Tuesday, November 15, 2011

For the feast of our patron...

Today is the feast day of the patron saint of all Science, Saint Albert the Great.

May he intercede for all scientists and workers in laboratories or offices, for students of science of whatever age or degree, for professors and teachers: may we be brought to that wider vision and deeper humility which this exalted study deserves: that in our work we may glorify God and serve our neighbors.

For today, then, let us consider this excellent and cautionary excerpt from Jaki:
...the first major work of synthesis by Aquinas, the Summa
contra gentiles
(completed in 1257), aimed at countering the occasionalism and fatalism contending with one another within Muslim theology and philosophy. The task, as can be guessed, centred on questions about the Creator and the nature of human intellect. The stratagem demanded that Aquinas should not be found wanting in his admiration for Aristotle, the Philosopher. In fact, Aquinas departed from Aristotle only in cases where the Christian creed allowed under no circumstance for a compromise. This attitude of Aquinas was carried over in full into his Summa theologica (completed in 1273), a work in which synthesis, not polemics, dominated. The surprising extent to which Aquinas went in accepting Aristotle’s cosmology and physics can be seen by taking a look at only one chapter in his massive opus, the 91st Question in its Third Part, where he discussed “The Quality of the World after the Judgment.” The topic, imposed by the concluding tenet in the
Christian creed, meant a most acute confrontation with the very heart of Aristotle’s cosmology and theory of motion. The contents of the five articles of Quaestio 91 show that the presence of cyclic features in the world was an unassailable truth for Aquinas, who firmly reasserted the efficient causality of a rotating sky on everything in the sublunary world. He found no fault with the generic return of physical patterns, including plants and animal species. He also went along with Aristotle on the point that the cosmos would of itself go on forever through endless begettings of individuals.

That Aquinas still had not become a hapless prisoner of the Aristotelian world view was due to his awareness of the guidelines set by the Christian creed about the cosmos. Against Empedocles’ claim about a cyclic rejuvenation of the cosmos he noted that the new heaven and earth were supernatural, “just as grace and glory are above the nature of the soul.” Against the coupling of the precession of the equinoxes with the cyclic theory of the world, his principal argument was that this would allow the exact calculation of the moment of the world’s end, in patent contradiction to the Gospel. He opposed the idea of an infinite endurance for the world through endless cycles on the ground that this would also mean that the number of the elect would become infinitely large: “But this is not in keeping with our faith, which holds that the elect are in a certain number preordained by God, so that the begetting of men will not last for ever, and for the same reason, neither will other things that are directed to the begetting of men, such as the movement of the heaven and the variations of the elements.” For Aquinas, a Christian and a Saint, the ultimate raison d’être of the cosmos consisted in its subordination to man’s eternal, unique and supernatural destiny.

This last point should also reveal a distinctly negative impact which can be exercised by tenets of the Christian creed about research concerning the destiny and duration of the world. They not only can save physical theory from an imprisonment into Aristotelian or other a priori postulates, but they can also create the illusion that some all-encompassing “final solutions” have been acquired about the physical world in the scientific sense. Aquinas is, indeed, notable for his lack of appreciation of experimental investigation. His case is, however, more that of individual temper and preference than of methodological dictates. His master Albertus Magnus, was a most enthusiastic advocate of experimental investigation and he found in the contingency of the world the justification to his prolific collection of data concerning natural history. There was no difference between disciple and master as far as the ominous cloud of the doctrine of eternal recurrences was concerned. Albertus’ dissertation on De fato shows not only his awareness of the issues at stake for humanity, but also his familiarity with the history of the question. He referred to Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Ptolemy, the Arab astronomers especially to Albumasar, and, of course, to the Church Fathers. Christian consciousness had already achieved a firm tradition in the matter.

Emphasis on experimentation was a new wine which easily could prove heady. It could produce firebrands, and Roger Bacon was one of them. Evaluations of his place in the history of science oscillate between lopsided encomiums and studied neglect. The first extreme was usually adopted by those ready to take great visions for actual accomplishments. They were joined, ironically enough by those for whom the beginnings of science coincided with the apocryphal story of Galileo and the tower of Pisa. For these the unusual friar is the classic example of a great mind struggling in the fetters of institutional obscurantism. The other extreme, the stance of silent treatment, is usually taken by those who grudgingly have come to recognize that Galileo never dropped balls to test the law of free fall and that, what is perhaps more reprehensible, he did not refer to his medieval predecessors to whom he owed so much. This is not to suggest that Roger Bacon was a forerunner of Galileo as far as the laws of motion are concerned. But Bacon’s impetuous crusading to secure the service of science on behalf of the Christian faith has much of the boldness and drama that became the hallmark of Galileo’s career. Within ten years of the composition of the Opus majus in 1267 he was imprisoned on suspicion of holding novel views.

Friar Roger was certainly not censured for his emphasis on the basic unity, interconnectedness, and interdependence of all branches of learning. There could be nothing wrong about his reasoning that since the Creator was one and there was only one creation, its understanding too had to form one single body of truth. Again, he merely echoed the Church Fathers’ somewhat naive interpretation of cultural history according to which all the science of the heathen had come from Moses, or if not, it had to be considered a form of “natural” revelation. Nor was anything shocking, in an age of great ferment, in his insistence that the Church should make the most of the Greek scientific corpus which was being rapidly recovered and translated in Bacon’s lifetime. Theologians of his time could only nod in agreement on reading his warnings about the difference between final and efficient (secondary) causes, a distinction that intended to render its due to supernatural destiny as well as to temporal endeavour. They should have felt gratified by his assertions of the forever partial character of man’s knowledge about the world and by his stricture of Aristotle’s claims about a priori, definitive verities concerning the processes of nature.

Bacon might have stunned his contemporaries by his visionary references to contraptions by means of which men would fly, speed across dry land, and see faraway objects as if they were at arm’s length, - but dreaming was not necessarily harmful. His concoction of a magic powder with never-before-experienced explosive property was a different matter, yet many an alchemist enjoyed the good will of both political and ecclesiastical potentates. At any rate, the gunpowder seems to have been the only real experimental success of the one whom some called the Father of experimental science. His continual reference to the need of experimenting had much to commend itself, but others, like Albertus Magnus, deserved no less credit on that score. There was nothing revolutionary in his, at times inordinate, praise of mathematics. To speak of mathematics as the most certain of all forms of human knowledge was a fashion of the time, and everybody saw proof of this in the superior exactness of astronomy over all other branches of science.

Bacon was not the first, nor the last, to be trapped by the glitter of perfection, but his case has a particular moral. Admiration of an outstanding perfection can easily turn into sweeping generalizations and this is precisely what happened to him. The vista of the unfailing retracement of their courses by celestial bodies imposed on his mind the idea of an inexorable determinism of events. True, he did his best to safeguard man’s freedom and moral responsibility. His prolific analysis of the influence of stars and planets could, however, easily undercut his otherwise sincere persuasion about man’s uniqueness in the inexorable turnings of nature’s great machinery. His case shows also the difference between the hapless capitulation of most Arab commentators of Aristotle to the idea of cyclic determinism and the unwavering refusal of their Christian counterparts to consider serious compromise on that crucial issue.

[SLJ Science and Creation 10 "The Sighting of New Horizons" 225-7]

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Very Relevant Gift

Yes, I've been busy and not had time to resume our study of the Scientific Method, though my mental note-taking is proceeding. Meanwhile, a few weeks back I had lunch with a friend who is also a doctor, and we discussed some of our topics... as a result he gave me a most relevant gift. It seems funny to think of writing a discourse upon the epistemology of Science by starting from a blank lab notebook, but perhaps in the future I will have some time to make a few comments about it here.

I looked to see whether Father Jaki talked about such things, and found several strangely relevant references - likely there are others, but due to my time constraints, I will limit myself to these:
In his later years, Newton spent much precious time on erasing from his manuscripts and notebooks the name of Descartes, lest posterity learn a thing or two.
[SLJ "God and Man's Science: A View of Creation" in The Absolute Beneath the Relative and other essays, 62]

In the twelve years between 1904 and his sudden death in 1916 at the age of 56 he [Pierre Duhem] not only continued his prodigious series of publications in theoretical physics, but filled 120 large-size notebooks, each 200 pages long, with excerpts from medieval manuscripts which he had to beg from other French libraries. He had no microfilm, no xerox machines, no dictaphones, not even ball point pens at his disposal. Above all, he had no research assistants of any sort.
[SLJ "Science and Censorship: Hélene Duhem and the Publication of the Système du monde" Ibid, 178]

He [Darwin] might have been cured of his illusion about the evolution of his religious beliefs had he reread in his late years his early Notebooks. Available since the early 1970s in easily accessible edition, those Notebooks make it absolutely clear that the Darwin of the late 1830s was a crude and crusading materialist.
[SLJ "Monkeys and Machine-guns: Evolution, Darwinism, and Christianity" Ibid, 190]

To advance science therefore was to break with inherited ways of thought, a break with blatantly careless reasonings, "scientific" prejudices, and self-flattery, or, in short, to initiate a revolution. To this he [Lavoisier] referred as early as 1773 in his laboratory notebook, where he described his program as one that "seemed destined to bring about a revolution in physics and chemistry."
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 151]

As my friend the doctor wrote, "Remember, it's for Posterity." Let us keep this principle in mind as we work.

P.S. There is an exciting episode about one of SLJ's own notebooks (and another about his exploration of the notebooks of Olbers!) both of which appear in A Mind's Matter, but I will leave these for another time.