Sunday, February 10, 2013

Skirting antisemitism

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, prejudice, science, history, philosophy

I almost gave the book a pass when I saw it. The title implies prejudice: Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion, by Steven Gimbel. I reasoned that the book actually was, or included, a defense of Albert Einstein, and that turned out to be right. But there is much more.

In his introduction, Gimbel complains that our visceral dismissal of all things Nazi keeps us from engaging with the ideas themselves. He does so in this volume so he can disprove the Nazis' anti-Einstein polemics on their merits, rather than guilt by association. Thus he investigates just how Jewish Einstein was, to what extent any style of thinking he used is characteristically Jewish, and whether contemporary Jews considered the theories of Relativity themselves to be Jewish. He makes it quite clear that the opposition to Einstein was not just prejudice, but was nonsense.

A major element of the argument involves the contrasting styles of argument characteristic of Descartes and Newton. He writes of the "Catholic science" of Descartes and the "Protestant science" of Newton. René Descartes was faced with the requirement to reconcile his cosmological ideas with the Church's reliance on Aristotle's cosmology. The whirling, entrained aether Descartes propounded managed to satisfy both if you didn't look too hard. This is considered (by Gimbel) Catholic science. Newton, in reaction, based his work on fixed and unalterable space and time, the heavenly bodies and Earth moving within this infinitely rigid framework. The absolutist basis then resulted in Protestant science.

In his conclusion, Gimbel calls Einstein's work Cosmopolitan science. He points out that it is based on engaging and reconciling multiple viewpoints, and that the new world emerging in the early 1900s was a world in which scientists and philosophers were faced with a new diversity of social, religious and political trends. Surprisingly to me, certain influential voices continue to denigrate Einstein and his work, particularly the Special and General theories of Relativity. Their antisemitism is evident, and the charge of "Jewish science" is still made.

Gimbel does not go quite far enough. I am reminded that Paul, rebuking the Corinthians for exclusivism, wrote, "Each of you says, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ. Is Christ divided?" Even those seemingly more pure ones saying "I am of Christ", Paul declares to be in the wrong as excluding the others. While the terms Catholic science, Protestant science and Jewish science offend, so does Cosmopolitan science.

Science is just science. While we may speak or write of Earth science, Biological science, and even the oxymoronic Political science, the practice of science is just science. To speak of top-down methods, or bottom-up, and so forth, is to speak of portions of scientific activity. Scientific method requires all these practices working together. One may start with observations that include apparent anomalies. One must then think about the reason for the anomalies, and plan further observations (AKA experiments) to tease out the possible influences. As Richard Feynman wrote, once you say, "That's interesting," you start on the road to discovery. One may also start with an idea (formally, a hypothesis), a notion of how things might work. One must then do experiments or make observations to either support, modify or reject the hypothesis. There is a back-and-forth here.

In Einstein's case, many observations and experiments had been performed already and published, along with all kinds of speculation about what might be going on. His method resembled that of Sherlock Holmes (actually Joseph Bell): "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth." He performed thought experiments to refine his thinking, and learned the mathematical tools he would need to distinguish the possible from the impossible. The four papers Einstein published in 1905 were hypotheses, proposals of theory, with suggestions for observations to determine or refine their predictions. One of the four papers proposed Special relativity. He continued the process to propose General relativity nearly two decades later. He did not perform experiments, but others did. Based on those experiments, the hypotheses were confirmed and refined, later reaching the status of Theory.

Let us recall that no theory is "good" or "bad". A theory is a provisional description of how certain phenomena are produced. Theory is composed of multiple hypotheses, which are ideas that can be tested by experiments or observations (Astronomy, for example, does not lend itself to experiment, but to observation). If all such work supports the hypotheses, the theory is considered confirmed. Contradicting experimental or observational results discount or refute the hypotheses and thus the theory.

The "Catholic science" of Descartes is not science at all. It is a political statement of how things might work if Aristotle's cosmology must be satisfied. Most likely, Descartes knew Aristotle was wrong. But he'd lose his head to openly say so. In this environment, science is not possible. To call what Newton did "Protestant science" is nonsense. Newton was not really a Protestant; he professed loyalty to the English church, but was a secret Unitarian. Newton was a rigid, unsociable jerk, and he'd have been just as absolutist whether in Protestant England or Catholic France or Islamic Turkey or even in Jewish Israel, had it existed at the time. In his own way, Einstein, while a bit more sociable, was more like Newton, a kind of absolutist, one who thought in terms of a broader absolutism that did not include absolute time or space. But that same absolutism led him to reject the strange conclusions of quantum theories, saying "the Old One does not play dice."

One chapter is devoted to discussing Talmudic reasoning. This is considered prototypically Jewish. Yet it strongly resembles "buddy study" as I experienced it in my college years. In my experience, it is also the best method of Bible study, whether Jewish or Christian in intent. And the interplay of multiple viewpoints that I find called "Cosmopolitan science" is simply a further expression of the same practice. Perhaps Isaac Newton came the closest to being the solitary thinker, bringing forth new discoveries by the power of thought alone. Yet even Newton did experiments, and was also embedded in a social milieu that did affect his work.

I have had the privilege to work and worship among Christians of both Western and Eastern cultures. I find that the more explicitly corporate practices that are characteristic of the East are most conducive to learning what the Bible means. The Chinese out-Talmud the Talmudic scholars in their ability to dig into infinite detail. However, they tend not to codify every little thing in the same way. Such habits of thought also lead to a different way of "doing science". Yet this is not "Chinese science" or "Eastern science". Let us remember that the Chinese, Japanese, and even Indian and Arabic peoples are all supposed to be descended from Shem, and thus are Semites. They all tend to be less individualistic than Japhethites (mainly Europeans).

Science is just science. Nobody is all-inclusive, so of course we must specialize, but not too much. In an early job as an electronics technician, I sometimes worked with engineers from Jet Propulsion Labs. They were over-specialized; they had a resistor guy, a capacitor guy, and so forth (there were no women, this was 1967). Together, they could design wonderful circuits for spacecraft. But my supervisor was a ham radio hobbyist, who could design and build a whole circuit on his own, quicker, cheaper, and better. And while I am primarily a geologist, the publication of which I am proudest combines methods developed in astronomy and in civil engineering. Not a Jack of all trades, perhaps, but the master of two or three.

Science is carried on better and more effectively when it is in a cosmopolitan setting. But let us not call the result Cosmopolitan science. To apply any adjective to science is to make it non-science. There is no Jewish or Catholic or Aryan or Creation or any other "kind" of science. There is just Science. Einstein may have brought certain Jewish habits of thought to his scientific studies. Once the theory was crafted, however, that all fell away. You don't need to be Jewish to understand Relativity, you just need to be smart, mathematically trained, and isn't easy! Dr. Gimbel has done valuable service to show that the charges the Nazis made were misdirected. We need to continue beyond the notion of Cosmopolitan science that he presents, to the understanding of science as science.

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