Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why the Relevance?

We must answer this question - why is there a book, The Relevance of Physics - before we proceed to study it in detail.

Jaki gives the answer in a concise preface. As if it were a hologram, almost any sentence might (on its own) render a complete reason or justification for the remainder of this huge volume - or at least it gives a very strong enticement. One might not even be a physicist, or even a historian, to find a fascination with the subject.

In his original preface Jaki quotes two excellent - perhaps superlative - statements about his topic. Oddly, neither is annotated, but since he quotes them elsewhere, I can provide the attribution. They are important for us, and I shall offer them for your consideration:
...no less prominent a figure of present-day American science than Vannevar Bush voiced the desperate cultural need for a systematic illustration of the limitations of physical science. "Much is spoken," he noted, "today about the power of science, and rightly. It is awesome. But little is said about the inherent limitations of science, and both sides of the coin need equal scrutiny." To help redress the balance between those two sides is the aim of this book.
[SLJ, preface to TROP, quoting VB "Science Pauses," Fortune 71 (May 1965), p. 116.]

Then there is this grand epigram, an insight from one of the greatest scientists of history, which ought to be a poster upon every lab and in every work area of all scientists:
[This book's] purpose would be fully achieved if it increased in those who cultivate and love physics that component of the wisdom of science of which Maxwell once wrote,"One of the severest tests of a scientific mind is to discern the limits of the legitimate application of scientific methods."
[SLJ, preface to TROP, quoting JCM "Paradoxical Philosophy" (1878), in The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, edited by W. D. Niven, II (Cambridge, 1890), p. 759.]

Saturday, October 23, 2010

What I meant about a new project

I apologise for these lags in my postings... I am sure many of you have your own business to attend to. But I know you would like to have some sort of action, or at least know there are good things to come. I can't make promises, but I am trying to arrange for good things to come. Bear in mind I have no direct connection to a publisher or anything else, and my own time constraints often leave me with very little time, even to post here. (I hope you may have some small satisfaction with my postings on my own blogg where I am trying to maintain my Thursday writing.)

But 2011 is just two months away, and there are not many more years until 2016.

Why do I bring up 2016?

Well - there are two reasons, both of which must strongly act upon us of the Duhem Society, and which may possibly get us to accomplish something.

The first: 2016 marks the centennial of the death of Pierre Duhem. This year ought to be marked in a fitting manner. Since at this time the "Duhem Society" exists only as a loose collection (yet a world-wide collection) of friends and scholars, linked by common interests by means of this blogg, I don't yet know how we might take a suitable action towards this event. But we ought to consider it. In my dreams I might hope for a major conference, with papers and seminars and a dinner, and time to meet and to talk among ourselves, and a Mass of Thanksgiving - perhaps one in France, and one on the western side of the Atlantic. I also dream of a publication of "The Collected Works" of Pierre Duhem (annotated, as may be fitting) and also an English translation. But I have no means to enable any of this. At best I have an enthusiasm... and offer a sense of support to those who may be able to work at this.

The second: 2016 marks the 50th anniversary (the semi-centennial) of Stanley Jaki's first major work in his field: The Relevance of Physics. This also should demand a conference, and perhaps a republication - in this case I consider an annotated edition to be very important. I regret that there was never time for us (I mean the students and friends of SLJ) to produce a Festschrift to Jaki. But by 2016 we ought to have something... if only a study of this important text. There is plenty of meat to go around; one avenue I would like to see explored is a cross-link from TROP to his other works.

It is in this second case that I have hope for my own involvement. I would like to begin a blogg-study of this work - but I would like to know whether this is of any interest to my readers. I have done something similar to this for Chesterton's Orthodoxy (you can see here for the index) - though for TROP I will not post the complete text, since it is not out of copyright. I will work out a way of handling the disparate editions; that is not an insurmountable difficulty. But I think we need to begin. We may wish for a complete annotated "Collected Works" of Jaki as well as Duhem - these are huge projects and will take a long time - but we must start somewhere, and TROP and its 50th anniversary provides a suitable starting point.

So please add a comment about this. Note: I am not trying to give myself airs as a "scholar" - perhaps there are plenty of real scholars at work on PD and SLJ, and I am simply out of touch with the journals. But there is the INTERNET now, and we ought to be cross-pollinating - there are people who are interested, who are enthusiastic, and who are capable of thought - and of writing about their thoughts.

Besides: what a grand thing: to unite, here in this wonderful medium, in consideration of the works of these great scientist-historians. It reminds one of the work of Mersenne...

Finally, I must point out one other matter in regard to this topic. Perhaps you are interested, but for some reason find yourself in disagreement with me, or us, or the approach. There is no reason why you may not have your own blogg, and we might communicate. The Scholastics often used the debate-paradigm, since this is a tool for seeking the truth. It would be a great thing if there would be other Duhem Society bloggs, perhaps in other languages, or focussed on other aspects.

I write this now, Saturday October 23, 2010, since only God knows how much (or how little) time I may have. At least I have told you about my hopes. But I would like to hear from you. (Or you can e-mail me; see the link in my profile - please be sure to state "Duhem Society" in your subject-line.) And I hope that (God willing) I shall meet many of you at the conference in 2016, if not sooner.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On a Great Medieval Scientist

On this, the feast of the Holy Rosary, let us consider something about a Dominican, from a book about another Dominican. It contains a very interesting line:
Albert the Swabian, rightly called the Great, was the founder of modern science. He did more than any other man to prepare that process, which has turned the alchemist into the chemist, and the astrologer into the astronomer. It is odd that, having been in his time, in this sense almost the first astronomer, he now lingers in legend almost as the last astrologer. Serious historians are abandoning the absurd notion that the medieval Church persecuted all scientists as wizards. It is very nearly the opposite of the truth. The world sometimes persecuted them as wizards, and sometimes ran after them as wizards; the sort of pursuing that is the reverse of persecuting. The Church alone regarded them really and solely as scientists. Many an enquiring cleric was charged with mere magic in making his lenses and mirrors; he was charged by his rude and rustic neighbours; and would probably have been charged in exactly the same way if they had been Pagan neighbours or Puritan neighbours or Seventh-Day Adventist neighbours. But even then he stood a better chance when judged by the Papacy, than if he had been merely lynched by the laity. The Catholic Pontiff did not denounce Albertus Magnus as a magician. It was the half-heathen tribes of the north who admired him as a magician. It is the half-heathen tribes of the industrial towns today, the readers of cheap dream-books, and quack pamphlets, and newspaper prophets, who still admire him as an astrologer. It is admitted that the range of his recorded knowledge, of strictly material and mechanical facts, was amazing in a man of his time. It is true that, in most other cases, there was a certain limitation to the data of medieval science; but this certainly had nothing to do with medieval religion. For the data of Aristotle, and the great Greek civilisation, were in many ways more limited still. But it is not really so much a question of access to the facts, as of attitude to the facts. Most of the Schoolmen, if informed by the only informants they had that a unicorn has one horn or a salamander lives in the fire, still used it more as an illustration of logic than an incident of life. What they really said was, "If a unicorn has one horn, two unicorns have as many horns as one cow." And that is not one inch the less a fact because the unicorn is a fable.
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:455]
You may be wondering which line I wanted to single out. I mean this one:
Serious historians are abandoning the absurd notion that the medieval Church persecuted all scientists as wizards.
I wonder who GKC meant. Could this suggest that Chesterton did know something about Pierre Duhem? Or does he mean some other historians of science of the first third of the twentieth century? It would take some research to answer, and we may add this to our growing list of research topics.

P.S. I wil no longer be writing my weekly column for the American Chesterton Society, whose blogg is stopping. Whether I will have any additional free time remains to be seen, but I have an excellent project in mind, if that is God's will. All I will say for now is involves SLJ's first book (not counting his doctoral dissertations)... We have about six years until its 50th anniversary, and there's work to be done. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

On Catechism and Dignity

Throughout many of his essays, father stressed the importance of reviving the 'Penny' (UK) and 'Baltimore' Catechisms. Based on his prompting, I purchased the Baltimore Catechism 'One' from Tan Classics, as basic as could be found. I turned to the first lesson and a question on the first page stood out:
Q: Why did God make you?
A: God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in Heaven.
Looking back on my catholic school-time catechesis, not too long ago, how I wish I had been taught such a simple, but direct and profound expression of our faith, instead of learning definitions of 'ecumenism', 'sectarianism' and 'the eightfold path'.
Fr. Jaki reminds us that simple catechisms remain 'the best means of implementing the only metamorphosis that results in human dignity as acted out in the daily lives of individuals. Anything else is largely a waste of time'. Having read quite widely about the catholic faith at this stage, I find that the simple statements are genuinely the most profound and memorable ones.
Human dignity is precious yet so easily and routinely violated. This is all the more tragic when it occurs in the fields of religious care, scientific advancement, and (of increasing concern) ecological conservation, where noble aims are corrupted because people forget the answer to yet another simple question on the first page of the simplest catechism:
Q: What is man?
A: Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.
Fr. Jaki diagonoses the historical precedents of the loss of that dignity and what is required to reignite a genuine respect for who man is.
On the intellectual level nothing definite about human dignity is generally shared any longer in spite of profuse references to it. The Enlightenment spread the illusion that man was pure reason, thereby putting human dignity on a pedestal befitting angels. Once on that pedestal man looked out for perspectives suitable for beasts and obtained them through Darwinism. The physics of relativity and of quantum mechanics created the widespread belief that all is relative and mere happenstance. In both cases the individual is the measure of all things as he frantically measures everything. The September 2003 issue of Scientific American suggested to its readers that they were mere holograms because the universe itself may be just a hologram. Computers are used to celebrate the idea that man's mind is an artificial intelligence machine, hardly a dignified perspective, except for some rabid hackers. Environmentalism transfers the dignity which only humans deserve to have to meadows, rivers, lakes, and a clean atmosphere. Microbiology is used for justifying the view that human nature is an agglomerate of "selfish genes". The dictates of instant gratification set the tone of cultural discourse about human dignity while modern man is robbed of the last traces of traditional Christian views about that dignity.
The lessons of history turn against man unless he learns them thoroughly. One of these lessons is that ethics must be lived by a society's individuals, before society can discourse about ethics to any and all. No different will be the lesson about a bioethics which focuses on genes and genomes. In the absence of a society, where individuals steeped in genuine ethics set the tone of discourse, the focusing will resemble the amusement of children who let sunlight pass through their magnifying glasses, focus it on a piece of paper, and shout with joy when it catches fire, at times with devastating consequences. The question is whether society wants to risk being devoured in a conflagration or rather wants to secure proper warmth for its well being. Both are a process of metamorphosis. Only one of the two means life.
[S.L. Jaki, 'The Metamorphoses of Human Dignity' in 'A Late Awakening and Other Essays', pp. 147-148]