Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Thinking about Causes

Due to a posting on the ACS blogg (which itself refers to a French blogue!) I had to write on my own blogg about the famous line from Virgil:
Felix qui potuit cognoscere causas rerum.
[Virgil, Georgics II:490]
which is (roughly)
Happy is he who is able to know the causes of things.
I wondered if Jaki happened to quote this, but in a very brief hunt, could not come up with any direct reference. However, I found something else which is worth our consideration:
It is typical of scientism, however, to produce in its devotees a mental attitude that is incapacitated by its own nature to appreciate both sides of a coin. It was only natural that Comte's admirers could not avoid the same pitfall. Thus J. S. Mill found nothing wrong with Comte's claim that anybody who ever contributed anything to science did it in the genuine spirit of positive philosophy. According to J. S. Mill, Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo were the forerunners of positivism, which was first formulated and practiced in all clarity by Newton himself. Such a claim, however, is faulty on two counts. First, it ignores all that is simply fantastic in Comte's comments on science; second, it blatantly falsifies the historical record. Newton for one never once came close in his statements to the absurd one-sidedness of Comtean positivism as regards the search for causes. True, Newton argued against Leibniz that one can make progress in studying gravitation without knowing its cause. In so doing, however, he was far from emulating unknowingly the Comtean program. For Newton's was a mind searching for causes, as the General Scholium or the queries of the Opticks could have shown to either Comte or Mill. But where Newton merely distinguished two parts of the scientific procedure, Comte negated the one not to his liking. Unlike Comte, who dismissed hypotheses bearing on the way phenomena are produced, Newton clearly enjoyed constructing them and rejected only those that by definition could not be subjected to experimental tests.
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 478]
There is a footnote on the very last sentence which is relevant (no pun intended) to us:
81. One of the early critics of Comte's views on what science should and should not do was W. Whewell, who pointed out with direct reference to Newton that inquiring into the causes of things is inavoidable in scientific research See his Philosophy of the Inductive Science II (2d ed., London 1847), 320-25.
This suggests a fundamental distinguo (I distinguish) as the Scholastics would say: that while science is not really "about" causes, it requires us to inquire into them.

A marvellous research topic - perhaps the keynote topic for a future Duhem Society conference. Think about it, bearing in mind the famous epigram SLJ loved to quote:
Those who devote themselves to the purpose of proving that there is no purpose constitute an interesting subject for study.
[A. N. Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1929), p. 12.


Angelo said...

This line from Virgil appears also in Newman's The Idea of a University.
Virgil was actually referring to Lucretius, the Roman epicurean poet. In the later editions of his work Newman moved this quote from the Fifth Discourse, where he addresses Liberal Knowledge, to the Sixth Discourse, where he describes the intellect that has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, and which he found to be common to all the greatest ancient schools: peripatetic, stoic and epicurean.

Dr. Thursday said...

Thanks, Angelo, for this stupendous link.

It seems more urgent than ever that our Society begin some serious academic work. Of course Jaki was a world-class scholar of Newman and Chesterton - we must to advance and augment this particular line of research, and others related to it.

Our budget at present does not allow such endowments - we have no budget at all. But even if we cannot yet explore these trails with a fully equipped team of explorers, we shall go out individually, and see what there is to be seen!