Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Empedocles' contribution to philosophy

To: Simon A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Empedocles' contribution to philosophy
Date: 24 September 2002

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your e-mail of 16 September, with your fourth essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'The most impressive scientific achievements of Empedocles were in establishing the basis for Dalton's science of chemistry, and anticipating Darwin's theory of evolution.' How would you assess Empedocles’ contribution to philosophy?'

This is a very readable and nicely judged essay.

I agree broadly with your claim that 'the main contribution which [Empedocles] made to philosophy was the attempt to reconcile the evidence as given by the senses with...reason as provided by philosophy.' But what exactly does this mean? And how did Empedocles differ from his predecessors in this respect?

This is where you need to explain to the reader how the philosopher's view of 'reason' changed after the contributions of the Eleatic philosophers, Parmenides, Melissus and Zeno. The Milesians used reason to interpret the evidence of their senses, often putting forward hypotheses which seemed greatly at odds with the evidence. The difference is in Eleatic logic and the strict prohibition on any form of 'change'.

The 'reconciliations' attempted by Empedocles and his successors would not have been acceptable to the Eleatics. The philosophies of Empedocles, Anaxagoras and the atomists were an attempt at compromise. So one question, when looking at Empedocles, is whether the compromise is merely superficial or whether, on the contrary, Empedocles made an important discovery which took the debate forward.

The common idea, in essence, is that the local movement of unchanging parts or qualities is a more acceptable form of change, i.e. less susceptible to Eleatic objections. In reality, when things appear to change their qualities, what is happening is that microscopic bits of earth, water, air and fire are moving from one combination to another. The only qualitative 'change' is in the effect of this movement on our perceptions.

Jonathan Barnes refers to this idea of limiting change to movement of unchanging parts as the 'logic of locomotion'.

You did well to pick up on the question of the difference between genuine compounds and mere mixtures. The most obvious objection to raise about a theory which involves a mere mixing of the elements - certainly more obvious to the observer than the point about elements combining in fixed proportions - is that mixtures typically produce a perceptible quality which is intermediate between the quality of each of the two components that are mixed, just as white and black paint mixed together produce grey. Something more fundamental must therefore be taking place.

Your account of the cosmic cycle follows the 'double cycle' theory which I prefer. However, it is important to be aware that this is an issue of scholarly contention. We do not have conclusive evidence that this was Empedocles' view. On the other side, a 'single cycle' of order evolving from separation and chaos nicely fits the idea of Empedocles' anticipating the theory of evolution by natural selection. My response to this is that Empedocles' *motivation* was very different from that of Darwin. Darwin was seeking to show how mere mechanical processes of natural selection could produce ordered, complex structures. Whereas Empedocles' notion of Love embodies a 'teleological', i.e. non-mechanical principle. When love predominates, there is a natural tendency for complex, ordered structures to develop. So the similarity to Darwin's theory is merely superficial.

I am not altogether happy with your use of the term 'induction' to describe the process whereby Empedocles put forward the theory of love and strife. Induction is usually limited to the idea that the more instances of a phenomenon which you observe, the more probable the same phenomenon will be observed in the future. 'All swans are white' is an induction (as it happens, a false induction, since there are in fact black swans.) What Empedocles does is much closer to hypothetico-deductive explanation, i.e. putting forward a hypothesis concerning things that cannot be observed in order to explain things that can be observed. Sometimes the name given to this is 'inference to the best explanation'.

You say, 'this...could be used not only to explain physical phenomena, but also...metaphysical ones.' I think this is true. Physics is one area where inference to the best explanation has proved spectacularly successful. However, a case can be made that there is a role for inference to the best explanation in philosophy too.

All the best,

Geoffrey