Not only the press!

The Plato/Pythagoras paper, the press reports on which I criticised yesterday was written by Dr. John Bernard Kennedy of Manchester University who according to his own description has pretty impressive credentials:

I studied mathematics and computers at Princeton. My doctorate is in philosophy from Stanford University, with a specialty in the history and philosophy of mathematical physics. My advisors were Nancy Cartwright, Peter Galison, and John Dupre. I also studied Greek philosophy with Julius Moravcsik, Jean Hampton, and Wilbur Knorr. I was a student for a year at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. I was an assistant professor at Notre Dame University for three years and spent a year doing research at Cambridge University, where I was the principal investigator with an NSF grant, before moving to Manchester University.

These are posted on the web site that he has set up to explain his thesis. Unfortunately he also includes the following in his introduction to the subject:

The two most surprising ideas in Plato’s hidden philosophy may be explained simply. First, the musical and mathematical structures he hid in his writings show that he was committed to the radical idea that the universe is controlled not by the gods on Olympus but by mathematical and scientific law. Today we take it for granted that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, but it was a dangerous and heretical idea when it struggled for acceptance in the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake and Galileo was condemned and imprisoned. After Socrates was executed for sowing doubts about Greek religion, Plato had every reason to hide his commitment to a scientific view of the cosmos.  But we now know that Plato anticipated the key idea of the Scientific Revolution by some 2000 years. (My emphasis)

I dealt with the supposed anticipation of the scientific revolution by Plato yesterday and now wish to deal with the section that I have emphasised above. If this had been written by one of the denizens of the Pharyngoogoo comment column or a similar intertube cesspit I would not have been surprised but coming from a genuine historian of science this section almost left me speechless.

Where to begin? The idea that the book of nature is written* in the language of mathematics was never dangerous or heretical and nobody was ever persecuted for it by anybody and to claim otherwise is unsubstantiated codswallop. Galileo was condemned and imprisoned for “vehement suspicion of heresy” for having broken the injunction he received in 1616 not to teach or claim that the earth goes round the sun, mathematics had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The inclusion of Bruno in the quote above is positively obscene. Firstly as I have almost certainly pointed out at least a zillion times on various intertube comment columns Bruno was immolated for his theology and not for any scientific theories he might or might not have held. Secondly Bruno famously rejected the mathematisation of natural philosophy that was developing at the end of the 16th century, not exactly the person to name as a martyr for mathematics.

I love experts!

*Thanks to Mike for pointing out that something was missing from this sentence!

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Filed under History of science, Odds and Ends

6 responses to “Not only the press!

  1. Reading this stuff about Plato puzzled me because it’s news to me that it’s news to any one that Plato thought reality had a mathematical structure. The string theorists could find inspiration for their activities in the discussion of the geometrical basis of the elements in the Timaeus.

    • I agree totally. Popper even went so far as to suggest that the Elements of Euclid were a Platonic cosmology, starting with the basic, points, lines etc., and climaxing with the five Platonic solids as the elements out of which the universe is constituted.

  2. Ouch. I wanted to blame this one on specialization (i.e. in 19th-20th c. mathematical physics), but clearly it’s not acceptable to make such fundamental errors about something as close as this. Once again a pity, since it has nothing to do with the actual study. Except getting History Channel on the line, I suppose.

  3. Mike from Ottawa

    I wonder what Kennedy thought the Ptolemaic model of the universe was based in if not the idea the universe ran by predictable laws expressible in the language of mathematics.

    BTW, I found myself rather confused by the sentence immediately after “Where to begin?” Are the words “The idea that” unwanted interlopers? It makes sense after their excision. Or did I just get up on the wrong side of my brain today?

  4. Pingback: The Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics. « The Renaissance Mathematicus

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