Saturday, May 2, 2009

"I should not tax you...."

One of the first observations one makes in reading any of Jaki's essay collections is their remarkable similarity - and their even more remarkable dissimilarity. It is true that he uses, again and again, but always to great advantage, some of the great epigrams and "power quotes" of famous scientists - but each time it seems as if you were hearing them for the first time. Einstein, Maxwell, Planck, and others make their appearances - I cannot say as comic relief, as the quotes are rarely comic - ah, let us say as we expect to receive the sync byte (01000111) as every 188th character of an MPEG transport stream. It reassures us that we are keeping up with the flow of thought.

And so we look forward to hearing Whitehead's line about "Those who devote themselves to the purpose of proving that there is no purpose..." or Einstein reminding us that "the man of science is a poor philosopher" or Maxwell's grand dictum that "there can be no doubt that ... the ether is certainly the largest ... body of which we have any knowledge". No doubt! Well, all right, that one is comic, especially since he wrote it for the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. And there is that stupendous statement from Bertrand Russell, made at Columbia University in 1950:
"If you have Christian love," he declared to a stunned audience, "you have motive for existence, a guide for action, a reason for courage, an imperative necessity for intellectual honesty."
[Jaki, "Address on receiving the Templeton Prize" in The Only Chaos and Other Essays, quoting B. Russell, The Impact of Science on Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951), p. 59.]
But, as I have mentioned, there are, on rare occasions, some very unusual epigrams from Jaki himself which are very funny. Sometimes they have what we might call delayed reaction fuses - they grow and the humour bursts out a good bit later. One such line jumped out at me as I prepared today's other posting, mainly because it is set off in parentheses, which of course are perfectly inaudible during a speech. But a friend reminds me that Jaki's mannerisms during his lectures often provided a kind of visual typography... I will let you decide:
If progress is something like a voyage, its continuation does not cease to be a function of its very starting point and of the provisions acquired there. If religion is to be an ongoing progress, its very starting point should be rethought continually. That starting point is the recognition of dependence on the Creator on the part of everything which is the universe and of which we human beings are the very spokesmen. (I should not tax you with the mythology of extra-terrestrials, often assumed to have English for their native tongue.)
[Jaki, "Address on receiving the Templeton Prize" in The Only Chaos and Other Essays]

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