Friday, January 20, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 2: Holding On Too Tightly To Science

(Before reading this, please start here at the beginning of this series.)

I have only seen bits of Brian Cox on the BBC, but I can already tell you he's a great science communicator. He's so clear that he occasionally shows up some of the contradictions of doing science. In particular, I was watching a program in which Cox very early on made it clear that all science is built on mental models that fit the data. But with every other sentence he says it's clear that these models are so close to reality that they can be taken for reality. Every other sentence involved taking the mental models as what Barfield would call idols.

This over-mechanization of the world is not an issue with the typical bogeyman Darwin -- after all, Paley himself likened organisms to a mechanism, to a watch, and God to the watchmaker. This is an issue with doing science itself (Barfield traces it back to Francis Bacon). As a scientist I have to ask, when have I followed my models so far that I have followed them too far, that I forget that they are models? Again, this is what Barfield calls idolatry. (Important to point out that anything, even the church itself -- even theologies, or more particularly, heresies -- can become an idol, but this is just about the scientific breed.)

Barfield, StA, p.39 “… the descriptions may still … be valuable, not as actual descriptions, but as notional ‘models’. What is important is, to remember that that is all they are. … For their nature is of artificial imagery. And when the nature and limitations of artificial images are forgotten, they become idols.”
Barfield, StA, p.62-63 “[The scientific mode of thinking] had temporarily set up the appearances of the familiar world … as things wholly independent of man. It had clothed them with the independence and extrinsicality of the unrepresented itself. But a representation, which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate – ought not to be called a representation. It is an idol. … [Evolution as one of these idols] … I am speaking of course of the form which the theory finally took, not of the concept of evolution itself. That is factual enough. The record of the rocks is a script containing stored memories of the earth’s past. It is only a question of how the script is to be read. … The appearances were idols. They had no ‘within’. Therefore the evolution which had produced them could only be conceived mechanomorphically as a series of impacts of idols on other idols.”
It is worth noting that people used quantitative models to predict what nature would do long before the Scientific Revolution, but for Barfield, those are not idols (the Greeks had idols of a somewhat more concrete variety, come to think of it). Those old idols were for "saving the appearances," and when they fit the data well enough they could predict far in advance with amazing mathematical precision: see the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient computer, which computed dates for religion -- for idols, appropriately enough.

Barfield, StA, p.47 “It was for the science of astronomy … to ‘save’ the ‘appearances,’ that is, the apparent movements of the heavenly bodies, and particularly of the sun, moon, and planets, which were the most difficult to account for, by devising hypothetical patterns of movement, which would account for the appearances without infringing on the fundamental principles.”
Barfield, StA, p.49 “The Greek word theoria meant ‘contemplation’ and is the term used in Aristotle’s psychology to designate the moment of fully conscious participation, in which the soul’s potential knowledge (its ordinary state) becomes actual, so that man can at last claim to be ‘awake.’ … [I]t does emphasize the difference between a proposition which it is hoped may turn out to be true, and a proposition, the truth or untruth of which is irrelevant. The geometrical paths and movements devised for the planets were, in the minds of those who invented them, hypotheses in the latter sense. They were arrangements – devices – for saving the appearances; and the Greek and medieval astronomers were not at all disturbed by the fact that the same appearances could be saved by two or more quite different hypotheses, such as an eccentric or an epicycle or, particularly in the case of Venus and Mercury, by the supposed revolution round the earth or supposed revolution around the sun. All that mattered was, which was the simplest and the most convenient for practical purposes; for neither of them had any essential part in truth or knowledge.”
It is important to remember that these ancient astronomers used math that is easy to translate for purposes that are more difficult to translate, because they involve words that have morphed and changed in meaning over the millenia. They could predict with precision but explained their predictions with words that have shifted in meaning. For instance, most chemistry books credit Democritus as the first chemist because he proposed that there is an indivisible bit of matter called an 'atom'. But ...

Barfield, StA, p.45: “Even the atoms of Democritus were, of course, not atoms, as the word has been understood in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They were imagined as components of mind no less than of matter.”

One of the main points I get from Barfield is that because words have changed in meaning over time, the change in words and the way in looking at the world caused by the Scientific Revolution is as significant as the change in methods. In other words, it's not all about the scientific method, it's about the scientific way of thinking, and this way of thinking is only one way of thinking among several options. Scientific thinking is a deliberately limited set of spectacles that allows us to do incredible things by limiting ourselves to repeatable and controllable (reducible) phenomena. Stuff smaller than us.

p.81 “If we are present at a church service, where a censer is swinging, we may either attend to the whole representation or we may select for attention the actual movement to and fro of the censer. In the latter case, if we are a Galileo, we may discover the law of the pendulum. It is a good thing to discover the law of the pendulum. It is not such a good thing to lose, for that reason, all interest in, and ultimately even perception of, the incense whose savor it was the whole purpose of the pendulum to release.”
So Galileo changed the way we see and the way we talk as well as the way we experiment. All well and good in the lab, but in the church service it might cause us to miss something. And this leads to one of Barfield's most surprising assertions to me -- that Galileo's problem was not that the model he was putting forward was better, but that he insisted that it was the only possible one:

p.50-51 “When the ordinary man hears that the Church told Galileo that he might teach Copernicanism as a hypothesis which saved all the celestial phenomena satisfactorily, but ‘not as being the truth’, he laughs. But this was really how Ptolemaic astronomy had been taught! … It was not simply a new theory of the nature of the celestial movements that was feared, but a new theory of the nature of theory; namely, that, if a hypothesis saves all the appearances, it is identical with truth. … Our collective representations began when men began to take the models, whether geometrical or mechanical, literally.”
I laugh too ... but is there something to Barfield's statement here? Are we holding on too tightly our hypotheses and hardening them into the only way we can look at the world? I have spent whole class periods extolling the amazing mechanisms of biochemistry, the watch-like efficiency of glycolysis and the like. When does that enjoyment of nature become such a myopic focus on atomic explanations that all else fades into mist?

I would like to find out more about the historical accuracy of Barfield's assumption. If he's right about the meaning of words changing over time, we'll definitely have to watch out for that when interpreting the words of the churchmen who both arrayed themselves against and encouraged Galileo.

The take-home of this strand of Barfield's thought is that it may be possible to hold onto science too tightly. To worship it and say there is nothing else than what I can understand, dissect, and control.

This has implications for reading Genesis and other creation accounts as well. Too often we take the English translations of the Hebrew as obviously accurate, but if the words themselves shift in meaning, we have to wonder what that has done. And this holds out the possibility that it's not "there can be only one" when it comes to models of creation. If we hold onto both science and Genesis a little more lightly, then maybe we can see that these words the Hebrews used in this context are just as good as the English words and math I use in my biochemistry class. If we would be able to "download" the shift in the way people thought over time into our own perception, with different words and different meanings for those words, Barfield says, the stories we tell with those words, the "models" we use to "save" the "appearances" would look very different:

Barfield, StA, p.37: “We should then have to write a different pre-history altogether. And we are not entitled to assume without inquiry that … such an alternative ‘model’ would be any less efficient than the one we have in fact chosen. It might be very much more so.”

In other words, the best way to describe creation may be as a six-day sequence in which YHWH orders the universe and puts all their idols under his feet. This saves not only the appearances (at least the appearances of the ancient Hebrews!) -- it also saves us.

(This series continues in Part 3 here.)


Geoff said...

Hi Ben

I left a comment on the first part as well. I am just playing devil's advocate a bit, but I wonder whether many people (not just scientists) might not simply say: 'Well, yes, it is true that these are just models, but they are really efficient models that, for the most part, work well and in the same way for everyone, so why not admit that?'

In other words, it may be that science is/can be an 'idol', but isn't the way we think in modern/postmodern Western society (including us Christians!) more or less in terms of 'what works', and on those terms, science seems to work really well, better - if we're honest - than our faith seems to work a lot of the time. So is there a way to admit this, while still holding science accountable, and holding onto Christ?

BenMc said...

This brings to mind (after a chain of thoughts!) some of Stanley Hauerwas's arguments that much of the time we argue that the church must do x to survive, but Hauerwas reponds that survival is not the goal of the church. Of course, Hauerwas says in other places that there is something about the cross and Christ that "goes along with the grain of the universe" which may be along the line of what "works"/allows "survival"!

This is the key issue. Is a model that works really well to be identified with reality or not? Relativity is proved to 12 decimal places and it "works" for GPS. But we actually don't incorporate it into our daily thinking, perhaps we CAN not truly incorporate it into our daily thinking.

How it is that the observer is part of the system is something that is a huge puzzle in physics, but the fact that the observer is a critical part of the experiment and is part of the reality is not in doubt. I think maintaining this is the most important thing moving forward ... but perhaps more will become clear with part 3?

I do wonder if I can do service to this book in this way at all, Geoff, and your comments are bringing up points that I'll try and think how would Barfield respond to that. Thinking like him isn't easy for this mechanically-minded biochemist, let me tell you that! Keep on pointing out what I should think about more ...

PNG said...

On the question of changes in the meanings of words and multiple meanings of words, look at Lewis's Studies in Words. No question that translations, especially of old texts, can't really completely capture what they were saying. It takes the kind of broad reading in old texts that people like Lewis and Barfield did, and even then one could be missing something. How many people realize that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" amounted to Will S. taking a position on the realist-nominalist controversy. I didn't until someone pointed it out to me.

Geoff said...

Good thoughts, Ben, and I think there's something to be gained in allowing the tension between pragmatism and actuality to reveal itself... and of course I like the Hauerwas quote. :-) Looking forward to Pt. 3!

BenMc said...

Yeah, and I hope it's clear that part of this is my working through Barfield, not necessarily an endorsement! I appreciate the comments as part of working that out too. In other cognitive dissonance news, I'm listening to Niall Ferguson about how science led to Western civilization on the other hand so I'll be working that through as well ...