Monday, August 24, 2009

Jaki on C. P. Snow

A friend from the ACS blogg asked if I had ever heard of C. P. Snow. I answered, yes, not of my own, but as he is mentioned occasionally by Fr. Jaki.... and then I wondered just how often SLJ cites Snow. Such plodding tasks are often left to grad students, but I couldn't find any just now, so in a spare moment, I looked around to see what I might find. There are rather more citations than I could hope to quote today.... so if one wants project for a Snow Day (!!!) perhaps a little monograph or journal article, it would no doubt be helpful for our Society.

Probably the best starting point would be "A Hundred Years of Two Cultures" in Jaki's Chance or Reality and Other Essays, but I will just give a few excerpts from other places:
Humanities have either been turned into mysticism as was done in Polanyi's doctrine of personal knowledge in which science too becomes ultimately mystical, or they have been turned into mere epiphenomena as shown by the writings of Bronowski, or they were merely given charming literary lip-service as illustrated by the oracular utterances of the late high-priest of two cultures, C. P. Snow. The common delusion of all these efforts is the inability of their proponents, or their lack of courage, to recognize and to proclaim that science is a limited knowledge.
[SLJ "Maritain and Science" in Chance or Reality and Other Essays 56]

The total, if not totalitarian, response of society to science was advocated by many others in a way which usually gives itself away by its crudeness. Of the sophisticated advocacies of the same idea, one deserves to be mentioned in particular, and for two reasons. First, because it was proposed recently; second, because its message was uncritically swallowed in academic circles. What I have in mind is C. P. Snow's famous Rede Lecture of 1959, better known as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. From the viewpoint of composition it is certainly a masterpiece. It shows Lord Snow at his literary best. He dazzles his reader with gem-like phrases and fascinating little stories. They seem to serve one principal purpose, namely, to disarm the reader's critical sense. For unless one's mind is dazzled, how can one accept a reasoning which runs like this: Among educated men, scientists know more about culture than non-scientists or literary people. Among scientists, practical scientists or engineers are more attuned to culture than are theoretical scientists. As a third step, Lord Snow claimed that among engineers the so-called inventive engineers, who usually work individually, if not individualistically, are less sensitive to culture than engineers who work in teams on the technologization of society. And finally, Lord Snow suggested that the capitalist West should take a leaf or two from the program of the Soviet Union, because it trains far more engineers than do France, Germany, England, and the United States taken together. Six years later, in 1965, in a lecture given in Washington, Lord Snow remarked that the Soviet Union is far more successful politically, because not a few of its leaders were originally trained as engineers, and, therefore, they think more systematically and more scientifically.
In raising these matters it is not politics that I want to emphasize. My sole purpose is to illustrate the trend which thinks that culture and progress should be entrusted to engineers, and specifically to one type of engineer. One of the troubles with this trend is that it does not even understand what it purports to explain, the so-called social roots of science. Lord Snow himself unwittingly admitted this as he commented on the very effective use of science in industry during the late 1800s in Germany. As Lord Snow put it, the spectacular rise of German industrial organization around 1880 or so, made for him "no social sense." The trouble with that remark is that if the meaning of making sense is restricted to the meaning of "making social sense, " then many important things are not going to make sense. Among these things is science itself.
[SLJ "The Last Century of Science: Progress, Problems, and Prospects" in The Absolute Beneath the Relative and Other Essays 163-4]

Leighton acknowledged that quantum electrodynamics could not cope with phenomena that directly involved nuclear forces, weak interactions, and gravitation. For all that, quantum mechanics seemed to him to hold the key to all physics. "With the rapid advances that are being made in particle physics," wrote Leighton, "perhaps it is not too much to expect that in a few more decades all physical phenomena will be equally well understood." A generation earlier, C. P. Snow, the future novelist-laureate of the scientific community, had already diagnosed the same conviction as he let scientists speak of what had just been achieved by the discoverers of quantum mechanics: "They had found the boundary of knowledge, something would remain unknown forever." What this implied for all men of science, of those times and of all times to come, was put in their mouths by Snow as follows: "One of the results of this new representation of matter was to tell us what we could not know as well as what we could. We were in sight of the end." To be in sight of the end can easily provoke a peculiar feeling, especially in moderns who had replaced God, the infinite, with an endless search in an allegedly infinite universe, and who had grown accustomed to setting (with Lessing's Nathan) a higher value on the search for truth than on the possession of truth itself. No wonder that they were deeply perplexed by being in sight of the end. As Snow voiced the feeling of one of them: "It seemed incredible to me, brought up in the tradition of limitless searching." This limitless search meant a distrust of limits, an uneasiness about the limited field, however vast. Commitment to the infinite implied the absence of agoraphobia, the very opposite of fear of the circumscribed, the only fear with intellectual, or rather scientific respectability. As Snow's scientist mused of that limitless search: "Í resented leaving it."
Snow's scientist spoke in the name of practically all his colleagues in theoretical physics, but they certainly did not include Einstein. The ones Einstein could count as his allies were few and far between though hardly negligible. In addition to Planck, there was Schrödinger, one of the architects of quantum theory. In a letter of August 8, 1939, to Schrödinger, Einstein spoke to him of his viewpoint which, as Einstein put it, "has driven me into a deep solitude." The viewpoint related above all to the question of whether reality existed independently of the observer, a question which most cultivators of quantum mechanics answered in the negative. Schrödinger had them and their often arcane formulas in mind when a decade or so later he remarked in a lecture dealing with the modern, scientific notion of material reality: "A widely accepted school of thought maintains that an objective picture of reality - in any traditional meaning of that term - cannot exist at all. Only the optimists among us (and I consider myself one of them) look upon this view as a philosophical extravagance born of despair in face of a grave crisis. We hope that the fluctuations of concepts and opinions only indicate a violent process of transformation which in the end will lead to something better than the mess of formulas that to-day surrounds our subject."
In its original form the crisis consisted in the inability to accomplish anything more than an ad hoc systematization of some of tens of thousands of spectral lines carefully measured during the decades straddling the turn of the century. In 1913 Bohr's atom model brought some relief, but it promised more than it immediately delivered. Once it was applied beyond the simplest lines of the hydrogen atom, an increasing number of arbitrary corrections had to be grafted onto it to make it work. The situation appeared so unsatisfactory as to prompt Ehrenfest to remark that teaching mathematical physics in its present confusion gave him insight into Hegelian dialectics, "a succession of leaps from one lie to another by way of intermediate falsehoods." About the same time Pauli wrote: "At the moment physics is again terribly confused. In any case, it is difficult for me, and I wish I had been a movie comedian or something of the sort and had never heard of physics." A few months later, after the publication in 1925 of Heisenberg's paper on matrix mechanics, Pauli wrote: "Heisenberg's type of mechanics has again given me hope and joy in life. To be sure, it does not supply the solution to the riddle, but I believe it is again possible to march forward." Pauli by then was famous through his contribution of the fourth quantum number, later known as spin, which permitted the derivation of the periodicity in the table of elements. But the spin was still an ad hoc device, however successful. When something of its logic was unfolded in 1929 through the work of Dirac, the perspective of Einstein was once more vindicated, but this was noted only many years later and by Dirac himself.
[SLJ "The Horns of Complementarity" in The Road of Science and the Ways To God 197-9]

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