Thou Vain Toy

A Large Hadley Quadrant A Large Hadley Quadrant

A Large Hadley Quadrant

For Bobby C., underlinings from an essay by Morse Peckham, “Man’s Use of Nature,” offering powder and ball to my NO! in thunder.  And, perhaps as expected, Ahab will have the last word.


An ideology explains the world, and justifies our behavior in it and towards it, and validates that behavior.  An ideology tells us what to do and tells us that we are right in doing so.  What we need to do, then, in order to understand our present plight is to understand the historical sources and character of our ideology, to understand why our ideology is failing, and ultimately to understand why our ideology must fail.


Modern business not only employs the physical and natural sciences; it is founded on them; it is made possible by them.  Historically, it is the consequence of science.  It is the economic arm of the society, or more specifically of the society’s ideology….It is, therefore, idle to blame business and the great corporations, national and international, for our troubles–for the fact that for a long time they have been using nature badly.  Business has merely done what the ideology has told it to do.


We must attempt, therefore, to understand something about the nature of science, and why (for this is really our problem) it is such an enormous success and, as is becoming increasingly evident, such an enormous failure, a failure which, so far at any rate, we seem to be able to do almost nothing about.


In more primitive forms ideology appears as mythology, and as cultures become more modern and intellectually sophisticated, mythologies are transformed into abstract or metaphysical language.

[Here Peckham spends two pages talking through the mythology of the biblical Fall.  That "man's sin," which is disobeying the Father, was justly punished.  In this Edenic myth, humans are "perfectly adapted" to the natural world.  The punishment, expulsion from this perfect adaptation, is an enforced limitation.  Every other story then seems to show humans "pride" and destruction--Babel is the perfect example.  Mastery of and dominion over the natural world was Adam's "original gift."  Further attempts to regain that gift are transgressions within the mythology.]

But we must not imagine that European culture and its myths had exclusively Judeo-Christian roots or were governed solely by the Adamic mythology….Even more important was the cultural phenomenon that is to be found in almost all cultures, magic.

…the important thing about magic is that it presents an ideology of mastery over natural forces.  It makes no difference from our point of view that magic indeed gives precious little of that mastery.  The important thing is that it gives the feeling of mastery and embodies the possibility of dominion.  It is not surprising that orthodox Christianity condemned magic….since magic contained the ideology of mastery over nature, it circumvented the will of God…


Nevertheless…it became increasingly apparent that with the aid of reason and the aid of trial-and-error man could gain control over certain natural forces….At this point we must call to mind that medieval Europe created nothing more remarkable than what Arabian or Indian or Chinese civilizations created….Why, then, did this slowly gained manipulative control of nature, not only in building [great cathedrals], but also in mining, in shipbuilding, in painting’s exact reproduction of nature, in metallurgy, have such an explosive effect upon Western culture but have no such effect on cultures that had accomplished even more remarkable masteries?

I think the explanation lies in the fact that this steadily increasing control over natural forces, even in agriculture, created in Europe an ideological incoherence.  This slowly emerging manipulative control was not reconcilable with God’s denial of such control to Adam after the Fall.

[Here Peckham notes that the primary display of mastery in medieval culture was in the construction of temples to God.  This created a kind of "incoherence loop" wherein the sin of pride (mastery) could be balanced by "offering" glory to God by the emblem of pride.  Something like saying, "yes, we are transgressing the Edenic expulsion, but all for God's glory."]


[The Resolution of Incoherence]

[This] was accomplished by Francis Bacon [1561-1626]…the point of his resolution was the inclusion of manipulative science in his creation of ideological coherence.  His claim was that the laws by which nature operates are few, are simple, and are discoverable; and more importantly his claim was that discoverability is made possible by experiment, that is, by manipulation….the Restoration of what Adam had lost…was to be done not by revelation from God by by the powers of God-given but not God-controlled human mind, aided by experiment and observation.  Bacon resolved the incoherence between belief and fact by simply asserting that if we freed ourselves from various mythologies we could restore the Edenic existence with the powers God had granted us; and since God had granted us these powers, it was clearly his intention and will that we should do so.


[Experimentation, Theories, Instruments, Truth]

Scientific theories are neither proved nor disproved.  They are abandoned.  And they are abandoned because of scientific instruments.

How does a scientist proceed?  On the basis of the data available to him he develops a theory.  He then designs an experiment to prove or disprove his theory.  To carry out his experiment he must have instruments, for Baconian that he is, he does not believe that any theory can be proved or disproved without manipulation of the physical world.

[Peckham points out that "theories" are "verbal utterances" and that experiments are designed to test the success of his predictive verbal utterances; the results of the experiment are "judged" by the experimenter as confirmation of his true.  But "true until further experiment, he judges, falsifies them."]

For the intelligent scientist scientific truth is always truth only for the time being.

…if data is uncovered which does not provide, in the judgement of the scientist, information pertinent to his experiment, he tends to neglect it….scientific instruments…provide more data than the scientist’s theory can handle and also irrelevant data [and so] are responsible for a certain randomization of data.  When that randomization becomes…obvious…a scientific revolution occurs.


[Instruments, Randomization, Scale, Commercial Interest]

What scientific instruments do is to undermine the theories responsible for their invention…providing more data than the theory can handle, and by providing data irrelevant to the theory, that is, by randomizing it.  And this randomization forces the creation of new and more powerful theories.  The history of science is the history of scientific instruments, which are responsible for creating cultural incoherence; for scientific theories themselves (“verbal utterances” in time) are under the control of a culture’s ideology, its way of explaining the world….

But this is by no means the only impact scientific instruments have.  When you go into any factory or oil refinery or machine shop or chemical plant, what you see are scientific instruments enormously magnified….From this point of view the oldest scientific instrument is the potter’s wheel, from which was developed the lathe, perhaps the prime instrument for making scientific instruments.  Moreover, if you study what went on in the Royal Society, as described in the journal of Samuel Pepys, what is observable is the intense interest of these early academicians int he commercial possibilities of their discoveries, and therefore int he commercial possibilities of the instruments that made those discoveries possible.


In Harmony with Nature by Matthew Arnold


“In harmony with Nature?” Restless fool,
Who with such heat dost preach what were to thee,
When true, the last impossibility–
To be like Nature strong, like Nature cool!

Know, man hath all which Nature hath, but more,
And in that _more_ lie all his hopes of good.
Nature is cruel, man is sick of blood;
Nature is stubborn, man would fain adore;

Nature is fickle, man hath need of rest;
Nature forgives no debt, and fears no grave;
Man would be mild, and with safe conscience blest.

Man must begin, know this, where Nature ends;
Nature and man can never be fast friends.
Fool, if thou canst not pass her, rest her slave!


[On Arnold's poem]

But the important word is “more.”  Man has more than nature has; indeed man begins where nature ends.  Man thus transcends and is of greater value than nature….But Arnold of course is talking about spiritual values, that in man which is not natural, that which differentiates man from nature.  And if nature ends where man begins, then everything man does is nonnatural, is spiritual….

[O]ur ideologies, another name for spiritual values do not correspond with nature,…our beliefs and our explanations of the world are not isomorphic with the world, not of the same shape, or form, or structure, or with the same attribues or properties.  For our ideologies, our spiritual values, when we come right down to looking at them, are words and sentences.  They are verbal behavior.  And language is the creation of man.


[Anthropological definitions of culture]

…the anthropologist Karl Kroeber brought together all the anthropological definitions of culture.  They were and are remarkably various but all fo them can be subsumed or covered or taken care of, I believe, by defining culture as directions for performance.  Now what an ideology does is to explain those directions, to justify them and to validate them–to affirm that they are socially valid and that they ought to be obeyed.


[Indications One Is Human]

On the whole, people do exactly what you tell them to do.  If you examine anyone’s life for a day, minute by minute, you will observe how rarely people negate an instruction, though the capacity to negate is the indication that a child is a human being….

Furthermore, what is true of language is true of all culture.  It does not and cannot tell us what the world really is; it can only tell us how to find our way around in it.  But since it cannot tell us what the world really is, the manipulative relation to the world is bound to have unpredicted and to us random consequences.  And thus all ideologies must eventually be undermined and fail.


Therefore if our ideology tells us, as it does, that the aim of human culture is to understand the natural world completely, and to master it and dominate it, and if in doing so it gives us our basic myth [Eden], if it tells us to redeem our culture into a perfect isomorphism with the natural world, it is telling us something we cannot do….

We set out to master Nature, and when you do that, it turns out, Nature masters you right back.


from “The Quadrant”

The season for the Line at length drew near; and every day when Ahab, coming from his cabin, cast his eyes aloft, the vigilant helmsman would ostentatiously handle his spokes, and the eager mariners quickly run to the braces, and would stand there with all their eyes centrally fixed on the nailed doubloon; impatient for the order to point the ship’s prow for the equator. In good time the order came. It was hard upon high noon; and Ahab, seated in the bows of his high-hoisted boat, was about taking his wonted daily observation of the sun to determine his latitude.

Now, in that Japanese sea, the days in summer are as freshets of effulgences. That unblinkingly vivid Japanese sun seems the blazing focus of the glassy ocean’s immeasureable burning-glass. The sky looks lacquered; clouds there are none; the horizon floats; and this nakedness of unrelieved radiance is as the insufferable splendors of God’s throne. Well that Ahab’s quadrant was furnished with colored glasses, through which to take sight of that solar fire. So, swinging his seated form to the roll of the ship, and with his astrological-looking instrument placed to his eye, he remained in that posture for some moments to catch the precise instant when the sun should gain its precise meridian. Meantime while his whole attention was absorbed, the Parsee was kneeling beneath him on the ship’s deck, and with face thrown up like Ahab’s, was eyeing the same sun with him; only the lids of his eyes half hooded their orbs, and his wild face was subdued to an earthly passionlessness. At length the desired observation was taken; and with his pencil upon his ivory leg, Ahab soon calculated what his latitude must be at that precise instant. Then falling into a moment’s revery, he again looked up towards the sun and murmured to himself: ‘Thou sea-mark! thou high and mighty Pilot! thou tellest me truly where I am — but canst thou cast the least hint where I shall be? Or canst thou tell where some other thing besides me is this moment living? Where is Moby Dick? This instant thou must be eyeing him. These eyes of mine look into the very eye that is even now beholding him; aye, and into the eye that is even now equally beholding the objects on the unknown, thither side of thee, thou sun!’

Then gazing at his quadrant, and handling, one after the other, its numerous cabalistical contrivances, he pondered again, and muttered: ‘Foolish toy! babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of thy cunning and might; but what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no! not one jot more! Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with thy impotence thou insultest the sun! Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heaven, whose live vividness but scorches him, as these old eyes are even now scorched with thy light, O sun! Level by nature to this earth’s horizon are the glances of man’s eyes; not shot from the crown of his head, as if God had meant him to gaze on his firmament. Curse thee, thou quadrant!’ dashing it to the deck, ‘no longer will I guide my earthly way by thee; the level ship’s compass, and the level dead-reckoning, by log and by line; these shall conduct me, and show me my place on the sea. Aye,’ lighting from the boat to the deck, ‘thus I trample on thee, thou paltry thing that feebly pointest on high; thus I split and destroy thee!’


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  1. Lord of the Level Loadstone - August 23, 2012

    [...] 22, 2012 Thou Vain Toy Literature [...]

  2. Eliminating Randomness - September 14, 2012

    [...] more on this read anything by Morse Peckham.  I’m more than happy to scan and send you pdf copies of his essays.  Just let me know. [...]

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