The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
LEVIATHAN: The War of Physics and Biology
Part Four:

Poetics -- It is Reasonable -- Someone Speaks

2013 February 11

The story so far: In Part III of this series, young Charles Darwin set sail on the Beagle, having failed to excel in mathematics at Cambridge. Had he shown more talent for algebra and Newtonian mechanics; had he become a Wrangler: then he might have joined the top rank of the Anglican Platonist elite described in Part I. Instead, his skills as an observer and his awareness of the world's chaotic diversity made him a natural Aristotelian.

Plato and Aristotle were both read in the original at Cambridge, but here they stand in for philosophical positions still more ancient than they -- as old, perhaps, as abstract thought. Rather astonishingly, it was apparently Darwin himself who would introduce the now-popular terms "lumper" and "splitter" as alternatives to "Platonic Idealist" and "Aristotelian Realist" [Letter 2130: To J. D. Hooker, 1857 August 1]. For lumpers, individuals are imperfect copies of an archetype which is located, if anywhere, in the mind of God ; for splitters, individuals are unique, and abstractions such as "species" are merely convenient, humanly-constructed generalisations with no independent reality. For lumpers, nature is ruled by universal laws, simple in themselves but complicated in their manifestation ; for splitters, such laws are merely summaries of observed behaviour, holding only in a statistical sense.

The Platonist emphasis on universal law and transcendent certainty has always been attractive to mathematicians, and mathematical sciences have often been dominated by lumpers. Conversely, young sciences with little data, or, worse, with too much data and no evident patterns, have usually felt most congenial to splitters. So it was in Georgian England, but the conflict between the groups was fairly mild. The establishment was avowedly Platonist, but was also proud of its "typically British" empiricism ; by examining the multitude of types, one advanced toward knowledge of the Prototype. This enabled English science to absorb quite startling new information and ideas. We saw this in Part II in the case of Adam Sedgwick, explorer of deep geological time and unconflicted Anglican priest.

On the Continent, the situation was different. German philosophy in the Eighteenth Century experienced the staggering impact of a thinker hailed as "the New Copernicus":

Kant's rejection of all metaphysics, and his critique of epistemology, were too radical for most, but the reconciliation of his thought with more traditional views became the goal of the German Transcendental-Idealist movement. The Transcendentalists were also heavily influenced by literary Romanticism and by Goethe, a personality every bit as overwhelming as Kant. In the sciences, Transcendentalism was known as Naturphilosophie, and its language seemed more that of mystics than of scientists. Here is Goethe on Nature:

This might suggest that the Naturphilosoph was not concerned with objective observation, but such was not the case. Goethe and his followers took literally the etymology of "theory" from the Greek word theorein, "to observe" ; like Sedgwick only more so, they tried to look so closely at the natural world that they could see right through it to the realm of the archetypes. Here is an example:

Naturphilosophie attempted to explain all the phenomena of the universe from first principles ultimately mathematical. The ambition, and the self-confidence, of this school's leaders would be difficult to overstate. Lorenz Oken began his Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie [Jena: Frommann, 1809] with a chapter entitled "Theosophie". The 1847 English translation Elements of Physio-philosophy omits this word, perhaps a concession to conservative British taste, but the neo-Scholastic boldness remains. Early in Oken's book we read:

"The substance of Physio-philosophy must be of one kind with the form of Mathematics ... The highest mathematical idea, or the fundamental principle of all mathematics is the zero. The whole science of mathematics depends upon zero ... Mathematics itself were nothing if it had none other than its highest principle, zero. In order, therefore, that mathematics may become a real science, it must, in addition to its highest principle, subdivide into ... numbers, and, finally, into propositions. What is tenable in regard to mathematics must be equally so of all the sciences ; they must all resemble mathematics ... The Eternal and zero are only denominations differing in accordance with their respective sciences, but which are essentially one. The Eternal is the nothing of Nature ... The first form of the expansion or manifestation of the mathematical monas, or of  0, is + −. The + − is nothing else than the definition of  0 ... Still, however, there must be something, which is positived and negatived. The form must have a substance ... The zero is an eternal act ; numbers are repititions of this eternal act, or its halting points, like the steps in a progression ... The self-manifestation of the primary act is self-consciousness. The eternal self-consciousness is God."

A modern reader of this opaquely mystical text is likely to be vaguely reminded of Daoism's yin-yang, but Nineteenth-Century readers would have recognised its Greek pedigree: Plotinus and Iamblichus were better-known in 1809 than today. A modern mathematician might sense in the "progression of zero" some hint of Peano's postulates fifty years in advance.

The practitioners of Naturphilosophie included some of the most famous names in German intellectual history: Fichte, Schelling, Hegel. It will be noted that these are not, however, among the most famous names in the history of science. By the 1840s, as Germany aspired to become a unified modern country and an industrial power, Naturphilosophie seemed obsolete ; Justus von Liebig and others ridiculed its pretensions. Today the term evokes the memory of absurd "proofs" that the number of planets must be seven, or of erroneous but fiercely-held theories of colour vision. Most damningly, it is often seen as the source of the "mad scientist" stereotype: Victor Frankenstein was a Naturphilosoph.

This is understandable, but unfortunate. The legacy of Naturphilosophie is far richer, and includes the nebular hypothesis of the solar-system's origin, the solution of Olber's paradox, and, as we shall see in the future, a principle of biology as foundational as Darwin's own work.

Frankenstein, Edison Studios, 1910. [13 minutes]

LEVIATHAN: The War between Physics and Biology