Spinoza, Newton and Feynman

Reading The Graphic Spinoza, I was reminded of some thoughts I had concerning a quote from physicist Richard Feynman:

My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza – and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these Attributes, and Substances, all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now, how could we do that? Here’s this great Dutch philosopher, and we’re laughing at him. It’s because there was no excuse for it! In that same period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the circulation of blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza’s propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world – and you can’t tell which is right.

As pointed out at Hummings in the Fly-Bottle, “of course you can’t tell which of Spinoza’s propositions is true by looking at the world; you are not supposed to! Spinoza was not doing bad science; he was doing metaphysics”.

While Newton’s work has undoubtedly been foundational for our bedrock that is science, we need not judge the merits of one enterprise by the merits of another. Yes it was Newton’s framework and not Spinoza’s that set the stage for scientific progress to be made, but still, despite issues with its rationalist metaphysics, there is still good to be extracted and derived from Spinoza’s work. I don’t think that Feynman exhibits enough care in such matters to analyze the work in context. Spinoza’s philosophical enterprise is of significant historical, sociopolitical and ethical importance, laying the groundwork for the 18th-century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self and our place within the universe.

Newton was an ardent Christian and spent much time preoccupied with studying and dealing with literal interpretation of the Bible. Given the progress that has been made on understanding religion, Christianity and the Bible over the last few centuries, I shall appropriate Feynman’s quote from above and say that

I read about Newton’s work on occult studies and religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible, and I started to laugh. Now, how could that be? Here’s this great English natural philosopher, and I’m laughing at him. It’s because there was no excuse for it! In that same period there was Spinoza ushering in the modern age, shattering religious superstitions and offering insightful biblical criticism!

Before finishing, this brings to mind another quote from Feynman that I thought could be turned on its head: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”. Well, in a way ornithology is very useful to birds! Among other things, it plays an important role in avian conservation.

3 thoughts on “Spinoza, Newton and Feynman”

  1. I suspect that Feynman was well aware of the fact that many species of birds would now be extinct but for the interest of ornithologists. But he was also aware that those birds need neither ornithologists (nor aerodynamicists) in order to actually fly. Can you provide any examples of how a knowledge of metaphysics might have improved Feynman’s understanding and practice of physics?

  2. Thanks for dropping by Alan.

    I might have incorrectly interpreted Feynman as implying that ornithology is not useful to birds and likewise that philosophy of science is not useful to science.

    Given this, I suppose we are instead to consider something like the following:

    1. Ornithology is useful to birds in certain ways (such as conservation) but is of no actual use to natural avian function.
    2. Correlate philosophy of science with ornithology.
    3. Scientists don’t need to be conserved and such with philosophy of science like birds do with ornithology.
    4. Philosophy of science is of no actual use to the functioning of scientists.
    5. Therefore, philosophy of science is of no use to science.

    It is useful here to establish a distinction and some terminology. In the case of birds and conservation, let us say that ornithology is of extrinsic use to birds (useful for things about the bird) but is of no intrinsic use (doesn’t help with a bird’s actual functioning). A similar distinction can be made for science.

    An initial thing to note is that the 1-5 chain of reasoning above would technically invalidate Feynman’s analogy, since we would have established that ornithology is of a certain use to birds, but philosophy of science is of no use to science.

    If the analogy did hold and ornithology and philosophy of science were similarly useful, then philosophy of science would be helpful in so far as it helped to conserve scientists and such; this is probably unlikely! The closest thing I can think of is that philosophy of science could say help to inform a debate between competing scientific paradigms and help to determine which had more desirable properties with regards to scientific practice.

    Suppose then that philosophy of science has some extrinsic usefulness to science. Does it also have any intrinsic usefulness? Does it have any use with regards to how scientists function? Well, that depends on the science and although I am no expert on these matters, I can think of the following suggestions off the top of my head:

    1. in physics the best example I can come up with is work on interpreting quantum physics. This article seems helpful: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/blogs/physics/2015/04/physics-needs-philosophy/.
    2. in biology, I imagine philosophical work on taxonomic classification would be useful.
    3. there is a strong case for philosophy of science in thinking about statistics, thus wherever statistics are used, particularly psychology.
    4. philosophy in general has been of immense use to computer science. Philosophy of computer science is a field, but I’m not sure of its utility in relation to computer science.

    These considerations lead me to conclude that:

    1. Ornithology is extrinsically useful to birds.
    2. Philosophy of science is possibly extrinsically useful to science. I imagine that things like the demarcation problem could be used for example to justify the selection of some scientific choice, but I present it as a sketchy thought here.
    3. Given my 1 – 4 list above, I believe that philosophy of science has at least some intrinsic use to scientific practice.

    In ending a thought has occurred to me. Although I have made a solid case for the extrinsic rather than intrinsic usefulness of ornithology to birds, I imagine that ornithology could be of some use to intrinsic avian function if say, a bird injured itself and benefited from a rehabilitation program to re-teach it how to perform some function?

  3. The the precarious house of cards geometry of Spinoza’s initial chapters is problematic for me too, and it’s reassuring to have the support of Feynman on this matter, but it’s ludicrous for a scientist to claim philosophy of science is of no use to the doing of science.
    Put aside ethical considerations about what to study, or what is acceptable methodology.
    Philosophy is intrinsic to the understanding of the ontological framework within which the science is prosecuted – what is the nature of the things that are held to exist for the purpose of the current experiment (or theorizing)? Is it the flat space of Newton, or the curved space-time of Einstein? Whose definition of mass or energy is being assumed?
    Also, at what point does science become pseudo-science?
    When scientists think about these kind of fundamentals, they are doing philosophy, not science. I would further venture that it would be hard for them to do good science without first forming sound opinions on such matters, and that therefore philosophy of science it’s not only useful but crucial.

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