July 22, 2007


Caption: Seamus McGoogle is a keen student of the science of hummingbirds.

It's interesting that some of the current debates on the nature of science and knowledge have ancient roots.

Consider the following questions: does science give objective knowledge about the world that is certain, universal and necessary? Or are all it's results provisional and tentative?

Other ways of putting it might consist of asking whether "laws" of science are discovered or made up? Is it about what is true or what seems to work best to account for experience?

This one goes all the way back to Plato, and probably farther. Plato, inspired by his teacher Socrates, believed that universal knowledge of truth was possible beyond the realm of senses or opinion. His main enemies were the sophists, traveling teachers of reasoning and rhetoric, who tended to be relativistic and pragmatic.

One such was Protagoras, who said "Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not." Plato was not amused.

In his dialogue The Sophist, Plato, through the character of the Stranger, describes this controversy as a war between gods and giants:

There appears to be a sort of war of Giants and Gods going on amongst them; they are fighting with one another about the nature of essence...

Some of them are dragging down all things from heaven and from the unseen to earth, and they literally grasp in their hands rocks and oaks; of these they lay hold, and obstinately maintain, that the things only which can be touched or handled have being or essence, because they define being and body as one, and if any one else says that what is not a body exists they altogether despise him, and will hear of nothing but body...

And that is the reason why their opponents cautiously defend themselves from above, out of an unseen world, mightily contending that true essence consists of certain intelligible and incorporeal ideas; the bodies of the materialists, which by them are maintained to be the very truth, they break up into little bits by their arguments, and affirm them to be, not essence, but generation and motion. Between the two armies, Theaetetus, there is always an endless conflict raging concerning these matters.

Plato, of course, thought he was on the side of the gods. It looks like the earth giants have won a few lately though.

SPEAKING OF GIANTS, congratulations to Jean Edward Smith, professor of history at El Cabrero's alma mater, Marshall University. Smith has won kudos for his recent biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt--peace be unto him. The title is FDR and the publisher is Random House. It has gained many positive reviews around the country.

Dr. Smith was quoted in the Marshall Magazine as saying "Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt stand head and shoulders about the 40 other men who (have) occupied the White House. Washington founded the country, Lincoln preserved it and Roosevelt revived it." Amen.

In El Cabrero's childhood home, it was less risky to make irreverent religious jokes than to dis the Roosevelts. It is now safer for my (legally) adult kids to do the same in my presence.

SPEAKING OF MARSHALL, the same issue of the magazine has an interesting article about how public investments in research at Marshall is starting to (literally) pay dividends. This is yet another example if any is needed of the vital role that public investments in education, research and infrastructure can lead to a high road approach to economic development--in contrast to the low roaders who want to cut these investment, eliminate the minimum wage, and eliminate regulations that protect workers from injury and death on the job.

NATTERING NABOBS OF NEGATIVISM. On a similar note, here's an op-ed by yours truly from yesterday's Gazette about the good things that are happening in WV that can get and keep us on the high road.



Julian Martin said...

Rick--As always I enjoy your brilliance and wit. Now in your latest op-ed you mentioned something called "cutting-edge energy products". Sounds dangerous, what is it?
One of your no doubt many admirers.

Julian Martin

Anonymous said...

what do you mean "legally" dadddd

El Cabrero said...

Hey Julian,
Thanks for the note! Re cutting edge energy products--that does sound pretty risky, doesn't it? I have a hard enough time shaving without doing serious damage.

Hey Pumpkin,
That was a joke! And what are you doing emailing me when you're on vacation?