Friday, March 18, 2011

Why the earth stays where it is etc.

To: Alex P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why the earth stays where it is etc.
Date: 21 April 2001 11:48

Dear Alex,

Thank you for your letter of 9 April, with your two essays for the Pathways Ancient Philosophy program, units 1-3 question 2 'Terra Firma' and units 4-6 question 3 'In at the Deep End'. I was very pleased to receive work from you. I fully understand your problems in finding time for your philosophical studies.

I am glad to say that your effort has been well worth while. These essays are well written, and you make some strong points.

One suggestion I would make which will help you focus your efforts even more, would be to put the question at the top of the essay (of course, you don't have to answer any of the set questions, you can compose your own title). In writing an essay on philosophy you are arguing a case, whatever that case may be.

Terra Firma

I have just been commenting on an essay from a Pathways student in Spain, who argued that the Milesians had 'not fully emancipated themselves from mythical thinking'. I didn't altogether agree with this verdict. You are quite right to emphasize that what the Milesians sought was a 'unification theory that was credible and understandable and capable of modification and not subject to interference by the caprices of mythical deities'. In the theories of the Milesians there is no room for caprice. They started from observations, the physical and biological phenomena, and put forward what they saw as the best explanation.

Thales, you say, 'hints' at the law of the Conservation of Matter. There is an issue here, as you are probably aware, concerning whether Thales held that everything came from water, or whether he held that everything IS water. The idea of a conservation law fits the second alternative better than the first. I am beginning to incline towards the view that Thales saw the 'coming to be' of things from water as a process analogous to biological growth. He observed, e.g. the way plants grow from seeds (and water, and soil) and hypothesised that something similar occurred, or had occurred, in the history of the cosmos. In some respects, Anaximander's Apeiron fulfils a similar function. By contrast, Anaximenes' air undergoes strictly mechanistic transformations.

Why does the earth stay where it is? I am having second thoughts about the explanation given in unit 2. It was not necessary for Anaximander to conceive of the problem in such abstract terms as implied in the Principle of Sufficient Reason. He merely needed to point out that 'All things fall to earth' is a generalization that does not apply to the earth itself. It has nowhere to fall to, so the most logical thing for it to do is stay where it is.

Well done for your observation, regarding the Apeiron, that 'this may well have been the first time that an invisible, undetectable and perhaps theoretical substance had been introduced to bridge gaps in the explanation of things. Much later other such intangibles would find their way into theories, i.e. ether, phlogiston, monads, superstrings etc. etc.' This is a point which I ought to have emphasized more. Critics point out that with an indescribable, ineffable 'arche' anything is possible. That is a not altogether unfounded criticism. The fact remains that Anaximander was the first to realize that we can have rational grounds for belief in the existence of something that has never been actually observed.

So, yes, Anaximenes' theory does appear 'retrograde' in this light. He did, however, to his credit propose a plausible mechanism for change.

In at the deep end

What is a river? You are right, in a way, about the geographical point that a river is identified in terms of a certain feature of the landscape. So a river can run dry and still be the 'river' that it is. However, Heraclitus' point could be put equally well using the example of a fountain. Whereas the shape of the river depends on the shape of the cleft through which it flows, there is no 'shape' to the fountain in the absence of the water which makes that shape. In this respect, the fountain is perhaps a better example of what Heraclitus is trying to say, indeed, much closer to the other example which you cite, that of the flame.

'This demonstrated to Heraclitus that things can both change and remain the same.' I am not so sure about this. The problem of identity in change is without doubt a problem which exercised Heraclitus as much as it exercised the other Presocratics. Yet he has a particular solution to the problem, one which was far more radical (I believe) than any of the solutions offered by his contemporaries. Whereas Anaximenes would have said that the same stuff takes on different forms, and it is the forms of things which we identify as rivers, animals, people, Heraclitus in effect denies that there needs to be any stuff. For example, in the case of the river, Anaximenes would point out that water qua water doesn't undergo change. The river, or the fountain, is a form or shape made out of changing waters. The waters themselves are a form of air which can become rarefied or condensed but never changes in its intrinsic nature. Heraclitus, claims, by contrast that everything that you can pick on, including the actual body of water itself, is 'flowing' like a river, or a flame. There is no constant 'stuff'.

Kirk, Raven and Schofield disagree with my verdict. I am defending the more traditional, 'Platonic' interpretation. Here is where Cratylus comes in. Now it is well known that Plato was influenced by Cratylus' version of Heraclitus theory. It may or may not be true that Cratylus misunderstood or misinterpreted Heraclitus. Not enough is known about Cratylus' theory. It is indeed true that on Heraclitus theory as I have presented it you cannot, as Cratylus is reported to have said, 'even step once'. My argument is that the Platonic version of Heraclitus' theory is in fact a fully defensible position. Hence the point I make in the unit about modern particle physics.

Well done!

I look forward to your next offering.

All the best,