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.

1 comment:

Alan Aversa said...

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."