05 November 2011


By 1967, I think, I was beginning seriously to worry about the foundations of reality and how we could know truth.

If you had mentioned such a topic to me when I was a teen-ager, I would have been both startled and puzzled - puzzled, because I would not have known what to answer; startled because it would never have occurred to me that anyone might think to ask such a question.  By 1967, things were not so simple.

I grew up with no religion, no presumed philosophical views - at least, none that I could have put into words.  Nevertheless, I suppose everyone - even a child - has presuppositions about the world.  So in a sense, I did have a religion.  My religion was science.

Did I inherit this from something in my home environment?  I suppose one could say that I did.  My father, at least, had quite sophisticated notions of physical science - physics, astronomy, chemistry - as well as a knowledge of the accompanying mathematics - and his knowledge was not theoretical only.  He was a skilled builder, electronics tinkerer - he built the only television we owned during my childhood - and optician - he made the lenses for his own optometric practice.

So perhaps I acquired my scientific religion from my father.  Yet ... I cannot think that is the whole, or even the principal, story.  My deep fascination with astronomy, particularly, started quite early - at a time when I am not aware that I knew anything of my father's world.  And neither my brother nor my sister appear to have had the same love of the physical scientific world.

As I have said in earlier posts, I was to be an astronomer.  This dream was the necessary continuation of my childhood ... well, 'interest' is too weak a word - 'obsession' would almost be closer.

At the end of two years of astronomical study, I was already beginning to stumble.  Physics, and its mathematical underpinnings, were, indeed, wondrous subjects, challenging - but, after all, what was required was enormous amounts of hard work and endless practice.

So in 1964 I changed to linguistics.  This was, perhaps, easier - at least, the mathematics was not so daunting!  It was equally fascinating, rather more satisfying, also, in a human sense.  But the feeling that, somewhere, somehow, the Truth About Things was there to be discovered.  And the conviction that there was a science - a methodical, truth-finding, system - about all of this was fundamentally unshaken.

My confidence began a little to be, if not shaken, at least to be blurred, when I began my graduate studies.  An undergraduate is told the way to do things.  He is not expected to be arguing basic theoretic stances.  He is given methods, told to get results, and is given the impression, at least, that these are the methods for doing his science.  This is as it should be, for the beginnings in any science are practical ones.

A graduate student - and it was known that I had no interest in the MA per se, except as a stepping stone to the PhD - is expected to deal with theory.

Then, probably in early 1968, I read a book.  It was a book that was all the rage at the time - Thomas Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions," published in 1962.

The book was a world-changer for many.  At least one word in the book - 'paradigm' - and its offshoots - phrases like 'paradigm change' - have become a part of the language of our time.

I had supposed that something like the Baconian method of knowing was the basis, not only of science, but of all knowledge - and unquestionable.  You observe certain facts.  You see patterns.  You infer laws.  At first you are inferring little laws.  Then someone sees patterns in the little laws and puts them together into big laws.  It is all very orderly - and hierarchical.  These first observations are the foundation.  They cannot be shaken.  They are just facts.  Once the little patterns are discerned, they, also, are facts, and cannot be shaken.  Science works by building up this pyramid, from solid bottom through equally solid intermediate layers - ultimately, as we expect, to the topmost stone.

Thomas Kuhn seemed to me - and to many - totally to destroy this.  Those facts - whether of observation or of laws - are themselves the products of our own vision.  Almost, one thought, in reading his book, there was no possible way of deciding whether this or that scientific theory was true.  Science was a social process.  Once one model became popular - say the geocentric model of the universe - it became an ideology to defend.  New observations were themselves influenced by the ideology - and were fitted in.  Difficult observations were rejected as anomalous.  The great astrophysicist Arthur Eddington referred to the problem with his famous quote: "What my net can't catch isn't fish."

And then a revolutionary comes along.  He has a 'net' of entirely different shape.  It 'catches' those difficult observations quite well - and also some, at least, of the ones the first net 'caught.'

Now the war begins.  The old guard hangs on to the old paradigm.  Columbus is said to have died believing that he had succeeded in sailing to Japan, or another part of East Asia.  Eventually the old guard dies - few are ever converted - and the revolutionary new paradigm becomes the orthodox theory - until the next revolution.  The pyramid was not a pyramid at all.  It was an arch - and someone just pulled out the keystone.  A brand new arch has been built, with a very different keystone.

This destroyed, for me, not merely the certainty of scientific progress.  Science was my religion.  I find it difficult to convey here just how devastating this experience was for me.  I remember writing, at the time, to my friend, teacher, and employer Bruce Biggs, to the effect that I didn't know what I would be thinking in the future - but that I would never again be able to take seriously the theoretical arguments that flew back and forth about linguistic theory.

I did read, around this time, another book that moved me deeply, but that had, then, no fundamental impact on me, but was destined to be of great importance later.  When I was still in high school, I had asked my mother for something to read, and she had given me a three-volume historical novel that had fascinated me.  It was Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter.  Now, in the midst of my distress at reading Kuhn, I began also to read quite a few novels.  The library had a copy of her four-volume novel The Master of Hestviken.  I was stunned by this book.  I had had almost no exposure theretofore to Christianity.  In Master I saw, for the first time, the heart of Christianity.  I recall reading the following passage:
Ingunn lay at home, in the agony of death, if she were not dead already.  It did not seem real to him, but he knew now that this sorrow of his was also as a bleeding wound upon that crucified body.  Every sin he had committed, every wound he had inflicted, on himself or others, was one of the stripes his hand had laid upon his God.
I remember reading this and weeping.  I said to myself, almost cried aloud, "Oh!  I never knew!!  This guy Jesus thought He was God - and that He was dying for the sins of everyone!!  What an astonishing conception!!"

Had this experience led farther - had I, somehow, been brought to realise not only that this is what Jesus thought, but that it is actually true - well, certainly my life would have been very different.

But no such thought occurred to me.  I did not know where to go from that point.  It had been a very emotional experience.  Nevertheless, a seed had been planted that was to bear fruit - but not yet.

From some time in 1968, I had come to feel that all my life's roots and foundations were loosening.  I did not change what I was doing.  I continued to study linguistics, to prepare for my MA, and, eventually, for the PhD.  But I knew that I was no longer sure what I was doing - and especially, what I was doing it for.

I do not think it ever occurred to me to wonder whether Edna, the same age as me, and maturing intellectually herself, was experiencing any challenges to her own life's foundations.

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