Friday, February 11, 2011

Roads and Ways to a Starting Point

Recently I was asked about SLJ's The Road of Science and the Ways to God, his published edition of his Gifford Lectures. This is one of his earlier works, a hefty book, though at 331 pages not quite so large as his The Relevance of Physics with 532 pages. He says in his introduction that these lectures are supposed to be aimed at audiences in which scholars are "at most a perceptible minority". Be that as it may, Road is an important work in the Jaki collection, though - when I was asked about it - I said I am not sure that it ought to be "first" on one's reading list. Just consider this very important glimpse from his introduction:

Science found its only viable birth within a cultural matrix permeated by a firm conviction about the mind's ability to find in the realm of things and persons a pointer to their Creator. All great creative advances of science have been made in terms of an epistemology germane to that conviction, and whenever that epistemology was resisted with vigorous consistency, the pursuit of science invariably appears to have been deprived of its solid foundation.
[SLJ The Road of Science and the Ways to God, vii]
Really, that's very important, though there is more to Jaki's work than this encomium of Duhem's work. (As you ought to know, "encomium" is one of SLJ's pet words, it means praise. That quote is a succinct summary of Duhem's master-work, but also permeates and is permeated with Jaki's own work.)

I may have said that "Road is not a good start" in private, but I wish to retract in public, or at least qualify my remark. As I think about Jaki's writing, there is one great difficulty. It is hard to suggest a "starting book" to begin the introduction to his work - very hard indeed. Since I like Chesterton, I usually suggest SLJ's Chesterton a Seer of Science since it is comparatively small (116 pages); it forms a complete unity, and it provides a good starting point for these two very important writers. It also covers four major points of synthesis: a correct view of science, a opposition of scientism, a criticism of evolutionism (NOTE the ending) and a triumphant championing of the universe - these points not only describe Chesterton, but also Jaki.

Yet others are not going to want to only read about Chesterton; they want to know more - they want to know about Wöhler and his synthesis of urea, or about the Olbers paradox, or about why the moon matters, or about how Galileo got the theology right and the Church got the science right, or how St. Augustine answered all the Galileo conundrums about a millennium in advance... oh my there are so many things to mention! (I could cause all sorts of havoc by mentioning his studies of Kant or of Bruno.) But mostly people want to know more about Pierre Duhem and his work - and especially they want to know more about Jaki's explorations of the history of science. Which is, after all, the reason we have this Duhem Society: to continue the work of our masters in the study of the Way of Science - "Science writ large", as SLJ loved to put it.

One is also confronted with the eight collections of SLJ essays - these are good reading, and give a healthy seasoning of humour and insight along with their information - but they are collections and do not form a comprehensive scheme.

So I pondered this matter last night, and so I think this morning - and I wondered... Finally I decided to ask you, oh patient and kind reader, who may be less beset by conundrums at the present moment than I am:

What do you think? What book ought one start with, especially if one is NOT a historian of science, or even a scientist? Or is it time for the Duhem Society to write an introductory text? And please say why you think that, if you can.

Please comment here, or, if you prefer, send me an e-mail about this. (Click on "Dr. Thursday" under the "Contributors" on the right panel for contact info.)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Why We Bother...

I have been - well, I cannot use the word "swamped" since it is a matter of snow. I wonder how the Greeks would have said it? AH, well, anyway, all I can offer you today is two small but very deep chunks for your meditation:
Having treated the scientific ideas of earlier centuries as myths, the men of the Enlightenment had to fall victim to the inner logic of such a stance, and as a result, they treated their own ideas on science as dogmas. Thus, while they painted in black and white the relative merits of the pre-Galilean and post-Galilean phases of science, they failed to notice the often gross imperfections of the early phase of classical physics. Complaisance, however, is not the key for unlocking the meaning of history. Nor is the task of achieving a scientifically enlightened and truly human culture so simple a proposition as the Age of Enlightenment would have had us believe. In our own times the expectation of an age of greater awareness, the hope for a unification of the two cultures will remain just a dream as long as those speaking of physics do not acknowledge at least in principle what R. Dugas wrote as a final remark in his History of Mechanics: Nothing is futile in scientific matters, not even the contemplation of the past. For this embodies the lesson of our vagaries, our scruples, our illusions, and our errors. Science did not progress by that harmonious path, the illusion of which is easily created after the event. The direct knowledge of the old works, however they may be outstripped today, can only enrich the perspective of the future which opens before us.

That a historian of physics should reach such a conclusion is natural, but there is no lack, either, of prominent physicists who have voiced similar appraisals of historical studies in physics. The reconstitution of the knowledge and theoretical concepts of the past was in De Broglie's view the means that makes us "privy to the very basis of science and enables us to see it in perspective."

[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 512]
The second, perhaps one of the most pungent lines I have have read in the last month, is not quoted in SLJ to my knowledge. I would not even have recalled reading it before, but I happened to find one of my old business cards with the bibliographic reference jotted on the back. I had NO IDEA what it referred to, and went to look it up, and found this. I offer it for your careful consideration, and delight:
All science is derived from self-evident and therefore "seen" principles; wherefore all objects of science must needs be, in a fashion, seen. ... it may happen that what is an object of vision or scientific knowledge for one man, even in the state of a wayfarer, is, for another man, an object of faith, because he does not know it by demonstration.
[St. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica II-II Q1 A5]
I know, Aquinas meant "Science Writ Larger" (not "large" as SLJ always said) since it means any true (formal) work of human knowledge.... and yet it IS true (a fortiori) about Science, in the sense of Physics and so forth. It is the mystic sense of true and penetrating vision that Chesterton refers to here:
the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.
[GKC Tremendous Trifles 6]
Oh yes! If you want a starting book on Jaki, start with his Chesterton a Seer of Science And for some profound insights of Chesterton on science, see his book on Aquinas.