Galileo Furioso

January 31, 2011

I am just beginning a new biography of Galileo by Heilbron, and what an unusual biography it is!  Rather than giving us a blow-by-blow of the life of the great man in embryo, we are almost immediately tossed into the chaos and ferment of late Renaissance Italian intellectual life.  Perhaps the details of Galileo’s early life are few and far between anyway.  But, more surprising, the attitude of the writer towards his famous, sainted subject is frequently one of ironic detachment and humor.  No hagiography here!  It’s an exhilarating and fresh approach to a man who is crucial in the history of modern science, but whose own accomplishments seem relatively slender compared to Newton and some others.

One of the most entertaining and unusual elements of the biography is its focus on Galileo as an aspiring literary lion of Florence.  He wrote criticism of poetry, fought in furious and futile intellectual battles over the relative merits of Tasso, Dante, and Ariosto, was instrumental in diagraming the true extent of the Inferno as described in The Divine Comedy, and was influenced by the ironic epic, Orlando Furioso, as much as he was by Aristotle.  Not exactly a typical resume for a giant of early modern science.  (Of course, we conveniently forget that Isaac Newton spent more time on numerology and alchemy than he did on physics.)

I have been hearing about Orlando for so many years now, it’s time to read it.


Better late than never…

December 24, 2008


The Catholic Church has come around, a bit… Galileo is in from the cold.

Along with the birth of Jesus, perhaps tomorrow we can reflect on all that Isaac Newton has given to the world.  He too was born on Christmas Day.

Epistemic Solipsism of the Present Moment

February 17, 2008


The philosophic point of view that nothing can be known to exist (and perhaps nothing does exist) beyond the “sense impressions” we are having right now… Reading this page… And who are we? Are we only thought balloons of somebody else’s mentality? Am I sleeping on the operating table of the evil Doctor Galvani, dreaming you dreaming me? Am I a brain-in-a-vat?

Richard Sala, “My Father’s Brain”

And how do I know that you are not all robots, cleverly mimicking the patterns of human behavior. Give you a Turing Test?! After all, some people seem to be barely human. Perhaps we need to cut open some people to find out. Or peer into their heads/brains/minds.

Nothing exists, but the clear mirror of mind, reflecting…nothing.

And then there’s Philonus, of course, the one chatting with Hylas in the dialog by George Berkeley (and nattering on about drainage). You know, the philosophical conversation that proves that “to be is to be perceived.” Nothing exists when we don’t see it or hear it (trees falling in the forest and all that) but for the mind of God, who is eternally watching. As Bertrand Russell relates in his History of Western Philosophy:

There was a young man who said “God”
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”


Dear Sir:
Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about in the Quad,
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed byYours faithfully,GOD.

Berkeley intended his philosophic works to be a refutation of atheism and of materialist science. He was particularly annoyed at the glorious reception given to Newton’s theories, especially that of universal gravitation, which was, after all, an occult force, or a force acting at a distance. (How in heaven’s name could one object ever act upon another without any physical contact!!?) No one had ever seen it! No one knew how it worked! They just believed in it because it made so many things simpler.

Did George Berkeley have the last laugh? The university was named for him, and Hume, another man with some wonderfully subversive ideas, did say of his work that it admitted of no refutation…but, alas, carried no conviction. There’s a backhanded complement for you. As for Samuel Johnson, he kicked a dirt clod and pronounced, “I refute him thusly.” Just so do the running dog lackeys of the empiricist scourge support their simpleminded theories of the nature of the world.

Diamond’s View

January 31, 2008


Such a changed France have we; and a changed Louis. Changed, truly; and further than thou yet seest!–To the eye of History many things, in that sick-room of Louis, are now visible, which to the Courtiers there present were invisible. For indeed it is well said, ‘in every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.’ To Newton and to Newton’s dog Diamond, what a different pair of Universes; while the painting on the optical retina of both was, most likely, the same! Let the Reader here, in this sick-room of Louis, endeavour to look with the mind too.

from A History of the French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle

Diamond was, according to legend, Sir Isaac Newton’s favorite dog, which, by upsetting a candle, set fire to manuscripts containing his notes on experiments conducted over the course of twenty years. According to one account, Newton is said to have exclaimed: “O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done.”

from Wikipedia

What I don’t know…

December 9, 2004

So, William Blake, great poet, visionary, “romantic”, and social critic of sorts didn’t much like Mr. Issac Newton. Not a very flattering portrait of him here, naked and rather inept looking, as he tries to ape the great geometer and create the world, or something. Just a man, a naked man, not a god, as some (Blake felt) would have it in his day. And he wrote:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.The Atoms of Democritus

and Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

But Newton, arrogant, perhaps egomaniacal, though he was, knew what he didn’t know. When asked to explain in detail what was the nature of Gravity he famously replied, “I do not frame hypotheses.” [Hypothesi non fingo.] He knew Socrates’ saying, “I know that I know nothing.” He wasn’t about to go into esoteric, unfounded, unnecessary, and mystical explanations of what seemed to his contemporaries to be an occult force acting at a distance. He just knew that his “laws” of gravity described everything very nicely indeed. And made quite accurate predictions possible as well. As to what Gravity is, well, he left that to philosophers. (And perhaps to those who enjoy parsing what the meaning of is is. A good question, if you ask me.)

Which brings me to my point here, that people who profess to be believers in God, and who insist that those who do not believe are daft, stupid, or simply missing the obvious, are people who don’t know, or don’t want to know what they don’t know. Understanding the depths and extent of one’s ignorance is a very important step towards knowledge. Our ancient forebears, when faced with phenomena they feared and could not explain, develped cults, magic, and eventually religions. These evolved into sophisticated cultural instruments that spawned complex ethical systems, artistic production, political dogmas and a lot of other stuff, but if you don’t accept the basic God-premise, they are pretty much beside the point. Not that their content is worthless, but you might as well get to the same place by a different route if you don’t accept that premise. And what does it come down to in the end…a refusal to accept ignorance, lack of knowledge. A fear of the void in our knowledge.

I have come to conclude that such believers share much more with the crude, reductionist, vulgar materialist, atheists they scorn and pity so much. Both types have an unshakeable need to answer all questions with a definite answer. (Thus the absurd contention by believers that atheism is just another religion, one that “worships” science. Well, sadly, that is true sometimes, for some people.) When faced with the Big Bang, the believer asks, quite reasonably, “But what created the Bang, what was before, wasn’t there a little-bitty-something that started it all?” And if the rationalist says, “Well, we aren’t sure right now, we don’t know,” the believer says, “Aha, see, that’s God!” Better to leave what you don’t know alone until you do know it.