Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Weds. with Words - The Liberal Arts Tradition - Astronomy

Today I am going to sum up the astronomy section of Clark and Jain's book The Liberal Arts Tradition.  I don't claim to totally understand the philosophical argument - but I can at least present it.  Honestly, talking about astronomy makes me sad to live in the city where on a good night you can see about 8 starts.  How can you wonder about the heavens if you can't see them?  Alas.
In 2009 The Economist, a respected British magazine, published an article recounting how our modern culture may owe as much to astronomy as to any other natural science. 
How's that for an introduction!
While optics, mechanics, and music were other middle sciences utilizing mathematics, astronomy was paradigmatic along with music, and these two were therefore canonized as liberal arts.  (maybe I'll do music next week)
In this section of science they develop two thoughts. First, about the impact and study of astronomy itself and secondly, the philosophical debate that rages within science about how to approach and use what is observed and learned in science - nominalism/ instrumentalism versus realism.
Nominalism treats ideas as mere names or place keepers for data.  Nominalist approaches to astronomy or natural science, sometimes called instrumentalism, don't ask what is true, but what system best contains all the data.  
Essentially this
captures the observations in a system but does not consider whether the models are actually the case or not in reality.   
Basically I think this boils down to the fact that they are playing with ideas and numbers and not expecting to find truth.  I am not an expert in this, I am just trying to figure it out.  But, eventually
The best astronomers seemed to have given up their nominalism and had started to believe that their calculations represented real bodies - mathematical realism. 
He explains that Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo believed that they were investigating real things.
The Jesuits charged him [Galileo] with teaching Copernicanism not as hypothesis but as true. . . [and also] for inwardly believing it was true. 
Today the more nominalist strain in science will "claim that science is not interested in producing truth but only in predicting events."  This runs counter to "the Aristotelian definition of science as a demonstrable and true knowledge of causes."
Kepler, Galileo and Newton believed that their calculations represented how the world truly was.  They didn't think that their work was just intellectual accounting.   
The authors then recount how Newton's keystone work, Principia Mathematica, was truly a reflection on Astronomy.
From here on, it seems that astronomy indeed transcended itself.  It had stewarded both the method of mathematical empiricism and the subject matter of the heavens for millennia.  Finally, when astronomy was fused with the realist, creative liberal art of music and reconciled with natural philosophy, it resulted in the birth of modern science.  
The authors derive two key ideas from the study of astronomy.  First, that it is still a subject worth studying in its own right and secondly that the debate between the nominalist and realists continues today and high school students should be aware of its history and ongoing impact.

As I read this section all I could think about was Carry on, Mr. Bowditch.  One of the most striking things he did was tie his complicated mathematical and astronomical ponderings to the needs of the real world at the time - navigation.  I think that his story (especially with his deep love of Newton) could be an accessible entryway into the larger conversation.

Please see what others are reading at Ordo Amoris.  I am very excited to she plans to host a book study of Beauty in the Word!  You should consider joining the conversation.


  1. When we lived in Alabama for some reason the sky was huge. You could not go outside at night without be astonished. It is not that way here in TN and I do not know why. We can see the stars but the sky doesn't seem to be falling on us.

  2. These www posts are bad for me. My book list is becoming unreal! On the bright side I don't think I'll ever run out of good books to read. :)

    I think Newton is going to have to be next though - I'm so interested in astronomy and I'd especially like to begin to explore how it relates to music and mathematics. You've given me a great place to start by sharing this. Thanks!

    1. The notes in this book are extensive and provide a lot further insight and ideas about where to start with these topics. It is hard to not want to read everything.