Seeing the World for What It Is

19 November 2009

Thursday


Roosting birds at Pass-a-Grille Beach, Florida; the natural world is a fitting point of departure not only for understanding nature through science, but also of understanding science through the philosophy of science.

Yesterday’s meditation upon The Fungibility of the Biome led me to think in very general terms about scientific knowledge. It is one of the remarkable things about contemporary natural science — following rigorously, as it does, the methodological naturalism toward which it has struggled over the past several hundred years since the advent of the Scientific Revolution — that the more complex and sophisticated it becomes, the more closely science is in touch with the details of ordinary experience. This is almost precisely the opposite of what one finds with most intellectual traditions. As an intellectual tradition develops it often becomes involuted and self-involved, veering off in oddball directions and taking unpredictable tangents that take us away from the world and our immediate experience of it, not closer to it. The history of human reason is mostly a history of wild goose chases.

Detail of a pelican from the above photograph.

In fact, Western science began exactly in this way, and in so doing gave us the most obvious example of an involuted, self-referential intellectual tradition that was more interested in building on a particular cluster of ideas than of learning about the world. This we now know as scholasticism, when the clerics and monks of medieval Europe read and re-read, studied and commented upon, the works of Aristotle. For a thousand years, Aristotle was synonymous with natural science.

The scholastics constructed a science upon the basis of Aristotle, rather than upon the world with Aristotle as a point of departure.

Aristotle is not to be held responsible for the non-science that was done in his name and, to add insult to injury, was called science. If Aristotle had been treated as a point of departure rather than as dogma to be defended and upheld as doctrine, medieval history would have been very different. But at that time Western history was not yet prepared for the wrenching change that science, when properly pursued, forces upon us, both in terms of our understanding of the world and the technology it makes possible (and the industry made possible in turn by technology).

Science forces wrenching change upon us because it plays havoc with some of the more absurd notions that we have inherited from our earlier, pre-scientific history. Pre-scientific beliefs suffer catastrophic failure when confronted with their scientific alternatives, however gently the science is presented in the attempt to spare the feelings of those still wedded to the beliefs of the past.

Once we get past our inherited absurdities, as I implied above, we can see the world for what it is, and science puts us always more closely in touch with what the world it is. Allow me to mention two examples of things that I have recently learned:

Example 1) We know now that not only does the earth circle the sun, and the sun spins with the Milky Way, but we know that this circling and spinning is irregular and imperfect. The earth wobbles in its orbit, and in fact the sun bobs up and down in the plane of the Milky Way as the galaxy spins. This wobbling and bobbing has consequences for life on earth because it changes the climate, sometimes predictably and sometimes unpredictably. But regularity is at least partly a function of the length of time we consider. The impact of extraterrestrial objects on the earth seems like a paradigmatic instance of catastrophism, and the asteroid impact that likely contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs is thought of as a catastrophic punctuation in the history of life, but we now also know that the earth is subject to periods of greater bombardment by extraterrestrial bodies when it is passing through the galactic plane. Viewed from a perspective of cosmological time, asteroid impacts and regular and statistically predictable. And it happens that about 65 million years ago we were passing through the galactic plane and we caught a collision as a result. All of this makes eminently good sense. Matter is present at greater density in the galactic plane, so we are far more likely to experience collisions at this time. All of this accords with ordinary experience.

Example 2) We have had several decades to get used to the idea that the continents and oceans of the earth are not static and unchanging, but dynamic and dramatically different over time. A great many things that remain consistent during the course of one human lifetime have been mistakenly thought to be eternal and unchanging. Now we know that the earth changes and in fact the whole cosmos changes. Even Einstein had to correct himself on this account. His first formulation of general relativity included the cosmological constant in order to maintain the cosmos according to its presently visible structure. Now cosmological evolution is recognized and we detail the lives of stars as carefully as we detail the natural history of a species. Now that we know something of the natural history of our planet, and we know that it changes, we find that it changes according to our ordinary experience. In the midst of an ice age, when much of the world’s water is frozen as ice and is burdening the continental plates as ice, it turns out that the weight of the ice forces the continents lower as they float in the magma beneath them. During the interglacial periods, when much or most of the ice melts, unburdened of the weight the continents bob up again and rise relative to the oceanic plates that have not been been weighted down with ice. And, in fact, this is how things behave in our ordinary experience. It is perhaps also possible (though I don’t know if this is the case) that the weight of ice, melted and now run into the oceans, becomes additional water weight pressing down on the oceanic plates, which could sink a little as a result.

Last night I was reading A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by John Losee (an excellent book, by the way, that I heartily recommend) and happened across this quote from Larry Laudan (p. 213):

…the degree of adequacy of any theory of scientific appraisal is proportional to how many of the [preferred intuitions] it can do justice to. The more of our deep intuitions a model of rationality can reconstruct, the more confident we will be that it is a sound explication of what we mean by ‘rationality’.

Contemporary Anglo-American analytical philosophers seem to love to employ the locution “deep intuitions” and similar formulations in the way that a few years ago (or a few decades ago) phenomenologists never tired of writing about the “richness of experience.” Certainly experience is rich, and certainly there are deep intuitions, but to have to call attention to either by way of awkward locutions like these points to a weakness in formulating exactly what it is that is rich about experience, and exactly what it is that is deep about a deep intuition.

And this, of course, is the whole problem in a nutshell: what exactly is a deep intuition? What intuitions ought to be considered to be preferred intuitions? I suggest that our preferred intuitions ought to be those most common and ordinary intuitions that we derive from our common and ordinary experience, things like the fact that floating bodies, when weighted down, float a little lower in the water, or whatever medium in which they happen to float. It is in this spirit that we recall the words that Robert Green Ingersoll attributed to Ferdinand Magellan:

“The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church”

The quote bears exposition. Almost certainly Magellan never said it, or even anything like it. Nevertheless, we ought to be skeptical for reasons other than those cited by the most familiar skeptics, who like to point out that the church never argued for the flatness of the earth. We ought to be skeptical because Magellan was a deeply pious man, who lost his life before the completion of his circumnavigation by his crew because Magellan was so intent upon the conversion to Catholicism of the many peoples he encountered. Eventually he encountered peoples who did not want to be converted, and they eventually took up arms and killed him in an entirely unnecessary engagement. But what remains interesting in the quote, and its implied reference to Galileo’s early observations of the moon, is not so much about flatness as about perfection. Aristotle in particular, and ancient Greek philosophy in general, held that the heavens were a realm of perfection in which all bodies were perfectly spherical and moved in perfectly circular motions through the sky. We now know this to be false, and Galileo was among the first to graphically demonstrate this with his sketches of superlunary mountains.

What does the word “superlunary” refer to? It is a term that derives from pre-Copernican (or, if you will, Ptolemaic) astronomy. When it was believed that the earth was the center of the universe, the closest extraterrestrial body was believed to be the moon (this happened to be correct, even if much in Ptolemaic astronomy was not correct). Everything below the moon, i.e., everything sublunary, was believed to be tainted and imperfect, contaminated with the dirt of lowly things and the stain of Original Sin, while everything above the moon, i.e., everything superlunary, including all other known extraterrestrial bodies, were believed to be free of this taint and therefore to be perfect, therefore unblemished. Thus it was deeply radical to observe an “imperfection” on the supposedly perfect spheres beyond the earth, as it was equally radical to discover “new” extraterrestrial bodies that had never been seen before, like the moons of Jupiter.

Both of these heresies point to our previous tendency to attribute an eternal and unchanging status to things beyond the earth. It was believed impossible to discover “new” extraterrestrial bodies because the heavens, after all, were complete, perfect, and unchanging. For the same reason, one should not be able to view anything as irregular as mountains or shadows on extraterrestrial bodies. Once we get beyond the absurd postulate of extraterrestrial perfection, we can see the world with our own eyes, and for what it is. And when we begin to do so, we do not negate the properties of perfection once attributed to the superlunary world as much as we find them to be simply irrelevant. The heavens, like the earth, are neither perfect nor imperfect. They simply are, and they are what they are. To attribute evaluative or normative content or significance to them, such as believing in their perfection, is only to send us off on one of those oddball directions or unpredictable tangents that I mentioned in the first paragraph.

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