Science and Rational Imagination

Science and Rational Imagination: Glass Sphere

Concrete observations come necessarily before any theoretical scientific modeling. One needs a large pool of empirically observed data on which a scientist builds his theory, that is to say, an imagined view of the world in which things are thought to be related mathematically. Science and rational imagination are a necessary conceptual pair. The principles of each science are product of rational imagination.

When Copernicus decided to replace the geocentric astronomical model with the heliocentric model, he simply imagined that the planets could lie in a different relation to each other and to the sun. Of course, there were a lot of astronomical observations that could also be explained with increasing difficulty through the age-old Ptolemaic astronomic model.

However, Copernicus decided to take a different approach, hoping that the latter could simplify calculations and astronomy in general. Which indeed happened. 

In this example of the Copernican revolution in astronomy, we see that science is based, first of all, on something which is only imagined to be possible. The next step is to correlate the existing empirical observation to that imagined possibility.

If the scientist manages to create a means through which he can show or demonstrate or deduce that the empirical observation is a particular case of that imagined model, then that scientist has integrated the empirical observation into the science.

Then he says that his model – which was at the beginning only a product of imagination – is backed by empirical observation. In that way, the earlier merely-imagined model becomes a true model; it is considered now that nature operates in that way and not differently. 

But what has Hegelian philosophy of nature to do with this evolution of science? Usually, people forget that scientific principles are initially only a content of imagination. Indeed, not of an arbitrary imagination but of something that could be called rational imagination or, as Kant called it, ‘productive imagination.’

As with any act of imagination, rational imagination combines existing contents into a new representation. For example, when we imagine aliens coming to the earth, those aliens are a combination of many features of earthly animals (usually into a horrific image). When rational or productive imagination creates the principles of science, it usually begins from something with which we are familiar and then imagines it in a different framework.

This is what Copernicus did when he changed geocentrism to heliocentrism. This is what happens in the principles of Newtonian mechanics, for example, with respect to the principle of inertia. People constantly observed that once set in motion, things tended to keep that moving state when they tried to stop them.

This is the phenomenon of inertia. The Newtonian principle of inertia imagines that in a universe where nothing stopped or interfered with such a moving object, the latter would continue to move infinitely in the same direction and with the same speed. This is thus a combination of 1. what we experience daily with 2. the assumption of a completely empty universal space.

However, this combination happens as a syllogism, in which you have two premises (the empirical fact of inertia and the imagination of the empty universe) from which you necessarily conclude the proposition enounced thereafter as the universal principle of inertia. 

Such are the principles of science: products of rational imagination in which a piece of certain knowledge is assumed to be true. But these principles would be an empty play of imagination if they were not applied to other empirical observations.

The Newtonian principles of mechanics serve as a fundament for the science of mechanics which predicts with very high accuracy the movements of bodies in our common experience. Hegel attempted to ‘deduce’ those principles of science, in the sense that he wanted to show the known components on which rational or productive imagination builds its products. 

Let’s again consider the principle of inertia. We see that it contains several notions with which it operates but which it takes as known and, therefore, unworthy to be further questioned. These notions are matter, material body, motion, space, and interference or action.

Hegel tries to show what we think of when we speak of such abstract notions and how their understanding is mutually related. When you say matter, you think of something necessarily spreading through space and, therefore, through time, too; thus, space and time are logical conditions for thinking of any matter in the sense that first, I must imagine that there is space in order to be able to imagine, then, that in that space there is matter too. 

However, this approach cannot imply that matter is ‘deduced’ from space. No. It only shows that in order to think of the matter, you must first think of space. The same happens with the representation of a body: first, you must have the representation of space and then that of matter.

But now, you must also have the representation of a place in space because a body is, by definition, a finite entity that cannot hover throughout the whole of space. But when you have the representation of place, you necessarily must use the representation of time too. And so forth. Neither space nor time and matter ‘produce’ the body. They are only logical conditions allowing me to have the representation of a body. 

Thus the a priori character of Hegel’s philosophy of nature and Hegel’s philosophical approach does not consist in the syllogistic deduction of one concept from another or of a principle or scientific law from some basic concepts. It is the endeavor to show the totality of all the thought conditions – from the most elementary to the most immediate one in this logical series – of a concept, principle, law, or scientific proposition and what makes them intelligible to us. 

This approach is a priori because the ultimate concepts cannot be grounded in any particular experience but only illustrated by such an experience. In this respect, we can say, for example, that we are spatial beings, and any other experience is related to this ultimate feature of ours. We do not get spatial experience from traveling somewhere and afterwards integrating it into our way of being as if it were a habit existing now whereas it did not exist before. 

The approach is also a priori because, during the process of philosophical exposition, it is shown that the concept under discussion is not intelligible without having a previous understanding of another concept and, that, therefore, it is necessarily (i.e., logically) related to that (more general) concept. But this does not mean that one syllogistically derives the former concept from the latter one, which would be a complete misunderstanding of Hegel’s philosophy. 

This is the new sense of deduction that Kant introduced under the name of transcendental deduction, and those who criticize Hegel’s deductive approach show not only their misunderstanding of Hegel but also their complete ignorance concerning the philosophical paradigm opened by Kant.

The first part of this article can be read here.

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