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.

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