Tuesday, January 31, 2006



If I say that religious dogma and philosophy make a bad mix, perhaps only a few will feel inclined to quarrel with what I say. If I go on to say that science and philosophy make an equally bad, or even – if that is possible – a worse mix, hordes will pick up the readiest weapon to hand to assault me. So be it; I will not be terrorized! I will support the first proposition by a couple of illustrations from one, and the second by a couple of illustrations from two, of the most prominent Plato scholars in the twentieth century.
In his classic Plato: The Man and His Work (1926), A. E. Taylor, speaking of Socrates' life-mission, writes, "His function is simply to impress on all and sundry the misery of the state of ignorance in which they find themselves 'by nature' and the importance of 'coming out of it.' How a man is to come out of this state of nature is not explained anywhere .." (p.28). I find this strange coming from a scholar as immersed in Plato as Taylor was. What could he mean by ascribing to Socrates the thought of a state of ignorance in which we find ourselves 'by nature' when every student of the Socratic discourses can see that Socrates' most unshakable conviction was that the remedy for this state of ignorance is within us, that we have only to look into ourselves, within our own minds, to find the understanding we need? And how could he so confidently assert that how "to come out of this state of nature is not explained anywhere" when we know that Socrates had made it his sole business in life to exhort young and old, foreigner and citizen, to tend their souls, to cultivate virtue, to exercise reason, all of which was, for Socrates, truly one thing and the one way to come out of the state of ignorance?
How could he? Well, in a footnote appended to the words asserting that the way out of this state of nature "is not explained anywhere" Taylor says, "Naturally not. An answer to this question would raise the issue covered in Christian theology by the doctrine of 'grace.' We must not look for an anticipation of Augustine in Hellenic moral philosophy." For all his tremendous scholarship, Taylor misreads Socrates' position because he reads it through Pauline-Augustinian glasses, and so sees 'original sin' at the root of the ignorance that Socrates sought to dispel by reflection, and replaces the gnôthi sauton with 'grace' dispensed by divine will.
Commenting on this first passage from A. E. Taylor has taken more space than I had anticipated and so I will forgo commenting on another passage from the same source. I will merely make the bald statement that, in my view, Taylor's interpretation of the Phaedo is completely vitiated by his reading too much of his own Christianity into the thought of Socrates. I will not defend this audacious contention here, but if I may be permitted this much arrogance I would invite the reader to compare Taylor's treatment in Chapter VIII and mine in "Excursions into the Dialogues of Plato: IV. The Meaning of the Phaedo" (now included in Plato: An Interpretation as chapter 5).
I now go on to the more paradoxical of the two statements I began with: science and philosophy make an equally, or even a worse, mix.
I will illustrate this by looking into Newton's concept of power or force and examining the comments of two latter-day scholars of the highest merit – F. M. Cornford and H. D. P. Lee – on Plato's approach to the concept.
To the scientists' childlike interest in the curiosities of the phenomenal world we owe all the gifts and comforts of our material civilization. I am not a Cynic, am not living in a tub, and do not grudge scientists the gratitude and admiration rightly due to them. But the astounding successes of science in the practical sphere have made, perhaps not the scientists themselves, but the common run of humankind, including the professors of philosophy who should have known better, claim for science what is truly beyond its reach.
In his prefatory note to Republic 528e-530c introducing the study of astronomy, Cornford writes, "Some Pythagoreans called [astronomy] 'Sphaerics,' since it dealt with the motions of the heavenly bodies considered as perfect spheres moving in perfect circles: there was no question of physical forces causing the movements" (p.246).
Desmond Lee, in the Introduction to his translation of the Timaeus and Critias (Penguin Classics) takes Plato to task for assuming that motion needed a force to cause it. "He lived in a world where there were no machines, in which there was little wheeled transport, and in which such concepts as velocity, mass, or acceleration were not and could hardly be understood" (p.12).
Well, I flatly deny that there is anyone on earth who understands 'such concepts as velocity, mass, or acceleration'. These concepts are tools that scientists employ to predict and to manipulate happenings in nature. In support of my bold claim, I will produce no less a witness than Isaac Newton.
Newton bases his Principia on a number of definitions and axioms. Among the definitions we find: "The quantity of force arises from and is measured by a combination of velocity and quantity of matter." Newton speaks of quantity of force and its measurement: not a single word about what force is. Among the axioms we have: "Every body continues in its state of rest or of moving uniformly in the same direction except in so far as it is compelled to change that state by impressed force." The definitions and axioms were neither observable facts nor deducible truths. Their only merit was that they could be worked into formulae that gave fairly correct calculations of the movement of bodies, terrestrial and celestial. The great Newton knew exactly what he was doing. In the Principia he writes: "Hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses." More revealingly, in a letter to Bentley he writes: "That gravity should be innate, inherent, and essential to matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum … seems to me a great absurdity." (Quoted by Preserved Smith, The Enlightenment, p.47.)
Newton understood well – far better than many professional philosophers — that his great scientific work did not provide answers to philosophical questions. True, Newton indulged in philosophizing of a sort. His philosophy was as bad as his science was good, because in handling philosophical questions he did not do so philosophically but borrowed his views from institutionalized religion without question, but, to his credit, did not mix his science and his philosophy.
I quote at some length the following excerpts from Whitehead's Process and Reality because they convey what I want to say, in the words of someone qualified to speak of Newton as I am not:
"The Timaeus of Plato, and the Scholium of Newton … are the two statements of cosmological theory which have had the chief influence on Western thought. To the modern reader, the Timaeus, considered as a statement of scientific details, is … simply foolish. But what it lacks in superficial detail, it makes up for by its philosophic depth. If it be read as an allegory, it conveys profound truth; whereas the Scholium is an immensely able statement of details which … can within certain limits be thoroughly trusted for the deduction of truths at the same level of abstraction as itself. The penalty of its philosophical deficiency is that the Scholium conveys no hint of the limits of its own application. … It is the office of metaphysics to determine the limits of the applicability of such abstract notions.
"The Scholium betrays its abstractness by affording no hint of that aspect of self-production, of phusis, of natura naturans, which is so prominent in nature. For the Scholium, nature is merely, and completely, there, externally designed and obedient" (Process and Reality, 1929, corrected edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, 1978, p.93).
Philosophy and science even when apparently dealing with the same thing, even when they pose questions that superficially seem to be identical, are in fact asking essentially different questions about radically distinct aspects of the world. The failure to distinguish clearly between science and philosophy and to keep them separate is, in my view, a primary source of much bad science and much bad philosophy.


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