Tuesday, November 15, 2011

For the feast of our patron...

Today is the feast day of the patron saint of all Science, Saint Albert the Great.

May he intercede for all scientists and workers in laboratories or offices, for students of science of whatever age or degree, for professors and teachers: may we be brought to that wider vision and deeper humility which this exalted study deserves: that in our work we may glorify God and serve our neighbors.

For today, then, let us consider this excellent and cautionary excerpt from Jaki:
...the first major work of synthesis by Aquinas, the Summa
contra gentiles
(completed in 1257), aimed at countering the occasionalism and fatalism contending with one another within Muslim theology and philosophy. The task, as can be guessed, centred on questions about the Creator and the nature of human intellect. The stratagem demanded that Aquinas should not be found wanting in his admiration for Aristotle, the Philosopher. In fact, Aquinas departed from Aristotle only in cases where the Christian creed allowed under no circumstance for a compromise. This attitude of Aquinas was carried over in full into his Summa theologica (completed in 1273), a work in which synthesis, not polemics, dominated. The surprising extent to which Aquinas went in accepting Aristotle’s cosmology and physics can be seen by taking a look at only one chapter in his massive opus, the 91st Question in its Third Part, where he discussed “The Quality of the World after the Judgment.” The topic, imposed by the concluding tenet in the
Christian creed, meant a most acute confrontation with the very heart of Aristotle’s cosmology and theory of motion. The contents of the five articles of Quaestio 91 show that the presence of cyclic features in the world was an unassailable truth for Aquinas, who firmly reasserted the efficient causality of a rotating sky on everything in the sublunary world. He found no fault with the generic return of physical patterns, including plants and animal species. He also went along with Aristotle on the point that the cosmos would of itself go on forever through endless begettings of individuals.

That Aquinas still had not become a hapless prisoner of the Aristotelian world view was due to his awareness of the guidelines set by the Christian creed about the cosmos. Against Empedocles’ claim about a cyclic rejuvenation of the cosmos he noted that the new heaven and earth were supernatural, “just as grace and glory are above the nature of the soul.” Against the coupling of the precession of the equinoxes with the cyclic theory of the world, his principal argument was that this would allow the exact calculation of the moment of the world’s end, in patent contradiction to the Gospel. He opposed the idea of an infinite endurance for the world through endless cycles on the ground that this would also mean that the number of the elect would become infinitely large: “But this is not in keeping with our faith, which holds that the elect are in a certain number preordained by God, so that the begetting of men will not last for ever, and for the same reason, neither will other things that are directed to the begetting of men, such as the movement of the heaven and the variations of the elements.” For Aquinas, a Christian and a Saint, the ultimate raison d’être of the cosmos consisted in its subordination to man’s eternal, unique and supernatural destiny.

This last point should also reveal a distinctly negative impact which can be exercised by tenets of the Christian creed about research concerning the destiny and duration of the world. They not only can save physical theory from an imprisonment into Aristotelian or other a priori postulates, but they can also create the illusion that some all-encompassing “final solutions” have been acquired about the physical world in the scientific sense. Aquinas is, indeed, notable for his lack of appreciation of experimental investigation. His case is, however, more that of individual temper and preference than of methodological dictates. His master Albertus Magnus, was a most enthusiastic advocate of experimental investigation and he found in the contingency of the world the justification to his prolific collection of data concerning natural history. There was no difference between disciple and master as far as the ominous cloud of the doctrine of eternal recurrences was concerned. Albertus’ dissertation on De fato shows not only his awareness of the issues at stake for humanity, but also his familiarity with the history of the question. He referred to Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Ptolemy, the Arab astronomers especially to Albumasar, and, of course, to the Church Fathers. Christian consciousness had already achieved a firm tradition in the matter.

Emphasis on experimentation was a new wine which easily could prove heady. It could produce firebrands, and Roger Bacon was one of them. Evaluations of his place in the history of science oscillate between lopsided encomiums and studied neglect. The first extreme was usually adopted by those ready to take great visions for actual accomplishments. They were joined, ironically enough by those for whom the beginnings of science coincided with the apocryphal story of Galileo and the tower of Pisa. For these the unusual friar is the classic example of a great mind struggling in the fetters of institutional obscurantism. The other extreme, the stance of silent treatment, is usually taken by those who grudgingly have come to recognize that Galileo never dropped balls to test the law of free fall and that, what is perhaps more reprehensible, he did not refer to his medieval predecessors to whom he owed so much. This is not to suggest that Roger Bacon was a forerunner of Galileo as far as the laws of motion are concerned. But Bacon’s impetuous crusading to secure the service of science on behalf of the Christian faith has much of the boldness and drama that became the hallmark of Galileo’s career. Within ten years of the composition of the Opus majus in 1267 he was imprisoned on suspicion of holding novel views.

Friar Roger was certainly not censured for his emphasis on the basic unity, interconnectedness, and interdependence of all branches of learning. There could be nothing wrong about his reasoning that since the Creator was one and there was only one creation, its understanding too had to form one single body of truth. Again, he merely echoed the Church Fathers’ somewhat naive interpretation of cultural history according to which all the science of the heathen had come from Moses, or if not, it had to be considered a form of “natural” revelation. Nor was anything shocking, in an age of great ferment, in his insistence that the Church should make the most of the Greek scientific corpus which was being rapidly recovered and translated in Bacon’s lifetime. Theologians of his time could only nod in agreement on reading his warnings about the difference between final and efficient (secondary) causes, a distinction that intended to render its due to supernatural destiny as well as to temporal endeavour. They should have felt gratified by his assertions of the forever partial character of man’s knowledge about the world and by his stricture of Aristotle’s claims about a priori, definitive verities concerning the processes of nature.

Bacon might have stunned his contemporaries by his visionary references to contraptions by means of which men would fly, speed across dry land, and see faraway objects as if they were at arm’s length, - but dreaming was not necessarily harmful. His concoction of a magic powder with never-before-experienced explosive property was a different matter, yet many an alchemist enjoyed the good will of both political and ecclesiastical potentates. At any rate, the gunpowder seems to have been the only real experimental success of the one whom some called the Father of experimental science. His continual reference to the need of experimenting had much to commend itself, but others, like Albertus Magnus, deserved no less credit on that score. There was nothing revolutionary in his, at times inordinate, praise of mathematics. To speak of mathematics as the most certain of all forms of human knowledge was a fashion of the time, and everybody saw proof of this in the superior exactness of astronomy over all other branches of science.

Bacon was not the first, nor the last, to be trapped by the glitter of perfection, but his case has a particular moral. Admiration of an outstanding perfection can easily turn into sweeping generalizations and this is precisely what happened to him. The vista of the unfailing retracement of their courses by celestial bodies imposed on his mind the idea of an inexorable determinism of events. True, he did his best to safeguard man’s freedom and moral responsibility. His prolific analysis of the influence of stars and planets could, however, easily undercut his otherwise sincere persuasion about man’s uniqueness in the inexorable turnings of nature’s great machinery. His case shows also the difference between the hapless capitulation of most Arab commentators of Aristotle to the idea of cyclic determinism and the unwavering refusal of their Christian counterparts to consider serious compromise on that crucial issue.

[SLJ Science and Creation 10 "The Sighting of New Horizons" 225-7]

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Very Relevant Gift

Yes, I've been busy and not had time to resume our study of the Scientific Method, though my mental note-taking is proceeding. Meanwhile, a few weeks back I had lunch with a friend who is also a doctor, and we discussed some of our topics... as a result he gave me a most relevant gift. It seems funny to think of writing a discourse upon the epistemology of Science by starting from a blank lab notebook, but perhaps in the future I will have some time to make a few comments about it here.

I looked to see whether Father Jaki talked about such things, and found several strangely relevant references - likely there are others, but due to my time constraints, I will limit myself to these:
In his later years, Newton spent much precious time on erasing from his manuscripts and notebooks the name of Descartes, lest posterity learn a thing or two.
[SLJ "God and Man's Science: A View of Creation" in The Absolute Beneath the Relative and other essays, 62]

In the twelve years between 1904 and his sudden death in 1916 at the age of 56 he [Pierre Duhem] not only continued his prodigious series of publications in theoretical physics, but filled 120 large-size notebooks, each 200 pages long, with excerpts from medieval manuscripts which he had to beg from other French libraries. He had no microfilm, no xerox machines, no dictaphones, not even ball point pens at his disposal. Above all, he had no research assistants of any sort.
[SLJ "Science and Censorship: Hélene Duhem and the Publication of the Système du monde" Ibid, 178]

He [Darwin] might have been cured of his illusion about the evolution of his religious beliefs had he reread in his late years his early Notebooks. Available since the early 1970s in easily accessible edition, those Notebooks make it absolutely clear that the Darwin of the late 1830s was a crude and crusading materialist.
[SLJ "Monkeys and Machine-guns: Evolution, Darwinism, and Christianity" Ibid, 190]

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 [Lavoisier] 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."
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 151]

As my friend the doctor wrote, "Remember, it's for Posterity." Let us keep this principle in mind as we work.

P.S. There is an exciting episode about one of SLJ's own notebooks (and another about his exploration of the notebooks of Olbers!) both of which appear in A Mind's Matter, but I will leave these for another time.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

If only you had been more careful in your work, you might have discovered a planet!

Last time we heard from Father Jaki about probing into an apparent discrepancy in the third place to the right of the decimal, and how it related to ths discovery of argon.

Today, let's hear from another writer - one of the most wonderful and relevant (and brief) chapters I have ever read in any science text - one on which I hope one day to preach a lecture or three. It deserves to be studied, and ought to be copied and read at the start of every academic year, and proclaimed annually in every laboratory! Yes, really.

Here is just one of its dramatic paragraphs:
In the history of astronomy can be found numerous cautionary tales which illustrate the fatal consequences of messy and muddled observational records, as well as of preconceived ideas regarding what is likely or possible, and of emotional bias - expectation, disappointment, surprise, hope. No fewer than 19 pre-discovery observations of Uranus have been identified, from 1690 (by Flamsteed) onward. It is true that many of these in no way reflect upon the technique of the observers, since a single observation would quite possibly not reveal its planetary character. [*] But that none of theese observations should have led to the discovery of Uranus is incredible. The case that is most relevant to thematter of observational records concerns the French astronomer Lemonnier, who in January 1796 observed Uranus six times over a period of nine days, including observations on four consecutive nights. His records of observations were kept in a particularly untidy and unsystematic fashion (one of the Uranus observations was noted down on a paper bag that had contained hair powder), and this certainly contributed to his failure: in a well-kept record the anomalies between these nine observations cold not have failed to strike him - and he would have anticipated Herschel in the first planetary discovery of historical times by twelve years.

* On the other hand Herschel detected its non-stellar character before its motion had been established.

[J. B. Sidgwick, Amateur Astronomer's Handbook, Section 32: Observational Records]
Please read that again, and ponder this in particular:
...the fatal consequences of messy and muddled observational records, as well as of preconceived ideas regarding what is likely or possible, and of emotional bias - expectation, disappointment, surprise, hope.
Don't be thinking of getting your name into the books. Think of the fact that you may have abandoned your humility - your childlike attitude towards Reality, and substituted Superstition - or belief in Phlogiston, which is the same thing. (If you don't know what that is, I suggest you look it up.) Remember, even the great Maxwell was caught:
For it is one thing to propose an inference as being very plausible and another to assert its reality and in the least uncertain terms at that. In this respect even a Maxwell could not avoid the pitfalls set by an unquestioning faith in mechanism. ... "There can be no doubt," he asserted categorically, that the ether "is certainly the largest body of which we have any knowledge."
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 80-81 quoting JCM's "Ether" in the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica]
And, no, he was not talking about an organic chemical with an oxygen between two other groups, like (C2H5)2O. (Ahem, a little chemical humor there, hee hee.)

Let us use caution and DILIGENCE! Yes, diligo = "I love"... it is our choice, our selection... and we ought to be fervent in our work. Let us LOVE Reality, our cosmos, our work... and our God Who made it, and our fellow humans for whom we do such work: "Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you did it for Me" - and that will include even our research as long as we have done it well, and for the sake of our common humanity, rather than out of pride or selfishness.

Yes, to the shock of many professors, and even more administrators, there's a deep truth lurking in "publish or perish" and it is not associated with tenure or professional status. Another day we'll explore where St. Paul spoke on this topic - it's stunning...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Argon - or, are you certain about that error?

This is just a brief posting in aid of our on-going study of "the Scientific Method", about which we are slowly collecting ideas and relations of those ideas in order to more fully grasp the mystery of Science Writ Large. Whether it will aid us in doing better work in our labs, or in our lab write-ups, or just make us feel a greater measure of delight - well, I cannot say. It is useful to collect these items, and eventually we will knit them together into an orderly unity. It may not become a CRC Handbook or even a Dover reprint - indeed, it may be that they will never leave this blogg and the E-cosmos - but at least we will have seen some new things, or (even better) re-seen some old things.

Today, I do not mean to suggest some sort of appeal to Heisenberg. I am speaking several orders of magnitude larger than that. I could take a chapter - or another book in the series - to talk about error, whether it be the formal sort of measurement, or the more formal sort of mis-shapen logic, or the idiosyncratic kind that comes from round-off in calculators and computers - or just plain human sloppiness, which we are all prone to. It is a fascinating study - as fascinating as disease is to a physician, who has in mind his own frailty.

The strange thing about error is that it too deserves to be considered - no, not in the sense that we invert our purpose - I do not mean taking on a heretical view for the sake of achieving a novel viewpoint! I mean error in the more common scientific sense, those little "plus-or-minus" sorts of things we see all the time in the tables and charts of lab reports or journal articles. We have to keep those odd little gaps in mind, lest truth be hiding there.

Note!!! This is where our language gets in the way. "Error" is often (especially in philosophy and theology) understood as "the negation of truth". In science, the sort of error I am speaking of may be more often expressed as the "imprecision in a measurement."

I have selected a most interesting little excerpt for your consideration today - a tale that suggests how important it is that we consider those "imprecisions" as places which deserve fuller exploration:
The instances taken from nineteenth-century physics could be multiplied at some length to illustrate the fundamental importance that increased precision in experiments plays in establishing new laws or theories. Ohm's law, the laws of radiation, the gas laws, to mention only a few, were but triumphs in precision. The establishment of well-equipped physical laboratories, first in German and French and later in British universities, clearly evidenced the general recognition of the extraordinary importance precision has in physics. The rewards were at times spectacular, particularly when unknown entities, such as new elements, were discovered. The case of argon was perhaps the most characteristic, resting as it did on the worries of Ramsay and Rayleigh as to why some samples of nitrogen had a weight of 1.257 grams per liter instead of only 1.256. As it turned out, an unknown element, after its discovery called argon, caused this discrepancy. The identification of other inert gases followed in quick succession.
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 254-5]

P.S. If any of our chemist readers can give a fuller reference to this interesting work, I would appreciate it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Rosary - our Experimental Lab for the Gospels

Yes, this posting is relevant to our on-going (if slow and sporadic) series on the Scientific Method, and to that grand Jaki phrase "Science writ large". Even if it seems to be a rather Catholic thing, or a rather "prayer" thing, and not science at all.

That's because people have begun to have a very narrow view of science, and do not see the lab for the test tubes - or the web pages. They forget WHY there are such things as experiments, and what it is we are doing, and why we are doing it. That's also why there is such a thing as the rosary, as strange as it must sound. As Chesterton liked to point out, it's about vision:
...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]
There is a fascinating connection between the words "experience" and "experiment" - and the Latin word "periculum" from which we get the English word "peril" - that is, danger.

This is why I have said the first virtue of a Scientist is humility. He must be willing to submit to dangers - the first and worst is that WE MIGHT HAVE GUESSED WRONG ABOUT REALITY. Hence, we devise a scheme, submitting ourselves (No, emphatically not the things in the lab!) - that is, our mental image of reality - to danger by risking another look at Reality. We do this for many reasons, perhaps most would say it's out of curiousity, but it may be better for our moral health to say that we do it out of humility. We are not building a story. (As fun as that can be, and I can tell you it's REALLY fun! And cheaper than buying toy trains and all that.) We are hoping to know more - to get some clue about Reality, just as a sculptor carefully chisels out the marble, we carefully chisel out our mental constructions and models - but just as the scupltor continually corrects his work by shifting his gaze, his lights, his angles - perhaps on occasion even touching the relevant region - so too we require a continual feedback of data. We must spur ourselves to that single activity of seeing.

The same is true for the Rosary. This convenient hand-held tool - imagine a hand-held lab! - provides us with all the machinery necesary to make ever deeper explorations of the Mystery of the God-Made-Man, Jesus Christ. You may say, why should a religious activity - an activity of prayer - a rather specifically Catholic activity, and perhaps a quarrelsome and argumentative one - why should THAT be an exemplar for Scientists?

Because it reveals the nature of experiment. It is "experiencing" something - yes, the same thing, but my God, how many experiments have been repeated over the course of centuries! In fact, that is one of the signal trademarks (the Signs, if you will) of a good experiment: its repeatability. It begins to answer the question: why do an experiment?

To find out more - even if it's something we've already done before.

We are not "mindlessly repeating" something - no, just the opposite. It is a most mindful repetition: we proceed with care, with diligence, with attention - we check our equipment, we check our references, we see what others (both authorities and other workers on the topic) have to say about the matter... and, as the famous "Sir Henry Merrivale" (the detective in the mystery stories by Carter Dickson, pseudonym of John Dickson Carr) liked to say we do some "sittin' and thinkin'".

That is, we MEDITATE. No, this is not the "eastern" form of meditation, which is a sort of emptying of the mind. This is as opposite as one can be: it is the extreme presence of mind, bringing our complete mental personality to bear upon the matter, hoping, perhaps almost desperately, to find (like that sculptor) that perfect vantage point... and thereby gain a better view of Reality.

So do you mean I pray while I experiment? Or experiment while I pray?

For me, they are interconvertible. I have enough doubts about my abilities to keep reasonably to the task at hand, but there is a sense of Awe about this... that by learning more about That Which Is, I learn more about He Who Made That Which Is.

And which of you, if he ask his father bread, will he give him a stone? Or a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he reach him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the good Spirit to them that ask him? ... But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his justice: and all these things shall be added unto you.
[Luke 11:11-13, 12:31]

Yes, even to the most technical and dull gear and data and equations of the laboratory... All of those things also proclaim the glory of God, creator of heaven and earth:
And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard all saying: To him that sitteth on the throne and to the Lamb, benediction and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever.
[Apo/Rev 5:13]


P.S. I should add that the reason for calling the rosary the handheld lab of the Gospels is simply that by stepping through the various major episodes of the Life of Our Lord and concentrating on them slowly in a ritual (one might say "according to standard lab protocols) we advance into a greater knowledge and understanding of His life - a real life, in our real world, of which there is always more to See...

P.P.S. Above you will find the word "diligence". This is most often understood as meaning "careful" or something similar. I think it might be good to point out its original meaning is "to love, esteem"... we ought to pray and experiment from Love. This will sound goofy, if not downright silly - but that's because there is very little meaning left in "Love" in our day. What a shame. But don't you love to learn more about Reality? You should...

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Let's not forget we have a Foe!

It's the feast day of St. Michael - the day we ought to recall that we have a dangerous Foe working against us...

Speaking of Lucifer, one thinks of Michael, a name which means “who is like God.” It is also a hallowed shorthand, telling perhaps less of God than of Lucifer's daring and downfall. Lucifer wanted to play God. How an angel can do that is a question for which answers, very speculative to be sure, may be found in the writings of an Aquinas or a Maritain. All such answers rest on considering angelic nature, pure intellects, whose cognition has three main features. The mode of that cognition is intuitive, its origin is innate, and its operation is independent of things. The Cartesian theory of errorless human knowledge is expressed in exactly the same terms. It should not be surprising that a man, believing himself to be capable of knowing in such a way, should try to play God. Descartes tried to do this in the only sense in which a poor mortal can do it, namely, to dictate to God how to go about the business of creation.
[Jaki, Angels, Apes, and Men 15-16]

Let the scientific enquirer continue to cultivate the patience of science. Let him linger - at any rate let me linger - in the place of popular entertainment whatever it may be, and take very careful note (if necessary in a note-book) of the way in which ordinary human beings do really talk about each other. As he is a scientific enquirer with a note-book, it is very likely that he never saw any ordinary human beings before. But if he will listen carefully, he will observe a certain tone taken towards friends, foes and acquaintances; a tone which is, on the whole, creditably genial and considerate, though not, without strong likes and dislikes. He will hear abundant if sometimes bewildering allusion to the well-known weaknesses of Old George; but many excuses also, and a certain generous pride in conceding that Old George is quite the gentleman when drunk, or that he told the policeman off proper. Some celebrated idiot, who is always spotting winners that never, win, will be treated with almost tender derision; and, especially among the poorest, there will be a true Christian pathos in the reference to those who have been "in trouble" for habits like burglary and petty larceny. And as all these queer types are called up like ghosts by the incantation of gossip, the enquirer will gradually form the impression that there is one kind of man, probably only one kind of man, perhaps, only one man, who is really disliked. The voices take on quite a different tone in speaking of him; there is a hardening and solidification of disapproval and a new coldness in the air. And this will be all the more curious because, by the current modern theories of social or anti-social action, it will not be at all easy to say why he should be such a monster; or what exactly is the matter with him. It will be hinted at only in singular figures of speech, about a gentleman who is mistakenly convinced that he owns the street; or sometimes that he owns the earth. Then one of the social critics will say, "'E comes in 'ere and 'e thinks 'e's Gawd Almighty." Then the scientific enquirer will shut his note-book with a snap and retire from the scene, possibly after paying for any drinks he may have consumed in the cause of social science. He has got what he wanted. He has been intellectually justified. The man in the pub has precisely repeated, word for word, the theological formula about Satan.
[GKC "If I Only Had One Sermon to Preach" in The Common Man]

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle! Protect us, our families, our countries, and help us do our work well, to the glory of God. Do not let us walk into our labs or classrooms thinking we are God Almighty...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

GKC on the Mystery of Observation

I had no time to arrange a posting this week on our topic, so I will just give you this important excerpt from a Chesterton essay.
--Dr. Thursday

I have seen with my own eyes in print all the above explanations of the Sea-Serpent as seen by sailors. They are all perfectly plausible and typically modern; they all only forget one thing: that it would be just as easy to apply this distributive and disruptive process to any other object that had only been momentarily seen on some score of occasions. When first the giraffe was described by travellers it was treated as a lie. Now it is in the Zoological Gardens; but it still looks like a lie. If few save stray travellers had seen the thing, and if the scientists (for some muddle-headed reason of theirs) had decided to doubt it, it would have been quite easy for them to explain every alleged appearance in the same way. There might be a tall python with a stretched neck just behind a horse with a hidden and sunken head: this might give the impression of a quadruped with a dreadfully long neck. There might be an animal with a long nose and pointed ears peering from the top of a lonely and leafless tree: this might give the impression, in certain lights and shades, of a tall vertebral column terminating in an ovine face. There are no limits to these coincidences of illusion on land or at sea; but we have the right to ask two questions of those who actually use them as an argument against the possible existence of giraffes. We have a right to ask, first, why all these coincidences tend to create the image of a giraffe? And we have a right to ask, secondly, why the dickens there should not be such a thing as a giraffe?
[GKC ILN October 21 1911 CW29:176-7]

Yeah - interesting, even if humorous, isn't it?

Now, to help you out - kindly print these out in a nice, fairly large font, and post it somewhere for you and others to read and think about:

When first the giraffe was described by travellers it was treated as a lie.

Now it is in the Zoological Gardens; but it still looks like a lie.

--G. K. Chesterton, 1911

One of the severest tests
of a scientific mind
is to discern the limits
of the legitimate application
of scientific methods.

--J. C. Maxwell, 1878

Friday, September 2, 2011

In order to consider the Scientific Method, we must first consider what Science is

I wrote a lot yesterday, in the tactile sense (pen and paper) and have only just begun to transcribe it... it will come in fragments, just as it is fragmentary in its character. But it helps move us along. And so, let us begin...

In order to examine this topic of the "Scientific Method", we first need to consider what "Science" is. As big as our chosen topic is, as argumentative as it may be, the matter of "science" is even larger and more argumentative.
This is neither a New Thig, nor one which has arisen from the usual issues blamed for "new" things, such as:
1. The Renaissance
2. The Protestant Reformation
3. The "Enlightenment" (which some of us call the Endarkenment)
4. The "rise of science"
5. The Industrial Revolution
6. Quantum Mechanics
7. Modern - that is, 20th and 21st century life.
and so on...

Why? Simply because the question as to What Is Science dates as far back as the 1200s, or even further.

For over 800 years, people have been debating on "science" - its definitions, its divisions and order, its methods... and even more amazing, these were people who
1. were friends
2. were quite orthodox in their belief and behavior, and not in any sense "protestant" (Though I think they were Reformers in the best sense, that is, in the sense of John the Baptist: they not only wished but worked to reform their lives, which we are all called to do.)
3. were authentic believers but at the same time they were "scientists" (if I may be permitted to use the term before we've defined it - we computer scientists do this, and I will talk about that another time.)

That is, these people wished to consider seriously the reality of things and apply their intellects - and indeed their whole energy - to understanding at least a little of that reality.

(to be continued)

note: three references on this topic I have here with me are:

1. The Division and Method of the Sciences - St. Thomas Aquinas' commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, tr. Armand Maurer
2. Science and Creation inthe Middle Ages by Nicholas Steneck (this considers the work of Henry of Langenstein (d. 1397) on Genesis.
3. The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor tr. with notes by Jerome Taylor

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

An Important Comment

Alan Aversa posted the following comment which is worth its own entry in our records:

This site has a whole collection of his online works. There is also a very nice OCRed and formatted PDF version of his La théorie physique, son objet, sa structure (1906).

Paul Needham has just produced the first full-length translation of one of Pierre Duhem's scientific works: Commentary on the Principles of Thermodynamics by Pierre Duhem. From its preface:
Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem (1861–1916) held the chair of physics (changed to chair of theoretical physics in 1895) at Bordeaux from 1894 to his death. He established a reputation in both the history and philosophy of science as well as in science (physics and physical chemistry). His pioneering work in medieval science opened up the area as a new discipline in the history of science, and his La théorie physique (Duhem 1906) is a classic in the philosophy of science which is still read and discussed today. Although his work in these two fields is now well represented in English with a number of translations that have appeared in recent decades (Duhem 1892b, 1903, 1902, 1905–1906, 1906, 1908, 1915, 1985, 1996), there is little of his scientific work available in English. The original manuscript of Duhem (1898) was translated by J. E. Trevor, one of the editors of The Journal of Physical Chemistry, for its first issue. But his work almost invariably appeared in French. The present volume contains translations of some of his important early work in thermodynamics, which I hope will contribute to a more balanced picture in English of the breadth of Duhem’s publications and provide a further source of insight into his thought.

Thanks, Alan! I've not had time to check any of this out, perhaps later. I would like to learn French also, but I have no time. Besides, PD's work is too important for it to remain in French.

Friday, August 26, 2011

About what we have seen... or haven't seen

So, Doctor (you are thinking to yourself) with all this odd meditation about reason and faith (or trust) and principles, have you not lost your way? Aren't you trying to understand a little more about the scientific method? Or have you decided to write about something else?

Thank you, my dear reader. you are helping me stay on track. but I do wish to point out, that for me, like Chesterton, "My trouble is that I never can really feel that there is such a thing as a different subject. There is no such thing as an irrelevant thing in the universe; for all things in the universe are at least relevant to the universe." [GKC ILN Feb 17 1906 CW27:125-6] Which is another one of those priceless gems we ought to keep as a lovely posting on the walls of our labs and classrooms, whether they be philosophy or physics, theology or automata theory...

But really I rather expected you to quote Chesterton's famous groan from his readers: "But why does Mr. Chesterton drag in his Roman Catholicism?" [See GKC's The Thing CW3:227]

Yeah - why does Dr. Thursday always drag in HIS Roman Catholicism? Well... today, I will annoy you even more, and drag in, not a papal encyclical, but two other curious source books. Even if you are not annoyed you will be surprised.

The first is to be found among the very remarkable collection of texts classed as "Children's Fantasy" or "Fairy Tale". We know that this is wise, since no less an authority than GKC relies on these for building his argumentation about science and other matters - an argument which is well worth your study. It is found in the chapter called "The Ethics of Elfland" in his 1908 masterwork called Orthodoxy. Note that a sizeable chunk of that chapter was quoted in the 1957 work called Great Essays in Science, edited by the very famous Martin Gardner. The anomaly of this is discussed at length in Jaki's Chesterton: A Seer of Science, a book that every scientist and philosopher ought to have, and ought to read periodically, as a sanity check. If someday (please God) our Duhem Society becomes a tangible reality, I hope we might have an entire conference on this book. It ought to be germinating, and fructifying into new and useful things...

But, as I said, I wish to examine a line from one particular text, and no, it is not Chesterton, nor Jaki, nor Gardner. It is from the work of another famous children's writer, E. Nesbit, and it is incredibly relevant to our topic - in some ways, it is the entirety of our topic, even though it is nothing more than a question. Believe me, I was stunned when I read it. Here it is:

"Do you think there's nothing in the world but what you've seen?"
[E. Nesbit, The Enchanted Castle, 16-7]
Well... we might just write Q.E.D., dust off our hands, and proceed to the next topic. But we won't, since there's more to say, and another item from another book to consider.

So let's take it again, slowly: Do we think there's nothing in the world but what we've seen? Well... let's be honest, which is the First Virtue of a scientist. The obvious answer is No - we are certain - more certain perhaps of this truth than of any other - that there is more, indeed, far more, in the world than what we have seen. And my God, we ought to be happy, grateful, joyful beyond words. The old maps were wrong: ne plus ultra = "nothing more beyond" was just a bit of tongue-in-cheek hubris on the part of the map-maker. We may not have travelled to the last shores, the "final frontier" - but we've already seen such sights as to beckon onwards to ever-new vistas. Science writ large... it is that glorious line from Newman:
There is but one thought greater than that of the universe, and that is the Thought of its Maker.
[Newman, The Idea of a University Part II Chapter VIII Christianity and Scientific Investigation, 3]
(Yes, if time permits, we shall examine that chapter - indeed, that book in detail, but not today. Let us proceed.)

If we are honest, we scientists will admit to being very childlike. Consider this very insightful comment about children's literature, and see what it reveals about scientific literature:
A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales - because they find them romantic.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:257]
Scientists like realistic tales - yes, because we find them romantic. Did I not quote for you that other famous line from the same book about "The greatest of poems is an inventory." [Ibid CW1:267] Is there not some mystic magic in the Periodic Table, or in the vast splendors of biological taxonomy? Of course... and they reveal to us things that we have not yet seen. How many chemists believe in praseodymium - or in californium? Have you seen them? Or biologists - even marine biologists - who have seen the glories of the orders of cubomedusae and stauromedusae and antipatharia?

Perhaps Jesus also referred to us scientists when He told Thomas that "blessed are they that have not seen and have believed." [John 20:29]

We have more - much more - to say on this, since as we have pointed out, this is our topic. But we need to clarify the topic before we can hope to proceed.

Now, alas - I must muddy the waters, for I will turn from the sound and simple lore of children's books to a thoroughly technical reference dictionary on archaeology, edited by Ruth Whitehouse. No, I am not going to be critical - or at least not of that text; I am not in any position to critique it. Rather, I want to quote a wonderful line I found in it, a line which bears directly upon our topic, and is in some way the corollary to the Nesbit question mentioned above. (It also is very Chestertonian, and I may try to give a short excursus on that in a future post, it deserves it.) The line appeas in the entry for model, and is definitely an editorial augmentation, but its truth is inarguable, and it deserves to be highlighted, considered, remembered:
...all archaeological processes are strictly untestable, because they have already happened...
[Whitehouse, ed. The Facts On File Dictionary of Archaeology, 332]
That statement reveals so much - as I said, the counterpoint to the Nesbit dictum. There are certain things which are going to be forever out of our reach.

But blessed are we who have not seen, and yet believe... Such is Science. Clearly we have much to disentangle, but we need to keep these ideas very clearly in front of us, lest we fall by pride into thinking we have seen everything, or can test everything. Thank God for Maxwell, who told us to seek out the limits of the scientific method - and if we are to do that, we need to understand just what it is we are doing.

We'll stop here; there's a lot to think about. I hope you will ponder these matters, and find yourself stimulated to a greater enthusiasm in our work.

Friday, August 19, 2011

"Take my word for it"

Yes, we are continuing our discussion of the "Scientific Method" - and I understand that so far I have only given what might be a disjoint collection of notes that might get worked up into something more coherent someday. I ought to reassure you: I do have some ideas on getting to the topic in a more "scientific" fashion, but I prefer to give you some jottings now, lest I get busy again, and lose the opportunity.

Indeed, I am quite aware of the central lacuna: the fact that I have not yet even stated what this "Scientific Method" is! Though you may have some ideas, and are of course enough of a scholar to understand the absic sense of these two words joined together: A "method" is something "a way (metHOD comes from Greek hodos = "way") or technique or approach to getting something done - and "scientific" obviously means that whatever is getting done is getting done in one of the branches of Science - physics, chemistry,and so on. But no, we are still not ready to define it yet.

Rather, I want to examine a different word today - that pesky word "faith" which always comes up, either directly or indirectly - and is present, either obviously or latently, in everything. As we well know, the problem that arises in treating of the matter of "faith" comes from it being a stand-in pronoun or assumed euphemism for "religion" or "worship" - something abstract and personal, and hence not useful for "getting something done" - which is what Science (and a fortiori Engineering) is all about.

But really, we need to begin to see "faith" as having a solidity like a foundation - something providing a greater agreement, not a greater quarrel - and it may help if we take one of its synonyms and consider using a word like "trust" or "confidence".

You might not like that last, since it is a sneaky way of hiding faith in a Latin disguise (fide). That's all right - then stick with "trust". Now, let us proceed.

Very much of our lives - and very much of Science and Engineering - depends upon Trust. That is, accepting the truth of a statement - whether from a person (verbally) or from a publication (in print, be it tactile or electronic) - for no other reason than we trust that source as being reliable. I have already pointed out that every one of us begins our work by relying upon a very large foundation of unquestioned truths, namely the complex system we call "language". Coupled with language is another, rather vague system - which I feel must be compared rather like the vagus nerve compares with the spinal cord - it handles some very critical matters which are not exactly language, but are not entirely separated from it either. The usual term for this system is "common sense", though I may be abusing the term. Chesterton often refers to it under that name, though sometimes he calls it "logic". It is somehow allied with the nature of "semantics" - with the basic meanings of words, not so much inthe pure grammatical sense, but in the reasoning sense. It is why we know there's something wrong (or funny) about the phrase "eating a lavender adverb" and so forth. To frame this point another way: we receive from our parents and elementary teachers our own native speaking and writing tongue. (There's a curious juxtaposition, isn't it? a "writing tongue".) But we also receive a treasury of information - some of it received perhaps from chance interactions as children, some from our own experiences (and more on that another time, since it leads to our major topic!) But it is received, and we take it as given.


It is enshrined in a famous phrase. "Take my word for it." This is what we do, simply because we are in need. Now, it would be delightful to go into how this ties into Subsidiarity - since it is precisely here that even as children we invoke that great principle, appealing to another to supply us in our needs - but that will take us too far afield. Let us remain in the idea of taking someone's word - and consider that a little more regarding our topic, that of Trust.

Now, that trust may be just as reliable in an unbeliever as in a believer - and that trust may point in either direction, never relying upon or being defeated by any particular issue of religious belief or form of worship:
I am an atheist; I have no god to call on for those who will not take my word. But I tell you in the name of every root of honour that may be left to a soldier and a man...
[GKC "The Resurrection Of Father Brown" in The Incredulity of Father Brown]
What, then, is required? As we examine the matter, it seems to me to require three attributes:

1. The words of the statement must actually communicate something meaningful, that is, by the suporting foundation of the already-accepted system of language.

The first truth involved is a truism, but a truism often as little understood as any mystery. It is that the artist is a person who communicates something. He may communicate it more or less easily and quickly; he may communicate it to a larger or smaller number of people. But it is a question of communication and not merely of what some people call expression. Or rather, strictly speaking, unless it is communication it is not expression. A signalman cannot be said to express the fact that the Scotch Express is coming from York, if he communicates the fact that it has broken down at Newcastle. A messenger cannot be said to express his sorrow at a king having been shot, if he only succeeds in communicating the news that he has been crowned. The word "expression" implies that something appears as what it really is; and that the thing that is recognised outside is the same that has been realised inside.
[GKC ILN Nov 27 1926 CW34:206-7]

2. The concept must form a unity with our understanding of Reality according to "common sense".

...the line between legitimate and illegitimate expansion of a word is so difficult to draw, that there is little to be gained by questioning it except that mere quarrel about a word that is called logomachy. There always are some confusions about a definition or exceptions to a rule. The great principle that Pigs is Pigs does not dispose entirely of the existence of pig-iron, or of cannibals calling a man a long pig. We all know the plain practical man, the sceptic in the crowd, the atheist on the soap-box, who boasts that he calls a spade a spade, and generally calls it a spyde. But even he may have to deal with the learned and sophisticated man, who will prove to him, that even in the case of the ace of spades which he planks down in playing poker, the spade is not really a spade; being derived from the Spanish espada, a sword. If once we begin to quibble and quarrel about what words ought to mean, or can be made to mean, we shall find ourselves in a mere world of words, most wearisome to those who are concerned with thoughts.
[GKC "The Hound of Heaven" in The Common Man]

3. The person giving this statement must be trustworthy. Typically there must be some reason for us to grant, at least provisionally, the dignity of listening to what the man has to say. Often, that's because we have already had experience with that speaker, and have found him reliable in the past - and as we find our trust validated, we gain an increasing respect for his accuracy. (Even when on rare instances we find he has made a mistake in his statement, we are more willing to let it pass - but that is also another topic.)

When your father told you, walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet, you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence. When the rose smelt sweet you did not say "My father is a rude, barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truths that flowers smell." No: you believed your father, because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you truth to-morrow, as well as to-day. And if this was true of your father, it was even truer of your mother; at least it was true of mine...
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:360]

Yes, I know I quoted that before, but it's well worth pondering. We do find our reliance growing as the statements of an authority are verified, again and again, by experience... and this is something we will consider more later.

Now, it is well worth pausing here and considering something - again, something unusual, which is all to easy to overlook - that is, the idea of trusting ourselves. It would be quite as dangerous to Science (and to many other things) if we somehow factor ourselves INTO the equations or experiments...

Pride consists in a man making his personality the only test, instead of making the truth the test. It is not pride to wish to do well, or even to look well, according to a real test. It is pride to think that a thing looks ill, because it does not look like something characteristic of oneself. Now in the general clouding of clear and abstract standards, there is a real tendency today for a young man (and even possibly a young woman) to fall back on that personal test, simply for lack of any trustworthy impersonal test. No standard being sufficiently secure for the self to be moulded to suit it, all standards may be moulded to suit the self. But the self as a self is a very small thing and something very like an accident. Hence arises a new kind of narrowness; which exists especially in those who boast of breadth. The sceptic feels himself too large to measure life by the largest things; and ends by measuring it by the smallest thing of all.
[GKC "If I Only Had One Sermon to Preach" in The Common Man]

Also, in our delight with machines - oh, how silly we are, using these machines to communicate, and yet we can also find reliance in them, just as we do not stop at every bridge to check its stability - and what tools might we use? How would we check those tools? Well, we need to consider another of Chesterton's warnings, from his famous detective story about the "lie detector":
"...Isn't that better evidence than a lot of gabble from witnesses: the evidence of a reliable machine? "

"You always forget," observed his companion, "that the reliable machine always has to be worked by an unreliable machine."

"Why, what do you mean?" asked the detective.

"I mean Man," said Father Brown, "the most unreliable machine I know of."
[GKC "The Mistake of the Machine" in The Wisdom of Father Brown]

Let us conclude with this brilliant observation:
Science can analyse a pork-chop, and say how much of it is phosphorus and how much is protein; but science cannot analyse any man's wish for a pork-chop, and say how much of it is hunger, how much custom, how much nervous fancy, how much a haunting love of the beautiful. The man's desire for the pork-chop remains literally as mystical and ethereal as his desire for heaven. All attempts, therefore, at a science of any human things, at a science of history, a science of folk-lore, a science of sociology, are by their nature not merely hopeless, but crazy. You can no more be certain in economic history that a man's desire for money was merely a desire for money than you can be certain in hagiology that a saint's desire for God was merely a desire for God. And this kind of vagueness in the primary phenomena of the study is an absolutely final blow to anything in the nature of a science. Men can construct a science with very few instruments, or with very plain instruments; but no one on earth could construct a science with unreliable instruments. A man might work out the whole of mathematics with a handful of pebbles, but not with a handful of clay which was always falling apart into new fragments, and falling together into new combinations. A man might measure heaven and earth with a reed, but not with a growing reed.
[GKC Heretics CW1:117]

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Our First Contest

(I ought to have done this yesterday, for Fr. Jaki's birthday; I apologise.)

Announcing the first contest of the Duhem Society!

The Genesis One Contest

As we all know, the first chapter of Genesis is the summary or "Great Creation" story - as compared to that in Genesis 2 which talks mostly about Adam and Eve and the garden. We also know that this is one of the major bones of contention when it comes to any sort of discussion about science (writ either large or small) and faith (also writ either large or small). It's sad, since (as GKC might say) it's stingless for the most orthodox. Ah well. Perhaps you already have a copy of SLJ's Genesis One Through the Ages, which gives a great deal of interesting information about the topic; as with most such topics, it comes up in many of SLJ's books. You also ought to have read (or at least seen our posting) about the very critical comments by St. Augustine from his own work on the topic - see here for the reference.

Anyway, the contest is a rather tongue-in-cheek affair, though one which ought to be attempted by every serious Historian of Science, just as a corrective against assuming too much - or too little. It is a writing exercise, and yet it should be fun, and very interesting and instructive.

Here it is:
The Genesis One Contest

Write a comprehensive statement of Creation which includes all things, and indicates not only the entire system of physical things, but also stresses their origin. (Who, and How - you decide how to proportion it all, as long as What is "everything" = "all things visible and invisible".)

You may use whatever style you wish, but you are restricted to under 759 words - which is (at least by one estimate) the number of words in Genesis One. You need not work out a division into verses, unless of course you use a poetic form.

In order to enter, you may submit it to me by e-mail (see my "profile" for the e-address), or you may post it on your own blogg, then send me a link to it. If you use e-mail, let me know whether you will permit your entry to be posted on our Society blogg.

Note that this exercise is not to prove anything (except perhaps to you, the entrant). We will not impose historico-critical analysis, or doctrinal verity, or any of those formalisms to your submission; you must be the final arbiter: when you are done you will have to find yourself satisfied - and be able to say as God did, that it is indeed VERY good. (If you're not, wait a year, revise it, and try again!)

Due by September 23 - that is, Before the Fall. (hee hee)

An aside: if you think that this seems to suggest that there might be more to Genesis One than a rather liturgical "emphasis on the seven-day week and the holiness of the Sabbath" - well, I think that's plain, especially once one reads the relevant chapter. But then SLJ does say a lot more than that; it's always a matter of emphasis. And let's not forget what St. Augustine says about it!) Maybe it's because I'm an architect of systems, and that last line about how God saw the System of All Things as very good... well, you write enough fiction (or software), and you'll begin to understand that such writing is a lot different than purely academic commentary. I am sure it will be a shock to some, but there is such a thing as Reality. Ahem. But that's just an aside.

I hope this will be an annual activity. Please enter early and often. I make no guarantees about any sort of prizes, but I am sure the fun you have writing it, and the fun we'll have reading it will be worth more. Perhaps someday when we have our journal, we'll also be able to have real (tangible) prizes.

Friday, August 12, 2011

How dare you!

What! A computer scientist is trying to write about the Scientific Method - and examine it with respect to history and to both theory and practice? Is he crazy?

Oh, yes, I can hear the whines - they're not loud, but they're there:
"You're not a philosopher - and you're certainly not a historian of science, even if you read Jaki and Duhem. You're barely a scientist at all, even if you do have a doctorate in computer science. You're just a programmer."
Ahem. That's sad, but it won't work. You see, I am a Catholic, with all that implies: specifically, that I am interested in everything. Chesterton puts it quite boldly:
You cannot evade the issue of God; whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him. Now if Christianity be a fragment of metaphysical nonsense invented by a few people, then, of course, defending it will simply mean talking that metaphysical nonsense over and over again. But if Christianity should happen to be true - that is to say, if its God is the real God of the universe - then defending it may mean talking about anything or everything. Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true. Zulus, gardening, butchers’ shops, lunatics asylums, housemaids and the French Revolution - all these things not only may have something to do with the Christian God, but must have something to do with Him if He really lives and reigns.
[GKC Daily News Dec. 12, 1903 quoted in Maycock, The Man Who Was Orthodox]
This splendid idea ought to be posted in every lab and office and classroom. Of course it is expressed in what some call GKC's "verbal fireworks" - but it is really an idea nearly two millennia older, since St. Paul said the same thing to the Colossians:
That their hearts may be comforted, being instructed in charity and unto all riches of fulness of understanding, unto the knowledge of the mystery of God the Father and of Christ Jesus: in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
[Col 2:2-3, emphasis added]
Moreover: there was a movie some years back which seemed to portray a certain supposedly well-rounded person - a man of widely (and wildly) diverse interests - as a "Renaissance Man". That's interesting - but after some thought, and some recent reading, I prefer the term Medieval Man. That's why I told my friends at work,when they wanted to know how I managed to solve such curious computing problems like spot transport for a cable TV company by using encyclicals by Leo XIII and John Paul II. Oh yes - I quoted Chesterton to them:
I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.
[GKC Heretics CW1:46]
Note: this says doctrinal methods - not the merely the physical aspects of that era. So that does not mean writing my computer programs on parchment from my own goats, using a quill I plucked from my geese and ink I made from the soot in my chimney! (hee hee)

It means finding out WHAT IS GOING ON, and WHY - it is answering the ancient question Dic cur hic = "tell why you are here" - as Father Jaki liked to say, inquiring as to the Purpose of It All. Otherwise, I am not even a programmer: I am wandering blind in a forest at night, looking for a haystack to probe for lost needles, and I might not even be on the same planet as the desired haystack!

Now. (Ahem!) If all this means trying to learn more about this "scientific method" by examining all its various detailed antecedents when it is applied, so be it. Some of those details are not easy to see, you know, and it is no insult to other great students of these matters to hint that they may have missed something. We all miss something; we are not the mythical thousand-eyed Argus.

Or are we?

Well... that's part of the mystery that is being overlooked. (no pun intended!)

In fact, that's at the root of the point I made last week about Tradition and Appeal To Authority - but we must not rush up that steep slope. We have more to say before we get to it. But at least I've dropped the hint.

Now, about this term "Catholic". Remember that it is from the Greek, and means "universal". People love to talk about "multicultural" and "being tolerant" - such terms do make me chuckle, for of course despite their narrow bias they give a glaringly brilliant bow to Ancient Rome and the power of her Latin. The Catholic vision is far larger. It envisions ALL things: it is universal, all-inclusive, but not simply as a multitude of varieties, nor in the semi-pagan "Vulcan" philosophical views. Truth is one, but since there is One Truth, there is also error, and it is not a matter of tolerance or universality to suggest including errors as part of Truth.

That does not mean we ignore error - but at the same time we do not confound error with truth, just as a physician does not confound illness with health. There are entire branches of the various disciplines devoted to the study - not of error-as-such, but in the sense of How Things Go Wrong. Theology makes lists of heresies, Medicine has pathology and teratology and such related studies; Engineering tracks famous and infamous disasters - and so forth. Obviously, when something goes wrong, one needs to first identify what is wrong, in order to know what remedy to apply, etc...

But let us not drift too far. Yes, this begins to smack of epistemology, that is, the study of Knowledge. Of course: you see, to a Medieval Man, the great Edifice of Knowledge is one building, and each of its halls come into contact with many others.

Perhaps I ought to suggest another image - we shall use both as we proceed - the image of the Diamond. Its brilliance comes from the multitude of its many facets, and in our Diamond, every facet is one of the disciplines, and it touches or receives light from many others. This is a wonderful thing, and while it may be exceedingly hard (10 on the Moh scale of hardness) - indeed, unconquerable (the meaning of the Greek word) - it is lovely, and desirable, and rare, and stands for indeed mystical things.

There is one other analogy to offer - that is the analogy called "The Tree of Virtues". This is an organizational method going right back into the Middle Ages: an intellectual device (we computer scientists call it a "data structure") for managing the huge variety of virtues, that is, or the good and positive powers of the human person. You can find it in books like The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor from the 1120s, or in the commentaries on Boethius of St. Thomas Aquinas (mid 1200s) or the writing of Henry of Langenstein (died 1397). You can also find it in something called Cursus Theologicus from Salamanca, one edition of which has an immense diagram that looks much like a modern-day "org chart" or perhaps a system diagram - or like the "Chart of the Metabolic Processes":

(Image courtesy of A. Poole at Loome Books.)

Another time we'll talk more about this tree - for today I merely want to point out that this "Tree of Virtues", like the diamond, or the Edifice of Knowledge, is a tool - like the org chart - to help us see the Complete Picture of the system. Science does not only have branches: it also has supporting trunks and roots. It is well that we do not miss the forest, or even the tree, while we stand in fascination at our one single favourite chloroplast...

* * * * *

Postscript. I must say one more thing, even if it is personal, and even if it means revealing one of my professional secrets. Yes, I am a programmer - but in order to be a programmer, I must also be all the things for all the disciplines which request my services. I do not lose my identity; I take on the tasks and abilities of the user who needs my help, and then unite that need to the incredibly severe limits of this odd little machine, and then produce the series of instructions, just as a cook writes a recipe. Yes, it can be written at a desk, but it demands the existence of a kitchen... This is another topic for another time, oh yes indeed. But do not think that a programmer doesn't have to be aware of the other fields! Indeed, since computer science is really just a branch of mathematics, the queen and handmaid of Science, it must deal with many other matters. These are truly catholic (note the lower-case) fields, but then as a Medieval Man, I agree with Chesterton:
I never can really feel that there is such a thing as a different subject. There is no such thing as an irrelevant thing in the universe; for all things in the universe are at least relevant to the universe.
[GKC ILN Feb 17 1906 CW27:126]
No matter what your own discipline, you will find more to enjoy, and more to think about, and more assistance for your own topics, once you begin to be catholic in that way - when you revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century.

(In case you are wondering: yes, that cable TV system got something done by taking advantage of Subsidiarity. In the 5.5 years it ran, about 200,000 commercials were sent out (when needed) to over 170 inserters, going to six of these on the average. Further details when my book comes out.)

Another note. Upon re-reading this, I am not sure that I've used the right capitalizations each time the word "Catholic" appears. However, that's part of the point. To what extent the two are coupled is a topic for another series of postings, but let no reader fear. There must be professional respect, and courtesy - and even more, there must be love of neighbor. The related issues - forms of worship, dogmatic teachings, organizational structures - are topics to be discussed, but ought not impede us from our work. (Yes, I am well aware of their treatment in Fr. Jaki's writing; that is also another topic for a future date.) For me, they provide a unity which enables a vaster view and a more enthusiastic labor...

Just a quick example. The very common concept of "hierarchy" - which may suggest the elegant system of layman-priest-bishop-Pope - is quite demonstrably Jewish in origin. It is a powerful and elegant and effective scheme of organization, and it was suggested to Moses by Jethro his father-in-law! See Exodus 18:21-22; this is indeed the basis of Subsidiarity and of all such related organizational methods.

Friday, August 5, 2011

About the Scientific Method

This year we note the 45th anniversary of the publication of Jaki's first book, The Relevance of Physics. In it he quotes a fundamental epigram from one of the greatest physicists, a statement which we ought to learn by heart, and post in our labs and offices and classrooms:
One of the severest tests of a scientific mind is to discern the limits of the legitimate application of scientific methods.
[SLJ TROP 382 quoting J. C. Maxwell, "Paradoxical Philosophy" (1878), reprinted in The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, edited by W. D. Niven, II (Cambridge, 1890), p. 759.]
And, we might add, one of the severest tests of a member of the Duhem Society is to explain just what these "scientific methods" are, as well as those limitations. Otherwise, we are either (1) doing magic, since there is no causal relation underlying our work, or (2) working mechanically, and all our work is just as natural as a ticking clock.

I think the problem arises from the very popular but quite mistaken notion that there is something "scientific" - that is, akin to a mathematical proof-system - underlying the idea of "scientific method", and that this formal hidden substructure gives an unarguable truth to all matters resulting from or derived from these methods.

Wow, and people talk about believing things without any reason?

The simple fact is that science is just as much a matter of faith as every other thing we do - our Master, G. K. Chesterton, put it in one of his great epigrams which belongs up there with Maxwell's:
It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:236]
Now, this is very irritating to some, but then they are making what the philosophers call "a fallacy of equivocation". They think that because I and GKC and SLJ and PD and a large number of others state that "reason is itself a matter of faith", this means reason (and hence science) is therefore chained or enslaved to a particular religious system, probably Roman Catholicism.

Oh my. We could talk THAT - I mean, about the connections between Science (writ large) and Roman Catholicism for quite a while, considering that is a good deal of what Duhem and Jaki (and Chesterton) wrote about. But that is an interesting sidetrack we'll reserve for some future conference. For today, I will just say NO THAT IS NOT WHAT I MEAN AT ALL! [See note at end]

I will use the argumentational device the medievals called distinguo = "I distinguish". I distinguish "faith" as here meaning "an assertion of the intellect about the truth of something without either (1) direct sensory experience or (2) proof by mathematical rules". (As opposed to "faith" standing as a sort of pronoun or variable or place-holder for "a particular system of worship or religious practices".)

It is obvious on the face of it that we cannot "experience" reason even as we do it - it's there, like time, and we accept it as binding matters together from our experience or from our memory - but we neither "experience" it as a sense-impression, nor do we "prove" it by theorems and axioms.

This issue is tied to the idea of "tradition" especially as it touches faith in the other sense, meaning a system of religious practices, or even to topics like politics. It touches - or rather, rests firmly upon a very strong foundation, which some will find even more objectionable - the idea of the Appeal To Authority - since again they will leap to the conclusion that I am talking about the Pope. Not just now! Very simply, we take Authority as a given just as much as we take "Proof" or even "Sense-Experience".

Why? Because we have to. We always have to.

For very good reasons, too. Without Tradition and Authority, we would be completely mute. Language itself is neither sensory nor proveable. We do not "sense" language, nor do we "prove" language. We take it Upon Authority. We were taught it by authorities, and its usefulness is borne out in countless ways as we proceed with our lives - it is not a debatable matter.

We could go on and on about this, but I have no time today. Indeed, this is a clue to the next step in our discussion. You might want to think about that, but I'll give you a hint.

Just consider this very interesting bit of Chesterton, and we'll see whether I can continue this discussion at some future time...
When your father told you, walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet, you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence. When the rose smelt sweet you did not say "My father is a rude, barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truths that flowers smell." No: you believed your father, because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you truth to-morrow, as well as to-day. And if this was true of your father, it was even truer of your mother; at least it was true of mine...
Exactly because when my mother said that ants bit they did bite, and because snow did come in winter (as she said); therefore the whole world was to me a fairyland of wonderful fulfilments, and it was like living in some Hebraic age, when prophecy after prophecy came true. I went out as a child into the garden, and it was a terrible place to me, precisely because I had a clue to it: if I had held no clue it would not have been terrible, but tame. A mere unmeaning wilderness is not even impressive. But the garden of childhood was fascinating, exactly because everything had a fixed meaning which could be found out in its turn.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:360-1]
And in the same way, we take ideas like "the scientific method" and "reason" upon Authority. This is excellent; we therefore have powerful tools, indeed tools of almost unimaginable capability to use in our work, and we are thereby enabled to advance in knowledge. And recall that knowledge in Latin is scientia. Our Science (writ large) is nothing more than knowledge about Reality, and since we cannot expect to live long enough to do Every Conceivable Experiment - nor even to invent our own language (like Tolkien) so as to truly express ourselves in our own way - it is quite fitting that we base our work upon Tradition (as in language) and Authority (as in texts and reference works).

Let me suggest a fun piece of homework to consider. If one was to deny all this, what could be suggested as a replacement? (Be careful; it's a trick question.)

* * *

Note at End: One does not "stop" doing mathematics when one does physics or chemistry, as if these things were kept in two different rooms. One might not be working directly on a theorem (call it "performing active mathematics") when one is in the lab with equipment - but one is still aware of the theorem, acting in some way as a strong support in one's mind... it is in some sense the same for the Scientist who is a practicing Believer. One might not be praying (call it "performing active religion") in the lab with equipment, but... well, think about this. The idea is that we may have a reminder of why we work with us, and this serves to strengthen us as we work. One cannot stop being human in order to be a scientist. (You WILL get hungry, and tired.) There's more to this topic, and perhaps we shall consider it another time.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Plans of His Heart...

I wish I had the time to write the posting - well, the book - that deserves to be written about today's feast, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It would give many reference to Father Jaki, but would also contain material from books which it appears he (like so many priests and bishops) never examined - books on developmental anatomy. These texts ought to be sources for truly deep and powerful meditations upon the mystery of the God-Man, Jesus - and, naturally, upon the mystery of Man the species, to which we belong.

Jesus was still an embryo of perhaps a month old - probably Mary had been with Elizabeth for three weeks by now - when His Heart began to beat. This needs to be considered at length... Unfortunately, I don't have time to go into it at any length today, so if you have a library at hand, please go hunt for a book on developmental anatomy (the one I have is by Arey) and check it out.

But perhaps you are wondering about that title. Well, that's from the Psalms, rather from the Divine Office, also called the Liturgy of the Hours. That version (whatever translation it may be) gives it as Psalm 33:
He frustrates the designs of the nations,
He defeats the plans of the peoples.
His own designs shall stand for ever,
The plans of His heart from age to age.
[from Ps 33 Morning Prayer, Tuesday of Week I]
Why is that relevant to us, to scientists? Because those plans include matters of science, not only theology or philosophy. This is not a mere truism about the formation of the cardiac structures and hemopoiesis (that is the Making of Blood). It was told us by St. Paul:
That their hearts may be comforted, being instructed in charity and unto all riches of fulness of understanding, unto the knowledge of the mystery of God the Father and of Christ Jesus: In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. [Col 2:2-3]
In Jaki's wonderful little volume on the LItany of the Sacred heart, you will find a good starting point - no, it won't have lots of footnotes to medieval or modern scientific works, but it has something even more important. It reveals some very interesting matters about the devotion to the Sacred Heart, matters which deserve a fuller treatment by our Society, since they concern thinking men of faith and reason, for anyone who is interested in the foundations of Science Writ Large - and also who may be concerned with the state of our sad and fallen world. This devotion to the Incarnate Love of God offers much hope, which we need very badly, and gives us many seeds for growing new gardens, no, new orchards of fruitful produce, not only in the direction of spirituality, but also in more confident science and more robust and effective engineering...
Hardly more than a hundred years old as approved for public use, the Litany of the Sacred Heart has, of course, a much older history. In the Introduction that history is traced out as it developed from a Litany of seventeen invocations to one with twenty-seven, and finally to our Litany with thirty-three invocations. While this development is not without importance of its own, attention is best focused on the spiritual factors and efforts that lie behind it. Especially noteworthy should seem the connection of the approval of the Litany for public use with events that prompted Pope Leo XIII to decide on the consecration of the entire world to the Sacred Heart, which took place on June 10,1899. This act Leo XIII called "the greatest act of his pontificate."
[SLJ The Litany of the Sacred Heart introduction]
Indeed. the greatest of more than 25 years of serious, difficult work! (Another day we shall examine the parallels between Leo XIII and John Paul II - they are striking.)

God will not be frustrated. He is worth our trust, or we could not reason about anything, be it ontology or automata, stars or quarks or turtles or halogens...

Let us remember, and add this line to our Great Epigrams:
the Plans of His Heart shall stand forever...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Atrocious Neglect

I apologise - I have neglected to post on the 150th anniversary of the birth of Pierre Duhem. All I can do is post something on this great solemnity, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, which was one of his very own feast days.

Hence, in partial reparation, I will quote one of Jaki's less-well-known encomiums of our great Master. (Remember, "encomium" means a formal or literary sort of compliment; it's one of SLJ's favourite words.) The excerpt is significant, and makes me long to meet an enthusiastic scholar who is willing to translate the Duhem works into English. (I would also like to meet someone who will finance the re-publication, both a French and an English edition... someday perhaps, God willing.)

Modern culture seems to be in the throes of an unbridled quantification, in which individuals are on the road to becoming mere numbers, if not mere holes in punch cards.[note 1] As in any crisis, the extremist remedies are here very much in evidence. Side by side with those who decry science as a perversion of "naturalness" are those who want everybody and everything to be ruled by science. To strike a middle course, as sanity demands, between the extremes of romantic primitiveness (if not illusory anarchism) and of dehumanizing scientism, one must be fully aware of the limitations of scientific method.[note 2] This is not an easy task. To cope with it there are several avenues, of which one, that of historical studies, should have special appeal. History is a great equalizer. Sooner or later it cuts all things and all men down to their true size. Science looms up as a savior only for those whose familiarity with it is restricted to what Duhem so aptly called "the gossip of the moment." Those who are brave enough to look past the popular but ephemeral truths of the day will find in history a most instructive teacher. The history of physical science can indeed forcefully show its student that myths are present in science no less than in other areas that owe so much to science for the reduction of their myths.

Recognition of this may be a humbling experience in a scientific age such as ours; yet it is indispensable if science is to become man's servant rather than his tyrant. Those who pondered much on the proper range of scientific theory and enriched their analysis of it with a wealth of historical illustration have rendered a most valuable service to the cause of culture. Indeed, if the liberating message about the limitations of scientific method is gaining a firm foothold today, a large share of the credit should go to Duhem. His philosophical analysis of the aim and structure of physical theory and (especially) his pioneering studies in the history of science display an increasing timeliness, or rather an enduring humanistic freshness. No wonder. Duhem for all his devotion to scholarly and scientific investigations was visibly animated by a dedication to his fellow men, whom he wanted to assist in their groping toward a more robust, more balanced, and more satisfying formulation of truth.
[SLJ Introduction to Duhem's To Save the Phenomena7 translated by Edmund Doland and Chaninah Maschler, xxv-xxvi]

Note 1: this was written for the 1969 edition, when computers were still primarily worked by "punch-cards." Today's reader can substitute something like:
"...a collection of redundant entries misfiled in an overly designed relational database..."
"...a collection of mostly unrelated and probably inaccurate files distributed among the INTERNET 'cloud'..."

Note 2: One of the Major Quotes, given to us by no less than Maxwell, found in several of SLJ's books, and which we ought to memorize:
The most difficult test for a scientific mind is to recognize the limitations of the scientific method.
[from JCM's review, in Nature (1879), of Paradoxical Philosophy, reprinted in his Scientific Papers, vol. 1, p. 759]

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Science and the Ascension

I had a debate as to whether to post this on my own blogg or here. It is cases like this when we can thank God for George Boole, and so we can say "YES" to such "or" types of questions. Hee hee. (That's the famous trick we computer scientist use when asked if we want ice cream or cake. We reply, "Yes".)

Anyway, this is just a short excerpt but it is intense as usual. So read it and think about it, and get busy.
Now the whole of the rationalistic doubt about the Palestinian legends, from its rise in the early eighteenth century out of the last movements of the Renascence, was founded on the fixity of facts. Miracles were monstrosities because they were against natural law, which was necessarily immutable law. The prodigies of the Old Testament or the mighty works of the New were extravagances because they were exceptions; and they were exceptions because there was a rule, and that an immutable rule. In short, there was no rose-tree growing out of the carpet of a trim and tidy bedroom; because rose-trees do not grow out of carpets in trim and tidy bedrooms. So far it seemed reasonable enough. But it left out one possibility; that a man can dream about a room as well as a rose; and that a man can doubt about a rule as well as an exception.

As soon as the men of science began to doubt the rules of the game, the game was up. They could no longer rule out all the old marvels as impossible, in face of the new marvels which they had to admit as possible. They were themselves dealing now with a number of unknown quantities; what is the power of mind over matter; when is matter an illusion of mind; what is identity, what is individuality, is there a limit to logic in the last extremes of mathematics? They knew by a hundred hints that their non-miraculous world was no longer water-tight; that floods were coming in from somewhere in which they were already out of their depth, and down among very fantastical deep-sea fishes. They could hardly feel certain even about the fish that swallowed Jonah, when they had no test except the very true one that there are more fish in the sea than ever came out of it. Logically they would find it quite as hard to draw the line at the miraculous draught of fishes. I do not mean that they, or even I, need here depend on those particular stories; I mean that the difficulty now is to draw a line, and a new line, after the obliteration of an old and much more obvious line. Any one can draw it for himself, as a matter of mere taste in probability; but we have not made a philosophy until we can draw it for others. And the modern men of science cannot draw it for others. Men could easily mark the contrast between the force of gravity and the fable of the Ascension. They cannot all be made to see any such contrast between the levitation that is now discussed as a possibility and the ascension which is still derided as a miracle. I do not even say that there is not a great difference between them; I say that science is now plunged too deep in new doubts and possibilities to have authority to define the difference. I say the more it knows of what seems to have happened, or what is said to have happened, in many modern drawing-rooms, the less it knows what did or did not happen on that lofty and legendary hill, where a spire rises over Jerusalem and can be seen beyond Jordan.
[GKC The New Jerusalem CW20:315-6]

AND please remember: tomorrow begins the Great Novena, the one made at the express direction of Jesus Himself... please join us in prayer, as there are many problems and difficulties which so desperately need the aid which only the Holy Spirit can give!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

About Benson's The Dawn of All

Today the Duhem Society celebrates the 137th birthday of one of our Masters, the paradoxical Gilbert Keith Chesterton. He was not a scientist, not a philosopher, not a historian. he called himself a journalist, and in some ways he was more of an artist than anything else - though his most fertile medium was words, not paint or marble.

You know I have a certain bias about GKC - though it is not an unreasonable one. Indeed, it seems fitting that GKC be one of our Masters, not only because of Father Jaki's work which demonstrates GKC's power in grasping the truths of Science-Writ-Large - but also because of his humility and reverence for Reality - that is, the truthful way of seeing God, and His Creation. This is the fundamental power required for every scientist, every philosopher, every historian - everyone who applies pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.

Now, one of the frustrations I find when studying Jaki - I am here speaking as a Chestertonian - is that he wrote no fiction. Nor did Duhem, as far as I am able to discern from SLJ's texts about him. This is sad - and as you may know, I am attempting to remedy that lack by writing my own Saga. But I have recently finished an amazing book which I heartily wish Father Jaki had commented on. The book is called The Dawn of All by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, an English writer of roughly the same era as Chesterton. Benson wrote several interesting volumes of Catholic fiction - that is stories where the persons really exhibit their faith, often in quite challenging situations - see (for example) Come Rack! Come Rope!. This volume, The Dawn of All, came out 100 years ago, and is his second "end of the world" story - the first is The Lord of the World. I prefer not to speak about these in detail, except to highly recommend them, in particular because they contain certain interesting sorts of predictions regarding science and technology and so belong to the very rare category of "Catholic Science Fiction" - though that is not all they predict.

I cannot say they feel like Duhem; clearly they do not feel like Jaki - but they certainly feel Chestertonian, and Newmanian to an extreme. I must not speak too much here about the Newman dimension, lest I give too much away about this particular story, but it is impressive. Since Benson was an Anglican convert, perhaps this is quite understandable, and I am merely showing my ignorance. I do not mind confessing how little I know. Sometimes I feel I know very little, but then I find myself enjoying my reading more - and even my re-reading. Why shouldn't I enjoy Jaki or Duhem or Newman as I enjoy the mystery stories of Chesterton or Sayers? All these reveal truth, as does the Bible, which contains the ultimate mystery story of all time in which the Detective solves His own murder. (See Luke 24:13 et seq especially 25-27, where Christ sounds like Holmes addressing Watson.)

As far as I am able to tell with AMBER, Jaki never mentioned Benson, and Chesterton only twice. (See GKC's The Thing CW3:327 and The Resurrection of Rome CW21:378) If our Society were set up in the usual manner of a scholarly system, we would perhaps commission a monograph - or perhaps provide a grant to subsidize a graduate student - to study these two Benson volumes and give some insights into their place in our intellectual library. I cannot do this, not having the resources; nor do I have the time to do the work. All I can do is offer the idea.

But I can do something more. I can recommend them, and especially this one, as it seems to be in such concord with our purposes. I shall give you a short excerpt, in the hope that you will want to find a copy and read it for yourself.

[Our hero] had seen here for himself a relation between Science and Faith - a co-operation between them, with the exigencies of each duly weighed and observed by them both - which set Nature and Supernature before him in a completely new light. ... the two seemed to have met at last, each working from different quarters, on a platform on which they could work side by side. The facts were no longer denied by either party. Science allowed for the mysteries of Faith; Faith recognized the achievements of Science. Each granted that the other possessed a perfectly legitimate sphere of action in which the methods proper to that sphere were imperative and final. The scientist accepted the fact that Religion had a right to speak in matters that lay beyond scientific data; the theologian no longer denounced as fraudulent or disingenuous the claims of the scientist to exercise powers that were at last found to be natural. Neither needed to establish his own position by attacking that of his partner, and the two accordingly, without prejudice or passion, worked together to define yet further that ever-narrowing range of ground between the two worlds which up to the present remained unmapped. Suggestion, for example, acting upon the mutual relations of body and mind, was recognized by the theologian as a force sufficient to produce phenomena which in earlier days he had claimed as evidently supernatural. And, on the other side, the scientist no longer made wild acts of faith in nature, in attributing to her achievements which he could not for an instant parallel by any deliberate experiment. In a word, the scientist repeated, "I believe in God "; and the theologian, "I recognize Nature."
[Robert Hugh Benson, The Dawn of All Part I Chapter 8]
Postscript. Why do I seem so hesitant in writing details about a book? Is it not contrary to Science? Not really. It is not so much a matter of Science as it is a matter of pedagogy. There are certain demonstrations - indeed, even in physics and other "hard" sciences which good teacher will not describe in detail, preferring that the student make his own observation. The idea is FORMALLY an experiment - that is, for the student to EXPERIENCE the truth directly, not to hear it stated. It is so in certain aspects of "book-learning". Father Jaki often told people to "read my books". (He told me many times!) And clearly, if we want to study writing (as itself) we need to be able to discuss the book (in itself). But it is a larger matter - a matter of human nature - that there are certain things which are better taken directly, and one of the chief of these is mystery stories. Chesterton said it this way:
[The book] is at least great in this sense - that it contains an important intellectual principle. Nothing would induce me to tell the reader anything about the solution of the riddle. The man who tells the truth about a detective story is simply a wicked man, as wicked as the man who deliberately breaks a child's soap-bubble - and he is
more wicked than Nero. To give away a secret when it should be kept is the worst of human crimes; and Dante was never more right than when he made the lowest circle in Hell the Circle of the Traitors. It is to destroy one human pleasure so that it can never be recovered...
[GKC ILN Nov 7 1908 CW28:210]
I am not saying that we must therefore treat every book as if it were mystery fiction, and refuse to discuss it until all have read it. But there is something true - something very Christmas-like - in the idea that a gift ought to be kept wrapped until the time when it is to be unveiled:
There are three broad classes of the special things in which human wisdom does permit privacy. The first is the case I have mentioned - that of hide-and-seek, or the police novel, in which it permits privacy only in order to explode and smash privacy. The author makes first a fastidious secret of how the Bishop was murdered, only in order that he may at last declare, as from a high tower, to the whole democracy the great glad news that he was murdered by the governess. In that case, ignorance is only valued because being ignorant is the best and purest preparation for receiving the horrible revelations of high life. Somewhat in the same way being an agnostic is the best and purest preparation for receiving the happy revelations of St. John. ... its whole ultimate object is not to keep the secret, but to tell it.
[GKC ILN Aug 10 1907 CW27:524]
And if you have read it, and wish to discuss it, or (even better) have the wherewithal to write such a study or analysis - or even just to write up your own comments - please proceed.

And if you doubt the relevance to our Society, consider:

(1) Jaki considered Chesterton's fiction; also the fiction of Sigrid Undset and also of Dickens. Did you know that Dickens reviewed Darwin's famous book? I learned that from SLJ.
(2) Duhem liked Dickens and gave his own daughter a nickname from one of his novels. SLJ states this but (surprisingly enough) does not cite a reference, though he does indicate that Duhem "used to read [Dickens] aloud at home in evenings when Hélène was a child." [SLJ Reluctant Heroine 58]

Very curious, Dr. Thursday (one might say): do you mean that, if one wants to be a Scientist, one must be agnostic?

Not quite! I am not speaking of one's spirtual commitment; you must already have faith, for "Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." [GKC Orthodoxy CW1:236]

No; I mean one must preserve a certain sort of agnosticism about natural truths - until they are revealed. For example, if you confess to a belief in phlogiston, you cannot discover the truth of oxygen, for you will ignore the evidence! The earth looks flat and unmoving, but then a television image looks solid and moving, and we know by its construction it is discrete points which do not move at all!

We must approach nature as a child approaches the wrapped gift, or as the voracious mystery-reader approaches the as-yet unread volume. For Nature is the greatest of Unread Volumes - because of Gödel (as SLJ indicates in several places) we know there will always be more to learn: there will always be another sequel, and yet another adventure - until the Author's work is completed.

And then will come that "happy Revelation of St. John"... and the good wine in the Inn at the End of the World, where we shall meet Duhem and Jaki and Chesterton and Newman - and Benson. It will indeed be the Dawn of All.