Update from Janet, September 2011

A former student asked me here last week: do you plan to publish something on this “incredibly important” conversation?  He meant the conversation between science and faith and the lively conversation with physicists (and one biologist) that took place on deepgraceoftheory.com between 2007-09. So here’s an update on what I’ve been doing since then.

The conversation attempted here is important, I agree, and yes, I am planning to publish things related to it, and growing out of it. I am finishing up a sequence of essays on  Greek theory of knowing — a theory of the irreducibly many ways of knowing on which liberal arts education was originally based — working out of the Greek texts of Plato and Aristotle, but surveying the entire course of the arts & sciences (liberal arts) tradition in Western history and more broadly. These essays are addressed primarily to literary theorists in my own field, but I try to keep the natural scientists and mathematicians always in view as well. So I discuss elegant paradigms for disciplined knowing taken from Galileo and Newton, and from geometry and mathematics, as well as linguistics and poetics.

If these essays help to initiate the kind of respectful conversation between the ways of knowing that we all would love to see, then I will go back to finishing my book, which is addressed to a more general audience, especially to physicists and to theists and to anyone else who cares about the liberal arts and the life of the mind, and who is saddened by the distrust and misunderstanding between “science” and “religion,” as between cultural theorists and those academics who are more scientifically oriented (including analytic philosophers like Dawson and Searle).

I have been working on this particular task for more than nine years now. If I had known how hard it was going to be, perhaps I might never have started. But at this point, at last, I have the arc and sweep of my larger argument worked out, and not simply various pieces of it. The work has crystalized, so to speak, and I’m happy with the essays I will begin sending out for publication this fall. [Update in 2018:  This didn’t happen. I sensed that the essays were still too narrowly focused–hence ineffective for my purposes. As it turned out, I needed to do a lot more thinking, until 2018, to understand how to show that they were tied in the larger historical & philosophic analysis.]

The lively back and forth on this website a few years ago proved to be a real springboard for me: it continues to guide me and give me insight into the problems I am treating from the point of view of the physicists and biologists. I cringe to think of the many missteps I would be making unawares, if it had not been for their honest expressions of dismay and impatience with this “innumerate humanist” (sometimes even when I thought I had been the most clear, tactful, and forbearing). The physicists — and one biologist — who conversed with me here taught me what the hot buttons really are and how to avoid pushing them accidentally; I suspect this will have improved my ability to communicate persuasively with the scientific segment of my audience.

So I am very grateful to the great conversation partners I had here from the natural sciences, mostly sent over originally by Jennifer Ouelette from Cocktail Party Physics, or else engaged with originally at Sean Carroll’s Cosmic Variance website. (3quarksdaily.com was also very helpful in orienting me — it is a treasure of a news and features aggregator for those in the sciences, and its editors were encouraging to me.) I am especially grateful to the Socratic lovers of deliberative conversation who faithfully discussed my “Wily Socrates” posts — and participated in that one very long conversation — a real workout for everyone involved — on Part I of my introductory lecture on Literary Theory (over in Pages).

Traces of that conversation on Plato’s Ion will surely be discernible in the work that will have emerged from it.

Wily Socrates # 3

Continuing Conversations…. First a couple of quick announcements and then we’ll get back to reading Plato’s Ion below.

Folks, we’ve have some great conversations going on! (I’d better add a Page called Red-Hot Comment Threads, just to keep you up to date on the conversations that’re happening here, which can’t be seen from the front page.)

Also, over at 3 Quarks Daily, I noticed two very important thought pieces I’d like to recommend quickly, before returning to Plato’s Ion. First, there’s a piece on the “Progressive Muslim” movement, showing some affinities to the thinking of those postmodern Christian theologians we discussed back in my Kevin Hart post, about whom some of us are interested. I’m particularly struck by the way these Islamic believers are combining a “conservative” or “traditionalist” (for lack of better terms?) approach that is pushing back against mere (theological) liberalism, along with, at the same time, an urgent cry for social justice and putting that into practice. (This has affinities, fo course, to what is going on within Evangelicalism.)

The other piece I’d like to recommend is on “evo-devo,” a newer field of scientific research into “evolutionary development.” They’re finding that it doesn’t take endless eons of random mutations to produce evolutionary advances, because certain proteins can turn on and over-produce and speed things way up. It even deals with Darwin’s finches as an example. Talk about historical synchronicities….

Now, back to the on-going “Wily Socrates” posts! My idea here was to use Plato to introduce for our consideration some fresh vocabulary terms, that we might be able to use for talking about disciplines as diverse as physics and poststructuralism. (So far I’ve introduced the terms “formal ike” and the “formal-kind-of-thing,” and “rhetor-ike” and “poiet-ike”….

We’re working on this website towards a set of descriptive terms that are less contentious and less loaded than some of the terms already in use, such as “truth,” in the sense of “universal” or “absolute” truth, and “objective truth” as implicitly opposed to non-objective (i.e. subjective) untruth, all of which are terms that have heavy, heavy histories since the Enlightenment and have been subjected to a good deal of criticism and contention in the 20th century…. We want to have a vocabulary permitting us to accredit the genuine (and enviable) strengths of science, its experimental verification procedures, its mathematical elegance and precision, and its drive toward ever-increasing comprehensiveness, while still allowing for the substantial rigor of non-scientific fields whose subject-matters are not amenable to the same approaches.

Remember, by the way, that my own first field is 17th century studies, and so I have been immersed for many years in the historical texts in which the new ideas of the Enlightenment emerged, in support of the rise of science, and, to my enormous regret, these “worldview” attitudes and assumptions are not so neatly separated from the simple doing of science itself, even though I want to agree with what Rick, for example, so thoughtfully argues. (You could take a look at Caroline Merchant’s collection of 17th-century texts dealing with the new methodology in The Death of Nature, for instance.)

But when I am trying to characterize some historical and cultural outlooks associated with science, it seems that our scientists who are explaining quantum mechanics (QM) on this site (under Session One, Part # 4) are feeling that humanists and theorists such as myself do not always understand the “continuity” of Newtonian science with later science, or science’s beautiful neutrality and honesty and openness to revision (qualities I take to be fundamental to any way of knowing that claims to be in the liberal arts tradition).

In fact, I think we have established so far that for science, as a liberal art, “objectivity” and “comprehensiveness” are fundamental characteristics that are precisely defined in science. (We need precise distinctive features for each of the disciplines, along with some fresh general terms for what they all have in common…)

Personally, I might prefer to call scientific “objectivity” something more like “experimental verification,” because the heavily laden Cartesian term “objective” too quickly calls up “subjective” as its binary opposite and its only alternative. (But I can live with it if I have to….) Every discipline, after all, has testing and verification procedures, and to that extent could be called objective. (But we don’t use the word that way. Only the evidence adduced in the sciences is usually labeled “objective,” unless I am greatly mistaken.)

Unfortunately, the formal-kinds-of-things that many disciplines must deal with aren’t always susceptible to the repeatable lab experiment as their basic verification procedure. Whenever possible, it seems to me, such will be sought as a correlative or as a secondary support. (Poststructuralist language theory, for instance, can guide the setting up of some scientific studies and be confirmed by them, as can Chomskian language theory. The experiments however cannot at this point verify one or the other approach, or the precise combination of them we should adopt, and in complex ways the theories overlap and yet remain incommensurate. This is going to take a lot of work!)

In Plato’s Ion, as we’ve seen, Socrates takes to task the first Western literary critic and theorist (the rhapsode Ion of Ephesus) for not understanding the basic formal requirements necessary for any “-ike” (pronounced “EE-kay”). Perhaps this term “ike” is too awkward for us to adopt, but techne isn’t much better, because “technical standards” or “technical competence” today does not convey the pure formal brilliance of Plato’s more incisive terminology. Since techne is translated “art” (though it includes the sciences too, as in “the liberal arts”) perhaps I should use the term “artistic standards” and “artistic competence.” Or simply “formal standards” and “formal competence”?

In the next section of the dialogue, we will see Socrates introduce the first two formal (or artistic) features that will be observable in any genuine liberal art, with a view to distinguishing the genuine art or science from mere sham and pretence.

Also in this next section of the dialogue, we will see that Socrates appears to have a very low opinion of Ion’s “artistic” or “technica”l or “formal” competence. Before long, Socrates will be questioning whether poetics (poietike) is an –ike at all. But in the meantime, we will learn that if any way of knowing is to be an ike, then it must have “formal comprehensiveness” and “formal standards of evaluation,” just like every other ike. Also, we’ll see that Socrates uses arithmetic as one of his examples! I hope you enjoy the delicious humor of this little dialogue’s repartee.

Socrates …For the rhapsode ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? All this is much to be envied, I repeat.

Ion Very true, Socrates; interpretation has certainly been the most laborious part of my techne: and I believe myself able to speak about Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus or Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor anyone else who ever was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many.

Socrates I am glad to hear you say so, Ion; I see that you will not refuse to acquaint me with them.

Ion Certainly, Socrates; and you really ought to hear how exquisitely I display the beauties of Homer. I think that the Homeridae should give me a golden crown.

Socrates I shall take an opportunity of hearing your embellishments of Homer at some other time. But just now I should like to ask you a question. Does your art extend to Hesiod and Archilochus, or to Homer only?

Ion To Homer only; he is in himself quite enough.

Oh, that innocent-seeming, yet lethal little “Socratic question”! The sound you just heard was the sound of a steel trap, springing shut upon the clueless Ion of Ephesus! (Okay, an iron-age trap.)

Socrates Are there any things about which Homer and Hesiod agree?

Ion Yes; in my opinion there are a good many.

Socrates And can you interpret what Homer says about these matters better than what Hesiod says?

Ion I can interpret them equally well, Socrates, when they agree.

Socrates But what about matters in which they do not agree? For example, about divination of which both Homer and Hesiod have something to say –

Ion Very true.

Socrates Would you or a good prophet be a better interpreter of what these two poets say about say about divination, not only when they agree, but when they disagree.

Ion A prophet.

Socrates And if you were a prophet, and could interpret them where they agree, would you not know how to interpret them where they disagree?

Ion Clearly.

Socrates But how do you come to have this skill about Homer only, and not about Hesiod or the other poets? Does not Homer speak of the same themes which all other poets handle? Is not war his great argument? And does he not speak of human society and of intercourse of men, good and bad, skilled and unskilled, and of the gods conversing with one another and with mankind, and about what happens in heaven and in the world below, and the generations of gods and heroes? Are not these the themes of which Homer sings? [Here’s a place where we get an idea of what the rhapsodes said about Homer to their audiences, but it is Socrates who supplies it, sounding very much the literary critic, himself! –jlb]

Ion Very true, Socrates.

Socrates And do not the other poets sing of the same?

Ion Yes, Socrates; but not in the same way as Homer.

Socrates What, in a worse way?

Ion Yes, in a far worse.

Socrates And Homer in a better way? [Notice it is Socrates who introduces the subject of standards of evaluation, and Ion merely echoes him. Ion is very good at learning the words by rote! But can he use the formal standards and put them into action? -jlb]

Ion He is incomparably better.

Socrates And yet surely, my dear friend Ion, where many people are discussing numbers, and one speaks better than the rest, there is somebody who can judge which of them is the good speaker?

Ion Yes.

Socrates And he who judges of the good will be the same as he who judges of the bad speakers?

Ion The same.

Socrates One who knows the science of arithmetic? [Lit. The one who possesses the “techne arithmet-ike”?]

Ion Yes.

Socrates Or again, if many persons are discussing the wholesomeness of food, and one speaks better than the rest, will he who recognizes the better speaker be a different person from him who recognizes the worse, or the same?

Ion Clearly the same.

Socrates And who is he, and what is his name?

Ion The physician.

I’ll break off the passage here, and let you ponder the perennially puzzling teaching device of Socratic questioning for awhile…. And the formal features Socrates is beginning to bring into view here as being necessary for any ike…. Questions and comments?