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Pneumatology of Matter

Status: published (Jan 25, 2013)

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Synopsis: Throughout history philosophers have posited souls, vital spirits and other active principles in living beings in order to explain their differences from non-living beings. With the arrival of genetics and evolutionary biology, however, it now seems possible to account for these differences without assuming such principles. Living beings are henceforth to be understood mechanically, as products of self-replicating microscopic objects and selective environmental conditions, rather than pneumatically, in terms of active principles. It is very remarkable, therefore, that physics has since abandoned the mechanical model of explanation, which it gave to biology, and returned to the pneumatical model, applying it not merely to living beings but to matter quite generally. The conceptual origins and philosophical significance of this remarkable development are explored in the present work. Part One examines the crucial role played by field theory in the decline of mechanism in physics and its replacement by pneumatism. Part Two discusses the importance of this development for metaphysics and the theory of human nature.

Preliminary questions arising: The first part of the book concerns the theoretical principles of modern physics; the second part involves extracting a metaphysic or general theory of reality from those principles, and applying it to philosophical problems. This procedure gives rise to the following questions: (1) what are the principles of modern physics on which this investigation is to be based? (2) how exactly is a metaphysic to be extracted from them?

Neither question has a straightforward answer. Thus, in reply to (1), we might specify the principles of general relativity theory and standard quantum field theory, on the very reasonable grounds that these theories are not only fundamental in character, and as such apply to matter quite generally, but are also well established empirically. On the other hand, these theories seem to be conceptually defective (e.g. general relativity is a field theory but not a quantum field theory; quantum field theory is relativistic but does not incorporate gravity). Therefore, we might choose to specify instead the principles of more recent physical theories, such as string theory or loop quantum gravity—theories that are likewise fundamental, but which overcome some of the conceptual defects of general relativity theory and quantum field theory. Unfortunately, these more recent theories have as yet no empirical warrant beyond that of the established theories, and thus no empirical warrant for their novel theoretical content. Furthermore, they suffer from theoretical shortcomings of their own: loop quantum gravity is not sufficiently unifying, being a quantum theory of gravitational physics but not also of electromagnetic and nuclear physics; string theory, while it incorporates gravity along with the other fundamental interactions within a quantum-theoretical framework, does not respect the equivalence of gravitational motion and inertial motion, as general relativity does. Either way, then, our path seems precarious. If we plump for the established theories, our philosophical argument will depend on premises that are bound to be superseded sooner or later, given their theoretical shortcomings. If we favor the more recent theories, we will be starting from premises which not only have theoretical shortcomings but also lack empirical credentials of their own, and which might therefore, despite their merits, be on completely the wrong track. How, then, is this dilemma to be resolved, that philosophy itself may proceed on a sound scientific basis?

Assuming for the moment that it can be resolved, and a suitable set of physical principles found, we then have to face Question 2: how is a metaphysic to be extracted from our principles? This question is no less difficult than the first, and may even appear misguided, given that metaphysics is supposed to be an independent and non-empirical kind of inquiry, one that proceeds by rational speculation alone, and as such is beholden at most only to logic. In that case it would be physics which is to be conditioned by metaphysics, not the other way round. Then again, mere logical constraints on metaphysical theorizing have proved too weak to enable anything like the high level of agreement about theory that has so often and impressively obtained in the natural sciences. Indeed, the proliferation of fundamentally incompatible theories of reality based on reason alone has led philosophers themselves to express grave doubts about the whole enterprise, and urged Kant, in particular, to invoke extra-logical constraints—his famous conditions on the possibility of experience—in order to salvage what he could from the seeming imminent shipwreck of metaphysics. Kant was right in thinking that extra-logical constraints are required, if metaphysics is to remain a viable philosophical enterprise. However, Kant’s own constraints were conditioned by the physics of his day, so that the metaphysic he deduced, critical idealism, is no longer tenable, now that physics has moved on. This furnishes a cautionary lesson for our own inquiry, and leads us directly back to our discussion of Question 1.

Answer to Question 1: To extract a determinate metaphysic from the principles of physics, we not only require principles that are themselves sufficiently determinate, we also require robust physical principles, so that the extracted metaphysic does not succumb to the same fate as Kant’s critical idealism. The difficulty here is that physics develops, and not even its deepest principles seem to be immune from change. Certainly no scientist today would claim that physics has now arrived at a point where further change in its fundamentals is impossible or even undesirable. In this situation philosophy must make do with what it is given, just as physics itself, at any given moment, must make do with the phenomena that it is given, without any assurance that these phenomena won’t be modified later on. To minimize the possibility of our selecting physical principles that are liable to modification or rejection, it would seem prudent to choose only those principles which all of the above-mentioned physical theories—the empirically established theories as well as those being offered as superior replacements—have in common. Of course, there may not be any such common principles, or they may be too few in number or too indeterminate in themselves to allow a determinate metaphysic to be extracted from them. Again, this approach cannot guarantee a result that is insulated from future theoretical change. For while the correct theory of matter will almost certainly contain elements in common with the above-mentioned theories, these elements might not be the same ones that the earlier theories had in common with each other. In the absence of relevant foreknowledge nothing can be done, apparently, to obviate this latter contingency. (In fact, something can be done: see my Tumblr interview, near the end; also, §58 and §69 of the book.) As for the rest, the Pneumatology of Matter itself shows that they do not after all obtain. That is, it shows that there are indeed sufficient, and sufficiently determinate, principles held in common by the fundamental theories of modern physics for a determinate metaphysic to be derived from them. These principles are, in the first place, general dynamical principles, which specify the universal properties of physical force or action. But there also principles which, although they are not shared by all of the fundamental theories of physics mentioned above, are shared by at least two of them, and are also widely endorsed by physicists as being very desirable principles. One of these, the equivalence principle, implies that space-time, instead of constituting an inert, non-physical background to matter and material processes, is itself active and material. Another is the quantum principle, which implies the wave-particle duality of matter and associated uncertainty or indeterminacy in the phenomena. These principles, together with the dynamical principles just referred to—all of which originated in, or acquired their final validation and significance in, field theory—will constitute the scientific basis of our philosophical investigation.

Answer to Question 2: Our investigation involves, as we said, the extraction of a metaphysic from the principles of physics. But how, exactly, is such an extraction to be performed? In some kinds of extraction specialized tools are required. In philosophy the required tools are conceptual in nature. These include not only the tactility employed axioms of formal logic, such as the principles of contradiction and bivalence, but also the principles and concepts of general metaphysical theory: concepts such as ‘being’, ‘substance’, ‘action’, ’cause’ and their complements; and principles such as the genetic principle (that something can neither come from nor go into nothing) and its close relative, the principle of the permanence of substance. The important thing is that these metaphysical concepts and principles are at the outset to be taken only indeterminately, and are to be made determinate by the extraction process itself. The methodological model here is furnished by physics, specifically, by Newtonian analysis, which Isaac Newton himself applied in order to derive his famous inverse-square law of universal gravitation. That is, Newton used his general dynamical principles, or laws of motion, to extract from the phenomena of celestial motions the reason or ground of their being, and in so doing rendered determinate the initially indeterminate concept of impressed or mechanical force appearing in his principles. Analogously, we will use the principles of general metaphysics to analyze our chosen phenomena, which include the dynamical principles of modern physics, and so render determinate the initially indeterminate concepts of ‘being’, ‘action’ etc. appearing in our metaphysical principles. In this role the principles of modern physics will constitute extra-logical constraints on our metaphysical theorizing. We have already addressed concerns about the robustness of these constraints. But what about the robustness of the background concepts and principles supplied by logic and metaphysics? For these concepts and principles, however indeterminate at the outset, still belong to what might be called ‘orthodox logic’ and ‘orthodox metaphysics’, and as such automatically preclude metaphysical theories (e.g. Whitehead’s) which are unorthodox in the sense that they do not contain these background assumptions, at any rate not all of them. Indeed, the Newtonian method itself, in so far as it distinguishes between what is thought (the background assumptions) and what is given (the phenomena) would seem to preclude any metaphysic (e.g. Hegel’s) in which that distinction is not ultimately true. Our approach therefore seems doubly prejudiced: first in what it assumes and second in how it proceeds. Since this allegation of bias is not only very grave but appears cogent besides, an adequate reply to it cannot help but be involved. We therefore direct readers to relevant sections of the book, specifically to the Introduction and to §65, rather than go into further detail here. Let us just note, for the present, that apart from the alleged biases just mentioned, every effort has been made in the book to avoid assumptions that might predetermine our results. One such assumption, which is fairly commonplace nowadays, is the following: that matter is such that it can be understood using mathematics alone. In other words, that mathematics (together with experiment and observation) is sufficient for physics. Descartes made this assumption, and it not only prevented him from developing a coherent, empirically adequate understanding of physical phenomena, it also urged him towards a dualistic metaphysic that proved unsatisfactory in other ways. We must therefore take care, in using the principles of modern physics as a starting point for philosophical inquiry, not to make any such assumption, lest it blind us to the presence in physical theory of non-mathematical or philosophical, indeed metaphysical, content that might be material to our conclusions and secure us against repeating the errors of earlier philosophers. In this connection it is vital that the dynamical principles invoked as phenomena to be analyzed are treated as genuinely dynamical, and not, as some thinkers have treated them, as merely kinematical or mathematical principles.

Structure of the work: The two parts of the book correspond to the two-part method employed. The first part concerns the phenomena to be analyzed, namely, the principles of modern physics, and includes extended discussions about the origins and development of its dynamical principles in particular. The purpose of these discussions is not only to introduce in a gradual and informative way physical principles that may be quite unfamiliar, but also to impress upon readers the scientific importance of dynamical principles, and the consequences of neglecting them. The second part of the book contains the analysis itself, and brings its results to bear on (1) the question of material existence, (2) metaphysics in general, and (3) the theory of human nature.

Some conclusions of the work:

Material action is fundamentally pneumatical (self-determining) rather than mechanical action.

Material being is necessary being, having the ground of its existence within itself.

Minds, although material, are ontologically prior to bodies.

Synthetic a priori knowledge of matter is after all possible.

Free will, as an original power of acting in human beings, is real.

Free will, as a power to act otherwise under identical circumstances, is unreal.

The beautiful and the good are present in the physical principles of things and not only in their effects.

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