“A Stranger to One’s Own Country”

Descartes was not a bookish man. There’s a well-known anecdote that reveals what he thought of libraries:

One of his friends went to visit Descartes at Egmond. This gentleman asked him about physics books: which ones did he most value, and which of them he did most frequently consult. ‘I shall show you’, he replied, ‘if you wish to follow me.’ He led him into a lower courtyard at the back of the house, and showed him a calf that he had planned to dissect the next day.

It is a suspiciously artful anecdote: Descartes prefers nature bound in calfskin to another person’s  words bound in calfskin. But it gets something right: while Descartes did read and comment on books, and wrote many books himself, he steadily maintained, as did many early modern philosophers, that you can learn more by going straight to nature itself than you can by poring over old books.

Read more….

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On Kuhn and the scientific revolution

I had the welcome opportunity recently to read an essay by Dan Garber on why the scientific revolution wasn’t a scientific revolution. It’s bound for a collection of essays on the legacy of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolution, and reading it gave me a chance to reflect a little on Kuhn. It seems to me Kuhn is right from high altitude, and he was certainly right to rebel against overly rationalistic histories of science, but I agree with Garber that Kuhn’s “structure” idea doesn’t help to map the actual terrain of the 16th-18th centuries. There wasn’t a single old paradigm, nor was there a single new paradigm, and thinkers shifted among available theories for wild mixes of reasons.  Some sought a firmer Biblical foundation for what they believed; some were excited by the potentials for astrology and alchemy; some preferred neoplatonic mystical rationalism over the more straight-laced Aristotelian empiricism; and others just thought the more “geometrochanical”, the better. (I just coined “geometrochanical” – and plan to use it now wherever I can.) To be sure, it wasn’t just elegance or simplicity that drove astronomers to reject Ptolemy in favor of Copernicus – and in this negative thesis, Kuhn was right. But the structural alternative he proposed to the rationalizing accounts of the scientific revolution was too simple and too crude.

It is tempting to say this: on the one hand (before Gutenberg) there was a comprehensive world view; and on the other (after 1750 or so) there was another program underway, one that is closer to what we know as “science”; and in between, there was a complicated, irrational mess. But this too oversimplifies. There were philosophical disagreements before Gutenberg, of course, and one can call them “in-house” or “within a paradigm” only if one is trying to tidy things up for imposing Kuhn’s structure. Same goes for the post-1750 scene. And the mess in the middle appears as a “mess” only if you’ve already tidied up the end points. For the people living in the mess, judgments were being made in a generally rational manner, given the options and the information that was available. The only safe general thesis is that, over time, lots of theories changed – but that’s hardly a thesis worth naming.

Still, there really was a scientific revolution – wasn’t there? What is it to affirm or deny this claim? For most occasions, the claim simply means that there was a substantive change in the way western Europeans thought of the natural world, and surely this is true. But there was equally substantive change over the years 800-1100; and 1800-2000; and perhaps, when you really study it, over any two or three century period in historical times. Why then do we give a special name to the 1450-1750 period? Is it just a leftover from those bad old days, when people oversimplified the early modern period and tried to see it as an accelerated “growth spurt” in our rational faculties? Is “the scientific revolution” itself a paradigm that should be rejected, now that we have better histories available?

It’s hard at this point not to start talking about Newton. The fact is that, before Newton, no one had a physics worth a bag of magic beans; and after Newton, we had a physics that could carry us to the moon and back. That, surely, is something. Then again, before Turing, we had human beings with pads of paper serving the role of “calculators”; and after Turing, we had the world wide web. Isn’t that something too? And let’s not forget before/after Edison, before/after Darwin, and before/after Jobs. All of these are in the same class, or could be registered as “smaller” and “greater” within a broad class, with the (so-called) scientific revolution somewhere in the middle. Each named figure is merely a convenient tag for a largish shift in practices, knowledge, or technology that required thousands of hands, and happened alongside many other shifts and changes that, as things panned out, didn’t lead to much of anything. Focus on the actual terrain, and the mountains merge comfortably into the landscape, surrounded by lesser peaks and foothills.

Maybe the lesson to be learned from all this is not to reify any historical “revolution” as anything more than a period that saw some (to our eyes now) eventful change, and leave it at that. This is perhaps the biggest, most obvious, and yet hardest-to-see error of Kuhn’s: to think there was a thing there that had a structure to be described.

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Scattered Remarks

For fun, I put together a collection of 15 of my favorite Huenemanniac posts and published them as Scattered Remarks with Amazon (link in the right column). Not that any reader of this blog should be interested – there’s nothing in the book that isn’t freely available somewhere on this blog, except for the heartfelt dedication to my friend Rick Krause. But it’s fun to have a more tangible product.

Posted in This & that in the life of CH | 5 Comments

My take on Newton

As a scholar of the early modern period, I cannot not have something to say about the great Isaac Newton. But I confess that I am intimidated both by his work and the thick forests of works that have been written about him, and I know I’m not up to the task of being a Newton scholar. Still, it seems I should have something to say – so here goes.

newtonWhat to say about Isaac Newton? From what I see, the popular picture of him is well represented by the remark Newton is said to have made: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” The quote suggests an innocent, humble genius who modestly puts forward a theory that rocks the world – though he regards as but a portion of an infinite, unknown ocean. This is how we like our great scientists – brilliant and self-effacing, with the souls of poets.

Of course, we don’t know that Newton ever really said this. It’s doubtful. I gather that its first appearance is in the Reverend Joseph Spence’s Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters of Books and Men, which was not published until 1820. The editor of Spence’s collection, Samuel Weller Singer, notes that the quote demonstrates “our great philosopher’s modest opinion of himself and his discoveries,” marking it as “only another proof of his consummate wisdom.” Oddly, Singer goes on to note that the quote parallels a passage in Milton’s Paradise Regained, where a superficial thinker is described as “Deep vers’d in books, and shallow in himself, / Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys, / And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge, / As children gathering pebbles on the shore.” These words are spoken by Jesus Christ as he mocks the foolish perusers of wearisome books who ignorantly gather up trifles without assessing them with “equal or superior judgment.” Singer, it would seem, unwittingly skewers himself here.

Spence’s source for the quote is Andrew Ramsay, who claimed that Newton said it “a little before he died.” But Ramsay himself was in France over the years 1724-30, and Newton died in 1727, so it’s not clear how Ramsay would have known this. The indications point to this quote being either something Ramsay made up or heard somewhere, or some misattribution on Spence’s part – or anything other than something Newton actually said. The quote went on to a life of its own, picked up uncritically like a pebble on a shore in later biographies such as David Brewster’s Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (1855; vol. II, p. 331), and even in Richard Westfall’s more recent scholarly biography, Never at Rest (1980; p. 863).

In any case, the real Newton was far more complicated than the image of a boy on the seashore would suggest. His early life was marred by misfortune, especially as his stepfather was a cruel man intent upon putting a great distance between the boy and his family. After demonstrating a singular ineptitude at farming and other useful trades, he washed up at university and sought solace in his own self-directed studies of philosophy, math, science, and religion. At all of these, of course, he was brilliant, but extremely reluctant to show his work to others, fearing ignorant rejection or ridicule. Over time, as allowed his discoveries to become public, he struck with white-hot rage at anyone daring to question his conclusions or – heaven forbid! – claim them as their own. He seems to have been most at peace when left to himself; in this, perhaps the boy on the shore quote supplies the right image.

What was he doing, when left to himself? We might characterize his efforts as falling into three departments. First, of course, there was the Department of Math, Physics, and Optics, where he made the discoveries for which he is justly famous – calculus, universal gravitation, reflector telescope, composite nature of light, and all that. The 17th century had no shortage of great scientific minds, including Boyle, Hooke, and Huygens – but they all foolishly chose to have lives that overlapped with a genius whose achievements forced them all into “also starring” roles.

Second, there was the Department of Biblical Studies. Like almost everyone in the age, Newton took the Bible extremely seriously. But, not quite like everyone, he believed himself to have discerned truths both unorthodox and revelatory. Most infamously, Newton denied the doctrine of the Trinity, maintaining that God the Father and God the Son were not of the same substance, but distinct entities. He had to keep this view well-hidden, as there were dire consequences for this heresy. Newton also made extensive studies of the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation, meticulously connecting historical events to the opening of the seven seals, the sounding of the seven trumpets, the seven vials of wrath, et cetera.

Here, for example, is a characteristic sentence from Newton’s treatise on the book of Revelations. The passage is Newton’s interpretation of chapter 12, verses 15 and 16: “And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.” Here goes:

Here since the Dragon which persecuted the Woman is the Empire that instrument of the old Serpent, the waters which he cast out of his mouth must be the people of the Empire they being the flood of enemies which the Empire spewed out against her in the persecution, & the Earth which took part with the Woman against the Dragon must (according to what we explained above) be the people of forreign nations which bordered upon the Empire. The forreign nations therefore so soon as the Dragon had spewed out waters as a flood after her were to take her part & swallow up those waters: & accordingly so soon as the 14 year’s persecution of Theodosius was finished, wherein the Church which had flourished from the Apostles time till then almost sunk under the vast numbers of Apostates which the Persecution had made to fall from her, & other enemies raised against her by the Empire; so soon I say as this persecution had thus filled up the number of the Churches enemies, the northern nations invaded the Empire & waged the wars of the four first Trumpets, & as many of them as were Christians took part with the Church insomuch as within a while to found divers kingdoms of the true religion, as the Visigothic the Ostrogothic the Vandalic the Burgundian, & for some time the Suevian, the Alan, [and] the Lombardic.

I am able to offer this passage only as the result of the monumental effort of The Newton Project to make all of Newton’s writings freely available online. So far, the project has made available over two million words of Newton on the subject of religion – and they are not yet done. Along with the works on prophecy, Newton also had manuscripts on early church history, the genealogy of ancient peoples, and chronology. This was serious work, taken on with meticulous attention by a devout and brilliant scholar – not, as it is sometimes made out to be, the silly dodderings of a scientist past his prime.

Finally, there was the Department of Alchemy. According to The Chymistry of Isaac Newton, a sister to The Newton Project, Newton wrote or transcribed about a million words on the subject of alchemy, ranging from modest observations about dyes and pigments to speculations about the philosopher’s stone. These are the works that caused such scandal when brought to the world’s attention in the 20th century. Surely the modest and brilliant boy on the seashore, the one who brought light to nature’s forces hidden in night, could not have been – a magician? an alchemist? a wacko?

The shocked reaction to the rediscovery of Newton’s alchemical works reveals the great distance between the man who lived from 1642 to 1727 and the myth that had grown up around him. Of course, in the early modern period it was not at all weird to be interested in alchemy. It was taken seriously everywhere, in varying degrees and different ways, for there was no way to distinguish it from what we would recognize as bona fide chemistry, metallurgy, or pharmacology – there wasn’t an “it” there to be distinguished, at least not yet. Newton, as well as many others in his day, set about trying to discover the hidden forces and structures of nature, using whatever theories and accounts were at hand – and many of these we would now identify as “magical thinking.” Newton showed restraint unusual for his day when, in failing to account for the force of gravity, he said “hypotheses non fingo,” considering that he was fingo-ing all over the place in his private alchemical speculations. He knew he had not yet unlocked the deeper secrets of nature – “the great ocean of truth” – and his alchemical investigations were at least in part driven by that curiosity.

So, without paying strict attention to the numbers of words or measures of impact, one might say that Newton was one-third scientist, one-third biblical scholar, and one-third alchemist. He was half-time recluse, and half-time vicious polemicist. Oh, and another thing: he was one part scholar, and one part Warden and later Master of the Mint.

Being in control of London’s currency occupied the final 30 years of Newton’s life (from about 55 to 85 years of age). It was not simply a matter of pounding out coins. There were persistent problems with counterfeiters and “clippers” (those who shaved off corners of silver coins and sold the clippings as silver), as well as more global problems of fluctuating currencies and devaluation. Newton’s job was to bring on-going stability and soundness to British currency – a task to which he dedicated himself with the same laser-like attention he brought to all his endeavors. (Scholars seem to have mixed opinions about how good he was at this.) He sent 28 counterfeiters to the gallows, and on occasion went in disguise to capture his prey. (Here, if anywhere, is good material for a movie.)

One of the ordeals Newton regularly faced as part of his job was the Trial of the Pyx. The pyx was a triply-locked box into which samples of newly-minted coins would be dropped through a one-way chute. Every few years, the pyx would be unlocked under the watchful eyes of officers of the mint and the king’s men, and the coins would be assayed in weight and purity. If the coins were of poor quality, the warden would be subject to fine or imprisonment. Newton’s coins always passed. (The Trial of the Pyx shows up improbably as a climactic scene in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It helps that some magical gold of Solomon and some prestidigitation are involved.)

As his fame as a scientist continued to grow, he was at times challenged by others with mathematical puzzles. In one case, Johann Bernoulli had set a problem for the great mathematicians of Europe.  He allowed six months for an answer, at the end of which Leibniz requested that the deadline be extended by a few months more. Soon after the extension was granted, Bernoulli sent the challenge directly to Newton, who found it in his mail, sat down, and solved it overnight. He sent in his answer anonymously, but Bernoulli wrote that “we recognize the lion by his claw.” Newton also served as president of the Royal Society from 1703 to his death – so his former life was not completely left behind, though he was now moving in powerful circles of government and politics, and taking advantages of some of the luxuries his life he could now afford (scarlet drapes, silver chamberpots, etc.).

So, in all, given such an incredibly complicated life, it is a shame that the “boy on the shore” quote has such currency. Newton was anything but a dopey lad picking up pebbles. He was more like a storm – or better, a convergence of storms, blowing forcefully in several directions at once, in some places clearing the ground of debris, in others piling up massive tangles of driftwood. He was several lifetimes in a single person – scientist, prophet, magician, and G-man. He does not fit our preformed categories – but rather, characteristically, he forces us to reshape them in a style of his own making.

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The Magical Dimensions of the Globe

WhoGlobeThere’s a particularly good episode of Doctor Who (“The Shakespeare Code”) wherein the Doctor and Martha visit Shakespeare and save the world from a conspiracy of witches. The witches’ plan is to take possession of Shakespeare and force him to write magical incantations into the (now lost) play Love’s Labours Won. (It’s not really magic, of course, but some quantum dynamical dimension of psychic energy… well, whatever.) When the play is then performed in the Globe Theater and the psychic words are spoken, a transgalactic portal will open up, through which an entire population of witches – really, in fact, members of an alien species known as the Carrionites – will march through and take over the world. Luckily, the Doctor is wise to the plans, and he and Martha improvise a counter-spell on the spot and disaster is thereby averted.

It’s crucial to the plot that the witchy words be spoken in the Globe, because the witches had previously forced its architect to frame the theater according to magical dimensions: fourteen symmetrical walls into which some sort of string-theoretic alchemical pentagram might be interpolated, or something like that. The point is, the layout of the place is critical for the magic to do its work.

I have recently been reading Frances Yates’ classic work of history, The Art of Memory (1966), which suggests that this latter point may not be so far fetched.


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Museums of religion

“What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?” – Nietzsche, The Gay Science


Along with a few others, I have often balked at the New Atheists’ triumphalism. My worry has been that, yes, even though God is dead, we should worry a bit about what comes next. Religion has long served most (all?) societies as an institutional moral foundation. A great many human beings – across classes, incomes, employments, races, and nations –  have been brought up to believe in a moral structure to the universe, an objective right and wrong that is embodied in divine beings who care about how we live. At the center of our many great cities are tremendous, soaring buildings that serve to inspire us – and perhaps also intimidate us – into benevolent lives. Even if we follow Plato’s arguments in the
Euthyphro, and admit that these divine beings aren’t responsible for making these moral truths true, we still will insist that religious superstructures add a powerful reinforcement to any moral intuitions. There is more than a shade of difference between “This seems right to me” and “The almighty God commands it.”

Okay, it’s all fiction. But (or I have thought) it is a fiction we should not lightly abandon. As Voltaire wrote, “If God did not exist, we would have to invent him” – for, as Dostoyevsky wrote, “If God did not exist, all things would be possible.” And while it is true that I know many morally upright atheists, and try myself to be one, there is the worry that the morality with which we atheists easily coast along is in fact a kind of hangover from religious upbringings. Cultural inertia carries all of us along in a quasi-religious direction, but the resistance of every day will eventually erode that force, and then where will we be, with neither compass nor horizon? At the end of my book on Spinoza’s theology, I wondered whether some form of his pantheism may offer as more hope in a moral future.

But my recent travels in the Netherlands have made me think I worry too much. In the past, when I have entered into a cathedral, I have done so with a peculiar feeling of trepidation, worried that I might in some way offend the people for whom the buildings are houses of God. I whisper quick instructions to my kids, taking their hats from their heads and insisting they move slowly and quietly, with reverence and respect. I offer occasional explanations of this or that stained glass window, of the stations of the cross, of the candles burning before altars. I hope that they get a sense of the deep spiritual power of these places. And when I have caught sight of someone kneeling in prayer, I feel like a rude intruder.

But this time, as we entered various magnificent churches, I had none of those feelings, since the buildings have been turned entirely into museums. Informational boards are set up, explaining the history of the building, and telling of the famous people buried beneath our feet. Visitors converse at normal volume levels, and freely roam everywhere. You can walk up around the altar and take a selfie, if you want.

There still are functioning churches in the Netherlands, to be sure; there is even a Bible Belt (De Bijbelgordel) of conservative Protestants. But, as some Dutch friends explained, for most citizens religion is a thing of the past. “Then are most people atheists?” my wife asked. No, they answered; it’s more like, for most people, religion just is not a live issue. (They liked my term “post-theist.”)

And, at least so far as I can see, the Dutch are not experiencing any sort of moral drift or spiritual ennui. Their society, as a whole, evidences a far greater “Christian” morality in its sense of social justice than does the allegedly Christian United States. (Our friends tell us that the Dutch are having to import prisoners from other nations, since theirs are going empty.) And while I am sure that people knowledgeable about Dutch politics and society than me can point to many real problems, those problems will not seriously compete with tens of thousands of handgun deaths, the cruelty of anti-abortion lawmakers, the ignorant battles over Texas textbooks, and state-sanctioned executions. (My own state recently legalized death by firing squad, in case we have trouble securing the favored drugs for lethal injections, since other nations are feeling moral qualms about assisting us in killing our own citizens.)

Okay, okay; let my rant subside. I know that my very limited experience is not broad enough to establish serious conclusions about such matters. But it has been enough to suggest quite strongly to my own mind that the worry “what happens if religion dies?” is misplaced. There are scores of factors going in to the form of morality in a society, and while religion is implicated in some of them, its presence or absence is not decisive.

Posted in Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff, Nietzsche | 4 Comments

Learning from Hume; or, Hume and Particle Physics

Philosophy students are typically taught the wrong lesson from the great Scottish skeptic David Hume. The standard story goes something like this. British empiricists like Locke and Berkeley wanted to connect everything we know to what we experience through the senses. The welcome consequence of this strategy is that all the stuff we see and interact with stays known – but the spooky invisible stuff, ranging from magical spirits to substantial forms and other metaphysical clutter, all goes by the wayside. But (the story continues) Hume pointed out that this strategy ends up far more corrosive than anyone expected: for, if we hold our beliefs to what we actually experience, we shall have no knowledge of causality. We see one event, and another; but never do we experience the metaphysical glue that connects the two, and forces the second event to follow the first.

Read more….

Posted in 3QD essays, Historical episodes, Kant and/or Hume | 1 Comment