By S. Dorman
Hunting is either a discipline or a confused slaughter. Walking home this morning I thought first, not of hunting, but of my usual route along the road. I was also thinking about writing a paper on Johannes Kepler and emerging science. Then I saw the path leading out of my way, a path I had seen nearly every day but had not taken before. Winter was over, this grassy path was greening, but flanking tall thin trees and branches still had that barren look. I was not then considering or observing them closely.
Before long the trees had closed behind me, the path had split in two, its main track dipping into mire, and a drier offshoot, curving away out of sight. Soon it was lost altogether so I picked my way while considering that it was turkey hunting season, that I had heard shots in these woods every day this week, and that a few years before a man had been found innocent of manslaughter in a hunting accident because he had seen a deer where there was no deer.
The Polish-born British mathematician Jacob Bronowski insists there are “no atomic facts.” If “[i]n the language of science, every fact is a field,” perhaps every fact is also a forest “—a crisscross of implications, those that lead to it and those that lead from it” (Bronowski 52). The forest, with its great promise of fecundity, was in some ways like the fertile mind of Johannes Kepler hidden amid the devastating experience and surroundings during the Thirty Years’ War.
I had been mentally stewing the elements of my reading for a paper on differences between rational and non-rational progressions, using prescribed texts, including Bronowski’s. And, because of this forest I found myself in, I was asking questions about the court’s judgment on the hunting accident. However, from the moment we first heard it, the judge’s ruling seemed to many irrational.
A young mother, while hanging clothes on the line in her yard, and wearing white mittens because there was a chill in the air, was shot dead by a hunter who, watching through tangles, thought that her hands in their movement were the “flag” of a leaping whitetail deer. The case had been argued around the definition of the word “saw.” Because the defendant “thought” therefore it was adjudicated that he actually saw. Although there were arguments and attempts at qualification, this was taken rationally as a concrete fact. Again for emphasis, according to reports, the ruling was based upon what the man “saw,” not “thought he saw.”
Irrational. Worse even than provisional, about which Wendell Berry says, in his Standing by Words,
We may know that we are forming a conclusion on the basis of provisional or insufficient knowledge — that is a part of what we understand is the tragedy of our condition. But we must act, nevertheless, on the basis of final conclusions, because we know that actions, occurring in time, are irrevocable.
The path had disappeared and I was picking my way through a close land of hummocks bristling with trees, thick with what Mainers call puckerbrush, strewn with the detritus of trees ground down by the skidder during logging. Away and above me on either side, firm bulks of fir-covered ridges shouldered above the narrow valley. Were these great solid boundaries like the crystalline “solids” holding the planets in their orbits (so concrete to the medieval mind of Kepler)—or were they analogous to the true elliptical orbits of his first law?
It was now the time of ticks and there were little swamps here and there to be stepped in or avoided if I wanted to find my way out of the hodgepodge of decay surrounding me. I was working from analogy, likenesses, part of the process of both detached and passionate thought. Our winter had ground down and the forest was scattered with all the dead leavings of its natural life, but now I had begun to think of A.N. Whitehead’s counter-agency pushing forth new delicate green life on old stiff twigs, pushing off their old dead leaves. I thought, Here are the thickets of thought out of which observation emerges. Here are the old dead ideas that Kepler’s speculative reason had to work from along with his inherited data.
There is reciprocity between all these dead things and that burgeoning freshness of counter-agency, what A.N. Whitehead called appetition, rendering each impotent without the other. A seed (the multitude of acorns, pine cones, maple seeds, strewing the chaotic woods) is essentially dead without that counter-agency or appetition, a natural craving for life cracking it open, destroying in the process, and transforming its destruction into new life. Was I seeing the dogmatism mentioned in Whitehead as nurturing mulch for the emerging dynamo of humanism’s speculative reason? According to Kepler’s chaotic, humbling, painful, mistaken, yet exhilarating and ultimately mathematically precise process of discovery, I was. His passionate fixed obsession with the spherical solids was at once both obscurantism and the appetition of his true discoveries: his “precise, verifiable statements about universal relations governing particular phenomenon, expressed in mathematical terms.”
My paper would both discuss and demonstrate the differences between the two perspectives, synthesizing and harnessing their reciprocity to my instructor’s directive. To quote Donald Lewis, “I am not insisting that a reflective, analytic approach to mystery is the only valid one. [. . .] Thought and its order perpetually approaches its object, but never possesses it.” There is always that mysterious force we haven’t yet understood, holding it at a distance. Is it provisional to shoot because you want the moving bit of white you are seeing to be a deer? Is it rational to base court judgments upon such a wish? Knowing, as we do, that we can’t see the future or the unforeseen consequences of our acts, isn’t it, rather, rational to base our actions upon what is presently known, and our judgments upon what was actually done?
Again Wendell Berry: There “are times, according to the only reliable ethics we have, when one is required to tell the truth, whatever the urgings of purpose, audience, and situation. Ethics requires this because, in the [. . .] practical realities of our lives, the truth is safer than falsehood.” (See also his discussion of the language, used by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in deliberation of what to tell the surrounding community after the Three Mile Island disaster.)
Bronowski did well to be affected by what he saw at Nagasaki, and bring it to bear with regard to science and to human values. He mooted if the catastrophe there, and its blame, could be laid at the threshold of science. Yet ultimately he decided that “science has humanized our values” and that “the scientific spirit is more human than the machinery of governments. [. . .] Our conduct as states clings to a code of self-interest which science, like humanity, has long left behind” (Bronowski 70). And again he says, “Science has nothing to be ashamed of in the ruins of Nagasaki. The shame is theirs who appeal to other values than the human imaginative values which science has evolved” (73).
This claim is irrational.
Hunting with a gun is either a discipline or a confused slaughter. The hunter must know whether he or she is wishfully “seeing” the deer or actually seeing the deer. Legally, in Maine, it is not permissible to shoot a doe without a permit, or a male deer with a certain size rack; a button buck is not legal. When one cannot see what one is looking for in the thickets, in the forest, in the field, one must at least see what one is looking at. You’ve got an atom bomb in your arsenal and you’re looking for a target on which to use it, but you notice that your enemy is now hurling kamikaze— only boys who know how to take off in machines without landing gear. So what are you looking at? You are now looking at the Japanese nation groping around on its knees. Words may be coming from its mouth sounding like words of war, white hands in mittens may be hanging clothes upon a line looking like the white tail of a deer, but what are we really seeing?
Today gunpowder is used only in black powder hunting and for show in military reenactments. Bronowski chose to contrast the dropping of the atom bomb with the Thirty Years’ War, ultimately absolving science of responsibility in both. But “science has humanized our values”: It was the church, state, the “authorities,” who did this. Certainly, in the past, there was slaughter with the sword, with the longbow, the crossbow, the slingshot, burnings, etc; the designing, making, forging, tempering of these weapons was a part of the methodology and speculation of both ancient and medieval emergent science/technology. Cannon and gunpowder played a big role during Kepler’s struggles (1618-48).
First used in warfare circa CE 1000, science made gunpowder possible. Galileo sold rights to his telescope for a thousand scudi a year, the makers of telescopes—and other instruments—selling for military, exploratory, and mercantile purposes. It seems that science is either a handmaiden of the values or the morality of the day. (Values here being commercialism and fascination or allure.) It is not as Bronowski said elsewhere in the book: that “[w]hat a scientist does is compounded of two interests: the interest of his time and his own interest. [. . .] The need of the age gives its shape to scientific progress as a whole.” But is need the right word?
For greater accuracy and to couple better with the criterion of “interest,” substitute “spirit” for “need.” Neither science nor humanity have left behind coding of self-interest. J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb,” quoted the Indian deity: “Now I am become death.” Scientists may or may not surmise an interconnected potentiality of their discoveries, which their appetition may unleash upon a world bound by this code of self-interest. Oppenheimer excused consequences because working toward “the sweet spot” was their proper business.
Both Bronowski and Whitehead show our dogma of progress, through which the counter-agency must surge, as it did with Kepler, to birth what Galileo called “Truth,” (while the latter was scrupulously guarding discoveries with games and puzzles in his correspondence). The community of science has abhorred religion’s pitiless dogmatism and persecution of a previous age upon the new Truth of Science. But humanism is still considering that “ ‘[t]he first rift in this darkness is the Copernican doctrine’; as if a new hypothesis in astronomy would naturally make a man stop hitting his daughter about the head.” Kepler himself, with his tragically brutal childhood, his beautiful elliptical orbits, and his dogmatically fixed idea of the five solids, would have thought our dogma of progress a peculiar claim. And, “The Truth,” is always cited but we have other, more important, things to consider.
According to Whitehead obscurantism is the common sense to which we resort in order to keep our society orderly: associations of professionals and society at large. By “common sense” he means that with which we seek to preserve whatever ground lately gained for our current authorized truth. “What looks like stability is a relatively slow process of atrophied decay.” scientists today would not consider Galileo’s obscurantism with regard to Kepler’s laws common sense.
Kepler himself would forget the truth of the planetary laws, from time to time, in small part because they were embarrassing given the culture of his time. (It was Newton who, after Kepler’s death, unearthed for the world these beautiful laws of the motions of the planets out of the welter of Kepler’s written words. Koestler showed that Galileo’s obscurantism was not morally neutral but based on self-interest. But Johannes Kepler was buoyant, generous, truthful (upholding the facts), rational and irrational. Today his obscurantism would not even be called common sense. He clung to the Pythagorean solids and his beloved geometric harmonies, held in tension with his science. The whole tale of these laws is rife with obscurantism, even from Tycho Brahe, with his dense bedrock of largely untapped data, his assorted hoarded instruments, his grasping son-in-law, etc., of which only the bedrock of data might be described as morally neutral.
If morality wants to use something it may use obscurantism, and I am wishing that obscurant common sense had come into play when it was decided that splitting the atom might be of interest. What was Koestler’s “healthy problem crying lustily for an answer” (86) during WW II?—the circumvention of land invasion with its predicted loss of American life. But was this the precise problem in the minds of scientists when they began?
I am wishing that obscurantism would bring all its force to bear upon the issue of cloning. But it has been and is of Interest to the Age—and to science, both speculative and methodological—so the dogmatism of common sense must not be permitted to interfere. So far, sense has prevailed in gene-editing, the mutations of which can distort future generations in ways we know little about and cannot control. We’re having open dialogue about this now and this dialogue is seen as a good thing, but if we are so discussing it, it is already too late. The unthinkable is thinking itself into being.
“The world today is made, it is powered by science; and for any man to abdicate an interest in science is to walk with open arms towards slavery,” said Bronkowski. He was then lecturing and writing these essays in the mid-50s as science was, unthinkingly, developing incipient technology for digital enslavement. When the human spirit is reduced to naturalism’s desires, appetition, aided by its handmaiden profitability, will prevail. Today the Authority we must not sin against is consumerism. An indication of its authority is our empty solely rhetorical rebellion against it. Yet witness its appeal in the lobbies of Congress; and from the mouth of a former president of the United States following destruction of the World Trade Towers: Buy.
In the margin of my paper my professor will write that this is because “we haven’t figured out how to not have an economy based upon expansion.” My retort will be that we had one: It was based upon small local industry, the communal, what was necessary to our needs, repairable and reusable.
In conceptualizing my paper I’ve taken the following quotation as my example: “The scientist or the artist takes two facts or experiences which are separate; he finds in them a likeness which had not been seen before; and he creates a unity by showing the likeness.” In writing this piece I’ve tried to do this in creative illustration of the idea.
All his adult days, in the superstitious Middle Ages trending into what would be called an age of rationalism, Kepler was seeing the Pythagorean solids, his fixed idea, the inspiration of his intellectual life. Even while working laboriously through Tycho Brahe’s data and allowing the truth of the elliptical orbits to emerge, this was what he came back to, this seeing of something that was not there.
The passion of his appetition was misplaced, but the foundation of solar science survived his devotion to the Pythagorean solids. We can only be grateful that these solids, so tightly gripped in his medieval hands, were not as a loaded gun in the hands of an ignorant hunter unable to recognize with patience what it is exactly that he is looking at. But, now in this time, when it is so important that we do see, science has gone beyond gunpowder. If only it were now, and with true seeing, that our emotional purpose, our counter-agency, were common sense.
S. Dorman is author of Maine Metaphor and Fantastic Travelogue: Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis Talk Things over in The Hereafter. She blogs occasionally at Superversive Inklings.