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The Unintelligible Body: Chomsky on Galileo and Newton

January 5th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In one very important sense, the scientific revolution was over before it began.  At least if Noam Chomsky is right.

In his collection of essays, On Nature and Language, Chomsky argues that Galileo adopted a mechanical method of intelligibility.  In other words, if it can be described as being a machine, then we can understand it.

Unfortunately, that model has a corollary:  “when mechanism fails, understanding fails.”  And it was precisely Newton’s discoveries that undercut the mechanical explanation, and the possibility of understanding the physical world.  Chomsky writes:  “Newton regarded the discovery of action at a distance, in violation of the basic principles of the mechanical philosophy, as ‘so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical matters a competent Faculty of thinking, can ever fall into it.'”

But Newton had to conclude that absurdity did exist, because there there was no strictly physical explanation.  And so his contemporaries accused him of introducing occult qualities into science.  In order to defend himself from the charge, Newton abandoned the search for the “first springs of natural motions” in favor of developing “the best theoretical account we can.”

What of the implications?  Chomsky contends that the effects of this were not that the mind was unknowable and inaccessible, but the body was. The  “ghost in the machine”, Chomsky contends, might have been wrong, but not for the reasons most people think.  “Newton,” he writes, “exorcised the machine; he left the ghost intact.”

Chomsky expounds from there about how the rest of scientific development is a response to this problem.

But for my purposes, it raises one of the central questions of the human body:  is it ‘intelligible’ in any meaningful rational sense, or is it irrational?  Plato associated the body with irrationality (though not in the way most people think), and there’s some good reason for that.  It does funny things, at odd times, strictly of its own accord.  But the mechanistic approach to intelligibility that Galileo and other early moderns developed seems to be the wrong standard.

But still, the question of the intelligibility of matter is a perplexing one, especially where ‘intelligible’ means something in accordance with ‘reason.’  One possible route thinking about embodiment might take us, then, is toward the interesting dialectic between rationality and irrationality, intelligibility and unintelligibility.

And who said bodies weren’t interesting?

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.