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]

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Science and the Ascension

I had a debate as to whether to post this on my own blogg or here. It is cases like this when we can thank God for George Boole, and so we can say "YES" to such "or" types of questions. Hee hee. (That's the famous trick we computer scientist use when asked if we want ice cream or cake. We reply, "Yes".)

Anyway, this is just a short excerpt but it is intense as usual. So read it and think about it, and get busy.
Now the whole of the rationalistic doubt about the Palestinian legends, from its rise in the early eighteenth century out of the last movements of the Renascence, was founded on the fixity of facts. Miracles were monstrosities because they were against natural law, which was necessarily immutable law. The prodigies of the Old Testament or the mighty works of the New were extravagances because they were exceptions; and they were exceptions because there was a rule, and that an immutable rule. In short, there was no rose-tree growing out of the carpet of a trim and tidy bedroom; because rose-trees do not grow out of carpets in trim and tidy bedrooms. So far it seemed reasonable enough. But it left out one possibility; that a man can dream about a room as well as a rose; and that a man can doubt about a rule as well as an exception.

As soon as the men of science began to doubt the rules of the game, the game was up. They could no longer rule out all the old marvels as impossible, in face of the new marvels which they had to admit as possible. They were themselves dealing now with a number of unknown quantities; what is the power of mind over matter; when is matter an illusion of mind; what is identity, what is individuality, is there a limit to logic in the last extremes of mathematics? They knew by a hundred hints that their non-miraculous world was no longer water-tight; that floods were coming in from somewhere in which they were already out of their depth, and down among very fantastical deep-sea fishes. They could hardly feel certain even about the fish that swallowed Jonah, when they had no test except the very true one that there are more fish in the sea than ever came out of it. Logically they would find it quite as hard to draw the line at the miraculous draught of fishes. I do not mean that they, or even I, need here depend on those particular stories; I mean that the difficulty now is to draw a line, and a new line, after the obliteration of an old and much more obvious line. Any one can draw it for himself, as a matter of mere taste in probability; but we have not made a philosophy until we can draw it for others. And the modern men of science cannot draw it for others. Men could easily mark the contrast between the force of gravity and the fable of the Ascension. They cannot all be made to see any such contrast between the levitation that is now discussed as a possibility and the ascension which is still derided as a miracle. I do not even say that there is not a great difference between them; I say that science is now plunged too deep in new doubts and possibilities to have authority to define the difference. I say the more it knows of what seems to have happened, or what is said to have happened, in many modern drawing-rooms, the less it knows what did or did not happen on that lofty and legendary hill, where a spire rises over Jerusalem and can be seen beyond Jordan.
[GKC The New Jerusalem CW20:315-6]

AND please remember: tomorrow begins the Great Novena, the one made at the express direction of Jesus Himself... please join us in prayer, as there are many problems and difficulties which so desperately need the aid which only the Holy Spirit can give!