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Posts Tagged ‘action at a distance’

“Where is my mind?” – The Pixies, rock philosophers

One of the big problems that faced Newtonians in the early eighteenth century was the issue of action at a distance. It had long been thought that there could be no action at a distance, yet gravitation seemed to operate between two bodies at a distance. How could this be? One option, probably held by Newton, is that there needs to be something that is in both places and able to act at both. God fills that role nicely. Whether this frequent involvement by God in the world, giving some causal push to the stuff in the universe, is seen as a good or bad thing for theology is what separated Clarke and Leibniz, respectively.

There is a second question of action at a distance. Besides the (at least apparent) causal interaction between two bodies, is there action at a distance between a soul and a body? That is, in order for a soul to move a body, must the soul have a location? If so, where? Is it a single point or an extended location? Could it act if at a single point? If it’s an extended space, does that mean the soul is divisible? If it is divisible, then it is presumably dissoluble, so it is not naturally immortal (a theologically discomfiting position to the orthodox). There’s a lot of problems for any of the positions.

Let’s look at one argument. Isaac Watts, in his Philosophical Essays (second edition, 1733), takes up the question of whether the soul is in the body (152ff). Some say that the soul can’t be everywhere, since then it would be infinite; so it must be somewhere. The soul must be where your body is “because it acts upon your Body, for no Being can act upon any thing at a Distance according to the old Maxim, Nihil agit in distans.” What part of this line of argument should we reject? Watts suggests that the “old Maxim” should be reconsidered.

Ans. ’Tis time, I think, that this Axiom or Maxim should be now exploded by Men of Learning, since the Philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton has prevailed in the world. We find in his System, the Sun and the Planets, which are at prodigious Distances, act upon each other by an attractive Force, which is called the Law of Gravitation; which force is incessantly influencing all parts of Matter to act upon all other parts of Matter in their Proportions, be they never so distant. But what is this Force of Attraction or Gravitation, but a powerful Appointment of the Creator? Now, if Bodies can act upon each other, without Contact or Proximity of Place, and that by the powerful and general Volition or Appointment of God, we may well allow Spirits to act upon Bodies, without any Proximity to them, by the same Divine Appointment or Volition.” 

Watts takes the “Newtonian” position that bodies can act on one another at a distance because of a general volition of God. And if a general volition of God can explain actions between noncontiguous bodies, why not between a body and a soul that is not proximate to it? I think there are some reasons to reject the parity argument that Watts seems to be making, but perhaps we could work that out in the comments.

[Thanks to Lewis for letting me join The Mod Squad, which I’ve been enjoying for some time. More about who I am here.]

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