An objection to Chomsky on the criteria for the physical

Noam Chomsky has argued many times that early science was mechanistic but Newton killed mechanism by his account of gravity as sympathetic and non-local. So far, so good: but he then goes on to claim that without mechanism we have no account of the physical and so no way to distinguish it from the immaterial.

I say we do have robust and still accepted criteria to identify the physical, even apart from the death of mechanism. Here they are:

1.) Given to sensation. This element of the physical ties it to the extensive discussions about the objectivity of sense, which range from the relative optimism of Hume or Aristotle to the much more critical and skeptical accounts of Descartes, Plato, Berkeley, etc. The widely held compromise position was to accept Locke’s division of qualities into primary and secondary – basically allowing for the objectivity of anything founded on quantity. But this is already to transition to…

2.) Objectively extended. What is most baffling about Chomsky’s thesis is that while he is thoroughly conversant with Descartes and the early modern tradition, he completely overlooks or sees no value in their description of the physical world as essentially res extensa. But this is to pass over just what Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, and much of the rationalist tradition treated as the opposite of the cognitive or intellectual. It is true that they treated the physical as mechanist too, but the failure of mechanism would leave almost all their proofs of the immateriality of cognition untouched. Even Leibniz’s mill is pretty easy to reformulate in non-mechanist terms, since what is crucial about the mill is not the action-by-contact principle but its being a conduit of action. The mill is moved by a force we can induce ourselves, This leads us to…

3.) Subject to reason and will. The most significant element of the physical is our ability to run experiments on it, which requires that it act in a predictable way in circumstances we have constructed or specified in advance. The locus classicus of this account of the physical is the preface to the Kant’s first critique, where nature is said to be only intelligible so far as she answers questions that we have determined in advance, i.e. so far as she is restricted to acting in circumstances that we have set up in advance.

All of these ways of defining the physical make intelligence essentially non-physical, even while this does not exhaust its description. Chomsky is right that we are not angels, but he is wrong to (tacitly) take this as meaning that we cannot isolate a dimension of human life that is distinct and divided from the physical. This dimension of human existence can be thoroughly mingled with physical existence while still preserving its distinction, in the same way that vertical distance of a rectangle can be completely distinct from horizontal distance without there ever being teh only dimension of the figure.



  1. March 1, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    Might a simple investigation into the nature/essence of something as common as a triangle still be a perfectly legitimate way of providing grounds that we do have knowledge of things that is ultimately non-physical in nature (even granting that we come to it via the physical)? I mean, it is fairly well known that we can’t legitimately in any sense imagine the nature of essence of a triangle, as this necessarily includes things that it is not legitimate to include in the definition of triangle.

    To avoid the results of the above, some will assert that perfect triangles and the like never really or actually exist in nature – even that they are impossible (a gratuitous claim imo). But even if they were, it does not alter the fact that we have definite knowledge about such things; indeed, such arguments didn’t seem to bother Plato, for example, in the slightest. If anything, such arguments only made the Ideal realm much more real than the physical and much more worthy of investigation.

    That being said, from my experience of Chomsky’s philosophizing his emphasis seems rather on our not really knowing or understanding the nature of the physical or matter as such; that it somehow baffles and alludes us and, perhaps, this almost necessarily. He seems to say that we can only ever at best give more or less accurate *descriptions* of physical reality but cannot penetrate into its deeper nature or in anyway meaningfully verify our thinking or beliefs about the physical world (without begging the question I suppose). To whatever extent that may be true (which may just be a problem of method), it doesn’t affect our understanding of triangles, say.

    • March 1, 2016 at 5:22 pm

      There are a lot of ways of arguing for an immaterial dimension to the human person, and I rather like your appeal to mathematicals (you could even tie it to scientific practice though the idea of precision in measurement, which is what remains of Newton’s absolute time and space) but if you want to attack a Chomsky argument you’ll need to bring more than this. He’s ruthlessly logical, comes with a battery of concrete evidence, and has anticipated every objection I’ve ever seen him field.

      That being said, from my experience of Chomsky’s philosophizing his emphasis seems rather on our not really knowing or understanding the nature of the physical or matter as such

      But his key argument for this is his claim about mechanism that I deny here.

      • March 1, 2016 at 5:46 pm

        Then again, Chomsky has a blind spot for purely speculative philosophy. See his debate with Foucault – he seems to have missed F.’s point entirely that Chomsky’ Empiricism rests on an heroic epistemology that sees science as being nothing but the throwing off off errors, and not as one of many accounts of the real that occludes as much as it reveals and therefore can only be a part of a larger discourse about the real that cannot be governed by a single dominant method. Foucault’s point was more radical and profound, and I was intrigued that it was the same position that Charles Taylor defends in A Secular Age with his magisterial critique of “subtraction theories” of secularity and, by implication, science.

  2. March 1, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    Thank you James.

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