Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The empirical imperative


Carmen drew our attention the other day to the new movie Agora, based on the life of Hypatia, the philosopher/mathematician of 4th-century Alexandria, the only woman to appear in Raphael's famous The School of Athens. She is the standing white-robed figure at left foreground. Click to enlarge.

Not a lot is reliably known about Hypatia. The best biography I know of is Maria Dzielska's Hypatia of Alexandria, published by Harvard University Press in 1996, notable for its determined effort to separate fact from fiction. Certainly, Hypatia has been made a hero or villain by lots of people with axes to grind, beginning soon after her death, traditionally at the hands of an angry Christian mob.

A long time ago, before the recent spate of books on Hypatia, I read -- or tried to read -- Charles Kingsley's 1853 novel Hypatia, Or, New Foes With an Old Face. I can't say that I remember much of the plot, which had more going on than I could digest, but as one might suppose from the good Anglican divine, Kingsley's Hypatia is admired for her neo-Platonic virtue and her beauty, but she is made to recognize the inadequacy of her pagan ways and comes to Christianity just before her tragic death -- yes, at the hands of a Christian mob, but one working the will of a corrupted Church. The real hero of the book is Philammon, a manly proto-Protestant Christian stand-in for the author himself.

And so it is that we all interpret the world through our personal paradigms.

It is said that as a neo-Platonist Hypatia disparaged empiricism in favor of abstract reason. This may or may not be true, but if so then her reputation deservedly floats mostly free of facts. As I recall, there is a chapter in Kingsley's novel called Nephelococcygia, or Cloud Cuckoo Land, from Aristophanes' The Birds. The word also refers to the business of seeing shapes in the clouds, and by extension imagining things that have no substantial basis in reality, such as making Hypatia into whatever we want her to be and creating gods of our eager imaginings. If science has any useful function in this world beyond technology, it is surely its insistence that we occasionally drag our cloud castles down to empirical earth.