Rational Mechanics and the Mind

I want to post one more time before getting back to a few last words on John Dewey and conscious evolution. I have been doing a little research into the development of modern physics because I think there is a useful analogy to be found there and applied to the discussion we have been having about whether anything called a mind actually exists or not.

Isaac Newton is perhaps most famous for the discovery of gravity and his laws of motion. His ground breaking work gave rise to two competing schools of thought both initiated by mathematical astronomers. One is most closely associated with the Joseph-Louis Lagrange (1736 –1813) and the other with Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 – 1827).

Laplace’s physics emphasized trying to understand the nature of the forces that work on objects and the nature of the objects that they work on. Laplace advocated examining situations and trying to determine the characteristics of the elements and forces involved. He tried to imagine why things were happening. This leaning toward speculation led him to speculate that there might be tiny invisible particles that could account for the motion that we see in the world, or unseen forces responsible for moving matter around.

Lagrange took a completely different approach in his mechanics which is generally called Rational Mechanics. He advocated giving up speculation about the nature of things. Why invent invisible particles or unseen forces to describe what we see he would say. Instead he felt that we should simply fit accurate mathematical descriptions to what we see and use those mathematical descriptions to predict and control future events.

Laplace wanted to understand the nature of things and then be able to predict and explain why they behaved the way they did. LaGrange wanted to simply study and model the behavior of things and not worry about their nature.  Laplace dove into our ignorance, LaGrange avoided it. I can see this distinction in my own history. Initially I studied Engineering as an undergraduate, but I switched to physics because I felt that I was more interested in why things work than how they work. Physics, at least in its most theoretical sense follows Laplace. Engineering, in its most applied sense, follows LaGrange. Both of these streams of thought have persisted in science for the past few centuries and what is fascinating is that neither has proven superior to the other.  Both approaches work better in some circumstances than the other does.

In our discussion of mind I would say that B. F. Skinner is applying the approach of LaGrange to human behavior. As has been true in the physical sciences this approach will probably work better in some circumstances than alternatives. I don’t believe that this means we should advocate that everyone stop speculating about what the nature of mind might be. Imagine if we had stopped all scientists in the 18th century from searching for unseen particles and forces.

This also brings me back to a few things that we have discussed in the past having to do with individual preference and temperament. William James believed that some people were temperamentally more “tough-minded” and others more “tender-minded.” The tough-minded tend to believe in things based on proof and evidence. They are driven by results and tend to trust in calculation and direct deduction. The tender-minded are more inclined to believe based on intuitions, feelings and hunches. They are more likely to be religious believers and spiritually inclined. This difference in temperament James believed was why some of us become empiricists and others idealists, why some would follow Laplace and others LaGrange. Why some would be Religious and others not.

Back again for a moment to the 18th century to end on a note of interest, the English Romantics whom we have talked about before very much picked up on the language of forces from Laplace. You can see illusions to the unseen forces of nature in writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth, and as we have previously discussed you will not find a more tender-minded bunch.