Sunday, September 30, 2012

Whewell on Newton's Laws II: Cause

In physics we talk about forces, and these forces are understood to be explanatory factors for changes of motions. They are in some way causes of motion, or, when they are not, they are prevented form being so by other forces. This gives us a starting point; as Whewell says in his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Volume I (p. 165), "Thus force, in its most general sense, is the cause of motion, or of tendency to motion; and in order to discover the principles on which the mechanical sciences truly rest, we must examine the nature and origin of our knowledge of Causes." It's important to understand that mechanics and the like do not deal with causes in general; rather, they deal with cause in a very specific sense that presupposes certain assumptions about what kind of causes, and what kind of effects, we are considering. Nonetheless, specific kinds of causes still presuppose the principles of causes in general, so any discussion of physics and its philosophical implications will have to start, Whewell thinks, with consideration of causes in the abstract.

We find things causally connected together in our experience, but in order to talk about causation we have to recognize these connections as causal, which means we have to supply the Idea of Cause and actively apply it to what we experience. As usual, Whewell insists that the Idea is actively drawn from our own minds, not passively received from outside our minds; and we can tell because, unlike our experiences of causal situations, which are particular, contingent, etc., we can, and do, and sometimes must, make rigorously universal and necessary claims about causes, claims which will go well beyond anything we actually have experienced. "Every effect has a cause" is necessarily, universally, rigorously true; not merely probably, usually, and as far as we can tell. The modal disparity between our experiences and our claims means that our mind is actively performing an induction, taking an Idea or Conception and organizing experience with it. The arguments of people like Hume do have some force: when we see one billiard ball striking another, we just see one thing happen and then another thing happen. Our understanding of causes, however, does not see them solely in this light; we do not merely passively observe billiard balls doing this then that -- we recognize the one ball as striking the other and making it move. Because of this, Whewell agrees with the response of Scottish metaphysicians to Hume -- an adequate account of causation must account for the universality of our Idea of Cause in a way that Hume's doesn't. And likewise he agrees with Kant's response to Hume -- an adequate account of causation must account not just for the universality but also for the necessity involved in our Idea of Cause. And Whewell thinks that something like this is necessary to account for serious physics at all, which can be seriously called knowledge because it applies necessary truths about causes to causes in the world (p. 176):

Axioms concerning Cause, or concerning Force, which as we shall see, is a modification of Cause, will flow from an Idea of Cause, just as axioms concerning space and number flow from the ideas of space and number or time. And thus the propositions which constitute the science of Mechanics prove that we possess an idea of cause, in the same sense in which the propositions of geometry and arithmetic prove our possession of the ideas of space and of time or number.

When we consider the Idea of Cause, then, we can formulate Axioms expressing the necessity and universality of the Idea. For our purposes, there are three Axioms in particular that are important, which might be colloquially formulated in the following way.

I. Nothing can take place without a cause.
II. Effects are proportional to their causes, and causes are measured by their effects.
III. Reaction is equal and opposite to action.

The first of these is in some sense the most general Axiom possible for the Idea of Cause; if you are talking about Causes in a sense where the first axiom is false, you are not actually talking about the Idea of Cause itself, but about something else that you are associating with the Idea. It is for practical purposes self-evident; even if we attempt to deny it, we will find our reasoning continually slipping back into a format that presupposes that it is true. What is more, since science studies causes, the first Axiom is absolutely essential to scientific inquiry; it is virtually its constitutive principle.

With the second Axiom we consider not merely Cause as such, but causes insofar as they can be compared with other causes. When we talk of force, for instance, we talk of one force as being greater than another; we also talk of some causes as having greater scope or power. So how do we generally identify this greater-than relation among causes? We look at the effects, and compare causes in terms of their effects (p. 179): "Hence the effect is an unfailing index of the amount of the cause; and if it be a measurable effect, it gives a measure of the cause." It is true that this can sometimes be more complicated than it sounds -- causes can sometimes be added together, for instance -- but the complications can themselves be seen as merely more complicated applications of the one Axiom, sometimes with the addition of other assumptions for the particular kind of cause we are considering.

Whewell is always somewhat more obscure when talking about the third Axiom, but it seems from a number of things he says that he takes the Axiom to apply whenever we have a Cause effecting motion -- or building a tendency to motion -- in something capable of resisting in some way. The most obvious example of this is the movement of bodies, and these are the examples Whewell most often uses. We recognized that bodies exist because they resist us. When we press on a body, we can make it move, but the body presses on us as we are pressing on it. At least in these resisting cases, then, causation is naturally understood to be mutual: I press the wall, the wall presses me, these are equal and opposite, so that I am the cause of some kind of tendency to motion in the wall and the wall is the cause of some kind of tendency to motion in me, according to a common rule. Each can be regarded as cause, each can be regarded as effect, and they mutually depend on each other. Thus, just as the second Axiom considers Cause under the condition of measurement, so the third Axiom considers it under the condition of mutuality in a common rule of measurement. One way of understanding this, which allows us to recognize why Whewell considers this Axiom to be very important, is that when we are talking about causes in real life we are usually talking about changes in causal terms. We experience a change, and then we use the Idea of Cause to clarify what the causal action is. And if we are simply interested in describing the cause-effect link, we are simply trying to give a rule for their going together; and therefore we will have a causal action insofar as it is exerted by the cause and the same causal action insofar as it is received in the effect, and it won't generally matter which way we're looking at it. In causal matters, action always has something that can be identified as a reaction. Thus the necessary connection of action and reaction seems to be taken by Whewell to be perfectly general. The equality is not always going to be possible to assume, because we can't rule out the possibility that action and reaction, while related, may not be commensurable in a way that allows us to talk about equality (we may not be able to establish a common rule). But in physical causes of physical changes, the action and reaction both admit (at least in principle) of being measured in physical terms and therefore being linked with each other according to a common rule of measurement. If a hot body and cool body come into contact, the hot body warms the cool body, the cool body cools the hot body; these can be measured and placed under a common rule, as we do in thermodynamics. And this just is to apply the third Axiom to such a particular case.

Anyone with a basic familiarity with Newton's Laws can no doubt see where Whewell is going here. It is important to reiterate, however, that these three Axioms are not the Laws of Motion. They are general causal principles; they do not assume that we are talking about changes of motion, and they do not make any assumption about whether we are dealing with some kind of force or not. There are many different kinds of things that fall under the Idea of Cause, each of which needs to be regarded on its own terms, and there is no need to conflate them. Historians have every right to talk about historical causes, for instance; they are not at all required to think of them as physical forces, or even as reducible to physical forces. Whewell is open to the idea that it might turn out that causes in two different fields turn out to be, at base the same kind of cause -- he calls the 'jumping together' of two apparently different fields under one Idea or Conception consilience, and he thinks that this is one of the more important markers of genuine scientific progress. But consilience arises from inquiry as a sort of conclusion; there is absolutely nothing about that inquiry itself that requires us to start with the assumption that the kinds of causes considered by historians will turn out to be nothing but physical forces. And, indeed, Whewell, like most British Newtonians in the nineteenth century, thinks that there are cases of causes that certainly aren't explicable in terms of physical forces, although physical forces may ultimately be explicable in terms of them -- namely, immaterial causes. However, anywhere there is any kind of cause and effect, whether or not it is physical or not, the first Axiom will hold; anywhere we can measure the effect, the second Axiom will hold; and anywhere we can measure the cause and effect according to a common rule, the third Axiom will hold. Even in the physical sciences, there is no absolute a priori reason why we should think that Forces in statics are exactly the same kinds of things as Forces in dynamics (for instance); they both qualify as Forces, but that doesn't mean there are no differences between them. This has to be clarified down the road; we cannot merely assume that all causes, or even all forces, are of exactly the same kind.

In order to get from the Idea of Cause to Newton's Laws of Motion, we have to narrow down the Idea of Cause to get the Idea or Conception of Force. (Whewell often uses the word 'Conception' to indicate that we are dealing with a Fundamental Idea that has been specified to a particular kind of situation; but he is not entirely consistent in doing this, and, indeed, argues that it's hard to draw any sharp lines.) Whewell thinks we get the Conception of Force primarily from our consciousness of our own endeavors. We feel ourselves exerting force, and our first real acquaintance with anything that can clearly be considered a cause of change of motion is our own ability to change things by muscular exertion. This kind of causation clearly has a direction, and so we recognize Force as being a directed causation producing changes in motion and rest. There are, in fact, several features of ordinary experience that guaranteed that this Conception remained rather vague and obscure for a very long time. The foundations of mechanics as a science were already implicit in the Conception of Force and the Axioms of causation as applied to this Conception; but ordinary experience has a number of ambiguities that can trip us up. These are the usual things that are mentioned in histories of physics -- friction and air resistance and the like, which complicate measurement. In order to get mechanics out of our Conception of Force, we need systematic experiment and progressively better observation in order to get measurements right, and also need to think through the implications of something's being a cause of motion in particular (and, for instance, how that might differ from being some other kind of cause).

The same consciousness that gives us the Conception of Force also gives us the Conception of Body, or as we might also call it, Matter, as something resisting, and likewise Solidity or tangibility. Given this we can start to formulate some notion of Inertia which is the inertness or tendency of a body to be stubborn and push back when pushed. Making sense of these things require all three of the Axioms, and the third in particular, and thus we have the possibility of a science of mechanics. It's worth stating again that we need not merely reasoning from Axioms but also reliable empirical measurement if we are to build the science of mechanics. Whewell does not think you can magically pull Newton's Laws out of the three causal Axioms alone; to get each Law of Motion requires applying the Axioms to a particular kind of situation (when the causes are forces) and clarifying the way in which those Axioms apply in that particular situation. This means that Newton's Laws have a necessary aspect (derived from the causal Axioms) and an empirical aspect (derived from experimental and observational measurement of forces and motions in particular), and both are absolutely essential to how they should be understood. To see how this works, we need to turn to the Laws themselves, so the next post in this series will look at how Whewell's account applies to Newton's First Law.


  1. Of course, Newton was a man of his own time, so he wrote his physics in Latin, and he spoke in terms of causes acting by changing a target, but this superficial similarity conceals how radically anti-Aristotelian Newtonian physics really is.

    Start with the first law. You may say it expresses the idea that nothing can take place without a cause, but what is this nothing? Uniform motion: a condition which every Aristotelian from Aristotle himself to Aquinas would think was in need of a sustaining cause. Here Newton has redefined it as nothing happening. A few more redefinitions, and we may conclude nothing has ever happened in the whole history of the universe.

    Now look at the second law -- Force is defined by a second order differential equation, where the solution is the limit of an infinite sequence of approximate calculations (e.g. fourth order Runge Kutta). This makes nonsense of any suspicion that there's something wrong with infinite regresses, as every perceptible change in motion is conceived of as the sum of the effects of an infinite number of forces, each exerted for an infinitesimal period of time, and in any non-uniform force field, each dependent in its quantity on the sum of all the previous forces.

    Then there's the third law. This is really the heart of the theory. The other two can be regarded as a definition (II) and a special case of that definition (I) but when you throw in the third one, you're actually saying something nontrivial about nature. It is stated in terms of action and reaction, as if the force of A on B caused the force of B on A, but the relationship between action is entirely symmetric. The only sense in which the action comes before the reaction is in the epistemic sense. e.g. you may already know that there is exactly enough tension in a spring to support a 10 Newton weight, and so you can solve for the force exerted by the weight on the spring to keep it taut. But it is only in your head that (the image of) one force causes the other. This law also puts a dent in the primary use of Aristotelian thinking, though (proofs of God.) If a force obeying Newton's third law is taken as your paradigm for causation you see that God cannot be both unmoved and a cause of anything. God cannot act unless he is equally changed by the reaction -- indeed that is the very definition of a reaction. It is no coincidence that your friend Whewell stumbles over trying to fit this one into the Aristotelian paradigm, because it is the least Aristotelian of the bunch.

    But , there's another good reason  why relating Newtonian mechanics to Aristotelian metaphysics is a bad idea: It gives the wrong intuition about how to extend the theory. Sure it doesn't make you do anything wrong as long as you stay within Newtonian mechanics, and even if it does, you can claim you merely applied the concepts of cause and effect to the wrong things, but Newtonian mechanics is wrong, and we have had to make inspired guesses regarding new theories. If you conceive of Newtonian mechanics as change mediated by the causal principle of force, you suspect that if anything survives from the old system, it will be the idea of force, but this is not what has happened. Conservation laws and symmetries have survived in every new theory of Physics, but force is a messy adjunct in special relativity and completely useless in quantum mechanics (it's not even listed in the index of my Quantum Field Theory text.)

  2. I've got to say, I don't follow your reasoning at all:

    I. What on earth would it mean for the second law to be true and the first law to be false? Can you give a concrete example.

    The only possibility I can think of is if you read the second law as only applying when there is a nonzero force on a body. But this seems an impossibly screwy thing to do considering that forces are additive, and can therefore cancel. Maybe if you make some kind of distinction between zero force and no force at all, but considering Newton believed in universal gravitation, there's always at least one force acting on everything, so the first law wouldn't be of much use.

    A few side notes: 1) I am not sure, but I very much doubt that Newton's laws were taught geometrically at the time Whewell was writing. This was after both the Hamiltonian and Lagrangian reformulations of classical mechanics had been proposed and I don't see how anyone would get to that point unless they pretty much lived and breathed calculus. 2) I don't see how it's any more insulting to Newton to claim that his first law is a special case of the second than it is to claim that the first two laws can be summarized in a four symbol equation. On the contrary, there is a clear pedagogical reason for Newton to have stated his laws as he did, when communicating with an audience steeped in Aristotle, as 17th century Latin readers would likely still have been. Newton may also have been intentionally setting apart his own contribution (the second and third laws) from portion that could be attributed to the giants whose shoulders he had stood upon as it were, since the principle of inertia had already been stated by Galileo and several others, but the second law, being effectively a paraphrase of a differential equation, could not be rigorously stated without Newton's own calculus.

    II. How do you translate "a body will persist in uniform motion, except if it is forced to change that state by impressed forces." into a refinement of "nothing can take place without a cause," unless you read "cause" as "force" and "nothing taking place" as "uniform motion"? The only exception Newton gives to persistent uniform motion is a force being impressed. Is the absence of force supposed to be a cause of that persistence?

    III. Regarding infinite regresses, I think you miss the point. Sure, the math does not contain an infinite regress in the relevant sense, but, what finite sequence of causes is the math supposed to represent when you have, for example, a three-body gravitational interaction with each body's motion being continuously altered by gravitational forces, which are in turn dependent upon the relative positions of the bodies in question?

    IV. You have also mischaracterized what I said. I did not say that only the third law says something nontrivial about nature, since the first two laws (or at least the second) are required in order to interpret the third law. What I said was that, taken alone, the first two laws do not say much of anything about nature -- as long as acceleration is reasonably well defined for some body, you can pick any number you like and call it the mass of the accelerating body, and solve for the force to make the first and second laws work out. Now I suppose you could say that the first two laws are meaningful if you have some independent idea of what force is. After all people have some intuitive idea of what a push or a pull feels like, but this is not quantitative, and even the most rigorous formulation along these lines, Hooke's law as applied to a spring scale, is only approximately true, and only for some materials. As such, it does not do justice to the rest of Newton's work to take something so squishy as the definition of force, rather than the much more precise second law.

  3.  On the historical points -- I looked it up, the F= ma formulation of Newton's second law is from 1716, well within Newton's lifetime, and way before Whewell was writing. Regarding the continued influence of Aristotle, I may have overstated my claim somewhat in claiming Newton's readers were steeped in Aristotle, but not by much -- Newton's first law, as I already mentioned, predates Newton, and was first stated in direct opposition to Aristotle, by people like Galileo.  Aristotle may have been considered discredited in Protestant Europe, but before Newton, there wasn't anything systematic to replace the assumptions of Aristotle with; there were new ideas, but they were very much in flux. So Aristotle still seems like a major point of departure in 17th century thought, if only as something to contrast the new ideas against. Even then, as late as 1715, you have people like Leibniz saying things like:

    "...the entelechy of Aristotle, which has made so much noise, is nothing
    else but force or activity ; that is, a state from which action
    naturally flows if nothing hinders it. But matter, primary and pure,
    taken without the souls or lives which are united to it, is purely
    passive ; properly speaking also it is not a substance, but something

    and coining terms in conscious imitation of Aristotle, like potential and kinetic energy. Bear in mind also, that I come from a perspective where, while thinking of things in terms of causes and effects is often useful, it is not a foundational principle for understanding nature at the most fundamental level. Therefore, pretty much any physics text that mentions "cause" and "effect" often enough to have entries for them in the index is going to seem Aristotelian to me. Ditto for "change" and "motion" -- as opposed to more precise terms like "velocity" and "momentum."

    I still disagree with your characterization of the first law. Newton says "uniform motion will persist, except in the presence of an impressed force," not "uniform motion will persist, except in the presence of an impressed force, AND as long as there is something else there to cause the uniform motion to persist." The lack of a force is stated as a sufficient condition -- therefore the only possible answer to "what would happen to a moving body in the absence of a force, or any other causal factor?" is that the motion would persist. Any other answer would be an additional exception to the rule.

    And of course, you sill haven't answered my question: What would a universe look like where Newton's second law was true and the first law was false? If the first law is not a special case of the second, you should be able to answer this question.

  4. branemrys1:04 PM


    Yes, F=ma is easy to derive from Newton's First and Second Laws as he stated them, given some definitions and basic assumptions; this is irrelevant.

  5. attributes F= ma to Jacob Hermann's Phoronomia.

    As for the rest. This seems a much clearer explanation. Thank you.

    On the second law, I'm still not entirely convinced that's what Newton meant (and there seems to be some dispute over the original meaning of the second law in any event,) but it seems plausible. Of course this still would only imply that the first law is a definition (change of motion) required for the interpretation of the second, just as the second law is a definition (force) required for the interpretation of the third law.

    On causality, I suppose you could attribute an unconditionally present cause to the persistence of motion, but it would seem to go against Newton's stated ethos:
    “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” And it certainly goes against the scientific ethos of establishing causality by way of controlled experiment - if the supposed cause cannot be absent, there is no possibility of a control.

  6. branemrys7:46 PM

      Of course this still would only imply that the first law is a
    definition (change of motion) required for the interpretation of the
    second, just as the second law is a definition (force) required for the
    interpretation of the third law.

    Actually, it wouldn't; all it implies is that one of the things you get from the first law is a criterion for what counts as falling under the definition of 'change of motion'. And Newton's second law is clearly not a definition of force; it's a proportionality linking force and change of motion. Proportionalities and definitions have completely different logical structures.To get something that looks like a definition of force, you have to derive something like F=ma; but even that isn't a definition but an equation -- it's consistent with ma being the definition of F(orce), but it's consistent with other things. (The old name for the F=ma equation is the 'measure of force', for instance, and it was not thought to be a definition but a rigorous way to measure force. Whether this was the best way of looking at it or not, it was logically consistent.)

    I actually agree with your last paragraph, but it cuts both ways. There's no principled way here to reject speculation in one direction but accept it in the opposite direction. As I already mentioned above, saying anything on the matter would have required Newton to frame speculative hypotheses, which he was deliberately trying to avoid in the Principia itself.  And this is why Hume's argument in the History of England that Newton's physics deliberately does not tell us anything about the ultimate nature of the world has at least a little evidential bite, and also why positivist interpretations of Newtonian physics, like those found in Duhem or Mach, were coherent and, at their best, capable of being quite attractive.

    Thanks for the reference; it actually hadn't occurred to me to see if it could be looked up in the SEP.

  7. branemrys4:45 PM

    Thinking about this a bit more, I think I should point out something about the Thomists you have in mind. Take what you say about them:

    it tends to indicate that he is a Thomist, heavily influenced by Feser,
    who believes he can convince me that Thomism is the only sensible
    approach to the world, and that as a result atheism is wholly

    The thing you need to keep in mind is that there is a reason they do this, namely, that they are constantly having to deal with atheists (occasionally adherents of other philosophical positions, but not all that often), "who believe they can convince them that atheism is the only sensible approach to the world, and that as a result Thomism is wholly irrational." It's a common problem. I have a Ph.D. from one of the finest secular philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, and I have had people, knowing this full well, upon discovering that I'm Catholic talk to me like I'm a complete moron -- not just wrong, but completely stupid and unable to recognize very basic issues. (My favorites, though, are those who patiently explain David Hume or  the Enlightenment to me -- my primary specialization is Hume and his philosophical context.) And likewise, one repeatedly has to deal with people who talk a big rationality game, but never hold themselves to any serious rational standards, and mostly only get away with it because they've learned how to bluff well by only going on the offensive and never justifying themselves even when challenged. On the internet it's a somewhat constant thing -- random trolls, drive-by commenters, people who make exactly the same argument in every comment thread fifteen posts in a row, regardless of what anyone says in response; it depends on the blog. This leads to a tendency to take the next one who comes along as Yet Another One of Those. It is to be sure, a dangerous and not very good method of arguing, since it is answering someone on the basis of prejudgment and not evidence, but it's harder to avoid falling into it than it might seem. And it is, as you say, the sort of thing you fell into here.

  8. At the risk of playing at history, I would like to challenge one of your historical claims: You claim Whewell's first axiom was uncontroversial in his era, but you seem to support that with the fact that weaker claims were uncontroversial in Whewell's day, e.g. that scientists described what they were doing as "discovering the causes of natural phenomena," but this only presupposes that some natural phenomena have causes, not all of them. In any event, I should think that the stronger claim made be Whewell in his first causal axiom was at least somewhat controversial in the early 19th century, since Hume (or at least one of his characters) denied a very similar claim in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

    On historical claims, I will keep your advice in mind regarding caution. However, I do have the feeling that a number of claims you refer to as obvious falsehoods are only so, because you are overinterpreting me (e.g. reading "Newton's contemporaries were steeped in Aristotle." as "Newton's contemporaries were all Scholastics.") Also, I need to make historical claims in order to support arguments along the lines of "idea X is only popular because it has been retained as historical baggage, not because it appreciably adds to the understanding of the world." I also sometimes make arguments along the lines of, "idea X may have seemed attractive to the ancients due to its explanatory power, but a weaker version of the idea retains that explanatory power, while being a logical consequence of a well supported modern principle. There is no longer any reason to retain the stronger version of idea X," which is not really a historical argument, but can be mistaken for one. I would hate to have to avoid such arguments, just because I am not an expert historian.

  9. Be careful. I'm one of those who believes "that atheism is the only sensible approach to the world, and that as a result Thomism is wholly irrational." But, I don't come to that belief in reaction to people on the other side being rude to me, which is a terrible reason to believe anything.

  10. branemrys7:38 PM

    But, I don't come to that belief in reaction to people on the other side being rude to me, which is a terrible reason to believe anything.

    Honestly, Ray, I really don't care about your view, since your some person I've interacted with in comment boxes a very small number of times and I wouldn't know you from Adam; although I find it interesting that you accuse the Feserites for viewing you exactly the way you view them. But in any case this is exactly how you just explained yourself in the comment above, because it was precisely this feature of the Feserites that you pointed to in accounting for your absurdity about Whewell and Aristotle. And, to be honest, Ray, if you ever pulled the sort of thing with Aquinas that you tried to with Whewell in your first comment, I can't seriously blame them for regarding you as yet another representative of a wholly irrational atheism, if that's what they did. There was just no excuse for it.

  11. On Hume: I took your description of Whewell to be saying that not only was the first axiom true in its universal form, but that assuming the universal form of the axiom was a necessary condition for science. Am I correct in assuming that Hume (or at least his character Philo) would reject these two claims when taken in combination?

    On Newton's contemporaries and Aristotle. Wikipedia describes Newton's education as:

     "In June 1661, he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge as a sizar – a sort of work-study role.[15] At that time, the college's teachings were based on those of Aristotle, whom Newton supplemented with modern philosophers, such as Descartes, and astronomers such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler."

    Now I recognize that wikipedia isn't the world's greatest source, so I am willing to disbelieve it, but in the absence of a source contradicting it, I'm going to have a hard time believing it's crazy. Do you have a suggestion?

    On Causation and science: I take causation to be a rather slippery concept. If you want a definition that covers only the cases where pretty much everyone agrees you can identify something as a cause of something else, you end up defining cause as some sort of a probabilistic statement regarding controlled experiments. If you extend the notion of cause much beyond that, it becomes very difficult to draw the line between causation and logical implication in any kind of principled way (Is conservation of charge caused by gauge symmetry?) Now it's reasonable to describe the controlled experiment as fundamental to science, but it's quite a stretch to say that controlled experiments are fundamental to nature. I would therefore say the same thing about causation, and as such, I fully expect any true principles about causes in general to be messy, full of exceptions, and rather unenlightening about the workings of nature at their most fundamental level. I therefore have no reason to prefer Whewell's crisp universal "nothing can happen without a cause" to something more equivocal like "most natural phenomena have a cause." If this sounds awful, keep in mind that I'm predicating this statement with the assumption that we have decided on an unambiguous  demarcation between causation and logical implication. Which natural phenomena, if any, are taken to be without cause will be highly dependent on where we draw the line (not to mention which facts about the natural world we take to be natural phenomena. Is gauge symmetry a natural phenomenon? Is it even a fact about the natural world, as opposed to a fact about its most convenient representation?)

  12. The first time I ran into a Feser disciple on the internet, he was trying to argue that Heisenberg took Aristotelian Metaphysics seriously. He also made the absolutely absurd argument that doing physics without a proper understanding of metaphysics was a hopeless endeavor that was doomed to fail -- this despite the fact that the vast majority of currently successful physicists are not Thomists by any stretch of the imagination. Hopefully this illustrates why my initial assumption was that the discussion would be all about Aristotle, whether Whewell was a Thomist or not. Now I'll grant that I should have figured out that wasn't your MO sooner, and for this I apologize.

    I also never said I thought I could convince a Thomist that Thomism is irrational. Thinking Christianity is irrational is not the same as thinking Christians are stupid. I have a brilliant coworker who is a Mormon -- I trust you will agree that the book of Mormon is an obvious fraud and one of the worst examples of pseudohistory out there. When I challenged him once, he simply acknowledged that the facts are entirely consistent with Joeseph Smith making the whole thing up, acknowledge that Native Americans and Hawaiians don't appear to have recent middle-eastern ancestry, but pointed out that it's still logically possible that the civilizations described by the book of Mormon were simply a much smaller presence than the early Mormons assumed. If a smart Mormon can't be argued out of that, what hope is there for arguing with something like Feser's update of Thomism, which effectively has no empirical consequences different from what a smart atheist would predict.

    But there are other ways that the situation is asymmetric. The vast  majority of top academics in science, philosophy, and I'm guessing history too, are atheists. To reconcile this fact with the belief that the Thomists have some sort of irrefutable argument requires either

    1)None of these fields is at all relevant to evaluating religious claims.

    2)Despite the fact that the university culture evolved out of Church institutions, and the fact that, at least in the US, universities rely on funding determined by overwhelmingly Christian politicians, and the fact that academics are recruited from within an overwhelmingly Christian culture, somehow, an absolutely unstoppable institutional bias against Christianity developed that had nothing to do with the merit of the ideas.

    Feser's faction rejects as wholly irrational not just me, but the whole academic culture (and in the case of modern philosophy, this is often quite explicit.)

    Suffice it to say, it's not just the nastiness that bothers me.

  13. branemrys12:56 AM

    The first time I ran into a Feser disciple on the internet, he was trying to argue that Heisenberg took Aristotelian Metaphysics seriously.

    Well, you can blame Heisenberg himself for that one, since the reference is almost certainly to Heisenberg's comments on Aristotle in Physics and Philosophy.

  14. I'm entirely aware of that -- the link to Feser's blog said exactly where it came from. But, if you're going to accuse me of making too much of the influence of Aristotle on Descartes and Newton, you really ought to be more critical of characterizing Heisenberg as "taking Aristotle seriously", when that book only mentions him among many other philosophers, and when he characterizes all the ancient philosophers as seemingly prescient, but not empirical or quantitative enough to make real progress.

    For context, I was asking whether any modern physicists worried about whether QM could be made consistent with Aristotelian Metaphysics the same way they worried whether QM could be proven to be mathematically consistent.

  15. branemrys2:08 AM

    The two are not analogous, Ray; for one thing, Whewell and Newton didn't go about making comments similar to Heisenberg that could be misinterpreted (and as I already said before, there is a massive world of difference between misinterpreting evidence that's actually there and making up claims based wholly on assumptions unsupported by evidence); and for another I only have your report to go on of what actually went on, even if I were particularly interested, and it would obviously mean in any case what precisely was meant by 'taking Aristotle seriously', which can mean any number of things; whereas I have you making absurd comments directly to me here in this comments thread, and I can really only say that after what I've had to put up with from you over the past week, it's a bit cheeky for you to go about complaining because some random Thomist somewhere overinterpreted Heisenberg somehow.

    But as I mentioned, you really don't have to justify yourself to me; as it happens, all your justifications so far make you sound less reasonable, rather than more, since you've basically characterized yourself as so obsessed with Feserites that on the assumption that I was one you followed me back to my blog, for God only knows what intentions, and tried to put me in my place because of it, despite, apparently, believing that such people cannot be rationally persuaded (and that you said what you did while not thinking the kind of person you had pegged me of could be rationally persuaded does not in any way make you seem more reasonable), arguing not on the basis of any argument I had actually given but this pre-existing assumption, in the course of which argument you said some very kooky things, which took up a considerable amount of my time; and then just recently I have had to read through how different you are from a Feserite in some vague and unclear way, during the course of which you helpfully inform me that I and all my coreligionists are irrational, as if there is any reason by this point why I would particularly care which people Ray from the Internet thinks rational or irrational, in some undefined sense, if there had ever been any reason for me to care about such a matter in the first place, which there was not, and all, again, because you have this bizarre thing against Ed Feser. I've tried to be patient, Ray, but honestly I don't really care. I know nothing about you, I am unlikely ever to need to know anything personal about you, and the argument about how much better you are than a Feserite is a boring argument, and at this rate your argument is not really succeeding. In short, it has nothing to do with Whewell, there is no imaginable scenario in which I can learn anything of particular interest from this or that I will ever need to know the precise difference between Ray and a Feserite, and at this point I am beginning to rue mightily the fact that I mentioned that your actions here looked from my end pretty much like you described the Feserites, because apparently the result of it is that these comments threads will become even more cluttered with things that have nothing to do with Whewell or anything else I'm particularly interested in.

  16. My intent in bringing up Feser was only to explain why my first post seemed so far off target. Since then, I have been trying to keep my responses brief to wrap this subthread up. If you want to drop the topic, I'm more than happy to do so.

  17. Thank you for the links and the historical info. It's been informative.

    That said, I can tell I'm wearing on your patience, so I'll be on my way. I am still curious to see the next post in this series and am looking forward to seeing it. If I decide to respond, I will make every effort to make less of a nuisance of myself.


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