Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category
Monday, March 3rd, 2014 | No Comments
Peter Anstey writes …
Two years ago on this blog I addressed the ‘Straw Man Problem‘ for the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy. The apparent problem, according to some critics of the ESD, is that there were no speculative philosophers in the early modern period. In my response to that problem I listed The Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, as one of the few advocates of speculative philosophy in seventeenth-century England and in this post I want to explore her views in a little more depth.
Cavendish wrote the most sustained critique of experimental philosophy in the seventeenth century. Her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, comprising 318 pages, was first published in 1666 and went into a second edition in 1668. In this work Cavendish gives a critical reading of many works of the new experimental philosophy in order to justify her own speculative natural philosophy. Within her sights are Robert Boyle’s Sceptical Chymist (1661), Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy (1664) and Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665).
It is interesting to compare Cavendish’s views in this work with those of the young Robert Boyle a decade earlier. As I pointed out in my last post, in his ‘Of Naturall Philosophie’ of c. 1654, Boyle claims that there are two principles of natural philosophy, the senses and reason. He plumps for the senses. Cavendish in her Observations acquiesces in the very same principles, but takes the opposing line: for her, reason trumps the senses.
What is important for our interests here is not only the direct contrast with Boyle’s embryonic experimental philosophy, but the manner in which, for Cavendish, the terms of reference for the choice are between experimental and speculative philosophy. The following extracts give a feel for her position:
I say, that sense, which is more apt to be deluded than reason, cannot be the ground of reason, no more than art can be the ground of nature: … For how can a fool order his understanding by art, if nature has made it defective? or, how can a wise man trust his senses, if either the objects be not truly presented according to their natural figure and shape, or if the senses be defective, either through age, sickness, or other accidents … And hence I conclude, that experimental and mechanic philosophy cannot be above the speculative part, by reason most experiments have their rise from the speculative, so that the artist or mechanic is but a servant to the student. (Cavendish, Observations, ed. O’Neill (Cambridge), p. 49, emphasis added)
experimental philosophy has but a brittle, inconstant, and uncertain ground. And these artificial instruments, as microscopes, telescopes, and the like, which are now so highly applauded, who knows but they may within a short time have the same fate; and upon a better and more rational enquiry, be found deluders, rather than true informers (ibid., p. 99)
And toward the end of a long discussion of chemistry and chemical principles she reiterates her conclusion:
if reason be above sense, then speculative philosophy ought to be preferred before the experimental, because there can no reason be given for anything without it (ibid., p. 241)
Cavendish’s Observations first appeared at a very sensitive time for the Royal Society, for it had been the subject of much criticism from without and was in the process of securing an apologetical History of the Royal-Society by Thomas Sprat.
Now, there is no doubt that some of the more prominent Fellows of the Society are in view in her critique. Yet, it is important that we do not over-extend the target of the Observations, for, it is very much aimed at experimental philosophy and hardly makes reference to the Royal Society at all. Within a year of its publication the Duchess was to make a famous visit to the Society and the correspondence that ensued does not suggest that Henry Oldenburg and others regarded her as a hostile critic of the Society. This reinforces the view that her focus was more specific, namely, experimental philosophy.
Interestingly, after Cavendish’s death the following lines appeared in A Collection of Letters and Poems (London, 1678) written in her honour:
Philosophers must wander in the dark;
Now they of Truth can find no certain mark;
Since She their surest Guide is gone away,
They cannot chuse but miserably stray.
All did depend on Her, but She on none,
For her Philosophy was all her own.
She never did to the poor Refuge fly
Of Occult Quality or Sympathy.
She could a Reason for each Cause present,
Not trusting wholly to Experiment,
No Principles from others she purloyn’d,
But wisely Practice she with Speculation joyn’d. (A Collection, p. 166, emphasis added)
This poem in which these lines appear was penned by the poet Thomas Shadwell, author of The Virtuoso. Shadwell presents the Duchess as holding to a more balanced view of the relative value of practice and speculation than is warranted from her writings. But the fact that he has singled this out is indicative of just how central was this issue to thinkers of the day.
Monday, February 17th, 2014 | No Comments
Juan Gomez writes…
Throughout the last few years we have presented a number of posts on education and experimental philosophy in the Early Modern period. Peter Anstey and Alberto Vanzo have commented on teaching experimental philosophy (Desaguliers, Adams, and Meiners), Gerard Wiesenfelt delighted us with two posts on universities in seventeenth-century Europe (Sturm and de Volder), and I have discussed education in Aberdeen (Fordyce and Gerard) and England (Bentham). Today I want to contribute to our research on education by discussing Turnbull’s ideas on learning and virtue.
Even though scholars have recognized that there were significant developments in educational theory in the Early Modern Period, almost all of their accounts are French-centred and the only British author they refer to is Locke, due to his influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). Of course, the bulk of the educational treatises of the eighteenth century were produced by French authors (Voltaire, Rollins, Diderot, Condorcet, etc.), but this does not mean that important works on education were not being produced outside of France. Turnbull’s Observations upon Liberal Education (1742) is a salient example here. Turnbull (with the exception of a recent article by Tal Gilead) is hardly even mentioned in scholarly accounts of education in the eighteenth-century, despite the fact that his book on education had a considerable impact at the time. Besides having a clear influence on Alexander Gerard and the educational reforms in the Aberdeen universities after 1750, Turnbull also appears as a major influence in Benjamin Franklin’s Proposals Relating to the Education of the Youth in Pennsylvania (1749). Further, even though many of the ideas in Turnbull’s Education also appear in Locke and Rollins’ work, Turnbull’s commitment to the experimental methodology gives his text a unique feature among the educational works of the time.
Turnbull, like Locke and Rollins before him, firmly believes that the main goal of education is the teaching of virtue. This popular idea of the time takes on a unique development in Education, where Turnbull applies the experimental method to his pedagogical theory:
- …as with regard to the culture of plants or flowers, sure rules can only be drawn from experiment; so for the same reason, there can be no sure rules concerning education but those which are founded on the experimental knowledge of human nature.
So where are we to find the experiments Turnbull hints at? If the aim of education is the achievement of virtue, then those experiments must contribute to this same purpose. We have already discussed that paintings can take on this role. However, in Education the role of experiments is taken up by the example of teachers and of historical characters. Turnbull refers to Horace to illustrate this method of educating:
- For ’tis by examples that good and bad conduct, with their various effects and consequences, the strength and grace to which men, by proper diligence, may arrive, and the baseness and misery into which vice plunges, most strongly appear…This, indeed, is the moral lesson every more exalted example in the records of human affairs presents to us in the most striking light, and to which cannot be too early or too forcibly inculcated from fact and experience… The characters of the more considerable personages of moral history, will afford, to a judicious instructor, excellent opportunities of enforcing, of deeply riveting this important lesson upon young minds.
History takes a primary role in Turnbull’s theory of education, given that it furnishes us with the experiments that allow us to direct the mind towards virtue. In another of his texts, a preliminary discourse to a translation of Justin’s History of the world (1742), Turnbull paraphrases Rollin to illustrate the priority of teaching history:
- History therefore, when it is well taught, becomes a school of morality to mankind, of all conditions and ranks. It discovers the deformity and fatal consequences of vices, and unmasks false virtues; it disabuses men of their popular errors and prejudices; and despoiling riches of all its enchanting and dazzling pomp and magnificence, demonstrates by a thousand examples, which are more persuasive than reasonings, that there is nothing truly great or praise-worthy, but untainted honour and probity.
Rollin and Turnbull share this belief in the supreme importance of history for teaching virtue, but unlike the former’s, Turnbull’s theory stands on his belief that the experimental method is the proper way of gaining any kind of knowledge. One of Turnbull’s original and interesting contributions to eighteenth-century educational theory is his interpretation of historical accounts as proper examples that provides us with adequate facts and observations for the instruction of virtue, in the same way experiments allow us to construct our conclusions in natural philosophy. Of course, the question of the accuracy of historical reports springs up; can inaccurate or false historical reports still contribute to the instruction of virtue? For example, an historical account that somehow illustrates that greed leads to happiness and the progress of society would not, presumably, be of service to the goal of education that Turnbull wishes. However, by insisting on the importance of the experimental method Turnbull has a way out: only those historical accounts that are founded on facts and observations are to be considered in the education of our youth. Turnbull did not deal with this issue in enough detail in Education, but he did discuss the issue of the reliability of historical reports in another context (religious testimony) which we will explore in my next post.
Monday, February 3rd, 2014 | No Comments
Peter Anstey writes …
It is not entirely clear when Robert Boyle (1627–1691) first used the term ‘experimental philosophy’, but what is clear is that his views on this new approach to natural philosophy began to form in the early 1650s, some years before the term came into common use.
Boyle’s earliest datable use of the term is from his Spring of the Air published in 1660. The reason for the lack of clarity about Boyle’s first use of the term arises from the fact that what appears to be a very early usage survives only in a fragment published by Thomas Birch in his ‘Life of Boyle’ in 1744: no manuscript version is extant. The context of Boyle’s reference to experimental philosophy in this text suggests that this fragment is associated with his ‘Essay of the Holy Scriptures’ composed in the mid-1650s. Boyle speaks of:
those excellent sciences, the mathematics, having been the first I addicted myself to, and was fond of, and experimental philosophy with its key, chemistry, succeeding them in my esteem and applications …
(Works of Robert Boyle, eds Hunter and Davis, London, vol. 12, p. 356)
However, the question of the precise dating of Boyle’s use of the term is hardly as significant as the formation of his views on his distinctive form of natural philosophy. And on this point we have some fascinating and chronologically unambiguous evidence, namely, Boyle’s outline of a work ‘Of Naturall Philosophie’ which dates from around 1654. This short manuscript in Boyle’s early hand survives among the Royal Society Boyle Papers in volume 36, folios 65–6. (It is transcribed in full in Michael Hunter, Robert Boyle 1627–1691: Scrupulosity and Science (Woodbridge, 2000), 30–1.)
In it Boyle outlines the two ‘Principles of naturall Philosophie’. They are Sense and Reason. As for Sense, in addition to its fallibility, Boyle stresses that:
it is requisite to be furnished with observations and Experiments.
Boyle then proceeds to give a set of seven ‘Directions concerning Experiments’. These directions provide an early adumbration of his later experimental methodology. They include the following:
1. Make all your Experiments if you can your selfe [even] though you be satisfyed beforehand of the Truth of them.
3. Be not discouraged from Experimentinge by haveing now & then your Expectation frustrated
5. Get acquainted with Experimentall Books & Men particularly Tradesmen.
7. After you have made any Experiment, not before, reflect upon the uses & Consequences of it either to establish truths, detect Errors, or improve some knowne or give hints of some new Experiment
As for the principle of Reason, Boyle gives five considerations concerning it. What is striking here is that each of them concerns the relation between Reason and experiments:
- That we consult nature to make her Instruct us what to beleeve not to confirme what we have beleeved
- That a perfect account of noe Experiment is to be looked for from the Experiment it selfe
- That it is more difficult then most men are aware of to find out the Causes of knowne effects
- That it is more difficult then men thinke to build principles upon or draw Consequences from Experiments
- That therefore Reason is not to be much trusted when she wanders far from Experiments & Systematical Bodyes of naturall Philosophie are not for a while to be attempted
Note here the caution about the difficulty of building natural philosophical principles from experiments and the warning about wandering from experiments and premature system building, points that were to become key motifs of the experimental philosophy that blossomed in the 1660s.
It may well be that the movement of experimental philosophy did not emerge until the early 1660s, but the conceptual foundations of its most able exponent were laid nearly a decade before.
Are there any parallel cases of natural philosophers who worked out an experimental philosophy in the early 1650s or was Boyle the first?
Monday, January 20th, 2014 | No Comments
Kirsten Walsh writes…
In a recent post, I considered Newton’s use of observation and experiment in the Opticks. I suggested that there is a functional (rather than semantic) difference between Newton’s ‘experiments’ and ‘observations’. Although both observations and experiments were reports of observations involving intervention on target systems and manipulation of independent variables, experiments offered individual, and crucial, support for particular propositions, whereas observations only supported propositions collectively.
At the end of the post, I suggested that, if we view them as complex, open ended series’ of experiments, the observations of books 2 and 3 look a lot like what Bacon called ‘experientia literata’, the method by which natural histories were supposed to be generated. In this post, I’ll discuss this suggestion in more detail, following Dana Jalobeanu’s recent work on Bacon’s Latin natural histories and the art of ‘experientia literata’.
The ‘Latin natural histories’ were Bacon’s works of natural history, as opposed to his works about natural history. A notable feature of Bacon’s Latin natural histories is that they were produced from relatively few ‘core experiments’. By varying these core experiments, Bacon generated new cases, observations and facts. The method by which this generation occurs is called the art of ‘experientia literata’. Experientia literata (often referred to as ‘learned experience’) was a late addition to Bacon’s program, developed in De Augmentis scientiarum (1623). It is a tool or technique for guiding the intellect. By following this method, discoveries will be made, not by chance, but by moving from one experiment to the next in a guided, systematic way.
The following features were typical of the experientia literata:
- The series of observations was built around a few core experiments;
- New observations were generated by the systematic variation of experimental parameters;
- The variation could continue indefinitely, so the observation sequence was open-ended;
- The experimental process itself could reveal things about the phenomena, beyond what was revealed by a collection of facts;
- The trajectory of the experimental series was towards increasingly general facts about the phenomena; and
- The results of the observations were collated and presented as tables. These constituted the ‘experimental facts’ to be explained.
Now let’s turn to Newton’s observations. For the sake of brevity, my discussion will focus on the observations in book 2 part I of the Opticks, but most of these features are also found in the observations of book 2 part IV, and in book 3 part I.
The Opticks book 2 concerned the phenomenon now known as ‘Newton’s Rings’: the coloured rings produced by a thin film of air or water compressed between two glasses. Part I consisted of twenty-four observations. Observation 1 was relatively simple: Newton pressed together two prisms, and noticed that, at the point where the two prisms touched, there was a transparent spot. The next couple of observations were variations on that first one: Newton rotated the prisms and noticed that coloured rings became visible when the incident rays hit the prisms at a particular angle. Newton progressed, step-by-step, from prisms to convex lenses, and then to bubbles and thin plates of glass. He varied the amount, colour and angle of the incident light, and the angle of observation. The result was a detailed, but open ended, survey of the phenomena. Part II consisted of tables that contained the results of part I. These constituted the experimental facts to be explained in propositions in part III. In part IV, Newton described a new set of observations, which built on the discussions of propositions from part III.
When we consider Newton’s observations alongside Bacon’s experientia literata, we notice some common features.
Firstly, the series of observations was built around the core experiment involving pressing together two prisms to observe the rings that appeared.
Secondly, new observations were generated by the variation of experimental parameters: i.e. new observations were generated, first by varying the obliquity of the incident rays, then by varying the glass instruments, then by varying the colour of the incident light, and so on.
Thirdly, the sequence of observations was open-ended. Newton could have extended the sequence by varying the medium, or some other experimental parameter. Moreover, at the end of the sequence, Newton noted further variations to be carried out by others, which might yield new or more precise observations.
Fourthly, the experimental process itself revealed things about the phenomenon, beyond what was revealed by a collection of facts. For example, in observation 1, Newton noticed that increasing the pressure on the two prisms produced a transparent spot. The process of varying the pressure, and hence the thickness of the film of air between the two prisms, suggested to Newton a way of learning more about the phenomenon of thin plates. He realised he could quantify the phenomenon by introducing regularly curved object glasses, which would make the variation in thickness regular, and hence, calculable.
Fifthly, the trajectory of the experimental series was towards increasingly general facts about the phenomenon. Newton began by simply counting the number of rings and describing the sequence of colours under specific experimental parameters. But eventually he showed that the number of rings and their colours was a function of the thickness and density of the film. Thus, he was able to give a much broader account of the phenomenon.
Finally, these general results were collated and presented as tables in part II. Thus, the tables in part II constituted the facts to be explained by propositions in part III.
Many commentators have emphasised the ways that Newton deviated from Baconian method. However, when viewed in this light, book 2 of the Opticks provides a striking example of conformity to the Baconian method of natural history: Newton led the reader from observations in part I, to tables of facts in part II, to propositions in part III. Moreover, it ended with a further series of observations in part IV, emphasising the open-endedness of the art of experientia literata.
In contrast to the observations in book 2, Newton’s experiments in book 1 look like Bacon’s ‘instances of special power’, which are particularly illuminating cases introduced to provide support for specific propositions. I’ll discuss this next time. For now, I’d like to hear what our readers think of my Baconian interpretation of Newton’s observations.
Monday, January 6th, 2014 | 4 Comments
Peter Anstey writes …
From the first decade of its existence early modern experimental philosophy enjoyed an intimate relation with Christianity. This manifested itself in at least two ways. First, experimental philosophy, it was argued, was a great help in the development of the mind and character of the Christian. Second, and later, it came to play a central role in Christian apologetics. As for experimental philosophy and Christian living, some of the Fellows of the early Royal Society like Joseph Glanvill wrote extensively on the theme of the positive benefits of the practice of experimental philosophy for Christians. See, for example, Glanvill’s Philosopia Pia: or a Discourse of the Religious Temper, and Tendencies of the Experimental Philosophy (1671).
Once experimental philosophy had consolidated its position as a prominent new approach to natural philosophy it began to be used for the purposes of Christian apologetics. In Robert Boyle experimental philosophers had the archetypal Christian virtuoso who not only manifested the benefits of practising Christianity in his character but also did much to promote the link between the new experimental natural philosophy and the defense of the faith. In The Christian Virtuoso he claimed that:
the Experimental Philosophy giving us a more clear discovery, …, of the divine Excellencies display’d in the Fabrick and Conduct of the Universe, and of the Creatures it consists of, … leads it [the mind] directly to the acknowledgment and adoration of a most Intelligent, Powerful and Benign Author of things. (Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols, eds Hunter and Davis, London, 1999–2000, 11, 293)
Boyle’s ultimate legacy in this regard was the provision in his will for the Boyle Lectures. And it was the inaugural Boyle Lecturer, Richard Bentley, who first mobilized Newton’s new natural philosophy in Christian apologetics in his seventh lecture, published after extensive correspondence with Newton himself (The Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism, 1693). Once the precedent was established it was continued and augmented in works such as George Cheyne’s Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion (1705), William Derham’s Astro-Theology: or a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, from a Survey of the Heavens (1715) and William Whiston’s Astronomical Principles of Religion, Natural and Revealed (1717).
Interestingly, it was actually the connection with religion that first raised the reading public’s consciousness of experimental philosophy in the Netherlands. For, it is now thought that the publication of Bernard Nieuwentijt’s Het regt gebruik in 1715 marks an important moment in the awakening to experimental philosophy in Holland. This work was translated into English in 1718 by Peter Chamberlayne as The Religious Philosopher with a prefatory letter to the translator by the leading pedagogue of experimental philosophy in England, John Theophilus Desaguliers. Desaguliers commends the work because:
it contains several fine Observations and Experiments, which are altogether new, as is also his manner of treating the most common Phaenomena; from which he deduces admirable Consequences in favour of a Religious Life.
Likewise, Ten Kate’s Dutch adaptation of George Cheyne’s Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion published in Amsterdam in 1716 turned experimental philosophy to apologetical use. Kate claims ‘some distinguished men in England, who disliked the uncertainties of hypotheses [of Cartesianism], have based themselves only on a Philosophia Experimentalis, by means of mathematics’ (Jorink and Zuidervaart, Newton and the Netherlands: how Isaac Newton was Fashioned in the Dutch Republic, 2012, 31). He drew a strong connection between Newton’s natural philosophy and evidence for God’s hand in creation.
Here then, we have an obvious difference between early modern experimental philosophy and its contemporary namesake. I would value references to other works, particularly works in languages other than English, that discuss the practical and apologetical benefits of experimental philosophy to the Christian religion. Let me know if you can help.
Monday, December 23rd, 2013 | No Comments
Kirsten Walsh writes…
Since this is our last post for the year, and the holidays are almost upon us, I thought I’d tell you a Christmas story:
On Christmas day in 1758, Johann Georg Palitzsch, a German farmer and amateur astronomer, became the first person to witness the return of, what would become known as, Halley’s comet.
Halley’s comet is the only short-period comet (i.e. comet that completes an orbit in under 200 years) that is visible with the naked eye. It has featured in astronomical reports since at least 240 BC. However, it wasn’t until 1705 that it was recognised as the same object. That year, the English astronomer Edmund Halley determined the periodicity of the comet, writing about it in his Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae. With the help of Newton’s theories of elliptical orbit, Halley had studied the data of the comets that had appeared in 1531, 1607 and 1682, and recognised that they all followed similar paths. He made a rough estimate that the comet would return in 1758.
Halley died in 1742, and so he never saw the return of the comet. But Palitzsch’s Christmas day observation confirmed his claim that, indeed, there was a comet, visible by the naked eye, that had period of approximately 76 years. It was the first time anything other than a planet had been shown to orbit the earth. In 1759, the French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille named the comet after Halley.
This prediction counts, not only as a confirmation of Halley’s theory, but also of Newtonian physics, and of the mathematico-experimental method more generally. It seems fitting that this confirmation happened on the 116th anniversary of Newton’s birth!*
We at Early Modern Experimental Philosophy wish you a happy holiday. We look forward to hearing from you in 2014!
*Actually, Newton was born in England on 25 December 1642, but Palitzsch saw Halley’s comet in Germany on 25 December 1758. Until 1752, England used the Julian (‘Old Style’) calendar, whereas Europe had adopted the Gregorian (‘New Style’) calendar much earlier. There is a 10-day difference between the two calendars, so Newton’s birthdate adjusts to 4 January 1643 on the Gregorian calendar. So while both events happened on Christmas day, they happened on different Christmas days. (Also, I hope you will forgive me for this picture, that I couldn’t resist posting!)
Monday, December 9th, 2013 | 1 Comment
Juan Gomez writes…
In a number of posts in this blog we have examined how some philosophers in the eighteenth century were carrying out moral enquiries by following the experimental method that had achieved so much for natural philosophers. The subtitle of Hume’s famous Treatise clearly states the “attempt to introduce the experimental method in morals,” and we know that Turnbull, Butler and Hutcheson were also using this method in their arguments regarding morality, the human mind, and the existence of God. Regarding this latter issue, theistic philosophers like Butler and Turnbull argued that the order and perfection of the natural world (deduced from facts and observation) was clear proof of the wisdom and goodness of God. In this post I want to examine one of such arguments given not by a moral philosopher, but by a famous physician and mathematician: Dr. John Aburthnot.
Dr. Arbuthnot was a fellow of the Royal Society and Physician to the Queen, a fellow Scriblerian of Swift and Pope, a mathematician and a very interesting figure in general. Best known for his work in medicine and his satires, this fascinating polymath wrote a short paper that appeared in the Philosophical Transactions for 1710 titled “An Argument for Divine Providence, Taken from the Constant Regularity Observ’d in the Births of Both Sexes.” He explains how probability works in a situation involving a two-sided dice, and then proceeds to argue that the number of males and females born in England from 1629 to 1710 shows that it was not mere chance, but rather Divine Providence that explains the regularity between the sexes. Let’s examine his argument in more detail.
Arbuthnot begins by considering the purely mathematical aspect of an event where we want to find out the chances of throwing a particular number of two-sided dice (or a coin for that matter). The simplest case is that of 2 coins, where we have that there is one chance of both coins landing on heads, one chance of both coins landing on tails, and two chances where each of the coins lands on a different side. The mathematical details need not detain us here; the main conclusion drawn form this exposition is that the chances of getting an equal number of heads and tails grows slimmer as the number of coins augments. For example, the chances of this happening with ten coins is less than 25%. If instead of coins we consider all human beings which, Arbuthnott assumes, are born either male or female, the chances of there being equal number of each of the sexes are very, very low.
However, Arbuthnot acknowledges that the physical world is not equivalent to the mathematical, and this changes his calculations. If it was just mere chance that operated in the world, the balance between the number of males and females would lean to one or the other, and perhaps even reach extremes. But this is not the case. In fact, or so Arbuthnott argues, nature has even taken into account the fact that males have a higher mortality rate than females, given that the former “must seek their Food with danger…and that this loss exceeds far that of the other Sex, occasioned by Diseases incident to it, as Experience convinces us.” The wisdom of the Author of nature is witnessed in this situation, as the tables of births in England show that every year slightly more males than females are born, in order to compensate for the loss mentioned above and keep the balance. For example in 1629, Arbuthnot’s table list 5218 males to 4683 females; in 1659, 3209 males to 2781 females; in 1709, 7840 males to 7380 females; and so on for all the years recorded.
Arbuthnot concludes that from his argument “it follows, that it is Art, not Chance , that governs,” and adds a scholium where he states that polygamy is contrary to the law of nature.
What can we make of Arbuthnot’s paper? Instead of discussing how effective the argument is (I leave that for the readers to discuss with us in the comments!!), I want to focus on the fact that Arbuthnot’s argument illustrates the call for the use of mathematics in natural philosophy. Philosophers like Arbuthnot and John Keill thought that the use of mathematics had been neglected in natural philosophy and believed that it should play a greater role. From the 1690′s onwards the work of experimental philosphers reveals this use of mathematics in natural philosophical reasoning. The structure of Arbuthnot’s argument resembles that of the natural philosophers who, like Newton, were using mathematics to explain natural phenomena. The mathematical calculation is extrapolated to the case of human births (in this case). Arbuthnot recognizes an issue central to the application of maths in natural philosophy: while the former deals with abstract objects, the latter deals with the natural world. However, in this particular case Arbuthnot uses the asymmetry between the mathematical and physical realms to show that Divine Providence is a better explanation than mere chance when it comes to the balance and regularity of human births. I would like to hear what our readers think of arguments like the one constructed by Arbuthnot.
Monday, November 25th, 2013 | No Comments
Peter Anstey writes…
In my last post I introduced Roger Cotes’ famous Preface to the second edition of Newton’s Principia in order to show its importance as an expression of a commitment to experimental philosophy. In that post I focused on Cotes’ critique of the Cartesian vortex theory and the manner in which this attack on the archetypal speculative philosophy formed the bookends of the Principia. In this post I will discuss the role of experiment in Cotes’ comments on experimental philosophy.
The Preface is actually quite a complex essay that has both polemical and expository agendas. On the one hand, Cotes uses it to give a summary of the main theses of the Principia centred around Newton’s theory of gravity. On the other hand, Cotes uses it to defend the theory of gravity against the charge that it is an occult quality, to defend Newton’s system of the world against the Cartesian vortex theory, and to defend the methodology of the work against rival approaches.
On this latter point, Cotes begins by claiming that Newton’s method is ‘based upon experiment’ (The Principia, eds I.B. Cohen and A. Whitman, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, p. 386). One might expect here that Cotes will give a list of the sorts of experimental results that Newton achieved or some reference to crucial experiments, but instead he introduces another set of methodological notions: phenomena, principles, hypotheses, analysis and synthesis. It is only later when appealing to various laws, principles and axioms in his summary of Newton’s system of the world that Cotes refers to experiments.
Here is a summary of Cotes’ account of the method of the Principia. Natural philosophy attempts to derive the causes of all things from the simplest of principles and not from contrived hypotheses. These principles are derived from the phenomena by a two-step process of analysis and synthesis. From select phenomena the forces and simpler laws of these forces are ‘deduced’ by analysis. Then by synthesis ‘the constitution of the rest of the phenomena’ is given. In the case of the Principia the relevant force is gravitational attraction and the relevant law is the inverse square law. Though Cotes throws in the laws of planetary motion claiming that ‘it is reasonable to accept something that can be found by mathematics and proved with the greatest certainty’ (p. 389). He also claims, after presenting a summary of the system of the world, ‘the preceding conclusions are based upon an axiom which is accepted by every philosopher, namely, that effects of the same kind –– that is, effects whose known properties are the same –– have the same causes, and their properties which are not yet known are also the same’. Indeed, ‘all philosophy is based on this rule’ (p. 391).
Where then do experiments fit in this picture? The first mention of experiments is in relation to the law of fall. Cotes refers here to pendulum experiments and to Boyle’s air-pump. Next, Huygens’ pendulum experiments are referred to in the discussion of the determination of the centripetal force of the moon towards the centre of the Earth (p. 389). They then appear in the elaboration of the ‘same effect, same cause’ axiom and its application to the attribution of gravity to all matter. Cotes says ‘[t]he constitution of individual things can be found by observations and experiments’ and from these we make universal judgments (p. 391). Thus, ‘since all terrestrial and celestial bodies on which we can make experiments or observations are heavy, it must be acknowledged without exception that gravity belongs to all bodies universally. … extension, mobility, and impenetrability of bodies are known only through experiments’ and so too is gravity. Finally, in recapping the Newtonian method near the conclusion of the Preface Cotes repeats that ‘honest and fair judges will approve the best method of natural philosophy, which is based on experiments and observations’ (p. 398).
What are we to make of the role of experiments here? First, notice how experiments are appealed to in the establishment of laws and the ‘same effect, same cause’ axiom. Second, it is worth pointing out that the ‘same effect, same cause’ axiom is Newton’s second rule of philosophizing: indeed, Cotes uses the very same example as Newton, namely, the falling of stones in America and Europe (see p. 795). Third, notice how without any explanation Cotes extends experiments to experiments and observations. He begins by saying that there are those ‘whose natural philosophy is based on experiment’ and he ends by saying that ‘the best method of natural philosophy, … is based on experiments and observations’. This is not an equivalent expression and while it is consistent with many other methodological statements by experimental philosophers, it still calls out for explanation.
Has Cotes really given an adequate summary of the method of experimental philosophy and has he captured the manner in which experiments are used in Newton’s reasoning in the Principia? In my view he has not. I’d be interested to hear your views?
Monday, November 11th, 2013 | No Comments
Kirsten Walsh writes…
In my last post, my analysis of the phenomena in Principia revealed a continuity in Newton’s methodology. I said:
- In the Opticks, Newton isolated his explanatory targets by making observations under controlled, experimental conditions. In Principia, Newton isolated his explanatory targets mathematically: from astronomical data, he calculated the motions of bodies with respect to a central focus. Viewed in this way, Newton’s phenomena and experiments are different ways of achieving the same thing: isolating explananda.
In this post, I’ll have a closer look at Newton’s method of isolating explananda in the Opticks. It looks like Newton made a distinction between experiment and observation: book 1, contained ‘experiments’, but books 2 and 3, contained ‘observations’. I’ll argue that the distinction in operation here was not the standard one, which turns on level of intervention.
In current philosophy of science, the distinction between experiment and observation concerns the level of intervention involved. In scientific investigation, intervention has two related functions: isolating a target system, and creating novel scenarios. On this view, experiment involves intervention on a target system, and manipulation of independent variables. In contrast, the term ‘observation’ is usually applied to any empirical investigation that does not involve intervention or manipulation. This distinction is fuzzy at best: usually level of intervention is seen as a continuum, with observation nearer to one end and experiment nearer to the other.
If Newton was working with this sort of distinction, then we should find that the experiments in book 1 involve a higher level of intervention than the observations in books 2 and 3. That is, in contrast to the experiments in book 1, the observations should involve fewer prisms, lenses, isolated light rays, and artificially created scenarios. However, this is not what we find. Instead we find that, in every book of the Opticks, Newton employed instruments to create novel scenarios that allowed him to isolate and identify certain properties of light. It is difficult to quantify the level of intervention involved, but it seems safe to conclude that Newton’s use of the terms ‘observation’ and ‘experiment’ doesn’t reflect this distinction.
To understand what kind of distinction Newton was making, we need to look at the experiments and observations more closely. In Opticks book 1, Newton employed a method of ‘proof by experiments’ to support his propositions. Each experiment was designed to reveal a specific property of light. Consider for example, proposition 1, part I: Lights which differ in Colour, differ also in Degrees of Refrangibility. Newton provided two experiments to support this proposition. These experiments involved the use of prisms, lenses, candles, and red and blue coloured paper. From these experiments, Newton concluded that blue light refracts to a greater degree than red light, and hence that blue light is more refrangible than red light.
In the scholium that followed, Newton pointed out that the red and blue light in these experiments was not strictly homogeneous. Rather, both colours were, to some extent, heterogeneous mixtures of different colours. So it’s not the case, when conducting these experiments, that all the blue light was more refrangible than all the red light. And yet, these experiments demonstrate a general effect. This highlights the fact that, in book 1, Newton was describing ideal experiments in which the target system had been perfectly isolated.
Book 2 concerned the phenomenon now known as ‘Newton’s Rings’: the coloured rings produced by a thin film of air or water compressed between two glasses. It had a different structure to book 1: Newton listed twenty-four observations in part I, then compiled the results in part II, explained them in propositions in part III, and described a new set of observations in part IV. The observations in parts I and IV explored the phenomena of coloured rings in a sequence of increasingly sophisticated experiments.
Consider, for example, the observations in part I. Observation 1 was relatively simple: Newton pressed together two prisms, and noticed that, at the point where the two prisms touched, there was a transparent spot. The next couple of observations were variations on that first one: Newton rotated the prisms and noticed that coloured rings became visible when the incident rays hit the prisms at a particular angle. But Newton steadily progressed, step-by-step, from prisms to convex lenses, and then to bubbles and thin plates of glass. He varied the amount, colour and angle of the incident light, and the angle of observation. The result was a detailed, but open ended, survey of the phenomena.
I have argued that Newton’s experiments and observations cannot be differentiated on the basis of intervention, but there are two other differences worth noting. Firstly, whereas the experiments described in book 1 were ideal experiments, involving perfectly isolated explanatory targets, the observations in books 2 and 3 were not ideal. Rather, through a complex sequence of observations, as the level of sophistication increased, the explanatory target was increasingly well isolated. When viewed in this way, the phenomena of Principia seem to have more in common with the experiments of book 1 than the observations of books 2 and 3.
Secondly, the experiments of book 1 were employed to support particular propositions, and so, individually, they were held to be particularly relevant and informative. In contrast, the observations of books 2 and 3 were only collectively relevant and informative. Moreover, the sequence of observations was open ended: there were always more variations one could try.
What are we to make of these differences between observation and experiment in the Opticks? I have previously argued that, while Newton never constructed Baconian natural histories, his work contained other features of the Baconian experimental philosophy, such as experiments, queries and an anti-hypothetical stance. However, in viewing them as complex, open ended series’ of experiments, I now suggest that the observations of books 2 and 3 look a lot like what Bacon called experientia literata, the method by which natural histories are generated. I’ll discuss this in my next post, but in the mean time, I’d like to hear what our readers think.
Wednesday, October 30th, 2013 | No Comments
Alberto Vanzo writes…
[E] To endorse the method of (early modern) experimental philosophy is to believe that one should only firmly commit to those substantive claims and theories that are warranted by experiments and observations.
In this post, I will clarify three related points in order to address some misunderstandings concerning the nature and the usefulness of the notion of experimental philosophy. I will make three claims. First, experimental philosophers did not need to eschew any theories altogether. Second, this does not entail that even Descartes, Leibniz, or some Scholastics were experimental philosophers. Third, the difficulty in classifying certain authors as experimental philosophers is not as worrying as it is sometimes portrayed.
Experiments and theories
As it should be clear from [E], one need not take on a fully a-theoretical attitude in order to endorse the method of experimental philosophy. The Proem of the Saggi di naturali esperienze, alongside other texts by experimental philosophers, states that the sole purpose of the Accademia del Cimento is “experimenting and narrating”, while eschewing any “hint of anything speculative”. Nevertheless, experimental philosophers were not required to completely avoid any theories. Those who endorse the method of experimental philosophy can consistently entertain theories, put them forward as hypotheses to be tested experimentally, reject theories that are incompatible with experimental evidence, tentatively or provisionally endorse the theories that they take to be more probable than their competitors, and even firmly endorse certain theories (such as corpuscularism), insofar they are warranted by experience. In the light of this, Boyle, Hooke, Locke and Newton can be said to have endorsed the method of experimental philosophy, even though they did not endorse the fully a-theoretical stance that is often associated with the movement.
Who wasn’t an experimental philosopher?
One may fear that, once we grant that experimental philosophers could be engaged in some forms of theorizing, the notion of experimental philosophy becomes too inclusive, so that Descartes, Leibniz, and even certain Aristotelians can be classed as experimental philosophers. This is not the case. The fact that an experimental philosopher can endorse theories and substantive natural-philosophical claims does not entail that there is no real distinction between those who endorsed and those who did not endorse the method of experimental philosophy.
Descartes and Leibniz too engaged in experiments. Leibniz even claimed to be “strongly in favour of the experimental philosophy”. However, insofar as Descartes thought that he had firmly established the highly speculative cosmogonical theories of the Principles of Philosophy, in spite of the scant empirical evidence with which he backed them up, he was hardly following the methodological prescription spelt out in [E]. As for Leibniz, although he stressed the importance of experience for natural philosophy, he also held that some basic propositions of natural philosophy (like the principle of uniformity of nature) could be established only a priori. This view is incompatible with [E], we should not take Leibniz to be an experimental philosopher even though he stressed the importance of experience.
Problems of classification
Although there is a real distinction between those who endorsed the method of experimental philosophy and those who did not, establishing whether an early modern author really was an experimental philosopher is sometimes difficult. There can be a disconnect between rhetoric and methodology, or methodology (understood in the etymological sense of method-talk) and actual, practised method.
Some philosophers called themselves experimental philosophers, or endorsed the rhetoric of the movement (e.g. using “hypothesis” and “speculation” as a term of abuse), but they thought they were entitled to endorse certain natural-philosophical claims a priori. Others claimed that they were following the method of experimental philosophy, but they endorsed theories that outstripped the empirical evidence. Leibniz, as we have seen, is an example of the disconnect between rhetoric and methodology. Another example is provided by those Jesuits, like Daniello Bartoli, who rehearsed the experimentalist rhetoric, but attempted to take the sting out of experimentalism and to combine it with some Aristotelian doctrines that were hardly warranted by experience. In other cases, there was a disconnect between methodology and actual method. An example is provided by the account of vision of the late seventeenth-century Italian natural philosopher Francesco Bianchini. Not only his rhetoric, but also his methodological pronouncements were in line with [E]. However, his account of vision was far more speculative than those pronouncements allowed.
The disconnect between rhetoric, methodology, and practised method determines a difficulty in establishing whether certain authors were experimental philosophers. This would be worrying if a primary aim of the study of early modern experimental philosophy were providing a handy classification of early modern authors. However, the point of studying early modern experimental philosophy is not pigeonholing early modern authors, but understanding their philosophical views and practices, even when the former were not in line with the latter. Finding these discrepancies should not be surprising. People sometimes fail to practice what they preach. Other times, they use a rhetoric that is at least partly out of step with their actual views. Early modern philosophers were no exception.