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]

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