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By Dr. Gregory L. Froelich
Thomas Aquinas College, California
St. Vince de Paul Lecture and Concert Series
August 27, 2021
It has been a long custom here — probably 50 years — for the opening lecture to do two things: 1) to account for our program of liberal education, often by way of discussing one part, and 2) to address the freshmen principally but not exclusively. I would like to preface my lecture by speaking briefly about this twofold function since it will help me strike the main themes of the talk.
As to the first: most of you will recall Mr. Andres giving the opening lecture last year. He spoke on logic and its essential role in liberal education. He took a part of the whole program, namely freshman philosophy — one year out of four; one course out of six that year — and in explaining why we teach that one part he ably accounted for the whole, for that whole education consists above all in demonstrative knowledge to which the art of logic is ordered. Many of you will remember Mr. Hattrup’s lecture the year before. He talked about the two liberal arts of music and astronomy — the double crown as it were of all the liberal arts — a small part if we take the measure to be time spent in class, yet significant in helping show how the liberal arts lead to a life of philosophy and wisdom, exactly what a program of liberal education such as ours seeks to foster. The year before that, many of you may remember, Mr. Dragoo spoke on the great works of literature we read and discuss in Seminar and how they may be said to contain and even teach profound truths. Now Seminar is in total only ¼ of class time, but Mr. Dragoo gave an account of the whole by showing how that part fits with the rest — like the heart which is vital to the successful operation of the rest of the body — to use the metaphor coined by our founding president Ron McArthur.
Generally then if the parts of our program hang together, and I think they do indeed, then taking one part under examination will in one way or another, bring the rest with it. If the curriculum is finely tuned, then even a small part like music, can reveal the whole. The part I have selected for tonight is a little larger than that, namely, natural science. It is worth mentioning here that in the natural science curriculum you will find ample opportunity to reflect on this relationship between part and whole. Freshmen will consider an empirical proof that the function of the heart is to circulate the blood through the whole body. But the body’s function is not merely to house the heart — that would be circular, not circulatory, reasoning. Would it not be better to say the body, our body, especially in its capacity to sense, exists to serve our intellect, and that our heart is fashioned to suit just such a body? Here is a similar example from outside the curriculum. The avian respiratory system, or how birds breathe, is devised so that a continuous supply of oxygen replenishes the blood — even when the bird exhales! Making for a one way airflow, not oscillating like ours. A dream perhaps of you long distance runners out there. But beware, along with a bird lung comes a bird brain. Such a finely balanced respiratory system indicates something about the bird itself and its place in the whole of nature. For the bird, life is not sedentary, like Rodin’s thinker, but active, hyperactive, as busy as a bee, if not busier since their business is more self-directed, although not self-reflective like the thinker. What is their business? Perhaps you have heard of the bar-tailed godwit that was recently tracked flying 11 days straight (over 250 hours), from Alaska to New Zealand, 7500 miles non-stop! Hearing this, we may well imagine how types of plants could spread far and wide across the globe, like the hugely beneficial sunflower family Asteraceae that originated millions of years ago in a remote corner of southern South America.
Next, to the second point of addressing freshmen principally: besides being a courtesy to the uninitiated, more importantly it serves as a reminder for all of us about the nature of liberal education. No doubt you have heard and will hear again that Thomas Aquinas College is about making a good beginning — to the Catholic intellectual life. Such a description is meant in part to distinguish our program from others that aim at specialization, professional careers or training, with their graduates ready to apply their education, not enter into and continue it. Unlike students in those programs, every student here both starts and ends as a beginner in liberal education. Not of course the same beginner! One beginner has a degree. A degree, or level, of knowledge, science, and wisdom that makes our graduates ready to live the intellectual life in its entirety. A way of life we hope you will live no matter how you make your living. A taste of wisdom that will linger all your life in the form we call philosophy. Not the philosophy that Dr Johnson’s young friend tried but found wanting because “cheerfulness kept breaking in”. No, not that philosophy. Philosophy after all means love of wisdom — or better, friend of wisdom. And what friends are not cheered by each other’s company and want it to last a lifetime?
So let that suffice for my preface. I will now enunciate my thesis. You already know my title “Science and Freedom”. My thesis is that science is the way to freedom. It echoes Our Lord’s “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” My echo is attuned to the kind of beginning you make here that sets your feet firmly along the path of freedom. I will argue for this in a few steps. First, define freedom. Freshmen started considering freedom in the orientation seminars, so this will be a quicker step but still one worth making. Second, define science, which is ambiguous in modern discourse. I will be careful to establish what we mean here at TAC and how it relates to what most people mean. Step three: connect the two.
In defining freedom, we may first consult Homer. Freshmen have already read about and perhaps discussed the pitiable state of the young women Chryseis and Briseus, snatched away from their families as spoils of war and treated like bargaining chips. Later you will read the Trojan hero Hector pouring out his grief when he dwells upon the dismal future of his wife Andromache:
I grieve most of all for you when the day will come on which some one of the Achaeans shall rob you forever of your freedom, and bear you away weeping. It may happen that you will ply the loom in Argos at the bidding of a mistress, or fetch water from the springs Messeis or Hypereia, sorely, against your will, and harsh necessity will be pressed upon you. (Iliad 6.455. Cf John 21:18)
Here, being held captive and forced to labor against one’s will is portrayed as the opposite, indeed, privation of being free. Therefore being free must be conducting one’s life as one sees fit. This gets us somewhere, but not quite far enough for our purposes here tonight. For it is possible to be held captive like Briseus and treated like a piece of property and yet still be free. This is Lady Philosophy’s lesson to Boethius, while he was unjustly imprisoned and condemned to death. She points out to him that people might be free to do what they like and yet be captives:
“When people are given over to vices and fall from the possession of their proper reason, then indeed their condition is utter slavery. For when they let their gaze fall from the light of highest truth to the lower world where darkness reigns, soon ignorance blinds their vision; they are diseased with poisonous desires, by yielding and assenting to which they help to promote the slavery in which they are involved, and are in a manner led captive by reason of their very liberty” (Consolation of Philosophy Book 5).
“Ignorance blinds their vision”. This is a far more serious kind of captivity. Therefore the more serious kind of freedom is the opposite, namely, knowledge “of highest truth”. In Boethius’s case, he must regain the understanding of his nature. As Lady Philosophy tells him, he has forgotten what he is. If he remembers, and I think it’s safe to say he does by the end, then, come rack come rope, he will be free.
Notice that Boethius must regain, not newly acquire, an understanding. By the time of his imprisonment he has presumably already gone through a course of instruction in philosophy and theology and the liberal arts. Now, to go through such a course requires considerable time and special conditions, all of which can be wrapped up in one word: leisure, a most precious commodity, so to speak. As Aristotle says in the Metaphysics: “the nature of men is in many ways a slave”, meaning the business of obtaining material necessities consumes so much of our time and labor that we have little left with which to pursue the knowledge that will set us free. Thus the uneducated are twice shackled: by ignorance and necessity.
Add these two to the first and we have three ways of being captive: first in being more or less physically prevented from conducting our own lives, second in being uneducated (or having forgotten) about the point of our lives, and third being preoccupied, distracted, troubled by all the mundane concerns that surround us — perhaps the hardest captivity to escape since it can seem so attractive to us. As Aristotle says it is a strange and remarkable fact that for most of us necessities seem more desirable, even though the non-necessary things are better.
If there are three captivities, then there are three freedoms, which have an order among them. For, to conduct ourselves according to our own lights demands that we become educated about ourselves and to get educated requires leisure.
Next to my second step: I want to suggest a definition of science. Once we have that in hand I hope it will become clear how science and freedom are related. Science is a term you will hear often enough at TAC and quickly come to see that it has a range of meanings. For example, unique I think to TAC, theology is defined as a science, in fact the queen of sciences. Its handmaiden philosophy is a science. Actually it is four sciences: logic, natural philosophy, ethics, and metaphysics. Mathematics is a science — our go-to when we want to give an example of scientific proof. Grammar and music have scientific parts: speculative grammar and music theory, both of which we study here. I think it is fair to say that there is nothing in the curriculum that is unscientific. If there’s a philosophy of it, there’s a science of it. So, what is science?
Here we can turn to Plato’s Meno. Socrates asks Meno’s young attendant what length of side makes a square twice the size of any given square. Or: how does one double the square? (A similar question about doubling the cube comes at the end of Sophomore Math.) After a bit of trial and error the boy determines the answer is the diagonal of the original square. He knows this because he has divided the squares using a common measure, namely the right-angled triangular part that is half the original square and a quarter of the larger. Thus he sees the double relation through an element, that is, through a cause. (This is more perfectly known at the end of Euclid’s Elements Book 1, sometimes called the Pythagorean Theorem.) To express the boy’s understanding Plato uses the Greek word episteme; Aristotle uses the same word in the Posterior Analytics to signify unqualified knowing, that is, knowledge the truth of which is independent of time, place or circumstance, and is obtained through grasping the cause. St. Thomas uses the word scientia to express this very same thing. He says science — to use our word obviously derived from Latin — is the knowledge of a thing through its proper cause (Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 94 n. 3). All three — Plato, Aristotle and St. Thomas — will distinguish this perfect way of knowing from opinion, which we may indeed hold for a reason — but which reason is not the cause of the thing. For example, some might opine, like Ion in the freshmen seminar dialogue of the same name, that Homer is the best of all poets because they get bored out of their wits when hearing about any other poet. That’s a reason. Maybe not a good one, certainly not the cause of the matter itself. Ion’s unwillingness to hear any poet other than Homer could never be the cause of Homer possessing the art of poetry more perfectly than anyone else. Science, on the other hand, grasps the “proper” cause of the subject under consideration. This knowledge is so unqualifiedly perfect that it can be said of God Himself, as Hannah in 1st Samuel proclaims, as expressed in the Vulgate, “Dominus Deus scientiarum est”, “The Lord is the God of sciences”. Here is the context: “There is no Holy One like the Lord,” Hannah says, “no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of sciences, and by him actions are weighed.” St. Thomas argues that since God has an infinite understanding of the cause of all things, Himself, namely, He may be said to have science infinitely perfectly (which means in part that God does not have to reason out to conclusions). And so our participation in that science, namely, sacred doctrine, may itself be called a science, as Zachariah says when he prophesies about his son John: “And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High: for you shall go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways: To give scientia of salvation to his people, unto the remission of their sins.”
This may be enough to indicate how science leads to freedom, however my topic tonight is about natural science or what the Blue Book calls “science through experimentation”. How is that an essential or even important part of a liberating education? In fact it may seem strange, given what I have just argued about the nobility of science, especially of theology, standing above all other sciences as queen, that the one building on campus people commonly refer to using the word “science” is not the classroom buildings where theology takes place or the chapel where theology comes to fruition, but St. Albert’s. And the one part of the program that gets the name science is not the noblest of sciences but natural science, known many years ago here on campus as laboratory (you know how long in the tooth some tutors are when you hear them refer to natural science as “lab”). “Laboratory” is the shortened version of the now obsolete English word “laboratorium”. And just as an auditorium is a place for an auditor, such as yourselves, a laboratorium is a place for a laborator=worker. Work! Isn’t work thought to be opposed to leisure since the measure of its worth is something separate from itself, namely, its product? But, as I have suggested, leisure is the freedom required to pursue the highest truth and not a merely useful truth. Therefore, a place or building dedicated to the worker would seem strange on a quad dedicated to liberal education. Stranger still, since, as it will often be pointed out, the whole program is difficult, requiring diligence and much work, it seems unwise for the college to refer to only one building where students work. Nevertheless, much of the work done in natural science entails consequences and risks that are best contained to one safe section of campus. Not everyone loves the smell of formaldehyde in the morning [even if it is the smell of learning]. So prudence would dictate isolating the fumes, flames, spills and explosions.
One might also point out that, unique in the curriculum, this four year course of studies uses special instruments, some large, some small, that need their own place for use, storage and maintenance. Note, too, it is the only course that has student assistants (and one tutor!) for making use of its instruments. The instruments have instruments!
Allow me to offer a serious look at these instruments (not the assistants), for in examining what they are in a general way and why we need them, we will see or begin to see why natural science (“the investigation of nature through experiment” BB 52) is an essential part of a liberating education and why it gets the name “science” more visibly than all the rest, even more than the queen herself.
In order to speak generally about the instruments of science, I will begin by considering an example. It is the proverbial elephant in the room. Not here, but in St. Albert’s. I am of course referring to the 235 lb Foucault pendulum, which students tell me almost as soon as they understand what it is about, they forget. But like the sword of Damocles, this pendulum hangs as a reminder, not of peril but of enlightenment. For it is one of the very few physical proofs by experimentation that the earth rotates about its axis. A proof Galileo sought diligently for and mistakenly presumed he had found in the motion of the tides. He did however suggest a more promising proof when he playfully imagined dropping a heavy object from the moon. It’s worth considering this for just a moment. The orbiting speed in miles per hour at such a distance as the moon’s orbit would be far greater than anything close to or on the surface of the earth (around 60 times greater if we imagine the body orbiting above a fixed place on Earth’s surface), and so if the falling body maintained even a small part of that faster speed while it fell, then it should run ahead of the spinning Earth. This suggestion inspired others a couple hundred years later to try this without having to arrange a mission to the moon. Instead they used a high tower in Bologna Italy and found that falling bodies from a great height did indeed outstrip Earth — by very little — millimeters — and not as consistently or predictably as they had wished. Later at the beginning of the 20th century drops were made in a laboratory that more closely matched the predicted deviation.
Foucault’s proof uses a very different strategy about which much has been written and debated, but for the purposes of this lecture I will have to be brief. I hope not too brief. First, a few details about the pendulum. The inventor was Leon Foucault, a 19th century French physicist, who, while metalworking in his basement, discovered that a 3 foot slender metal rod set to vibrating by accident in a lathe maintained the same vibrating direction even when rotated. This inspired him to see if he could do the same thing with an oscillating pendulum fixed in the lathe we call Earth. He saw the pendulum maintain the same direction of swinging while the Earth rotated below it — again, in his basement (I don’t think his mother’s). With this success, he quickly managed to convince the authorities to allow him to construct a large pendulum in the Paris Observatory and then sent out the following invitation to all the famous scientists in Paris: “Come see the Earth rotate, tomorrow in the Meridian Room, between 3 and 5.”
Our pendulum is scaled down significantly from Foucault’s public model but is much larger than his basement model. The large brass sphere hangs from a cable attached to a pivot in the attic space above the ceiling. Below the pivot point a couple feet but still above the ceiling is a large circular electromagnet that maintains a constant oscillation of the pendulum without, however, directing its motion in any specific direction. The pendulum, in other words, is free to orient itself in whatever way it physically wants to. On the floor beneath the pendulum is a circle of pegs that get knocked over one after the other by the pendulum as it spins (or seems to spin) around to the right (i.e. clockwise). It takes nearly 42 hours and 30 minutes for all 36 pegs to get knocked over, barring earthquakes or curious children. We can be even more precise. From one peg to the next takes close to 1 hour 10 minutes 42 seconds. This period of time does not vary.
The question naturally arises: What causes the pendulum to move around the circle of pegs? It does not seem to be in the nature of a pendulum to do this since all it seems to be doing is falling down and rising up. Moreover, what would make its circuit take the same period of time? And why one direction? Why not sometimes one way, sometimes the other? Another thing to ponder: the time of one cycle can be calculated using a formula containing the length of one day in hours and our latitude in degrees. The more precisely we measure our latitude, the more accurate our measure of the cycle. Is that a coincidence? Why would our precise position relative to the pole or equator have an effect on the length of the cycle? Moreover, since there are now many Foucault pendulums worldwide, we see that those in the northern hemisphere twist right, but those in the southern twist left. Except for location they are structurally the same. What might be the cause of this? Perhaps there is something pushing it around? The most likely candidate for this would be the air, but ours, like most, is indoors and even if outdoors it would take significant contortions of the air to change directions regularly and circularly and have the strength to move such a heavy weight as a large metal bob. It seems we are left to conclude that the appearance of the pendulum turning is caused by the Earth itself turning under it.
It may help to consider what is happening in light of the following hypothetical situation. Imagine yourself on a swing. Imagine the swing set up on a flatbed car of a train. For simplicity let the swing’s seat be suspended by a single rope, like a tree swing, and free to rotate at the pivot. Set yourself swinging in line with the train’s initial direction of a straight line. Then imagine the train starting to veer off onto a circular track. If you keep swinging, what do you suppose might happen as the train turns? Will your oscillations remain in line with the train? Think about the common experience as a passenger in a moving vehicle of being pressed up against its side when it makes a sharp turn. Your body seems to want to keep its direction while the vehicle changes its own. Likewise with the hypothetical train swing: the direction, or plane, of your swings would remain in one orientation while the train makes its circuit. If the train makes a complete circuit then at some point it will also have turned completely under you, provided you continue to swing. In St. Albert’s, too, the pendulum will keep to its own swinging direction while the earth turns under it, as long of course, as we have supposed, the pendulum is free at the pivot to swing in any direction relative to the earth. If the pendulum could be set up at either of Earth’s poles then it would take about 24 hours, or one sidereal day, for the Earth train to turn completely under the pendulum. (This was successfully tested at the South Pole in 2001.) At the equator the Earth does not spin under the pendulum but simply carries it along. At our location however it spins but takes nearly two days to complete a full spin under the pendulum’s oscillation. There is a precise and mathematical formulation for the period of a complete circuit at any latitude. On the descriptive wall plaque near the pendulum you may have noticed a mathematical equation. The number of degrees the earth in one day will turn under the pendulum is equal to the sine of our latitude (the angular height of our position above the equator) times 360 degrees. This equation is called Foucault’s Sine Law.
Enough about the details.
For our purposes it is important to consider two things: 1) like a telescope, the pendulum amplifies our power of observation and extends our experience beyond ordinary and common experience. The telescope extends the power of our vision by magnifying distant objects, like planets and stars. A precisely made ruler or finely graduated thermometer gives us the ability to observe and measure differences that we otherwise wouldn’t sense. Likewise with Foucault’s pendulum. We cannot feel the earth’s rotational movement since it neither speeds up nor slows down but maintains a constant velocity (or at least constant enough for our human level of haptic sensitivity). But we can see it, as clearly as we see someone slowly approaching us from a distance while we stand still. In both cases the two objects may be said to be moving (e.g., getting closer) with respect to the other, but only one in each case is undergoing the motion. In the case of my approaching friend, I know I am at rest. In the case of the pendulum we know by extending our own experience of being moved that the pendulum does not have a tendency to twist of itself. So by swinging without twisting it reveals the rotation of the earth, such that we can say we see the earth move, as Foucault’s invitation promised. Therefore, like the telescope, ruler, thermometer and other instruments of the lab, this pendulum makes accessible to our senses what otherwise would remain hidden and confused.
The second thing important to see in the pendulum as an instrument is its power to measure. For it not only reveals which subject must be the one undergoing a motion in a relative rotation (it’s not entirely relative!) but it also reveals a quantity, namely our latitude or, in other words, our place on the globe above or below the equator.
Now, what is it to measure? Is it not to reveal or make known the quantity of something? The ruler makes a length known, a clock makes a time known, the graduated cylinder makes a volume of liquid known, and so on. Each of these instruments takes a unit of a particular kind of quantity and applies it multiple times to reveal the total quantity. The ruler uses the inch or centimeter, the clock uses the second, minute or hour, and the graduated cylinder uses the milliliter. What unit does our pendulum use? What same thing is repeated multiple times? Surely, the knocking over of the pegs — one after another, at the same interval — has something to do with the unit involved. As an aside, perhaps you have noticed the larger interval on the floor beneath the pendulum, namely the circle of the zodiac. This suggests a larger unit that measures the same quantity. But since the motion of the pendulum is crucial to it being an instrument, we have to take into consideration not only the angular shifting of the earth (typically measured in degrees) but also the time, particularly, the time of a complete earth rotation. And so by a calculation that involves a bit of trigonometry, and hence goes beyond my talk tonight, we can say that when the earth has made a complete rotation (determined by sunset to sunset, or, better, choose a star (Betelgeuse set to Betelgeuse set) but has shifted counterclockwise under the pendulum, say, only 200 or so degrees (or so many pegs knocked down), our position on earth is 34 degrees north. Conversely, since our campus shares the same latitude with the Komundo Islands of South Korea then we know that the earth would take the same amount of time to twist completely under a Foucault pendulum there as it does here. So this instrument establishes the subject of motion and helps determine (that is, measure) both a location on the globe and a timing of a motion.
It thus helps accomplish three goals characteristic of experimentation and hence of our natural science program:
- To see the intelligible immersed in a world which may at first glance, or second glance, seem confusing, shifting and unpredictable — What is rotating? The pendulum, the floor? The Earth, the Sun?
- To see more clearly by means of simplifying (in this case, by means of a simple constant movement), and by abstracting (in this case by constraining other natural factors from having a disturbing effect), thus allowing the quantifiable to manifest itself and giving us the opportunity to detect and measure regularity, patterns, even beauty, on the basis of which we form mathematical and general approximations we often call laws (in this case “Foucault’s sine law”). What kind of laws or whether these are laws in some extended sense or perhaps even metaphorically, are questions for another time.
- Finally these patterns in turn invite if not compel the experimenter (let us call him a law seeker) to wonder about their cause. Which puts me in mind of something GK Chesterton once said: “Now, mere repetition made things to me rather more weird than more rational. It was if, having seen a curiously shaped nose in the street and dismissed it as an accident, I had then seen six other noses of the same astonishing shape. I should have fancied for a moment that it must be some local secret society. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot.” (Orthodoxy, p 57) I take it by “more weird” Chesterton means “wondrous” and more in need of an explanation and finding a cause (or “plot”). For the merely accidental we don’t seek a cause.
Now, since nature loves to hide, as that great most ancient philosopher Heraclitus once said, not every repetition or pattern suggesting a plot will be as obvious as the nose on your face...or the face of an elephant. You freshmen have already started to follow Fabre as he spends countless hours in his “laboratory of the open field” risking failure, not to mention public scorn and even arrest, as he hunts down clues nature has hidden about insect intelligence. To discover them he must simplify and abstract, in a word, experiment, as he does with the Pine processionary caterpillars in getting them to climb onto the circular rim of a terracotta planter, from which they must learn to escape if they are to survive. Sophomores will study Kepler fretting over an old persistent error in observing the orbit of Mars, an error equal to just 8 arc-minutes, which the unaided human eye can barely make out. Some of you saw the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn around Christmas last year — a beautiful sight! They were 6 arc-minutes apart at their closest and looked like a single planet brighter than Venus. Some observers with younger eyes than mine claimed to see both planets. Nevertheless, to the naked eye 6 or even 8 arc-minutes would seem hardly to matter. Less than a hair’s breadth. Yet Kepler fretted. And what a glorious fret! It opened our eyes to the movement of the heavenly bodies and eventually of the entire universe. Ellipses replaced circles, accelerated motion replaced uniform motion. And the whole of the heavens was bound together in one gravitational dance. In Kepler’s words: “If you are wearied by this tedious method [and you will be!] take pity on me, who carried out at least seventy trials of it, with the loss of much time, and don't be surprised that this already is the fifth year since I have attacked Mars...if I had believed that we could ignore these eight minutes, I would have patched up my hypothesis accordingly. But since it was not permissible to ignore them, those eight minutes point the road to a complete reformation of astronomy”.
There is an old story that Aristotle tells about Heraclitus (Parts of Animals I):
“Some visitors once wished to meet Heraclitus, and when they entered and saw him in the kitchen, warming himself at the stove, they hesitated; but Heraclitus said, "Come in; don't be afraid; there are gods even here.”
Aristotle goes on to apply this story to the study of animals:
“In like manner, we ought not to hesitate nor to be abashed, but boldly to enter upon our researches concerning animals of every sort and kind, knowing that in not one of them is Nature or Beauty lacking.”
The same could be said of Fabre’s seemingly insignificant insects or Kepler’s seemingly unimportant 8 arc-minutes. Or the slight flutter of the electroscope’s gold leaf that the seniors will have to have a keen eye to see. Perhaps we should consider our laboratory a Heraclitean kitchen and have his invitation above the entrance to St. Albert’s (with an important revision). “Come in; don’t be afraid; God is present even here.” We might add present not just in the explosions, fires, and other spectacles you will undoubtedly meet with in the lab, but even — mostly? — “in a still small voice.” To quote Aristotle one last time and somewhat at length:
So far as in us lies, we will not leave out one of the living things, no matter how insignificant it may at first seem; for though there are animals that have no attractiveness for the senses, yet for the eye of science, for the student who is naturally of a philosophic spirit and can discern the causes of things, Nature which fashioned them provides joys which cannot be measured. If we study mere likenesses of these things and take pleasure in so doing, because then we are contemplating the painter's or the sculptor’s art which fashioned them, and yet fail to delight much more in studying the works of Nature, though we have the ability to discern the actual causes—that would be a strange absurdity indeed. Wherefore we must not approach the study of the lesser animals with a bad grace, as though we were children; since in all natural things there is something of the marvelous.
To conclude, there are many reasons why experimental science — what we call natural science here — is essential to an education ordered to freedom, indeed even the freedom proper to the Catholic life. I have been considering only one of those reasons. The other reasons could each take a lecture to consider adequately. One such reason pertains to our role as citizens in a constitutional republic that has vastly increased its wealth, power and store of knowledge through experimental science and its stepchild technology [by marriage to mother necessity]. If we are to participate in the self-rule that defines our nation, then we need to be able to size up today’s political arguments, which increasingly invoke science. But that requires an education about its principles, methods and degree of certainty — that is, a liberal education. Another reason involves a common interpretation of experimental science as revolutionary and antithetical to the perennial philosophy, whose great teachers include Aristotle and St. Thomas. Such an interpretation often assumes as a first principle the denial that nature has purpose or acts for an end. Insofar as science proceeds mathematically, it may seem to have no use for purpose or goodness in making its calculations or formulating equations. Archimedes’ scientific treatise “On Floating Bodies” that you freshmen will read soon enough determines with mathematical precision when a body would float in water and exactly how much would be submerged, but it never considers whether it is a good thing that some bodies float and some do not. Given he came from Sicily, the homeland of the mafia, if meeting a need was on the top of his mind, then the title would more likely have been “On Sinking Bodies”. So, if science proceeds mathematically and excludes the final cause, then it may seem to follow that the final cause is a useless fiction. A liberal education therefore would take time to evaluate such an interpretation and judge its validity.
I have been trying to advance a reason for the necessity of science in liberal education that is more fundamental than these two and explains why the term “science” here names a whole set of courses and one building. As embodied intellectual creatures we need tools and experimentation to extend our powers of observation and hence our knowledge beyond the general inquiries we first make in the philosophy of nature. These general inquiries begin with what is more intelligible to us and lead to the principles, causes and elements that flesh out those more certain yet less clear, if not vague, beginnings. Sophomores will consider the truth of Aristotle’s definition of motion this year. It is no easy task and the prize is a definition only in the most general terms. Yet Juniors will see the power of that definition when they use it as a middle term to demonstrate God’s existence. Nevertheless, as general, the definition is only a beginning — a beginning that asks, indeed begs, to be fleshed out. For what does it say about the complex, marvelously organized motion we call “behavior” in animals, or the curious movement of the compass needle in the presence of an electrical current? Indeed, once having caught a glimpse of the divine behind all motion at a general level, would we not be inclined even more to see that infinite Wisdom in the particular motions and natures that make up the physical world?
In the beginning “the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth: and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul… And the Lord God having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air, brought them to Adam to see what he would call them….” And Adam called them all by their names. You see, it is not only Heraclitus inviting us to enter deep into the world. The divine invitation I have just read to you from the Book of Genesis defines our unique position and duty in the cosmos: We are kindred slime with the beasts, yet we, an image of the Lord God calling light Day and darkness Night, we — with that divine spark within us that is our intellect — this dust — can find and call out in the dust the trace of God. “Who has disposed all things in measure, and number and weight” (Wisdom 11:20).
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