Wednesday, June 24, 2009

SLJ: Examples of Intellectual Stinginess

Father Jaki warns us of how even great scientists can succumb to temptation...
--Dr. Thursday

In speaking of the science of motion, Newton's name naturally comes to mind. Physics in Newtonian physics and even Einstein's physics would be inconceivable without Newton's Principia. That book begins with the three laws of motion: the basis of the whole science of mechanics, including rocket propulsion and space travel. Newton, of course, did not care to tell his readers how he arrived at those laws. He did not care because he was a very proud man unwilling to give credit to others, as was all too often the case with other seventeenth-century scientists and authors. Galileo and Descartes are two chief examples of this intellectual stinginess. Had Newton cared to say something about the origin of those three laws, and had he been utterly candid, he might have proceeded something like this: The credit for the third law (force equals mass times acceleration) belongs to me though not in the sense that I had formulated the notion of uniform acceleration. Credit for the latter should go to Galileo. As to the second and first laws, Newton should have made a special effort to be candid. The reason for this was that both those laws could be found in the books of Descartes, of whose reputation Newton was terribly jealous. He did not want anyone to suspect that he owed anything to Descartes. In his later years, Newton spent much precious time on erasing from his manuscripts and notebooks the name of Descartes, lest posterity learn a thing or two.

Had Newton acknowledged Galileo and Descartes, he would have not stated thereby the true origin of the first law and of the law of acceleration of which the free fall of a body is a classic case and primary example. Descartes was not the inventor of the all-important first law, nor was Galileo the inventor of the no-less-important law of acceleration. They could find them (and indeed found them) in several books printed in the 1570s and 1580s, whose authors took them from an earlier tradition, antedating the invention of printing. That tradition can be traced to the fourteenth-century Sorbonne, especially to the lectures of John Buridan and his greatest disciple, Nicole Oresme, who died as Bishop of Lisieux in 1378.

Lecturing in the fourteenth-century medieval universities consisted in reading the books of a prominent ancient author, very often Aristotle, and commenting on the text. This had by then been an old tradition going back to Hellenistic times and in particular to Muslim schools. One of Aristotle's scientific books that was most often commented upon was his cosmology, called On the Heavens. There Aristotle most explicitly states that the world is eternal and that its motion, and in particular the daily circular motion of the sphere of stars, is also eternal because the world is and must be uncreated, that is, without a beginning. Whatever else the Prime Mover of Aristotle was, he was not a Creator. Aristotle had no use for the idea of creation out of nothing. For Aristotle, the world, the universe, the cosmos, was the ultimate entity, most likely identical in its better or celestial parts with the Prime Mover himself. The cosmos, according to Aristotle, had necessarily to be what it is - in no way could his Prime Mover fashion, let alone create, a different universe.

Newton's first law was formulated by medieval schoolmen in reaction against such and similar statements of Aristotle and of other pagan classical scholars who held those statements to be absolute dogmas. The eternity and uncreatedness of the universe was indeed the chief dogma of all pagan religions, old and new, crude and refined. The medieval reaction to that dogma was, as one could expect it, made in terms of the first tenet of Christian Creed, which states the creation of all and in time, that is, in the beginning. How productive and fruitful that reaction was for science can be seen in John Buridan's commentaries on Aristotle's On the Heavens. After rejecting Aristotle's doctrine on the eternity of motion, Buridan wrote: "In the beginning when God made the heaven and the earth, He imparted a certain amount of impetus (motion) to the heavenly bodies, which impetus they still keep because they move in a space where there is no friction." This statement, which is essentially equivalent to Newton's first law, reappeared in many medieval lecture notes and its equivalent appeared in print many times before Descartes came to the scene.
[SLJ "God and Man's Science: A View of Creation" in The Absolute Beneath the Relative and other essays 62-3, emphasis added]

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