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?

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Kudos, Matt! How well do I remember once praying, “God forgive me . . . (dah) for being human”. Let’s face it we carry a lot of spiritual baggage just because we are human. Testosterone, or the lack of it, plays a major role in who we are, and how we perceive ourselves. A hermaphrodite altered at birth can hardly be responsible if the surgeon made the wrong guess gender wise. Autistic children have been disciplined, and sometimes beaten to get the ‘stubbornness’ out of them—or in worst case scenarios, exorcized to get the demons out. Overweight people have been condemned as gluttons, with little thought that perhaps there could be something wrong with their thyroid, or pituitary gland. Thank God you are pushing this study, because there is certainly a need for it. The whole epistemology of who and what we are, I believe, depends on a proper understanding of our bodies.


  2. Thanks, Jim.

    Your final sentence is really interesting. Descartes certainly would have agreed with you. His entire methodology started from getting away from the body and its impressions (hence Meditations happen in a room by himself).




  3. Aristotle thought matter was unintelligible in itself. It required form in order to become intelligible. Similar conclusion to what Chomsky says about Newton, but I don’t know how similar the reasoning is.

    Also, I want to declare (but don’t have the power to enforce) a moratorium on “what Descartes thought” until we can get together to read/discuss the “Meditations.”


  4. Gary,

    Yes to Aristotle, but Newton’s would have been different given his aspirations to demonstrate that it was intelligible on mechanistic terms.

    And that way of putting it hearkens back to Kass’ critique of the misguided eros of modernity.

    Also, we should discuss Meditations. Does it help to know I finished it last night? : ) I haven’t gotten through the replies to objections yet, though. But we should definitely talk about him.



  5. Theology is a “given,” in its purest form. We work with what we have on a primordial level. Indeed, scripture and theorizing follow; however, neither are primeval. Our basic theological impulses are instinctive—Platonic in the purest sense of the word. Reason is in our make-up, but can be and often is skewed by conditioned assumptions. C. K. Chesterton was right when he observed that all an insane man has left is his reason.

    Therefore, taking all of this into consideration, my carefully considered conclusion is that St. Augustine was right when he said that faith precedes reason. No matter how you slice it, however, Soren Kierkegaard’s leap of faith is required—but, in my opinion, not initiated, except as a negative. It is instinctual and natural to believe in the “otherness” of bodies and surrounding, including the concept of a supreme initiator, whom we Christians call God. These are the “given,” and it is therefore necessary for us to put the pieces together, if we want to make sense out of existence.

    It is at that point, I believe that philosophy and theological theorizing come into play. As a Christian, I am thankful for the Great Initiatior’s grace, because without that, we would all be fumbling in the dark—if, indeed, we were capable of fumbling at all.

    So, I would say, yes the body is a necessary instrument, but an inadequate and flawed instrument unless primed by God. Because, otherwise, I would never be able to get beyond René Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum”


  6. Jim,

    Interestingly–and here I break Gary’s moratorium–I suspect that Descartes would agree with you about the inability to get beyond the body without locating it in the context of theology. Even natural theology.

    Next week I’m going to do a bit of interaction with Jamie Smith’s new book Desiring the Kingdom. It touches on many of the themes you mention, actually. Even though I ultimately disagree with it, I’d strongly recommend it.




  7. In reference to the origins of the soul and how it relates to the body, it seems only reasonable, as well as Scriptural (Romans 5:12-21; Hebrews 7:10; Genesis 46:26), that traducianism offers the best answer—at least, I certainly feel more comfortable with this doctrine. It offers, in my opinion, the best plausible argument against abortion, since the soul is already present in the embryonic (zygote) state. Furthermore, the doctrine frees us from having to defend an ongoing creation necessitated by those who advocate creationism (i.e. of each individual soul) or the Platonic concept of the pre-existence of the soul.

    So, I would think, Matt, that the actual bridge between the relationship of the body to our spiritual nature must theologically begin there. Traducianism may also shed light on the propensity of some individuals to be either “naturally” good; or, some would say, a bad seed. Perhaps, even some criminality can be understood better, if we explore this doctrine more carefully.


  8. Jim,

    That’s an interesting point. I’m currently undecided about the question, so I’m intrigued to figure out what hangs on it. So let me push back a little bit:

    1) Wouldn’t a creationist be able to say that the soul is present in the embryo, but that it was created by God and implanted there?

    2) Is the notion of ‘ongoing creation’ really problematic? I’m curious to know what you think here.

    I do think that traducianism might better explain the overlap between hereditary genes/traits and the soul’s make-up, but I don’t know whether that’s a knock-down argument or not.




  9. Well, for a quick answer, let me simply say, St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, copped a plea on this one. Perhaps, I should do likewise. Seriously, however, Scripture can be twisted or untwisted to support either claim. So that is why, as a last resort I turn to reason (logic?), and simply say that if God creates each soul how do we account for the uniqueness of Christ? If God stands in Heaven with a bag full of souls to hand out, how do we account for the propensity of all except Jesus to sin? What’s so unique about Him? His sinlessness? Yes, but that can be accounted for by Jesus’ decision not to sin, not His nature. Are we, therefore, only different because we sin? His uniqueness lies in the fact that His immediate father is God. Ours is in the fact that our immediate father is a descendant of Adam. Of course, the Roman Catholics get around this by developing the concept of the Immaculate Conception—so, whew! this gets them off the hook. I realize that this pushes us into a tertium quid corner, perhaps Apollinarianism; however, not necessarily so. This only places Jesus on the same level, as a human being that Adam was on. So, it does not take away from the humanity of Jesus, or Jesus as the Christ. Chew on this for a while and let me know what you think?


  10. I think you might be mis-interpreting Chomsky’s argument. He’s not talking about the human body, but about the physics conception of body, ie a physical object in space.

    Chomsky is contending that Newton’s discoveries demonstrated that the physical notion of a body, derived from the mechanical philosophy, did not accord with his theories. Hence, science since Newton has not used this concept.

    He then goes onto argue that since the mechanical philosophy concept of body was dis-proven, we shouldn’t use it in the mental sciences. In other words, the mind/body problem doesn’t exist, since there’s no coherent concept of body.

    In regards to the “human body” – this is a biological question and does not bear on Chomsky’s discussion.

    Lastly, in regards to the “intelligibility of matter” – Chomsky points out that since there is no coherent concept of body, there is no coherent concept of “matter”. In science, there can only be intelligible theories of these entities, the key word being “theory”. That is, they are reasonable in so far as they are coherent, and verifiable. Hence, the intelligibility of a theory does not bear on whether matter itself is “in accord with reason”. Instead, to meet the standards set by Newton, you would have to construct an intelligible theory that demonstrates that “matter accords to reason”; and you would have to define “matter” and “reason” as well.

    Hope this clarifies the confusion.



  11. Excellent summary, would that Chomsky could be so precise. But what you don’t mention here, and perhaps it’s meant to be that well known anyway, is that Chomsky’s version is the inverse of the more common connotations of Newton, that he gave us a clockwork universe in which nothing is really unknown and there is no ghost at all.


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