Thursday, September 24, 2009

Our New Series: Building Your Own Jaki Library

I seem to have less and less time - I really do not understand why that is. But that ought not concern you - you ought to be concerned with your own work, and the work of our Society - which must be in service of Truth, or it is an utter waste of time.

And so, even though we have made little progress in some formal "foundation" of our Society, we are trying to serve Truth by studying and considering the writing of Duhem and Jaki, and the larger context of Science - writ large - and its history and its philosophy.

One of the difficult tasks we face is to collect the works of these men. As you know, some are presently in print, some are out of print, and some are insurmountable challenges (in my own case, because I cannot read French). But we do have at least some preliminary guides to their publications, so we have a starting point for our book-shopping.

Today, I shall begin a new series which will suggest certain books we might desire in our "Jaki Library". Note, I do not claim to know that any of these books were truly among those of SLJ (or of PD, for that matter) but that does not matter for our purpose. The titles are important for our study. So, I will merely provide some titles which are mentioned in those books, and in some cases I can even mention a place where one may acquire them: the wonderful Dover Publications.

To begin, I have selected an important book by Lavoisier which Fr. Jaki mentions in several places, notably here:
It was Becher's terra pinguis that was renamed phlogiston by Stahl in 1703, or motion of heat and fire, which according to Stahl formed the metals when mixed with calx.

Farfetched as this generalization [about the nature of matter - the "elements"] was, it presented before very long a clear-cut challenge to quantitative verification, which in turn led to a revolution in chemistry, a revolution that also meant a parting with views claiming too much authority in the scientific investigation of matter. The lion's share of the credit for ushering in this revolution and a better understanding of the elements should no doubt go to Lavoisier. He towered above his fellow chemists not only in seeing more deeply in the jumble of accumulated data but also in having a keener appreciation of the extent of what still might remain unknown in man's understanding of matter. Lack of caution was indeed the shortcoming for which he took his predecessors to task. to task. Such criticism was valid not only of the predecessors and followers of Stahl but also of those who, like Peter Shaw, John Friend, Boerhaave, and others, were prompted to dogmatic statements by their hopes that the chemistry of their day could be made an exact science along the lines of Newtonian physics. To both groups applied the remark that Lavoisier made in the preface to his Elements of Chemistry (1789): "All these chemists were carried along by the influence of the genius of the age in which they lived, which contented itself with assertion without proofs; or, at least, often admitted as proofs the slightest degrees of probability, unsupported by that strictly rigorous analysis required by modern philosophy." The scope of these harsh words was, however, not so much a self-righteous indictment of the failure of his forbears in chemistry, as a warning of the debilitating influence that the state of mind of individuals or the "genius" of an age might have on scientific research. To advance science therefore was to break with inherited ways of thought, a break with blatantly careless reasonings, "scientific" prejudices, and self-flattery, or, in short, to initiate a revolution. To this he referred as early as 1773 in his laboratory notebook, where he described his program as one that "seemed destined to bring about a revolution in physics and chemistry."

Still, the prospect of revolutionizing a fundamental branch of science did not go to his head. He spoke of the safeguards with which he intended to repeat experiments to establish the real import of hundreds of experiments performed before him, and he never lost sight of the most important of his goals, which he stated in 1777 as follows: "It is time to bring chemistry to a more rigorous way of reasoning." This rigor he achieved in a measure far surpassing any of the chemists before him. But the price of rigor was a cautious, noncommittal attitude to be taken at junctures where almost anyone else would have been carried away into making "definitive" statements.

The temptation of doing so must have been high in view of the exciting vista that opened before him once he recognized the role of the oxygenic principle and turned his back on phlogiston. As he put it in the same Mémoire: "Once this principle is admitted, the chief difficulties of chemistry seem to dissipate themselves and to vanish, and all the phenomena may be explained in astonishing simplicity." Yet, when chemistry came to be laid on firm ground for the first time in his Elements of Chemistry, Lavoisier's tone could not have been more soberingly objective. It might have reminded the reader of Newton, correlating the most disparate phenomena through a single mathematical relation, without committing himself ever so slightly to the nature or cause of gravitation. Similar was the manner in which Lavoisier presented his views on the elements. About their nature and number he wrote that it "can be speculated upon in a thousand different ways, not one of which, in all probability, is consistent with nature." Consequently he contented himself with saying that his definition of an element was a provisional one and depended on the actually available chemical means of decomposing substances. Anything that could not be further reduced was therefore for the time being to be considered an element; or to quote him, an element "is the last point that analysis is capable of reaching." None of the thirty-three elements he listed did he want to endow with an aura of absolute finality, although twenty-three of them took their places in Mendeleev's table. Although he listed the caloric as an element, he added that one is "not obliged to suppose this to be a real substance." In the same vein he explicitly indicated that what he called the "earths" might soon cease to be considered simple bodies. This was a conjecture, however, and Lavoisier felt a duty to advise his reader: "I trust the reader will take care not to confound what I have related as truths, fixed on the firm basis of observation and experiment, with mere hpothetical conjectures."

To emphasize the wide difference between conjectures and experimental evidence was not to be construed as an intent to depreciate theory. Dangerous as the "spirit of systems" proved for science, no less to be feared, according to Lavoisier, was the inordinate accumulation of facts. Long and painstaking efforts deserved, in his view, more than being left in disorder and confusion. Theory, Lavoisier argued, had to have rather a liberating effect on scientific investigation: it had to show the road to clarification without curtailing the freedom of the investigator to follow a new lead, as fresh data came to light. This was a timely reflection, for the process of conquering unknown areas began to accelerate more rapidly than ever in the study of matter. "Chemistry advances towards perfection," wrote Lavoisier, "by dividing and subdividing," and of this process he found it impossible to say "where it is to end."

But he too had his moments of weakness as a scientific prognosticator. Contrasting the chasms of the chemistry of yesterday with the vision of a great synthesis suddenly looming ahead, he could not resist the lure of sanguine expectations: "We have ground to hope, even in our own times, to see it [chemistry] approach near to the highest state of perfection of which it is susceptible." His days, however, were not the ones destined to see the completion of chemistry, even if the Revolution had not extinguished in a second the brilliance of a genius, which a hundred years won't suffice, as Lagrange remarked, to reproduce. The extent of the secrets of matter was not to be measured in the small units of complacent hopes.

It was the precision of Lavoisier's balance that led to the abandonment of the concept of phlogiston and made possible the reorganization of the study of matter on a basis that was designed to emulate the clarity of the Newtonian system. As the younger Herschel put it, the mistakes and confusion of Stahlian chemistry "dissipated like a morning mist as soon as precision came to be regarded as essential." Phlogiston theory was only one of the various non-mechanical theories that came to be abandoned during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, chiefly under the impact of increased precision in measurement.
[SLJ, The Relevance of Physics 150-3, 249]
Clearly, this is an important book - but elsewhere Father Jaki noted:
All copies of the few editions and translations of Lavoisier's Traité élémentaire de chimie (1789) are on the rare books list.
[SLJ, The Only Chaos, 180]
Since he wrote in 1990, Dover Publications reprinted a translation, and so you can now acquire your own copy of Lavoisier's Elements of Chemistry.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

For your consideration...

Startling as it may appear, there have been in this century quite a few first-rate astronomer-cosmologists who professed themselves to be solipsists or at least idealists in the Kantian sense. They were never so consistently idealist as to miss an opportunity to clamor for better and bigger telescopes, although they seized on any opportunity to reduce stars to a mere sensation on their retinae.[26] Chesterton not only was immune to such philosophical bungling, but he was also the first-rate philosophical cosmologist who instinctively made the proper improvement right there where some of the best philosophers went wrong in cosmology. I doubt that Chesterton ever read Book Lambda of Metaphysics, where the pantheist Aristotle roundly declared that the universe is a house without a master, or an army without a commander.[27] Chesterton's universe explicitly had a captain and a "divine captain" at that, and this is why it had a Flag.[28]

[SLJ Chesterton a Seer of Science 98]

Here are the relevant footnotes:

[26] As argued by Professor William H. McCrea during a conference on "Cosmology, History and Theology" at the University of Denver, November 5-8, 1974. He was considerably taken aback by my question, whether the wall facing him was also a mere sensation on his retina.

[27] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1074b-75b. Such was both the capstone and very source of that cosmic necessitarianism which put science into a straitjacket for
almost two thousand years; that is, until some basic points of Aristotelian cosmology wore rejected by medieval Scholastics, guided by the dictates of their Christian faith in creation out of nothing and in time.

[28] This is the argument of ch. 5, "The Flag of the World," in [GKC's] Orthodoxy.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

on the feast of St. Robert Bellarmine

For today's feast of St. Robert Bellarmine - something to think about.

It is not an easy topic, but it is worth our careful study. And let us ever be on guard against pride! St. Robert Bellarmine, pray for us.

--Dr. Thursday

Conflicts cast long shadows. The shadows are indeed very long when the conflicts take place at a sensitive juncture. Adolescents are wont to harbor lifelong grudges against their elders who failed to show them proper understanding. Such an adolescent was science as it first sensed its future strength through the genius of Galileo. This is not to suggest that even a full understanding on the part of the Church would have been enough to help Galileo control his hubris which equaled his genius.

On a cursory look it may be said, and unfortunately this has been done all too often, that the Church of Urban VIII and Bellarmine understood Galileo's science much better than Galileo did. Both those churchmen, and many others after them, took exception to the realism with which Galileo asserted the heliocentric ordering of planets. According to them the heliocentric theory, or any physical theory for that matter, was nothing more than a convenient ordering of data with no intrinsic bearing on reality.

Such a view, a rather agnostic one, about the relation of physical theory to the physical universe was already two thousand years old by the time Galileo was taken to task by his ecclesiastical judges. They were fully aware of the venerable ancestry of that view which received its first memorable formulation in Plato's Timaeus, where science, or rather scientific theory, is spoken of as a technique to "save the phenomena." In particular, the technique was understood to be a mathematical or geometrical formula which accounted for the succession of celestial events, such as the periods and relative positions of planets, with no pretension as to the cause or physical nature of those movements and bodies. The same ecclesiastics were also aware of the renewed popularity which that view of science enjoyed during the century preceding Galileo. The heliocentrists - Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo - were a distinct minority inasmuch as they asserted a one-to-one correspondence between a particular geometrical ordering of data and physical reality.

A little-noted consequence of the opposite or purely formalist majority view was that its proponents had to speak of the true knowledge of the structure of the universe as being the sole privilege of the Creator. Galileo did not misrepresent the convictions of Urban VIII, who granted him several private audiences around 1623, when half a dozen years later he put that agnostic view about the cosmos into the mouth of Simplicius, the representative of the Pope's views on physical science in Galileo's ill-fated Dialogue.

It was rather ironical that a purely formalistic and quasi-agnostic view about physical science (and by implication a quasi-agnostic view about the cosmos) should have been voiced by leading churchmen. Eager to please the fashionable philosophical skepticism inherited from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they failed to realize that the dogma of the Word become Flesh committed them to a thoroughgoing and universal realism. No less should they have been committed to that realism by the age-old Christian conviction that the entire visible realm or cosmos is a clear and compelling basis for the recognition of the Creator. To make the irony complete, it was Galileo and not Bellarmine who quoted Jerome and Augustine to the effect that biblical references to the sun's motion and to the earth's immobility may be a mere registering of appearances. Almost a hundred years after Luther, leading Catholic churchmen felt that they should battle him on grounds - biblical literalism - chosen by him. With such a strategy, theirs could only be momentary victories, at times Pyrrhic, but hardly the winning of the entire campaign.

[SLJ "Science for Catholics" in Catholic Essays, 1-3]

Under the impact of Luther's invocation of the Bible as the ultimate arbiter in matters of faith, Catholic theologians moved away from the freedom with which they greeted, while Luther was still alive, the presentation of the Copernican system to a gathering of cardinals in Rome in 1533. Copernicus had no fear of dedicating his book to Pope Paul III himself. Two generations later, defenders of Catholic faith, Jesuits in an ever larger number, were wont to take the view that nothing is more effective than to vanquish the opponent with his own weapons, that is, on his own chosen battlefield. It was still to be realized that such a strategy may win spectacular battles but never the war. Practically nobody remembers that Luther called Copernicus a fool and categorically endorsed, as did Calvin, the literal meaning of Joshua's miracle. Everybody remembers the debacle of that Catholic strategy which did not permit the taking of a sufficiently detached view of the proper merit of that passage in the Book of Joshua and other relevant passages of the Bible.

To Bellarmine's credit he saw something of the dangers of that strategy and, partly because of this, displayed an equitable and dignified attitude toward Galileo. The latter had already made the case further complicated when in a major essay, widely circulated in manuscript copies, he tried to play the biblical theologian. He did so partly by quoting Jerome and Augustine to the effect that a literal sense of biblical passages about the earth's immobility was not necessarily the only possible interpretation. Unknown to the readers of that essay he had received plenty of help in that excursion of his into theology from his best student, Benedetto Castelli a monk of Monte Cassino and the foremost expert in Italy on hydraulic engineering. Theologians, then as now, were a professional group which like any other such group does not like to be instructed by an outsider, who is by definition a "layman" with respect to that group. This is also true of the group known as scientists, a group all too ready to philosophize and theologize and all too resentful when taken to task on that score.

A relatively unimportant part of the Galileo story is Galileo's success in obtaining imprimatur from the Roman Inquisition which included the Pope's own theologian, a Dominican. The story is a series of inattentions and shadow boxing. Once the book was printed, one shadow at least quickly became a menacing reality. Any modestly informed reader could easily see that Galileo was for all practical purposes mocking the very pope whom he needed as his most powerful protector, and who might have sided with Galileo but for the latter's hubris.

The rest is anticlimactic. With a pope so desirous of the applause of intellectuals and deeply hurt in his pride, the wheels of the legal process against Galileo could not be stopped, not even slowed down. In vain did Galileo argue that he was never shown a document (the codicil added unbeknownst to Bellarmine to the dossier in 1616) forbidding him to write on heliocentrism. By 1632 Bellarmine had been dead for eleven years and the codicil was as genuine in form at least as the rest of the dossier. It was impossible to ask Urban VIII, member of the commission of 1616, whether the commission was responsible in any sense for that codicil. A court whose sympathies Galileo had lost by his reckless tactic against the pope could but let the logic of law, not always an enlightened logic, take its course.

[SLJ "The Case for Galileo's Rehabilitation" Ibid 29-31, 34-35]

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]

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

SLJ: A Great Illumination: the Jews and Science

For our nourishment and edification and enlightenment today, let us hear of the richness bestowed upon Science (writ large) by the Holy Bible of the Jews, the only ancient people who actually "got it" when it came to Science. (Also see chapter 7, "The Beacon of the Covenant" in SLJ's Science and Creation.)
--Dr. Thursday
Job's answer to the sceptical objections of his three friends culminates in a reference to the wisdom evident in the universe as a creation of God. On hearing Job speak about the will of God that "gave weight to the wind and measured out the waters with a gauge" (23:25), only pedantic minds would claim that this is still not entirely a phrase characteristic of "Greek" rationality. When Job is once more seized with doubts, only a natural remedy is offered to him. He is reminded by God of the wisdom apparent everywhere in the universe. It is in that sense that he is referred to the position and course of the Pleiades, the Big Bear, and other constellations. The clouds and lightning are presented to him as unquestioning servants of God. He is told to think of the wonderful arrangements made for the mountain goat, the wild ass, the hawk, and the eagle, to say nothing of those made for the behemoth (rhinoceros) and for the leviathan (crocodile) (Jb 38, 39, 40).
This picturesque concrete style is not the only way in which the Hebrews of old, still uninfluenced by Hellenism, could look at the universe. In the third chapter of Baruch, certainly on hand prior to the great cultural transformation triggered by Alexander the Great, the Torah is defended as the storehouse of wisdom because it has the same Author whose wisdom is everywhere evident in creation. One of the signs of that wisdom is the firmness with which the earth has been set forever. Another is the unfailing obedience of the light and of the stars to God's order. In the book of Proverbs, three series of instructions about wise behavior are introduced with an encomium of the value of wisdom. The starting point is a reference to God's wisdom evident in the created realm. A chief indication of that wisdom is once more the stability of natural order, the firmness of the heavens, and of the earth in particular celebration of wisdom ends five chapters later with a personification of God's wisdom and with a renewed emphasis on the stability and orderliness of nature set by that wisdom on behalf of God the Creator:
When he fixed the heavens firm, I was there,
when he drew a ring on the surface of the deep,
when he thickened the clouds above,
when he fixed fast the springs of the deep,
when he assigned the sea its boundaries
- and the waters will not invade the shore -
when he laid down the foundations of the earth,
I was by his side, a master craftsman . . . (Prov 8:26-30)

This celebrated passage, dating from before the invasion of Palestine by Greek teachers accompanying the hordes of soldiers and administrators, is a bridge between the concrete and the abstract. It crowns the Hebrew part of the Old Testament in a manner which, though not a mirror image of Greek thought, is in striking harmony with it. The manner is naturally continued in a famed passage of the Book of Wisdom, composed outside Palestine in full Hellenistic times, and in Greek to boot. There "naturally stupid" is the epithet tagged on men who "from the good things that are seen, have not been able to discover Him-who-is, or by studying the works, have failed to recognize the Artifices" (Wis 13:1-2). Yet, if there is an excuse for them it is specified to lie in their being seized by the beauty of the cosmos which means enduring order. Tellingly, they are not urged to take that order lightly, but rather to see in it that perfection that alone can properly mirror the perfection of the One who created it. Much more reprehensible are found those who instead of the great Nature worshiped mere human artifacts. The latter are so many second-rate products, perishable and variable, unlike the work of the One "who arranged all things by measure, number, weight" (Wis 11:20).
This phrase contains the best which the finest Stoics could in their best moments utter about cosmic order or harmony. Of course, the One to whom the passage refers is infinitely superior to the one world (to pan or the physical cosmos plus the infinite void around it) beyond which the Stoic celebrations of the "One" never went in a convincing manner. It should not therefore be surprising that the same Book of Wisdom contains statements about stable cosmic order that, unlike the corresponding statements of Stoics (or of Platonists, Aristotelians, and Epicureans), are not tainted by the specter of periodic collapse into complete disorder (by conflagration or by some other "disorderly" means). The reason for this is that the One in question is an absolutely transcendental personal Reason, Power, and Love:
You love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence,
for had you hated anything, you would not have formed it.
And how, had you not willed it, could a thing persist,
how be conserved if not called forth by you?
You spare all things because all things are yours, Lord, lover of life,
you whose imperishable spirit is in all. (Wis 11:24-27)
That no such passage could come forth from within any of those distinguished sects shows something of the distinctness of biblical revelation. Within its milieu alone could mere humans think and speak as if they had been propelled to a height that would be classed purely human had not a Fall made it appear superhuman. The evidence about that milieu is the literary reappearance within it of the same uniquely elevated perspective about matters cosmic. In a book written by a certain Jeshua (Jesus), Son of Sirach, there is a reference to "the always perpetual moon" (Sir 43:6) as one of the several evidences that can be specified concerning "all the marvels which the Almighty Lord has solidly constructed for the universe to stand firm in his glory" (Sir 42:27). But, according to the same Jeshua, Son of Sirach, if the Lord "has imposed an order on the magnificent works of his wisdom," that is, a consistent continuity, it is only because "He is from everlasting to everlasting" (42:21). This is why the stars never "grow slack at their watch" (43:11), this is why "all things hold together" (43:28).
[SLJ The Savior of Science 61-64]

Having quoted this, I find that I must refer you to the very deep and insightful essay of Mr. Chesterton by which he introduced a 1907 edition of the Book of Job. Here is just an excerpt, possibly the strongest parallel to Father Jaki. It cries out for serious study - and meditation. Perhaps this too is worthy of a dissertation, or a journal article - or at least a hymn. I wish I had time to learn Hebrew...
--Dr. Thursday
When, at the end of the poem, God enters (somewhat abruptly), is struck the sudden and splendid note which makes the thing as great as it is. All the human beings through the story, and Job especially, have been asking questions of God. A more trivial poet would have made God enter in some sense or other in order to answer the questions. By a touch truly to be called inspired, when God enters, it is to ask a number more questions on His own account. In this drama of scepticism God Himself takes up the role of sceptic. He does what all the great voices defending religion have always done. He does, for instance, what Socrates did. He turns rationalism against itself. He seems to say that if it comes to asking questions, He can ask some questions which will fling down and flatten out all conceivable human questioners. The poet by an exquisite intuition has made God ironically accept a kind of controversial equality with His accusers. He is willing to regard it as if it were a fair intellectual duel: 'Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.' The everlasting adopts an enormous and sardonic humility. He is quite willing to be prosecuted. He only asks for the right which every prosecuted person possesses; He asks to be allowed to cross-examine the witness for the prosecution. And He carries yet further the correctness of the legal parallel. For the first question, essentially speaking, which He asks of Job is the question that any criminal accused by Job would be most entitled to ask. He asks Job who he is. And Job, being a man of candid intellect, takes a little time to consider, and comes to the conclusion that he does not know.
This is the first great fact to notice about the speech of God, which is the culmination of the inquiry. It represents all human sceptics routed by a higher scepticism. It is this method, used sometimes by supreme and sometimes by mediocre minds, that has ever since been the logical weapon of the true mystic. Socrates, as I have said, used it when he showed that if you only allowed him enough sophistry he could destroy all the sophists. Jesus Christ used it when He reminded the Sadducees, who could not imagine the nature of marriage in heaven, that if it came to that they had not really imagined the nature of marriage at all. In the break up of Christian theology in the eighteenth century, Butler used it, when he pointed out that rationalistic arguments could be used as much against vague religion as against doctrinal religion, as much against rationalist ethics as against Christian ethics. It is the root and reason of the fact that men who have religious faith have also philosophic doubt, like Cardinal Newman, Mr. Balfour, or Mr. Mallock. These are the small streams of the delta; the Book of Job is the first great cataract that creates the river. In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.
This, I say, is the first fact touching the speech; the fine inspiration by which God comes in at the end, not to answer riddles, but to propound them. The other great fact which, taken together with this one, makes the whole work religious instead of merely philosophical, is that other great surprise which makes Job suddenly satisfied with the mere presentation of something impenetrable. Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.
[GKC, preface to The Book of Job. S. Wellwood, 1907; Cecil Palmer, 1916; quoted from G.K.C. as M. C. 44-47]

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

SLJ: for Mary's Birthday: the Tree and the Rock

Happy Feast of the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary!

--Dr. Thursday

In the very moment when the maiden in Nazareth heard the words that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High would “overshadow” her, she could at first be but “deeply disturbed.” The phrase, “to be overshadowed,” was a euphemism for the act whereby man makes woman pregnant. But since she “knew no man,” a euphemistic declaration on her part that she was to remain a virgin, she had to be assured that the child was not to be conceived in a human way. The child was to be a “holy offspring,” indeed the Son of the Most High himself. Once she assented by saying, “Let it be done according to thy will,” God's greatest conceivable intervention in history, human and cosmic, was accomplished: Jesus was conceived in the womb of “the virgin called Mary.”


The miracle in question has another aspect, which is much more scientific than psychology can ever be. In an age that probes deep into the range of what genes are responsible for, the biological origin of Jesus gives a startling twist to the psychological miracle he still is, which, of course, never bothered most of those who took him for the natural son of Joseph. Most of those who were impressed by that miracle held on to the faith, held by the Church from the earliest times, that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. They had no use for talking around this and other biblical miracles by taking any unusual event for a “sign” and justifying this as the Hebrew way of disinterest in miracles, properly so-called. For already Justin Martyr, a convert from Judaism, warned his antagonist Trypho, a Jew, that if a “sign” is worthy of a prophet, it has to be more than an unusual event, it strictly has to transcend nature. ... The miracle of Mary having conceived by the Holy Spirit had to be admitted, so argued Justin Martyr, if the Bible was to remain a sensible text about what constitutes a sign in the Bible.
[SLJ Bible and Science 175, 177-8]

Never an easy process, the birth to nationhood was particularly difficult for the Israelites. The Canaanite tribes presented ever-new problems while the strategy of Moses demanded ever-new faith in Yahweh as the only Rock. At times their faith was so weak as to let the ark fall into the hands of the Philistines. It was not entirely an act of faith when the people wanted to have a king, the symbolic assurance of finally becoming a nation. That their request for a king did not turn into a self-defeating strategy was largely due to the presence of Samuel, from his birth on a symbol of the Mosaic strategy pivoted on Yahweh as its sole strength. Samuel was the child of Hannah, long-barren wife of Elkanah. On offering her son to Eli, the chief priest at Siloh, for service at the tent of Yahweh, Hannah spoke words which showed how Moses' farewell had become a part of the religious folklore. A thousand years later, Mary, the daughter of Annah, was to voice, in much the same words, her gratitude for the marvels done to her by the Lord. The strategy of Yahweh, the Rock, was valid for the people as well as for Hannah, a handmaid as low by appearance as Mary was to be:
My heart exults in the Lord; my horn is exalted in my God.
I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in my victory.
There is no Holy One like the Lord; there is no Rock like our God (1 S 2:1-2).

Mary must have had these words in mind as she continued, like Hannah, to declare that the strong would be humiliated, the fat would go hungry, the hungry would be well-fed, and the poor would be seated with the rich: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord's and this is why the horn of his anointed will be exalted.
Hannah's anticipation of Mary's Magnificat was all the more proper since Hannah's son, Samuel, played a crucial role in turning the people into a nation by anointing Saul as king. Samuel's God-given authority as a judge and prophet was also the basis for transferring the office of king from Saul to David, the shepherd boy. With David, the most momentous advance was made toward the specific fulfillment of the promises of the covenant. From David's loins was to be born Israel's ultimate Shepherd, leading the people to the fountain of redemption.
Like any great advance, the one tied to David's role was also an advance on rocky grounds. Saul was far from ready to yield. A life-and-death struggle ensued between the two, its tensions never fading from David's memory. On singing his final song of thanksgiving, his escape from Saul's hands became the symbol for all the cases when Yahweh had become for him the Rock of refuge:
O Lord, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer,
my God, my rock of refuge!
My shield, the horn of my salvation,
my stronghold, my refuge,
My savior from violence, you keep me safe.
'Praised be the Lord,' I exclaim,
and I am safe from my enemies. (2 S 22:24)

Since the trials of David were like so many thunderstorms and violent earthquakes, he could fittingly refer to God as the unshakable rock of safety:
For who is God except the Lord?
Who is a rock except our God?...
The Lord live! And blessed be my Rock!
Extolled be my God, Rock of salvation! (2 S 22:32, 47)
Such was the God who showed kindness to David and was to show the same kindness to his posterity forever, a prospect worthy of the finest outburst by one of history's greatest poets. That it was not a momentary outburst on his part can be grasped from the manner in which it was inscribed into the Second Book of Samuel:
These are the last words of David:
The utterance of David, son of Jesse;
the utterance of the man God raised up,
Anointed of the God of Jacob,
favorite of the Mighty One of Israel.
The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me;
his word was on my tongue.
The God of Israel spoke;
of me the Rock of Israel said
"He that rules over men in justice,
that rules in the fear of God
Is like the morning light of sunrise on a cloudless morning." (2 S 23:14)
In view of the absolute solidity of the promise of a God who is Rock, David could but envision the future as firmly secured:
Is not my house firm before God?
He has made an eternal covenant with me set forth in detail and secured. (2 S 23:5)

[SLJ And On This Rock 57-60]

Sunday, September 6, 2009

SLJ: on writing on Sunday

A bit of autobiography - and a bit of Duhem biography - for your contemplation.
--Dr. Thursday

My life, or rather my lifelong experience concerning the relation of religion and science, has to be told largely in references to my books. In a sense they are my life-story. Ever since I started writing The Relevance I spent much of my working days, including Sundays, for which I beg pardon, in researching and writing, or rather writing and rewriting. That the art of writing is rewriting I learned when I just started writing The Relevance, or shortly after Churchill died. Then a big New York tabloid carried on its front page the facsimile of a passage from one of Churchill's famous wartime speeches. The passage, in neat typewritten form, and perfect as such, was still heavily reworked by Churchill's hand. On seeing this (later on I learned that John Henry Newman, another great master of English, usually rewrote everything three times before sending it to the printer), I got over the psychological hurdle of not being able to write a perfect copy the first try.

After that, writing has gradually become a sort of obsession, made endurable by the fact that the coming of word processors turned the otherwise tiresome business of rewriting into a relatively easy task, compared with the use of ballpoint pens and typewriters. I could not help recalling that Pierre Duhem had to write his 350 publications (including thirty vast books) with pen and ink, and with a right hand that for the last ten years of his life suffered from crampe d'écrivain. Often he had to hold fast his right hand with his left hand in order to continue writing. Lucky we who have lived to see the coming of PCs. They greatly increased my productivity. But, having produced so many pages for a higher purpose, namely, to strengthen those who believe in a Gospel undiluted by a "higher criticism" posing as science, I will not be threatened by that disillusion which overcame Herbert Spencer in his dying days. On seeing that his friends brought to his bedside the many books he had published, he was dismayed that he had no children of his own to stand by. He certainly might have learned a great deal from C. S. Lewis' gripping account, A Grief Observed.

But that productivity needed a surgical intervention to become eventually possible. In late 1953 a difficult tonsillectomy deprived me of the effective use of my voice for at least ten years. I was immediately out of all teaching and preaching. Only by writing could I go on teaching, which for me is always a preaching. I say this with no apologies or embarrassment. After having spent forty years in the academe, I find it to be the chief breeding place of a subspecies, best called spineless vertebrates. They lack intellectual spine because they refuse to admit that they preach by teaching and researching. In fact, every teaching is a sort of plain apologetics. Apologetics is pleading. To claim that one's teaching is free of even a touch of pleading on behalf of something, is to practice the art of not seeing beyond one's very nose.

I kept pleading. After publishing The Relevance, I published a book which was originally meant to be a chapter in it as "Physics and Psychology." It grew into Brain, Mind and Computers. Once this book was out of my hair (by then my hairline was rapidly receding), I could turn to what has been sheer delight to write: monographs on the history of astronomy. All had for their "ulterior" aim the illustration of chronic blindness to the obvious.

[SLJ "Cosmic Rays and Water Spiders" in The Limits of a Limitless Science 231-2]

[Also cf. GKC: "A teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching." What's Wrong With the World, CW4:162]

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

SLJ: Hugh of St. Victor

As I mentioned last week, I recently obtained a wonderful book, The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor, translated and with notes by Jerome Taylor. The original (which I hope to obtain eventually) dates to the 1120s, and it concerns learning and philosophy, and a variety of related issues - though it antedates Buridan, I certainly expect that it should play a role in our study. Perhaps once I finish my reading, and have some time to consider it, I might try to comment further.

But as you may expect, I wondered if Father Jaki mentioned Hugh, and found that he did, though in one citation he spells it "Hugo". It seems to be a bare mention in passing, but the context is worth our study.
--Dr. Thursday

It is doubtful that almost thirty years after Descartes had slighted Bacon's method in a letter to Mersenne, the Baconians had not yet learned of it, as Mersenne was well known for his rapid transmission of informations received by him. But feeling confident about possessing the philosopher's stone, the Baconians readily claimed for themselves the good points of even their most resolute antagonists. In describing Descartes as "one of the greatest Wits ever the Sun saw, a Person too great for praise, designed by Heaven for the Instruction of the Learned World," Glanvill was probably thinking of analytical geometry and perhaps even more of Descartes' very Baconian aim to provide the means, however unBaconian, of turning man into "master and possessor of nature." The phrase, which soon became taken for the epitome of the modern mind, was already five centuries old when Descartes pulled it out of his subconscious which had been nourished by the catechism and the deeply scholastic tone of instruction he had received from his Jesuit teachers at La Flèche. To become master and possessor of nature was a primary injunction made on man at the very outset of the history of salvation which through the preaching of the Gospel became part of a widely based tradition and the leaven of a cultural matrix that turned medieval Europe into its specific and historic identity. In that tradition, inherited by Baconians and Cartesians alike, the sense of a God-given duty to dominate nature was accompanied by respect for ancient learning. The latter received its pregnant formulation - "we see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants" - from Bernardus Sylvestris almost exactly at the time when Hugo of St. Victor wrote in his De sacramentis that "God put man on earth to make him the master and possessor of nature." It shows something of the intellectual turbulence of Bacon's time that the phrase of Bernardus Sylvestris had become a shibboleth in an acrimonious controversy concerning the respective merits of ancient and modern learning, whereas Hugo of St. Victor's anticipation of Descartes motto was conveniently overlooked.
[SLJ The Origin of Science and the Science of its Origin 15-16]

Long before Descartes set forth his method to enable man to become master and possessor of nature, Hugh of Saint Victor emphatically declared in a widely read work - with an eye on Genesis - that God created man "to be the owner and master of the world." Hugh of Saint Victor was one of the many who kept their eyes fixed on Genesis as on a guiding star. It was a star also in the sense that its light did not burn and blind. It merely twinkled but did so unfailingly in the manner of genuine stars.
[SLJ The Road of Science and the Ways to God 49]

In that excerpt, the quote has the following footnote:

71. De sacramentis fidei christianae, liber 2, pars 1 (Migne, Patrologia
, vol. 176, col. 205). One need not be a medievalist: it is enough to recall the vigor of the technological quest during the High Middle Ages, to make one realize the risk of writing off this phrase as untypical of medieval mentality, as done by R. Gruner, who found the phrase quoted by K. Lowith (Gott, Mensch und Welt in der Metaphysik von Descartes bis Nietzsche [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1967], p. 37) and who in his essay "Science, Nature and Christianity" (Journal of Theological Studies 26 ((1975)): 55-81) came to the conclusion that Christianity neither helped nor impeded the rise of science. Of course, as long as one uncritically follows Lowith, not seeing the enormous difference between the sovereign Creator of the medieval Christians and the pantheistic "God" of Schelling, belief in the Creator will not appear as a special factor with an impact of its own worth pondering. Again, if that belief is kept in the background by a studied agnosticism, the results will not be better than lip service to medieval theology, as can be seen in The Cultural Context of Medieval Learning: Proceedings of the First International Colloquium on Philosophy, Science, and Theology in the Middle Ages, September 1973, ed. with an introduction by J. E. Murdoch and E. D. Sylla (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1973).