Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way - notes on Chapter 29 by Mary Daly

The chapter opens with a quote from Epicurus, Roman philosopher, stating baldly that there is nothing to hinder an infinity of worlds.

Actually, there is.

It's meaninglessness.

With an infinity of physical worlds, the ancient sense of emptiness in this world is as much in the forefront as with a single world of infinite age and cyclic repetition. Meaninglessness is not, of course, a scientific category; it is purely philosophic. But precisely on that score, the question of an infinity of worlds is not a scientific one, since there is no way that even a second universe could be verified, let alone a jillion of them or an infinity.

[The reason that only one universe can be known to science is very simple. If there are two universes, either they share gravity and electricity or they do not. If they do, it's one universe. If they don't, there's no communication, and nothing scientific to say, though there might be something philosophical or judicious, such as: "Get a grip.".]

Lucretius is then quoted for his certainty that there are other worlds like our own. Keep in mind that for men who assumed that the heavens were made of a different matter than earth, our present knowledge of other planets even in the solar system would have seemed to answer as "other meetings of the atom stuff resembling this of ours." Anyway, again, this is not a scientific idea; it is a philosophical one. Therefore its presence in a book on the history of science is evidence of a philosophical position on the part of the author, no more.

Asimov, a good physicist, a pagan, and a thoroughly amateur philosopher, gives the third philosophical salvo in this chapter. He opines that it is "unlikely" that earth is the only world with life. What, exactly, does "unlikely" mean in this context?

Let me explain something.

Every radio communication we have is broadcast, as light is, in every direction. This earth positively glows with radio broadcast. If there is intelligent life out there, they have seen us. Where are they? More to the point, where are their radios? Radio is so intimate a part of the natural world that they must have discovered it, if they exist. From that perspective, we can feel fairly safe in the conclusion that nobody of a similar advancement lives anywhere nearby. This effectively closes the question of many other intelligent worlds. There might be a few, but there are certainly not "many".

For a scientist to talk about the lack of other civilizations as "unlikely" (that is, to speak of non-human civilizations as "likely") in the circumstance where the only evidence we have points to solitude, is simply silly and totally unscientific. It's not a history of science, but an argument for science fiction.

Hakim continues the chapter with a fictional account of another intelligent race, the Thuleans, who discover us and also figure out how to travel through "wormholes" so as to circumvent the limiting factor of the speed of light. They are from another galaxy, and traveling at the mere speed of light would be too slow. It is true that the limitations of the speed of light do severely limit space travel and make the issue of other intelligent beings pretty irrelevant.
The wormhole idea is pure science fiction, absolutely so. It is related to the idea of strings, which is a serious idea, but even strings would not allow the type of travel Hakim suggests, any more than the basic emptiness of most of the space in an atom allows us to go through doors.
Hakim continues. The Thulean scientists become particularly interested in a place called "earth" by its most evolved life form, and they send further expeditions, beginning in the Jurassic period. OK, stop. No humans in the Jurassic. Zip. They didn't see us and then come to visit our dinosaurs.

Anyway, they keep coming and watch the evolution of mammals, including ourselves (Oh! Oops! I guess there weren't any humans after all on that first visit when the locals called it "earth." Maybe she meant that dinosaurs talk...?) They notice that we are fairly intelligent but with a disturbing tendency to kill each other.

Really? The Thuleans didn't notice this about the dinosaurs? Or about the gorillas? And there is no murder among them? No pride, envy, anger, lust? No revenge? No sloth? So all this is new? An unfallen race! Has Hakim just stumbled into a race with Original Innocence?

Or, uh, has Hakim just never thought seriously about the topic? Not that war is intelligent, but virtue is work, and smart people who are lazy use war to get what they want. This is not only a human characteristic. It was also angelic. Can the Thuleans not know of it?

The Thulean report (p. 263) refers to two types of creatures, called men and women. Surely nobody, even from the distant outside would fail to observe that these are the male and female forms of a single species!

The Thulean report finds Athens of Greece more astonishing than the Italy of Fibonacci, Giotto, Dante, Plutarch, DaVinci, and Michelangelo, or the Europe that includes all of these plus Aquinas, Buridan, the Benedictine farmers, the cathedral builders of France, and the millwrights of Holland?

They are delighted by Greece, by Athens particularly, and somewhat by Rome, although that Republic is darkened by slavery. Evidently they do not notice that the Greeks practice slavery or that it is exclusively the Christians who get rid of it again and again, all across Europe.

Although the Thuleans have seen and report on the Sumerian, the Ming, the Egyptian, the Mayan, the Islamic and the American civilizations, they have not seen Christendom, only unimpressive "Europe". This is a strange collection of civilizations! The Sumerians are ancient, pre 2500 B.C., while Ming China is 14th to 17th century, the Egyptians are ancient again, the Mayans sprawl across a vast time period from ancient into the second millennium A.D.. The wonderful Islamic civilization is not dunned for their slaves, their warfare, or their attitude towards women; and who, pre-1500 but not Mayan, does Hakim mean by the "American" civilization? This easy read is just not a careful or meaningful piece of work.

Let's talk about the 15th century when Hakim says that the Thuleans noticed that "science seems just about dead." The negative view of 1500 is Protestant, through and through. Is this a purely unconscious bias? Maybe so, but it is so politically irritating to Catholics I must invite a brief look at the 15th century:

This is the height of Portuguese exploration, upon which the work of Columbus is based at the turn of the century. It is the century of the printing press, which instantly changed the movement of information. It is the century of Leonardo DaVinci.

Here is a list of the universities founded in the 15th century:

1409 Leipzig University founded
1411 Founding of St. Andrews' University in Edinburgh
1425 founding of the University of Louvain
1431 Universities of Caen and Poitiers founded
1437 All Saints College, Oxford founded
1451 University of Glasgow founded
1479 Copenhagen University founded
1500 first commercial colleges founded in Venice

In 1517, Luther was to begin the split of Christendom by announcing a debate in the manner normal to his times, namely a poster on the door of the Church. How could science and debate seem just about dead at this date?

What about the concept of inertia, dating from 1351?

What about Nicholas of Cusa, Italian, 1400-1454, who believed that the earth was a star like other stars, that it was not the center of the universe, that celestial bodies are not strictly spherical, nor their orbits circular. He was a cardinal and canon lawyer.

What about Thomas of Linacre, English, founder of the Royal College of Physicians of London, and translator of Galen.

What about Nicolaus Copernicus, Polish, born in 1473, who was hard at work in 1500; in 1514 he would be asked by the Church, to chart the motions of the stars. He was careful about whom he might offend, but he was not afraid to think, and many were anxious to hear his thoughts.

Moving on from the Thulean description of Earth 1500, Hakim returns to her pet issue of other worlds, and discusses what has been written by 20th century physicists on the matter. She makes it clear that anyone who doubts that there is other intelligent life is like those dark-minded Europeans of pre-1500. Davies and Dyson are quoted, and on the strength of their opinion, we are assured that we will feel less lonely if we accept these hidden friends into our consciousness.

Meantime, on genuinely scientific grounds, as opposed to pathetically unformed philosophical opinions, Ward and Brownlee have shown that earth is an incredibly rare phenomenon, far more rare than Asimov or Carl Sagan or Davies or Dyson would have us believe. Their conclusion is not based on theology, but on hard science. Hakim mentions their book, Rare Earth late in the chapter, but after a quick summary of their conclusions, asks the ignorant reader, "Do you agree?" As if this were science, to take a position on something about which you have zero information! As if it were scientific to base our status in the universe on our opinions – our ignorant opinions -- about other intelligent life!

There may or may not be other intelligent life, in this universe or in some other, but our role in this one and our interior sense of human value are not based on the discovery or expectation of such beings; nor can a man's scientific spirit justly be judged by his position on such a blind issue.
One cannot but ask: whose bias wants "other worlds"?
  • 1) The Christians don't care; we are willing to love any persons we meet, but we are at home here whether or not anyone shares the wide universe. In The Universe in My Hands, I have discussed the fact that the universe has to be this size for even one civilization, so it's not like it's too big for us.
  • 2) The Moslems don't care as far as I know.
  • 3) Evangelicals are likely to be either offended or bored by the idea if they consider it at all.
  • 4) Jewish faith does not address it.
  • 5) The Hindus cannot care about this any more than about anything else.
  • 6) Confucians only want ethics from any and all worlds; they are not, as a faith community, cosmologists.
  • 7) Buddhism is not cosmologically minded. Zen Buddhists only want to meditate.
  • 8) The only group that really wants other worlds, really hungers for them, is the new age type, which largely runs the public schools. If you write for public schools, it makes sense to write for them.

This is perhaps a disproportionate attention to one chapter in what is a generally engaging and informative book, but it is also a politically biased book, and since there is a general feeling that science is the one field free of bias, it is necessary to say that the book is deeply biased – in a politically correct manner. Caveat emptor.

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