Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dawkins gives Miss Anscombe a role

I've just started to read with enthusiasm the latest book by Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality, which might be described as a science-oriented picture book for youngsters from 8 to 80. I was amused to discover that the excellent graphic work by Dave McKean depicts a casual conversation between two individuals whom I mentioned six months ago in my blog post entitled Voices from Vienna [display]. I'm referring to the Vienna-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889-1951] and his English disciple Elizabeth Anscombe [1919-2001], who was both a professor of philosophy at Cambridge and a devout Roman Catholic. As I mentioned in that blog post, I had an unexpected opportunity of meeting up with Anscombe in Brittany, at the home of Christine's parents. Members of the Mafart family, including Christine, had frequent contacts with a Dominican priory in Staffordshire known as Spode House, which had also become a regular retreat for the Anscombes.

Here's the drawing of Elizabeth Anscombe and Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Wittgenstein was intrigued by the fact that people had once believed, unanimously, that the Sun went round the Earth. He wondered why this belief was so universal. Anscombe replies—with a massive dose of common sense—that people no doubt found that it looked as if the sun went round the Earth. Wittgenstein hits back with an interesting rhetorical question: "What would it have looked like if it had looked as if the Earth turned on its axis?" In other words, what kinds of visual impressions would have been needed to make people believe spontaneously in a heliocentric theory?

We can find plausible answers in the ordinary experience of air travel. When a plane hits turbulence, passengers never have the impression that it's the Earth and its atmosphere that are being jolted up and down. They're convinced intuitively that the aircraft, which had appeared to be calm and motionless just a minute earlier, is now being shaken by disturbing forces. So, that suggests an answer to Wittgenstein's question. If only the planet Earth were to run into zones of turbulence every now and again, humans would have surely been more ready to feel that their planet was indeed turning on its axis and moving around the Sun.

Air travel provides another striking experience of rapid movement. When an aircraft, preparing to land, plunges down obliquely through wispy layers of cloud, passengers are suddenly made aware of the great speed at which they are moving. Ideally, we might imagine vast rings of dust, orbiting the Sun at roughly the same distance as the Earth, with trajectories that intersect at right angles with ours. Periodically, Earth-dwellers would notice that we were about to run into such a dust ring, since it would be visible in the sky above us. Then, as we whizzed past the dust in a kind of near-miss encounter (hopefully surviving), we might well observe a parallax phenomenon—involving the alignment of the Sun, the dust ring and our planet—suggesting that we are indeed moving around the Sun.

It's preferable, though, to judge such affairs using the methods of scientific reasoning. If Karl Popper had been eavesdropping on the conversation between Ludwig and Miss Anscombe, he might have suggested wisely that they should abandon their jobs in the philosophy department and enroll humbly as science undergraduates…

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