Monthly Archives: November 2010

Harriman and Galileo

This Fall my reading has centered on David Harriman’s recently published “The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics”. I started off listening to the book on Audible, then realized that there was too much detail I was missing, so I went ahead and purchased a hard copy. After a great deal of reflection on the book, I’ve reached the conclusion that this is a very significant philosophical advance, largely derivative from Ayn Rand’s epistemology. The main thesis in the work consists of several observations regarding how the proper process of induction is performed, and how following this process leads to the attainment of truth. The presentation of these ideas is accomplished through relatively brief explanatory material in the opening and closing chapters of the book, and through a lengthy series of examples from the history of science through the central mass of the work.

There has been much commentary on the accuracy of the presented history, and whether the errors in this history result in an invalidation of the theory of induction Harriman presents. This lead me to review original (translated) material from Galileo in particular to judge the accuracy for myself. Indeed, I found clear errors in Harriman’s account of some of Galileo’s work on falling bodies, matching the factual criticisms by John P. McCaskey. I am also generally skeptical of anyone who attempts to describe the thought processes that lead a researcher to perform various experiments and reach conclusions. In the case of Galileo, my skepticism is raised because of the stylized nature of Galileo’s writings (in artificial dialogues), where the actual thought process is not likely to be the thought process presented in the work. However, Galileo was very explicit about his theory of knowledge and support for proper scientific method in other writings. Though Harriman may take some license with his portrayal of the details of Galileo’s thought process, he does portray Galileo’s underlying theory of knowledge perfectly.

The errors Harriman makes in describing Galileo’s falling body experiments center on indicating that Galileo had not conducted experiments in an aqueous medium, and that if he had he would not have been lead to the induction of universal gravitational acceleration. However, Galileo describes such experiments in detail, and in fact used the results of these experiments to inductively conclude that the acceleration of falling bodies in a vacuum is independent of the falling body’s mass. Although there is a curious confusion here in Harriman’s account (given the breadth and depth of Harriman’s research into the history of science), the error is not essential to Harriman’s evidence for the nature of the inductive process. I conclude therefore that his inaccuracies do not affect the validity of Harriman’s theory of induction.

I still have not read through the original works of the other scientists (and proto-scientists) that Harriman uses as examples, though I do have selections from most of them (Ptolemy, Newton, Lavoisier) and I will eventually read through this material. I am willing in the meantime to accept Harriman’s accounts as representing at least the “essence” of their thinking.

Regarding Galileo himself, I have greatly enjoyed reading both of his Dialogues – On the Two New Sciences, On the Two World Systems, as well as Letters on Sunspots, The Assayer, and some of his other letters dealing with the relationship between science and the Church. Throughout these, we see Galileo declaring the proper source of scientific truth – induction from observation – and disdaining the peripathetic argument from the “authority” of Aristotle. In several places, Galileo states that Aristotle himself would change his conclusions if he were presented with the observational evidence available to Galileo. Since I am also a great proponent of Aristotelian logic (though not his “science”), I found these statements gratifying.

Galileo’s struggle with the Church is fascinating. Far from being an atheist, he defends his “freethinking” by relying upon other ecclesiastic authorities to make his argument, in particular Augustine. Augustine I had written off as the worst of the Christian “philosophers” (and such he remains, from an ethics viewpoint); however, he offers at least a partial defense of science by separating matters of faith from matters of fact. In matters of fact, says Augustine, the Bible should not be interpreted literally, and as we discover new explanations for phenomena through the use of logic and observation that are at apparent odds with scripture, it is our interpretation of the scripture that should be questioned and changed, not the use of logic that should be abandoned. Another form of this argument suggests that since our rational faculty is a given to us by an perfect God, both its use and scripture must lead to Truth. When those truths conflict, it is our faulty understanding of scripture (which is the word of the unfathomable) which is in err. Of course both of these approaches to balancing faith and reason are ultimately fatally flawed, as no definition of the boundaries of the arbitrary field of “faith” can be described.

I would enjoy reading the entire body of Galileo’s work – of which an immense quantity apparently exists, filling many volumes. But, amazingly and disturbingly, the vast majority has never been translated into English. There is an apparently comprehensive translation from the Italian dialects in which he wrote to French, but no one has found a reason to translate most of the work to English. Given the astounding range of Galileo’s contributions (astronomy, mathematics, mechanics, dynamics, fluid dynamics, meteorology, not to mention the philosophy of science) this is a disturbing fact.

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