Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On errors, or on being wrong (a brief introduction)

Among the many fun things one can do when one reads is to find cool quotes that would make good slogans to hang in your lab or office or classroom. Like this famous one from a well-known physicist:
One of the severest tests of a scientific mind is to discern the limits of the legitimate application of scientific methods.
[James Clerk Maxwell, "Paradoxical Philosophy" (1878), in The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, edited by W. D. Niven, II (Cambridge, 1890), p. 759. Quoted by S. L. Jaki in The Relevance of Physics and elsewhere]
It would spare us much nonsense, of many forms - but I am afraid people would not know who Maxwell was, or why he said that, or what he meant.

It's funny to think about science as having "limits" - but it is wrong to think there aren't any such things. Yes, WRONG - as in being in error. Perhaps it is because we don't like to think about being wrong... yet that links in to subjects like chivalry - or what we might call personal integrity and such matters.

There is no better test of a man's ultimate chivalry and integrity than how he behaves when he is wrong...
{GKC "The Real Dr. Johnson" in The Common Man 120-1]

Er...I am sorry. I was going to write more on this, but found I cannot take the time - so for now I will leave this brief introduction as a starting point. Eventually we must come back to this: it is a matter of pedagogy: of knowing how (and what) we must teach... and one thing we ought to teach is this idea of limits and boundaries - and of errors. It is a good thing to know how we've gone wrong, as it might help us to avoid the same mistake.

PS A friend of mine at grad school once said "it's hard to avoid making the same mistake once" - but actually it is possible. That's why we have education in the first place. We try to keep our students from making most of the mistakes of the past, and point out ways of recognizing such things. It's funny to think of the pathology of epistemology - which we might call the history of heresies - but then it is a useful device. Physicians learn to recognize diseases of the body - we ought to learn to recognize at least some of the diseases of thought:

"Well, that's all I can tell you about the new religion," went on Flambeau carelessly. "It claims, of course, that it can cure all physical diseases."
"Can it cure the one spiritual disease?" asked Father Brown, with a serious curiosity.
"And what is the one spiritual disease?" asked Flambeau, smiling.
"Oh, thinking one is quite well," said his friend.
[GKC "The Eye of Apollo" in The Innocence of Father Brown]
In brief:
Christianity spoke again: "... If you were a philosopher you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like; I call it what it is - the Fall."
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:321]
More on this later.


Post a Comment

<< Home