And then I wrote… the conclusion of my mystery article (where did it get published?) about cosmology and how what we think about the universe shapes the way we study it...
Newton’s immense deterministic system seemed unshakeable. And the only role left for God in such a system is to set the initial conditions, to be (in the Aristotelean sense) the “Prime Mover,” the Great Watchmaker who perhaps built the watch, wound it up, and set it running in its inexorable course.
What is a “Rational” Explanation? Beyond the obvious fallacies of such a system in the light of contemporary physics (according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the “exact knowledge” of a particle’s position and momentum, for example, is meaningless because they cannot both be determined at the same time), there was a more subtle problem with this cosmology. It insisted that every unexplainable experience must have a “rational” explanation, where “rational” was quickly limited in practice to mean the common experience of the one doing the explaining.
G. K. Chesterton, the early twentieth-century British writer who was no fan of Enlightenment rigidity, did not deny the importance of looking for rational explanations. That was, after all, the plot device of virtually all of his Father Brown mystery stories. (In these stories, the self-effacing priest sees through any number of New Age con men who expect that, because he is a priest, he must be gullibly open to various “supernatural” experiences.) By contrast to the Catholic Chesterton, his contemporary mystery writer (and creator of the ultra-rational Sherlock Holmes) Arthur Conan Doyle was happily deluded by any number of spiritualist frauds in his later life.
And yet, in Chesterton’s classic book Orthodoxy, he poses the question of whether one should in principle believe in ghosts. The argument of the Enlightenment, after all, was to accept the evidence of one’s senses over a blind credulity in received dogma. But what about the testimony in favour of ghosts by those – usually unlettered peasants – who insisted that they had actually experienced them? Chesterton writes, “You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism [the impossibility of ghosts]... You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist.” (Orthodoxy, Chapter 9)
By being so certain that ghosts cannot exist, one winds up rejecting a priori any evidence to the contrary. How is this rational?
The question is not merely academic. It is fair to say that to this day most people (including the present writer) are extremely skeptical of ghost stories, and yet this Enlightenment attitude also resulted in the rejection of the reality of other natural phenomena which today we must admit are indeed true.
My own field of meteoritics is a classic example. Who among us has actually seen a rock fall out of the sky, and collected it on the ground? Almost no one… almost. And yet, albeit rarely, it does happen. One such fall occurred in 1803 near L’Aigle, France, a hundred miles west of Paris (and many hundreds of miles from any mountains or rocky outcrops). When the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Biot collected samples of these meteorites from the local peasants and reported on them to scientists back in Paris, many of his colleagues were extremely leery. The American philosopher-president Thomas Jefferson wrote thus about these meteorites to his friend, the surveyor Andrew Ellicott: “the exuberant imagination of a Frenchman… runs away with his judgment… it even creates facts for him which never happened…” But today we have in our collections many pieces of the fall from L’Aigle, and any number of repeatable laboratory tests can convince us that this rock did not form on earth, and, furthermore, that it spent many millions of years exposed to cosmic rays in space.
Yet Jefferson did have a point. Our experience of the physical world...
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