keskiviikko 20. helmikuuta 2013

Christian Wolff: Remarks on Reasonable thoughts on God, the world and the human soul, also on all things in general - Fragments of empirical psychology

It is especially in Wolff's comments on empirical psychology where his wish to show the usefulness of his theories becomes evident. Wolff emphasizes that he has especially found two different types of faculties in human mind: cognitive and volitional. The study of cognitive capacities should generally help to improve our mental capacities and particularly help us to find a proper methodology for science. Wolff makes here some barbed strikes against Lange's Mental medicine, which he dismisses as a useless piece of charlatanry that wouldn't help anyone know anything.

Wolff's strategy for improving cognitive capacities is based on his attempt to quantify all mental capacities: capacity of memory can be quantifies by the number of new things a person can hold in his mind at the same time etc. On this quantitative basis Wolff can then make such useful recommendations as that capacities of concentration are improved in the morning, when there are still less distractive stimuli. Wolff's quantification goes in some cases further than with some previous philosophers. For instance, while Descartes thought that all people have an equal light of reason, Wolff states that this light varies according to natural capacities.

The aim of the education of cognitive capacities is to make one's ideas more distinct, that is, analysed. Although Wolff does define sensations in terms of distinctness, this does not mean that he would want to base science in some non-empiricist manner, which has become increasingly clear. Indeed, Wolff merely suggests that we should continue to analyse or conceptualize our individual sensations and so transform them into experience. Wolff thus wants to say that experience is something more than mere sensation: in a somewhat rasist comment Wolff even says that Hottentots, Lapponians and Samoyeds don't really have reliable experiences, although they undoubtedly sense things. The conceptual analysis of sensations turns them into experiences, which then can act as basis of scientific axioms.

Wolff appears to admit that the cognitive capacities of human mind are in some sense unfree. This is clear with sensations: we cannot choose that we'll see green, when we focus our gaze on a certain piece of grass. Furthermore, in case of conceptual reasoning there are also certain restrictions: if we are following a line of reasoning, the conclusion isn't haphazard, but follows from the premisses, perhaps true some psychological necessitation.

In contrast, Wolff emphasizes that human will is definitely free and capable of undetermined choice – an answer to the accusation of Wolff being a determinist. As we saw earlier, Wolff suggests that a person cannot will to do something he is not motivated to do, but that he can emphasize some motivation over the others. True, even the volitional part of human mind can become unfree, if mind is slave to its own affections. Still, this state of slavery does not prevent the possibility of a truly free action. Indeed, it is just such a task of becoming as free as possible that makes the study of volitional part of the mind important for morality and ethics.

Next time I'll turn to Wolff's comments on cosmology.

maanantai 11. helmikuuta 2013

Christian Wolff: Remarks on Reasonable thoughts on God, the world and the human soul, also on all things in general - Fragments of ontology

It's hard to do commentary on another commentary – you are twice removed from the real meat of the problematic, and because the commentary itself has no clear organisation, there usually is no guiding thread to connect the various points. Thus, after reading the chapter on ontology I was left with mere crumbs that by themselves would not have the required length of a blog post. Still, I didn't want to make the time spend with Wolff's commentary go to waste, so I present some of these crumbs in a fragmentary fashion.


One key point in the atheism dispute has been the notion of modalities: if Wolff says that events in the world are hypothetically necessary, doesn't this make his theory Spinozistic? Wolff's consideration of modalities here reveals his own belief – Wolff has to define modalities in this manner to avoid Spinoza's fatalism. That is, Spinoza could say only that possibility means something that has existed, will exist or does exist, which would make all possibilities become actual someday. Wolff's definition of possibility as non-contradictoriness allows the extension of possibility to be larger than the extension of past, present and future actuality. Thus, the only truly necessary thing for Wolff is God, who has no external cause, while other things require some previous cause for their actualisation. Interestingly, the tide of philosophy was to go backwards. What is true sense of possibility and necessity for Wolff, will be disparaged by Kant as a mere formal notion of modalities, while the mere hypothetical necessity and possibility in a world of Wolff are raised to the status of real or ontologically substantial modalities by Kant.


Connected with the Wolffian theory of modalities is his notion of essences, which he clarifies in his commentary through a helpful simile: if I want to determine what a triangle is like, I need to only determine its essence, that is, two of its sides and the angle between them, because the rest of the triangle is determined through these measures. Unexpectedly, this very same example occurs in Hegel, when he explains how the sensuous side of a thing (say, a triangle) contains lot of surplus material that could be summarized through a lot simpler structure (in this case, through the three quantities). I suspect that Hegel didn't bother to read that much Wolff, so the coincidence is even more surprising.


Wolff's nominalism is a feature I did not emphasize the first time around: he explicitly says that universals or genera and species are mere summaries for similarities between things (A and B are both ostriches  because they resemble one another and all the other ostriches . An interesting question is then how the similarity is to be defined, and in general, how things are distinguished from one another. Now, in some places Wolff appears to admit at least the possibility or conceivability that two spatially separated individuals of the same species might be identical in every other respect, thus going against Leibnizian principle of the identity of indiscernibles. Then again, Wolff also subscribes to the definition of individuals as fully determinate in comparison to incompletely determined universals – we noted in case of Thümmig that this definition appears to naturally lead to the Leibnizian principle, because two distinct individuals couldn't on account of this definition be completely similar, because they would then belong to a genus defined by all their characteristics – contradiction, because this genus would then be a completely determinate universal. One possible solution might be that the complete determination of individuals would not consist of mere qualities, but also of quantitative and spatial determinations. Indeed, Wolff says ambiguously that individuals are determined by what we can perceive in them, which might include also their position in space.


Next time it's on to psychology!

tiistai 5. helmikuuta 2013

Christian Wolff: Remarks on Reasonable thoughts on God, the world and the human soul, also on all things in general - Causality vs. indeterminism?

One of the most outrageous bits of Wolff's metaphysics was his apparent attempt to deduce principle of sufficient reason from the principle of non-contradiction. Some readers have even declared that Wolff has thus Leibnizian distinction between logical and empirical truths: Leibniz said that logical truths were based on the principle of non-contradiction and empirical truths on the principle of sufficient reason, so Wolff's deduction apparently showed empirical truths to be logical. This is clearly a mistaken reading, because Wolff still accepts the Leibnizian distinction and use of the two principles as criteria. Indeed, Leibniz had merely said that logical truths were necessarily true, because their opposites were contradictory, while the empirical truths require some previous explanation and were thus not necessary. Wolff just added that the latter criterion was itself necessarily true and in need of no further explanation.

Although Wolff's proof of the principle of sufficient reason does not reduce all truths into logical truths, the proof itself was rather unconvincing and based on a very ontological reading of the principle of non-contradiction. Now, Wolff apparently felt the need to justify the principle once again.

First of all, Wolff notes that actually the principle as such requires no proof, because no philosopher and indeed no human being would truly doubt it – or at least if someone says he doubts, he is still bound to use the principle unconsciously, when asking causes of events and motives of actions. I already noted that Wolff had used in the original book a strategy where the principle of sufficient reason was justified as a necessary presupposition of us having coherent experience. Here Wolff is then suggesting that the principle is somehow natural to human mind. Both strategies have a Kantian feel, especially if one combined them: we couldn't have experience without using the principle of sufficient reason, thus, the principle must be ingrained in us.

Still, there is a difference. While Kant apparently speaks determinedly of causality as a necessary presupposition of experience, Wolffian ground is something in thing A that explains something else in thing B, where A and B might be also the same thing. Examples Wolff uses clearly show that in addition to causal influences he is also thinking of motives as possible grounds. Wolff is thus not saying that ”every event has a cause” would be true of all experience, but instead the more general statement ”every event either has a cause or is a motivated action”.

Wolff also explains his original proof of the principle through the simile of scales: if two sides of the scales are evenly balanced, the scales does not tip to either direction, and if the scales do tip, something must have been added or taken away to change the balance. In effect, this simile confirms my interpretation of the proof: the different possibilities, as it were, compete with one another for the chance of actualisation and because of their opposition, they would remain eternally in a state of null actuality, unless something came and changed the scales in favour of one possibility. What appears different in Wolff's new account is the admission that in case of human actions grounds or motivations might not completely determine the action: human being has still the opportunity to choose what motive he is going to emphasize – we shall later see what effects this admission has on Wolff's psychology.

Wolff also presents a completely new line of defense for the principle. In essence, he outlines three possibilities: firstly, the principle of sufficient reason might hold always, it might hold never, or it might hold sometimes, but not always. Somewhat hastily, Wolff concludes that the second option cannot be true, because experience tells us that at least some events have had a preceding ground (remember that Hume's criticism of causality was still to come). How about then the third possibility? Wolff suggests that if there were no possibility to actually say when something has a ground and when not, then we would actually land back to the second possibility. Thus, there must always be ground telling whether there is a ground or not – and then we are actually in the first option that the principle holds in all cases.

Wolff's argument is based on his fault of not underlining yet another form of ”ground”. This ground is more of an explanation based on ”form” or structure of events: just like we can justify the proposition that a figure has angles adding up to 180 degrees by its being triangle, similarly events might have some structural features that either make the principle to apply them or not. Indeed, Wolff has not managed to justify the principle, but he has noted the possibility of a third ontological position between full determinism and full indeterminism, which we might call restricted or controlled indeterminism. That is, if we do not want to admit that all events are deterministically caused, we do not have to take everything to be indeterministic, if we suppose that indeterminism applies only within some restricted area of events, which does not hinder the determinism outside this area. This possibility seems interesting, firstly, because it appears to fit in with current state of physics (the area would have to be defined in terms of e.g. size of entities involved). Secondly, it might even be compatible with Kantian notion of deterministic causality as a presupposition of experience, that is, indeterministic causality might not hinder the possibility of experience, if it was restricted to some area that was a) rarely seen in experience and b) controlled in the sense that effects in that area would have no real effect outside that area.

So much for the principle of sufficient reason, next time I'll wrap up with Wolff's comments on the rest of ontology.