For over a month now, South Koreans have been asking a rather unusual question for citizens of a modern democracy: whether their president, Park Geun-hye, could have been under the influence of the supernatural while in office.
A recent post in one of the blogs at Discover Magazine the other day had me thinking about the shape of science over time.
The article made me wonder about the divide between the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sciences, and how we might better define and delineate them. Perhaps in a particular field, the greater the proliferation of “schools of though,” the more likely something is to be a soft science? (Or mathematically speaking, there’s an inverse relationship in a field between how well supported it is and the number of schools of thought it has.) I consider a school of thought to be a hypothetical/theoretical proposed structure meant to potentially help advance the state of the art and adherents join one of many varying camps while evidence is built up (or not) until one side carries the day.
Theorem: The greater the proliferation of “schools of though,” the more likely something is to be a soft science.
Generally in most of the hard sciences like physics, biology, or microbiology, there don’t seem to be any opposing or differing schools of thought. While in areas like psychology or philosophy they abound, and often have long-running debates between schools without any hard data or evidence to truly allow one school to win out over another. Perhaps as the structure of a particular science becomes more sound, the concept of schools of thought become more difficult to establish?
For some of the hard sciences, it would seem that schools of thought only exist at the bleeding edge of the state-of-the-art where there isn’t yet enough evidence to swing the field one way or another to firmer ground.
Example: Evolutionary Biology
We might consider the area of evolutionary biology in which definitive evidence in the fossil record is difficult to come by, so there’s room for the opposing thoughts for gradualism versus punctuated equilibrium to be individual schools. Outside of this, most of evolutionary theory is so firmly grounded that there aren’t other schools.
Example: Theoretical Physics
The relatively new field of string theory might be considered a school of thought, though there don’t seem to be a lot of other opposing schools at the moment. If it does, such a school surely exists, in part, because there isn’t the ability to validate it with predictions and current data. However, because of the strong mathematical supporting structure, I’ve yet to hear anyone use the concept of school of thought to describe string theory, which sits in a community which seems to believe its a foregone conclusion that it or something very close to it represents reality. (Though for counterpoint, see Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics.)
To my knowledge, I can’t recall the concept of school of thought ever being applied to mathematics except in the case of the Pythagorean School which historically is considered to have been almost as much a religion as a science. Because of its theoretical footings, I suppose there may never be competing schools, for even in the case of problems like P vs. NP, individuals may have some gut reaction to which way things are leaning, everyone ultimately knows it’s going to be one or the other ( or ). Many mathematicians also know that it’s useful to try to prove a theorem during the day and then try to disprove it (or find a counterexample) by night, so even internally and individually they’re self-segregating against creating schools of thought right from the start.
Looking at the furthest end of the other side of the spectrum, because there is no verifiable way to prove that God exists, there has been an efflorescence of religions of nearly every size and shape since the beginning of humankind. Might we then presume that this is the softest of the ‘sciences’?
What examples or counter examples can you think of?Syndicated copies to:
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Stephen Greenblatt provides an interesting synthesis of history and philosophy. Greenblatt’s love of the humanities certainly shines through. This stands as an almost over-exciting commercial for not only reading Lucretius’s “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), but in motivating the reader to actually go out to learn Latin to appreciate it properly.
I would have loved more direct analysis and evidence of the immediate impact of Lucretius in the 1400’s as well as a longer in-depth analysis of the continuing impact through the 1700’s.
The first half of the book is excellent at painting a vivid portrait of the life and times of Poggio Bracciolini which one doesn’t commonly encounter. I’m almost reminded of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, though Greenblatt has far more historical material with which to paint the picture. I may also be biased that I’m more interested in the mechanics of the scholarship of the resurgence of the classics in the Renaissance than I was of that particular political portion of the first century BCE. Though my background on the history of the time periods involved is reasonably advanced, I fear that Greenblatt may be leaving out a tad too much for the broader reading public who may not be so well versed. The fact that he does bring so many clear specifics to the forefront may more than compensate for this however.
In some interesting respects, this could be considered the humanities counterpart to the more science-centric story of Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. Though Simon Winchester is still by far my favorite nonfiction writer, Greenblatt does an exceedingly good job of narrating what isn’t necessarily a very linear story.
Greenblatt includes lots of interesting tidbits and some great history. I wish it had continued on longer… I’d love to have the spare time to lose myself in the extensive bibliography. Though the footnotes, bibliography, and index account for about 40% of the book, the average reader should take a reasonable look at the quarter or so of the footnotes which add some interesting additional background an subtleties to the text as well as to some of the translations that are discussed therein.
I am definitely very interested in the science behind textual preservation which is presented as the underlying motivation for the action in this book. I wish that Greenblatt had covered some of these aspects in the same vivid detail he exhibited for other portions of the story. Perhaps summarizing some more of the relevant scholarship involved in transmitting and restoring old texts as presented in Bart Ehrman and Bruce Metzter’s The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption & Restoration would have been a welcome addition given the audience of the book. It might also have presented a more nuanced picture of the character of the Church and their predicament presented in the text as well.
Though I only caught one small reference to modern day politics (a prison statistic for America which was obscured in a footnote), I find myself wishing that Greenblatt had spent at least a few paragraphs or even a short chapter drawing direct parallels to our present-day political landscape. I understand why he didn’t broach the subject as it would tend to date an otherwise timeless feeling text and generally serve to dissuade a portion of his readership and in particular, the portion which most needs to read such a book. I can certainly see a strong need for having another short burst of popularity for “On the Nature of Things” to assist with the anti-science and overly pro-religion climate we’re facing in American politics.
For those interested in the topic, I might suggest that this text has some flavor of Big History in its DNA. It covers not only a fairly significant chunk of recorded human history, but has some broader influential philosophical themes that underlie a potential change in the direction of history which we’ve been living for the past 300 years. There’s also an intriguing overlap of multidisciplinary studies going on in terms of the history, science, philosophy, and technology involved in the multiple time periods discussed.
This review was originally posted on GoodReads.com on 7/8/2014. View all my reviews
Eating at In-N-Out has always been a religious experience for me, but today, to mix things up when ordering lunch, I tried making my order by number, but not In-N-Out’s traditional #1, #2, or #3 system.
I got myself
- a Nahum 1:7
- a Revelation 3:20 with cheese
- two Proverbs 24:16s
- two John 3:16s
- and a Chocolate Proverbs 3:5.
“What?!” you ask. “I’m all too aware of In-N-Out’s ‘Secret menu’ and have heard of a 4×4 and even a mythical 20×20, but what is a Nahum 1:7?!”
In-N-Out aficionados have probably noticed that the company prints references to Bible verses with just the book, chapter, and verse on their burger wrappers, fry containers, and on the bottom of their cups, so why not order this way as well?
For those not in-the-know, here’s the “translation” to help make your next meal more religious than it already was:
Products and Bible Verses
Burger and cheeseburger wrappers:
I’ll note a few interesting things:
- The verse for the hamburger is about dining together with others – this is always important.
- If you substitute the product the wrappers contain for the words “Lord,” “God,” and “Son,” there is certain sense of poetic verisimilitude in the new verses: their shakes apparently have a heavenly thickness, the double-double sounds like it will fill you up, and the sugary sodas will give you everlasting life. I wonder what would happen if we transubstantiated a hamburger bun?
Animal Style Anyone?
Now if only there were a special chapter and verse for getting my burger “animal style!”
Genesis 7:2 perhaps?
This might be far preferable to Exodus 22:19:
But let’s be honest, with all the fat, salt, sugar, and cholesterol in a good-ol’ traditional #1, I’m going to die sooner than later whether it comes animal style or not.
I’m curious how many In-N-Out employees know their product so well that they can take orders this way?
Syndicated copies to:
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This series of 12 audio lectures is an excellent little overview of Augustine, his life, times, and philosophy. Most of the series focuses on his writings and philosophy as well as their evolution over time, often with discussion of the historical context in which they were created as well as some useful comparing/contrasting to extant philosophies of the day (and particularly Platonism.)
Early in the series there were some interesting and important re-definitions of some contemporary words. Cary pushes them back to an earlier time with slightly different meanings compared to their modern ones which certainly helps to frame the overarching philosophy presented. Without a close study of this vocabulary, many modern readers will become lost or certainly misdirected when reading modern translations. As examples, words like perverse, righteousness, and justice (or more specifically their Latin counterparts) have subtly different meanings in the late Roman empire than they do today, even in modern day religious settings.
My favorite part, however, has to have been the examples discussing mathematics as an extended metaphor for God and divinity to help to clarify some of Augustine’s thought. These were not only very useful, but very entertaining to me.
As an aside for those interested in mnemotechnic tradition, I’ll also mention that I’ve (re)discovered (see the reference to the Tell paper below) an excellent reference to the modern day “memory palace” (referenced most recently in the book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything) squirreled away in Book X of Confessions where Augustine discusses memory as:
Those interested in memes and the history of “memoria ex locis” (of which I don’t even find a reference explicitly written in the original Rhetorica ad Herrenium) would appreciate an additional reference I subsequently found in the opening (and somewhat poetic) paragraph of a paper written by David Tell on JSTOR. The earliest specific reference to a “memory palace” I’m aware of is Matteo Ricci’s in the 16th century, but certainly other references to the construct may have come earlier. Given that Ricci was a Jesuit priest, it’s nearly certain that he would have been familiar with Augustine’s writings at the time, and it’s possible that his modification of Augustine’s mention brought the concept into its current use. Many will know memory as one of the major underpinnings of rhetoric (of which Augustine was a diligent student) as part of the original trivium.
Some may shy away from Augustine because of the religious overtones which go along with his work, but though there were occasional “preachy sounding” sections in the material, they were present only to clarify the philosophy.
I’d certainly recommend this series of lectures to anyone not closely familiar with Augustine’s work as it has had a profound and continuing affect on Western philosophy, thought, and politics.Syndicated copies to:
This must certainly be the quote of the week from English author Alan Bennett’s play Forty Years On:
Constitutional debate continues over whether public schools should include biblical Armageddon alongside global warming in end-of-world curriculum.