Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What Comes First?

In one of our discussions yesterday, Brigitte suggested that technology comes before science! I certainly wholeheartedly agree. The example that always comes to my mind is Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell; I had a post contrasting those two early last year (link). Faraday was a foremost discoverer of electromagnetism; Maxwell captured the laws of this phenomenon in mathematics. In Wikipedia entries (and that publication may be seen as a random sample of current views), Faraday is described as a “contributor” to electromagnetism and electrochemistry; Maxwell, in contrast, is described as a “great unifier” in physics, the second after Isaac Newton; the third, one presumes is Einstein.

My interest today, however, is not in physics or the emergence of reputations; it is in what comes first. It does not in the least surprise me that in the physical realm all of the great discoveries begin (and began) with hands-on experience—and that the formal descriptions of experimental results come (or came) later. Without observations, no one can later, by measurement and analysis, discover hidden laws.

But what comes first in those realms of experience not rooted in the physical? Let’s pick on ethics and render it simply as “the right thing to do.” What is the root of morality? A very difficult subject—particularly in such times as ours. First of all, in our times, all things are rooted in the physical and anything transcending it is denied to exist. But if that is so, “the right thing to do” loses its absolute grounding. Therefore our times are suffused with pragmatism. The right thing to do is that which produces the best results: pragmatism. How “best result” is to be defined is, of course, relative to the viewpoint of some person—never an absolute.

When we come to hard grips with this situation—where outcomes justify the means and the outcomes themselves are relative—we begin to see in quite harsh light just what is wrong with our collective life. It is built on the sands of relativity and, if we like the outcome, the ends justify the means.

Am I stirring the sewage here? Over the last few weeks we’ve watched the entirety of a very laudable British series called Foyle’s War. It has a mysterious attraction. The right thing to do is shown us, in that series, as an absolute, its root the inner nature of the human soul and Whatever created it. Innate, as I would call it. Such thoughts, therefore, tend to arise.

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