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Descartes Boyle And Mechanical Philosphy Essay Research

Descartes, Boyle And Mechanical Philosphy Essay, Research Paper We can say that the earth has a vegetative soul, and that its flesh is the land, its bones the structure of the rocks…its blood is the pools of the water…its breathing and its pulse are the ebb and flow of the sea.1 `This image of ‘Nature’ was presented by a man who is perceived as having one of the most mechanical minds of his day.

Descartes, Boyle And Mechanical Philosphy Essay, Research Paper

We can say that the earth has a vegetative soul, and that its flesh is the land, its bones the structure of the rocks…its blood is the pools of the water…its breathing and its pulse are the ebb and flow of the sea.1 `This image of ‘Nature’ was presented by a man who is perceived as having one of the most mechanical minds of his day. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), often described in Biographical Dictionaries as, amongst other things, an ‘engineer’2 and remembered for his dabblings in the realm of flying machines as early as the sixteenth century, was a man who understood the world to be an organic entity. That the earth for da Vinci, ‘has a vegetative soul’,3 highlights the impact mechanical philosophy would have on society, ‘as the sixteenth century organic cosmos was transformed into the seventeenth century mechanistic universe’.4 Da Vinci’s view of the earth as a living organism was one that conformed to Aristotelian philosophy. In the sixteenth century, this Aristotelian world view enjoyed relatively unchallenged dominance. Over a number of centuries, and in part due to the efforts of Thomas Aquinas, it had become integrated with Christianity. Aristotelianism was both scientifically and theologically the accepted philosophical paradigm. The fact that it provided a comprehensive system and that it had widespread religious support made it something of an impenetrable fortress. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), received what would have been deemed in his day a ‘good education’, its foundations firmly embedded in Aristotelian principles. Descartes, however, was not satisfied with what he had been taught and set about formulating an alternative to Aristotelianism. He recognised the need to establish a complete system, identifying the failure of those before him who had not attacked Aristotelianism as a whole: Other early workers, like Paracelsus, Telesio or Campanella also attacked certain parts of Aristotelian philosophy, but none before Descartes had sought to replace it entirely with a comprehensive alternative philosophy.5 Descartes’ mechanical philosophy was to completely revolutionize science, and thus have far-reaching religious implications. The organic world view of Aristotelianism had been constructed in terms of sympathies, correspondences, purposes and the notion of ‘form’ as distinct from ‘matter’. This was to be replaced with a vastly contrasting mechanical view: matter (is) made up of atoms, colors occur by the reflection of light waves of differing lengths, bodies obey the law of inertia, and the sun is the center of our solar system.6 From our own twentieth century perspective these characteristics form part of our understanding of the world, and have long been established in our culture. However, it is essential to study these developments in the context of the seventeenth century, a period in which these concepts were not taken for granted. The introduction of a new philosophical system that was to radically alter man’s understanding of the world, was something that was bound to lead to ‘instability in both the intellectual and the social spheres,’7 and raise important questions about the compatibility of the mechanical philosophy with Christianity. One of the most dangerous implications of Descartes’ mechanical universe is that it raises sensitive questions about God’s relationship to nature: ‘What role could be left for God to play in a universe that ran like clockwork?’8 This ‘clockwork’ image at the centre of Descartes’ mechanical philosophy was one that had to be reconciled with the Christian doctrine of God’s Providence. The ambivalence of the mechanical image means it is one that has been seized upon by Christians, deists and atheists alike. Initially, the concept of a clock work universe implies something that will run by itself, yet paradoxically, many of the leading popularisers of the mechanical philosophy were promoting a system in which they believed God’s Providential role was heightened. Descartes’ new mechanical world was ‘a metaphysical system based on the principle of identity, on the immutable forms and mathematical axioms of Plato’ but perhaps most importantly, a philosophy based on ‘the primacy of God’s intellect, logic and rationality.’9 Far from conceiving God as merely the Being who had put this clockwork universe in motion, or removing him from this mechanical system altogether, Descartes’ philosophy was one founded on the principles that God existed, had created the universe, and most notably, was perpetually sustaining His Creation. This important emphasis on God’s continual involvement with the world He has created, can be seen in regard to Descartes’ views on motion. Motion, Descartes believed, ‘could be transferred among bodies, but its total amount was conserved from instant to instant by God.’10 God can be seen to be regulating and maintaining constancy in the motion of the universe at any given instant. He is not the clockmaker who merely sets a timepiece in motion and then leaves it to run by itself, on the contrary, ‘God’s Creation was not a single act in the past, but a continuing process of preservation.’11 As mechanical philosophy gained support in Descartes’ native France, so did moves towards a centralised Government control. Descartes’ was quick to draw a parallel between the role of Ruler and Creator, ‘God sets up mathematical laws in nature as a king sets up laws in his kingdom.’12 To take the analogy further, just as the king must make sure his laws are obeyed, so God remains to preside over nature. Descartes’ incorporation of a theory of matter based on particles can be seen as one aspect of his philosophy in which God’s Providential action is best demonstrated. Ironically it was also an area that created difficulties for those trying to integrate mechanical philosophy with Christianity. A key problem was that the counterpart of mechanical philosophy in the Ancient World, Greek atomism, had atheist foundations. To present a world composed of atoms was to be seen to ally to an atheist philosophy. In the year that Descartes died, 1650, the comments of one critic of mechanical philosophy demonstrate that despite his intentions some would associate Descartes’ with a philosophy that placed doubt over God’s role: ‘Epicurism is but atheism under a mask.’13 A crucial aspect of Descartes’ philosophy is that though on one hand we can see him as the archetypal mechanist, the father of a philosophical movement that was to view even the human body as a machine, Descartes also delineated the boundaries around mechanization. While he was prepared to think of the physical world in terms of clocks, fountains and mechanical contraptions, ever more prominent in the society around him, the human mind was a realm he preserved as distinct from notions of the material or the mechanical. Descartes’ belief in the existence of a rational human soul is based on the principle of the indivisibility of the human ego and underpinned by an unquestioning acceptance of the fundamental beliefs in one’s own existence and the existence of God. For Descartes the human body and the human mind were discrete entities. The human soul, unlike the mechanical world, was something that could not be broken down. Some have seen this area of mechanical philosophy as that in which most questions were raised in relation to Christianity. Goodman, assessing Descartes’ philosophy, writes, ‘Its most intractable problem in terms of Christian belief arose from the separation of mind and body and the relationship of each to God.’14 One of the most challenging attacks on this aspect of Descartes’ system was that if mind and matter are so radically different, how do they interact? Descartes’ reaction to this criticism was that the pineal gland in humans formed a point of interaction between body and soul. The inadequacy of this explanation was highlighted by the discovery that the pineal gland is also present in dogs, while Descartes had preserved the rational soul for only the human species. A more theologically acceptable solution to the stumbling block of Cartesian dualism came from Malebranche, a priest of the Oratory at Paris. His response to the problem illustrates the attempts to integrate Cartesian philosophy with Providence. Malebranche argued that it was God that ultimately enabled the separate realms of mind and body to interact. the direct intervention of God occurs in all cases of sense perception, only through the mediating action of God can the mind act on the body. Descartes’ assertion that the privilege of the rational soul be bestowed only on the human species, while animals are regarded as no more than ‘beast-machines’ was extremely controversial. Descartes might argue that he was merely confirming Christian doctrine by raising man, God’s Creation in his own image, above other animals. However, the dangerous theological implication of the beast-machine is that the next step after reducing animals to mere machines, is the mechanization of man. While the mind remains a non-mechanical entity through which God can act there is a place for Providence. If, however, man becomes like beast, a fully automated mechanism, then theological questions must be raised. If man is indeed only a machine, the underlying premises of human freedom of thought and God’s role as perpetual interpolator are placed in doubt – something Christianity will not permit. Though few historians doubt that Descartes was presenting a mechanical system which was essentially neither atheist nor deist, it is undoubtedly true that the work of Christian mechanists has later been seized upon by many non-Christians. Richard Popkin, writing in his History of Scepticism, posits the notion that rather than producing a revolutionary philosophy, that would upset the theological applecart, Descartes was actually seeking to return to values of the past. He sees Descartes as: a man who tried to reinstate the medieval outlook in the face of Renaissance novelty, and a thinker who sought to discover a philosophy adequate for the Christian world view in the light of the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century.15 Though Popkin may have identified Descartes’ ideological intentions, in practice, Descartes’ work was without doubt used as a tool to undermine Christianity as well as reinforce it. Robert Boyle (1627-1691), like Descartes, faced the problem of producing a philosophy that would not be put to non-Christian ends. Boyle was determined to stress God’s Providential role in the universe, a concern clearly illustrated by his key text, an essay directed at those who would, ‘exclude the Deity from intermeddling’. Boyle was acutely aware that an acceptable philosophical system must retain the high profile of God. In Boyle’s mind, mechanical philosophy was inextricably bound up with the notion of bringing man closer to God. Goodman writes of Boyle as someone who, sought to justify the pursuit of science on the grounds of its utility, could cite telescopic and microscopic evidence to support religious beliefs and provide physical proof of God’s omnipotence.16 Boyle realised that in developing a philosophical model it was imperative that he avoided language that would lead to his writings receiving a deistic interpretation. To describe matter, Boyle talked in terms of a ‘corpuscular philosophy’, avoiding the word atom, a term too closely linked with the atheist philosophies of the Greek atomists. Though Boyle was prepared to view matter in terms of particles, he was quick to stress that matter in motion was no freak accident but the work of a Divine Being. Harold Fisch, in his essay on Boyle, ‘The Scientist as Priest’, draws attention to Boyle’s efforts to distance himself from atheist philosophies: `the theological framework of his Philosophy is not affected by his choice of the ‘corpuscular hypothesis’ and he looks with horror upon those such as Hobbes, and other ‘baptized Epicureans’, who thought of the universe in terms of an ‘accidental concourse of atoms’.17 Boyle was highly critical of atheist theories of matter, arguing that they depended heavily on several unproved premises. To remove God from the equation is to assume matter is eternal, infinite and has the power to move itself. For Boyle, however, all matter is inert and in the hands of God. Like Descartes, Boyle stressed God’s continual influence on matter, positing that, ‘an “Incorporeal and Intelligent Being may work upon Matter” in the same way a spiritual substance enters the composition of Man’.18 The clockwork image that dominates Descartes’ mechanical universe is one that Boyle was equally keen to adopt. Fisch draws upon the similarity between the two mechanists but at the same time highlights an important difference in their outlooks: Boyle’s favourite image is that of the Strasbourg clock; as Descartes supposed, the world is a Machine, but we must not forget that there is a Mechanic and that He designed the Machine for purposes which we might try to understand and that He is always present to supervise and maintain it.19 While both appreciated the need to stress God’s Providential role as ‘Mechanic’, Boyle felt man must do more than just ask ‘how?’, he should also ask ‘why?’. Boyle believed Descartes’ refusal to ask the question ‘why?’, to search for something of God’s purposes, was largely an attempt to stand in complete opposition to the purpose-ridden philosophy of Aristotelianism. Boyle conceded that while many of God’s intentions would always remain unknown, man had something of an obligation to discover some of the Creator’s purposes: It is presumptuous Boyle tells us, to claim to know all God’s ends in the Creation but it is a duty to attempt to understand some of them. There will of course come a point when the scientist….can penetrate no further and is simply lost in wonder before the inscrutable purposes of Providence.20 While Descartes’ argument for God’s existence had been ontological, the very notion of a divine Creator implying His existence, Boyle emphasized the design argument. Proof of God’s intentions was for Boyle, manifested in the physical world around him. Boyle stressed that evidence of God’s purposes could best be gleaned from Creations in the physical world around him. The human eye, for example, was clearly constructed for the purpose of seeing. Study of the natural world , often with the aid of the microscope, would not lead to atheism, quite the opposite, ‘the excellence of the machinery could only confirm the excellence of its Maker’.21 Boyle went to great lengths to emphasize the influence of God’s Providence in the world on several levels. On a national scale, God could be seen to make crucial interventions – the fortuitous wind that gave William of Orange a safe passage to England during the Glorious Revolution is often cited. On a more personal level, there is an underlying sentiment in Boyle’s writing that he is constantly kept alive only at God’s will, his continued existence is directly dependent on God. Boyle also identifies a Providential action even in everyday events. He talks, for example, of the ‘pregnant hints’ he receives at crucial points in his experiments. Rene Descartes and Robert Boyle both went to great lengths to formulate a mechanical philosophy that was compatible with the Christian doctrine of Providence. ‘The mechanical philosophy properly understood’ Boyle affirmed, ‘was supportive of divine activity’.22 though their philosophies differed on such issues as the argument for design and final causes, both men produced systems which emphasized God’s role as the Creator and the Sustainer of a mechanical universe.`However, while Fisch concedes that ‘Providence, for Boyle, retained a kind of supervisory interest in the mechanism’,23 he is quick to point out that mechanical philosophy would also be open to other interpretations. Later writers would seize on the ambiguity in the works of Descartes and Boyle, and deists would interpret God as the Being who wound up the clock and then took no further interest in His Mechanism. Though essentially Christian, mechanical philosophy would always be susceptible to an underlying weakness, The clockwork analogies of Boyle or Descartes, though lodged in theologies of nature that remained Christian in inspiration, were to appear perfectly at home when lodged in deistic philosophies – in the anti-Christian literature of the Enlightenment.24 `REFERENCES `1. J.H. Brooke, Science and Religion, p.120 `2. Chamber’s Biographical Dictionary, p.816 `3. see 1. `4. C. Merchant, The Death of Nature, p.105 `5. D. Goodman & C.A. Russell ed. The Rise of Scientific Europe, p.180 `6. Merchant, p.193 `7. Ibid., p.193 `8. Brooke, p.118 `9. Merchant, pp.194-5 `10. Ibid., p.204 `11. The Open University, Towards a Mechanistic Philosophy, unit 4, p.23 `12. Merchant, p.205 `13. The Open University, unit 5, p.73 `14. Goodman, p.184 `15. R. H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes, p.175 `16. Goodman, p.212 `17. H, Fisch. ‘The Scientist as Priest: A Note On Robert Boyle’s Natural Theology’ `in Isis no.44, p252 `18. Ibid., p.257 19. Ibid., pp.263-4 20. Ibid., p.262 21. Brooke, p.77 22. Ibid., pp.133-4 23. Fisch, p.264 24. Brooke, p.140`BIBLIOGRAPHY `Anscombe, E. & P.T. Geach Descartes: Philosophical Writings `Thomas Laden & Sons, (London,1954) Brooke, J.H. Science and Religion `Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge,1991) Fisch, H. ‘The Scientist as Priest: A Note on Robert Boyle’s Natural `Theology’ in Isis no.44, (pp.252-265) Goodman, D. & C.A. Russell ed. The Rise of Scientific Europe `Hodder and Stroughton, (Sevenoaks, 1991) Goodman, D.(unit4) Towards a Mechanistic Philosophy `& Brooke, J.H. (unit5) Open University Press, (Milton Keynes, 1974) Lindberg, D.C. & R.L. Numbers ed. God and Nature `University of California Press, (Berkeley, 1980) Merchant, C. The Death of Nature `Harper and Row, (New York, 1983) Popkin, R.H. The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes Koninklijke Vin Gorum & Co., (Assen, 1960) Ryle, G. The Concept of Mind `Penguin, (Aylesbury, 1973) Williams, B. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry `Harvester, (Hassocks, 1978)

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