Friday, July 31, 2009

Jaki: A Chestertonian Comment about Baptism

For today, the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a meditative - and most discursive - excerpt about baptism, Christ, the Church, heresy, and several other topics but united in one vision by GKC and SLJ...

Let us recall this - we who are also shufflers, cowards, and snobs - and be grateful.

--Dr. Thursday

This is the context within which Chesterton comes up with his finest illustration of the importance of the insignificant in the eyes of that truly Super-Being, which is God: "Mr. Shaw cannot understand that the thing which is valuable and lovable in our eyes is man - the old beer-drinking, creed-making, fighting, failing, sensual, respectable man. And the things that have been founded on this creature immortally remain; the things that have been founded on the fancy of the Superman have died with the dying civilizations which alone have given them birth. When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its cornerstone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward - in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have tailed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link."

This is the only theologically dogmatic passage in Heretics, whose author was still to write Orthodoxy. It took him a dozen years more to shed the last threads of his being himself a heretic. Heresies, or the urge to remain embedded in heresies, is innate with man, with fallen man. Man owes his sole escape from the clutches of hereticism to Christ alone. Surprising as it may seem, heresies appeared on the scene only after the Son of God came as the Son of Man among men. The monotheism of Jews was of course a heresy in the midst of universal polytheism or idol worship. But the Jews were not as a rule persecuted as heretics. In fact, the Romans assured them the privilege of not being obligated to sacrifice to Jupiter or the emperor.

The Jews owed this special status of theirs to their resolve to remain a race, a particularity, a heresy of sorts, though a heresy intended by God up to a point. But with Christ's coming, universality or catholicity was to rule supreme. His final command to his apostles was to teach all men, to make disciples of all of them, by baptizing them in the name of a triune God. Then, and this shows the greatness of the author of Heretics, heresies began in an apparently most trivial manner, but for a reason most profound. The reason is tied to the ageold custom of stating or asserting something firmly. For once somebody does this, he becomes dogmatic and challenges others to agree with his dogma lest they become heretics in reference to him.

With Christ universal truth entered history. Until his coming, leave aside the Jews as provincial by rule, there were only opinions. Nobody was asked to die for Plato's theory of the five perfect bodies, or for Aristotle's doctrine of potency and act. Nobody followed Socrates in drinking the hemlock so that one may keep one's conscience clean just before the moment of death. With Christ a new divine economy about truth entered history, the dispensation of Truth writ large. Here, too, grace did not suppress nature but elevated it. The age-old human penchant to be assertive now was grafted onto a divine policy of self-assertion. This began when Christ asserted of himself that he was the life, the way, and the truth. Had he said that he was the idea of life, the idea of the way, the idea of the truth, he merely would have anticipated Hegel and that would have been the end of it. Christianity would have been nipped in the bud before it could have blossomed. But Christ went on to asserting that he was the bread of life and that he was the Son of God.

[SLJ, "Heretics and Dogmatists: or the Gist of Chesterton's Heretics"in A Late Awakening 212-4]

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Thinking about Causes

Due to a posting on the ACS blogg (which itself refers to a French blogue!) I had to write on my own blogg about the famous line from Virgil:
Felix qui potuit cognoscere causas rerum.
[Virgil, Georgics II:490]
which is (roughly)
Happy is he who is able to know the causes of things.
I wondered if Jaki happened to quote this, but in a very brief hunt, could not come up with any direct reference. However, I found something else which is worth our consideration:
It is typical of scientism, however, to produce in its devotees a mental attitude that is incapacitated by its own nature to appreciate both sides of a coin. It was only natural that Comte's admirers could not avoid the same pitfall. Thus J. S. Mill found nothing wrong with Comte's claim that anybody who ever contributed anything to science did it in the genuine spirit of positive philosophy. According to J. S. Mill, Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo were the forerunners of positivism, which was first formulated and practiced in all clarity by Newton himself. Such a claim, however, is faulty on two counts. First, it ignores all that is simply fantastic in Comte's comments on science; second, it blatantly falsifies the historical record. Newton for one never once came close in his statements to the absurd one-sidedness of Comtean positivism as regards the search for causes. True, Newton argued against Leibniz that one can make progress in studying gravitation without knowing its cause. In so doing, however, he was far from emulating unknowingly the Comtean program. For Newton's was a mind searching for causes, as the General Scholium or the queries of the Opticks could have shown to either Comte or Mill. But where Newton merely distinguished two parts of the scientific procedure, Comte negated the one not to his liking. Unlike Comte, who dismissed hypotheses bearing on the way phenomena are produced, Newton clearly enjoyed constructing them and rejected only those that by definition could not be subjected to experimental tests.
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 478]
There is a footnote on the very last sentence which is relevant (no pun intended) to us:
81. One of the early critics of Comte's views on what science should and should not do was W. Whewell, who pointed out with direct reference to Newton that inquiring into the causes of things is inavoidable in scientific research See his Philosophy of the Inductive Science II (2d ed., London 1847), 320-25.
This suggests a fundamental distinguo (I distinguish) as the Scholastics would say: that while science is not really "about" causes, it requires us to inquire into them.

A marvellous research topic - perhaps the keynote topic for a future Duhem Society conference. Think about it, bearing in mind the famous epigram SLJ loved to quote:
Those who devote themselves to the purpose of proving that there is no purpose constitute an interesting subject for study.
[A. N. Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1929), p. 12.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"... it doesn't take a tailor..."

In our slow but continuing study of Jaki and Duhem - with a fairly frequent inclusion of Chesterton - we of the Duhem Society are continually encountering the great problem of "miracle": the idea that God acts in our world, sometimes in ways that appear to violate the "laws" - as we term them of physics. Now, I include Chesterton here for a very good reason, the same reason that Father Jaki included him in his tapestry of studies: because he had truly penetrating insights into this matter, insights of great utility to us, whether we are scientists, philosophers, historians, or merely interested intelligent humans. The study is huge, whether we come at it from the traditional angles of epistemology or of theology, or we use the scheme first enunciated by Charles Babbage, the first Computer Scientist (see SLJ's Brain, Mind, and Computers for details) or we use the very elegant argument Chesterton so delighted in, the "argument from democracy. Here is an example, whre GKC demostrates the issue in the case of the famous "Great Sea Serpent":

Then they [agnostioc Victorians] began to hunt and destroy the Sea-Serpent with all the old battered weapons of Early Victorian doubt: the weapons they had already blunted against much more important things. First they used, as sceptics always use, the anti-democratic argument. They said that the captains and seamen were coarse, unlettered men who could not be trusted on a point of so much delicacy as a sea-monster. They would not believe in a marine serpent on the evidence of uneducated men. They would hang a man on the evidence of uneducated men. They would get a citizen jailed and flogged on the bare word of some policeman who paved the police-court with his fallen aitches. But when a seafaring man said he had seen something fifty feet long which he had no earthly motive for pretending he had seen - then they suddenly remembered that he had never had a university education. He had never received that exact philological finish, that delicate turn of style and centrality of taste which enables a man to know whether something about the size and shape of the Scotch Express is going past his ship or not.
[GKC ILN Oct 21 1911 CW29:175-6]
That essay is one of the very important reference items for our collection, and you ought to get a copy for your files - the same idea (that witnesses are believed truthful when giving evidence for capital crimes, but not when giving evidence on miraculous events) is argued elsewhere in Chesterton's writing; Jaki examines it in his God and the Sun at Fatima. (We might add this question of "miracle" to our list of research topics, if we have not already.)

For some reason, which I dare not go into just now, this topic seems to call forth a good deal of humour, even from the serious student of the topic. I note it in both Chesterton and Jaki. Perhaps because the issue is comical - perhaps because reality is comical - since the truth is so often unexpected:
The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.
[GKC "The Blue Cross" in The Innocence of Father Brown]
For example, in that ILN essay I just quoted, we have one of the must hilarious bits of "animal humour", yet which addresses the topic directly:
When first the giraffe was described by travellers it was treated as a lie. Now it is in the Zoological Gardens; but it still looks like a lie. If few save stray travellers had seen the thing, and if the scientists (for some muddle-headed reason of theirs) had decided to doubt it, it would have been quite easy for them to explain every alleged appearance in the same way.
[GKC ILN Oct 21 1911 CW29:176]
Yes... and this same thing comes up in Father Jaki's writing...
The defense of miracles done with an eye on physics should include a passing reference to meteorites. Characteristic of the stubborn resistance of scientific academies to those strange bits of matter was Laplace's shouting, "We've had enough such myths," when Pictet, a fellow academician, urged a reconsideration of the evidence provided by "lay-people" as plain eyewitnesses. Laymen were they in the sense that they had no telescopes, no training in celestial mechanics, no knowledge of trajectories, azimuth, right and left ascension. But they could register with absolute certainty that a fiery body had just hit the ground nearby and could unerringly distinguish its still warm stony remains as something not belonging to the soil around it. That such a kind of witnessing stands in its own right was the point recognized by a doctor on being confronted with the objection of a coĆ¼eague who insisted that the wide-open fracture below the left knee of Pieter De Rudder (1822-1898), the subject of possibly the most startling cure related to Lourdes, could not be accepted for a fact because the two ends of the broken bone protruding through the skin had not been certified by a medical commission. The reply of that rightly indignant physician, "it does not take a tailor to see that a coat is full of holes," contains an instructiveness that is practically inexhaustible.
[SLJ Miracles and Physics 94-95, emphasis added]

Friday, July 24, 2009

Enthusiasm and Common Sense

Just a little something to stimulate your thought and your enthusiasm for our work. Every time I use that word, I feel a strong sense of awe, for I recall Chesterton's famous etymological aphorism about it:
I myself have little Latin and less Greek. But I know enough Greek to know the meaning of the second syllable of "enthusiasm," and I know it to be the key to this and every other discussion.
[GKC The Thing CW3:139]
In case you have even less Greek than GKC or me, I should tell you that its second syllable comes from the Greek word QeoV which means God.

Let us strive, then, to have more enthusiasm in our science, in our philosophy, in our daily work, and even in our daily play.

"Heart of Jesus, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,
have mercy on us." [See Colossians 2:3]

--Dr. Thursday

A little over half a century. ago Julian Huxley came forward with his Religion without Revelation, a book with a somewhat misleading title. What Huxley actually aimed at was to articulate a religion which not only was in no need of revelation but also excluded its very possibility by denying its rationality. The possibility and rationality of revelation rest on the existence of God, on his having made man to his own image the image of his own rationality - and on his having placed him in a rationally coherent world which evidences its own and man's createdness. On the contrary, 'religion without revelation' called for a creed whose first tenet is a self-making man in a self-making universe. More radical challenge than this is hardly conceivable to the first article of the Creed: I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

Such a challenge was not first posed by Huxley. He was merely an updated echo of a Renan, a Nietzsche, a Spencer, a Comte, and a Marx, relatively recent spokesmen of a tradition going much farther back in history. They all were at one in noting that nothing determines more decisively man's outlook on life than his facing up to the alternative: Existence, cosmic and human, is either dependent on a personal Creator or not. Needless to say, long after Huxley's writings had become dated, the tradition they represented kept producing further echoes. If an echo, usually a tease, comes with a fresh overtone, it can appear original enough to captivate the unwary. Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity was certainly original as a title, but hardly as a message. All who before him did their best to exorcise the Creator from the scene, had no choice but to ascribe, in defiance of logic, everything to chance or/and necessity.

The most flagrant evidence of that defiance is the very activity which issues in a brilliant book or in a discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize. Neither books, nor scientific discoveries and awards can consistently be taken for a product of chance or of necessity, let alone of both. No wonder that in all such cases chance and necessity are furtively supplemented with that purpose and freedom which is certainly inherent in scientific research and philosophical reflection. The tactic is understandable, though wholly unjustified. It ushers in through the back door that common sense which gives meaning to any non-trivial, that is, well-reasoned use of the words chance and necessity. A religion which excludes the possibility of revelation cannot indeed be construed without falling back on such fairly transparent tactics. Their perennial popularity derives from man's longing for such a religion, hardly different from an aesthetic sentimentality, and from the sophistication of their construction and presentation. What makes some such tactics worth noting is the sense of urgency with which the self-anointed prophets of 'religion without revelation' reveal the vision of heaven on earth to each subsequent generation.
[SLJ Cosmos and Creator introduction]

Monday, July 20, 2009

Iridium and Catastrophes...

One of my side projects required the use of the wonderful element called iridium. (It's fiction, but I do wish I was working in a lab with it, indeed with any of the platinides!) I had a vague recollection of Jaki mentioning it in some unusual context, and finally located it. (The context, not the iridium. If you know where to get some, please let me know. I'd just want a sample.)

As if by supreme irony, the first major evidence of global geological catastrophes was spotted within a few years of the centenary of the publication of the Origin [of Species]. In 1967, the Nobel-laureate physicist, W. Alwarez and his associates, who included his son, L. Alwarez, began to test their theory about periodic geological upheavals, through a field work in the precipitous mountainsides rising above the Italian town of Gubbio. There they found at the K-T boundary, that separates the Cretaceous from the Tertiary period, a pencil-thin layer very rich in iridium. Since iridium is very rare on earth but very abundant in meteors, it appeared logical to place the source of iridium, that was later found elsewhere on the globe in the same layer, in the earth's collision with an asteroid ten kilometers or so in diameter.
While the idea created at first considerable controversy, it is now generally conceded that among the factors that brought about the end of the Cretaceous period and the extinction of the dinosaurs (among other things), there was one collision with a huge body from outer space. The cataclysm triggered thereby is best given in the words of the younger Alvarez:
In the first days after the earth was hit, dust blanketed the entire world. It grew pitch-dark from one to three months. If the impact was on land, it probably got bitter cold. If it hit at sea, the water vapor could have created a greenhouse effect, making things hot. Hot nitric acid would have rained out of the atmosphere life-threatening rain that would have dissolved the shells of organisms.
This apocalyptic scenario has become even more so with further details emerging from the analysis of the iridium from that layer. Associated with that iridium were large amounts of soot which can only be explained if much of the earth was enveloped in fire. According to E. Anders, a cosmochemist at the University of Chicago,
even if it [the asteroid] hit in the ocean, the impact would have created a crater 300 kilometers across. A huge plume would have pushed the atmosphere aside. The fireball would have had a radius of several thousand kilometers. Winds of hundreds of kilometers an hour would have swept the planet for hours, drying trees like a giant hair dryer. Two-thousand-degree rock vapor would have spread rapidly. It would have condensed to white-hot grains that could have started additional fires.
The feverish research in historical biology sparked by the discovery of Alvarez has now completely discredited the idea of a slowly changing geological past. Instead, we have not only a geological past pockmarked with global catastrophes, but also a biological past riddled with extinctions of life-forms on a giant scale and at a periodic rate, roughly 26 million years.
[SLJ The Purpose of It All, 53-55]
One of the very curious harmonies between Jaki and Chesterton occurs here. The Father Brown story called "The Strange Crime of John Boulnois" (ca. 1914), begins with the mention of
a very unobtrusive Oxford man named John Boulnois wrote in a very unreadable review called The Natural Philosophic Quarterly a series of articles on alleged weak points in Darwinian evolution, it fluttered no corner of the English papers; though Boulnois's theory (which was that of a comparatively stationary universe visited occasionally by convulsions of change) had some rather faddy fashionableness at Oxford, and got so far as to be named "Catastrophism."
[GKC The Wisdom of Father Brown]
I don't know if any historian of science has done a study of the real-world theory, but it would be interesting to find out if Chesterton has the priority. Given some of the known error-correcting strategies in the DNA replication system it seems that Boulnois (and Chesterton) might be far closer to reality than Darwin... but I make no claim here. The matter (even if partially tongue-in-cheek) is left for further research. But the iridium seems to speak for itself.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

If scientists can create universes, why not money?

Strangely, those who claim that modern quantum cosmology enables one, in theory at least, to create universes literally out of nothing, have not so far come up with the creation of gold bullion out of nothing, and not even with the creation of a fifty dollar bill. Imagine what will happen if stockbrokers (and Bin Laden) learn quantum cosmology. I am afraid, utterly phony claims dressed up in science that are tolerated in the finest academic ambience, would not be tolerated by the FBI and rightly so.

Behind all this extravagating in the name of science there lies a miserable philosophy, which is a mixture of pragmatism and sensationism. Its standard name is the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Years ago I had a heated argument with one of its chief stalwarts, a Nobel laureate, now dead, about that interpretation. The argument was heated because he, like myself, was Hungarian by birth, but in the end I was able to make him admit that on the basis of that interpretation he could say only that he had sensations, separate from objects. Then I conjured up to him a farcical aspect of his admission: "Suppose a thief came and stole the wallet from your pocket. On finding this you would go to the police and tell them" - at this point he interrupted me: "Yes, I will tell them that my wallet was stolen." "No," I replied, "on the basis of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics you are entitled merely to tell the police: 'I have the sensation of my wallet having been stolen'." He fell speechless, which did not often happen.

At this point I could have been blunt. I could have told him that the police would then take him to the nearest psychiatric ward. But of course, I did not. I had no heart to tell him even what is much less offensive, though very true, that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics lands one in sheer solipsism. It is the religion of those who cannot see beyond their noses even when they have a Nobel Prize dangling from a golden chain around their necks. Solipsists cannot even tell others that they do exist, that they are. The only way to dismiss them is to do as Chesterton did when after a lecture given at Oxford University he was confronted with questions from the floor. One question was a plain statement from a solipsist, who insisted that solipsism was the only good philosophy. Chesterton, a thoroughbred realist, shot back: "Cherish it."

I only wish that we Catholics would really cherish the word is even though science cannot say anything about it. Unless we cherish that word is we shall not see beyond our very noses in the matter of science and religion. What we still have to realize is that our confusion lies not so much with science as with philosophies grafted by scientists onto their science. Almost all those philosophies witness to second-rate amateurism in philosophy. Amateurism can hit philosophers as well, be they Christians.
[SLJ "What God Has Separated... Reflections on Science and Religion" in A Late Awakening and Other Essays 69-70]

Monday, July 13, 2009

Seven years from now...

Seven years from now is 2016. This will be an important year for us in the Duhem Society, and it is well that we begin our planning now - yes, even though we are still working on our initial plans for the Society!

But perhaps in seven years we shall have our Society well-established, with branches in many countries, with a real journal, and perhaps some grants for people doing research, and a few publications, and perhaps even a Conference with lectures and pleasant sessions for friendly conversations with wine and cheese and so forth... yes, that would be very nice. We'll see. For now, at least we have this blogg, and some people who are interested enough to read and think about such important things as Science, Philosophy, History, and Religion - and that is a very good thing for humanity.

But, you ask, what happens in seven years that our Duhem Society ought to prepare?

Well, 2016 will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Pierre Duhem, and we ought to celebrate this with a Festschrift of studies on his work, if not a plenary conference, with a publishing of its Proceedings, and so on. No doubt it will be held in France, perhaps with a hiking tour of the routes Duhem traversed and painted as he pondered the truths of physics and his remarkable discoveries of the work of the medieval Sorbonne.

But 2016 will also mark the 50th anniversary of Jaki's first major book, The Relevance of Physics, which will deserve a re-release - updated, or annotated, or augmented to extend the points he made there. I am well aware that it is a hefty book, somewhat difficult when first encountered, but it is important, and seven years ought to suffice for the study and work it deserves.

Lest you think I am being quarrelsome when I suggest that it be augmented, I will just give you one short excerpt which I feel deserves some further detail. I know there is very much detail in the book, but it is already over 40 years old - written before the first lunar landing! - and science has continued to acquire new details - so of course we need more details! But just examine this and see what you think. (Note, I am not a professional astronomer, and cannot add to the details of my own knowledge, but perhaps you are, or have a friend who is...)
Lest one should think that all the novelties of the cosmos are confined to its most remote reaches, it is well to recall some recent findings that should dissipate at once the complacency that our own backyard in the universe contains no more surprises. Thus it was found in 1964 that Venus is slowly spinning in a direction opposite to that of the Sun, the planets, and most of the moons. The same year also brought the discovery that Mercury too is spinning at a rate of about fifty-nine days, with the result that all its surface is exposed periodically to the sun's light. Such findings, needless to say, might very well force a major revision of the accepted views concerning the development of the solar system. Again, as indicated by the recently observed red-colored spots on the moon's surface, the moon is far from being a huge, long dead chunk of matter. It seems therefore highly plausible to assume that bringing the moon and the neighboring planets closer to the earth by a factor of 1,000 or so with modern techniques of observation might produce the same revolutionary information that invariably followed when astronomy increased in the past by a similar factor its penetration into the universe. The spectacular photographs taken by Ranger VII, Luna IX, and especially by Surveyor I, of the moon's surface represent such a big step, and when man succeeds in getting a sample of the moon's surface, he might answer the question whether or not the strength of gravitation is weakening with time.
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 220]
No, you do not have to write an entire journal article - not yet, anyway. But perhaps you might wish to begin considering what you might be able to do.

Yes, I am assuming you've already read The Relevance of Physics - because if you have not yet read it, please check it out from your library and begin. It may take a little while, and you may need to begin a new notebook, and dig out your old dictionary (or connect to the net to hunt up some references ot some of the names!) but I assure you, it will be worth your time.

Even if you are NOT a scientist, read it. Take notes, ask questions. We have seven years.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

...mental transformation from the parsing of first-declension nouns...

In a previous post I have mentioned Jaki's essays about education, and remarked how it would be useful to explore his larger approach to the topic. Education is a natural corollary to "Science writ large" since it might be said that the doing of science (writ large) must always be the education of a scientist in the school of nature. The conjunction of Jaki with his congeners, Duhem, Newman and Chesterton, ought to provide a fertile ground for very serious work, and if we had a tidy sum in the treasury of our Society, we would offer grants for monographs and lectures and all the panoply of academia. We don't, but we do have this blogg. Thank God! Please proceed to your own comments - or perhaps your own bloggs - to extend the topic. It is indeed a rich one.

Before I give today's half-holiday post - a post both serious and also humourous - I must mention a serious quote from our Uncle Gilbert Chesterton touching the same topic. I think it sets up the required mental state very well:
The trouble in too many of our modern schools is that the State, being controlled so specially by the few, allows cranks and experiments to go straight to the schoolroom when they have never passed through the Parliament, the public house, the private house, the church, or the marketplace. Obviously, it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby. But in a school to-day the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself. The flopping infant of four actually has more experience, and has weathered the world longer, than the dogma to which he is made to submit. Many a school boasts of having the last ideas in education, when it has not even the first idea; for the first idea is that even innocence, divine as it is, may learn something from experience.
[GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:167]

And now, Father Jaki on revolutions in Science:

Revolutions are, like fashions, rather short-lived. The phrase, "paradigm shifts," the shibboleth of the next fashion, seemed to have more academic hue to it, although fewer and fewer among the young seemed to know that paradigms came from Latin grammars where one could not shift them at will. A noun of the first declension is always parsed accordingly. Moreover one does not undergo a mental transformation when passing from the parsing of a first-declension noun to that of a second- or a third- declension noun. Schoolboys undergo agonies before Latin exams, but they still have the same mind regardless of whether they passed or failed them. Not so with the paradigm shifts in science as some historians would have it. According to them the changes paradigm shiftsy represent are radical: what was seen before and after are inconmeasurable, so those historians claimed. The price to be paid for espousing their view was to let one despair of the development of science as a case of genuine progress. That I never for a moment had use for such extravaganzas I owed to a great extent to my mind's fondness for the clarity of Duhem's discourses. He may have been wrong on the extreme slowness of the accumulation of scientific lore, but an organic accumulation it has always been, not the piling of disconnected units, all of them of different nature, on one another.
[SLJ A Mind's Matter 89]

This grand conclusion (despite the humous bit about declensions) suggests another, partly humourous scene from one of Chesterton's great works of fiction, which should also provoke some thought...
[MacIan, a Catholic, is arguing with Turnbull, an atheist:]
[MacIan said,] "...there are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority. They may be progressing uphill or down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church."

"Physical science and the Catholic Church!" said Turnbull sarcastically; "and no doubt the first owes a great deal to the second."

"If you pressed that point I might reply that it was very probable," answered MacIan calmly. "I often fancy that your historical generalizations rest frequently on random instances; I should not be surprised if your vague notions of the Church as the persecutor of science was a generalization from Galileo. I should not be at all surprised if, when you counted the scientific investigations and discoveries since the fall of Rome, you found that a great mass of them had been made by monks. But the matter is irrelevant to my meaning. I say that if you want an example of anything which has progressed in the moral world by the same method as science in the material world, by continually adding to without unsettling what was there before, then I say that there is only one example of it. And that is Us."
[GKC The Ball and the Cross]
A research question for our Chestertonians: did Chesterton ever encounter the work of Pierre Duhem? Yes, I am aware that Fr. Jaki's introduction to Chesterton a Seer of Science implies that he did not, but this excerpt suggests a contrary view - hence we must leave it for further study.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Nones of July

Today let us consider the idea of birthdays...
--Dr. Thursday

It is because continuity is a foremost aim, our human nature responds very keenly to the birth of a child. Every birthday is a testimonial to man's longing for continuity.
[SLJ "Commencement" in Catholic Essays 171]

Continuity was the gist of Duhem's view of history, but because he viewed that continuity as something living he had eyes for the struggle and delayed outbursts of new growth, characteristic of all life. Above all he had an eye for the all-important question about living continuity, namely, its vital beginning. The preface of the second Leonardo volume contained two phrases which by their conspicuous place must have struck the eyes of all readers. In the first Duhem spoke of 'Christian thought, which at the end of the thirteenth century broke the tyranny of peripatetic philosophy.' In the second he referred to the contact made during the sixteenth century by Italian thinkers with ancient Greek geometry, which made them more receptive to the teaching of the Parisian masters of the 14th century: 'The contact infused into them a new life of which the renaissance of science is a witness.' Few readers went as far as Note F in the end of the book, where Duhem discussed the medieval break with the Aristotelian opposition to the plurality of worlds, or more specifically, to the infinity of 'worlds'. The break, which ultimately made possible the formulation of the concept of linear inertia, was of utmost importance for the future of science. Even more important had therefore to appear the force, Christian awareness of the Creator's unlimited powers, which made that break possible. This is why Duhem accorded decisive symbolic significance to the condemnation on March 8, 1277, by Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, of 216 propositions, among them the one denying the possibility of the plurality of worlds. Duhem felt that 'if we were to specify the birthdate of modern science, we would undoubtedly choose that year, 1277. Such was the debut of a phrase, which he was to repeat emphatically in evidence of the importance he attributed not so much to a mere date but to the question of live birth, the fundamental precondition of all continuity, including the continuity of growth, be it biological or intellectual.

These three phrases anticipated the gist of the third volume of the Leonardo studies, possibly the most dramatic volume ever published on the history of science.
[SLJ Uneasy Genius: The Life and Work of Pierre Duhem 393-4]

A personal footnote from me: it was on this day five years ago that I was a guest of Father Jaki for lunch. We talked about a number of things, including numbers...

SLJ: How old are you?
Dr. T: I'll answer in the form of a riddle.
SLJ: Go ahead!
Dr. T: On my last birthday I was 48. On my next birthday I will be 50.
SLJ: (thinking) How is this possible? (thinks some more) Ah. Happy birthday!

Please pray for me, Father, and for all of the members of the Duhem Society.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Extra! Chesterton Scoops Jaki!

Please see my usual Thursday posting for the American Chesterton Society, Extra! Chesterton Scoops Jaki!.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Rightful Place of Technology

One of the more puzzling - and more frustrating - issues we of the Duhem Society must face is the proper place of technology and science in the human world. Now as charter members you already know that one of our founding principles is the "rebuilding of the bridge between science and human nature" (see the Chesterton quote at the very bottom of our blogg). This bridge-building of course is dangerous and requires our honest diligence and a kind of sacrificial dedication... it is engineering in its supreme form, and we do what we can, in our Society, and elsewhere in our personal and professional lives, to further this aim. But there are others - the Luddite (technology condemners, haters, or fearers) on one side, and the Technolatrist (those who glorify, worship, or deify technology) on the other side. These do not understand the right place for technology, just as there are philosophers who seem to ignore reality. Until it's a matter of payday, or a question about their latest journal article!

Chesterton has an elegant epigram for the right view, since he was far too intelligent to condemn or glorify technology:
I have often thanked God for the telephone...
[GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:112]
Jaki provides a somewhat more intricate examination, from which I shall now provide an excerpt for your consideration.

--Dr. Thursday

PS You may be surprised to note SLJ's reference to the famous Moby-Dick; it's almost as if we encountered a differential equation in a Chesterton essay!

Technology as a nemesis is a very real thing and the reason for this is a counterpart to the idolization of technology and therefore theological in nature. Of course, theological symptoms are given nowadays non-theological labels, with no consideration for the fact that pharmacies may not be the only place where labels can be disastrously misplaced. The reason in question found its best description in Melville's Moby Dick, in his portrayal of Captain Ahab's being wrapped up more and more irresistibly in a self-destructive pursuit. Irresistibly yet not unknowingly. The high point comes much earlier, in that meditation where Captain Ahab admits: "All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad." A masterful observation in a masterpiece which starts with a sermon, a paraphrase of the story of Jonah who does the wrong thing though fully aware of the right thing he was supposed to do.
Quite a few who write about science and technology as something which is getting out of hand, slip, time and again, into a style which on the one hand evokes theology, but on the other falls far short of Melville's outspokenness. Take, for instance, the graphic description of science by a physicist, according to whom science is a train racing down the track "on which there are an unknown number of switches leading to unknown destinations. No single scientist is in the cab and there may be demons at the switch. Most of society is in the caboose looking backward." Whatever the possible misplacement of scientists and society, demons have never been more misplaced. Are they not just so many red herrings? Would it not have been far more honest to admit that in all too many occasions man deliberately throws the switch which shifts the train of science to tracks where nemesis looms large? It would have been far more honest to recall not demons but those two men who, according to St. Paul, struggle within each of us: one urging us to do good, the other luring us to do evil.
Once this theological label is declined, the result is not merely the placing of a wrong label (an always potentially disastrous procedure), but the impossibility of recognizing the very real situation. For if man is by definition an aggressive animal, how can one make him accountable for his wrongdoing, indeed how can one argue that there is wrongdoing at all? Is it not the worst nemesis to be caught in a course of increasingly sophisticated murders and to write off the whole matter under the disguise of that sophisticated blindfold which is genetic determinism? Are we not in that case condemned to be conscious cogwheels in that inexorable machine, a true nemesis, which invariably turns the possible into an imperative?
[SLJ "The Three Faces of Technology: Idol, Nemesis, Marvel" in The Only Chaos and Other Essays]