Galileos Notion of Cause throughout His Career

By Jay Robinson,2014-11-26 15:53
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Galileos Notion of Cause throughout His Career

    [forthcoming in The Journal of the History of Ideas]

    1 Galileo‟s Interventionist Notion of “Cause”

    Steffen Ducheyne

1. Introduction

     In this essay, I shall take up the theme of Galileo‟s notion of cause, which has already

    2received considerable attention. I shall argue that the participants in the debate as it stands have overlooked a striking and essential feature of Galileo‟s notion of cause. Galileo not only reformed natural philosophy, he also as I shall defend introduced a new notion of causality

    and integrated it in his scientific practice (hence, this new notion also has its methodological

    repercussions). Galileo‟s conception of causality went hand in hand with his methodology (see section 3). This is the main message of this essay. It is my claim that Galileo was trying to construct a new scientifically useful notion of causality. This new notion of causality is an

    interventionist notion. According to such a notion, causal relations can be discovered by actively exploring and manipulating natural processes. In order to know nature we have to intervene in nature. Generally: If we wish to explore whether A is a cause of B, we will need to

    establish whether deliberate and purposive variations in A result in changes in B. If changes in

    A produce changes in B, the causal relation is established. It will be shown that this notion first emerged from Galileo‟s work in hydrostatics and came to full fecundity in his treatment of the tides.

     Let me first of all take stock of the present discussion. De Motu is one of Galileo‟s early

    scientific works on what we today would roughly call „mechanics‟ (written between 1589 and 1592). That in De Motu Galileo wishes to establish a causal explanation of motion (and


    3 According to Galileo, falling bodies are moved by an acceleration) is accepted by all scholars.

    4internal cause; projectiles by an external one. Galileo indeed claims that he wished to

    determine the hidden causes of observable effects “for what we seek are the causes of effects,

    5and these causes are not given to us by experience)”. In dealing with the cause of acceleration,

    Galileo clarifies that he wants to discover the true, essential and not the accidental cause of

    6acceleration. Acceleration is an accidental feature of motion, caused by the gradual overtaking of the intrinsic weight of a body during fall, after being lifted (and the weight being diminished) by an impressed force. Scholars begin to disagree however on the presence and importance of causal explanations in the period after this early work. Edwin A. Burtt, echoing Ernst Mach, wrote that Galileo‟s studies on motion led him to focus more on the how than on the why of

    78motion. Closely connected to this is Galileo‟s ban of final causes from natural philosophy.

    Galileo, according to Burtt, treated motions as the secondary causes of natural phenomena and the forces producing them as their primary causes (of which the nature or essence is further

    910unknown). We only know quantitative effects of forces in terms of motion. This implies that

    knowledge of primary, essential causes is impossible according to Galileo. After Burtt, authors have gone even further: they questioned the presence of causal explanation in toto in Galileo‟s

    (mature) work. On the one side of the spectrum, Drake claims that Galileo banished causal inquiries from his science, since they were speculative and unnecessary:

    The word cause, frequent in this early book, is less frequent in the later ones. It

    played little part in Galileo‟s mature presentation of scientific material, which he

    11confined more and more to observational and mathematical statements.

    Causal claims were present in his early work (e.g. in the discourse on floating bodies (1612)),

    12but not in his mature work (by which Drake apparently means the Dialogo and the Discorsi).


Pietro Redondi seems to side with Drake: Galileo was defending a docta ignorantia with

    13 There are some passages which seem to converge to respect to causes and causal knowledge.

    this interpretation (note that they can be made consistent with the causal interpretation as well). For instance, after having reviewed various hypothetical explanations of the cause of gravity, Salviati says:

    Now, all these fantasies, and others too, ought to be examined; but it is not really

    worth while. At present it is the purpose of our Author merely to investigate and

    to demonstrate some of the properties of accelerated motion (whatever the cause

    14 of this acceleration may be) (…).

Ernan V. McMullin, however, correctly argues that this passage in the Discorsi does not

    necessarily mean a rejection of causal explanation: It simply means that dynamics needs to be

    15preceded by kinematics. Only when the properties of motion have been described, can we start with explaining them causally. This does not necessarily entail a rejection of causal explanation as such.

     On the other side, there are authors who stress the importance of causal explanation and causal reasoning in Galileo‟s work and relate them to past traditions where causal knowledge was important. Peter K. Machamer argued that Galileo‟s notion of cause is that of the tradition of the mixed sciences (“scientiae mixtae”):

    I shall attempt to show that though Galileo does use such causal language with

    serious intent, there is a sense in which Drake is right about Galileo‟s unconcern

    for causes; Galileo is, for the most part but not all always, unconcerned about

    extrinsic, efficient causes. This is one aspect familiar to those who deal with the


    mixed sciences. Galileo is concerned very much with formal and final causes, and

    16 sometimes material causes.

    17He admits that his analysis is primarily based on the Discorsi. According to Machamer,

    18proper (causal) explanations refer to formal, final and material (necessitating) causes.

    19William W. Wallace has connected Galileo‟s notion of cause to the Aristotelian tradition.

    Galileo frequently uses causal parlance which is in agreement with Aristotle‟s views of causes and his ideas on scientific method laid down in the Posterior Analytics. Galileo‟s scientific

    demonstrations agree to and are derived from, as John H. Randall first argued, the regressus

    20strategy in the Aristotelian tradition. Wallace‟s main message is that Galileo‟s nuove scienze

    were not created de novo. Jacopo Zabarella was, as Randall claimed, “the methodologist who

    21 Galileo continued to stood behind Galileo‟s early account of demonstrative methodology”.

    22use the regressus throughout his career with various modifications.

    23 Causal explanations are certainly present in Galileo‟s work. That is presently not the issue

    at stake:

    The problem of causality in his science is clearly not whether he sought causal

    explanations, but rather how he sought them and how he thought they could lead

    24to certain and unrevisable knowledge about the physical world.

    I would add to that list that in addition to this we also need to clarify what Galileo‟s notion of cause was. In this essay, I shall not directly evaluate Wallace‟s and Machamer‟s readings. My point is rather different: instead of solely focussing on past traditions from which much of Galileo‟s terminology appears to be derived, we should pay more attention to some of the innovative features of Galileo‟s notion of causality. There are prima facie parallels with past


    traditions and indeed Galileo frequently used Aristotelian terminology. But, let us not equivocate Galileo‟s notion of „cause‟ with that of a past tradition too fast. Let us also look at

    25 This is the aim of the present possibly original contributions of Galileo to the idea of cause.

    essay: to point to the interventionist strand in Galileo‟s conception of cause.

     In section 2 I shall therefore begin by carefully looking at some of Galileo‟s causal reasoning strategies. I shall discuss Galileo‟s treatment of the floating and sinking of bodies in water and his explanation of the tides. I have chosen these cases, because on these occasions Galileo is very explicit on his causal reasoning and his notion of „cause‟. These cases will pave the way for a more elaborate understanding of Galileo‟s notion of cause. In section 3, I shall compare

    Galileo‟s interventionist notion of cause with James Woodward‟s recent theory of causation, presently one of the most developed interventionist accounts of causation. In the final section (4), I shall briefly point to the significance of Galileo‟s interventionist notion of cause in

    26connection to the idea of what Antonio Pérez-Ramos has called an “active science”.

2. Galileo and the Occurrence of Physical Causes in his Scientific Work

     In 2.1.1 and 2.2.1, we shall look at two case-studies in Galileo‟s works (one stemming from

    the mid-period of his scientific career and one from his later work) where he explicitly discusses the notion of physical cause. These cases will give us access to Galileo‟s notion of cause. This will set the stage for a fuller discussion of Galileo‟s notion of physical cause in sections 2.1.2 and 2.2.2. The goal of this section (2) is to penetrate the deeper conceptual strata of Galileo‟s notion of „cause‟. I attempt to characterize Galileo‟s notion of “cause” in the form of three general statements, which are meta-level descriptions of Galileo‟s notion of “cause”.

2.1. The Emergence of „Cause‟ in the Discourse on Floating Bodies (1612)


2.1.1. Galileo‟s Causal intuitions in the Discourse on Floating Bodies

     Galileo‟s discourse on floating bodies (first edition: 1612) was a best-selling book in its own

    27 It is certainly time. Unfortunately, it has received relatively little attention by scholars.

    relevant for an understanding of Galileo‟s notion of physical cause, since Galileo explicitly

    addresses the problem of finding true causes. Stillman Drake suggests that, when Galileo first sharply defined the word “cause” for use in scientific inquiries, the “process by which causes

    28gave way to laws in science may be considered as having begun”. In this discourse Galileo

    refuted the Aristotelian explanation of floating. The Aristotelians, like Lodovico delle Colombe, asserted that bodies floated on water because of their flat shape which prevents its piercing the

    29 Lodovico delle Colombe claimed to have refuted Galileo by water‟s resistance to division.

    the following experimentum crucis: a flat ebony chip floats, while an ebony ball of the same

    30weight cannot do so. The central tenet of the Aristotelians was water‟s resistance to division.

    This tenet was based rather on the metaphysical assumption that all motion requires an

    31opposing medium, and not on experiments. Galileo claimed in agreement with Archimedes

     that “only greater or lesser heaviness in relation to water” is the cause of floating or

    32sinking. Both parties claimed to have inferred the cause of floating bodies. How do we know what is the true cause?

     Galileo, in defending his position, often argued about what a „(proper) cause‟ precisely is. In his notes early in the hydrostatic discussion (and not in the discourse itself), Galileo wrote that Causa è quella, la qual posta, sèguita l’effetto; e rimossa, si rimuove l’effetto” (“Cause is that

    33which put [placed], the effect follows; and removed, the effect is removed.” (sic)). This

    definition seems to have guided him in his scientific research. Galileo set out to search for the


    34 He “true, intrinsic, and entire cause of the rising and floating of some solid bodies in water”.wrote:

    With a different method and other means I shall seek to reach the same conclusion

    [as Archimedes], reducing the causes of such effects to principles more intrinsic

    and immediate, in which are perceived also the causes of some admirable and

    almost incredible events, as that a very small quantity of water may raise up and

    sustain with its small weight a solid body that is a hundred of thousand times

    heavier ;= the famous hydrostatical paradox. And since demonstrative advance

    requires it I shall define some terms and then explain some propositions from

    35which, as from things true and noted, I may then serve my own purposes.

    The terms Galileo refers to are specific weight, i.e. the weight of a body in a given volume, absolute weight, i.e. the „normal‟ weight of a body, and the moment. On “moment” Galileo writes:

    Moment, among mechanics, means that force, that power, that efficacy, with

    which the mover moves and the moved resists, which force depends not simply on

    weight, but on speed of motion [and] on different inclinations of the spaces over

    which motion is made for a heavy body descending makes greater impetus in a

    steeper space than in one less steep. And in short, whatever be the cause of such

    36force, it always keeps this name of moment.

    The first proposition that follows from these concepts is that if two bodies on a balance have

    37equal absolute weight, their moment will be equal. Hence, they make equilibrium. The


    second proposition is that the moment and the power of heaviness is increased by the speed of

    38 Then Galileo started laying down further physico-mathematical theorems and motion.

    experiments, which confirmed that the sinking or floating of bodies is dependent on their

    39specific heaviness. These propositions indeed “opened the road to the contemplation of the true, intrinsic, and proper cause of the diverse motions and of rest of different solid bodies in

    4041various mediums”. Galileo claimed that bodies sink or float irrespective of their form. This

    can be shown by experiments where the (specific) weight is kept fixed and the form is varied:

    Therefore, commencing to investigate with examination by exact experiment how

    true it is that shape does not at all affect the sinking or not sinking of the same

    solids, and having already demonstrated how a greater heaviness of the solid with

    respect to the heaviness of the medium is the cause of its ascending or descending,

    [then] whenever we want to make a test of what effect diversity of shape has on

    the latter, it will be necessary to make the experiment with materials in which

    variety of heaviness does not exist. For were we to make use of materials that

    could vary in specific weight from one to another, when we encountered variation

    in the fact of descent or ascent we would always remain with ambiguous

    reasoning as to whether the difference derived truly from shape alone, or also

    42from different heaviness.

    43Form is a cause secundum quid, it functions as an assisting or concomitant cause. It can

    influence the speed of descent or ascent, but it is not as such the cause of its upward and

    44downward motion. It is a secondary cause, not a primary cause. The prima facie anomalous

    floating of the chip is then explained as follows. The chip, upon closer inspection, is immersed under the water level with a layer of air above it. This layer and the original chip form an


    aggregate which is specifically lighter than water. Hence its will (nearly) float. The form of the chip is not the true cause of its floating. The form does allow for the air to take its space above the chip, but it is the presence of the air that produces the lighter-than-water-aggregate. This lighter-than-water-aggregate is the true cause. Scientific understanding for Galileo was discovering the proximate and immediate causes of phenomena. True causes are the immediate

    45 causes not the mediate ones.

2.1.2. A More Systematic Analysis of Galileo‟s Causal Intuitions in the Discourse on

    Floating Bodies

     Let us take stock and characterize Galileo‟s notion of cause in the discourse on floating bodies. We have seen that Galileo conceived of a true cause as the most proximate and immediate factor that brings an effect about. Without that factor the effect would not occur. Whether an effect is directly produced by a property can be established by varying this property, while keeping all other properties fixed. If the effect follows, the property under investigation is the true cause. If the effect does not follow, the property is not the true cause. A true cause needed to refer to some essential property of the object under investigation (of course, distinguishing between essential properties and accidental ones is sometimes a

    46precarious work). In the discourse form is an accidental property, while specific weight is not. Based on this, we can see that one of the Galileo‟s early strategies for causal reasoning is

    isolating and varying the presumed causal factor (IVC):


    If, when keeping fixed all other relevant causal factors (P), varying property P (= the x1

    assumed causal factor) results in an alteration of property E (= the effect), then we may 1


     is a causal factor for E (or as Galileo would formulate it “a true conclude that P11


In Bodies That Stay Atop Water or Move in It, Galileo typically assumes that a true cause is

    universal in the sense that is responsible for all observable floating or sinking behaviour. This is, what I would call, the universality and uniqueness assumption (U?) of Galileo‟s notion of


    (U?): general

    If P is a true cause of E, then P is a universal and unique cause, i.e. it explains 111

    all E’s similar to E(under all circumstances). 1

    (U?): sinking or floating

    If P (specific weight) is a true cause of E (the sinking of lead or the floating of 11

    olive oil) then P is a universal and unique cause, i.e. it explains all E’s similar to 1

    E(the floating or sinking behaviour of all bodies under all circumstances). 1

In other words, two generalisations are made: (1) the causal relation as such and (2) the fact

    that the inferred cause is assumed to be a unique cause, i.e. that it explains all similar phenomena (or put differently, that similar phenomena cannot be caused by different causes). Post factum, we might of course say that Galileo‟s universality assumption was incorrect, since it is not unimaginable to find similar effects which are produced by different causes. It is not possible to explain all phenomena of sinking and floating solely by specific weight. According to the modern explanation, the direct cause of the floating anomalous chip is the surface tension of the water. This is a case where one causal factor (surface tension) nullifies another


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