Saturday, December 27, 2008

December 25: the other birthday (science vs. superstition?)

We have periodically referred to the irony--or simple fact, if you prefer--that events that become famous or infamous tend to eclipse all other anniversaries associated with that date (who today associates September 11 with the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814, a naval encounter that ensured that the young United States would survive the encounter with its old Colonial foe:  Without the first 9-11, no second 9-11.)

The inimitable physicist Bob Park seeks to restore some breadth to our historical reflections on December 25 in the current issue of his weekly "What's New":
Yesterday marked the birthday of two important figures in history: Jesus
of Nazareth and Isaac Newton. Should WN compare their impact?
It's characteristically succinct and naughty, but we have to acknowledge that the idea was not originally his. As evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson explains in her blog:
Some years ago, the evolutionist and atheist Richard Dawkins pointed out to me that Sir Isaac Newton, the founder of modern physics and mathematics, and arguably the greatest scientist of all time, was born on Christmas Day, and that therefore Newton’s Birthday could be an alternative, if somewhat nerdy, excuse for a winter holiday.
The discrepancy between the Julian calendar under which he was born and the Gregorian one that we use (in which his birthday would fall on January 4) then provides her with an opportunity to riff on the relation between calendars and astronomy, which eventually takes her to Newton's key ideas. She closes with the suggestion that we could celebrate "The Ten Days of Newton" just as well as the "Twelve Days of Christmas," and even composes some new verses for the old tune:
On the tenth day of Newton,
My true love gave to me,
Ten drops of genius,
Nine silver co-oins,
Eight circling planets,
Seven shades of li-ight,
Six counterfeiters,
Four telescopes,
Three Laws of Motion,
Two awful feuds,
And the discovery of gravity!
I know exactly what Park and Dawkins had in mind, and I am sympathetic to the endeavor, though it becomes more complex if one pursues the comparison a bit further:

To be sure, Jesus worked in an entirely speculative and spiritual realm. The most energetic attempts to turn him into some sort of social revolutionary notwithstanding, he was an apocalyptic prophet, whose beliefs, if properly understood, would shock if not totally alienate most members of liberal mainstream churches today--just as the doctrines of the fundamentalists would appear totally alien to him.

Newton, by contrast, by identifying physical principles on which the world works, discovered an underlying reality that had existed since before the origins of the earth and continues to do so long after his death. (And we can add to this his other accomplishments, including calculus, with due respect for Leibniz.) That's what Parks and Dawkins mean, no doubt: that Newton discovered realities, and that our modern world to a large degree rests on our understanding of that reality as mediated through Newton's achievement and that of his successors.  No argument there, and more attention is due him.


1) It is a real toss of the coin as to whether the average westerner understands more of Christianity or classical physics. (I'd bet s/he gets failing grades in both.) That in no wise diminishes the greatness of Newton's accomplishment--and it might even strengthen the argument for the new holiday--but it does prompt some sobering thoughts. 

The reality of physics remains firm, but cultural illiteracy takes many forms. 

One of the most alarming aspects of modern society is the widespread skepticism regarding science.  Cultivated liberal elites who look down upon creationists as knuckle-dragging yokels don't come off much better themselves when they claim, drawing upon our heightened awareness of the subjectivity of all intellectual endeavor (a little knowledge is a dangerous thing) that science is a "fiction" or "social construct" or "just another narrative."  

I have to say that I cringe when I hear my colleagues in the social sciences utter inanities of this sort with all the cretinous smugness of the devout. It's not only (at times boastful) ignorance, but also simple emotional and ideological resistance to facts that threaten comfortable worldviews.

One of the things that impressed me about our current College President when he came here for his job interview was his response to a question from a scientist precisely about how to confront this antiscientific mentality. His very simple answer: If you don't believe in science, on what grounds could you possibly refute the ideas of a creationist??

2) Newton's idea of science was in many ways very different from our own.  To be sure, Newton became an idol of the Enlightenment. One need but cite Pope:
Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,
God said let Newton be and all was light.
or Voltaire:
When one considers that Newton, Locke, Clarke, and Leibniz would have been persecuted in France, imprisoned at Rome, and burned at Lisbon, what are we to think of human reason? One would swear it was a native of England in the present age at least. In the time of Queen Mary there was a violent persecution on account of the proper way of pronouncing Greek, in which the persecutors were, as usual, in the wrong. They who put Galileo before the Inquisition were still more so; and every inquisitor ought to blush, from the bottom of his soul, at the sight of the sphere of Copernicus. Nevertheless, had Newton been born in Portugal, and had a Dominican friar happened to discover a heresy in his inverted ratio of the squares of the distances of the planets, Sir Isaac Newton had certainly walked in procession in his sanbenito at some auto-da-fé.
3) That said, although Newton's interest in astrology has now been called into question, he was, as Judson points out, a deeply (though rather heterodox) religious man who spent (or wasted, depending on how charitable one wants to be) a great deal of his time experimenting with alchemy and trying to calculate the exact dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, which, he believed, contained some clue as to the harmony of the universe.

4) If Bob were able to sit down and have a conversation with Isaac, it might well turn out--according to the historical record, at least--that Newton would be a believer in what we nowadays call "intelligent design"--that is, acceptance of evolution, but evolution directed or at least set in motion by some higher--supernatural--power.  Then again, since evolution did not exist as a concept in Newton's day, that would require quite some adjustment in his worldview.  And for that matter, if he could assimilate that new theory, than why not (hypothetically, at least) the rest of Darwin's doctrine, which--although Darwin, no less than Newton, began by believing that he was doing and discovering God's work--does not require a god at all?

5) Okay, Bob: I see where you were heading!  Science--unlike religion--begins with hypotheses and revises them in the light of new evidence.  Got it!

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