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.

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