Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Yes, it is a wonderful thing, being rejected. It keeps us humble, and as I have said previously, humility is foremost of virtues required of a scientist. It also provides us with the opportunity to become closer to Christ, Who Himself said He "must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation" [Lk 17:25]

But as we know, the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone. [Ps117:22]

What sort of rejection am I talking about?

Oh, just the usual, suffered by real scientists like us.

Actually I had noted this in my own discipline, computer science. When (for example) I was in some industrial setting where I needed to thoroughly analyze a problem in detail before embarking on its implementation, and I asked countless questions about the issue, then wrote a paper describing my findings and considering the ways of going about the solution, they said, "Oh Mr. Thursday, you are such an academic. You ought to go back to the ivory towers, because here we need to get things done." And then, when I was doing my graduate work, and I sat down at the computer and rattled off a "breadboarded" sort of complete test jig program to demonstrate some abstraction, they told me, "Oh Mr. Thursday, you are not really a computer scientist at all. You are just a programmer." And that last word was said with all the disdain and snootiness and snob-style capable of the tenured faculty who has a very sophisticated computer in his office and uses it for (what else) e-mail and word-processing.

Oh, dear... but in both cases I went back to my dorm or my home, almost chortling the phrase, "I sit squarely on the fence." For in industry, I was able to get things done, and in a far more upgradeable fashion than the crack team of some 20 programmers with associated management and ancillaries, because I had examined the theory which underlies the problem. And in academics, I was able to get things done, because I was being a scientist, and studying the Real Thing, and not navel-gazing at some abstraction which could never incarnate in practical software.

But Doctor, few of your readers are computer scientists, and as interesting as your personal experience may be to you what about this far more important topic of the rejection of scientists?

Yes, it is just the same, in a more general form, and far more hazardous to us, and to the discipline as a whole, to say nothing of its eventual impact on society.

I refer to the near-complete rejection of scientists who are DOING SCIENCE. Scientists who try to adhere to Newman's and Duhem's precepts - to the precepts of the Middle Ages, those gloriously powerful tools whih get things done (see the famous quip by Chesterton about turning to the doctrinal principles of the Thirteenth Century "inspired by the general hope of getting something done". [GKC Heretics CW1:46]) Those precepts, principles, rules and methods which kept all the disciplines together, working at once, and also coordinated them, glorying in their distinctions and profiting from their alliance in the pursuit of Truth, which is the Love of God through knowledge of His Cosmos and the Service of our fellow Man.

Yes, there is rejection of true scientists, of those who are not mere minions or tradesmen (which could be quite dignified)... those who have not prostituted their dignified discipline in pursuit of Greed or of something even worse. This rejection is to be found in a variety of forms, as a chemist might classify them, depending upon the characteristic pH (percent Heresy) of the surrounding medium:

The secular world rejects us because we cast doubt on their pet philosophies - especially evolutionism and all its corollaries such as eugenics, birth control, abortion, and genocide. Because we distinguish Philosophy from Science, and Engineering from Science, and Theology from all these - while admiring history and literature and the fine arts of all sorts, and using them, aiding them, and relying on them to support us also. But most especially do they reject us because we stand firm on our belief in God, the creator of heaven and earth, in Jesus Christ the Only-Begotten, "through whom all things were made" with all the related tenets of orthodox dogma - knowing that these are the foundation which makes Science possible. (These folks would have us deny our faith for them to recognize us as a "scientist" - which is as absurd to base such characterizations upon merely personal traits. One might as well say no scientist can be red-haired, or weigh less than 100 kilograms, or be born on a - ah - a Thursday. hee hee!)

But it is not just rejection from the secular world which confronts us. We are in some sense used to that. It's the rejection by those who are in so many ways our compatriots in faith, fellow believers, people who may be in many ways far more moral than ourselves.

One branch of the orthodox world rejects us because we refuse to condemn Intelligent Design - while another branch of that same orthodox world rejects us because we refuse to give full and complete consent to Intelligent Design. Never mind that design in nature is both self-evident and utterly impossible of demonstration, as well as being not Science be it writ large or small or in any font from any print shop or computer one may choose. And if one turns to mathematics or philosophy for support, one might as well (as Tolkien phrases it) "go to the Elves" - a risky business, "for they will say both Yes and No."

Still another branch of the orthodox world rejects us because we cannot agree to a unswervingly literal interpretation of that 144 hour Original Schedule, with its flat and motionless earth with its four corners underneath that hard dome which keeps the waters above separate from the waters below, to say nothing of the anthropomorphic descriptions of God's arm, breath, etc. Everyone knows the sun moves in the sky, and the most convinced disciple of Galileo (who did get it wrong anyway!) will use the term "sunrise" and "sunset". And there sure LOOKS like a dome up there... and no one feels the earth move, except during tremors, etc. But one cannot speak about these things as a scholar without causing rancor - or without being rejected. Certainly something is going on, and it is not the business of a book (no matter how holy or true) to tell us The Way Things Are, when we can go there and see them for ourselves. Such things are not faith. The commandments do not specify the principles of addition or subtraction, but without such things, one cannot discern whether an act is theft or gift-giving. Likewise, it is not a dogma, but a truth of biology that life of the independent organism begins at conception - witness any book on embryology, or the Federal Laws protecting unborn turtles. There are plenty of such examples, but let us proceed.

Finally, there are some who reject us because we have rejected Aristotle and the horde of odd-thinkers from the ancient world, who (lacking the light of Faith) made such little progress into the study of the world, and gave us the hilarious distortions such as "heavy things fall faster than light things" or "the Milky Way arises from swamps" and so on. (There are others; Jaki cites several of them in his work.) It was not just a refusal of these gentlemen (and centuries of their students) to examine reality, it was in some cases an infatuation with one's thought - or perhaps with one's elegant literary work, which is not always the same thing. Such a view was answered in a wonderful manner by Father Jaki:
For it is one thing to propose an inference as being very plausible and another to assert its reality and in the least uncertain terms at that. In this respect even a Maxwell could not avoid the pitfalls set by an unquestioning faith in mechanism. ...
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 80]
Hmm, are we getting to the critical point finally?

Recently there was an encyclical called "Faith and Reason" which left out the most important quote, one which was a succinct synthesis of Newman and the whole Medieval tradition:
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]
Of course many people, not just scientists, get itchy with such words like "faith" because they assume it's the same as "going to church" or something of that kind. And to try to make us look silly, they say faith is a "childish" sort of thing, and they are "grown up".

Sure, having faith demands a certain personal response - that's why we DO science in the first place, because we BELIEVE that there are truths to be learned, in the lab, in the field, with telescope or microscope or test tube or computer. We base our work on very childish questions, too: What is this? What does it do? What is it good for? And perhaps the best, and most pungent: Why is it like that? And the one which keeps us happy that there's more to do: Now that we know a little about it, what MORE can we find out?

But asking questions is exactly what the most profound of theologians do, as anyone who has ever taken even a casual glance at the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas would know. It's childish, even stunning, in its own way, with the hard things it asks. Such as "Is there a God?" - to which (as GKC recalls) Aquinas responds: "it would seem not, for the following reasons..." You can find that bit in Chesterton's The Thing CW3:289 but he is referring to the Summa Theologica I, Q2, A3: Aquinas really asks the question, and answers like that - though he does say a good deal more. If you want something even more stunning, and in some ways even more relevant to Science, there's another eariler question which asks "Is there anything?" (as GKC points out, and this is another one of those Prominent Phrases For Posting On Lab Walls) "He answers 'yes' for if he said 'no', it would not be the beginning of his study, but The End." If there isn't Something, what are we studying? Ahem.

Obviously, Faith does not exclude questions. But one cannot build anything with only questions:
...St. Thomas' work has a constructive quality absent from almost all cosmic systems after him. For he is already building a house, while the newer speculators are still at the stage of testing the rungs of a ladder, demonstrating the hopeless softness of the unbaked bricks, chemically analysing the spirit in the spirit-level, and generally quarrelling about whether they can even make the tools that will make the house. Aquinas is whole intellectual aeons ahead of them, over and above the common chronological sense of saying a man is in advance of his age; he is ages in advance of our age. For he has thrown out a bridge across the abyss of the first doubt, and found reality beyond and begun to build on it.
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:543]
And we who are doing science are truly Thomistic, truly scholastic, even if we know nothing about such philosophy. Indeed, we are often more philosophical than they, and more dogmatic than many worshippers, since we assume the dogmas:
A mother does not say to her child, 'There is a personal God, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe'. She says, 'God will be pleased if you are good'. She is quite as dogmatic as a college of theologians. Nay, she is more dogmatic, for it is more dogmatic to assume that a dogma is true than to declare that a dogma is true.
[GKC Daily News Feb 13 1906 quoted in Maycock, The Man Who Was Orthodox]
And yet again we are rejected since we often have no clue what dogmas we are assuming, and lack the technical terms to begin to delve into them.

Why ought that be a problem? Many theologians, philosophers, and intelligent people from the entire realm of what are still called "the liberal arts" use electricity and internal combustion, refrigerators, computers, cell phones, digital cameras - or even paper and pens or pencils, which are also exalted forms of technology - without having any technical terms. They too assume certain dogmas... but they too join the chorus in rejecting us.

There is a rather dramatic bit from Chesterton which might explain what's going on:
Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance. Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad - in various ways.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:294-5]
Yes, in some sense, those who reject us are mad. But - please do not misunderstand me. All these who reject us - some of whom are no doubt heretics of various sorts - may be quite good people, and I (who am not without sin) cast no stone by writing in this fashion. I do not condemn these, though I surely wish they were willing to study at least a little of what it is we do, and not just condemn it.

But I must say, it is clear they are not being very good students, whose primary purpose is to acquire the truth of things. They are not following Cardinal Newman's methods regarding the endeavors of education, which is nothing more than the Medieval approach to the organization of the intellectual disciplines, that very grand Chestertonian style which keeps both extremes:
...we want not an amalgam or compromise, but both things at the top of their energy; love and wrath both burning. ... Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one's self. One can hardly think too much of one's soul.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:296, 299]
We might be better scientists if we are also better philosophers, better musicians, better writers, better historians - and better worshippers. I do not name those other disciplines to suggest we should somehow simultaneously become experts in them - for all the impetus of the modern fad called "multi-discipline" this was once much more than a marketing ploy in the Middle Ages when people had more (and better) sense. They knew that one could advance philosophy by doing music well, or art, or science... and vice versa. But we are not singletons, we live in a social world, and there used to be a commandment about loving our neighbor. The experts in other disciplines are also our neighbors, and it's about time we begin to recall that.

Let us, in the end, recall that when we die, God will not ask us how many theorems we proved, how many stars, minerals, or species we discovered and documented, how many genomes we sequenced, how many novel organic reactions we managed to characterize, how many algorithms we proved or improved.

But He will want to know if we remained true to our discipline - to further His glory, and to be of service to our neighbor. Let us be rejected, providing we do not lose sight of what really matters.

There is no better test of a man's ultimate chivalry and integrity than how he behaves when he is wrong...
[GKC "The Real Dr. Johnson" in The Common Man 120-1]

Monday, March 19, 2012

Our Patron, A Fortiori

As Chesterton loved to point out, Jesus had His own literary style, which "had among
other things a singular air of piling tower upon tower by the use of the a fortiori; making a pagoda of degrees like the seven heavens." [GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:332] That is, the use of the phrase "how much more" as we see in cases "if God so clothes the grass that today is and tomorrow is
cast into the oven - how much more...." [Mt 6:28-30]

I mention this with some apology, since I have not posted since the feast of St. Albert back in November - and if he, the patron of all Science, is our patron, then, a fortiori, how much more is St. Joseph, who is the terror of demons, and the guardian of Jesus, "in Whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (scientia)" [Col 2:3]

My time, alas, does seem to be constrained these days, but I will give you something to consider on this feast, something which touches a most intimate yet most important branch of science - a branch which St. Joseph knew, and guarded. It ought to remind us that our work must also be guarded... there was a reason for the old epigram about casting pearls before swine - but I cannot explore that matter today. Rather, consider this excerpt from SLJ:
Without that faith even the most splendid displays of liturgical paraphernalia have turned into a hollow show of mere nature, and a very fallen nature indeed. Such a nature finds nothing noteworthy in Luke's narrative of the Nativity, so full of tactfulness that shows him to be far more than a mere physician, however sensitive about that special right to privacy which is the particular prerogative of a woman. If anyone, then Luke, the physician, could have gone, under the cover of medical reporting, into clinical details, such as the various discharges concomitant with giving birth to a child. No trace in Luke's account of that morbid curiosity which one confronts time and again in the apocryphal accounts of Jesus' birth.

Luke is taciturn, though eloquently so. After stating in a lapidary style that following Mary's arrival with Joseph in Bethlehem, “the days of her confinement were completed” and that “she gave birth to her first-born son,” Luke makes a statement that should startle any perceptive woman (or man) even in these days of “painless births” and of almost rudely quick dismissals from maternity wards. Even fifty, let alone two thousand years ago, one would have considered it very risky on the part of a woman to give birth with no assistance from other women, or to get up immediately after birth to take care of her infant child. But this is precisely what Luke states: “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the place where the travelers lodged” (Lk 2:6-7).

Concerning this last statement Christians have for some time fastened on secondary details, like the manger and the heartless locality that had no room for a young woman ready to give birth to her first child. Even the swaddling clothes became part of a romanticism, however well-intentioned. Yet in more realistic times it was still seen that something miraculous was conveyed by Luke's notice about Mary herself doing all that, an activity hardly to be expected from a woman who had just given birth. Moreover, no one was more conscious of the absence of anything “clinical” in Luke's narrative than was Jerome, still the greatest of Christian biblical exegetes: “Should the woman giving birth be overtaken by pain, midwives pick up the crying infant and the husband will hold the exhausted wife.... But in no way should this be thought of the Savior's mother and of that just man, Joseph. Here is no midwife; no need here for women to be fussing about. His mother herself wrapped Him in the swaddling clothes, herself mother and midwife.” Such was one of Jerome's arguments against Helvidius, who went down in theological history as the only one in Patristic times who denied Mary's virginity in giving birth.
[SLJ Bible and Science 180-181]

* * *

I do feel I have to add something, a sort of postscript, lest my point about mentioning one particular title of our patron be misunderstood. I think it is about time that we recall we have Enemies... they want to disrupt everything which is good, distract us from our duties, entice us to self-interest... they are very powerful.

But we have allies who are more than a match for our adversaries...

St. Joseph will guard us too, providing we remember to choose the paths which lead to God, even when they lead into the laboratory or the workshop, to the depths of the ocean or under the earth, or the furthest reaches of intergalactic space or subatomic structures.... it is said in the Creed, and every scientist should repeat it daily:
Per quem omnia facta sunt = Through Christ all things were made.
St. Joseph the worker, spouse of Mary, foster-father of Christ, terror of demons, pray for us!