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Cosmology and the Problem of the Problem July 7, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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My plate is full of writing at the moment, but I really am more in a mood for research. Fortunately, the batteries on my laptop have been burned out for a couple of years now, so my recent transatlantic plane rides prevented me from doing much productive writing, but afforded me the opportunity to do some work on reading over the Schaffer oeuvre.

I should have done this years ago. I’ll post more when I come to the issue formally; for now suffice it to say that Schaffer’s pre-Leviathan work deals a lot with the reconstruction of natural philosophical cosmologies. I get the sense a lot of this early work is aimed at demonstrating that the term “natural philosophy” was more than just an antique word for “science”. We got into this a bit in my class last spring when we had the students read Leibniz’s Monadology and tried to explain what the deal with it was, but I’m beginning to see the topic for all its richness.

Basically, natural philosophy, unlike a modern scientific speciality, demanded fairly comprehensive views of the universe, meaning that conjecture relating to the natural world had to be consistent with an understanding of pretty much everything else: problems of God, mind, soul, life, comets, nebulae, the age of the universe, the origins of the earth, the nature of forces, the nature of light, etc…. By making a conjecture about any one thing, it created “problems” everywhere else, and a true philosophical mind had to reconcile their explanations with all these various problems. So, you end up creating or contributing to a cosmology.

The need to create elaborate cosmologies seems to taper off in the 19th century as specialization and professionalization start to be on the rise. After this point, you still have problem-oriented science, but these problems tend to be more practical, or at least more pointed, than the big “OK,if you believe that, then how do you explain X?” problems of the natural philosophy era. This is more of a multi-disciplinary sort of thing where it’s important to develop specific explanations that are consistent with more general principles in a variety of fields. I’ve been doing some work on the study of Antarctic ice flow and climatology recently, and the “problem of Antarctic ice” has a lot to do with jibing paleoclimatological evidence, physical principles, and field research.

The ability to reconcile various points-of-view points to a standard of robust explanation that I was trying to discuss earlier. What is interesting is a shifting standard of robustness from consistency with a possible cosmology to a robustness as measured from multiple expert perspectives. Interestingly, the ability to cleave off problems and to address them from a limited set of perspectives seems to have coincided with the rise of new physical laws leading to more satisfactorily reductive world pictures, but that’s not a connection I’m prepared to explore.



1. Michael Robinson - July 7, 2008

Hi Will, welcome back. I had a parallel sort of moment on vacation – I’ve been reading Bones of Contention, a book about the debates within the palentological community in the 20th century. There’s a very interesting chapter on fossil hunters vs biometricians, both of whom look to different sources to find dates for the common man-ape ancestor. The field of phylogeny becomes specialized, as in the case of earlier cosmologies, but the specialties sometimes overlap, with lots of fireworks as the result. Its been a great summer read (and would be an excellent textbook, I think for an STS class.)

All best, Michael

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