Galileo -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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The greatest Renaissance scientist of them all was probably Galileo (1564-1642). Having already made great discoveries in the field of projectiles and falling objects, Galileo, a convinced supporter of the Copernican position, was the first astronomer to make use of the recently invented telescope to investigate the heavens. His observations left not a single stone standing of the old view of the universe. The moon, far from being a perfect sphere, was an irregular surface, with mountains and seas. Venus had phases like the sun, and, most important of all, Jupiter had four moons. The Church maintained that there were seven planets, because seven was a mystical number. How could there be eleven? The image of the professor refusing to look through Galileo’s telescope has passed into the folklore of scientific history, summing up the clash of two antagonistic world outlooks.

In recent years, attempts have been made to minimise the Church’s persecution of science. Pope John Paul ll launched an investigation into the "Galileo Affair." That enquiry, published in 1992, revealed "grave reciprocal misunderstandings," and errors on both sides. But it all happened in "a cultural context very different from ours." In October 1993, the Pope delivered a message to a Conference at Copernicus’s alma mater, the University of Ferrara, commemorating the 450th anniversary of the publication of the Polish astronomer’s book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. He was, says the Pope, a man both of science and of faith. In fact, the only reason Copernicus escaped persecution by the Church was to make sure his book saw the light of day when he was in a very safe place—the cemetery!

Galileo was put on trial twice by the Inquisition, once in private (1616) and once in public (1633). The second time he was forced to recant his views. He promised never again to claim that the earth goes round the sun or rotates on its axis. In this way, the Church silenced the greatest scientist of the age, and in the process killed off science in Italy for a long time. A worse fate befell others. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was burnt at the stake in Rome after eight years imprisonment.

Bruno was an uncompromising materialist. He had been influenced by Nicholas of Cusa, who argued that the universe has no beginning or end in space or time. Bruno’s materialism was coloured by a kind of pantheism, the idea that God is everywhere and nowhere, that is, that God and nature are one and the same. In a concept similar to that of the old Ionian hylozoism, he held that matter was an active, self-moving substance, and that man and his consciousness was part of nature, which was a single whole. Following in the footsteps of Nicholas of Cusa, he argued that the universe is infinite. He deduced that the universe consisted of an infinite number of worlds, some of them possibly inhabited. It is easy to see why the Church saw these startlingly modern ideas as subversive. Bruno did not shrink from paying for them with his life.

The Roman Church did not have a monopoly of the persecution of new ideas. The Protestant Luther denounced Copernicus as "an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun or the moon." As Engels observes, "At that time, natural science also developed in the midst of the general revolution and was itself thoroughly revolutionary; it had indeed to win in struggle its right of existence. Side by side with the great Italians from whom modern philosophy dates, it provided its martyrs for the stake and the dungeons of the Inquisition. And it is characteristic that Protestants outdid Catholics in persecuting the free investigation of nature. Calvin had Servetus burnt at the stake when the latter was on the point of discovering the circulation of the blood, and indeed he kept him roasting alive during two hours; for the Inquisition at least it sufficed to have Giordano Bruno simply burnt alive." (Engels, Dialectics of Nature, p. 32.)

Despite all reverses, the new mode of thinking, steadily gained ground, until, by the late 17th century, it had won a decisive victory. The same scientists, who, in the name of orthodoxy, had condemned the ideas of Galileo, in practice quietly dropped the discredited Ptolomeic cosmology. The discovery of the circulation of the blood by William Harvey (1578-1657) revolutionised the study of the human body, destroying the old myths. The discoveries of science, more than the logical disputation of the philosophers, made the old views untenable.

Although the traditional methods of the Schoolmen remained in place for a long time, they were increasingly seen as out of step with reality. The growth of science proceeded on other lines, and with other methods—observation and experiment. Once again, England was in the vanguard in advocating the empirical method. The most prominent proponent of this was Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who was for a time Lord Chancellor of England under King James I, until he lost his position as a result of being too successful in enriching himself by accepting gifts from litigants. Thereafter he put his talents to better use writing books.

Bacon’s writings are full of sound, practical common sense, and are materialist in the English, that is empirical, sense of the word. The general spirit of his works is that of a good natured and witty man of the world. Unlike Sir Thomas More, Bacon was not the stuff that martyrs are made of. He accepts the orthodox religion, just because he attaches little importance to general principles. But religion plays no role in his philosophy, which is inspired by the idea of developing learning as a means of increasing man’s power over nature.

He reacted against the dogmatism of the Schoolmen, with their "unwholesome and vermiculate" disputes which end in "monstrous altercations and barking questions." The only times he displays real indignation is when he touches on this subject:

"This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the Schoolmen: who having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle their dictator) as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and knowing little history, either of nature or time, did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books. For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff, and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit." (F. Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, p. 26.)

Here we have the healthy reaction against the sterile method of idealism which, turning its back upon the real world, spins fancies out of its own head and takes them for the truth just because they correspond to a set of preconceived prejudices which are taken as axioms. Instead of this, Bacon urges us to "imitate nature, which doth nothing in vain." (Ibid., p. 201.) Significantly, he prefers Democritus the atomist to Plato and Aristotle. Speaking ironically of the Supreme Craftsman who was supposed to have created the world from nothing, he asks a pertinent question:

"For if that great Workmaster had been of a human disposition, he would have cast the stars into some pleasant and beautiful works and orders, like the frets in the roofs of houses; whereas one can scarce find a posture in square, or triangle, or straight line, amongst such an infinite number; so differing a harmony there is between the spirit of man and the spirit of nature." (Ibid., p. 133.)

This is a very important point, and one that is too often forgotten by scientists and mathematicians, who imagine that their equations represent the ultimate truth. In nature there are no such perfect forms, no triangles, no circles, no planes, only real material objects and processes, of which these ideal representations are only rough approximations. Bacon understood this very well, when he wrote:

"Hence it cometh, that the mathematicians cannot satisfy themselves except they reduce the motions of the celestial bodies to perfect circles, rejecting spiral lines, and labouring to be discharged of eccentrics. Hence it cometh, that whereas there are many things in nature as it were monodica, sui juris; yet the cogitations of man do feign unto them relatives, parallels, and conjugates, whereas no such thing is." (Ibid.)

The abstract generalisations of science, including those of mathematics, are only of use insofar as they correspond to the real world, and can be applied to it. Even the most fruitful and ingenious generalisation will necessarily only reflect reality in an imperfect and one-sided way. The problem arises when idealists make exaggerated claims for theories which they elevate to absolute principles to which reality is expected to conform.

The most recent trend in science, chaos theory, is returning, on a much higher level, to the fruitful line of argument of Bacon and the materialists of the Renaissance, who, in turn, represented the rediscovery of a much older tradition, that of the Greek materialism of the Ionic and atomic schools. Bacon evolved his own materialist conception of nature, based on the idea that matter was made up of particles endowed with manifold properties, one of which was motion, which he did not limit to mechanical motion, but advanced the brilliant hypothesis that heat itself is a form of motion. Motion is here regarded, not merely as an external impulse, as a mechanical force, but as an inherent quality of matter, a kind of vital spirit or inner tension. Marx likens it to the term used by the German philosopher Jakob Böhme, "Qual," which cannot be easily translated, but which signifies extreme inner tension, or "torment," as with a living thing. Thus the primary forms of matter are endowed with movement and energy, almost like a living force. Nowadays we would use the word energy. Compared with the lifeless, wooden mechanistic conceptions of the following century, this view of matter is strikingly modern, and comes close to the position of dialectical materialism.

This last observation brings us close to the heart of the matter. The real significance of Bacon’s philosophy was that it pointed the way forward. Although incomplete in itself, it contained the seeds of future development, as Marx explains in The Holy Family:

"In Bacon, its first creator, materialism still holds back within itself in a na•ve way the germs of a many-sided development. On the one hand, matter, surrounded by a sensuous, poetic glamour, seems to attract man’s whole entity by winning smiles. On the other, the aphoristically formulated doctrine pullulates with inconsistencies imported from theology." (MECW, Vol. 4, p. 128.)

Bacon’s theory of knowledge was strictly empirical. Like Duns Scotus, he emphatically denied the existence of "universals." He developed the method of reasoning known as induction, which is already present in the works of Aristotle. This is a way of studying things experimentally, in which we proceed from a series of single facts to general propositions. As an antidote to the arid idealism of the Schoolmen, this was an important advance, but it had serious limitations, which later became an obstacle to the development of thought. Here we see the beginning of that peculiarly Anglo-Saxon aversion to theory, the tendency towards narrow empiricism, the slavish worship of the "facts," and a stubborn refusal to accept generalisations which has dominated educated thought in Britain and, by extension, the United States, ever since.

The limitations of a strictly inductive method are self-evident. No matter how many facts are examined, it only takes a single exception to undermine whatever general conclusion we have drawn from them. If we have seen a thousand white swans, and draw the conclusion that all swans are white, and then see a black swan, our conclusion no longer holds good. These conclusions are hypothetical, demanding further proof. Induction, in the last analysis, is the basis of all knowledge, since all we know is ultimately derived from observation of the objective world and experience. Over a long period of observation, combined with practical activity which enables us to test the correctness or otherwise of our ideas, we discover a series of essential connections between phenomena, which show that they possess common features, and belong to a particular genus or species.

The generalisations arrived at over a lengthy period of human development, some of which are considered as axioms, play an important role in the development of thought and cannot be so easily dispensed with. The thought-forms of traditional logic play an important role, establishing elementary rules for avoiding absurd contradictions and following an internally consistent line of argument. Dialectical materialism does not regard induction and deduction as mutually incompatible, but as different aspects of the dialectical process of cognition, which are inseparably connected, and condition one another. The process of human cognition proceeds from the particular to the universal, but also from the universal to the particular. It is therefore incorrect and one-sided to counterpose one to the other.

Despite claims made to the contrary, it is impossible to proceed from the "facts" without any preconceptions. Such supposed objectivity has never existed and will never exist. In approaching the facts, we bring our own conceptions and categories with us. These can either be conscious, or unconscious. But they are always present. Those who imagine that they can get along quite happily without a philosophy, as is the case with many scientists, merely repeat unconsciously the existing "official" philosophy of the day and the current prejudices of the society in which they live. It is therefore indispensable that scientists, and thinking people in general should strive to work out a consistent way of looking at the world, a coherent philosophy which can serve as an adequate tool for analysing things and processes.

In the Introduction to The Philosophy of History, Hegel rightly ridicules those historians (all too common in Britain) who pretend to limit themselves to the facts, presenting a spurious facade of "academic objectivity," while giving free reign to their prejudices:

"We must proceed historically—empirically. Among other precautions we must take care not to be misled by professed historians who...are chargeable with the very procedure of which they accuse the Philosopher—introducing a priori inventions of their own into the records of the Past...We might then announce it as the first condition to be observed, that we should faithfully adopt all that is historical. But in such general expressions themselves, as ‘faithfully’ and ‘adopt,’ lies the ambiguity. Even the ordinary, the ‘impartial’ historiographer, who believes and professes that he maintains a simply receptive attitude; surrendering himself only to the data supplied him—is by no means passive as regard the exercise of his thinking powers. He brings his categories with him, and sees the phenomena presented to his mental vision, exclusively through these media. And, especially in all that pretends to the name of science it is indispensable that Reason should not sleep—that reflection should be in full play. To him who looks upon the world rationally, the world in its turn presents a rational aspect. The relation is mutual. But the various exercises of reflection—the different points of view—the modes of deciding the simple question of the relative importance of events (the first category that occupies the attention of the historian), do not belong to this place." (Hegel, The Philosophy of History, p. 10.)

Bertrand Russell, whose views are diametrically opposed to dialectical materialism, makes a valid criticism of the limitations of empiricism, which follows in the same line as Hegel’s remarks:

"As a rule, the framing of hypotheses is the most difficult part of scientific work, and the part where great ability is indispensable. So far, no method has been found which would make it possible to invent hypotheses by rule. Usually some hypothesis is a necessary preliminary to the collection of facts, since the selection of facts demands some way of determining relevance. Without something of this kind, the mere multiplicity of facts is baffling." (Op. cit., p. 529.)

Thus, the Baconian school of thought exercised a contradictory influence upon subsequent developments. On the one hand, by stressing the need for observation and experiment, it gave a stimulus to scientific investigation. On the other hand, it gave rise to the narrow empiricist outlook that has had a negative effect on the development of philosophical thought above all in Britain. In The Dialectics of Nature, Engels points out the paradox that this same empirical school, which imagined that it had disposed of metaphysics once and for all, actually ended up accepting all kinds of mystical ideas, and that this trend "which, exalting mere experience, treats thought with sovereign disdain...really has gone to the furthest extreme in emptiness of thought." (Engels, The Dialectics of Nature, p. 68.)

The immediate battle against religion had been won. Science was set free from the bonds of theology which had kept it in thrall for so long. This was the prior condition for the giant leap forward of the next period, when more was achieved in a century than in the whole of the previous thousand years. But the new world outlook was still insufficiently developed, characterised in general by a shallow and naive empiricism, that was far from sufficient to get rid of religion and idealism once and for all. "The emancipation of natural science from theology," wrote Engels, "dates from this, although the fighting out of particular mutual claims has dragged on down to our day and in many minds is still far from completion." (Ibid., p. 32.) One hundred years later, despite the undreamed-of advances of science and human knowledge, the war has still not been decisively won.

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