Thursday, May 15, 2008

is Boyle a mechanist?

In the famous passage in OFQ concerning the lock and key, Boyle says that when Tubal Cain had fashioned the first lock and key, both things “obtained a new capacity.” [“The Origin of Forms and Qualities,” 310.] What does Boyle mean by this? This question is a tricky affair. Any positive proposal goes far beyond what Boyle explicitly says. So, with the risks inherent in conjecture, perhaps he is highlighting two facets of the grand mistake of the Scholastic-Aristotelians.

The first facet of the grand mistake of the Scholastic-Aristotelians is to attribute to bodies a real quality for every conceivable alteration that the body can undergo. If a body obtains a new capacity, their error is to attribute that capacity to a real quality. This is especially true of sensible alterations, such as when a body turns from green to red. On the Scholastic-Aristotelian account, the body must be possessed of a green accident, lose that green accident, and acquire a red accident. Moreover, those accidents must be caused by accidental forms underlying them. In the case of a power of a key to open a lock, the power itself is a real accident constituent in the body itself. It is likely that Boyle’s understanding of what it means for a real quality to be in a body for a Scholastic-Aristotelian is that it is some physical constituent. Consider when he writes:

...and yet by these new Attributes there was not added any Real or Physical Entity, either to the Lock, or to the Key... [“The Origin of Forms and Qualities,” 310.]

A natural interpretation is that Boyle believes a Scholastic-Aristotelian analysis of the powers of the lock and key requires that the powers be supported by qualities in the lock and key, qualities that would be really present and distinct from the real and physical mechanical qualities (shape, size, texture, motion, etc.) of the lock and key. Boyle aims to reject both the explanatory vacuity and the causal ontology of the Scholastic-Aristotelian account of alteration.

To be sure, Scholastic-Aristotelians would raise vociferous objections that Boyle has misinterpreted the way that they take qualities to inhere in substances. Nevertheless, Boyle’s possible misunderstanding is an integral part of his critique of their “grand mistake.”

What Boyle may have in mind to replace Scholastic-Aristotelian explanations and their causal aetiology is an account which appreciates the following story. Consider four propositions and two laws of nature.

(1) In a world α there is a body B with mechanical affections M1.
(2) In α there is a body C with mechanical affections M2.
(L1) As a matter of law, when M1 of B interacts with M2 of C in α, an effect E is caused in C.

(1’) In a world β there is a body B with mechanical affections M1.
(2’) In β there is a body C with mechanical affections M2.
(L2) As a matter of law, when M1 of B interacts with M2 of C in β, an effect F is caused in C.

What explains E or F being caused in C by B in the two worlds? In each world, there is a law that interrelates the mechanical affections of the relevant bodies. Boyle is a voluntarist concerning laws of nature.

Nor will the force of all that has been said for God’s Special Providence, be eluded, by saying, with some Deists, that after the first formation of the Universe, all things are brought to pass by the Setled Laws of Nature. For tho’ this be confidently, and not without colour, pretended; yet, I confess, it does not satisfie me. For, beside the insuperable difficulty there is, to give an Account of the first formation of things, which many (especially Aristotelian) Deists will not ascribe to God; and besides that the Laws of Motion, without which the present State and Course of things could not be maintain’d, did not necessarily spring from the Nature of Matter, but depended upon the Will of the Divine Author of things: Besides this, I say, I look upon a Law, as a Moral, not a Physical, Cause, as being indeed but a Notional thing, according to which, an intelligent and free Agent is bound to regulate its Actions. [“Christian Virtuoso, chapter I,” in The Works of Robert Boyle, eds. M. Hunter and E. B. Davis, vol. 11 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1999), 301-2.]

In another context where Boyle is talking about the Christian doctrine of the resurrection, he writes: cannot be incredible that the most free and powerful Author of those laws of nature, according to which all the phenomena of qualities are regulated, may (as he thinks fit) introduce, establish or change them in any assigned portion of matter... [“Possibility of the Resurrection,” in The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, second edition, ed. Thomas Birch, volume 4 (London: J. and F. Rivington, 1772), 201; quoted in Peter R. Anstey, The Philosophy of Robert Boyle, 175.]

Since the laws of nature bear no necessary relationship to M1 and M2 but only to the hypothetical necessity of the volitions of God, the laws do not primarily depend on the mechanical affections of bodies. Laws could secondarily depend on the mechanical affections if God forges a real connection to those mechanical affections vis-à-vis other mechanical affections that renders cause and effect relations rooted in those very mechanical affections—but still contingently. Alternately, God could simply set up brute correlations of the events, such that the causes and effects on account of the relations of the mechanical affections turn out really to be divinely instituted regularities.

On either account, laws of nature are contingent on the will of God. If laws of nature are simply “more-or-less” exceptionless regularities for Boyle, it is a mistake to look for some constituent or mechanism in body itself for the grounding of the laws. There is no grounding other than the perfect will of God. Bodies are related causally to other bodies by virtue of mechanical affections related by God’s will. Is this, however, a mechanistic explanation? This question requires a more specific context in order to be meaningful. A better question is whether this is an explanation that is better than a Scholastic-Aristotelian rival. For Boyle, the answer is a resounding “yes.” He writes in “Of the Systematicall or Cosmicall Qualities of Things,”

And to prevent mistakes I shall adde, that under the name of Catholick and unminded Causes or Agents, I comprehend not only divers invisible Portions of Matter, but also the Establisht Lawes of the Universe, or that which is commonly called the Ordinary Course of Nature. [“Of the Systematicall or Cosmicall Qualities of Things,” 289.]

E and F are explained by reference to properties that either belong to the fundamental level of bodily phenomena (the mechanical affections) or, at the very least, fail to be synonymous with E and F. These properties are connected by the will of God (laws of nature) in a causal relationship to E and F, where “causal” is given some regularity interpretation. While it is true that these properties, in and of themselves, have no essential connection to E and F, God’s willing that they have such a regular connection is no shabby form of necessity. On some understandings about the nature of God, voluntaristic necessity might even be stronger than ordinary nomological necessity. Certainly it would explain (though not in a purely mechanistic manner) why such a collection of properties would cause E rather than F. Is it more mechanistic than Scholastic-Aristotelianism? Insofar as the explanation does not cite a fictive entity that is, by Boyle’s lights, a mere synonym for the explanandum, and insofar as the explanans is not merely a reified concept, it sure is closer to the mechanistic ideal. Since the explanation draws from concepts at home in the “new sciences,” downplaying for rhetorical effect the real differences between the various strains of mechanism, it sure is closer to the mechanistic ideal. In those qualified ways, Boyle’s possible story counts as a mechanistic explanation.

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