Saturday, 23 July 2011

explanations

Human beings have always looked for explanations, at least in recorded history. However, we can only speculate whether the earliest humans offered themselves any kind of explanation for a range of observable natural phenomena—a rainbow, thunder and lightning, rain and snow, floods, the wind, tides, day and night, the waxing and waning of the moon, seasons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions—but by the time of the first city-states, explanations were being offered, and accepted.

Unfortunately, these early explanations always seemed to involve supernatural entities, who were invariably capricious and/or malevolent, to be propitiated by any means available, including the sacrifice of fellow humans. Over the next few millennia, this crude stereotype became more sophisticated in its explanations, and in the range of categories, physical and psychological, for which it offered these explanations. These, in their new and more refined state, became widely believed, even though their acceptance did not depend on an objective analysis of the evidence, because none was offered. None was required. Unquestioning belief in the efficacy of the explanations was the sole stipulation. Later commentators would call this phenomenon religion.

Meanwhile, fed up with the obvious lacunae in the above explanations, groups of humans decided that knowledge is the key to explanation, and the only sure road to knowledge is through the application of reason. The best-known proponent of this viewpoint is probably Aristotle, who believed, inter alia, that the Moon is a perfect translucent sphere, because any other explanation for what he saw in the night sky would violate the dictates of reason. It is interesting to speculate on his reaction, should there be some way to bring it to his attention, to Galileo’s perfect rebuttal of this ludicrous assertion: if the Moon had been a perfect sphere, then the amount of light reflected by the centre of the disc would have been much greater than that reflected around the edges. Of course, Galileo had the advantage of the knowledge, gained by using a telescope, that the surface of the Moon is not smooth; it is covered in mountains and craters. This affords an explanation for what is actually observed, because an irregular surface reflects light equally in all directions, hence there is no discernible difference in brightness between the centre and the periphery of the lunar disc. It is ironic that Aristotle’s approach to explanation came to be known as philosophy, given that the word derives from the Greek philosophia, ‘lover of wisdom’. ‘Lover of guesswork’ would be a more accurate description.

Although these two systems for explaining the world we live in should have been mutually incompatible, and priests and sages should have regarded each other with deep suspicion, by the late Middle Ages in Europe they had come together to formulate a definitive explanation of, well, everything. The sage claimed that the Sun revolves around the Earth on philosophical grounds, while the priest averred that any other explanation contradicted the authority of his book of legends and was therefore false. The ancient Greek conception of the wheel as the ideal of perfect motion became official Roman Catholic doctrine, and the Church found itself committed to the ‘wheel of the heavens’. It was as if Ptolemy’s system had been invented not by a Roman citizen living in Egypt and writing in Greek but by the Almighty himself.

By this time, however, a third method for seeking explanations for natural events had begun to challenge this uneasy alliance, a method based on observation and measurement. This was the start of science, which really did offer an explanation for everything. At least, that is what its practitioners claimed to be able to do.

In the vanguard of this challenge was a Polish priest, Nicolaus Copernicus, who published On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in 1543. This book rejected the then current explanation of the movement of heavenly bodies, postulating that the Earth revolves around the Sun rather than vice versa. Nowadays, we are apt to think of ‘revolution’ as meaning some kind of radical and possibly violent change, but this is a secondary meaning that the word acquired as a direct result of the work of Copernicus.

However, the bigger revolution, in progress while the book was being researched and written, was someone else’s fault. Martin Luther had decided to muddy the religious argument by insisting that you didn’t need a priest to explain things; you could work it out for yourself. There was just one snag. The book of legends was your research material. Meanwhile, the Counter-Reformation, an ultimately futile attempt to reassert the Catholic Church’s authority over its uneducated adherents, was kick-started in response to Luther’s heresy, and it was inevitable that Copernican cosmology would come under scrutiny.

Yet it was to be another ninety years before the heliocentric view faced a major challenge. In 1633, Galileo was hauled before the Holy Office of the Inquisition to explain the views that he had expressed in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published a year earlier. Galileo thought, naively, that all he had to do was to demonstrate that Copernicus had been correct and everyone would listen.

He had reached this conclusion twenty years earlier, but he had judged that the time was not right for a challenge to the accepted order. Then, in 1623, a new and intellectual pope was elected, Maffeo Barberini. The climate seemed right.

Galileo had long conversations with the new pope, but he was unable to persuade him to withdraw or at least by-pass the Church’s prohibition of the Copernican worldview. Nevertheless, he believed that the pope would permit the new ideas to be assimilated slowly into the Church’s teachings, because this was how the ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy had become official doctrine in the first place. He was wrong.

Perhaps Galileo should have noted the early behaviour of this extravagant pope. Barberini had bronze taken from the roof of the Pantheon, a Roman-era building that had survived the Visigoths and the Vandals, to construct the Baldacchino, the preposterous canopy that towers over the papal throne in St Peter’s, an act of vandalism recorded by an anonymous wag in one sentence: quod non fecerunt barbari, fecit Barberini (what the barbarians didn’t do, Barberini did).

The trial of Galileo was a clash of principles: Galileo believed that the ultimate test of any theory can only be found in nature, while Barberini considered this to be an infringement of God’s right to rule the universe by miracle. The eventual verdict, that Galileo was ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’ and was thus required to recant, had one important consequence: the centre of gravity in the development of science moved to northern Europe, and no notable scientists worked in Italy for the next two hundred years.

Thus began the so-called ‘Age of Reason’, although it should be pointed out that ‘reason’ in this context differs from the original Greek definition of the term. The new paradigm was inductive logic: make specific observations or measurements, then infer a general explanation for the phenomena that are observed. Not all such explanations were sound: for example, the phlogiston theory of combustion, popular in the late seventeenth century and most of the eighteenth, did explain many of the observed characteristics of combustion, and it was comprehensively disproved only with Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen in 1778.

New branches of science opened up in the nineteenth century, including geology, thermodynamics and genetics, together with a major theory that greatly upset the religious lobby: the theory of evolution by natural selection. And some apologists for religion remain upset, because it contradicts their own explanations.

The twentieth century saw even more developments in science, including some with serious philosophical implications. Schrödinger’s cat is a good example. This subject of a famous thought experiment ends up simultaneously alive and dead as a result of quantum mechanical effects. However, chaos theory is the concept that carries the greatest philosophical loading in modern science, precisely because its predictions are counterintuitive.

The tired old analogy of a hurricane in the Atlantic being caused by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon rainforest does nothing to explain chaos, so a different category of explanation is required. And neither philosophy nor religion can provide it.

The ‘different category of explanation’ turns out to be art, and the visual arts in particular. However, it should be borne in mind that art provides an insight into the meaning of a given concept rather than what we conventionally think of as an explanation. After all, there are no words, and we are programmed to use words when constructing an explanation. The best insight into the nature of chaos can be found by examining the later paintings of Jackson Pollock, especially the ones that earned him the nickname Jack the Dripper.

Jackson Pollock, No. 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) [National Gallery of Art, Washington].

When news broke in 2006 that Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 had just been sold for $140 million, Britain’s Sun newspaper produced a painter and decorator who said that he could knock out a painting that was just as good for £19.95. It is unlikely that it would have been mistaken for a genuine Pollock, because neither the Sun nor the hapless painter understood what they were trying to poke fun at. However, it is possible to produce a reasonable imitation of a Pollock painting by employing what physicists call a chaotic pendulum to apply the paint to the canvas.

Pollock used household paints, which are much more fluid than conventional art pigments and can thus be dripped and flicked onto the canvas more readily from the sticks and caked brushes that he habitually used. Critics who despise Pollock invariably justify their dislike by pointing out that all these canvases were painted while he was blind drunk. What they don’t realize is that in getting drunk, Pollock was transforming himself into a human chaotic pendulum, although he probably wasn’t aware of this interpretation of his modus operandi.

Look again at Lavender Mist. It is not a random mess, although it may seem like it to the untutored eye. It is an illustration of chaos, which is not the same thing. If you understand this distinction, you are well on the way to understanding the fundamental truth about explanations: if you want to understand something, you don’t have to be clever; you just need the right explanation.

4 comments:

  1. Brilliant essay! I love how you bridged science with philosophy with religion with art... I think few people are practiced at that kind of integration.

    "Love of guessing"--I laughed with a tinge of regret. I love the mind exercise of philosophy and believe in its worth. However, it is so true that philosophical theories are "biographical" views from various philosophers, brilliant as they were.

    I am at least somewhat familiar with most aspects you discussed. I can see no fault in your logic or conclusions.

    I respect that you have the open mind to realize that we all can be mistaken.

    Thanks for the wonderful read. I learned from you!

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  2. Thanks for the feedback PSACHNO. I poke fun at philosophy mainly because it is fertile ground for charlatans, but a lot of good work has been done by real philosophers.

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  3. Thanks Dennis,I'm taking some time and read your such interesting blog topic.actually there are lot of facts known newly.

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