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.