Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: Infinity and Perspective by Karsten Harries

Reading this book I kept thinking of Owen Barfield.  Like Barfield, Karsten Harries combines history, science, philosophy, and theology into a coherent whole. Like Barfield, Harries is critical of modernism and postmodernism. But unlike Barfield, Harries finds a place for technology and even modern objectivity, and in my opinion more clearly points to what it might mean to "put things back together." Not only does this book remind me of Owen Barfield, I think in some ways it's actually better than Barfield. It's a challenging but rewarding read, like a steep Alpine trail (another metaphor used in the book itself for the process of knowing).

Harries starts with the theological/scientific speculations of Nicholas of Cusa, showing how a theology of the infinity of God led to the hypothesis of the infinity of the universe. (Bruno gets his own showing showing how derivative his ideas were from his predecessors like Nicholas ... and Harries depicts Bruno as a general irresponsible hack of an academic, not exactly the same picture as the 20-minute cartoon hagiography of Bruno on Cosmos). It was theology that inexorably led to a view of the universe that knocked down the old Aristotelian understanding. The theological speculations of the nominalists paving the way for Descartes, Copernicus, and Galileo. (Similar again to the 20th-century story told in Naming Infinity.)

Barfield's problem is that he stays in the middle ages. In his book Saving the Appearances, Barfield (if I recall correctly) attributes the preface to Copernicus's book to Copernicus himself, and takes the theme that all science is doing is "saving the appearances" as the theme of his book, drawing a line back to Copernicus for validation. This always bothered me. I like some of what Barfield does with this but it has always seemed too extreme. Harries points out that the preface was written by Osiander, not Copernicus, as a sort of fig leaf or olive branch, and Copernicus himself wrote as if the scientific observations were reality, not just appearances, like I assume a scientist would (as did Descartes, as did Galileo). Harries finds the right balance between expressing the incompleteness of our knowledge (the ways in which hypotheses indeed only "save the appearances") but also noting that some hypotheses are better than others, a distinction I don't remember finding in Barfield.

At the end of the book, Harries argues that modern objectivity allows us to step outside our own perspectives and worlds for a bit, but that if continued this motion will lead to nihilism (this sounds almost exactly like Walker Percy in Lost in the Cosmos). Harries instead proposes that we return to earth as our special, unique home -- something I've found that my own writing has tried to do. Harries calls this a "postpostmodern geocentrism" and a new Copernican revolution or recentering of the universe. What Barfield calls "putting things together," Harries identifies as a homecoming. In the end, the story of the history of theology and science is that, after a long journey, the prodigal returns.

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