A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Summa origines scientiarum: Proœmium


In a fictional quote attributed to a fictional character, Jack McDevitt has Gregory MacAllister write:
Faith is conviction without evidence, and sometimes even in the face of contrary evidence. In some quarters, this quality is perceived as a virtue.
-- Jack McDevitt, Odyssey (2006) Ch. 12 
The McAllister character is being deliberately provocative here, but this version of "faith" is one widely bruited, mostly by people who don't think they have one.  A contrary view comes from Christoph Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, who stated in one of his lectures:
A blind faith, one that would simply demand a leap into the utter void of uncertainty, would be no human faith. If belief in the Creator were totally without insight, without any understanding of what such entails, then it would likewise be inhuman. Quite rightly, the Church has always rejected "fideism" -- that very sort of blind faith.
-- Christoph Cardinal Schönborn,
"Creation and Evolution: To the Debate as It Stands"
(First Catechetical Lecture for 2005/2006: Oct. 2, 2005, St. Stephan's Cathedral, Vienna)
But faith, of course, is simply the latinate version of "trust" or "truth." To keep faith simply means to trust someone or something. To trust the "evidence," for example. Usually, evidence gathered by someone else far away and reported by some third party medium. Unless we have our own particle accelerator in the basement -- TOF does not -- we must have faith in the folks at CERN or some other lab when they report, not the facts, but their interpretation of those facts. Even for first-hand facts, we must have faith that our senses are for the most part trustworthy. Of course, the extreme skeptic, perhaps fearing that You Know Who is lurking at the end of a syllogism, will quickly point out that there are cases where this is not the case. There are. But if it is usually not the case, the whole basis for our faith in natural science collapses; so these folks ought to be more cautious regarding the arguments they deploy.

Conviction in the face of evidence has many noble, historical examples:
  • Galileo maintained his belief in heliocentrism despite the lack of stellar parallax, headwinds, Coriolis effects, etc. 
  • Maxwell and his followers maintained their faith that magnetism was caused by electricity despite the falsifying existence of permanent (i.e., non-electro-) magnets.
  • Darwin stood true to his belief in natural selection even though any new beneficial trait would be diluted out of the population within a few generations.  Most of the blending of paternal and maternal traits in the first few generations would be with individuals that did not have the trait.
In the end, their faiths were justified because it turned out that the evidences did not mean what their contemporaries thought they meant. A fact is not self-demonstrating; it must be interpreted in the light of a theory.  "Theory determines what can be observed," Einstein told Heisenberg, who said the remark changed his life. The lack of stellar parallax falsified the distance to the stars estimated from their apparent disk sizes, not heliocentrism as such. The electron gave permanent magnets a hidden electrical aspect. Gregor Mendel's genetics saved the Darwinian bacon when it was rediscovered: inheritance is digital, not analog.

So much for 'falsification.' 


Did Wellington win at Waterloo?  Or did Blücher?
Or did Napoleon lose, which is not the same thing?
It is odd how often those who preach the supremacy of empirical "facts" abandon that stance when they stray beyond the confines of their own particular training, and rely instead on fables and ideologies. Biologists may talk nonsense about physics; medical doctors may bollix up the law. History is especially prone to this. The non-professional will approach matters historical often with a preconceived theory involving stereotypes and reified abstractions. He is prone to generalize from specific anecdotes -- and at times even the anecdote isn't what he thinks it is.

Historical events grow simplified over time. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions “abraded into anecdotes.”  Real people become culture heroes: archetypical beings performing iconic deeds (Vansina 1985). In oral societies, this horizon typically lies at eighty years in the past, perhaps three generations. In literate societies, the horizon may lie at three hundred years. Professionals often know better, but in the popular imagination, events older than three centuries take on the legendary status of "origin time." These legends of the past often enthrall people committed to an Idea.

No way!
 A recent example comes from the ever-delightful Jerry Coyne, once seen here denying that he had a mind, who recently wrote a blog post entitled: Did Christianity (and other religions) promote the rise of science?  He writes:
Of course most of you will answer “No way!”, and I do, too, but accommodationists and science-friendly believers make this argument often. 

The denizens of Dr. Coyne's commbox immediately fell to, telling one another how bright they were and lofting disparagement at the humanities and other notscience. Curiously, two of the "accommodationists" mentioned -- Davies and Whitehead -- are physicists (TOF has a copy of Whitehead's Principles of Relativity to hand) and physicists have sometimes been known to pat biologists patronizingly on the head

That blog post elicited a response by Alex B. Berezow and James Hannam: Coyne's Twisted History of Science and Religion, taking Dr. Coyne to task for his stereotyped understanding of the complexities of history. 

Historians have long realized that the great conflict between science and religion is a myth. But it continues to be an article of faith among the New Atheists. In contrast to his views on evolution, Dr. Coyne thinks that he can ignore the evidence from history and disregard the settled view of experts in the field. 
Commentators in that comm box grew distraught, naturally; but there was more of a debate than one normally finds over on Dr. Coyne's site.  Let us explore the question Dr. Coyne raises.

See the following posts for details (links to be added)
Question I. Whether Christianity promoted the rise of science
  Article 1. Whether there was a scientific revolution
  Article 2. Whether the scientific revolution was exclusively Western
  Article 3. Whether Christianity enabled the rise of science in the West


  1. I'm excited for these!

    "Theory determines what can be observed"... Wow!

  2. My extremely superficial take (as someone who got his BA in History of Science):
    1. Yes
    2. Yes
    3. Yes

  3. Commentators in that comm box grew distraught, naturally.

    The worst thing is these people pride themselves on not being ensnared by myth, and yet Coyne's post is a long list of nothing but self-flattering myths. It would funny it weren't so tragically sad.

    They worship science as a god. They don't actually study the history of it. I could recommend they read James Hannam, Toby Huff, David C. Lindberg, Edward Grant and others, but why bother? They have their comfy little myth and that's that. They are just as bad any fundamentalist.

  4. Now, if you could just combine this topic with "The Wreck" by juxtaposition for humorous effect...

  5. This is an intelligent and scholarly blog. I feel like the bastard child of a genius here.

  6. The Church has not rejected blind faith. It has rejected the theory that blind faith is all we can have. And Schönborn is as useless a Scholastic as he is a Dogmatist.

    As a Viennese and a Catholic I am deeply concerned about this Schönborn thing being called Cardinal over there. Since his father was a freemason, he should not have been allowed into the clergy. He was, but he has not really made up for the disadvantage that should have blocked him.

    Now, the supposed condemnation of blind faith, where the Church has a condemnation of Fideistic theory of Faith, along with the popularised identification between Creationism and blind faith allows him to condemn Creationism by a sleight of hand. He is deeply dishonest.

  7. The lack of stellar parallax falsified the distance to the stars estimated from their apparent disk sizes, not heliocentrism as such.

    Does, possibly, negative parallax falsify Heliocentrism as such?

    At least the discovery of so called parallax did not falsify Geocentrism.

    Since, with angelic movers for each star and planet, but not for earth, "parallax" can be a proper movement of the star, and therefore neither a sign of Earth's supposed orbit, nor a sufficient trigonometric information for calculating the distance.

    Instead of "one known side, two known angles" Geocentrism reduces the movement to one known angle, no known distance.

  8. According to John W. Campbell, Islam invented science. (I don't know if that includes psionics or the Dean drive.)

    1. It can be stated in defense of that, that Western Scholasticism started off as an offshot of Islamic and Byzantine learning.

      However, behind all three we have the Greeks, and we have them filtered through Catholic-Orthodox and Islamic Monotheism.

  9. Just one quibble with your analysis, about the 300 years for a legend in modern times while in oral cultures 80 years seems to be the number. Per Galileo, the legend says he proved the earth spins on it's axis and revolves around the sun scientifically, or more correctly empirically. That's obvious hogwash as noted above. This legend must wait a while to get going for the reason that it cannot really get started while there are still scientists running around trying to come up with empirical evidence for the earth spinning on it's axis. This particular myth dates to the late 19th century, or close to 80 years after scientists had stopped looking for the empirical proof the legend says Galileo found, because they'd found it, which could be about as soon as it could get going.

    I'd like to add that some of the same sort created the 'Pius XII was a Nazi sympathizer' myth too and that one didn't wait 80 years. If motivated enough, I guess one need wait 80 years.

    1. The actual interval may vary among cultures. The mythologizing of Galileo some three centuries after the fact is independent of whether he was successful. It was the 19th century, celebrating itself, that conjured up the legend. We can actually spot mythmaking in process as regards Roland the paladin of Charlemagne, as we note the entry in the contemporary Annales Regni Francorum, in the within-the-lifetimes Vita Karoli Magni, to Le Chanson de Roland three centuries later.

    2. close to 80 years after scientists had stopped looking for the empirical proof the legend says Galileo found, because they'd found it,

      As noted : they had not.

  10. NCSE's blog posted this admiring piece on Albertus Magnus today:


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