Poetics, science, and bafflegab

‘Poetics’, for instance, is (or, are) among these sciences, but in the absence of real languages and real poetry it becomes the kind of gummy wool and bafflegab that is taught in our universities today. Like all the other sciences it is essentially applied. If there is nothing to which it can be applied, then it is tosh some tenured fool is putting over. ‘Literary theory’ is almost all like that: done by people who could not read with attention to save their lives.

—David Warren, ‘On Science’

Cosmic claustrophobia

Apropos of nothing particular, A Theory:

If you do the whole Star Trek thing, leave Earth behind, explore the galaxy, and boldly go where no man has gone before…

…you will STILL end up face to face with someone you knew in high school, and you couldn’t stand each other then, and it isn’t any better now.

This is my theory, and I would point out that it has never yet been disproved. It is neither logically impossible, nor is there any empirical evidence against it. Which is more than you can say for a lot of crackpot theories.

‘The War of Ignorance versus Faith’

Yet another ignoramus announces his belief, founded upon nothing but prejudice and public education (but I repeat myself), that the Catholic Church is the mortal enemy of science; and John C. Wright boils over with justified dudgeon. In his response, he lists well over 200 Catholic scientists, and not merely Catholics, but Catholic clergymen every one, new and old, living and dead, who have made important (dare I say cardinal?) contributions to the sciences, from José de Acosta to Giovanni Battista Zupi. (I confess my own ignorance: I myself had never heard of quite half of these persons.)

Hmph. I just came across another antieducated sophophobe who declared there to be a war between science and faith, especially the Roman Catholic Church.

I asked him to name the Papal Bull or Encyclical, or any other official document of the Church prohibiting or condemning the practice of scientific inquiry. He did not know what a ‘bull’ was.

I asked him if he knew anything about science and the history of science, and he said yes. I asked him for the evidence of any Catholic interference, or even lack of enthusiastic support, for any scientific inquiry of any kind, in any time or place?

He mentioned Galileo. I asked him if he knew the circumstances of Galileo’s trial, or what Galileo was accused of? He said no. I asked him if he knew who Cardinal Bellarmine was. He said no.

I asked him if he had read Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences? He did not even know what the book was, much less who the characters in it were, or what positions in the contemporary debates they represented.…

Calibrating my questions to the level of someone without a Saint John’s College level of education,  I asked him if he knew who Albertus Magnus, William of Ockham, Roger Bacon, Nicholas Steno were. He said no.

I asked him who invented the mechanical escapement used in clockwork. Or when. He did not know what mechanical escapement was. (Villard de Honnecourt circa 1237, in case you are wondering.)

Recalibrating my question to the high school level, I asked him if he knew who Pascal was, Copernicus, Descartes. He said no. Mendel. No. Still no.

He then told me that all the European inventions in mathematics and medicine came from the Muslim world. I asked him if he knew where Andalusia was, or when the Reconquista happened. Did not recognize those terms. I asked him what religion the people were in the lands conquered by the Muslims in the Seven, Eighth, and Ninth Centuries, et cetera? He guessed that they were some sort of pagans.

I did not bother to ask him if he knew who Abu Hamid al-Ghazali was.

He did not even know enough to raise and throw into my face the old, tired, and oft-refuted slander about Hypatia the neoplatonic philosopher (always described as a female scientist) being flayed to death by a Christian mob wielding sharpened clamshells.

In other words, I could have argued in favor of the War between Science and the Church better than he. He had not even memorized his side’s own talking points.

He was a disgrace to the forces of evil.

Go and read the whole thing; or better yet, bookmark it for permanent reference. Links are included to information about nearly every scientist in the list. (At the moment, there is no link for Fr. Benito Viñes, who does not have his own page on Wikipedia, though he is mentioned in other articles there. Fr. Viñes was a Jesuit priest who invented the first system for forecasting hurricanes.)

Astrophysics in Pyrandain

I’ve been catching up on recent developments in science of nights, and have got as far as this peculiar fellow by the name of Galilei, who claims to have proof that the earth revolves round the sun, and that the Pope is an idiot. He couches his proof in the interesting form of a Socratic dialogue, and while the words of the character who stands in for the Pope are obviously idiotic, Signor Galilei makes no serious attempt to attribute them to a primary source. I therefore reluctantly conclude that he made them up himself, and therefore that it is Galilei who is the idiot. Since I see no percentage in reading books written by idiots, I must therefore discount his evidence for the heliocentric hypothesis; which is unfortunate, because it was very interesting in an ivory-tower kind of way.

But I do have, as it happens, another string to my bow. I cannot perhaps get a definitive verdict upon the movements of this earth and this sun; but perhaps I can work by analogy from another. I therefore sent a request to the learned Kelmon Easting, late Astronomer Royal in the old observatory at Wardhall, enclosing a translation of Signor Galilei’s work and asking him to comment. He replied, with the style and capitalization of a courtlier and fussier age:

My dear Mr. Simon,

The point of Contention raised by your Countryman is most interesting, inasmuch as it does not contain a discernable Particle of Sense, and were better fit to be discuss’d by those Gentlemen who provide Physick to Persons deprived of their Wits. I have indeed shewn the Documents to my learned Associates at the Collegium of the Third, who are unanimous and unshakable in the Opinion that your Mr. Galilei ought to be confin’d in a Madhouse to better ensure the Safety of the Publick.

For it is well known, by all Persons of Learning and Discernment, that Motion is not a Property of Bodies in themselves, but an Expression or Character of the Alteration of Distances between two Bodies: as Love is an Expression of the Tendernesse of Affection between two Persons. So it is that one may not say that Bron loveth, except he give Meaning to his Words by telling whom he loves: so that to say that Bron loveth Ara, or that Ara loveth not Bron (two Asseverations, of which the second may well coincide with the first, a Circumstance with which the best of Men may unhappily be acquainted), is a valid Expression, however one might judge of its Veridity in the instant Case. For to love is a Verb Transitive, and requires an Accusative to answer it, as well as a Substantive in the nominative Case to be its Agent; though this may be otherwise in your Tongue, to the grave Detriment of all Philosophy and clear Thought among your People.

In like Fashion is Motion predicated of two Bodies, inasmuch as it were impossible to say of a Ship, that it were making Way, except by Reference to some fixed Point, either upon the Shore or in the Firmament of the fix’d Stars. And to any who would adduce to the Contrary, the Violence of the Motion of a Ship, as Proof in itself that the Ship doth not remain at Rest, I would enjoin him to sleep a Night upon a sea-going Vessel riding out at Anchor, when the Sea roils with the Currents rising vertically from the Deep, and the Ship may ride with very great Violence, without making the least Way, or changing its Position with respect to the Shore; and then, as Recompense for the Loss of a night’s Sleep, to pass the following Day in Idlenesse upon a Barge plying the River of Pyrandain, which may be carried upon the Waters with the most perfect Tranquillity, so that he might look up at one Moment, and again after an Hour, and perceive that the Vessel had cover’d more than a League of Ground, though to his Senses there seem’d to be no Movement at all.

Since Violence fails of its purpose as a Proof of Motion, there remains only the Evidence of altered Positions and Distances. And therefore we conclude that the Sun doth move with respect to the Earth, or the Earth with respect to the Sun, but that there can be no Grounds to chuse, as between the two Expressions, which is the true Account of the Motion so described. Now the Man who sleeps on the Barge moves not with respect to the Deck, but the whole Country moves with respect to himself, yet it is not for him to say that the Country moves and the Barge remains at Rest; for another Man upon the Shore may advance the contrary Proposition, with greater Force of Probability, for all points alike upon the Shore appear stationary to him, but only the small compass of the Vessel to the other. Now we may with sufficient Probability take the fix’d Stars as being at Rest, by Reason of their Multitude and Remoteness, and their apparent Fixity with respect to one another; but so great is the Radius of the Firmament, that all the Motions of the Sun and Earth yield no visible Change in their Aspect, so that we cannot determine by Calculation which of the two Bodies, if either, lies at the Centre of the Sphere. Therefore it is a matter insusceptible of Proof, which Body shall be taken as fix’d and which as movable; and the Controversy proposed by Mr. Galilei falls to the Ground, as insupportable upon its own Premisses.

For myself, in studying to discern the proper Motions of the several Planets, I generally begin from the Axiom that it is the Sun which is fixed at the centre of the Celestial Sphere; but this I do only for Conveniency of Calculation, and not out of any Conviction of Doctrine. For other Purposes, such as Navigation and the simpler Geodesy, the Axiom of the fix’d Earth may be more conveniently propos’d. I therefore decline to take either Part in the Argument of your Philosophers, and advise and entreat you, Sir, to do the same, while ever I may remain

Your most humble, most obedient Servant,


My doubts being thus resolved to my satisfaction, I turned to other business and left the higher Physics for another day.

The blue haze of distance

There is a common belief among superstitious people (and nearly all modern people are superstitious, for they persist in believing in newspapers and advertisements) that we are continuously watched by spy satellites that can make out the numbers on the licence plate of our cars. No point of this claim is quite false, but it adds up to a gigantic untruth. [Read more…]