Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Presocratic philosophers on why the earth stands still

To: Marcus S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Presocratic philosophers on why the earth stands still
Date: 9 April 2005 13:39

Dear Marcus,

Thank you for your email of 29 March, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why does the Earth (appear to) stand still? Discuss with reference to the theories of Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes.'

You have found an unusual take on the question why the earth stands still which, for me, has strong resonances with what I would like to say about the nature of metaphysical inquiry, or inquiry into the 'ultimate' nature of things. More of that in a minute.

Archimedes is reputed to have remarked (something along the lines), 'Give me a lever and I will move the Earth'. If there were some sufficiently stable object to serve as a fixed point where one could place one's fulcrum, and you had long enough (and strong enough, and light enough) lever, there is no reason why a man of average strength could not 'move' the earth. In saying this, Archimedes was expressing a basic principle of mechanics.

The Milesian philosophers, in their ingenious theorising, showed that they had no problems with the view that the earth was 'just' another physical object, albeit the one which plays the most central part in our experience. For Thales, it was a log, floating on water. For Anaximander, it was not the nature of the earth but simply its position at the centre of things which accounted for its immobility. For Anaximenes, most spectacularly, the earth was a flat 'pot lid' riding on a steady and powerful upcurrent of air.

How important was it, in all this, that the earth did apparently stay put (however precarious the explanation)? Might things have been otherwise? Imagine a rather small world (like the illustrations in Le Petit Prince), on whose surface we make our precarious way, while it swerves and lurches round the galaxy, offering an ever-changing spectacle of stars and planets as they pass by. A world perpetually 'on the move' in a manner obvious to everyone. On this mini-world, philosophers begin to question the ancient myths, and make their first tentative attempts to account rationally for their experience.

Is it more problematic, as your argument seems to suggest, that the notion of an unmoving foundation of reason might have arisen in such circumstances? Maybe. I would call this a speculation that forms part of the history of ideas. There is no logical reason that I can think of why the mini-world history of philosophy should not have followed the same course as philosophy did here on earth. But then again, the history of philosophy did not happen in a vacuum. Human nature, and historical events played a crucial role in the way philosophy actually developed.

It seems to me, however, that there is more to your claim than a historical speculation concerning the role of our experience of the earth in the development of the idea of reason or philosophy.

Throughout its history, metaphysics has been enamoured of the Archimedian idea, that in inquiring into the ultimate nature of things, we are seeking a vantage point of pure detachment from our situation as embodied beings in a social world, living on some planet somewhere, the vantage point which Thomas Nagel calls 'The View from Nowhere' (in the book of the same title). This picture of the detached thinker/ observer gives precedence to the notion of pure logic or rationality which embodies the power to deduce, a priori, necessary truths concerning the nature of truth, time, substance, existence, self. It was this traditional picture of the task of the metaphysician which led to the crisis which Kant diagnosed, in the Critique of Pure Reason, as the attempt to 'think beyond the limits of human reason'.

So reason has limits, which are imposed by our nature as finite beings. Much (though not all) of the subsequent history of metaphysics has been concerned with exploring different aspects of this idea. The idea of reason without limits, reason resting only on itself, is sublime, awesome. Yet, to my mind, the idea that reason is not without limits, that in some deep and fundamental sense we can only philosophize from where we stand is no less sublime and awesome.

I wonder whether that was at the back of your mind (or the forefront, in which case I apologise for being so dense).

Just a couple of points which I noted.

I liked the connection you made between water as a 'reference of last resort' and the standard meter (which interestingly used to be a metal rod in Paris). Water is one of the few things which are easily observed to have constant properties, e.g. the rate at which water flows through a hole of a particular diameter, or the time needed to boil an egg, or the shape of ice crystals. Water is simple, whereas so much of the world around us is messy and complex.

You ask, 'How do I know that I am being reasonable in my description of the world?' Then you go on to talk instead about 'behaving reasonably'. But the question about reasonable description was a good one. I can see how it can be seen as praiseworthy for a person to act predictably and reliably. Yet it could be argued that the Presocratics (as indeed Karl Popper observed in his essay, 'Back to the Presocratics') showed how discovering a theory depends far more upon the vaulting power of human imagination in going way beyond merely predictable, inductive thinking.

All the best,

Geoffrey