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Philosophical Conundrums – Part 2

October 4, 2008

Here is Littlejohn’s response to the email I sent him.

Saturday, October 4, 2008
Dear Jason:
It is nice to hear from you. My time is, in fact, limited and it is
difficult for me to fit you in, much as I would like. I will make some small
effort tonight, however.
That a concept is not realized(*) does not render it useless. Physics would
be difficult to teach to beginning students if one could not speak of a
“frictionless surface,” for instance. The brilliance of Galileo – and it is
truly brilliant – lies in his recognition that one could reason more cleanly
if some things were completely ignored. It is true that a feather takes
longer to fall than a cannon ball, owing to atmospheric drag or friction.
The ramps he made in which he concluded that a ball rolling down and then up
again would regain its intial height were not perfect realizations either. I
have no doubt the balls eventually stopped, even if they rolled back and
forth a couple of times. They made noise – and sound takes energy to
produce, hence is drained from the system. The boards vibrated, and such
stresses produce heat, which is another drain on the energy of the system of
primary interest. Galileo was able to get past these irrelevancies,
realizing perhaps that there are circumstances, time scales, and the
possibility of reducing these incidental effects which would enable him to
draw powerful conclusions from the idealization. The concept of freedom is
like that.
Actually, I have similar concerns to yours, but my brain comes at it from
the other end. What I say is, “Slavery is not a yes-or-no thing; it is a
matter of degree.”
If God has attributes of any kind, can It be free? Or must It conform to
those attributes? What would it mean for a thing to have no attributes
whatsoever? Would it even be something? Or is God the void? Nothingness?
Such questions, and yours, are intellectually amusing, but ultimately don’t
get one very far.
The thing about an idealiztion, like motion without friction, is that it
can capture the dominant or essential features of things. It then becomes an
additional exercise to account for the friction, the deviations from
ideality – the nuances, degree and extent – to which the concept is not
Newton’s brilliance lay in being able to demonstrate that the idealizations
of Galileo can actually be extended to friction, to gravity, to a very broad
spectrum of observable phenomena.
Perhaps you could spend a little time not worrying about whether (perfect)
freedom exists, but rather what phenomena it is capable of being applied to,
and what (minimal number of) other concepts are required to account for the
degree to which one (or God) is unfree.
(*) That is, there is no “real” instance of it.

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