Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Mystery of the University

A reader recently commented here, asking about Jaki and Duhem on "geocentrism". Of course this term comes up frequently in Jaki's studies on the history of astronomy, and in other settings such as his Bible and Science. Trying to go through all the citations would be the work of a little monograph, and I have no grad students to assist. (Not yet, anyway; if you are looking for a topic, or an advisor, do let me know, though it will have to be a remote kind of advice.)

Anyhow, I was going over the citations, at least the fifty-odd I could readily get from AMBER. The commenter wondered what that is, and you may also. AMBER is my term for my electronic collection of texts, mostly Chesterton and Jaki, and a few related authors - books I own, which I have taken the ridiculous amount of time necessary to scan and proof and arrange for my own use. Since most of GKC is already on the net in some state or other, and SLJ's is still under copyright, there is no expectation that it will become a public tool, alas. And yes, Father Jaki knew and approved of my work; in fact he came to rely on it very heavily for his own work. (Does this mean I was in the role of "grad student" to SLJ? History will have to decide.) Of course being a computer scientist makes all the difference, especially considering that my doctoral work was on searching biological sequences... but never mind that now.

As I was saying, I was going over the citations for "geocentrism" and found one which I thought was quite apropos, especially considering a link to another book I am presently reading in my work towards this mysterious "university" I mentioned previously. It is an instance of the remarkable Chestertonian character one may see in SLJ's writing, relating widely divergent matters to illuminate an idea. Here it is:
Nothing is more difficult than to speak of the brain-mind or mind-body relationship. It is a mysterious coin with two luminous sides. The only way to handle it is to follow the advice once given about a tax coin and render both mind and body their respective dues. In a sense the Thomistic doctrine of the soul as the form of the body states precisely this. It is a doctrine respecting facts, refractory though they may be to the impatience of reductionism. Lacking intellectual patience, Descartes from the start read his own mind into Scholastic terms. Had Descartes appreciated Thomas's doctrine of soul, he would have kept equal respect both for Thomas's emphasis on the priority of the sensory (thoroughly misunderstood by Locke and other empiricists) and for his simultaneous emphasis on the active role of the intellect (intellectus agens), mistakenly viewed by many nowadays as a vote by Thomas for idealism. Both emphases could but degenerate into shibboleths of empiricism and idealism once they were no longer considered as two sides of one and the same coin. Had Descartes pondered this, he would have retained a healthy respect for the sensory and experimental. He might even have perceived that the experimental, being inexhaustible in new data, casts a pallor on purportedly definitive systems. At the same time he might even have spotted for the intellect a healthier role than an intuition of all basic truths in one fell swoop which puts an end to any further creativity. The reward for acknowledging the mysteriousness of the mind-body relationship would have been a notion of science as an open-ended enterprise with ever new challenges and exploits.
Behind the debacle which is Descartes' performance in physical science lies a disastrous bargain. He wanted the coin of truth at the price of eliminating all mystery. The transaction secured for him only his own perception of extension, or space in a broader sense, which he took for an utterly luminous, ultimate, and exhaustive verity. In more technical parlance, he bargained for Euclidean geometry, which certainly fitted man's experience of his immediate surroundings, as a universally valid expression of reality. Thus Descartes performed, long before Kant though to have done it first, that turn which became called Copernican, although it was the very opposite of what Copernicus performed. What Copernicus did was to transform geocentrism into heliocentrism, and let heliocentrism rest on theocentrism, the best, even the only safeguard against anthropocentrism of any kind. Copernicus never tried to refashion Christian anthropology, let alone to dictate to the Creator.
[SLJ Angels, Apes, and Men 19-20]
As you see, this excerpt contains some wonderful cross-links. Of especial interest to me in one of my present tasks is the mention of "Thomas's emphasis on the priority of the sensory" - this is emphasized and brought to a new drama in Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas which I will forgo quoting just now.

But the other cross-link is to an interesting little volume I am reading at the moment, and I will give you just a sample. The link wil lbe obvious:
If there were no Catholic Universities, the academic world would be the poorer for it.
The reason Academe would be poorer is that it would lack an advocate of mystery.
[Francis C. Wade, S. J. The Aquinas Lecture 1978: The Catholic University and the Faith]
The author goes on to explain this remarkable thesis, but I have not finished the entire text (though it is short).... perhaps I ought not have quoted it without grasping the conclusion, but this point is far too important to allow to slip by. The right sense of this "mystery" - and both Wade and I see several wrong senses - does indeed give us hope - and even more, a thrill. It is, as Chesterton would put it, the sense of wonder, the sense of Surprise.

We of the Duhem Society ought to be in wonder, ought to continually seek for the Surprise - which is the Reality God gave us.


leon dixon said...

Well, that helps! http://galileowaswrong.com/galileowaswrong/ But are any of these commentators known people? In the two volumes so far there is little mention of Duhem at all. I wonder if Jaki ever commented on this two volume work?
When one does not have the very solid background to evaluate matters of science one must find reliable authoritative sorts...like Jaki or Duhem-both seem oriented towards truth at any cost.

Anonymous said...

Visit Real View Books and get a copy of Galileo Lessons, one of SLJ's small pamphlets. That ought to help.

Magdalen Ross said...

Amen to that -- "Galileo Lessons" a short but thorough dismantling of the Galileo myths. I remember vividly Father Jaki's penultimate lecture in Rome -- I felt like I wanted to devote the rest of my life to studying physics as well!