Re: The tree of ignorance
- I'm not a subscriber, so I haven't read the nature article, but I think that
the comparison to the debate to the geocentric and heliocentric cosmologies
is both important and a red herring. Long before old Aristarchus,
Pythagoras and his followers propounded an heliocentric theory of the
universe, yet they were unable to develop a coherent theory of the heavens
that could be expressed in the language of mathematics. As a result,
Ptolemy had to make a decision, a conscious decision, at the beginning of
the Almagest: to use the geocentric or the heliocentric theory as the basis
for his analysis. In doing so, he created trigonometry, using a method
unchanged to this day, with the notable exception that we now use the
radius, rather than the diameter, of the circle as the unit.
Ptolemy's judgement was certainly not conducted in a vacuum- the
intellectual of his climate of his day was certainly predisposed towards
judging in favor of the geocentric theory (he lived between 100-178 A.D.),
and for him, it would have been an impiety to propound the heliocentric
theory. And yet his decision is well justified, and can be summarized as
follows: 1. The motion of the heavens is spherical; 2. (The size of the
heavens being rather small, despite Archimedes' calculations to the
contrary), the equinoxes would not be equal in an heliocentric universe
moving in spheres; 3. (The concept of relative motion aparrently absent
from Ptolemy's thought) there is no sensible motion of the earth; and 4. The
mathematics of the heliocentric universe.
Of these considerations, I think that the fourth weighed most heavily on
Ptolemy. He made a practical decision, not a moral decision, that the earth
was at the center of the universe. Or to put it another way, he put the
earth at the center so that he could explain the rest. This is, I think, a
perfect example of how science always begins with a question- what do we
want to know? And that question must be preceeded with the moral question,
what is worth knowing? or what do I need to know? In Ptolemy's case, it
turns out that trigonometry is worth knowing, and that we need to know that
an adequate explanation of the cosmos is possible.
Any good Straussian knows that knowledge has always been persecuted, and the
more valuable the knowledge (if such a qualitative judgement is possible),
the more extreme the persecution. Thus, the persecution of Copernicus,
Aristarchus, and Ptolemy, had he advocated an alternate perspective, would
justly have fit the profile of persecution in the face of ignorance.
On the other hand, the fact is that Ptolemy made a moral decision, a
decision that Aristotle happened to support 400 years earlier. And
Aristotle was lionized by Thomas, and Thomas was canonized not because his
body in death performed miracles or because he was a martyr of the Church,
but because his writings were capable of miraculous works. So, through the
Summa Theologica, Thomas, through Thomas, Aristotle, and through Aristotle,
Ptolemy. The accident of history. But the Church had a good, valid, and
salient point: as Descartes predicted, since science begins with moral
questions, it ends with moral consequences, whether you like it or not, and
despite the protestations of many scientists that they are incapable of
making moral judgements. If man is not considered as an act of special
creation, and if man is not at the center of the universe, the Church's
morality of humility in the face of God will crumble.
Thus, we have to ask the question which is more important, morality and the
actions determined, or the knowledge that may lead us into the abyss. The
simple fact is that scientists have been squatting on the Church's turf for
400 years now, and the Church has every right to a) resent this fact, b)
resist this temptation, and c) present itself as an alternative to the
faux-morality of rational consequences. Morality, and the subsequent models
we create for ourselves, are not innate nor revealed in natural processes.
We create them for ourselves. Thus, we must remember that Ptolemy and the
geocentrists, as well as the Pythagoreans and the heliocentrists, made a
moral decision that led them, and us, to the consequences.
----- Original Message -----
From: Ian Pitchford <ian.pitchford@...>
Sent: Thursday, August 31, 2000 7:46 AM
Subject: [evol-psych] The tree of ignorance
> Evolution emerges unscathed from the battle of creation.
> In the third century bc, the Greek philosopher Aristarchus conceived the
> heliocentric theory of the heavens. For his pains, Cleanthes, the head of the
> Stoics, a militant religious group, sought to have him indicted for impiety.
> Two millennia later, the Catholic Church did indict Galileo for the same
> impiety. In 1925, in Tennessee, a group of religious fundamentalists, the
> 'creationists', who insisted (as they still do) on the literal truth of the Old
> Testament account in Genesis, sought and failed to use legal recourse to
> prevent a schoolteacher from teaching evolution. Plus € ça change, plus c'est la
> m€ ême chose.
> Full text, subscribers only: