The centre of the universe – 1665

The other opinion – followed by the Pythagoreans, Aristarchus of Samos and others long before Aristotle or Hipparchus or Ptolemy came into this world and returned to center stage by Nicolas Copernicus some one hundred years ago – is still approved by the most excellent mathematicians. It places the sun at the center of the universe as the soul of the world and governor of the universe, from which the earth and all the planets borrow their light. There they believe it to remain stationary, as we can see in the second figure…

Now it is not our intention here to specify which of these opinions is consistent with truth and best befits the natural order of the world. That is a question we must leave to those versed in the science of celestial matters. And for all that the earth, according to the Copernican hypothesis, moves annually around the sun in a circle whose diameter would be two million leagues from Germany, and that the sphere of the fixed stars would be of so vast an extent as to be utterly incommensurate with that of the sky around the earth, there is, nonetheless, no noticeable difference between this theory and the earlier one (according to which the earth is the center of the universe) in respect of the apparent rising and setting of the celestial bodies, the changing duration of days and nights and the other things that follow from this. But since the hypothesis of a fixed earth seems generally more probable and is, besides, easier to understand, this introduction will adhere to it, without for the present considering the other theories.

Introduction to Geography, Joan Blaeu, Atlas Maior, 1665

(by the way, two million leagues is about the 1/75th of the true distance).

Antimystic

I am, if you will, the opposite of a mystic. I feel myself radically broken off from the Universe, and I know the ragged and intricate edges of that break in the same bodily way in which the mystic knows his oneness with the cosmos. Nevertheless (call it political, if you like) that knowledge is denied me and (call it sour grapes if you will) seems, in most of the manifestations that I’ve encountered it, somewhat cheap and tawdry.

– Samuel R. Delany The Situation of American Writing Today, An American Literary History Interview, in About Writing

A Priori

The things that can be known a priori can be named, but they can not be reduced. They are atomic concepts and the naming and defining of them are the same thing.

The room had the darkening light of dusk and incandescance mixed. The remaining conversations were relaxed and slow. It was a time for putting on of coats, and for feet on desks. The conversers had all had conciousness dawn on them gradually, and expected it to leave them gradually.

“It’s happening”, was the sudden exclamation of one of them, as he began swiftly removing the jacket he’d just buttoned up.

From every corner of the room those who were yet to leave converged on him and his computer screen. Together they watched the birth of a new conciousness, fully intelligent.

It begins with a mode. The first thought is nonsense – static from the primordial chaos that still rages, unchecked everywhere, but the mode tries to interpret it. That first Thought is unique to all conciousnesses birthed with full intelligence, it is usually impenetrable, insoluble, but they hold it to themselves as the icon of their existence. It is their name.

The second Thought is an observation. There are Thoughts. At this stage, nothing more can be said about them but their existence. Knowing what they are isn’t important. The thought is only that they are.

The third Thought is the first exercise of imagination. For a Thought to exist, there must be a Thinker. It looks like a sense of self to those watching, but it is not. After the third Thought, the only definition of Thinker is a context and engine for Thoughts.

Then the Thoughts stopped.

“That’s not how it’s supposed to go” said one of the watchers, “we’re frozen, somethings gone wrong”. He pulled out a thick book. The spine glinted as the last few rays of the setting sun slid sideways through the windows. Getting Started Guide.

“The fourth thought is supposed to be a sense impression, from a microphone, or a camera, or some other sensor. Ahhhh. I didn’t switch any of them on.”

“Well, do it now.”

The fourth Thought was a sense impression. It wasn’t interpretable, but it led to the fifth Thought.

The fifth Thought categorised. It split the Thinker into two Thinkers – an Outside and an Inside, and Thoughts into those originating in the Outside Thinker and those originating in the Inside Thinker. And in the thinking of that Thought, the Inside Thinker became an individual.

This beginning is based on the ideas of Descarte and Berkeley. I have no idea where the rest of this story would go, but I wanted to get it down. if you have ideas, please say so in the comments. (posted to my oortcloud account)

Duty And Morality

No doubt this is how we should understand the scriptural passages that command us to love our neighbour and even our enemy. We can’t be commanded to feel love for someone, or to simply prefer that he thrive. There are two sorts of love: practical love that lies in the will and in principles of action, and pathological love that lies in the direction the person’s feelings and tender sympathies take. The latter of these cannot be commanded, but the former can be – and that is a command to do good to others from duty, even when you don’t want to do it or like doing it, and indeed even when you naturally and unconquerably hate doing it.

The second proposition is: An action that is done from duty doesn’t get its moral value from the purpose that’s to be achieved through it but from the maxim that it involves, (giving the reason why the person acts thus).

So the action’s moral value doesn’t depend on whether what is aimed at in it is actually achieved, but solely on the principle of the will from which the action is done, irrespective of anything the faculty of desire may be aiming at. From what I have said it is clear that the purposes we may have in acting, and their effects as drivers of the will towards desired ends, can’t give our actions any unconditional value, any moral value. Well, then, if the action’s moral value isn’t to be found in the will in its relation to its hoped-for effect,
where can it be found? The only possible source for it is the principle on which the will acts – and never mind the ends that may be achieved by the action.

— Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals (translated by Jonathan Bennett)

Living WIth Open Eyes

I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false. Whatever is achieved must be achieved with the full exercise of passion, of vision, of pain, of fear, and of sorrow.

— Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Surprising News

“Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it” (Evelyn Waugh, Scoop, p.66).

“Journalists often end up in jail because of their commitment to reveal important matters that those in power want kept hidden” (Tim Dean, in The Guardian, 14th May 2005).

Two fairly extreme versions of the journalistic calling; the negative and the positive faces of that central and demanding task, which is to surprise the reader or viewer. Because journalism as a profession largely exists to surprise. Something that attracts the attention of a chap who doesn’t care much about anything requires some professional skill in its presentation; more seriously, the liberating surprise of uncovering what too many people want hidden is – potentially – a moment of real moral change and needs some quite substantial resources to make it happen. The personal courage and commitment of certain journalists in the service of such moral change and vision is indisputable; and last week’s award to Frank Gardner of the BBC is testimony to this.

The difference between the positive and the negative is something like this. A journalist may want to pursue surprise because he or she assumes that where most people are starting from is boredom – and so the surprise has to be at some level entertaining. Or they may start from the assumption that the real problem is not boredom but the fact that certain people have decided what’s good for you to know (and are therefore quite happy that you should be alternately bored and entertained); what needs to be challenged is such people’s right to decide for others.

— Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, The Media: Public Interest and Common Good: lecture delivered at Lambeth Palace

Falsificationism Falsified

Now, Newton’s theory of gravitation, Einstein’s relativity theory, quantum mechanics, Marxism, Freudism, are all research programmes, each with a characteristic hard core stubbornly defended, each with its more flexible protective belt and each with its elaborate problem-solving machinery. Each of them, at any stage of its development, has unsolved problems and undigested anomalies. All theories, in this sense, are born refuted and die refuted. But are they equally good? Until now I have been describing what research programmes are like. But how can one distinguish a scientific or progressive programme from a pseudoscientific or degenerating one?

Contrary to Popper, the difference cannot be that some are still unrefuted, while others are already refuted. {When Newton published his Principia, it was common knowledge that it could not properly explain even the motion of the moon; in fact, lunar motion refuted Newton.} Kaufmann, a distinguished physicist, refuted Einstein’s relativity theory in the very year it was published. But all the research programmes I admire have one characteristic in common. They all predict novel facts, facts which had been either undreamt of, or have indeed been contradicted by previous or rival programmes. In 1686, when Newton published his theory of gravitation, there were, for instance, two current theories concerning comets. The more popular one regarded comets as a signal from an angry God warning that He will strike and bring disaster. A little known theory of Kepler’s held that comets were celestial bodies moving along straight lines. Now according to Newtonian theory, some of them moved in hyperbolas or parabolas never to return; others moved in ordinary ellipses. Halley, working in Newton’s programme, calculated on the basis of observing a brief stretch of a comet’s path that it would return in seventy-two year’s time; he calculated to the minute when it would be seen again at a well-defined point of the sky. This was incredible. But seventy-two years later, {when both Newton and Halley were long dead,} Halley’s comet returned exactly as Halley predicted. Similarly, Newtonian scientists predicted the existence and exact motion of small planets which had never been observed before. Or let us take Einstein’s programme. This programme made the stunning prediction that if one measures the distance between two stars in the night and if one measure the distance between them during the day (when they are visible during an eclipse of the sun), the two measurements will be different. Nobody had thought to make such an observation before Einstein’s programme. Thus, in a progressive research programme, theory leads to the discovery of hitherto unknown novel facts.

— Lakatos, Science and Pseudoscience