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Is science rational?

2013/10/18 3 comments

The title of this post suggests a polemic of some form or another, whether in defense of or as an attack on science. The reality of this post will disappoint those feisty souls who delight in the witty barbs the polemicist uses to replace reasons, but may perhaps be of interest to those interested instead in an exploration of an intriguing historical topic. Scientific inquiry today is taken to be the pinnacle of rational thought, yet according to one established tradition of the use of the term “Reason”, contemporary scientific thought has no part in it. And this indicates that for science to reach the point where it could be seen as the paradigm of rational thought, there had to be a substantial reconsideration of what it is to be rational.

These reflections grow out of my reading for the human/animal seminar that I’ve been taking this semester. As such they reflect my limited and partial reading in the history of thought more, perhaps, than they reflect history itself. But with that caveat firmly in mind I may perhaps proceed in a free and incautious manner. I will draw particularly heavily on readings from Coleridge (discussed in my previous post), as well as J.S. Mill’s essay on Coleridge, which more or less makes the point I will be making a century and a half in advance. [Coleridge’s “Theory of Life” citations are the same as in the earlier essay. Coleridge’s “The Friend” citations are to a version of whose origin I am ignorant, though it is probably on Google Books or archive.org. Mill citations are to the pages in this PDF.]

In an earlier post on Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, I drew on readings from this same seminar to make the point that telling someone they cannot rise above their imagination is tantamount to calling them beastly, to reducing them to the animal. This same objection appears in Coleridge, in an argument, as usual, against materialism. The system of materialism is described, by Coleridge, as “the exclusion of all modes of existence which the theorist cannot in imagination, at least, finger and peep at!” (“Theory of Life”, 45) In this essay, Coleridge doesn’t make much of this, but in Essay V of “The Friend”, it becomes clear that this is supposed to reduce the materialist to a beast. Coleridge there defines cognitive faculties by their objects. The imagination is sensual, is concerned precisely with those objects that may be fingered and peeped at. Reason, by contrast, is concerned with the knowledge of spiritual objects: “the Universal, the Eternal, and the Necessary” and “God, the Soul, eternal Truth” (“The Friend”, 266).

From this, it is an easy deduction to conclude that Reason and materialism are incompatible. If there are no spiritual objects, there is no Reason. Materialism says there are no spiritual objects. So materialism says there is no Reason.

Where does science slot into this picture? For Coleridge it is a matter of Reason. Recall from my previous post his anti-realism about quantitative science and his realism about qualitative science. This distinction is fleshed out (though not in these terms) in “The Friend”. Coleridge makes a threefold distinction between Sense, which takes in impressions from the environment, Understanding, which organizes these impressions under concepts and rules (giving us experience), and Reason, which subsumes experience under “ABSOLUTE PRINCIPLES or necessary LAWS” (“The Friend”, 270). Mere induction on the basis of experience (which may give you quantitative, anti-realist science) is not yet reasoning. Reasoning requires the subsumption of experience under necessary laws.

Note that this changes the earlier deduction of the incompatibility of materialism and Reason. For Coleridge here is explicit: “Reason therefore, in this secondary sense, and used, not as a spiritual Organ but as a Faculty […] Reason, I say, or the scientific Faculty, is the Intellection of the possibility or essential properties of things by means of the Laws that constitute them” (“The Friend”, 270-1). So, insofar as materialism allows for a science with laws, it seems compatible with Reason. Now Coleridge thinks that Reason as a scientific faculty requires the spiritual aspect of Reason (it is, after all, a secondary aspect of Reason that is implicated in science), but if we drop this presupposition then at least this secondary sense of Reason seems compatible with materialist science.

Mill perceptively captures all of this. He characterizes the fight between the Benthamites and the Coleridgeans—Mill sees Bentham and Coleridge as the English heads of two competing tendencies—as follows: “Sensualism is the common term of abuse for the one philosophy, mysticism for the other. The one doctrine is accused of making men beasts, the other lunatics” (Mill, 405). Even more interesting, in light of the question I am raising, is what he says about the Coleridgean view of what happens to science given a materialist philosophy:

Even science, it is affirmed, loses the character of science in this view of it, and becomes empiricism; a mere enumeration and arrangement of facts, not explaining nor accounting for them: since a fact is only then accounted for, when we are made to see in it the manifestation of laws, which, as soon as they are perceived at all, are perceived to be necessary. These are the charges brought by the transcendental philosophers against the school of Locke, Hartley, and Bentham. (Mill, 407-8)

The charge, I want to say, sticks, at least to a very strong current of thought about science. (To say the charge sticks is not to accept the normative implication that this is a problem, of course.) Hume captured extremely well the difficulties with understanding experience as giving us access to necessity. We never perceive necessity, whether of a causal or law-like sort. We never see the truth of laws, but only individual phenomena that would be consistent with certain laws, did they exist. One might argue that the best explanation for why science works as well as it does is that there really are necessary laws of nature that “govern” (in a strong, causal sense) the phenomena studied by scientists. But such an inference without question goes beyond the content of the sciences themselves, and moreover seems of dubious compatibility with materialism, since such laws cannot be fingered or peeped at.

Thus I think there is a very real sense in which contemporary science has indeed rejected explanation in favor of description, has given up the search for necessary, governing laws, and has therefore given up its claim to be the product even of the secondary sense of Reason. And, as my examples adduced in the Melville post show, this conception of Reason has a long history that clearly predates the rise of modern science. For science to become the paradigm of rational thought that it is today, then, it had to throw off this history and stake out a new conception of ‘reason’ for itself.

Or so my limited grasp of history leads me to believe.

Two metaphors in Coleridge’s “Theory of Life”

2013/10/17 1 comment

UPDATE: For reasons that baffle me, this post has been cited as a source in a wikipedia article. If you were sent here from that, know that I am not at all an expert, merely an interested reader. I would not, if I were you, trust anything I say here.

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My seminar on the boundary between humans and animals continues on to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, philosopher and poet, author of the long essay “Hints Towards the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life”. Here I want to explore two metaphors about the process of science as they arise in this essay. The essay may be read here, and page references are to that file.

Coleridge, in the “Theory of Life”, offers two quite different and quite interesting metaphors about the scientific process. The first metaphor, located in the essay’s first paragraph, is a call to rigor:

The positions of science must be tried in the jeweller’s scales, not like the mixed commodities of the market, on the weigh-bridge of common opinion and vulgar usage. (21)

The jeweler’s scales here represent accuracy and precision, as opposed to the much blunter tools of common opinion and vulgar usage. A further undercurrent of the metaphor is its relationship to honesty: accuracy and precision in this context are not purely descriptive virtues, but rather are connected to the discovery of the true value of the jewel. On the market, by contrast, the confusion created by common opinion and vulgar usage allows for swindling and deception. The essay begins by describing Coleridge’s opponents: those who have earlier attempted to define life, but have done so in a way more reminiscent of the market than the jeweler’s scales. The first metaphor, then, is not just a call to rigor; it is a reproach.

The second metaphor comes much later, and has quite a different tenor. It arises in the course of a friendly critique of John Abernethy’s theory of life:

In Mr. Abernethy’s Lecture on the Theory of Life, it is impossible not to see a presentiment of a great truth. He has, if I may so express myself, caught it in the breeze: and we seem to hear the first glad opening and shout with which he springs forward to the pursuit. But it is equally evident that the prey has not been followed through its doublings and windings, or driven out from its brakes and covers into full and open view. (65)

This is a much richer metaphor than the first. In the first, accuracy is achieved by the use of a precise instrument that measures the relevant quantity exactly. But what is to be measured is given: Coleridge says nothing of the extraction of the jewel. Here, by contrast, finding the truth is not a matter of calm measurement. It is a matter of a strategic and perhaps even dangerous pursuit against a worthy adversary. And, while Coleridge thinks Abernethy has failed in his pursuit, this failure is nothing like that of his earlier targets, who have failed even to rise above the discourse of the marketplace.

Why this difference in metaphors? The difference in tone may be attributed to Coleridge’s differing levels of respect for his targets. But what about the difference in content, between the hunt and the jeweler’s scales? What I want to suggest is that this difference in content is crucially related to Coleridge’s views about the aims of science and the status of scientific theories, and cannot be understood in isolation from them.

Sprinkled throughout the essay are various anti-realist remarks about quantitative scientific theorizing, sometimes at an abstract level and sometimes connected to particular theories. Thus, early in the essay, Coleridge remarks on the theory of “the French chemists” that it remains the dominant theory because of “the absence of a rival sufficiently popular to fill the throne in its stead” and not from “the continuance of an implicit belief in its stability” (23). This is a straightforwardly anti-realist attitude toward the theory: it is simply waiting to be replaced by a successor. Coleridge later generalizes the point: “For the full applicability of an abstract science ceases, the moment reality begins” (51), which receives an extensive footnote that begins by noting that abstractions are the “only subject of all abstract sciences.”

We can understand this view in light of Coleridge’s argument that everything that is, is Life. This argument itself is worthy of detailed consideration, but here I note only Coleridge’s comments about quantity and quality.

Our reason convinces us that the quantities of things, taken abstractedly as quantity, exist only in the relations they bear to the percipient; in plainer words, they exist only in our minds, ut quorum esse est percipi. For if the definite quantities have a ground, and therefore a reality, in the external world, and independent of the mind that perceives them, this ground is ipso facto a quality… (38-39)

Quantity, for Coleridge, is inherently mind-dependent, whereas external reality is qualitative. Quantity is nothing more than a human abstraction from this qualitative reality. The quantitative sciences, then, are properly considered with an anti-realist attitude—unless they are grounded in some qualitative reality.

Now it is worthwhile to recall that the first metaphor arises precisely in the context of an anti-realist argument about existing theories of life: these theories are to be rejected as insufficiently precise and rigorous. They do not pass the test of the jeweler’s scales; they belong in the marketplace. Indeed, Coleridge explicitly says that may be “sufficient, perhaps, for the purpose of ordinary discrimination, but far too indeterminate and diffluent to be taken unexamined by the philosophic inquirer” (21). But now consider the metaphor again. The jeweler’s scales are precisely a quantitative instrument—and so the jeweler’s measurements are inherently mind-dependent abstractions.

Coleridge, however, wants to claim for his theory more than the sort of anti-realist success of the abstract sciences. Why, then, a metaphor that, by his criteria, only points toward the quantitative sciences? Some light is shed on this by the presence of a frequent bugbear in Coleridge’s essay: the materialist. Coleridge on numerous occasions points out the impossibility of a materialist account of Life—that is why Coleridge’s vitalist alternative is needed. (Note that Coleridge is a strange sort of vitalist in that his vitalism unifies the organic and physical sciences rather than serving as a basis for their disunity.) Nevertheless, Coleridge does not deny the genuine scientific successes of materialistic theories. It is merely that these successes are quantitative and not qualitative—and so deserving of an anti-realist attitude.

Here the second metaphor comes in. No longer are we in the back room of the jewelry shop. We are out in the field, hunting. The pursuit of truth is now mixed with sweat and blood. In an almost literal way, this metaphor puts flesh on the first. Moreover, it comes precisely in the context of a realist argument. While he critiques Abernethy, Coleridge is concerned to say that Abernethy nonetheless has the presentiment of a great truth. Unlike the jeweler, Abernethy is on the path to truth, and not mere abstraction. Coleridge, by using the hunt metaphor, can thus characterize his own view as being simply further down this path than Abernethy’s view, thereby securing a qualitative, realist basis for his theory of life.