Monday, June 8, 2009

Sounding a perfect triad: J, C, B

If you have ever studied music, you know how the notes of the scale are named for the first seven letters of the alphabet. If you have gone into it further, you may also know that the German notation uses "B" to stand for the note others call "b-flat" and "H" to stand for "b-natural". Furthermore, those of you who are familiar with 20th century organ music may know of Olivier Messiaen, who devised "Communicable Language" extending tonal values to the remainder of the alphabet...

Why do I bring such things up here?

Well, for one, because the members of our Society are true scholars, anxious to learn about all things which help lead us to Truth. Here's why:
I never can really feel that there is such a thing as a different subject. There is no such thing as an irrelevant thing in the universe; for all things in the universe are at least relevant to the universe.
[GKC ILN Feb 17 1906 CW27:125-6]
And also because I wanted a curious metaphor to introduce today's topic. I was thinking of how one can take a J and a C, and add a B to get a perfect triad.... not, of course in music, not even in Messiaen's notation. Rather, in the curious and powerful wide vision of Father Jaki, (the "J") who brought Chesterton (the "C") and Babbage (the "B") together in his Brain, Mind and Computers.

This work is a dangerous one for me to take up, since it touches my own field, and because there are some interesting topics for discussion - topics which are not those the typical reader (be he a computer scientist, a philosopher, or otherwise) would propose for debate! However I am not going to proceed to those matters today, nor shall I review the book, even obliquely. And lest I give you the impression I have reservations about its worth, be assured - it is far too important a book for our Society - which I shall now proceed to justify.

In Jaki's usual style, he quotes a famous Chesterton line, which has its value for computing as much as for mechanical physics and for cosmology:
Machines, if properly constructed, require no more than plainly worded operating manuals that are useful in the measure in which their writers make no pretense to philosophical sophistication. Indeed very little can be written about the philosophy of machines, unless one is ready to take prolixity for substance. In the philosophy of machines the essential point can be made, pace Mumford, in a few lines. Chesterton’s dictum, “There must in every machine be a part that moves and a part that stands still,” is philosophy of its deepest kind, partly because it is followed by the unwavering generalization: “There must be in everything that changes a part that is unchangeable."

The profundity of Chesterton’s dictum becomes obvious as soon as one considers that in a world of change rational, that is, meaningful judgments must assume a connection between the starting and end points of any process. This, however, makes sense only if something remains identical while the process or change runs its course. The merit of this consideration is recommended not only by its balanced character, but also by the vertiginous stances to which any tinkering with that balance inevitably leads.
[SLJ, Brain, Mind, and Computers 253-4 citing GKC's What's Wrong With the World]
However, even if Jaki had not quoted Chesterton, this book has a profound effect on me, akin to that of Science and Creation in which Jaki repeats Pierre Duhem's revelation of the groundbreaking work of Buridan and Oresme in the 1300s. And not just on me, but on our Society, for it tells us that there is another great scholar whose work we must also study.

For in Brain, Mind, and Computers Father Jaki tells of the long-concealed work of Charles Babbage (1792-1871) the founder of computer science, and inventor of the "Analytical Engine" - I refer to his famous Ninth Bridgewater Treatise!

Rather than attempt a summary, I shall quote at length:
The prospect of saving men from the tedium of routine computation clearly delighted him [Kelvin]. "The object of this machine," he remarked about his Tidal Harmonic Analyzer, "is to substitute brass for brain in the great mechanical labor of calculating the elementary constituents of the whole tidal rise and fall." While the device, as Kelvin noted, "did the work, which seemed to the Astronomer Royal so complicated and difficult that no machine could master it," Kelvin, unlike Hobbes, did not assign to brass the faculty of thinking. Much as he valued mechanical models as reliable guideposts in the scientific search for the ultimate form of physical reality, his appreciation of non-physical realities was just as strong. Intelligence and freedom of will, these basic distinctives of humans, constituted, in his opinion, "a miracle to physical, chemical, and mathematical science."

In such an appraisal no one would have concurred more wholeheartedly than Charles Babbage, the nineteenth-century founder of twentieth-century computers. Considered an eccentric by his neighbors and unappreciated by the British government, Babbage was to receive due recognition only long after his death. It is readily admitted today that the giant electronic computers, a chief pride of our times, are but the embodiments of principles that Babbage laid down well before the nineteenth century reached its midpoint. Little is it remembered, however, that in Babbage's own evaluation his novel calculating machines were not only aids for calculation. He also considered his invention a most impressive illustration of a train of thought indicating the existence of an infinite intellect, or Creator.

Such was the essence of Babbage's philosophy of the computer which he set forth in detail in The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. In writing it, Babbage had several objectives in view. In general he wanted to show that "the power and knowledge of the great Creator of matter and mind are unlimited." It was also his determination to combat a recurring prejudice, that "the pursuits of science are unfavourable to religion," a prejudice which he believed "to have been long eradicated from every cultivated mind." More specifically, he wanted to show that the computer has certain characteristics that might effectively be exploited in constructing a new and most powerful proof of the existence of a Creator. To use the modern terminology, Babbage described the Creator as an infinitely skilled programmer, "whose mind, intimately cognizant of the remotest consequences of the present as well as of all other laws, decreed existence to that one alone, which should comprehend within its grasp the completion of its destiny - which should require no future intervention to meet events unanticipated by its author, in whose omniscient mind we can conceive no infirmity of purpose - no change of intention!"

It was in that perspective that Babbage defended such cardinal points in natural theology as the possibility and reality of miracles, of providence, of freedom of will, of future punishments and rewards. The question of miracles especially retained his attention, determined as he was to lay bare the weaknesses inherent in Hume's argument against miracles. Hume's argument, as is well known, is based on the principle of induction. As an uncounted number of observations supports the sameness of the action of the laws of physics both in space and time, it is unreasonable to give credibility to a few individuals claiming that certain events took place at variance with the laws of physics. In Babbage's estimate, Hume's argument was faulty on two counts: it overestimated the bearing of particular inductions and at the same time it took an oversimplified view of the universe. Miracles, Babbage argued, could be properly understood only by those sufficiently aware of the immense complicatedness of the processes of nature. This complicatedness was the result of the infinite number of the ways in which the material forces and entities in nature could interact with one another. The infinity of ways implied in turn that a most extraordinary change might take place in the regular course of events at the most unexpected moments. To illustrate this, Babbage spoke at length of the surprising turns that could be displayed by the calculating machine. The machine, constructed to follow a given law of calculation, might equally well be built in such a way as to begin to obey another law of calculation at a future time, known only to its constructor. The sequence of these two laws was evidently determined by another superior law, indicating the basic idea underlying the mode of operation of any advanced calculating machine. Thus the machine was in fact the embodiment of hierarchically ordered instructions or laws. As such, the calculating machine, so Babbage argued, was but a modest replica of nature. Vast as the complexities of a calculating machine might have been, they were far surpassed by the vastness of the intricacies present in even the most elementary contrivances of nature. Yet for all its relative primitiveness, the calculating machine constituted a most telling analogy. By studying its structure and mode of operation, one could form, as Babbage emphasized, "a faint estimate of the magnitude of that lowest step in the chain of reasoning, which leads us to Nature's God."
[SLJ Brain, Mind, and Computers 42-45, attributions omitted]
Truly, meat for whole teams of scholars, for truly joint colloquia of philosophers and scientists and technologists...

You may wonder why I do not add the "D" note (for Duhem) to our chord. I must here reveal that the name "Duhem" does not appear in this book. Perhaps some future scholar, hopefully a member of our Society, shall one day take up the synthesis of these four notes, and compose a great work much as another once wrote fugues on B-A-C-H...

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