Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It's all philosophy... (Books - The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson)

The third chapter of Steven Johnson's biography of scientist/political philosopher/theologian Joseph Priestley - The Invention of Air - focuses on Priestley's radical political and theological activities. Johnson makes the observation that nowadays you rarely find scientists and theologians in the same person in fact, the two disciplines are seen as naturally polarized, but in those days it was all philosophy. A scientist, a theologian, a philosopher - they were all striving to understand the nature of the same world and give that understanding breath through narrative. Today the volume of information that exists on natural phenomena is far greater and the methods of each discipline have evolved to be much more highly specialized. One relies on the evidence of inner experience and the practice of perscribed ritiual and limits the scope of ones inquiry for the payoff of a sense of truth. The other places no limits on the scope of inquiry, puts natural phenomena to tests specifically to disprove what we think we may know, (and presets the criteria for drawing conclusions) to assemble a body of knowledge. However, science develops its texts in the language of probability and promises more questions for ever and ever, amen. I have lately seen several public meetings and books advertised about reconciling science and religion. I say, why? They are not the same and there is great use in contrary approaches to the mysteries of nature. There are indeed individuals who pursue science with all its rigours on a daily basis and yet hold religious beliefs or perform religious practices that would seem to be at odds with those beliefs. Welcome to the human condition - Walt Whitman said it best - I am large, I contain multitudes.

John Tierney's article in yesterday's Science Times explored the other of Priestley's two interests, the intertwining of science and politics. He writes about a book by Dr. Roger Pielke Jr., The Honest Broker, which argues that scientists risk their credibility when they advocate for specific public policies and might be more useful serving other roles in relation to the debates on matters scientific. It seems that Joseph Priestley is clearly a man of a different era, a different world. Steven Johnson's book really brings to life why a man with Priestley's specific combination of interests could exist when he did and how what he learned was born out of the cauldron of his culture.

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