keskiviikko 14. marraskuuta 2012

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on the purposes of natural things (1724)

16th of March, 1938. Two uniformed men are walking through Vienna. They knock on a door and ask the housekeeper to let them in. Noting the telltale swastika on their clothes, she refuses to let them in – her employer has Jewish roots. The arguments grows louder, but then a voice is heard above: ”Watch out!” Pedestrians quickly disperse, and the body of a scholar of Novalis, obese cabaret actor and dilettante historian hits ground. Egon Friedell has died.

This story, told in a preface for Friedell's magnum opus, the three-part cultural history of modern age, awoke my interest to the book itself in my youth. Friedell is not viewed as particularly reliable source these days, but his style is memorable. He was an enthusiastic admirer of such great philosophers like Leibniz, Hegel and especially Kant, and it was Friedell who particularly made me fall in love with classical German philosophy.

This is the stuff that stories are made of. Without his grim death, I might never have read Friedell's books, thus, I might never had dedicated myself to German idealism and this blog might have never existed. The events have a distinct end which makes sense of everything leading to it and in a sense even justifies all the grim details. Such a chain of events makes one ask whether it might have been planned all along.

Such considerations drive teleological explanations, which purport to explain what happens through what derived of it. Of course, one might always suggest that such explanations reflect more our expectations than anything in the world, but the criticism can be argued against through the very same means – if we believe that there are purposeful events, then we will probably see them everywhere, but if we believe that there are no purposeful events, then we will describe apparent purposeful events as mere coincidences, even if they would really be purposeful.

It is apparent that at least human behaviour involves purposiveness, and thus it becomes as no surprise that I chose to begin this text with a reference to Friedell - I had a distinct purpose in my mind, when I did this. As it happens, Friedell was also my first source on Christian Wolff, whom Friedell ridicules as a philosopher obsessed with teleology: night exists so that we can sleep and fish, but Moon exists so that it wouldn't be too dark even at night. So far I had not yet found any corroboration of Friedell's characterization, but the current book,Vernünfftige Gedancken von den Absichten der natürlichen Dingen, is especially a work dedicated to teleology.

Nowadays it is thought a sound scientific methodology to avoid teleological explanations and idea of natural purpose, and therefore a whole book dedicated to teleology will probably appear ridiculous. Yet, teleological explanations might not be completely unscientific. Witness, for instance, Aristotle's Physics, which contains a reference to an end as one sort of cause. What Aristotle means is that when things are left to their own devices, they tend to move toward certain stable condition – for instance, a rock falls to the ground, where it will rest. Thing in a stable condition might not be completely inactive, in so far as their activities are stable: Aristotelian examples of such stable actions include recurring movement of stars and ongoing processes of living organisms. All in all, Aristotelian teleology might involve then nothing else, but a supposition of the existence of such stable conditions of things.

Wolffian teleology cannot be reinterpreted in a similar manner, because the supposed end of e.g. metals lies not in their own nature, but in their various uses in human culture. Instead, Wolffian teleology is essentially a technological undertaking – Wolff describes how we can use metals to produce kitchenware, weapons, scientific instruments and so on. This is nothing but applied science, we could say.

What goes beyond applied science is the assumption that things in general are useful for technological purposes – this in an attitude justified by Wolff's metaphysical theory of gracious, wise and powerful God. What appeared particularly unconvincing to Friedell in this attitude was the idea that humans especially are the central beings whom all other things should serve – even all the stars in the sky exist only to help navigation.

This apparent anthropocentricity is explained by a metaphysical assumption of Wolff – every object contains in a sense the whole world in itself, in other words, an individual is so closely interconnected with the world around it that neither could exist without the other. Thus, in a sense we could take any object of the world as its central or most essential object. For instance, we could view Earth as the most important place in the whole universe, but for equally good reasons also Jupiter or an arbitrary planet in the Andromeda galaxy fit the bill. In other words all things are both means and final purposes.

This principle of a reciprocal purposefulness allows Wolff to enlarge our knowledge beyond what we can immediately experience. If all heavenly objects and their occupants are final purposes, these objects must have the necessary means for fulfilling the purposes of the occupants – they must have oceans, an atmosphere etc. This is a place where Wolff clearly breaks the limits of the acceptable use of teleology, and as the moon landings have shown, there are heavenly objects that are very inimical to life.

(Well, unless the stories of moon landings weren't just clever government tricks meant to confuse people. We might passingly note how all conspiracy theories resemble a sort of negative teleology – the conspiracy theorist believes that all negative events are the result of an evil person with almost divine capacities. No wonder one favorite Moriarty of at least Christian conspiracy theorists is the Devil, who is apparently out there to make us all atheists.)

Wolff does also admit a more substantial centrality in teleology. Inorganic objects exist only as tools for organic objects, and furthermore, irrational organisms exist only for the sake of rational beings – human beings are at least the most essential entities on Earth. The most crucial question is undoubtedly then what these rational entities are supposed to do. According to Wolff, the main aim of the rational entities is to witness the existence of God and particularly his goodness, wisdom and power – he has the will to create the best possible world, he knows what it's like and then just creates such a world. Like a small child, the omnipotent God requires an audience to praise his achievements, we might ironically say.

So much for teleology, next time we shall see whether Wolff's philosophy can hold on against a thorough attack.

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