  For the moderns, by contrast, philosophy and science are likely radically to conflict with common sense and ordinary experience, and may indeed end up overthrowing them wholesale

(This is not a difference concerning whether to accept the results of modern science, by the way.  It is a difference about how to interpret those results.  For example, it is a difference over whether to regard modern science as giving us a correct but merely partial description of nature -- a description which needs to be supplemented by and embedded within an Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy of nature -- or whether to regard modern science instead as an exhaustive description of nature, and a complete metaphysics in its own right.)

The early moderns’ attitude of treating nature as a hostile witness -- of thinking that the truth about nature is largely contrary to what ordinary experience would indicate -- is one of the sources of the modern tendency to suppose that “things are never what they seem,” that traditional ideas are typically mere prejudices, that authorities and official stories of every kind need to be “unmasked,” and so forth.  Michael Levin has called this the “skim milk fallacy,” and I’ve often noted some of its social and moral consequences (e.g. here, here and here).  But these are merely byproducts of a much deeper metaphysical and epistemological revolution.

61 comments:

David T said...

I wonder if the difference between the medievals and the early moderns doesn't concern more the questioner than the questioned. A good lawyer knows that questions must be properly framed even to a friendly witness. A friendly witness can leave out crucial details thinking they are insignificant, or innocently put answers in a way that are misleading rather than revelatory, or misunderstand the question itself. In this analogy, the medievals would be the naive lawyer for whom it never occurs to ask anything other than "what happened?" and accepts at face value whatever answer is offered, whereas the moderns have made the critical discovery that the kind of answers that are received are conditioned by what questions are asked and how they are put, whatever the nature of the witness. Thus the modern emphases on epistemology and method.

scbrownlhrm said...


Another look at the history of science and the Copernican myth is helpful in this context.

Timocrates said...

While I take a more melodramatic view, I also think it would be important to add and note that there were other reasons driving the divide. Academic authorities of the day were quite right to denounce men like Galileo for failing utterly to appreciate the difference between things like evidence and proof; theory, theoretical necessity and fact.

To give an instance, the first alleged evidence (publicized as proof, of course) that light moved at a determinant speed was based on observation of one of Jupiter's moons. The thinking was that granting that the contemporary heliocentric model was absolutely correct, then one of Jupiter's moons should be visible at precisely such-and-such a time. It was somewhat tardy. This, then, served as "proof" that light was travelling at a determinant speed. Of course, it just may well have meant there were other variables - perfectly in keeping with a still heliocentric system - that might have accounted for the delayed observation (gravitational influences, say, from other bodies or still unknown bodies). Or that orbital paths needed to be adjusted slightly. But no. For me, this is why we now live in the world of scientific infallibility: we can Google anything for an answer (typically stated as fact) and should the force of necessity require a revision (like, say, saying that atoms aren't actually atomic after all) we just call this progress thanks to science.

Gennadios Scholarios said...

David T,
Your post sort of portrays the medieval scientists as stooges who accepted everything they saw at face value, e.g., they all thought that heavier bodies fell faster than lighter bodies. And maybe this is because of the popular idea that medieval science was worthless and modern science is when things really got going. But this seems false, because while the medieval scientists made many errors, they also were very 'analytical' and had their successes, such as Jean Buridan's theory of impetus. Even Thomas Aquinas, if I recall correctly, had a detailed argument for why a body could move through a (hypothetical) void. And let's not forget that even modern geniuses like Newton and Euler were very quick to propose divine intervention in their scientific theories.
While I am not an expert, I am not sure how useful it is to make a distinction between how critical the medievals were and how critical the moderns were, as if this was the reason why science was so successful in the 1700s. There's probably a better reason.

Austin said...

Hey Ed (can I call you Ed?),

This is a little off topic, but I've recently read several of NT Wright's essays on science and religion in his book Surprised by Scripture, and he really likes to emphasize the influence that Epicureanism has had on Modernism. He cites the discovery and circulation of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, as an important cause of the Enlightenment (as a matter of fact, he references Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve which argues that the discovery of Lucretius was the single most definitive influence on the Renaissance). Do you agree with this analysis? How would Epicureanism affect the distinction between modern and ancient/medieval science?

Timocrates said...

@ Scholarios,

In defense of Aristotle's physics, he provided a holistic account; whereas, the early moderns typically only described gravity as we observe it on the ground.

Aristotle's system included observations of how things certain things will behave, e.g., in water; e.g., as extremely heavy logs will float in water and require violent force to be pulled downward (and also their tendency to rise back up). Drift wood then can at times be rather problematic for the otherwise true general rule that what goes up must come down even here in our terrestrial realm. Examples of things defying gravity with ease could be multiplied. Again, even though presumably when I blow into a balloon I am actually increasing its mass; nonetheless, I am also providing it with a tendency to go upward. One balloon can rise faster and further than another even though the one rising faster may actually have more mass. But I suppose today in a vacuum we should expect them to rise at the same speed? I'm honestly not sure what the consequences in principle are supposed to be there.

Furthermore, that any number of projectiles gain and lose velocity over the course of their motion is well known enough. As a general rule, the further a projectile gets from the source of its motion the slower it will tend to travel; also, a projectile necessarily has to achieve its maximum velocity over time (even if this time is extremely fast). Cars go from 0 to 60 in such a time with the pedal to the metal; bullets when fired likewise will have to achieve their maximum velocity, even though they achieve this extremely rapidly. There was further the issue that an absolute vacuum or void was thought to be a physical impossibility in ancient times. All of this seems to have been taken into account by Aristotle and the Scholastics.

Erich said...

This article suggests a simple way of looking at the kinship between modern scientism and poststructuralist philosophies: both take the surface, be it language, the subject, the object, the material, as the epiphenomenon of hidden and impersonal powers, the exposure of which is vital to our liberation and advancement, so that we no longer need be enslaved by the Truth: either by affirming and conquering it scientifically, or by disenchanting and dethroning it as merely the trace of our own search for it.

Yoni said...

This combox already doesn't feel the same without Scott.

Just a massive punch in the gut...

Tim Lambert said...

Am I the only one who has a the sidebar with the links vibrating up and down?
It's not happening on any other blog I visit, but this one.

thefederalist said...

Could be you. I'm not experiencing that.

John Jensen said...

Empty comment to get on e-mail follow-up

David T said...

Scholarios,

I'm ultimately a Thomist myself and am playing a bit of a devil's advocate here.

Nonetheless, I do think the emphasis on method and a critical turn to the subjective distinguishes moderns from medievals, for both better and worse.

TheOFloinn said...

I'm thinking there was a deliberate change in attitude. Science shifted from being the handmaiden of philosophy to being the handmaiden of engineering. That is, instead of being in the business of grasping the beauty of the universe, they were in the business of creating useful products to increase -- as Bacon and Descartes intended -- Man's conquest of the universe. This required a shift from final causes to a subset of efficient causes. While it was nice to know that a bird's wing was for flying, that didn't help design an airplane like an understanding of lift and drag. So, the emphasis on quantitative and controllable efficient causes and scientists shifted in the main from art criticism to engineering. Even the bluest sky grant proposals today are expected to include "practical applications."

With the collapse of modernity, we are seeing post-modern science shift yet again, from the servant of engineering to the servant of policy.

iwpoe said...

@TheOFloinn

That's correct but I agree with Heidegger and Hegel that a singular focus isn't necessary and follows only upon a rather strict and one-sided apprehension of Being. It might be more proper to say that beauty was occluded by the ends of man and then again by the exchangability of things as universal resource.

Timocrates said...

@ TOF,

The Medievals invented enginering. We praise their genius everytime we speak of something's working like clockwork. The difference is that those who invented the first machines and clockwork were well aware they were praising their creator because it was founded on the constancy of the things we see in the heavens. They knew their art was derived from nature. In fact, it still works, as so many Medieval clocks in town squares in Europe daily prove.

I think this unleashed in man a desire for mind over matter to the extreme. Ironically, I believe that modern science (e.g. chemistry) is pure pragmatism and politic. It's just a sacred cow. How many times must I point out here that if you were a schoolboy learing physics (thanks to the moderns) you had to answer as fact that chemical elements were incapable of change in their elements as themselves? But like good subjects we keep trusting the masters.

No. Matter is exactly as Aristotle described it: pure potentiality.

I believe that Aristotelians can and will be the next generation of scientists and thinkers exactly because they are not terrified to conceive of matter as virtually unbounded potentiallity; but, politically, this a serious problem. It's far too democratic.

TheOFloinn said...

@Timocrates
Surely. What we call 'atoms' are not matter, but are forms of matter: a number of particles arranged in a particular way, and it is this arrangement that gives each kind of atom it particular powers. Those particles, arranged in different numbers in different ways would form different 'elements.'

Daniel D. D. said...

Questions regarding the work of Mr. Michael Levin Dr. Feser posted:

It is no wonder that common
sense does not register quantum or relativistic effects; they hap-
pen too fast, on too great or small a stage, or at velocities not
reached in normal experience. Evolution had no reason to prepare
us for what happens in nanoseconds, at astronomical distances, or
near the speed of light.


I don't think Mr. Levin needs to appeal to evolution, and that doing so actaully cements the incompatible of common sense and science.

If evolution didn't prepare us to be able to sense the things not of common experience, then shouldn't we be skeptical of these theories, since, even if they were true, we wouldn't be able to know them?

I think we can work around this problem by arguing that, with new technology, we now know that we shouldn't assume the order of things on common experience to fit the things not of common experience.

Mr. Levin wants to explain the difference between counterintuitive scientific knowledge and common sense by proposing a defect in our senses for things not of common sense, while I want to explain it by proposing us, in our ignorance of direct experience with these strange things not of common experience, we filled in the details with false theories.

Mr. Levin proposes a limit on our senses, while I propose new sensory data that filled in our ignorance, and overthrew our past speculations. Could we even both be correct?

Christi pax.

boru said...

From the Post

"For another, part of the reason Galileo’s position was resisted was precisely because there were a number of respects in which it appeared to conflict with the empirical evidence. (For example, the Copernican theory predicted that Venus should sometimes appear six times larger than it does at other times, but at first the empirical evidence seemed not to confirm this, until telescopes were developed which could detect the difference; the predicted stellar parallax did not receive empirical confirmation for a long time; and so forth."

Indeed, it so conflicted with the empirical evidence, that Galileo devised his principle of relativity in order to explain the discrepancy. He conceives of an inertial ship whose status of stability or instabilty is internally indiscernible. He notes in effect, that the resting inertial jurisdiction is legally, and therefore, experimentally, indistinguishable from the moving inertial jurisdiction, which criterion of inertial indistinctness would eventually become the basis of Einstein's principle of relativity.

Then Galileo thus supplied an argument as to why a moving body should appear to be motionless to its enclosed passengers, an argument that was supposed to explain obliquely, why the Earth might be a cosmological wurlitzer that nevertheless appeared to its human passengers to be standing still. He needed to explain why real motion might appear to be empirical rest.

Contrary to the Galileo Myth, the oft-made claim that Galileo made a persuasive scientific case in favour of Copernican heliocentrism, is false. He did not. Nor is it true that the senior Catholic officials he dealt with were blinkered anti-scientific "Dark Ages" fools. Rather, they tended to be men who had enjoyed much the same kind of education as Copernicus and Galileo. Moreover, the majority of Galileo's fellow-scientists did not at the time prefer the Copernican system, and that included the greatest astronomer of the age, Tycho Brahe.

The Church made a dreadful moral and political mistake in prosecuting Galileo, something many of its most senior and intelligent officials wanted to avoid, mostly because they already suspected that Ptolemy was wrong. But it was not an intellectual or a scientific mistake as such. After all, why should science be allowed to pride itself on its distinction as a discipline that only believes in things for which there is evidence, while at the same time claiming the right to believe in a theory of helicoentrism for which there was no evidence.

When the Church challenged Galileo to supply his evidence for heliocentrism, it turned out, he didn't have any. Eppur non si evidence, therefore, eppur non si science.

Jason said...

This discussion reminded me of an image in an article that laubadetriste posted in some comments a little while back.

The medievals did not have the technology to observe nature as moderns have. As in the image they were limited by what technology (naked eye) they had that they could use to observe nature, while the moderns have pushed the boundaries of what we can observe (even though we have a long ways to go). This does not mean that the medievals were entirely/ hopelessly wrong, not at all. This just means that within the confines of the technology that they had their philosophical assumptions were based upon common sense and in contact with the reality that they could observe.

Zeb said...

One limit of the scientific approach that only recently occurred to me is it's refusal to treat anything that is not made visible to the human eye. This point may seem trivial at first - of course we can only study the movements of the stars or the structures of a cell after we've found a may to make them observable. But the tyranny of the eye strips all other sensory data from the realm of scientific truth too. Consider the study of bird songs - one may note how often they happen, or how loud they are or their frequencies or any other metrics under the banner of science. But everything about the bird song must be converted in to a visible form, whether by a human hand noting it or an instrument giving a visible reading, before it becomes a scientific observation that can enter the canon of scientific knowledge. And without a doubt, some amount of distortion and reduction follows this conversion of observation from one sensory system to another. And when you realize that scientific knowledge can only be that which has passed through a human eye, how absurd to suppose it should be regarded the only or the supreme domain of truth?

TheOFloinn said...

Actually, Oresme noted in the 14th century that an observer afixed to the sphere of the stars would see the earth rotate beneath him while one afixed to the earth would see the stars revolve above him, so there was no was to ascertain from the observation which was the true case. His teacher, Buridan, had made the same case regarding a man on a steady ship who sees another ship pass by. How can he know which ship is moving?

Timocrates said...

Please don't over exaggerate our modern technological means. Science is only acceptable in Christian countries -and bizarrely, especially in America- insofar as it can be independently verified. If it can't be indepedently verified, then it's human witness/claim/authority only (even if it happens to be true). If that fails then science is just a new, esoteric priesthood. Like I said before, we have no right to abandon our own senses and reason; if we do so, lady wisdom will certainly turn her back on us as well and not wince at the depravities we suffer as a consequence. Word has it that women entertain some pretty horrid fates on the men that they believe to have betrayed them.

Timocrates said...

@ TOF,

"His teacher, Buridan, had made the same case regarding a man on a steady ship who sees another ship pass by. How can he know which ship is moving?"

Yes, hence the significance of the aether in the MM expriment (for whatever it is or was worth). Of course, terrestially, if we are moving, then we are moving through something. We can at least discern (even and especially on a still day) that we are moving by, say, setting something up that is moved by being moved through the air (sort of like putting your hand out the window in a moving car). Modern physics exaggerates the difficulties in discerning what is and isn't moving. I mean, when you are driving down the highway and those on the other side are driving in the opposite direction, it's not like you are totally clueless as to who or what is moving, even though both you and the car on the other side of the highway are moving. By taking thought also of things like the median or trees or cars that are pulled over, it becomes obvious what is and isn't moving. If it weren't, we'd have a hard time enforcing traffic rules and laws. Actually, we ought to be terrified at the very idea of tavelling.

Let's take two objects moving on parallel lines that are moving in opposite directions. If I rest one, then the other object has to double its speed to maintain the same appearance of movement as when both were moving (that is past each other in opposite directions). That doubling of speed has consequences, of course (say a passenger with their hand out the window would certainly feel a difference). Similarly, the resting of the one object would have consequences if a passenger had their hand out the window. These principles remain true even if one tries to throw in things like varying wind speeds or whatever. You can add difficulties but contra-Einstein you can't actually equivocate between rest and movement. Many of his contemporaries knew this and what happened then isn't much different to what is happening today in schools to profs/educators who refuse to equivocate between natural and unnatural human unions, says.

Anonymous said...

Timofcrates,

Is your last line neccesary? It is a complete non-sequitur from the fair point you were making. Can you folks discuss anything without including your bigotry or political views as some sort of deductive consequence?

Mr. Green said...

Austin: Hey Ed (can I call you Ed?)

You did; therefore, you can. And going by Herr Professor Doktor Feser's past behaviour, you may, as well. (May as well what? (Never mind.))

[Wright] references Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve which argues that the discovery of Lucretius was the single most definitive influence on the Renaissance.

One might suspect that that's an exaggeration. (For instance, surely popularity in such cases is a result of a work's putting forward a view that is already widespread as much as the other way around?) In which case, one's suspicions might like to read this: The Swerve is really a full-frontal crash.

Mr. Green said...

Timocrates: Drift wood then can at times be rather problematic for the otherwise true general rule that what goes up must come down even here in our terrestrial realm.

I am unaware of an early modern who was confused by driftwood. Gravity pulls it down, in water or out, just as Newton would expect.

But I suppose today in a vacuum we should expect them to rise at the same speed?

We shouldn't expect them rise at all, because in vacuum a balloon will drop like a rock. Of course, a balloon you blow up won't rise anyway, because your breath — unlike, say, helium — is as dense as the surrounding air. (Unless you're really full of hot air, I suppose….)

By taking thought also of things like the median or trees or cars that are pulled over, it becomes obvious what is and isn't moving.

…moving relative to the roadway, yes. And since that's what traffic-laws care about, there's no problem.

That doubling of speed has consequences, of course

Well, now you're talking acceleration, which is a different story.

what happened then isn't much different to what is happening today in schools to profs/educators who refuse to equivocate between natural and unnatural human unions, says.

Einstein wasn't equivocating, and it's plenty different; let's not get carried away.

Timocrates said...

@ Mr. Green,

"Of course, a balloon you blow up won't rise anyway, because your breath — unlike, say, helium — is as dense as the surrounding air. (Unless you're really full of hot air, I suppose….)"

Yes, sorry, I was thinking of helium filled balloons variously blown up. And reference to things like heat or density would be taken into account on more classical approaches.

"I am unaware of an early modern who was confused by driftwood."

I didn't mean to say driftwood as if they treated it specifically. I meant it as an example that would be counter-intuitive based on otherwise ordinary or general rules about gravity. Perhaps logs may have been a better example insofar as a log can be dropped and (as we'd expect) go downward but rise and find a level/balance in the water. Classical physics would likely have explained this in terms of the wood's being a kind of ratio between earth and air (or even further reduce to a kind of density and rarity, perhaps).

My primary point is only that the physics of the ancients wasn't anywhere near as bad as it is sometimes made out to be. It was almost too generally true but exactly so it managed to include all the wide possibilities of how a thing might move or behave in any number of real world circumstances: whether, say, in or through the air or water or whatever medium; and whether the movement was natural or violent.

Newton asks us to conceive of intertial, rectilinear movement as being basic and primary and then work from there. That's fine. But physically, in any such movement the thing moved will, e.g., gain and reach a maximum velocity - or does he ask us to believe that it will achieve and maintain its intertial speed instaneously? If so, it isn't clear why this should be treated as the most fundamental, basic or primary kind of movment - it certainly at least would seem rather more on the side of the extraordinary or exceptional. This wasn't a problem in at least Aristotle's account but it has ramifications for Newton's First Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton%27s_laws_of_motion).

Julian said...

"Hostile witness" is a very good way to put it. Traditional Christianity views nature as a theophany (Jn 1:3) and Romans 1:20. This aspect of nature is not accessible to the scientific method, which has in view the surface mechanisms, but not the essential or archetypal realities as they are found in the Logos. Philosophically, the Enlightenment view of nature is a metaphysical error.

Julian said...

Re: Matter is exactly as Aristotle described it: pure potentiality.

More exactly, the "matter" or "substance" of corporeal nature is pure "quantity" (materia signata quantitate). The substance of the subtle or animic degree of existence is not that of corporeal existence, nor is it that of the supra-formal or celestial degrees.

Also, "matter"--the passive support of corporeal existence--must not be considered in isolation from its complement "forma" (Gk. eidos), which is the active and essential or formative pole of existence. In a sense, the underlying error of modern science is to try to derive the explanation of things from quantity--from "below," as it were, rather than from "above," starting from the pole of essence or quality. The very nature of potentiality is that there nothing in it to be known--the materia secundas of the universe all participate in the "unintelligibility" of the universal substance, materia prima, which is pure potentiality.

Thus every existing thing or being is the product--or from another angle, the composite--of essence and substance. The sexes are a reflection of this pair, as is the symbolical pair "heaven-earth."

The duality Essence-Substance has its root in the ontological principle which, while being strictly one and uncompounded, nevertheless, as "seen from below," is as it were polarized into an active pole and a passive pole.

The word "form" has the disadvantage of pertaining to that which delimits a thing, while at the same time the term "forma" signifies its essential qualitative unity, that which is the intelligible aspect of the being or thing.

Medieval cosmology speaks of the universal soul, which is none other than the materia prima of the cosmos. It is to the "created Logos", the "Spirit of God," as Substance to Essence and as "materia" to "forma". Human individuals are distinguished by virtue of the Spirit, and are essentially united in it. (Jn.1:3 and also Jn.17:21). At the same time, individuals are substantially united in the world or universal soul, even while they are differentiated by virtue of their forms (since each individual soul is conditioned by form)--the substantial or plastic support of which is the universal soul. In a sense, the Spirit or "true Light in every man" is polarized in relation to every man, just as many bodies of water can reflect the one sun. However, the death of the body does not mean a reintegration into the Spirit, for it is the soul which individualizes the spirit, and the soul is immortal.

Geraden said...

I find Julian's comment interesting. I have been thinking for a while that (contrary to what I read in Feser, whom I much respect) soul is not the form of man. This is because man is individuated by the soul, as much as, or more than, by the body. But what individuates is not form, but matter. I have to conclude therefore that the soul is material – not of course in the sense that it is physical, but in the sense that it is made of something which is related to it as the matter of the body is to the body. Putting it crudely, the soul is 'made of' spirit. A couple of caveats: (1) we must not think of spirit as being quantitatively divided or composed of parts, as physical matter is. (2) this spirit is created spirit, to be distinguished from the uncreated Spirit of God.

Timocrates said...

@ Julian,

Very interesting post. Lots there to consider.

"The word "form" has the disadvantage of pertaining to that which delimits a thing, while at the same time the term "forma" signifies its essential qualitative unity, that which is the intelligible aspect of the being or thing."

While we are accustomed to thinking of form as that which delimits something and gives it structure (hence 'shape': form), I think we should also remember that any number of potentialities are caused by the form (or at least by the real composite).

We don't make houses a certain way or with a certain structure for just any old reason: the form itself facilitates its capacity to be a dwelling place also or causes it to be a fit human habitation. This is especially clear with obvious artificial instruments, say a saw. Its literal shape (form) isn't just anything but it has teeth and a handle and so forth (and we might ask here whether it is proper to think that we make, say, saws 'out of' handles or teeth?). While form certainly determines matter in a certain way, it doesn't necessarily only cancel or remove potential from the matter. The thing itself or the composite can and in the process does acquire new potentialities that are grounded also in the form and not only the matter or material. Like a cardboard box before it is folded/shaped (say a pizza box). Presumably the final end or goal in production has as it were its own reason (otherwise the last step, say, would be unnecessary or perhaps redundant).

Something similar can be seen with the development of organisms. Organisms do not develop in just any old way. They develop in fairly clear and distinct stages, gradually acquiring new capacities, which facilitate their acquiring still greater ones until we have an adult specimen.

Julian said...

The qualitative uniqueness of the individual person must be distinguished from his existential state of individuation. The latter proceeds from the substantial pole of existence, while the former is a "vertical" and essential reality, and therefore not a formal, but a spiritual, hence supra-formal reality.

In Paradise, the individual exists as such, but not as on earth. The Paradisal "matter" is transparent to the intellectual Light which transmits the essences within the unity and infinitude of Divine Reality, therefore Unity takes precedence over multiplicity in Paradise.

Julian said...

The materia of the soul depends on its degree of existence. Traditionally, earthly man is a tripartite being: body, soul, spirit. Thus his being participates in three different degrees of substance. When the body dies, the soul continues, as does its spiritual core, which is the spiritual light, the essence of his consciousness or intelligence--the "true Light..." The soul is thus the "subtle" or animic body, which animates the corporeal body during life. At death, this union is severed, and it is noted that as life leaves the body it begins immediately to grow cold and stiff, and--aside from the question of the charismas of certain saints--to decompose, while the organs of its sensible faculties no longer function. It is no longer "animated," as we say, or alive. At death the subtle faculties withdraw to their common center, and the soul acquires a new existential state--the quality and rank of which depends on a host of factors.

Thus, here on earth, the body participates in the corporeal substance, the soul in the animic or "subtle" substance, and the spirit in the spiritual substance. We are spontaneously aware that our mind, emotions, and the like are of another substance than the body; and similarly, we are aware that while the body and the soul change continually, there is that within us that does not change, and which, as it were is the motionless yet living witness of the body and the soul; this is the "Intellect," in the medieval sense of the term. It is the true knower in the human being, and thus it could not be the passive object of perception, any more than the eye can see itself.

It is the Intellect at the center of the human being which accounts for the capacity for objectivity, hence for truth and beauty, as well as for justice and compassion, which characterizes human intelligence. It is this light and power of the spirit--"the true Light which lighteth every man"--which pertains essentially to the immanent Logos, that both illumines and existentiates the individual being.

There is no need to wonder whether this "active intellect" (because its nature is the pure act of knowing) pertains to man or not. On the one hand it does, since it lies within him, and since the individual human being can, in principle, if not easily in fact, have access to its full radiance; on the other hand, since it derives or pertains to the "true Light," it pertains to the Logos, not to the individual. Its essence is not individual and human, but supra-individual and supra-human. The "reflective surface" of the soul seems to individualize the spirit, but in reality it is necessarily one and essentially impartite. The unity is purely "vertical," while the multiplicity is "horizontal"--as in the image of a previous post of the one sun and its multiple earthly reflections.

Timocrates said...

@ Mr. Green,

"Einstein wasn't equivocating, and it's plenty different; let's not get carried away."

Yes, he was; and no, it's no different, your emotional feelings about it notwithstanding. The opposition to Einstein's theories in the schools at the tim were crushed entirely by position and power and not by argument (the infamous contradictions in his theory are still easily found today).

Blabber about non-Euclidean geometry today is a consequence; as is blabber about gender being a social construct, which is a consequence of the U.S Supreme Court's decision that we had to allow homosexual activity be equivalent to natural human sexual activity. And the only reason that happened was because the LGBTQ lobby couldn't even win California. If democracy doesn't work, then legal sophistry forced on the masses.

Mr. Green, if you were around during Roe vs. Wade you'd be on of the people telling everyone there was simply no way tens of millions of our fellow citizens wouldn't exist today as a direct consequence of that decision. If in Einstein's day, you'd call people crazy for claiming the geometry would be reduced to a hypothesis rather than a fact.

You are, to be sure, on the side of the irresistible march of history.

Timocrates said...

@ Julian,

I post too much on this blog, which is proof that Dr. Feser is a very patient man I think. For that I have to thank him.

That being said, what you have posted is either pure genius or pure heresy. I doubt the latter option only because it could not convince the masses of God's simple faithful of anything. And I feel compelled to thank you for the consideration of the one sun being reflected on so many bodies of water. I am a natural son of Canada, and we are the land of endless lakes; and I have seen what you describe, and it makes me pause to think. That is a truly wonderful image.

Tony said...

Julian,

You sound much like a panentheist. Is that a fair estimate?

Medieval cosmology speaks of the universal soul, which is none other than the materia prima of the cosmos. It is to the "created Logos", the "Spirit of God," as Substance to Essence and as "materia" to "forma".

we are aware that while the body and the soul change continually, there is that within us that does not change, and which, as it were is the motionless yet living witness of the body and the soul; this is the "Intellect," in the medieval sense of the term.

I think that what you are calling "the medieval sense" is, at best, limited to SOME medievals. St. Thomas, for instance, definitively integrated "spirit" and "soul" with respect to man, such wise that it is (for him) impossible to speak of man's spirit in distinction from man's soul: the meaning of spirit with respect to man is that the soul of man is nothing other than the SPIRITUAL sort of soul, as opposed to the soul of animals which is not spiritual. See Summa Q 75. Angels, on the other hand, have a spiritual essence without corporeality.

Summa, Prima Pars Q 50: On the contrary, It is said (Psalm 103:4): "Who makes His angels spirits."

I answer that, There must be some incorporeal creatures. For what is principally intended by God in creatures is good, and this consists in assimilation to God Himself. And the perfect assimilation of an effect to a cause is accomplished when the effect imitates the cause according to that whereby the cause produces the effect; as heat makes heat. Now, God produces the creature by His intellect and will (14, 8; 19, 4). Hence the perfection of the universe requires that there should be intellectual creatures. Now intelligence cannot be the action of a body, nor of any corporeal faculty; for every body is limited to "here" and "now." Hence the perfection of the universe requires the existence of an incorporeal creature.


In this view, "spirit" is not that aspect of a creature that is unchanging. For St. Thomas (as for Aristotle), it is in virtue of the rational, spiritual, intellectual part that a man can come to know what he did not formerly know, e.g. because he formulates in the intellect a concept, i.e. a universal, that he did not earlier have in the intellect. This new form in the intellect informs the mind so that the man knows (immaterially) the thing of which the form thus abstracted is the formal aspect of its nature.

Now, I accept that there were in medieval times other theories of spirit, and of mind, but to characterize them generically as "the medieval sense" is a bit narrow, isn't it?

Tony said...

Angels, too, though wholly spiritual, are capable of change.

FuzzyBunny said...

Based on Dr. Feser's philosophic commitments, I assume that he is condemning modern skepticism and championing the general medieval trust in our senses.

But doesn't the success of modern science suggest that the moderns were right to be distrustful of our senses, and the medievals were wrong? Likewise, doesn't modern psychology, with its revelations of the human tendency towards groupthink, wishful thinking, confirmation basis, seeing patterns where none exist, etc, also suggest that we should be very skeptical of our faculties?

Obviously, complete skepticism is self-refuting, but might this epistemology turn towards skepticism be justified? I'd like to hear anyone's thoughts on this matter.

Timocrates said...

@ Fuzzy,

Firstly, cute name.

"But doesn't the success of modern science suggest that the moderns were right to be distrustful of our senses..."

Please don't conflate technology with modern science. I love the periodic table of elements for its pragmatic value but not because it is true; and modern science will tell you there are no atoms on the periodic table of elements. If you want to have a laugh, visit the Wiki article for the Nobel prize winning machine (the electron microscope) that claims to have finally proved the existence of atoms (and ignore the fact that the machine could only work if it had a needle that was so fine it culminated in a single 'atom', though of course before and without the electron microscope nobody could verify it actually did).

Henry Ford, contrary to the economic science of his day and ours, deliberately "over paid" his workers. We called that the middle class (RIP).

Cars got better all the time in certain respects but I assure you the people making them better didn't and don't care about Einstein, say, or any number of modern scientific theorists or their theories. Cars got worse because modern scientific economics encourages including deliberate design faults that shorten the life expectancy (so to speak) of cars. This should be criminal but it's not. Science has a rather tough time justifying basic ethics.

The wonderful bureaucrats at CERN are under the impression that matter is effectively pure potentiality. Most piously, they sometimes call it the God particle. But let's ignore that somebody already taught that 2,300 years ago - but curiously didn't think God was a particle.

Do you think, e.g., GPS is proof that science is awesome? The first GPS was invented in the Medieval ages. It's called the Astrolabe, and it still works today (and modified to include the Southern constellations and stars, would still work anywhere today).

And if science is so awesome, what the heck is up with cancer? Or any number of other diseases we have to suffer treatments for until we die (or die from)? Where are all the cures? How are we supposed to take credibly the belief we can penetrate into the very inner workings of matter itself but are still clueless how to deal with something like, say, cancer, even though countless billions have been given by the big heart of the American public into finding its cure, but to no avail? What exactly are our priests dressed "in surplice white"(1) doing with all that money?

1. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174352

Jeremy Taylor said...

Fuzzy writes,

But doesn't the success of modern science suggest that the moderns were right to be distrustful of our senses, and the medievals were wrong?

Surely, on its own it would prove (or perhaps suggest or hint might be better terms) that the modern were right if our absolute priority is the develop natural science and technology to the degree we have in the last few centuries. It wouldn't prove that being distrustful of our senses is a boon to knowledge in other areas of life, from ethics to metaphysics. Nor would it prove that such distrust is best for an overall balanced knowledge or wisdom leading to the good life.

Tony said...

But doesn't the success of modern science suggest that the moderns were right to be distrustful of our senses, and the medievals were wrong?...

Obviously, complete skepticism is self-refuting, but might this epistemology turn towards skepticism be justified?


Fuzzy, I don't that it works out that way. Seems to me that since EVERY SINGLE scientific experiment relies on reporting results to us through our senses, and USUALLY rely on reporting ultimately through very mundane, ordinary, COMMON sorts of sensory signals like a beep of a computer, a flashing light, or a printout, the reliability of our senses IN THE MAIN is just as important for modern science as it is for common sense and medieval philosophy. If we must gravely distrust our senses, then we must gravely distrust that we truly did get X results out of that experiment yesterday. How can this be avoided?

I will grant that it makes sense to temper our reliance on our senses with careful experiments and the wisdom gleaned from them. But that is an approach well within the hermenuetic of accepting the witness of our senses generally: for the purpose of the very BASIC level of learning that a baby undergoes during his first 3 years, nothing is more important than the baby having the freedom to bring multiple trials, and multiple senses to bear on a problem. Can't really tell what your eyes are reporting? Grab it, and put it in your mouth, and FEEL it. Do this over and over. Eventually, you will confirm by experimental process that things that LOOK round, under certain circumstances, usually feel round to the touch. And usually roll, unlike things that are square. You won't know the outer limits of those rules until much later, though - future experimentation needed. How is that in conflict with the methods of science that ask for caution in relying on senses?

One epistemological error of modern deep skeptics (even allowing your carving out the "complete" skeptics, which may not be feasible in the long run) is to regard the experimental results of modern science as a fundamentally different thing for epistemology purposes than the experimental results of using senses in testing the world as a baby or a child. (It is true that the "scientific" approach is to try to control for variation, but that's not the issue I am talking about.) Since the "scientific" experiment consists in reducing an event (usually not directly observable) to an OBSERVABLE event cleanly reportable by the senses, it cannot in principle be so fundamentally different as to justify the kind of skepticism you seem to refer to.

TheOFloinn said...

Besides, did not the Aristotelians distinguish between the proper sensibles and the common sensibles?

And the medievals were perfectly aware that sense impressions were not always to be accepted naively: that the heavens appeared to revolve around the earth was not evidence that they did in fact do so. The earth might rotate beneath a stationary heavens -- if only we can figure out why people aren't always staggering and there is no "Michelson-Morely" difference in wind directions.

Gyan said...

Weren't the ancients and medievals concerned more with "saving the appearances"
while Galileo was the first to say that the reality was like this in itself?
That the Earth really moved?
For medievals, astronomy was a mathematical exercise but Galileo turned it to astrophysics by insisting on the concrete reality of explanations.

Timocrates said...

@ Gyan,

Yes, the Medieval thinkers were sometimes wont to "save the appearances" but only insofar as appearances are real. Try imagining something white that is not white.

TheOFloinn said...

Galileo turned it to astrophysics by insisting on the concrete reality of explanations.

Yes, that the planets moved in perfect Platonic circles around the approximate center of the Earth's orbit, making use of about twenty epicycles, (i.e.,more than the current version of the Ptolemaic model!)

This was the one great consequence of the telescope: the discovery that the planets were physical places with physical properties, enabling astronomy to move from the math department to the physics department. (Relativity theory did much the same thing after Eddington's experiment on the bending of light.) But Galileo was not the only one using a telescope in those days and not the only one coming to that realization. No one tried to explain the motion of sunspots as a mathematical abstraction, even when they disagreed over whether they were clouds in the sun's atmosphere or moons orbiting the sun.

Another term for "save the appearances" is "fit the data."

sitc said...

@Timocrates the infamous contradictions in [Einstein's] theory are still easily found today

Could you elaborate? I didn't know there were contradictions in Einstein's theory of relativity.

Mr. Green said...

Timocrates: My primary point is only that the physics of the ancients wasn't anywhere near as bad as it is sometimes made out to be.

Oh, that is certainly true. To refer to an earlier question about why science in the 1700s was so successful, it was already successful before then, and was building on the shoulders of giants. Despite popular myths to the contrary, it was because of increasing knowledge and study during the Middle Ages that modern science was possible. I think this paper has been linked here before, but it's worth presenting again: Aristotle’s Physics: a Physicist’s Look


[...] If in Einstein's day, you'd call people crazy for claiming the geometry would be reduced to a hypothesis rather than a fact. You are, to be sure, on the side of the irresistible march of history.

If it's "irresistible", then I guess we all are. But you lost me there, to be honest. Einstein spoke quite acceptably about rest and motion in terms of physics; if you are talking about something else like the metaphysics behind it, or a conspiracy behind the Great non-Euclidean Power-grab, then you are welcome to make your case if you can — but linking that to Roe v. Wade is still quite a stretch. Nobody ever died from General Relativity (unless you are counting those unfortunate physics-textbook astronauts who keep falling into black holes).

Mr. Green said...

FuzzyBunny: Likewise, doesn't modern psychology, with its revelations of the human tendency towards groupthink, wishful thinking, confirmation basis, seeing patterns where none exist, etc, also suggest that we should be very skeptical of our faculties?

Just to be pedantic, I'll add that modern psychology didn't reveal any of those things: the Mediaevals were perfectly aware that people get things wrong for a variety of reasons, both physiological and psychological. We might understand more details today, but again, that's a result building on what came before.


TOF: I'm thinking there was a deliberate change in attitude. [...] So, the emphasis on quantitative and controllable efficient causes and scientists shifted in the main from art criticism to engineering.

And of course, this quantitative view of the world also preceded the success and popularisation of said view, so in many respects we ought to be tracing science back to those Middle-Aged Oxonians, the Merton Calculators. See also this excellent series by some chap called Mike Flynn: Summa origines scientiarum

Gyan said...

Stanley Jaki on Galieo and "saving the phenomena". From "Science for Catholics" in Catholic Essays, 1-3]

"On a cursory look it may be said, and unfortunately this has been done all too often, that the Church of Urban VIII and Bellarmine understood Galileo's science much better than Galileo did. Both those churchmen, and many others after them, took exception to the realism with which Galileo asserted the heliocentric ordering of planets. According to them the heliocentric theory, or any physical theory for that matter, was nothing more than a convenient ordering of data with no intrinsic bearing on reality.

Such a view, a rather agnostic one, about the relation of physical theory to the physical universe was already two thousand years old by the time Galileo was taken to task by his ecclesiastical judges. They were fully aware of the venerable ancestry of that view which received its first memorable formulation in Plato's Timaeus, where science, or rather scientific theory, is spoken of as a technique to "save the phenomena." In particular, the technique was understood to be a mathematical or geometrical formula which accounted for the succession of celestial events, such as the periods and relative positions of planets, with no pretension as to the cause or physical nature of those movements and bodies. The same ecclesiastics were also aware of the renewed popularity which that view of science enjoyed during the century preceding Galileo. The heliocentrists - Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo - were a distinct minority inasmuch as they asserted a one-to-one correspondence between a particular geometrical ordering of data and physical reality.

A little-noted consequence of the opposite or purely formalist majority view was that its proponents had to speak of the true knowledge of the structure of the universe as being the sole privilege of the Creator. Galileo did not misrepresent the convictions of Urban VIII, who granted him several private audiences around 1623, when half a dozen years later he put that agnostic view about the cosmos into the mouth of Simplicius, the representative of the Pope's views on physical science in Galileo's ill-fated Dialogue.

It was rather ironical that a purely formalistic and quasi-agnostic view about physical science (and by implication a quasi-agnostic view about the cosmos) should have been voiced by leading churchmen. Eager to please the fashionable philosophical skepticism inherited from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they failed to realize that the dogma of the Word become Flesh committed them to a thoroughgoing and universal realism. No less should they have been committed to that realism by the age-old Christian conviction that the entire visible realm or cosmos is a clear and compelling basis for the recognition of the Creator. To make the irony complete, it was Galileo and not Bellarmine who quoted Jerome and Augustine to the effect that biblical references to the sun's motion and to the earth's immobility may be a mere registering of appearances. Almost a hundred years after Luther, leading Catholic churchmen felt that they should battle him on grounds - biblical literalism - chosen by him. With such a strategy, theirs could only be momentary victories, at times Pyrrhic, but hardly the winning of the entire campaign."

TheOFloinn said...

Bellarmino, though he doubted one could be produced, did demand that Foscarini and others provide more than a mathematical demonstration that saved the appearances before he would ask theologians to revisit the interpretation of the Scriptures. Galileo could not go around insisting that Copernicus' model, with its twenty epicycles was physically real without producing physical evidence that it was in fact physically real. After all, Tycho's model and Ursus's model both produced the same results, so they had as much claim to physical reality.

There were two primary empirical stumbling blocks. If the earth rotated on its axis, there should be what we now call Coriolis effects. In particular, a ball dropped from a tower should fall slightly east of its plumb line. Such a deviation had not been detected. (Even years later, when Hook carried out the experiment at Newton's suggestion, no deflection could be measured.)

The second empirical objection was more serious and known to Aristotle: if the earth revolved around the sun, there should be parallax among the fixed stars and there was none. (The counter-argument that the stars were so far away that the parallax was imperceptible seemed desperate because it required an entirely new class of entities. Procyon and Saturn appeared to be the same diameter and brightness, so Procyon could not be much more than 100x the distance of Saturn without being bigger than the entire known solar system of the time. And the same for other stars. This seemed unparsimonious. You can't save one unproven hypothesis by adding in several others.)

That's why while Galileo had supporters among the churchmen, he was well-nigh universally opposed by the physicists of the time.

To deal with the objections, one needed new physics, not merely new astronomical mathematics. The first such was the physical observation of the phases of Venus by several astronomers within the same month, most notably by Galileo himself. This completely demolished the Ptolemaic model as physically real and folks flocked to the Tychonic or Ursine models instead. By the time Galileo wrote his famous book, both Ptolemy and Copernicus were out of the running, the former because of Venus, the latter because it was so badly wrong on the position of Mars. (This was because Mars has the most elliptical orbit of the easily observed planets and Copernicus (and Galileo) insisted on pure Platonic circles.) The real contest was between Tycho and Kepler, neither of whom comes under discussion.

The Coriolic deflection was detected empirically in the 1790s. The parallax was detected in 1803, and more definitively in the 1830s. The illusory nature of stellar diameters was discovered by Airy also in the mid-1800s. So it was at this time that the dual motions of the earth were definitively known to be empirically demonstrated. (And at this time that the Pope lifted the ban.)

Timocrates said...

@ Green,

No, I still say that Einsteinism equivocates between rest and motion. His motion of space-time does involve non-Euclidean "geometry." Further, it is not wrong at all to see how things like (as you brought up) abortion and finally (as I mentioned) gay marriage can follow from it. The point is that it is relativistic. Admit one absurdity and you have no grounds for refusing the rest that follow from it.

Einsteinism involves impossible contradictions as his contemporaries pointed out. The schools were purged of those in teaching positions who dared defy the new orthodoxy. That is historical fact.

Mr. Green said...

Timocrates: No, I still say that Einsteinism equivocates between rest and motion.

You can say it, but you'll have to explain in more detail what you actually mean, because I just don't follow. The mere involvement of non-Euclidean geometry cannot be a problem in and of itself.

The point is that it is relativistic. Admit one absurdity and you have no grounds for refusing the rest that follow from it.

No, the point is not at all that it is relativistic. (What else is a theory of Relativity going to be?) Everything is relative to other things, but that has nothing per se to do with abortion or same-sex "marriage". Again, you are being coy with the details, so it's hard to know just what you mean, but it seems to me that you are making the same mistake made by some people who try to defend these modern travesties:

1) If the Theory of Relativity is true, then everything is relative, and abortion, pseudo-marriage, etc. are defensible.
2) But the Theory of Relativity is true.
3) Therefore those things are defensible.

You just turn it around:
1) If the Theory of Relativity is true, then abortion, pseudo-marriage, etc. are defensible.
2) But those things are indefensible.
3) Therefore the Theory of Relativity is false.

But that premise is of course utter nonsense. Einstein never claimed anything so ridiculous as "everything is relative" (or any other equally inane variation on that theme); moreover, simply lifting a phrase from a technical theory of physics and applying it to social matters is completely illegitimate. The fact that some people, wittingly or unwittingly, have abused physics as an excuse to push for degeneracy just does not provide an argument against the physics itself, properly understood — even if the physics turned out to be wrong for some other reason.

The schools were purged of those in teaching positions who dared defy the new orthodoxy. That is historical fact.

Could you list some of the historical facts about these purgings so I know exactly what you're referring to? I'd also appreciate some specifics about what you mean by "impossible contradictions"; and what your explanation is for the empirical success of Relativity given its supposed "absurdity".

TheOFloinn said...

Relativity of inertial motion is a medieval thing. You can find it in Oresme, who cites Witelo.

Michael Benoit said...

'Surely, on its own it would prove (or perhaps suggest or hint might be better terms) that the modern were right if our absolute priority is the develop natural science and technology to the degree we have in the last few centuries. It wouldn't prove that being distrustful of our senses is a boon to knowledge in other areas of life, from ethics to metaphysics. Nor would it prove that such distrust is best for an overall balanced knowledge or wisdom leading to the good life."

So why is modern scientific skepticism warranted when it comes to scientific claims, but become the "skim milk fallacy" when it comes to non-scientific claims?

And if the moderns were right in this regard, isn't that a condemnation of the pre-modern (including Christian) worldview and a reversal of a claim put forward by some Christian apologists, namely, that rather than giving birth to science, Christianity's rejection of modern skepticism would have prevented, rather than facilitated, the development of modern science and technology?

I am especially interested in TOF's response to this, given his knowledge of the Scientific Revolution.

TheOFloinn said...

Let's not suppose that the medievals were naive regarding the senses. They were quite aware that the senses might be deceived for various reasons. In fact, they may have been more skeptical than the Early Moderns, who supposed "objective" properties were somehow not subjective, whereas the medievals supposed that both proper and common sensibles were alike processed through human perception. That's why medieval law courts required the testimony of two independent eyewitnesses.

For example, in Oresme's On the Heavens:
This is apparent in the fourth book of The Perspective of Witelo, [who says] that one can perceive movement only in such a way as one perceives one body to be differently disposed in comparison with another. ... if a person were in the heavens and it were posited that they were moved with a diurnal movement, and [furthermore] that this man who is transported with the heaven could see the earth clearly and distinctly ... it would seem to him that the earth was moved with a diurnal movement, just as it seems to us on the earth that the heavens move. Similarly, if the earth and not the heavens were moved with a diurnal movement, it would seem to us that the earth was at rest and the heavens moved. This can be imagined easily by anyone with good intelligence. For this [reasoning] is evident the response to the first experience, since one could say that the sun and the stars appear thus to set and rise and the heavens to turn as the result of the movement of earth and its elements where we are situated.
http://users.clas.ufl.edu/ufhatch/HIS-SCI-STUDY-GUIDE/0040_nicoleOresme.html

IOW, just because the heavens appear to be moving doesn't mean that they are. Maybe they are and maybe they aren't; but you can't tell from the fact alone. No fact is self-explaining. It always needs a framework within which it "makes sense," and it is always possible to devise more than one such framework. A. The heavens revolve around a stationary earth vs. B. The earth rotates beneath a stationary heaven. Does the iridium-rich layer at the K/T boundary indicate A. an ancient asteroid strike -- or B. the eruption of the Deccan Traps? Pierre Duhem gave an example of an experiment involving pressure in which, he points out, the selfsame results would actually be seen and understood in different ways by two physicists, one following the A. ideas of Laplace, the other following B. the ideas of Lagrange.

The Modern revolution was not the denial of the senses or the elevation of skepticism well-nigh to the level of nihilism. It was the extension of the clockwork metaphor to all of nature, the privileging of mathematics as the language of science, the distinction between the objective and subjective, the use of deliberate experimentation, to which I would add the development of instrumentation capable of measuring more accurately and precisely. A great deal of this was achieved in the egg during the 14th century, but went on the shelf after the Black Death. During the dark age of the Renaissance, very little was done in natural science (or anything else outside of art and architecture).

Not until the late 16th century were 14th century population levels recovered; meaning not until then were there as many minds once again engaged in natural science, sufficient to attain critical mass by spitting neutrons of ideas at one another. Only now with printing presses, they could do so at higher speeds than before!

Michael Benoit said...

TOF,

Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed response. Your argument to me seems to be that: the Medievals were no knaves, and were not gullible when it comes to trusting their senses, and that their pioneering work in science was interrupted by the Plague.

You seem to state that the difference in methodology between the moderns and the Medievals is not that one was more skeptical than the other, but rather that one assumed a mechanistic methodology and the other did not.

Does this mean that you disagree with Feser when he states that the moderns treated experience as a hostile witness, and the Medievals treated it as a friendly witness? I.e. both were about equally skeptical, but one was mechanistic and reductionistic and the other was not?

TheOFloinn said...

No, but one may have a friendly witness and still not swallow everything he says. He can still be mistaken. Or, when it comes to nature, we can misunderstand what nature is saying.

The medievals were the first to describe nature as a clockwork, but they were talking primarily about what we call physics. The moderns mistakenly extended the mechanical metaphor to biology and psychology. But physics (and chemistry) study units that are essentially identical and cannot talk back. That's why statistics works so well in thermodynamics, but economic models suck. In biology, no two petunias are ever quite the same, let alone two poodles or two people. So what you learn about one may or may not apply to the other. Even people otherwise skeptical of empirical evidence sometimes forget this.

Michael Benoit said...

In what sense are no two petunias ever quite the same?

TheOFloinn said...

One petunia might be a little taller or a little broader than another. The color and shape of its petals may differ (and remember that it may have more colors than human senses can see). Etc. Certainly, plants are not as individuated as animals. Fido and Rover differ far more. And there is always some question of what an individual plant is. There is an aspen grove in Colorado (iirc) named Pondo, in which every tree is growing from the same root network. There is a mushroom in Michigan (again, iirc) more than a mile in diameter of which the individual mushroom caps that poke through the ground are simply parts of the same organism. Plants definitely live in a different way than animals. But once identified properly, they are distinct in ways that two sodium atoms cannot be. Living forms are individuating.

Seamus said...

The discussion of the "skim milk fallacy" reminds me of how, in Stanley Donen's "Bedazzled" (1967), Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) tells the Devil (Peter Cook), "You're a nutcase! You're a bleedin' nutcase!" and when the Devil replies "They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud, and Galileo," Moon perspicaciously replies, "They said it of a lot of nutcases too."

laubadetriste said...

@Mr. Green: "In which case, one's suspicions might like to read this: The Swerve is really a full-frontal crash."

I realize I'm late to this party, but I wanted to add two other deservedly critical reviews of *The Swerve* to the one already mentioned:

LARB on Why Stephen Greenblatt Is Wrong — and Why It Matters.

Also, Tim O'Neil on Greenblatt's "abysmal and comically bad grasp" of Mediaeval history.

(Tim's two delightful blogs deserve to be acclaimed around here.)

@Seamus: 'The discussion of the "skim milk fallacy" reminds me of how, in Stanley Donen's "Bedazzled" (1967), Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) tells the Devil (Peter Cook), "You're a nutcase! You're a bleedin' nutcase!" and when the Devil replies "They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud, and Galileo," Moon perspicaciously replies, "They said it of a lot of nutcases too."'

"How did an argument so easily answered ever impose upon intelligent people? Easily. It was simply a matter of ensuring what Ludwig Wittgenstein (in another connection) called a one-sided diet of examples. Mention no past innovators except those who were innovators-for-the-better. Harp away endlessly on the examples of Columbus and Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno, Socrates and (if you think the traffic will bear it) Jesus. Conceal the fact that there must have been at least one innovator-for-the-worse for every one of these (very overworked) good guys. Never mention Lenin or Pol Pot, Marx or Hegel, Robespierre or the Marquis de Sade, or those forgotten innovators of genius to whom humanity has been indebted for any of the countless insane theories which have ever acquired a following in astronomy, geology, or biology. There is no weakness in the Columbus argument which cannot be more than made up for by a sufficiently tendentious choice of examples."--David Stove, "The Columbus Argument"