Taking A Look At Science Through The Eye Of The Good Professor

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
The following essay describes scientific thinking, analysis, and results from a non materialistic perspective.

Submitted: July 25, 2009

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Submitted: July 25, 2009



Richard Nixon Was From Another Planet


My Room Beaufort Hotel


May 25, ‘77


 Morning coffee, and I didn’t have to bicycle to get it. Great!  It was a good movie last night, too, but the highlight of the evening was David Frost’s interview with Richard Nixon. I was glad I at least caught one of his interviews. I couldn’t believe Nixon was our President, or maybe I should say that I did believe the office of the presidency concealed the man. Unless the President wanted to reveal himself, he could remain completely obscured by the pomp and circumstance of the office. Nixon was a rheumatoid. He lived in a make-believe world. He told Frost the reporters on the news program Sixty-minutes were out to get him. He said most of their reporting was fabricated, but he also said that he had only watched the program once in his life. What a jerk. He lived in the dark ages. He probably kept Machiavelli’s book, The Prince, at his bedside. I once told my Philosophy professor, jokingly of course, that I thought Nixon was from another planet. After listening to him last night, that joke was not so obvious. But, then again, as I remembered it, I thought that that old professor of mine was from another planet, also. He talked as if he was, anyway.


My professor didn’t believe in the practice of “common sense,” or at least that was what he told the class. Maybe he was right! If Nixon could get elected to the most powerful office in the world, and in the process, rain terror down upon all those he labeled un-American, then maybe we didn’t live in a world that practiced common sense after all. To be fair, though, I think I understand better now what Dr. Gill was aiming at when he told the class he didn’t believe in common sense. Back then, however, I didn’t understand him at all. To me, back then, he even sounded like a space alien. What he was trying to get into our heads was that a large part of what was being taught in school was wrong. In particular, the “common sense” notion that John Locke popularized was wrong.


Locke, who was a member of Sir Isaac Newton’s inner circle of friends, popularized the work of astronomers and physicists of his day. Newton’s discoveries showed that the planets moved by mechanical principles. And, since mechanics characterized the objective world at the time, Locke was able to make the distinction between the “real empirical world of objective reality” and that much more individualistic world of our subjective impressions. Locke turned this empirical worldview into his theory of knowledge. Not only did Locke’s theory account for the celestial mechanics of his time, it also produced enlightened ideas on religion and politics—the same ideas that later served as the foundation for the AmericanRepublic.


 Locke could not be faulted for his conclusions, especially the ones that followed directly from his conception of a deterministic universe. After all, he was only drawing conclusions from the science of his time. Religion, for Locke, became a personal, individual, subjective matter, while science dealt with objective fact. The science of mechanical determinism weeded out all teleological explanations of purpose in nature. Any explanation that had anything to do with purpose became bad science. Following up on this reasoning, Locke developed his theory of knowledge.


All knowledge, according to Locke, came from sensation. Consequently, according to Dr. Gill’s interpretation of Locke: “In order to produce science, three different kinds of reality were involved. A fact consisted in 1) the material object as it sent out rays of light that 2) struck the sensory organs that communicated with the brain that in turn, 3) created an idea corresponding to the original object. Truth consisted in a point-for-point correspondence between the mental idea and the original scientific fact.” With that set of conditions in place, Locke gave us our empirical understanding of the “real world.” The difficulty with that view, however, was that (as we now know from today’s physics) the first step in that process has been eliminated. The real object--the material out of which objects are made-- as well as the space in which they are located, are all constructs. In this new reality, facts are known only in terms of the highly developed theories of which they are part. What that meant for Dr. Gill, (as far as I can tell so far), was that when things were seen correctly, they were seen scientifically, but seeing things correctly did not necessary mean seeing things the way they actually were. It simply meant seeing things in the most informed way possible. Dr. Gill believed objectivity was itself “an internal, subjective, developmental discovery, as was the real world out there.” In other words, Lock’s “common sense” notion of science and scientific discovery, according to Dr. Gill, “had blurred, on a significant level, our lived interior and exterior boundaries.”

Gill’s Answer To Locke-Science Is About Method And Logical Structure Not Objectivity


Dr. Gill told the class that that method of seeing—scientific seeing, was first discovered by the Greeks, most notably by Pythagoras and Plato, and then reached its fruition in the geometry of Euclid of Alexandria. Later, Archimedes of Syracuse also made some important contributions. And, when Medieval artisans and craftsmen, in the pursuit of artistic growth, combined geometry (theorems and axioms) with their own experimental methods, the scientific method as we know it began to take shape. That method matured in the work of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler.


In order to see how scientific results were produced through the application of method and analytical thought, “one only had to look at how Kepler” according to Gill, “cast his solution to the problem of Mars in geometric form, or how Galileo extended the methods of Archimedes (his work in hydraulics and mechanics) to the dynamics dealing with momentum and gravity.”  Newton’s Principia was also written like a geometry text, and that also was an instructive example of how method and analytical thought worked together to produce scientific results. According to Gill, knowledge meant structure; “systematically ordered structures originating in social or mathematical milieus.” The formal sciences with their axiomatic deductive arrangements demonstrated that idea. But, so too did human behavior.


According to Dr. Gill, action and knowledge shared a natural unity. Actions expressed knowledge, not as the “sum of accumulated facts,” but more as a form of developed action. “Education,” Gill was fond of saying, “totally over estimated the importance of gathering facts.” The empirical disciplines were based on the mistaken assumption that their methods were scientific. Because of that assumption, the “hard sciences” became separated from the humanities by bottomless abyss. By throwing out the worldview of “common sense,” Dr. Gill was reestablishing science and the humanities on same “playing field.” Once all was on equal footing, he was free to pursue his pet project—applying analytical tools to ethical behavior. His mission, academically speaking, was to take ethics and morality out of “the circus sideshow antics of the moral relativists,” and put them squarely back where they belonged—in the rarified air of logical necessity.


Well I’m not going to settle that debate here.  Whose morality are we talking about anyhow-- the guy’s with the “biggest stick,” or the guy promising eternal life? Most likely our ex-President, Mr. Nixon, would say, “Hit first, and be ethical latter!” Dr. Gill would say that doesn’t make sense, and would jot down a few theorems to prove it. The debate goes on!




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