Curiously, and unrelated to my own interest in the subject, latest trends in some philosophical circles seem to be directed toward rethinking of modern interpretation of works of founders of modern science and philosophy. Particularly, questions were raised on subject of perception of reality from point of view of intelligibility or our capability of mental comprehension of phenomena (sense-perceived entities) through concepts of mechanical worldview*.
In the above sense theories of phenomena that are incompatible with mechanical worldview, meaning those that could not be reproduced by physical and mental engineering, are deemed unintelligible. These theories may however be believable if they are supported by experimental results. Nevertheless, question arises whether interpretation of results of such experiments itself is intelligible or only believable. It is not easy to distinguish between the two. Founders of modern science, R. Descartes, G. Galilei, D. Hume etc., were acutely aware that succumbing to believability trap, as scientific criterion for validity of theory as correctly describing reality of universe, leads them directly into religious-like dogmas.
Important element of the rethinking intelligibility attitudes was analysis in context of particular works of scientists and their scientific research.
For example, against many opinions Copernicus never believed that his theory described motion of physical bodies but rather considered his work as mathematical theory dealing with spherical trigonometry and rotations. The original title of his work was “ About Rotations” but publisher changed title to “About Rotations of Heavenly Bodies” (note that at that time heaven was as real as earth) without permission of Copernicus. The publisher added two introduction pages though, clarifying that this is just mathematical theory and does not describe or relate to reality. FYI the Pope was then, only authority regarding real world (on earth) as well as in heavens. The common interpretation of this denial was to blame political turmoil within Roman Catholic Church institution following inception of reformation movements and great apprehension regarding anything that would have challenged or diminished Pope’s absolute authority. But now more and more voices argue for simpler explanation that for Copernicus his theory could not describe reality because it was unintelligible to him or he could not comprehend mechanism of these motions, not even under assumption of action of mystic, astrological sympathetic forces. Please note, that the word mechanism (which describes how things, we think, work) has a root in the mechanical worldview.
Another example was Isaac Newton himself, inventor of mathematical analysis (precisely it was differential Calculus) and “Mechanics”.
Common understanding of the fact that he alone developed theory of mechanics and theory of gravity, proved it based on available data, and then did not published it for decades because he was introvert and was afraid of criticism of his theories or potential threats to him related to it. Perhaps, but many doubt that. And some recent studies suggest that something else could be likely explanation. There are reasons to believe that for Newton himself, knew that his gravity force was simply unintelligible. It is likely that, he could not comprehend true nature of gravity force and called it himself an occult force, type of mysterious sympathetic force, a familiar concept within field of alchemy and astrology at that time. As a consequence for many decades he seemed to reject whole mechanics including gravity but what’s more interesting, perhaps, he rejected materialistic science completely, as a method of comprehending reality of the universe.
That would explain his sudden plunge away from true science into alchemy, astrology, occultism, mysticism, and Bible scholarship, which treated the Bible as a source of concrete, reliable knowledge, as desperate attempt to hold on to idea that other occult type forces could correctly describe wide range of observed physical phenomena, just like mysterious gravity describes correctly motion of planets. Probably, losing complete faith in his scholarly ability to comprehend true reality, after almost three decades of sacrifice, exhaustion, dissolution and at the end complete mental breakdown, Newton wrote up quickly results of his scientific, decades old, research in his famous, 1687 y. book “Philosophae Naturalis: Principia Mathematica”, later quit Cambridge University and scientific research altogether, embracing shockingly, world of politics, money and affluence which he hold in lowest regard whole his life.
Since then, the philosophy of unintelligibility rained supreme in world science turning Descartes in his grave.
Another potential victim of “unintelligible science”, was Ludwig Boltzmann, late XIX century Physicists from University of Vienna and Graz who was pioneer of kinetic theory of rarefied gases and later one of fathers of statistical thermodynamics. His kinetic theory (w/Stefan) was perhaps first attempt to unify mechanistic, intelligible worldview, with intricacies of then well-developed classical thermodynamics++.
Instead of, purely mechanical way of solving the problem of deriving thermodynamic quantities from classical mechanical foundation, which would involve solution to n body problem** insurmountable task then and now, he opted to successfully apply Hamiltonian mechanics treating molecules as stream of indistinguishable, distributed by velocity molecules.
Having successfully derived many classical thermodynamic quantities, applying Hamiltonian mechanics and simple collision mechanism, he was convinced that his theory intelligibly describes true nature of microcosm of molecular physics. Unfortunately, his unequivocal success was dashed by series of controversies and criticisms which go deep into philosophical foundation of intelligibility and methodology science, culminating with Loschmidt’s paradox which, simply, stated that Boltzmann results cannot be equivalent to mechanical solution (n-body problem) because, it breaks down time symmetry of mechanical laws.
According to widely shared opinion, the problem was in Boltzmann’s assumption of molecular chaos and two body independent collision as a mechanical foundations of his theory as what some of his opponents claimed to be omission of higher, multi molecule “ correlations” in his model. They called for something equivalent to “occult” forces which Boltzmann opponents themselves could not intelligibly define. But perhaps there was simpler explanation of this paradox, which could have something to do with Boltzmann tragic end.
He sought to uncover intelligible reality of microcosm of molecules and was disillusioned, that he could not truly comprehend its nature, because, his simple two-body collision mechanism could not describe physical reality and regrettably provided no insight into it as well. His greatest success, i.e. statistical derivation of entropy, and H theorem, became his worst nightmare as well, since it proved that his result is in clear contradiction to its mechanical foundation and thus was completely unintelligible. His personal feeling of failure as a scientist as well as vicious attacks of his opponents, likely caused his repeated mental breakdowns and ultimately resulted in his suicide by hanging in 1906 while vacationing with his wife in eastern Alps. So could be other reasons for his demise as well.
Was this a quest for intelligibility of science that ultimately killed Boltzmann? Hard to say, but struggle between belief in unintelligible science and comprehension of intelligible reality as a criteria of sound scientific judgments raged on, influencing generation of great scientific minds.
The poster boy for intelligibility debate was A. Einstein. While in academics, after work of Maxwell (theory) of EM waves, only some remnants left of intelligibility requirements or its cultivation. Amateur Einstein in his patent office, free of institutional chains but drawing heavily on works of H. Lorentz, H. Poincare and A. Michelson, indulged himself into pure speculation producing most unintelligible theory to date, Theory of Special Relativity which declares time an illusion, four-dimensional space, speed of light in vacuum universal constant, equivalence of energy and mass and ether dead. It sounded like step in right direction, towards freeing us from chains of transcendental knowledge into new mindset. But his General Theory of Relativity (GTR) was utter disappointment. Instead of getting rid of space itself, giving us first peek into possible “objective reality”, he simply did a mind job, constructing completely unintelligible but all conservatively transcendental, deformed universe, based of guess of cosmological constant K, replacing Newtonian occult gravity force, while rushing for Prussian AS presentation disrupted by preps to WWI. Now it was Newton time to turbine in his grave when yet completely unproven, erroneous in its original form, and totally unintelligible Einstein theory swept as tornado through headlines of daily newspapers all over the world while scientific literature repudiated it.
Let’s see what he did. In his universal theory of gravity (GTR) he left nature of gravity undefined like occult forces of alchemists in middle ages. Proved transcendental nature of his theory, by folding it into Newton theory within classical range while fixing it in some outside range of parameter space. Hence, what we saw was just better description of space itself but unfortunately based on the same concepts, perceptions and sensations within transcendental limitation of our mind. Einstein himself later practically abandoned his theories, similarly to Newton, due to fact that he could not comprehend that whole universe actually works according to arbitrary cosmological constant K that he himself as mere mortal, made up. Spent decades trying to get rid of K but failed and instead, immersed himself in political and social life in which he though he could do some good for a change.
There are many more examples of unintelligible theories that claim however to be “proven” within narrow range of parameter space, despite fact that they are based on fantastic metaphysical claims about nature of reality. Let’s consider for example unintelligible concepts of elementary particle dualism by Bohr and uncertainty of Heisenberg (wave or particle, is or is not, here or there, now, before or later, strong or weak, fast or slow; we can “prove” anything) rampant in quantum physics. Do we really comprehend this? Is this reality we understand? Or it is just a model, figment of our mathematical mind?
So let’s examine quantum physics from point of view of intelligibility. Quanta vs. Reality. Stay tuned.
*To further clarify intelligibility concept here it would be instructional to look at an example of magician showing a trick of turning glass of water into bunny. It is obvious to note that magician actions perceived by audience and what magician really did behind the scenes are two different things. More gullible spectator however, may think that he learned that in order to create bunny, he/she needed to put glass of water into big magician hat, say magic word and then pull bunny out of it. But such a method of making bunnies would not be intelligible to Spectator even if was clearly observed, seemingly providing experimental evidence of conversion of water into bunny. Spectator could even come up with theory of sympathetic force that converts water into bunny in ways exactly as he observed. He would not however, been able to claim he knew how it was done. The mechanism of the water/bunny conversion would not be intelligible to spectator. Only after revealing “magic” secret by magician would spectator be given intelligible knowledge but not about making bunnies from water but about art of deception. Hence, being able to observe or conceptualize phenomenon, what scientific method requires, may make theory of the phenomenon believable, since it produces consistent experimental results but does necessarily makes it intelligible. The ability of theory to reproduce results, does not mean that we gained any insight into a phenomenon. Intelligible theory if true, however, would give us such insight.
**(n= number of molecules in the system, note that from XIX century, to date we solved n-body problem with n=2 exactly, 3,4 approximately and that’s it)
++ based on application of mathematical field theory, e.g., fluid theory. [Note: creation of electrodynamics was an attempt to unify mechanics with fluid theory of electromagnetism] Boltzmann initially assumed that tiny molecule interactions i.e. collisions, are exact equivalents of mechanics of pool game except in 3D and following fluid theory, devoid of imbedded scales of time and space, characteristic enabling scaling models freely from big pool balls to small molecules, from 9 balls to 1038 molecules. As he realized later it was not possible, even after taking account of higher order collisions (unintelligible concept itself) to explain the molecular (small-scale) processes within mechanical/materialistic worldview. More controversial view on this matter suggest that two-body collision mechanism is correct however, energy and momentum conservation principles are being violated slightly at molecular level, during each particular collision, while at macro level they are being conserved on average with sufficiently high accuracy. In other words conservation of energy/momentum and other field invariants may be just a result of how we mathematically describe universe and not a fundamental principle of the laws of universe if they exists in our meaning of the word.
It is one thing about Boltzmann which is right up the alley of our transcendental aesthetics discussion, is his work on Ergodic Hypothesis vs later Equal A-priori Probabilities postulate as a foundation of statistical physics. Generally, for certain type of statistical processes, so-called (quasi) ergodic process, one can use long time series to derive the equivalent ensemble average derived thermodynamic quantities. But what Ergodic Hypothesis actually says is that it is theoretically possible that all processes could be described without necessity of time variable through accessing instantly all (representative) possible microstates of the system in the ensemble. In simple words, no absolute need for time in description of physical processes. This was revolutionary, but mostly overlooked, statement.