Archive for May 24th, 2011

The Age of Reason

A quick blog post today, as its late and we head to Rome tomorrow.

Today about thirty students made the trek to Siena, while a few others had things they wanted to investigate in Florence.   The high light of Siena was the cathedral museum Santa Maria della Scala, and the famous Piazza del Campo.

Unfortunately I ended up missing a lot of the art seminar because a student got ill after lunch and I assisted her back to the train station.   I ended up leaving early as well, doing some logistics for the Rome trip tomorrow.

Tonight I had my Galileo seminar, which I’ll probably redo in Rome for those who didn’t get back from Siena in time.    In 2009 I blogged about Galileo during the last Italy trip, you can get more details from that post.   Much of what we covered two years ago we hit on today.   But this seminar more overtly built on two themes.

1.  The move from humanism towards reason.   Instead of humans being the center of the universe, our ability to use reason to understand nature becomes primary.    While Petrarch and Dante dealt with love, and Boccaccio with lust and death, for Galileo the language of God was math.  The world was not to be felt or emoted but to be understood and analyzed.

To be sure, the humanists started the move in this direction.   They advanced realism and emphasized the material alongside the spiritual.  With Galileo the focus now is on the abstract, seeking to use the mind to find laws of nature.   Discovering the power of mathematics, Galileo and others of his era reckoned that math was the key to unlocking God’s true meaning, which was exhibited in the workings of nature.

Galileo and his contemporaries like Francis Bacon and Johannes Kepler found a contradiction in the church’s embrace of Aristotle as an authority.   For nearly 300 years Aristotelian scholasticism put forth both Aristotle and the church as authorities.    If you got an education, it started by accepting their authority, and learning within a framework designed to support and not contradict existing knowledge.

The problem, as Galileo noted, is that Aristotle said you are to question authority and experiment for yourself.    He believed he was more true to Aristotle than the church was.  This leads to the second theme:

2.  Authorities no longer could control information and conventional belief.  Galileo was dangerous not because he thought the earth orbited the sun — most high up in the Church knew he was right.  He was a threat because he was willing to say so and take it upon his own authority to follow what the science says rather than leaving it to the clerics.

These two shifts would change western civilization forever.   Galileo didn’t cause them, the same sorts of ideas were sweeping Europe.   Being close to Rome where the Church had power, Galileo was more vulnerable.   If he’d been in Germany, Great Britain or even still in Padova he’d probably had been fine.

At this point, the age of reason overturns the age of faith.  Nature becomes something outside of humans, to be understood and potentially controlled using the scientific method to understand the laws of nature — the mind of God.   Galileo would die the same year Isaac Newton was born, and Newton would take the project a step further to present a model of a “clockwork universe,” where everything can be predicted and explained (if you have enough data).

This shift away from church authority and both humanism and spiritualism pushes us towards the enlightenment.   It has propelled us to progress, to build capitalist economies, to advance medical science, create new industries, and have technological devices that allow me to blog from Italy to whoever has a computer and types in my web page.

But this shift has also given us pollution, chemcials in and around us, potentially poisoning us and risking the planet’s capacity to sustain human life.   We’ve wasted resources and have seen mass atrocities and abuse of this technology.

This intensifies the dilemma noted a couple days ago with Machiavelli.    By emphasizing the abstract and material over the human, we’ve increasingly mastered our material world, but without really thinking of the values and consequences of our actions.   By rejecting external authority we set up intense conflicts of values and ideals with no clear way to settle them.

This is also true of music, Steve pointed out, noting that in 1600 in Florence a completely new form of music emerged called opera.   Important in bolting from tradition and using reason to rethink tonality was Vincenzo Galilei, the father of Galileo.

Steve also has been pre-occupied about the 1300s this trip, a period of tumult and transition.   He wonders if maybe we don’t have a lot to learn by reflecting on the world in that era, even if it seems so distant.  He has a point.  Steve suggested that we’re increasingly distrusting reason as a primary tool, in part because it can’t handle values.    Reason is a tool, but it is value free – it can serve evil, it can serve good.   Perhaps what we’ve lost is that focus on the human that figures like Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio provided.   Perhaps in this era of crisis and transition, we need to re-discover human values, not just more cleverly use reason.

I think her name is Paola, she's the hotel keeper at Hotel Giappone one of the hotels we're at. Bruno at Hotel Abaco downstairs helps us every trip -- we've had groups here five times, great hotels! Ciao, Firenze!

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