Friday, July 09, 2010

"I know a fireman who looks after the fires...."

I've never cared for the basic premise of assertions like this. That is to say, I've been fairly well educated in the sciences, and did a lot of reading in science when I was young (I did a lot of reading in a lot of subjects; I still do). Yet I can never remember what the Second Law of Thermodynamics is (pace C.P. Snow; and your idea of the "Two Cultures" was rather weak anyway), and I'd never before heard of Euler's Identity (nor did the link to Wikipedia enlighten me much; surprise, surprise.). I do, however, think Wittgenstein would have a lot of fun with a statement like this:

After proving Euler's Identity during a lecture, Benjamin Peirce, a noted American 19th Century philosopher/mathematician and a professor at Harvard University, stated that "It is absolutely paradoxical; we cannot understand it, and we don't know what it means, but we have proved it, and therefore we know it must be the truth."
But oddly, I still don't consider myself scientifically illiterate. I speak jargon in three different professions(academic English; law; and theology/philosophy), so I understand the concept of "speaking science." I'm just not impressed by it. It's a minor skill set, a set of vocabulary, a specific lexicon. But it's still a language game. Big deal.

I could tell you how you don't speak my jargon, therefore you have no business talking to me. I could establish foundational claims in philosophy of religion, or theology, or literary criticism, and fling them about proving you are a fool unless you speak as me! Feh. Had enough of that in graduate school. Left academia the first time to get away from it. I'm not interested. It proves nothing.

On the other hand, I despise ignorance and affect; which is probably why this kind of pose bothers me. At either extreme we can establish a litmus test, an initiation rite, a test which you must complete in order to be allowed into the charmed circle of discussion. We need some standard, of course: it is pointless to argue with fools. Ultimately, though, I've come to the conclusion that it is simply pointless to argue.

Do you want to establish your position and persuade others it is sound? Fair enough. Do you want to sweep the agora of all foolishness and wrong-headed nonsense? Might as well stop the tide coming in while you're at it.

Now, to be fair, Gareth Harris is inviting a dialogue, not dismissing the ignorant as impossible to teach. I agree with him, ultimately. If you would discuss a subject, learn it first. I guess I just prefer a bit more humility in the approach. The more I have learned, and I have learned a great deal, the more I realize I know very little about a lot of things. But the more the world comes to resemble Borge's Library of Babel for me: as full of books as there are stars in the sky, indeed more full than that. It is a library that comprises the universe itself, but none of the books are written in a language I can read, even though the books themselves comprise all language. My knowledge is a paltry thing, and the more I apply myself to learning the greater portion of one field, the narrower my scope becomes, and the less I know of the universe itself. Although I imagine that if I simply persevere in one pursuit, I will finally see the universe in a grain of sand, and know all eternity in an hour, I also know this is not true, that the microcosm is not the macrocosm, and that the more I learn about one thing, the less I learn about all things. So I abjure jargons.

Could I set you a task of understanding the world's literatures, or just those I know best, from Western culture? But which way will I have you learn it? What will I establish as fundamental? The moment I choose something, I set it apart as a mountain, but to climb a mountain is merely to reach the top. What about all the other mountains, and the valleys, and the deserts, and the beaches, and the plains? Philosophy of religion? Which is more important? The Christian question of theodicy? The metaphysical nature of the Ground of Being? The experience of eternity, the mystical union with the Godhead? The peace that passes all understanding? Which must you know before we can converse? Must we learn the nature of the soul? Must we agree there is a "soul"? Must we accept that the most important things in the universe are knowable to the human mind? Must we decide that what is not knowable is worthless? Should we first decide what it means to "know"?

So you should understand the fundamental concepts of epistemology, then? But whose? Those of Socrates? Or Locke, Berkeley, Hume? Kant? Gadamer? When do you know enough that we can discuss existentialism in the realm of Christianity? After you've read all of Kierkegaard? Or Kierkegaard and Tillich? Or should we read Buber together in order to both grasp the nature of the I-Thou as he understood it? Is this essential? Or merely my interest, my hobbyhorse, the way I came to the understandings I have now?

I don't know. I don't know. The commandment was that we love one another. Are we doing that now? (I address only other Christians now, I know.) And if not, why not? What else are we called to do? Evangelize? Wouldn't loving one another do that? Wouldn't it do it better than anything else?

But which is easier? To evangelize? To set some ground rules before you can talk to me? Or to love one another? Three guesses; first two don't count.


  1. Euler's identity is e**(pi)(i) + 1 = 0. It ties five of the most fundamental quantities in math into one equation. And ridiculously useful, in that it lets you use exponentials (easy to work with) instead of trig functions (well, you know) to describe wave phenomena. Many math types find this just jaw-droppingly amazing when they first encounter it. Feynman cites it as formative.

    The second law of thermodynamics requires that heat can't spontaneously pass from a cooler body to a hotter one. That's why refrigerators need energy. Entropy comes out of it. The short form of the three laws of thermodynamics is:

    1. You can't win. (conservation of energy)
    2. You can't break even. (entropy)
    3. You can't get out of the game. (impossibility of obtaining absolute zero)

    You'll be delighted to know that Christopher Hitchens today reviews a book about Jesus by Philip Pullman in the Times. Get premedicated first...

  2. My fourth job out of law school I was working as counsel for an air conditioning manufacturer, and we were struggling with new DOE efficiency standards. One day, when I should have been doing my job, I walked down to the engineering section and asked what I thought was a great question: "Why don't air conditioners produce energy instead of consuming it?" This was patiently explained to me.

  3. But, responding more to your point, I think it's undoubtedly true that Christians are called primarily to love, rather than to know, to be gentle rather than gentlemen.

    If God is indeed the origin and end of truth and love and beauty, then our pursuit of truth, and our appreciation of beauty, will lead us to that place where we also learn to love and to forgive. Jesus does not explicitly call us to be philosophical, to enter into a Socratic-style examination of our lives, but I think the experience of the Church has been that such reflection does usually lead to a greater committment to love--though it does sometimes lead to a harmful and occasionally fatal pride.

    It is good to read the bible. It is good to read the bible in Greek and Hebrew. It is good to know the Fathers and Doctors. It is good to be conversant in theology and philosophy and science and politics. It is better to be good and a cultured, well-read, scientifically literate humanist than to simply be good. But it is better to simply be good than to be a wicked cultured, well-read, scientifically literate humanist.

    In other words, seems to me that, for a Christian, the touchstone still seems to be love. Which is what I think you said.

  4. "You'll be delighted to know that Christopher Hitchens today reviews a book about Jesus by Philip Pullman in the Times."

    Actually I don't think the review is half bad. Hitchens of course despises Christianity, but for that reason he disapproves of Pullman's seemingly salvaging of the "good parts" by attributing the "bad parts" to a scheming, conniving, proto-ecclesiastic: "Atheist though he is, Pullman turns out to be a Protestant atheist."

    And though the story of the woman taken in adultery has an uncertain textual anchor, do any real scholars put it "centuries" after the penning of the gospels?

  5. In other words, seems to me that, for a Christian, the touchstone still seems to be love. Which is what I think you said.

    Well, it was late at night, and I got chocolate in my peanut butter (it was a disorderly mess, IOW), but yeah, pretty much.

  6. Captain Nemo's sub from Jules Verne (1869) ran off the heat energy of the ocean, which indeed is vast, but is inaccessible under the Second Law (Carnot, 1824; Clausius, 1850). Wonder if Verne knew of the Second Law at the time. Carnot addressed work, Clausius' heat flow...

    And a couple of decent ministers I've known, whatever the subject or the lectionary's dictate, wound up circling back to 1 Corinthians; they couldn't help themselves...

  7. And just when you think you've got your mind wrapped around it:

    "Captain Nemo's sub from Jules Verne (1869) ran off the heat energy of the ocean"

    I didn't remember that. I still love "20,000 Leagues under the Sea." I've often wondered whether a Nautilaus could be built, using the technology that Verne describes (or makes up). I guess that part goes the way of the undersea tunnel between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

  8. From rick's link:

    Forget curved space or the spooky attraction at a distance described by Isaac Newton’s equations well enough to let us navigate the rings of Saturn, the force we call gravity is simply a byproduct of nature’s propensity to maximize disorder.

    So the Greeks were right, and reality tends toward chaos?