keskiviikko 31. heinäkuuta 2013

Reduction of physics

At least since Aristotle's Posterior analytics, mathematics has been the model of science, in which everything should be deduced from self-evident axioms and definitions. Indeed, mathematics was quite long considerably more advanced and certain than any other field of research. It is then no wonder that Descartes tried to fit physics and especially mechanics into this model. Even more, he suggested that basic laws of mechanics could be derived from mere geometrical considerations: after all, matter was defined by extension, so the characteristics of the motion of matter should be reducible to the extensional characteristics of matter, such as size and velocity.

What Descartes had failed to take into consideration was that the nature of matter is not exhausted by its extension and that it cannot be identified with mere space. Thus, one had to take into account also the mass of bodies, when considering e.g. how two bodies behaved in a collision. Recognizing this made it a necessity to empirically observe the actual movement of bodies and to look for regularities that could be generalized from these observations. Inconsistently, such studies were still often called mathematical and even a semblance of mathematical deduction was upheld.

Followers of Leibniz in Germany were more aware of the inability to reduce physics to mathematics. Hence, we see Christian Wolff admitting that his cosmological considerations had an empirical basis and that reliable experiences in general must supplement the inabilities of human understanding. In light of the empiricist tendencies of Wolff, it is interesting to see that Bilfinger supposed that it might be possible to derive basic laws of physics apriorically. I do not think Bilfinger is necessarily going against Wolff, but merely explicating the Wolffian position from a different angle: true, in practice we must use empirical method, but in principle we should be able to use deduction.

Bilfinger still doesn't advocate a return to supposedly geometrical demonstrations of Descartes. Instead, he supposes laws of physics should be derived from metaphysics. In other words, Bilfinger doesn't want to state that physical laws would be necessary like laws of logic and mathematics. Instead, they are based ultimately on the decision of God. According to the Wolffian position, God has created the best out of all the possible worlds. Hence, all the laws that the world follows must also be as perfect as they could be – and if we knew what is objectively best, we could know the laws chosen by God.

What Bilfinger's position makes clear is the contingency of physical laws. Specifically, the creator of the laws still holds the power to suspend these laws for a limited period and place. In common parlance such local suspensions of laws are called miracles. In effect, Bilfinger is saying that miracles are possible and that God has power to make them – another defense of Wolff against suggestions of atheism.

So much for physical laws, next time I shall deal with the difference between intuitive and symbolic cognition.

tiistai 30. heinäkuuta 2013

Philosophical dilucitations on God, human soul, world and general affects of things (1725)

Georg Bilfinger hasn't really struck me thus far as an original thinker, and indeed, many of his writings have been mere summaries of theories belonging to other philosophers. Hence, I did not have high expectations of Bilfinger's metaphysical work, Dilucidationes philosophicae de Deo, anima humana, mundo, et generalibus rerum affectionibus. In fact, the very first pages felt very familiar: the division of metaphysics into ontology, cosmology, psychology and natural theology has been used already by Wolff, and even many of the doctrines readily reveal the philosophical allegiances of Bilfinger. Because Wolff's other student, Thümmig, had already latinized Wolff's philosophy, Bilfinger's motives for publishing his own work appeared confusing.

Even so, Bilfinger's work feels somewhat more substantial presentation of Wolffian philosophy than Thümmig's summaries, and surprisingly, often manages to round even the discussions of Wolff himself. One clear reason is Bilfinger's habit of expounding opinions of previous thinkers, which was something sorely lacking in Wolff's texts. This does not make Bilfinger's work a mere redundant repetition of familiar ideas, but allows him to engage in a fruitful philosophical discussion. Bilfinger was a man of compromises, and Kant later adopted in his early work Bilfinger's suggestion that one should always try to reconcile opposing views by finding out what is good in both of them.

Good example of Bilfinger's abilities is his theorizing on modalities, that is, notions of possibility, impossibility, necessity and contingency. While Wolff was content with just one definition of e.g. possibility, Bilfinger starts with several definitions and notices interesting relations between them. In addition to Wolffian definition that possibility means lack of self-contradiction, Bilfinger considers the explication that possibilities are something inherently potential in other things. This second notion of possibility is clearly dependent on actuality in the sense that nothing could be possible in this sense, if there were nothing actual: there couldn't be any potential, if we had no source for such a potential.

Now, Bilfinger notes rather ingeniously that if some preconditions hold, the two notions of possibility coincide. Clearly, potentialities must also be non-contradictory. Furthermore, if we have an entity with infinite powers, it will obviously have the capacity to produce anything that is not inherently contradictory: thus, the extension of the two concepts of possibilities coincide. Bilfinger can so explain reasonably why e.g. Wolff did not notice or at least ignored the crucial distinction: he accepted the existence of God and did not therefore need to consider the second form of possibility.

Just like possibility is not a single concept for Bilfinger, similarly impossibility isn't either. Of course, there is the absolute impossibility of contradictions like round square, but there's also contextual impossibility, where a certain thing or person is incapable of doing something. Furthermore, this incapacity might be proper or due to a lack of power, but there are also important cases of improper incapacities. Firstly, Bilfinger thinks that the general incapacity to change past is an improper incapacity: it's just the nature of past to be completely determined. Secondly, an even more important type of incapacity concerns moral issues. Thus, God could well have created quite a horrible world, full of torture and grief, in the sense that he has the necessary power for doing this, but because of his infinite goodness, he doesn't have the moral possibility for doing this – a distinction clearly influenced by the need to defend Wolff against the suspicion of determinism.

It is in making these clarifications and in pointing interesting problems where Bilfinger's worth really lies. Some of these are familiar already from Wolff, like Bilfinger's notion that a sufficient reason does not need to necessitate an action, because of the freedom of agents, or his idea that imperfection might be just contextual. I shall thus proceed by picking up one important point in all of the four major divisions in Bilfinger's work. As I've already noted an important ontological statement of the plurality of the concepts of possibility, I shall next time plunge in cosmology and ask what sort of validity physical laws are supposed to have.

lauantai 27. heinäkuuta 2013

Reasonable thoughts on the use of parts in humans, animals and plants (1725) and Singular phenomenon of fruit-bearing apple recalled all the way from blossoming to physical reasons (1727)

Wolff's physical writings continue: a book on general physical processes and another book on the purposes of physical processes are followed by a book concentrating specifically on biological questions, Vernünfftige Gedancken von dem Gebrauche der Theile in Menschen, Thieren und Pflanzen.

As we have seen earlier, biology and especially botanic was a topic Wolff himself had empirically investigated. It is then no wonder that the book feels quite professional and up-to-date, even if Wolff cannot yet know e.g. how leaves actually nourish plant in their interaction with carbon dioxide: it is enough that he can describe leaves and their parts and understands that they have something to with the nourishment of plants. Wolff goes carefully through all parts of human body, beginning from different types of fibers – the smallest elements of living matter known at that time – and all organs made out of these elements, and if necessary, he compares parts of human body with parts of other animals. After humans and animals, similar treatment waits plants.

What is somewhat striking is Wolff's open attitude towards even the most taboo questions of human bodies, particularly sexuality. Description of sexual organs was frowned upon, because reading about genitalia was thought to incite people to perversities. Wolff, on the other hand, thinks that information about sexuality will help a person to fulfill sexual needs in a moral manner: you cannot do something properly, if you don't know the reasons for it. Interestingly, Wolff is aware of the role of clitoris in female sexuality and thinks it has been created for awakening in women the want of intercourse - a necessary precondition of having children. Wolff also suggests that sexual pleasure is especially meant to encourage women to want sexual intercourse: otherwise they might refrain from it, because they feared the burden of child birth.

As it should be evident, Wolff is not satisfied with mere description of living beings, but is also concerned to find the reason why God created them in the first place. The answer is actually familiar already from Wolff's teleology: humans and other rational entities exist in order to witness the glory of creation, and other things, including living entities, are meant to serve rational beings and their needs.

Wolff adds to this general description of the purpose of animals and plants two interesting details. Firstly, while Wolff's official teleological account of the world is an example of what later was called external teleology (things have a purpose beyond themselves), he also notes that animal and plant species could also be regarded as having an internal purpose that does not require reference to things beyond that species. Wolff suggests that this internal purpose would be propagation of species: animals and plants exist to produce other plants and animals of the same type. Thus, from the viewpoint of a certain plant, it is contingent that we use its flowers for medicinal purposes, but on the other hand, it is relevant that the flower produces seeds.

Secondly, Wolff also adds an aesthetic layer to his teleology. That is, he suggests that God does not just create purposive animals and plants, but that God's creations are also beautiful or pleasing to senses. Wolff especially emphasizes the symmetricity of animals as an evidence of their beauty: it just looks better if I have two ears equidistant from the center of the face and not, for instance, one on left hand and other on stomach.

Philosophically most interesting part of Wolff's biology are the little details that shed some more light on the question of the interaction of soul and body. Wolff refrains from the central question, whether and how soul and body interact, on the pretext that this is more of a metaphysical than biological problem. Yet, he points out that the problem concerns actually the interaction between the soul and the brain, which then controls the rest of the body. The exact details of this control are still not known to Wolff. Wolff is aware of nerves, but he doesn't really know how they work, so he must rely on Cartesian idea that there are some mysterious animal spirits that help nerves turn volitional movements of brain into movements of muscles, although instead of spirits, Wolff prefers the more material concept of nerve juice.

Before ending this post, I shall just quickly note that Wolff was actually more involved with biological studies at this time, because in a few years he published an inaugural dissertation celebrating his new post at the university of Marburg, Phaenomenon singulare de malo pomifera absque floribus ad rationes physicas revocatum, which is based on the botanical research of Wolff and his follower Thümmig.

So much for Wolff's biology. In next post, I shall investigate a Wolffian we have already met a number of times, tackling now metaphysics.