Thursday, July 28, 2011

History VII

Our last outing with history concluded that history holds real value only to those who believe in the concept of transcendent truth. History can only teach us if there is something to be taught that can apply to us in the present time. Yet even if we grant this notion history presents an issue. If we were to look at history on its own merits it is not that obvious that history really has something to teach us.

An honest look at history reveals two problems which will be examined in turn. It is important to understand these issues before any honest assessment of history can be carried out.

The first problem is how one determines what is and what is not important when it comes to details. Given the wealth of data that accompanies historical research how does one come to the conclusion that a given detail, be it cultural, political, social, religious, artistic, or musical, is important enough to warrant our attention?

I will use an example of sorts. There is a version of history popular today about Galileo and the controversy surrounding his interactions with the Catholic Church. In particular, the following narrative is proposed. That Galileo stood for true science and the correct view that the earth revolved around the sun, and defied the religious authorities of the time who believed that the Ptolemaic model was correct that the earth was the center of the universe.

However, like all history, there is far more to the story than meets the eye. For example:
But Kepler was not the only contemporary of Galileo who was developing models to compete with the old Ptolemaic model. There were at least 6 models being proposed. The program[ed. A program that aired on television], like so many other biographies of Galileo, builds a straw man, by suggesting that the choices were between Galileo's Copernican model and an archaic model inherited from Aristotle. Another important scientist of the day, Tycho Brahe, had developed the Tychonic System. The Jesuits mentioned in the program (e.g Scheiner) were not proponents of the old Ptolemaic system but of the newer Tychonic System. The program implies that all of Galileo's opponents were clutching to some ancient scheme. The Tychonic system had been published in 1587, more than 40 years after Copernicus' death. It was based on the best set of celestial data up to that time. The data set was eventually used by Kepler to propose our modern view of planetary motion. Kepler and Tycho Brahe are often ignored in Galilean biographies but they were important. Perhaps the most important work in physics from the seventeenth century was Newton's PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica .
Indeed such data would sever the connection between the actual events of the Galileo controversy and the meta-narrative of popular imagination, the notion of continuous war between religion and science.

But this is not to simply throw cold water on the Galileo myth. The point is that one has to consider what data is relevant from history in order to draw meaning from it. And to be sure that we are not ignoring data that is relevant simply because it does not support our wishes.

The second issue stems from the first. History, like all human affairs, is fraught with contradictions. There are no heroes that were not weak in some sense. Nor did there exist so horrible a person that there wasn't some glimmer of that image of God. King David's lust motivated him to kill a man to steal the man's wife. Hitler was a painter. And then there are those such as George Jacques Danton , who worked so hard to hurl France into the nightmare of the Terror only to die in an attempt to undo what he had wrought.

How does one make sense of the morass of history? How does one obtain truth from the data that seems to contradict itself at every turn? Indeed with such data it would seem that those who argue against transcendent truth have the upper hand. If there is such a narrative to be had from history, it is the most contradictory and muddled story ever written.

But there is one nagging question. Why do we keep coming back to it? Why do we continue to say that history is important? Why is there a drive, even a need within us for those ties to the past? This we will examine next.

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