February 20, 2009

1. Science Books

In a recent issue, I mentioned a competition for best science book ever. There’s also an annual competition of science books, the Aventis Prize, which is given in two categories, adult science books, and children’s. Philip Ball won for Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another (such as decadence to renaissance?). Ball also wrote The Elements: A Very Short Introduction and Elegant Solutions: Ten Beautiful Experiments in Chemistry. Bill Bryson won the Aventis Prize for his Short History of Nearly Everything. Nigel Calder was a shortlist selection for his book Magic Universe: The Oxford Guide to Modern Science; Calder has written numerous science books for a general audience, including Einstein’s Universe.

David Bodanis won the Aventis Prize for Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World. Bodanis also wrote a popular and readable book about Einstein, E=mc2, and a book about the science of everyday things, The Secret House (the hardcover version of which has photos). Earlier in his career, Bodanis wrote books about the human body.

If you want a thorough history of Faraday, Maxwell, and electromagnetism, consider E. T. Whittaker’s History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity (look for the 2nd edition).

Chris Stringer, a specialist in early man, was a shortlist selection for his Homo Britannicus: The Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain. Jared Diamond won for his book Third Chimpanzee, which deals with early man, and he also won for Guns, Germs, and Steel, which deals with how the West was able to dominate non-Western societies.

Diamond argues that the success of the West wasn’t due to higher IQ. The contrary argument is made by Michael H. Hart in Understanding Human History. Hart also wrote a bestseller called The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History (in the revised version of this book, Hart takes an Oxfordian view of Shakespeare). Hart’s specialty is astrophysics; according to Bryson, Hart “made some calculations and concluded that Earth would have been uninhabitable had it been just 1 percent farther from or 5 percent closer to the Sun.”1

I recently discovered a book called The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes; it’s both scholarly and readable, and won numerous awards. Another book about “applied science” is Prometheans in the Lab: Chemistry and the Making of the Modern World, by Sharon McGrayne. Three books about the “electricity revolution” are

  1. Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World, by Jill Jonnes
  2. Edison: Inventing the Century, by Neil Baldwin
  3. The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America, by Maury Klein

Update 2017:
Carl Zimmer is a science writer who often writes for the New York Times. Zimmer has written

EvolutionThe Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution
 Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea
The BrainSoul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain
 Brain Cuttings
Micro-Organisms  Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life
 A Planet of Viruses

Carl Zimmer should not be confused with Heinrich Zimmer, who was an expert on the culture of India, and the teacher of Joseph Campbell.

Matt Ridley has written several popular books on scientific topics. Ridley is a conservative, a libertarian, a Brexit supporter, an atheist, and an aristocrat with a seat in the House of Lords. Ridley is known for his optimism, his belief in progress. He thinks that predictions of “climate catastrophe” are overly pessimistic. Ridley gave a popular TED talk called “When Ideas Have Sex.” Among his books is The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge, and Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters.

Matt Ridley should not be confused with Mark Ridley, who has also written on scientific topics. Mark Ridley is the author of Animal Behaviour: A Concise Introduction, The Darwin Reader, and other works.

Robert Hazen has written several science books for a general audience, including Science Matters and The Story of Earth. Hazen wrote three textbooks for undergrads, and created a series of videos called The Joy of Science. Many of Hazen’s books were co-written with James Trefil.

2. Lovejoy on “The Great Chain of Being”

A. Medieval Philosophy

In a recent issue, we discussed the “principle of plenitude,” which says that the world must be full, everything that can exist must exist, because anything less would be inconsistent with God’s power, goodness, and perfection. In his chapter on medieval philosophy, Lovejoy begins by saying that the principle of plenitude was adopted by early-medieval thinkers like Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius. God’s “love” and “goodness”, it was argued, overflowed into creating — creating everything that could exist. Dante, too, carried on the ancient tradition, and said that God was free from envy, so He was naturally disposed to bestow existence on everything that could possibly exist.

But these reasonings, according to Lovejoy, come dangerously close to heresy, since they suggest that everything that exists must exist, and thus they restrict God’s freedom, God’s choice. Abelard didn’t shrink from this conclusion. Like Spinoza, Abelard said that everything happens by necessity, and nothing could be other than it is. Like Leibniz, Abelard said that everything proceeds from the benevolent will of God, and therefore everything is for the best (Lovejoy speaks of Abelard’s “necessitarian optimism”2).

Even evils are part of the fullness of the world — without them, there would be a gap in creation. Thus, Abelard comes close to the dangerous notion that good and evil are equal — equally part of the necessary nature of the world, the divine fullness of the world. The amoral strain in Spinoza, which endeared him to Nietzsche, can be found in Abelard — or at least is latent in Abelard. “Abelard had indiscreetly made manifest,” Lovejoy writes, “both the deterministic and the antinomian implications of principles which nearly everyone admitted.”3 Abelard was charged with heresy, and accused of teaching that “God ought not to prevent evils.”

Other thinkers were just as bold and uncompromising in their support of the contrary view. Duns Scotus and William of Ockham said that everything happened not by necessity but by the will of God, and the will of God was “arbitrary and inscrutable.” Lovejoy describes these thinkers as “extreme anti-rationalists.”4 (Should we view Kierkegaard as the heir of these anti-rationalists?)

Some thinkers attempted to “split the difference,” and find a middle ground. Thomas Aquinas argued that God acted by necessity — but it wasn’t really necessity. Thomas invented a distinction that proved popular with later metaphysicians, a distinction “between absolute and hypothetical necessity: the will of God, though it always chooses the good, nevertheless chooses it ‘as becoming to its own goodness, not as necessary to its goodness.’”5 This is the sort of verbal gymnastics that we saw in Plato, the sort of verbal gymnastics that is characteristic of rational philosophy. Lovejoy says that Thomas’ distinction “will not bear scrutiny.”6

We can see a smile on Lovejoy’s face when he says that Aquinas tried to side-step necessity: “a manifest drawing back from the conclusion which the premises not only permitted but required.”7 Rational philosophy only convinces those who want to be convinced. Verbal gymnastics only impress those who are fond of the gymnast’s conclusions. Lovejoy is not impressed; speaking of Aquinas, Lovejoy says, “Again we witness the painful spectacle of a great intellect endeavoring by spurious or irrelevant distinctions to evade the consequences of its own principles, only to achieve in the end an express self-contradiction.”8

The only consistent medieval philosophers, according to Lovejoy, were those who accepted necessity (Abelard, and later Bruno and Spinoza), and those who argued that everything happened by God’s arbitrary will (Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, etc.). The mainstream philosophers who tried to “split the difference” (like Aquinas) ended up with spurious distinctions and self-contradictions.

Like Aquinas, Leibniz tried to distinguish his philosophy from the bold necessitarian philosophy of Abelard; Leibniz tried to dodge the conclusions that Abelard accepted. Like Aquinas, Leibniz resorted to verbal gymnastics, arguing that “inclining reason” isn’t the same as necessity. Lovejoy says that Leibniz argues “earnestly but unconvincingly.”9

Pardon me. I digress. Now I’ll return to the Middle Ages, saving Leibniz for later. The Middle Ages inherited from Plato two different conceptions of God:

  1. God as self-sufficient and at rest (the Idea of the Good)
  2. God as self-transcending and creative (Goodness)

God was the highest value, and imitating God was man’s highest goal. But which God should we imitate — the God who is self-sufficient, immersed in his own contemplations, or the God who immerses himself in the Creation? These were the alternatives for medieval ethics. The medieval Church chose the first alternative, the other-worldly alternative; both Augustine and Aquinas chose the contemplative over the active, and said that the supreme value was contemplating God, not involving oneself with created things.10

But the second alternative — God as overflowing and creative — breaks through from time to time, and even Dante, “an orthodox and mystical poet,”11 sometimes focused on the creative aspect of God, and compared the creative artist to God. This creative aspect of God comes to the fore in the Renaissance; Bruno, for example, said “The gods take pleasure in the multiform representations of multiform things.”12

A few thinkers went even further than Bruno. The Hermetist Robert Fludd, whom we discussed in an earlier issue, said that self-sufficiency and self-containment was the devil’s realm.13

On the other hand, the Counter-Reformation produced mystics like St. John of the Cross, mystics who aspired to completely ignore created things. This mystical tendency could never break free, however, from the tendency “to identify deity with self-expansive and creative energy.”14 The self-expansive God was part of the Platonic tradition (especially Plato’s Timaeus), and also part of the Jewish tradition (the God of Genesis is self-expansive and creative).

Lovejoy concludes this chapter by saying that Western philosophy was torn between the other-worldly and the worldly, between the self-sufficient God and the overflowing God, between the Idea of the Good and Goodness:

The most important and distinctive circumstance in the history of religious and moral philosophy in the Occident is the fact that both later Platonism and the accepted philosophy of the Church combined otherworldliness [with] optimism. Both were equally committed to the two contradictory theses that ‘this’ world is an essentially evil thing to be escaped from, and that its existence, with precisely the attributes it has, is a good so great that in the production of it the divinest of all the attributes of deity was manifested.15

B. Worlds Without End

Lovejoy says that before Copernicus, people realized that the earth was small compared to the whole universe; Lovejoy mentions Ptolemy and Maimonides among those who realized the relative smallness of the earth. But though the universe was vast, it was limited and enclosed; “the men of the fifteenth century still lived in a walled universe as well as in walled towns.”16 The idea of an infinite universe was still in the future.

We tend to think that Copernicus demoted the earth from a central position to a peripheral position. But Lovejoy says that, in the old geocentric system, the earth was at the lowest point, the furthest point from heaven. Copernicus couldn’t demote the earth since it was already at the lowest point in the universe. In fact, people sometimes opposed Copernicus because he raised man’s planet too high — he brought it out of the basement, so to speak. But others had done the same: a century before Copernicus, Cusanus had said that the earth wasn’t baser than the sphere of the fixed stars, and Tycho Brahe, by discovering a SuperNova in 1572, showed that the sphere of the fixed stars wasn’t really fixed, it could change like our own world.

Man loomed large in the old worldview not because the earth was the center, but because man was a rational being with an eternal soul. Copernicus didn’t change this. On the whole, Copernicus didn’t change the old worldview as much as one might suppose: “For Copernicus the solar system and the universe remained identical; his world, though not geocentric, was still centered, still spherical in shape, still securely walled in by the outermost sphere.”17

According to Lovejoy, Kepler liked the Copernican system not because it shattered the old worldview, but because it strengthened it. Kepler liked having the sun in the center because the sun was worthy of God, the sun is where God would doubtless take up residence if he wanted a “material domicile.”18 Copernicus gave Kepler new reasons to see the universe as finite and enclosed. Best of all, the Copernican system helped Kepler to argue that the intervals between the planets weren’t random, but conformed to a harmonious plan. Lovejoy says that Kepler had a “typically medieval mind.”19

According to Lovejoy, the Copernican system didn’t trouble the establishment, or the establishment worldview, except with respect to minor details, such as Biblical passages that implied the sun moved around the earth.

Lovejoy says there were five revolutionary theses in cosmography that were accepted by the end of the 1600s. None of the five were “entailed by the purely astronomical systems of Copernicus or Kepler.”20

  1. Other planets in the solar system are inhabited by beings like us.
  2. The universe isn’t walled and finite; the stars aren’t confined to a particular sphere, but are spread through “vast, irregular distances.”21
  3. The stars are suns like our sun, and many of them have planets.
  4. These planets, like the planets in our solar system, are inhabited by beings like us.
  5. The universe is infinite, as is the number of solar systems.

Perhaps you think that these theses are wild, and unsupported by any evidence. They are, however, consistent with the old “principle of plenitude,” which says that anything that can exist must exist, only a full universe is worthy of an Almighty God. The principle of plenitude not only had implications for biology (the number of species, etc.), but also for cosmography (the number of solar systems, the number of inhabited worlds, etc.). These five theses grew out of philosophical speculations (chiefly concerning the principle of plenitude), rather than scientific observations; Lovejoy says that the scientists of this time couldn’t measure stellar distances. If someone asked, “Why would God make so much unpeopled space?” the answer was, “He wouldn’t, so all those planets and stars must be inhabited.”

The first thesis (the plurality of inhabited worlds) clashed with some Christian dogmas. Were these other worlds still in a blessed state, or were they fallen into sin? If they were fallen, had they also been redeemed by Christ? “The entire moving drama of the Incarnation and Redemption had seemed manifestly to presuppose a single inhabited world.”22 But these theological difficulties weren’t regarded as “very serious.”23

Theses Two and Three shattered the old view that the universe had a shape and a center; now the universe seemed vast, amorphous. “The change from a geocentric to a heliocentric system was far less momentous than the change from a heliocentric to an acentric one.”24 Instead of a tidy, structured, walled universe, we now had a universe that was “baffling not only to the imagination but to the reason itself.”25

Among the early advocates of the infinity of the universe, Lovejoy mentions Crescas, a Jewish philosopher, and Cusanus. In 1440, a century before Copernicus published, Cusanus wrote, “[the world] cannot be conceived as finite, since there are no limits within which it could be confined.”26 By the early 1500s, it wasn’t unusual to discuss the infinite extent of the universe, the infinite number of stars, the plurality of inhabited worlds, etc. Shouldn’t we therefore view Copernicus as a conservative (at least in some respects), rather than as a revolutionary? And shouldn’t we view Kepler, too, as a conservative?

In the late 1500s, Bruno became the leading champion of infinity. Bruno was an enthusiastic supporter of Copernicus, but it wasn’t heliocentrism that led Bruno to infinity, it was the principle of plenitude (“why would an omnipotent and benevolent God not create everything that He could create?”). Bruno did much to popularize the ideas of infinite space, infinite worlds, and an infinite number of peopled worlds (he even argued that some of these extra-terrestrials were superior to the people on our planet). While Lovejoy accuses some philosophers of verbal gymnastics, he credits Bruno with “bold and rigorous logic.”27 Like Abelard and Spinoza, Bruno was a determinist, and like Abelard and Spinoza, Bruno danced on the brink of heresy, and fell afoul of the authorities.

Lovejoy notes that, during the 1600s, the leading champion of infinity was Descartes, and through Descartes’ influence, the idea became increasingly widespread.

During the 1600s, Pascal turned the idea of infinity in a new direction. While Bruno had rhapsodized about the boundless energy that had resulted in a boundless universe, Pascal found infinity troubling, “not exhilarating but oppressive.”28 Pascal asked, “What is a man, in the midst of infinity?” Pascal saw that man’s consciousness was special, and gave him something that bare infinity lacked, but even this gift couldn’t alleviate Pascal’s gloomy brooding. The case of Pascal shows how the principle of plenitude, though it was based on rationalism (“God must have created the world for a reason”), eventually led to an infinite universe that was baffling to reason (“where does it all end, what’s it all for, and how do we fit in?”). Since reason was baffled, Pascal argued, we should turn to faith, turn to Christianity.

In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Copernican system and the idea of infinity were popularized by writers like Fontenelle. Fontenelle admitted that we couldn’t be certain that other planets were inhabited, but he said it was extremely probable — as probable as that Alexander the Great had once existed. Why would other planets have been created, Fontenelle asked, if not to support people? Various English writers also popularized the ideas of infinity and the plurality of inhabited worlds (the exception being Milton, who adhered to “finitism”29).

Even in the late 1700s, the idea of the plurality of inhabited worlds was still widespread, and was even advocated by leading thinkers such as Kant. Not content to say that other planets were inhabited, Kant speculated about what sort of inhabitants the other planets had. Kant suggested that, as we move further from the earth, the beings on each planet become more perfect. Such wild speculations don’t increase our respect for rational philosophy.

3. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
    If this be error and upon me proved,
    I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The final couplet is silly and pointless, unless it’s viewed as a play on “ever” and “never”. As I said in an earlier issue, the poet frequently played with “ever” and “never” since his own name was E. Vere (Edward de Vere). In this sonnet, “ever” and “never” occur in lines 5 and 6, as well as in the final couplet. According to the Prince Tudor Theory, the poet’s love is his son, Southampton, and Southampton’s worth is unknown (line 8) because his royal birth is a secret.

© L. James Hammond 2009
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1. Ch. 16, p. 247 back
2. Ch. 3, p. 70 back
3. Ch. 3, p. 72 back
4. Ch. 3, p. 70 back
5. Ch. 3, p. 74 back
6. Ch. 3, p. 74 back
7. Ch. 3, p. 76 back
8. Ch. 3, p. 78 back
9. Ch. 3, footnote 7, p. 342 back
10. Ch. 3, p. 86; see also p. 84 back
11. Ch. 3, p. 86 back
12. Ch. 3, p. 86 back
13. Ch. 3, p. 95 back
14. Ch. 3, p. 93 back
15. Ch. 3, p. 96. Even a critic of Lovejoy must admit that there’s something admirable in such a bold, sweeping conclusion. As for me, I’m not a critic of Lovejoy, and I think his conclusion is not only bold but accurate; I think his emphasis on contradiction, on inner tension, is appropriate. Another great historian of culture, Panofsky, also emphasized contradiction, inner tension; Panofsky argued that the Renaissance and Baroque periods were torn between Classical values and Christian values. back
16. Ch. 4, p. 101 back
17. Ch. 4, p. 103 back
18. Ch. 4, p. 105 back
19. Ch. 4, p. 106 back
20. Ch. 4, p. 108 back
21. Ch. 4, p. 108 back
22. Ch. 4, p. 108 back
23. Ch. 4, p. 109 back
24. Ch. 4, p. 109 back
25. Ch. 4, p. 109 back
26. Ch. 4, p. 113 back
27. Ch. 4, p. 121 back
28. Ch. 4, p. 126 back
29. Ch. 4, p. 138 back