Monday, September 14, 2009

In Memoriam, Pierre Duhem. R.I.P. September 14, 1916

Today, September 14, as the Church recalls the Triumph of the Cross, we of the Duhem Society recall the day in 1916 when Pierre Duhem entered eternity.

Requiem aeternam dona ei Domine.
Et lux perpetua luceat ei.
Requiescat in pace.
Anima ejus et animae omnium fidelium defunctorum per misericordiam Dei requiescant in pace.

--Dr. Thursday

Duhem was unique among modern scientists with his penetrating insights into the method of the exact sciences, and in particular of physics, both on the conceptual level and along the vast and broad front of its use in history. In fact he did, what historians and historians of science were supposed to have done long ago: He discovered the true origins of Newtonian physics. That those origins are steeped in a culture, the Middle Ages, which for many is still the classic embodiment of obscurantism, could have but served as lèse majesté. But as if insult were to be added to injury, Duhem also spelled out the fact, with a vast and most original historical research that those origins are intimately connected with Catholic dogmas, such as the creation out of nothing and creation in time.

Catholics, because it is for them above all that this essay is written, should now pause. They are, of course, utterly mistaken if they expect Catholic facts to prevail in secularist consciousness. Duhem or not, the academic milieu, to say nothing of its journalistic overspill, will continue in the merry belief that science had forever disposed of the possibility and fact of Revelation, especially as given in Jesus Christ, the only LORD. It is on that merry belief of theirs that rests the basic dogma of secularism, namely, that man is his own master, accountable to no one on this earth, let alone above it.

Against such a milieu, which threatens him with continual malaise and periodic suffocation, the Catholic needs a solid antidote. It cannot consist of bad poetizing in good prose about a "divine milieu," to say nothing of a "cosmic Christ" who cannot be a Redeemer and Savior because, in the alleged absence of original sin, nothing serious remains for Him to do. The solid antidote can only consist in rigorous thinking and mastery of incontestable facts. It is these that Duhem provided in the teeth of an at times ferocious opposition and against extraordinary odds. He coped with them because he lived his Catholic faith in a measure that was far beyond ordinary.

It was Duhem's deep conviction that Divine Providence rules everything (he would have had only contempt for the glorification of chance in terms of a widespread misinterpretation of quantum mechanics). It may not therefore be presumptuous to think that the same Providence determined this Introduction to be written around the time, September 28, 1990, the hundredth anniversary of Duhem's wedding to Marie Adèle Chayet in Saint Sulpice, Paris. The excruciating blow, which he suffered when his wife passed away in her second and unsuccessful childbirth after less than two years of a most happy marriage, Duhem bore for the rest of his life with deep resignation in God's inscrutable though providential will. The pain he had always felt on account of having lost his beloved wife may have heavily contributed, in addition to unrelenting hard work and intestinal rheumatism, to the gradual weakening of his heart. But long before he was felled by a fatal heart attack on September 14, 1916, he must have been able to scrutinize the ways of divine Providence. Had he not been destined to live a solitary life, he could not have made the search for scientific truth (catholic as well as Catholic) the sole purpose of his heroic life.
[SLJ, from the introduction to Scientist and Catholic: Pierre Duhem, 9-10, emphasis addded]

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