Monday, April 27, 2009

Jaki: for GKC, reading Duhem would be "joy beyond words"

Almost twenty years ago, when the lectures forming this book were delivered, it could sound jarring, at least to some, to hear Chesterton's views on science presented as those of a seer. But only some self-imposed blindness could prevent one from seeing that many of his views were penetrating indeed. This had to surprise certain professional interpreters of science - philosophers and scientists - who thought that it was their sole privilege to say something enlightening on the subject. The light they provided was mostly the twilight of obscure cogitation wrapped in convoluted phrases, which only the initiated could savor but hardly comprehend. Only now and then did some of them complain that celebrated oracles of the "establishment" merrily changed the meaning of their key words as they carried on with their sophisticated obfuscation. The tidal wave of half-digested and ill-defined words - such as revolutions, paradigm, falsification, and so forth - flooded over any warning sign posted by some courageous minds, who refused to be included in the privileged club of mutual admiration.
It must have incensed those within that circle that some forceful phrases of Chesterton's could shed a sharp light on what was truly science in science and what was antiscience. He grew up at a time when science worship, as promoted by T. H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and later by H. G. Wells, turned science into an idol, which, like the idols of old deplored in the Psalms, had eyes that did not see, had feet that could not walk, had ears that did not hear. The difference was merely in reference to the mouth. While no sound came forth from the mouths of idols carved from wood and stone, the mouthpieces of a science taken for an idol poured out words in a staggering volume and created a climate of opinion. The chief characteristic of that climate was a thick fog that made invisible the escape route toward areas of sunlight, where the overcomplicated could not parade as simple and the simple remained obvious.

An older contemporary of Chesterton's, Pierre Duhem, was the only sane professional interpreter of science in those days, but his writings could not come to the attention of Chesterton. The free flow of ideas is far from what it is supposed to be. Certain academics see to it that Presses will not espouse works that expose their exclusive claims to competence. One can only muse on the extent to which Chesterton would have savored Duhem's competently articulated philosophical realism. One can only dream of the pleasure Chesterton would have derived from Duhem's outlining the drastic limitations of the scientific method. Chesterton, who fought scientism tooth and nail, would have found those limitations as liberating as are brilliant strategies of military geniuses serving the noblest causes.

And what if Chesterton had gained an inkling of the learned tomes in which Duhem had set forth the most revolutionary news about science ever since Copernicus' famed book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs? The news was about the medieval, and indeed Christian origins of some basic notions of Newtonian physics. As one who staunchly defended the Christian heritage underlying Western civilization, Chesterton would have experienced a joy beyond words. For just as Chesterton put things straight by turning them around, so did Duhem's revolutionary researches put matters in right order. But it was not given to Chesterton to glimpse that promised land of cultural liberation into which so many Catholic scholars are reluctant to enter, in fear of separating themselves from the "received view."
[Jaki, Chesterton a Seer of Science, Forward to the New Edition]
Yes, I am behind today, and I apologise for not having something of my own to post. But this is instructive, and may help generate enthusiasm and interest.

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