Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Guidance from Maxwell

If you have just about any book by Father Jaki, you know that it contains a list of his books. Or you may visit the Real View Books web site and explore the catalog. You will quickly note that there are several classes of books:

1. studies of the history and philosophy of science - some general (e.g. The Relevance of Physics) some specific (e.g. The Paradox of Olbers' Paradox).
2. collections of essays, usually journal articles or texts of speeches and lectures (see list on the right)
3. spiritual meditations or commentaries (such as those on the Litanies and traditional prayers)
4. studies on John Henry Cardinal Newman
5. commentaries on the Church, such as the two on the Papacy, and others such as The Theology of Priestly Celibacy or God and the Sun at Fatima.
6. and a few others including his "intellectual autobiography" A Mind's Matter, biographies (Uneasy Genius, Reluctant Heroine) and cross-disciplinary studies (Chesterton a Seer of Science).

Certainly this broad categorization could be revised, or others proposed. But for my purpose today I merely wish to segregate those first two categories from all the others. A note: there is always cross-linking in the typical Jaki book - you can find "science" sneaking into even the most spiritual, and the humble attitudes of prayer adorning even the most technical - this is what one ought to expect from a single author who is dedicated to Truth writ large, and sees it everywhere. (Like Chesterton did, I must add.)

Very well. Now. If you have read just about any of Fr. Jaki's books about science (those in my first two categories above) you may recall the relatively frequent appearance of a very powerful quote from the great James Clerk Maxwell:
One of the severest tests of the scientific mind is to know the limits of the legitimate application of the scientific method.
[Maxwell, The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, ed. W. D. Niven (Cambridge, 1890), vol. II, p. 759.]
(Jaki also quotes this in the form "application of scientific methods".)

Jaki suggests what he calls the "impassable divide" (notably in the book of that title) - and yet he also quotes with approval Chesterton's great line
The rebuilding of this bridge between science and human nature is one of the greatest needs of mankind.
[GKC The Defendant 75]
This issue is perhaps the most grave, the most difficult, yet the most important of all the matters our Society must deal with. Neither Duhem nor Chesterton nor Jaki wanted to "reduce" science to just another human activity, nor somehow by another sense of "reduction" bring all other fields (music, literature, philosophy and so on) into mere branches of physics.

No - for the suggestion that a bridge must be built is an affirmation that two things are divided! [See GKC on this: "at least priests and bridges both attest to the fact that one thing can get separated from another thing" ILN Dec 14 1907 CW27:603-4]

And at the same time, to postulate that a bridge can be built is an affirmation that there is a reason why the divided sides need to be united - at the least, by that bridge. A bridge is a risky thing, not only to build, but to cross.

Our purpose is to work on the bridge: by the highest plans possible to human intellectual efforts in science and in philosophy, by good engineering (which is to say by useful publications, be they in bloggs or journals or lecture halls) and by an honest and dedicated work of broadcasting the existence of the bridge - that is by at least some attempt to make our work accessible to the ordinary intelligent "Common Man" - and not merely to the other academics who share our interests. We must make our bridge as safe as we can - so we and others may cross.

Perhaps you see why I (a computer scientist) find Chesterton so compatible with this plan - and perhaps begin to suspect why he is a natural ally in the work of Duhem and Jaki.

(I have more to say on this issue of limits and bridges, and will introduce an interesting example from my own research, but shall stop here for today.)

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