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Two world systems February 18, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Science.
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DialogueGalileo Galilei’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, compares the geocentric model of Aristotle and Ptolemy with the heliocentric model of Copernicus, in the form of a discussion between three friends: Salviati, Sagredo, and Simplicio. Salviati is a scientist arguing for the Copernican position; Sagredo is an intelligent and curious layman who becomes persuaded by Salviati’s case; while Simplicio is a faithful follower of the established Aristotelian tradition.

At one point in the dialogue, after Salviati puts forward some observational evidence supporting the heliocentric view, Simplicio expresses confidence in his ability to “once more succeed in reconciling what experience presents to us with what Aristotle teaches. For obviously two truths cannot contradict one another.” Sagredo remarks:

I can put myself in Simplicio’s place and see that he is deeply moved by the overwhelming force of these conclusive arguments. But seeing on the other hand the great authority that Aristotle has gained universally; considering the number of famous interpreters who have toiled to explain his meanings; and observing that the other sciences, so useful and necessary to mankind, base a large part of their value and reputation upon Aristotle’s credit; Simplicio is confused and perplexed, and I seem to hear him say, “Who would there be to settle our controversies if Aristotle were to be deposed? What other author should we follow in the schools, the academies, the universities? What philosopher has written the whole of natural philosophy, so well arranged, without omitting a single conclusion? Ought we to desert that structure under which so many travelers have recuperated? Should we destroy that haven, that Prytaneum where so many scholars have taken refuge so comfortably; where, without exposing themselves to the inclemencies of the air, they can acquire a complete knowledge of the universe by merely turning over a few pages? Should that fort be leveled where one may abide in safety against all enemy assaults?”

I pity him no less than I should some fine gentleman who, having built a magnificent palace at great trouble and expense, employing hundreds and hundreds of artisans, and then beholding it threatened with ruin because of poor foundations, should attempt, in order to avoid the grief of seeing the walls destroyed, adorned as they are with so many lovely murals; or the columns fall, which sustain the superb galleries, or the gilded beams; or the doors spoiled, or the pediments and the marble cornices, brought in at so much cost — should attempt, I say, to prevent the collapse with chains, props, iron bars, buttresses, and shores.

Later on, after Simplicio again mentions his reverence for the great authors of the past, Sagredo recalls an incident he witnessed:

One day I was at the home of a very famous doctor in Venice, where many persons came on account of their studies, and others occasionally came out of curiosity to see some anatomical dissection performed by a man who was truly no less learned than he was a careful and expert anatomist. It happened on this day that he was investigating the source and origin of the nerves, about which there exists a notorious controversy between the Galenist and Peripatetic doctors. The anatomist showed that the great trunk of nerves, leaving the brain and passing through the nape, extended on down the spine and then branched out through the whole body, and that only a single strand as fine as a thread arrived at the heart. Turning to a gentleman whom he knew to be a Peripatetic philosopher, and on whose account he had been exhibiting and demonstrating everything with unusual care, he asked this man whether he was at last satisfied and convinced that the nerves originated in the brain and not in the heart. The philosopher, after considering for awhile, answered: “You have made me see this matter so plainly and palpably that if Aristotle’s text were not contrary to it, stating clearly that the nerves originate in the heart, I should be forced to admit it to be true.”

Simplicio responds:

Aristotle acquired his great authority only because of the strength of his proofs and the profundity of his arguments. Yet one must understand him; and not merely understand him, but have such thorough familiarity with his books that the most complete idea of them may be formed, in such a manner that every saying of his is always before the mind. He did not write for the common people, nor was he obliged to thread his syllogisms together by the trivial ordinary method; rather, making use of the permuted method, he has sometimes put the proof of a proposition among texts that seem to deal with other things. Therefore one must have a grasp of the whole grand scheme, and be able to combine this passage with that, collecting together one text here and another very distant from it. There is no doubt that whoever has this skill will be able to draw from his books demonstrations of all that can be known; for every single thing is in them.

Furthermore, Simplicio asks,

… if Aristotle is to be abandoned, whom shall we have for a guide in philosophy?

Salviati replies:

We need guides in forests and in unknown lands, but on plains and in open places only the blind need guides. It is better for such people to stay at home, but anyone with eyes in his head and his wits about him could serve as a guide for them. In saying this, I do not mean that a person should not listen to Aristotle; indeed, I applaud the reading and careful study of his works, and I reproach only those who give themselves up as slaves to him in such a way as to subscribe blindly to everything he says and take it as an inviolable decree without looking for any other reasons. This abuse carries with it another profound disorder, that other people do not try harder to comprehend the strength of his demonstrations. And what is more revolting in a public dispute, when someone is dealing with demonstrable conclusions, than to hear him interrupted by a text (often written to some quite different purpose) thrown into his teeth by an opponent?

… So put forward the arguments and demonstrations, Simplicio — either yours or Aristotle’s — but not just texts and bare authorities, because our discourses must relate to the sensible world and not to one on paper.

The next day, before Simplicio arrives, Salviati shares with Sagredo his opinion of geocentrism’s defenders:

I have heard such things put forth as I should blush to repeat — not so much to avoid discrediting their authors (whose names could always be withheld) as to refrain from detracting so greatly from the honor of the human race. In the long run my observations have convinced me that some men, reasoning preposterously, first establish some conclusion in their minds which, either because of its being their own or because of their having received it from some person who has their entire confidence, impresses them so deeply that one finds it impossible ever to get it out of their heads. Such arguments in support of their fixed idea as they hit upon themselves or hear set forth by others, no matter how simple and stupid these may be, gain their instant acceptance and applause. On the other hand, whatever is brought forward against it, however ingenious and conclusive, they receive with disdain or with hot rage — if indeed it does not make them ill. Beside themselves with passion, some of them would not be backward even about scheming to suppress and silence their adversaries.

In 1633, Galileo was convicted of suspected heresy by the Roman Inquisition. He was forced to recant Copernicanism under threat of torture, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

The Dialogue was placed on the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books — where it remained until 1835.

The Emperor’s method February 3, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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New clothesOnce upon a time there lived a vain Emperor, who loved to dress in elegant clothes. One day, two tailors presented themselves before the Emperor with an unusual offer:

“We are two highly skilled tailors, and after many years of research we have invented an extraordinary method to weave a cloth of exquisite beauty — which is invisible to anyone who is too stupid to appreciate its quality.”

“Your proposition sounds very interesting,” said the Emperor, “and I would very much like to own a suit made of such an amazing fabric.”

The tailors rubbed their hands and smiled.

“But before I commission your services,” continued the Emperor, “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind taking a little time to demonstrate your product’s extraordinary properties.”

“Of course,” replied the tailors. “It would be our privilege to help your Highness try on our—”

“That’s not what I had in mind,” the Emperor interrupted. “I have a method that I employ in such situations, and it has served me well. Here is what you must do: We shall summon one hundred of my wisest subjects, and divide them into two groups of equal size. (We shall let chance determine who joins which group, by the flipping of a golden coin.) One group shall be presented with a steward clothed in your fabulous fabric; while the other group shall be presented with a steward wearing nothing at all. We shall then see how many members of each group claim to have seen any clothes.”

The tailors exchanged glances, dismayed. “We would love to oblige your Highness,” they said, “but we fear the proposed method is flawed: in our experience, true wisdom is very rare; so it is quite possible that none of the summoned subjects will be capable of seeing our wondrous fabric.”

“I see,” said the Emperor coldly. “Tell me, then: Is there some set of questions, some test we can administer, in order to determine in advance whether a person is wise enough to be able to detect your amazing cloth?”

“Actually, your Highness,” replied the tailors, “we’ve found that the only reliable indicator that a person is wise enough to see our material is that he does, in fact, see it.”

“That is quite unfortunate,” said the Emperor. “I wonder, then, how one could ever possibly tell the difference between your fine product and that of a scoundrel, who offered the same story but no actual fabric at all?”

The tailors looked insulted. “Begging your forgiveness; we are but poor, humble craftsmen, and cannot match your Highness’s intellect. But if your Highness — who is wise indeed — would only be willing to try on our clothes for himself, I’m sure we could demonstrate the quality of our wares to his utmost satisfaction. Surely your Highness would trust the testimony of his own eyes, and the word of his closest advisers? Surely one should follow one’s personal intuitions on such matters, rather than sterile methods and tests?”

The Emperor raised his eyebrows ever so slightly.

No one knows what became of the two tailors, but they were never heard from again.