Baroque Cycle of Neal Stephenson contains a lovely scene portraying a typical meeting of the Royal Society. A number of curios and weird phenomena are presented to the audience without any regulated order – one members tells a story of fying fishes living in some oceans, another describes a neat trick with a vacuum pump, while third has just developed differential calculus.
Although such a motley of topics seems chaotic, it reveals what has truly captivated the hearts of men for science – it is the extraordinary that interests us. Consideration of curiosities has for long been a part of science – there is even a pseudo-Aristotelian book Problems, which is nothing more than a collection of what the author considered weird and proposed explanations for these dilemmas. Nowadays weird has been used for good measure in popularisation of science – for instance, in the show Mythbusters dealing with such age-old problems as whether cars truly explode when driven off cliffs.
Versuch einer gründlichen Erläuterung der merckwürdigsten Begebenheiten in der Natur, wodurch man zur innersten Erkenntnis derselben geführet wird is a similar collection of curios, written by Ludvig Philip Thümmig, whom we have already met as an editor of a book of Wolffian essays. Here we finally see some of Thümmig's own work, as he ponders such scientific problems as why a boy sees everything double, why animals with two bodies combined are sometimes born, why some trees grow from their leaves and why does gravity work in different grades across the globe – Thümmig's solution to this question convinced at least his mentor Wolff, who mentions it in his own book on natural science, Vernünfftige Gedancken von den Würckungen der Natur, which is also the second book I am considering this time.
While Thümmig's book is a haphazard motley, Wolff does not fail to give us a work with systematically arranged topics. Here Wolff is once again just following a far older tradition. The nameless collector of the works of Aristotle arranged his books on nature in the following order: first came books on the general principles of natural world, then followed books on the cosmos in general and the heavens in particular, after which came books on atmospheric phenomena and earthly objects, while the story finished with books on living nature. This formal scheme was so well thought out that even Hegel essentially followed it in his own philosophy of nature. Thus, it is no wonder that Wolff himself applied this often used model of natural science.
In his natural science or physics Wolff is quite reliant on empirical information and rarely wonders from presenting the conclusions of the science of his time. One exception where Wolff's physics comes in contact with his metaphysics is the description of animal sensation, where Wolff reminds us of the Leibnizian idea of pre-established harmony: while human bodies go through certain changes in their sensory organs, their souls have corresponding sensations, although bodies and souls do not interact with one another.
A more detailed crossing of physics and metaphysics occurs in the very beginning of the work, in the description of the physical objects as complex substances. An important conclusion of this definition is according to Wolff that all the properties of the complex should be derived from the properties of its constituents and the spatiotemporal structure according to which these constituents have been combined - I have called this the lego-block view of the world. Although seemingly innocent, endorsing this view leads Wolff to some substantial consequences.
Observations suggest that there are some peculiar properties that are difficult to explain through mere spatiotemporal structure of things – for instance, the characteristic of objects gravitating toward the nearest big collection of matter or the property of warmth. Now, if these characteristics are not explainable through the spatiotemporal form of the bodies, it must be explained through the constituents of them – that is, there must be types of matter that cause gravitation or warmth.
The assumption of special matters was not a peculiarity of Wolff, but a common occurence at the time, and even Hegel commented on this habit of scientists. One just saw a peculiar phenomenon – certain kinds of metal attract or repel one another – which was explained by assuming a new type of matter, in this case magnetic matter. While the notion of caloric or heat matter and similar properties as matters sound rather quaint, we should not assume that such reification of properties is non-existent nowadays. One just has to open a book on particle physics to learn about photons or particles of electro-magnetism, glueons or the particles holding the nucleus of atoms together and perhaps even gravitons causing gravitation.
Physicists may well have good reasons for such reification in these cases, but taken to its extremes it will lead to the philosophical theory of tropes – all general properties are actually individual things, like this redness, this sweetness, this roundness. The individual things are then just mere conglomerate of these tropes – for instance, the three tropes of particular sweetness, redness and roundness combine to form a particular strawberry.
The setback of trope theories is that it is difficult to see how all properties could be reified. For instance, do not the tropes themselves have properties, such as being a trope? Is this then supposed to be yet another trope? Furthermore, a trope theorist has difficulties explaining how to account of our thinking about universals. Redness of this particular strawberry should in trope theory be completely different from redness of this particular flag – how can then we describe both of them as red? If we suppose that the two tropes are connected by being similar in some manner, we face yet another dilemma – isn't the similarity yet another property?
So much for the physics of Wolffians. Next time I shall discuss the first of many atheism controversies to come.