Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Modern Philosophy 1

For the class in Modern Philosophy I'm taking this semester, we have to write 15 two-paged papers (minimum) on philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, Locke, and Leibnitz. In this essay, I wrote about Francis Bacon's First Aphorisms (1-3, 11-31, 36-46), Galileo's Corpuscularianism, and Descartes' Discourse on Method (Part 1, 2, and 5). The following was my submission:

Galileo, in a letter to the Roman Catholic church, defended the idea that motion causes heat and rather than the idea heat is a quality intrinsic to an object. To bolster this assertion, Galileo argued that an analogy exists between heat and tastes, odors, colors, etc. insofar as “if the perceiving creatures were removed, all of these qualities would be annihilated and abolished from existence.” Our senses are thusly said to be subjective – as different body can be affected differently by one object – and relative to that with which we physically interact.

The problems with Galileo’s philosophy of science are vast, yet as it was not Galileo’s purpose to defend empiricism, it would be unreasonable to have expected a full explanation of his views. Still, Galileo’s fallacious argumentation at certain points in his exposition are not irrelevant to his conclusion. For example, Galileo states that he “cannot believe that there exists in external bodies anything, other than their size, shape, or motion (slow or rapid), which could excite in us our tastes, sounds, and odors.” At best, this conclusion is a result of a finite number of observations. The first problem is that the idea further observations cannot yield contrary, convincing data is question-begging. The second problem is that the very method by which Galileo purports to ascribe causation to motion is questionable, as any observation he makes would, at best, demonstrate a correlation exists between two observed events. There could, for instance, conceivably be an as yet unobserved cause for heat, just as there could be an as yet unobserved instance of heat without motion. Any protestation to the contrary encounters the third and final problem: even if Galileo stated motion causes heat within the context of specific observations, his assertion is a proposition which is predicated upon the supposition he has accounted for all possible unknown variables – such as optical illusions – which could bias his observation. As this supposition in turn implies omniscience and infinite knowledge, however, Galileo cannot state as fact any proposition unless either he is omniscient and infinitely knowledgeable or he has his account from a source which is. The burden of proof is on Galileo to demonstrate that to be the case, which he does not; hence, his contention that motion causes heat is unsound.

A generalization of this third criticism can also be applied to Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon. Bacon was, as is evident from his first aphorism, an empiricist; that is, he believed all possible knowledge is and can only be derived from one’s experience with the natural world by means of sensation of particulars. His emphasis on the novel utilization of nature stems from the concept that increase in knowledge comes only by that means. Against contemporary skeptics and rationalists, Bacon argued that one can validly establish general propositions by gradual – inductive – steps. Bacon also indirectly implies science is not a matter of opinion when, in a rejection of the subjective nature of anticipations, he contrasts science with matters of opinion. He states that he is a guide to truth rather than a judge of it, as the only way to teach or guide men to that which is true is by showing them the relevant particulars in question. In light of Bacon’s belief that certainty can be achieved, he stated four “idols” – empty dogmas – about which men should be aware. In sum, these “idols” are intended to warn the reader to check the soundness of his motives, as man’s nature, temporary preoccupations, attraction to vanity, or presuppositions can unfavorably bias his observations.

In addition to the aforementioned problem inherent to empiricism, the most obvious objection to Bacon’s epistemological understanding is that the very “idols” he cites are double edged, for, while we only read a small selection of his work, Bacon does not explain by what method he purports to avoid those “idols” such that he can validly assert to have supplied help to the “authority of the senses and understanding.” In light of his conclusions – “the spirit of man is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance,” “human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion…draws all things else to support and agree with it…though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side,” etc. – any criticisms he makes against sophists on these grounds could seemingly be applied to him in a “tu quoque” fashion.

Descartes’ apparent humility in his opening remarks – he admitted he could be wrong – can disarm critiques from reading too much into Descartes’ thoughts. Descartes went so far as to suggest those who are unlearned or easily swayed into hasty reforms shouldn’t “strip away all the opinions which one has previously absorbed.” In general, however, as Descartes believed all men possess the capacity to reason equally well, he believed that his method, which follows four, uncompromising rules, could be helpful: essentially, one should accept only what is certain, completely analyze any problems, and conduct thoughts in an orderly and thorough manner. By this method, Descartes believed that one could increase his knowledge in all sciences, whereas he had previously doubted the validity of his traditions and customs, in part due to his academic study and in part due to the fact he believed that the ridiculousness of common beliefs in other cultures could very well apply to his own.

Despite his belief almost all philosophies have been somewhere espoused, Descartes defended his method on the ground that that ad populum arguments are fallacious, so on that account one needn’t concern oneself with the validity of the idea oneself should judge what is true. Moreover, Descartes also believed careful elucidation of a philosophy by one person is often more lucid than those constructed by several, which functioned to solidify his assurance in his method. He analogized the construction of a philosophy to the building of a house: a single architect will fare better than multiple, as there is no one to dispute with except oneself. As such, the architect is free to tear down and build up whatever he chooses, and can examine the foundations such that he knows when the structure is sound. He firmly believed that by this means he “would be successful in conducting [his] life better than if he built only on the old foundations and relied only on principles which [he] had been persuaded to accept in [his] youth, without having examined whether they were true.”

In an example of an application of his method, Descartes argued that animals and machines can be distinguished from humans, because neither will never be able to communicate as we do, and neither possess the capacity to reason to the extent humans do. Both would otherwise be able to initiate interaction with us. Hence, the soul of animals is not of the same nature as our own, so cannot be used as an excuse that an afterlife is nonexistent. Our souls, which are independent of the body, are not “subject to dying along with the body,” i.e. human souls are immortal.

Aside from the aforementioned problem of omniscience and infinite knowledge, a problem with his method is that, as Descartes admits, it could be wrong. The criteria according to which he evaluates propositions is seemingly accepted as axiomatic. If this be so, Descartes does not show how these criteria are internally consistent – that is, accounted for – within his world-view. At this point, he seems to fall into the error of accepting what is commonly supposed for no other reason than it is commonly supposed. The other problem is that when it comes to the actual application of his method, Descartes’ argumentation is rather sloppy. Differentiating between particulars in the nature of human and animal souls does not necessarily imply that our souls are different in toto; that is, the fact that animals do not have minds like ours does not establish our souls are not intrinsically related to our bodies. At most, it would establish our souls are not intrinsically related to animal bodies. Or, if these propositions were meant to be disconnected, Descartes fails to substantiate his conclusion.

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