February 18, 2021

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Cavendish, Hooke, and the Fall of Man

But I perceive Man has a great spleen against self-moving corporeal Nature, although himself is part of her, and the reason is his Ambition; for he would fain be supreme, and above all other Creatures, as more towards a divine nature; he would be a God, if arguments could make him such, at least God-like, as is evident by his fall, which came merely from an ambitious mind of being like God.

Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, 2nd ed. (1668), ch. 2.7, p. 280

One of Cavendish's key theses is that a human being is merely an ordinary part of nature. As I noted yesterday, Cavendish is quite explicit in taking the mind to be material. Here, she notes that "Man has a great spleen against"—that is, people get emotionally upset about—this doctrine. This is certainly historically correct. For instance, for 18 centuries (and still in Cavendish's time) some Christians interpreted the creation narrative literally, others figuratively. Christians excommunicated, and even killed, one another over all kinds of things, but not over that! It was, historically, after the rise of evolutionary theory that certain conservative Christians began to insist on a literal six-day creation as a point of orthodoxy. The real point here was that evolutionary theory made humans animals like other animals. Insistence on a young earth was a way of resisting this conclusion, and indeed the conclusion was (and in some quarters still is) resisted with "great spleen".*

The explanation for this, Cavendish says, is to be found in man's ambition.** That is, people are upset about this because of their desire to rise above their station, and their unwillingness to accept their position in the scheme of things. Cavendish perhaps has Descartes's arguments for the immateriality of the soul in mind when she says that man "would be a God, if arguments could make him such."

But the really lovely move, in my opinion, is the appeal to the story of the Fall, which, Cavendish notes, "came merely from an ambitious mind of being like God." The allusion here is to the serpent's promise to Eve, that "in the day ye eat [the forbidden fruit], then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5, KJV).

One of Cavendish's main targets in the Observations is Robert Hooke, and the first few chapters of the Observations contain a number of quotations from the Preface to Hooke's Micrographia. In the opening passage of the Preface (quoted by Cavendish in part 1, chapter 2), Hooke writes,

By the addition of...artificial Instruments and methods, there may be, in some manner, a reparation made for the mischiefs, and imperfection, mankind has drawn upon it self, by negligence, and intemperance, and a wilful and superstitious deserting the Prescripts and Rules of Nature, whereby every man, both from a deriv'd corruption, innate and born with him, and from his breeding and converse with men, is very subject to slip into all sorts of errors.

Hooke appeals here to the Christian understanding of the Fall to explain why our natural faculties of sense, memory, and reason are imperfect. The corruption of our faculties is transmitted through both heredity and culture, he says. But Hooke appeals to this perfectly orthodox theology only in order to make quite a heterodox move: he promises salvation through science and technology. That is, according to Hook, "artificial Instruments and methods" can compensate for our fallenness, and correct the failings of our faculties. The microscope, Hooke claims, will undo the cognitive effects of sin and open the secrets of the universe again to our vision. Hooke goes on to proclaim, with unbounded enthusiasm:

By the means of Telescopes, there is nothing so far distant but may be represented to our view ; and by the help of Microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry ; hence there is a new visible World discovered to the understanding...It seems not improbable, but that by these helps the subtilty of the composition of Bodies, the structure of their parts, the various texture of their matter, the instruments and manner of their inward motions, and all other possible appearances of things, may come to be more fully discovered.

I said Hooke writes with unbounded enthusiasm. Cavendish would say: with unbounded ambition. For Hooke's claims about his microscope represent a devil's deal: in the day that ye look, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing the inward motions of things! But, Cavendish argues at length, the microscope does not live up to this promise. It shows us indeed things too small to be seen without it, but it is not a magic window into the true natures of things or their inward motions. It shows, simply the outsides of things, magnified. The promise that 'art' can outdo nature and provide us with secret knowledge of things hidden from our natural senses is a delusive product of our desire to be gods, and our unwillingness to accept our position in the natural order.

I doubt Cavendish takes the story of the Fall very seriously, and I'm not totally sure Hooke does either. But Hooke employs this conventional line of religious thought to explain the magic that his microscope will work, and Cavendish's rhetorical appeal to the story here is a masterful turning of the tables.


* If I recall correctly—I don't have the book handy to check—I first learned of this likely explanation for the rise of young earth creationism from Roger Olson.

** A note in passing on Cavendish's use of 'man' and masculine pronouns: in this period this language is ambiguous between a gender-inclusive and a gender-exclusive interpretation—that is, 'man' could mean any human being, or it could mean a male human being in particular. Most male authors in the period unthinkingly slide back and forth between these interpretations. But Cavendish, I suspect, uses this gendered language with malice aforethought. That is, she seems to suggest that male ambition has distorted philosophy.

Posted by Kenny at February 18, 2021 9:12 AM
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