I recently watched the fourth episode of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. There was an interesting part of that episode when Tyson went over a bit of the history of science when Newton discovered a force in which two massive bodies effect each other in a distance without touching each other. This immediately reminded me of Chomsky’s critique of the Mind-Body problem, since he thought that the mind-body problem depended on Mechanical Philosophy. Newton’s discovery of gravity apparently undermined Mechanical Philosophy, since he discovered something that consists of causation without direct physical contact. However, something interesting happen after Tyson’s brief summary of Newton’s discovery of gravity. Tyson raised an interesting question “how can distant bodies effect each other across empty space without touching each other?” and then went immediately to Michael Faraday, who discovered that we are surrounded by invisible fields of electromagnetic forces, which could explain how gravity works. In other words, distant bodies may not touch each other, but the fields between them do. If Faraday’s idea of electromagnetic field could explain how distant objects interact with each other, then it could arguably vindicate Mechanical Philosophy. After all, while distant objects do not touch each other, there are intermediate fields that seem to connect them together. This connection could render an apparent empty distance between massive bodies an illusion, which consequently makes a phenomenon of “action from a distance” consistent with Mechanical Philosophy.
Now, I’m aware that Tyson’s Cosmos is not exactly the most reliable source when it comes to the history of science, since he didn’t give an accurate depiction of Giordano Bruno. Nonetheless, Tyson’s description of Michael Farady turns out to be fairly accurate, since Faraday did in fact try to unify gravity and electromagnetism together (check the other blog too). Unfortunately, Faraday’s attempt to unify gravity and electromagnetism was not entirely successful. However, Faraday’s attempt to find a mechanism for gravity was not uncommon. Before and After Faraday’s attempt to find a mechanism for gravity, there were many physicists and philosophers who tried to find a mechanism for gravity. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity arguably found a mechanism, which is the space-time curvature, rather than forces, between distant bodies. Others argue that in quantum mechanics a graviton would be a mechanism that mediates gravitational forces between distant bodies.
On the face of it, Chomsky seems to be right that Mechanical Philosophy was destroyed by Newton’s discovery of gravity. However, Mechanical Philosophy as an explanatory research program or conceptual framework continues even after Newton’s discovery of gravity, arguably to this day. This may sound far fetched, but I think Chomsky’s claim that Mechanical Philosophy was killed by Newton’s discovery of gravity is overstated. The presumption that there must be some kind of intermediate mechanism between distant bodies continues after Newton’s discovery. Even to this day, graviton is hypothesized as a possible mechanism that mediates the gravitational forces between distant objects. I’m not claiming that Mechanical Philosophy as Descartes conceived of it is well and alive today. After all, Descartes would be baffled by the post-Newtonian theories of gravity. What I’m considering is that Mechanical Philosophy changed overtime through a series of different hypotheses about the intermediate mechanism between distant bodies. So, in some sense, Chomsky wasn’t entirely correct about the supposed death of Mechanical Philosophy.
I could consider writing about this as another philosophy paper. Perhaps I can argue that Mechanical Philosophy continues to be a viable conceptual framework despite Newton’s discovery of gravity. However, I don’t think I would include it in my current paper about Chomsky’s critique of the mind-body problem. The reason is that I already have a different approach, which is to state the mind-body problem within the framework of the Computational Theory of Mind (CTM). Chomsky thinks that the mind-body problem can’t be stated if one cannot define a “physical body”, but I think this is wrong since one doesn’t need a definition of a physical body. Instead, one could replace a “physical body” with computation to generate another mind-body problem. I’ll talk more about this in my next blog post.