Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Time will tell

I have been trying again to read Stephen Gaukroger's The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210-1685 (Oxford 2006), not altogether successfully. For the moment, it's the jacket illustration I want to consider, a painting by Francois Lemoyne (1688-1737) called "Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy" (click to enlarge).

Father Time holds his daughter Truth while pushing away Falsehood (unmasked) with the shaft of his scythe. Envy slinks in the background. Truth seems to have her eyes set on heaven. I have no idea what truths were important to Lemoyne. He committed suicide soon after completing the painting.

The issue raised by Lemoyne's allegorical theme is this: Does time inevitably winnow truth from falsehood?

It is an unstated axiom of the scientific world view that the answer is yes. Science makes no claim for Truth with a capital T; there is no Rubensesque lady at the height of her mature beauty to be rescued from her enemies. Rather the claim is for reliable lower-case truth that as time passes approaches ever more closely an idealized but never realized perfection.

Never to be realized? Well, certainly not in its totality. The cosmos we find ourselves living in is effectively (perhaps actually) infinite, and the human mind -- even in its collectivity -- is finite. That the world is reliably knowable at all is a mystery that science itself cannot dispel. Theism is an attempt to plumb the mystery. Agnosticism is a more modest admission of ignorance.

But what of time? The savants of the Scientific Revolution spoke of "the Ancients and the Moderns," those who looked to the past for a truth that time corrupts, and those who look to a future truth that time perfects: infallible revelation versus unrelenting quest. The divide is as sharp today, at least in America, as ever in the past. It works itself out in a Red State/Blue State political polarization that baffles the rest of the post-Enlightenment world, and -- as we have recently seen -- can bring effective government to a standstill.

Let the Lemoyne painting be a litmus test. Do you see Father Time defending an infallible Truth against the corrupting inroads of secularism and science? Or do you see Father Time pushing away myth and superstition so that empirical truth can be lifted onward and upward?

(I will be away tomorrow.)