Sunday, November 21, 2010

Brief Thoughts for the Feast of Christ the King

Duhem and a few other Catholic historians of science undoubtedly saw in medieval science a credit to Catholic faith. Duhem himself viewed science in the Middle Ages as a proof of Christ's promise that those who seek first the Kingdom of Heaven will reap benefits on earth as well.
[SLJ "Medieval Creativity in Science and Technology" in Patterns or Principles and Other Essays]

...Gilson's profound conviction [was] that all intellectual work should promote the Kingdom of God as a service under Christ the King...
[SLJ "Gilson and Science" in Patterns or Principles and Other Essays]

"For religion all men are equal, as all pennies are equal, because the only value in any of them is that they bear the image of the King."
[GKC Charles Dickens CW15:44]

Let us always do as these great Masters have indicated: in lab, or office, in classroom or library, at home or at work: let us seek first Christ's kingdom, and all our work be in service of others thereby serving Christ the King.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Sun is a Doggy: Observation, Similarity, Prediction

We are considering Jaki's primal work of cliognosology, that is, of the history of science, The Relevance of Physics: part one of which is called "The Chief World Models of Physics" and chapter one which is "The World as an Organism".

It is, as we saw last week, a very Chestertonian title to a very Chestertonian work. A Scientist reading it may (unfortunately) be disappointed, and in fact dismayed; it does not seem to be about science, and (worse) it is not written in a very scientific style, though it has over 150 footnotes in its fifty pages, and even mentions Einstein and other modern scientists. Perhaps the title itself is misleading, for there's not very much in this chapter about the idea of "the world as organism" and hardly a scientific portrayal of it: a critique of what it described correctly and what it failed to describe. Still I urge you to deal with it, as it will be useful, and even surprisingly so.

Here is one reason why. This chapter gives us a wandering through the museum of Greek philosophers, most of whom did not do science in any sense, and who would probably laugh at the idea that they were "studying nature" - but whom some scholars deem as scientists, or at least scholars who laid a foundation for science. They spoke, wrote, ranted - just like us - except it wasn't on a talk show, or on a blogg. (This may seem to be an extreme view, but, thankfully, it's not mine. Granted, Jaki doesn't state that theme directly, but it gleams out by his almost chaotic approach to the pantheon of Greek writers.) Ah, now we can begin to understand: the Greeks were having a good time talking, embellishing or defending their views and adopting or opposing the views of others without regard for order, for reason, or (most importantly) for concern over whether any of their ideas related to something in the real world. (Just like we do these days.) Sure, some of their ideas sprang from the real world, but as these wise men retreated into their groves for debate, they left all reality behind. (Just like we do these days.) In other words, they do what we moderns do: in our academic journals, in our bloggs, in our talk shows (sometimes called "the news") - indeed, in all our media.

But this is a great advantage to us. Jaki provides a priceless insight into these historic and exalted figures, and brings them to us in a way which fits into our own world: as fallen humans, hoping to apply their intellects to the world around them, yet full of themselves and concerned with their own interests even while they purport to be doing "science". (Or others claim that purpose for them.) Yet - and this is the real surprise - they did make some advances, and important ones - if only in the sense that their works were collected and maintained for two millennia, and thus we can take advantage of their work, even with its errors and its absurd views.

It may seem crazy to us in the 21st century to "admire" these ancient Greeks - that we ought not do. Indeed, they leave very much to be desired when one recalls their soap-opera polytheism and their distorted views of government (the State is all) and Man (the individual is unimportant - so unimportant we can enslave other humans). We can ignore all this, since we are trying to see what they had to say about science. But even there... oh my, what can we say? It sounds like the sheerest nonsense to imagine the sun as an animal, going to its den in the evening, or the sea as an animal with its tides being its "breathing" or whatever. Yes, you might suggest that this had some relation to their paganism: these people believed that the sun was a god, didn't they? Excuse me, but unless you've never been outside your whole life, you must know that the sun (speaking strictly from its appearance) is as glorious as a god: brilliant, powerful, warming, and even (speaking as a Christian) subject to death and resurrection... Isn't it? That truth hasn't changed, even if it is merely a truth of appearance (even committed Copernicans speak of "sunset" without committing heresy). Moreover, Christianity did not take this truth away, but confirmed it in a startling manner: as great and holy a saint as Francis of Assisi could write a canticle which spoke this way of our local star:
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made,
And first my lord Brother Sun,
Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
[St. Francis, "Canticle of the Creatures"]
No pagan could write such a thing, but I have a feeling that plenty of pagans would be willing to join with him in singing it. And if our science does not urge us to sing along, we ought to find another occupation, since we have failed. We ought to be adding verses; God knows we've learned so much more since the 12th century.

(Ah - another project for our society; we should have an annual contest: quarks and quasars and everything in between - they have no voice, but we do: "All praise be yours, my Lord, through ALL that you have made...")

No; we need to understand the work of the ancients, and also the correctives. By refusing to examine (and yes, to admire, if only remotely) the ancient Greek philosophers, you would miss the important second point to be learned from this chapter, and it is a complex one. These ancients had really begun to be scientific, and that in three ways, which I shall term Observation, Similarity, and Prediction.

(1) They truly observed. You cannot speak about an "animal" in a general sense unless you have at least started to pay attention to how a sheep is not a goat, is not a dog, is not an eagle, is not a fish. (You must have already understood how this sheep is not that sheep as you understand Plato is not Socrates, even though both are "Man"; this is of the same sort of idea, but advanced by a level.) This power of "observation" is the fundamental characteristic of a scientist, though it is (as Chesterton noted in a famous context) an idea which is "too big to be noticed". If you do not see, observe, pay attention to what IS, you can never do Science. Remember how Chesterton also said: "the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing." [GKC Tremendous Trifles 6] The Greeks revealed that they were seeing something extraordinary: they could even see the ordinary, which is the first mark of a Scientist. And that IS extraordinary.

(2) They could apply the idea of similarity; they could generalize.

In order to understand this, I must mention another something which may be "too big to be noticed": Similarity is not logic, nor is logic similarity, but there is a link between them, and it is that both require accurate raw material in order to proceed. Otherwise you may claim that a "snark" is like a "boojum" only more "rovantic" - which tells you nothing at all. (Besides being boring, and Science is never boring.) This truth is enshrined in Chesterton's great epigram, which is another one for the wall of your lab or office or classroom:
Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.
[GKC Daily News Feb 25 1905 quoted in Maycock, The Man Who Was Orthodox]
In the same way, one cannot find truth from similarity unless one has first found truth without it.

The Greeks knew this, and so, once they had observed: animals retire to their dens at night; the sun also appears to retire. Hence, they said, "the sun is like an animal". You can laugh about this; it does sound funny, and there are far more goofy ideas to come - but you must not lose sight that this IS the beginning of real science. Yes, of course, we have learned so much more since then, but remember, one has to start somewhere! Also, you must recall the record of history: there are many others who never got that far. This is the point of Einstein's remark Jaki quoted near the start of the chapter: Einstein's famous remark: "In my opinion one has not to be astonished that the Chinese sages have not made these steps. [of the ancient Greeks] The astonishing thing is that these discoveries were made at all." [SLJ TROP 4 quoting AE's letter of April 23, 1953, to Mr. T. E. Switzer of San Mateo, California; see D. J. de Solla Price, Science since Babylon (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1961), p. 15.] For extensive details on this record, consider the first six chapters of Jaki's Science and Creation.

(3) Even more important, they were able to build upon these fundamental tools. They were able to extend, from observation and similarity, to prediction. That is: "We saw animals doing thus-and-so. The sun is like them. And so, we can expect that, since an animal also does so-and-thus, someday we may also observe the sun doing so-and-thus." Of course this leads to absurdities: they saw dogs having puppies and nursing at their mother's side... what they may have expected in terms of curious solar phenomenon can only be guessed at. Sure, in some cases these ideas lead nowhere. But prediction is a tool, and as one learns how the tool works, its uses and its abuses, one learns not to hit one's thumb with the hammer - and then one begins to build.

It is true that the ancients didn't always observe; made distorted similarities, contrived absurd predictions. But so do we. We need to learn about their mistakes so that we do not continue to make them. We also can begin to appreciate (in the richest sense) these men as men, as scholars, and thereby find our kinship with them, and be grateful for their work and the work of all those who have built on theirs.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Feast of St. Albert the Great, patron of Science

But in the same book Gilson also had to voice a conviction of his which could serve as a prime guideline in his program of keeping alive Thomism by constantly immersing it in the latest development of science. "Science is revolutionary," Gilson quoted Claude Bernard, and then in the same breath he added: "I am profoundly convinced that philosophy is not." Such a conviction must imply the recognition of two important consequences. One has to recognize that no study of science, not even of its very latest developments, can have for its fruit revolutionary implications for the perennial philosophy. The latter can gather from such study only new illustrations, however startling, of very old truths. And since each age, or rather generation, has its own preferred variations of phraseology, those new illustrations should seem of utmost pedagogical value. This is to be still learned by many Thomists who often speak as if they were brought up in the waning of the Middle Ages.

While this can be expected to change for the better, realism forces one to recognize a rather dispiriting feature of human behavior: Human nature is itching for novelties. Gilson himself once dejectedly registered the unwillingness even of Thomists to hold on to this or that well-established truth, even historical truth. Consequently, somewhat illusory should seem Gilson's dream of what he called "a religious order of scientists." He had in mind a close collaboration among a handful of theologians well trained in the sciences.
Collaboration of this kind may be a pleasing subject for conversation, but it would be a most difficult thing to bring about. Even the collaboration between Aquinas and Albertus Magnus was not what Gilson had in mind. Yet they were geniuses, and saints for good measure. Still, as Gilson the teacher demonstrated, it is possible to produce like-minded pupils who, even if their influence suffers a temporary eclipse, will serve as guideposts for a post-eclipse generation searching for beacons better than the ones who presented the twilight of eclipse as the dawn of a new day.
[SLJ "Gilson and Science" in Patterns or Principles and other Essays]

Postscript: We must here note another great project for the Duhem Society to pursue: Gilson's dream of "a religious order of scientists". Far from being illusory, it is surely a topic for us to consider and ponder - and someday propose.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Problem with The Relevance

The single biggest problem facing the reader of Jaki's The Relevance of Physics is not its size or even its scope. (An aside: I understand some readers of this bloog are having difficulty obtaining a copy; perhaps you might send an e-mail to Real View Books inquiring whether there are any remaining copies around, or asking about a reprint - perhaps if there is sufficient interest...) No; the difficulty arises in the complexity of dealing with the subject itself, the history and inner life of science. This study (which I called "cliognosology" in a previous column) is at least half philosophy, and requires tools of literature and history and allied fields - and yet, at the same time it requires knowledge of the matter of science itself: its subject matter, its organization, its method - along with its dramatis personae of science, their writings and methods. It is a huge project.

But then so is any field of our subject, and if we are scientists (in the widest sense) we do not shrink from mere size, or from complexity. We do not avoid the thought of Antares, though it may be larger than our entire solar system out to the orbit of Mars. We do not avoid the topic of metabolism, though the usual chart of Metabolic Processes looks more like some sort of vast computer network - even to the four-place enzyme codes which have the same format as IP addresses! Besides, this book contains important ideas - it is a sourcebook. We do not reject the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics because it is too large to go into our pocket - and TROP is a good deal smaller. It's also a good deal more readable. And where it is a bit obscure, I hope to assist, by means of this study.

Therefore, let us begin with chapter one, "The World as an Organism" (pp. 3-51)

In these first stage-setting paragraphs, we immediately find how rocky our road is - and yet how rich. (Apropos of my own introduction, I think of our Society's Master, Pierre Duhem: physicist, historian, and hiker. He did not avoid a difficult rocky trail for he knew the vistas to be attained by means of it!)

We find Plato mentioned in the unattributed quote of Whitehead; we find mention of a J. Burnet; we find the name Archimedes with that odd word "divus". A bit later we find a torrent of other names: Homer, Plutarch, Hesiod, Thales and so on, but among these we also find scattered Einstein and Schrödinger. We may wonder who these people are, how they relate, and what is the point of it all.

Clearly, Jaki's spotlight is on ancient Greece - as indeed you will find in the rest of this chapter. Now, if you happen to have read other of Jaki's books, in particular Science and Creation, you may be a bit surprised at some of the "encomiums" he gives to ancient Greece here. (That word "encomium" is a fancy synonym for "praise" and is one of SLJ's "pet" words, but surprisingly it does not appear in TROP.) In fact, this is one of the curious complications - almost an unsettling one - about this book. Is Jaki praising or condemning the Greeks, or what? No; he is trying to suggest a larger view.

This method, Jaki's style, or approach to handling such topics, may take a little getting used to. It's not the usual sort of exposition one finds in science, and (contrary to his own words to me about non-fiction writing) I think it suggests a certain hidden longing for the complex-web-weaving style of detective-fiction. (Oh, how I wish he had written a mystery story!) Let me say more about this. A writer like Chesterton (of whom, as you know, I am particularly fond of mentioning!) will allude to other writers, and give huge leaping analogies, thereby linking difficult ideas into something one can grasp. He will not refrain from even taking a famous Bible verse and extending it by a sort of trick of typesetting, almost as one makes a word "bold-face" in a word-processor. One famous instance is GKC's inversion of Mt 19:6 to give "Those whom God has sundered, shall no man join" - almost mystical insight into the truth of the sexes, and one which Jaki quotes (e.g. in "Purpose Redux" in SLJ, A Late Awakening and Other Essays, though he is not using it as GKC did.)

Jaki does not use Chesterton's approach, though on occasion we find his using something like it, as we have just seen. (It can happen to any serious student of Chesterton.) He has another, which (like Chesterton) takes some getting used to. He leaps, in a kind of weaving motion, bringing various link-points together across the millennia and across the entire gamut of "cliognosology" [my word for "the study of the history of science] which we should see here as its two halves, as Science, writ large, and as History. You will find its first instance in the second paragraph of our text, where we find Heisenberg and Aristotle and Schrödinger bumping into each other - and this is just the start.

You may claim: but this is only natural when one examines an idea!

Perhaps. This is why it is so difficult, especially to come into such a topic as a scientist, since it is not about the idea, but about those who held an idea, or a version of an idea - it is History writ large, not Science, though it may be an item drawn from Science or which one has come to term Science. It will be unsettling, but then so are some of the ideas in our own science or what we term science. This is the point, and this is the strategy of presentation, which does have a scientific style: bring the related matters together, no matter how twisted other parts may become - and then examine the adjacencies. (This is much like Mendeleev's method which gave us the Periodic Table - a matter which we shall hear about in chapter 4 of our text.) So if we need to bump something from quantum physics with something else from ancient Greece, just keep reading, and enjoy the view - it may get bumpy, but the vista will be excellent.

Fortunately, when we get to the fourth paragraph, we find this kaleidoscopic mosaic clarified for us. Jaki is setting up his structure for the first three chapters, the three views of Nature as (1) living, (2) mechanical, or (3) numerical.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

November 1 and 2

In the last few days the plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences took place in Rome. The tradition provides that a commemoration of the deceased academicians take place before the talks. As I read on the leaflet, the commemoration of our dear Father Stanley Jaki has been given by prof Jean Michel Maldamé, OP.
Father Jaki has been in Rome many times this period of the year, and not only for the periodical gathering of the Academy...
... Personally, I would like to add that in late October and early November 1950 I was in Rome, preparing for the defense of my thesis in theology. The high point of those days was, of course, the definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. I was present at the definition in St. Peter's Square, November 1.
[SLJ God and the Sun at Fatima]
... Prior to the gathering of over two thousand bishops for the opening of the Second Vatican Council the largest such event took place on November 1, 1950. On that day, under an unusually blue sky, almost a thousand bishops filed out to the Vatican Palace to Saint Peter's Square to join as the College of Bishops with their head, Pope Pius XII...
[SLJ The Litany of Loreto 213]
In some sense we have lived the last two days together as one, the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. And together are the Assumption of Mary and her praying for us.
The words "pray for us sinners..." reveal their appropriateness in most unusual and unforeseen occasions. For the writer of this book one such occasion came as he was sitting in the front pew of the Chiesa dei Frari in Venice gazing at Titian's "Assumption". ... Pray for us in the hour of our death so that first our souls and then our bodies may be taken up to heaven where there will be no tears whatsoever.
[SLJ Twenty Mysteries 97-99 (see also this post)]

Cliognosology: Jaki's Very Chestertonian Approach to Physics

Yes, I am getting into some incredibly hot water with this study of The Relevance of Physics, Father Jaki's first major work of cliognosology, but then you must remember that Chesterton said "I believe in getting into hot water. I think it keeps you clean." [GKC ILN March 10 1907 CW27:142] We also ought to keep a sense of humor, even as we deal with serious topics - this will help us recall our humanity, and make our work truly a culture - which springs from the Latin root meaning "to grow".

Eh... Cliognosology? What's that?

It's my new word for "the history of science", made from "Clio" the Muse of History, and Greek "gnoseo"= scientia. If you have another suggestion, or can help improve this one, please let me know.

I say this - that SLJ uses a Chestertonian approach - as a mark of esteem. Jaki has chosen a huge subject, which can easily get bogged down in details. But he, like Chesterton, uses the method of vignettes, rather than structures, since after all Jaki writes as a literary scholar, not as a scientist, despite his doctorate in physics. He gives us a thumbnail structure in the table of contents, but after that you need a guide, which I hope to provide, if only in a rambling fashion. (I am a scientist, you see, but have read Chesterton and Jaki at great length, and indicate my admiration for them by my own poor form of imitation.... but the science keeps on creeping in, which may help.)

Yes, the book is huge: over 530 pages, twelve chapters, with about 100 footnotes in each. It is a difficult subject: the history of science in general, the inner purpose and reason and meaning of physics in particular. It spans the time from the earliest musings on reality by the ancient Greeks up to the latest (1966) topics. But it is not a history, so much as it is an examination of certain intellectual aspects of physics - and at this point the best way I can help you to understand this is to give you the master outline of the book.

The Relevance of Physics
Table of Contents

Part One: The Chief World Models of Physics
Chapter One The World as an Organism
Chapter Two The World as a Mechanism
Chapter Three The World as a Pattern of Numbers
Part Two The Central Themes of Physical Research
Chapter Four The Layers of Matter
Chapter Five The Frontiers of the Cosmos
Chapter Six The Edge of Precision
Part Three Physics and Other Disciplines
Chapter Seven Physics and Biology
Chapter Eight Physics and Metaphysics
Chapter Nine Physics and Ethics
Chapter Ten Physics and Theology
Part Four Physics: Master or Servant?
Chapter Eleven The Fate of Physics in Scientism
Chapter Twelve The Place of Physics in Human Culture
This may seem overwhelming; the book is overwhelming, but in a good sense. Let me give you an example. Do you have a copy of the amazing CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics around? I mean a "tactile" version, not an electronic one. It's got to weigh over five pounds, maybe a couple of thousand pages, representing perhaps hundreds of thousands of man-years of meticulous lab work and record-keeping... what a gift it is. A huge and useful work. (If you are not a scientist, please consider your own master-reference, perhaps the Oxford English Dictionary, or perhaps the Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon.) I do not mean that Jaki's text reaches these levels, but it is rich in a similar way, and so it is overwhelming.

Here I will make a suggestion. I suggest you think of TROP as a "four-volume" set, bound as one. It will help lessen the impact. The sections (and to a certain extent, the chapters) are far more separable than in other texts of this type.

As I peer into the first chapter, near its very start I found this line:
It has been said in the twentieth century that the European philosophical tradition is but a series of footnotes to Plato...
SLJ quotes it also in Science and Creation, which gives us a name, though not a citation:
With his penchant for startling dicta, Whitehead once defined European
philosophical tradition as a series of footnotes to Plato.
[SLJ Introduction to Science and Creation]
But he gives something more in another place, not more in the sense of a citation, but "more" as a musician might develop a theme:
In comparison with a flame or a tidal wave, quite anemic is the figure of speech which Whitehead used in describing all Western philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato. Any scholar busy with footnotes knows how enervating can be the tracking down of references to reliable sources. Still Whitehead meant a beginning for philosophy which is a robust enterprise. Such an enterprise generates an ever more powerful continuation.
[SLJ "Purpose Redux" in A Late Awakening and Other Essays]
I quoted that because in some sense this is SLJ's own commentary on TROP. It might be said that all Jaki's other works (at least those which are cliognosological) are a series of footnotes to The Relevance of Physics.

Please note. This is not really my own idea. It is, in fact, Father Jaki's idea. See how he phrased it in his "Intellectual Autobiography":
Meanwhile I began to write short articles for a Hungarian language quarterly, published in Rome, on various scientific questions relating to religion. They contain in a nutshell more than one idea which I was later to develop in full in The Relevance. The extent to which this long book anticipates themes of many of my subsequent writings dawned on me only when I had to see through press the publication of its Hungarian translation in 1996. It was then that I read again each line of The Relevance and found out that it was truly the coming of age of my mind.
[SLJ A Mind's Matter 27, emphasis added]
Indeed, he has more to say about TROP in that book, and we shall explore it also.

For today, then, take some time and review your own personal storehouse of knowledge about history and physics. What ideas leap out at you? What order would you give to such a study if you were to write it? What ideas or events or individuals would you spotlight? There is a reason that the "table of contents" comes first: it gives you the map, the floor plan, the layout, the blueprints of the complex structure you are about to enter. Recall that Aristotle and Aquinas say that "it belongs to wisdom to put things in order". It is wisdom for you to grasp this order now, lest you become dazzled or confused once we begin our explorations.