Wednesday, December 28, 2011

By the Book

Practically all the books I own are the old fashioned kind made of paper and ink. I no longer shelve every book as soon as it is read. It has to be “shelfworthy.” I sometimes thin out the existing books on the shelves by asking the question, “Would I ever read this again, even in principle?” You know what I mean. We all own books we most likely never again will reopen, but which we at least can envision ourselves reopening if we had enough time. I keep those, and you probably do too. The ones I wouldn’t reopen no matter how much time is available get tossed.

Nevertheless, the number of books in the house still shows a net gain each and every year. Last night I tried cramming some Stephen Baxter (the Manifold trilogy) on a shelf where there was no room. There was no choice but to push Zola to the right on the very last shelf and then start shifting books from left to right and shelf to shelf all the way back to Aesop. Baxter thereby got the needed space, but Aristotle literally fell on my head in the process, and he was on my mind the rest of the evening.

The rules of logic we still use (occasionally) were formalized in a text written by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. This was a profound achievement. Unfortunately, Aristotle didn’t stop when he was ahead. He wrote on every imaginable subject from zoology to physics, and he got most of it wrong. There is no shame in that. At such an early stage of scientific inquiry, it would be far more surprising if he got very much right. Yet, sometimes he was so very wrong – weirdly wrong – that it forces us to wonder what he was thinking.

For example, Aristotle claims that thought occurs in the heart. The brain, he says, merely cools the blood. Outside the walls of the Capitol building, this is false. Aristotle says that women have fewer teeth than men. I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt on this one: maybe he counted in the mouth of a woman who had fewer teeth, at least at the point in time when he looked. A larger sample, though, quickly would have proven this wrong. He tells us that a heavy object falls faster than a lighter one. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to try it. He got the laws of motion wrong. An arrow, he explains, is impelled by the air rushing in behind it after it leaves the bow; in a vacuum, he says, it would just fall to the ground in front of the bow. He says that the earth is the center of the universe, and that the sun orbits the earth. In fairness, this was the mainstream opinion of his day, but some ancient astronomers disagreed with it; Aristarchus wrote that the earth and other planets orbit the sun while only the moon orbits earth. Copernicus credited Aristarchus when he revived the idea in 1543. 

Still, once again, there is no shame in making mistakes. The shame belonged to Medieval scholars who relied mulishly on Aristotle rather than do any independent research of their own. Science was stalled for centuries by their acceptance of his authority.

There is something to be said for intellectual authority. All opinions are not equal. When experts clash with laymen, the experts almost surely are right – especially in matters of science or engineering. “Almost surely” is not quite the same as “surely,” however; in more humanistic matters, it is not the same at all. There are cases when the crackpots turn out to be right.

It doesn’t ever hurt to recall Aristotle’s rules of logic (which – amazingly, considering his track record – he got right) and give any topic some independent thought of one’s own. The brain is not just for cooling the blood. Remembering that might even make a good New Year’s resolution. I hope I’ll have more success with it than with some of the others in years past.

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