Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hollow Men

This is from The Hollow Universe, by Charles de Koninck, and reminds me a bit of CS Lewis's Abolition of Man which we were discussing this fall:

The prevailing 'scientific outlook', above all in the Commonwealth, is now more than ever dominated by Hume. His critique does not affect science as a tool; indeed, mathematics is now largely recognized for what he thought it was—a tool, and a quite reliable one. But his treatment of induction and causality is now being used to snuff out that first type of wonder : wonder about what a cause is, what is cause of what, what movement is, what place and time are, and so on. His apparently cold analysis has met with considerable popular success; and its effect is to drive from the human mind that primordial curiosity, the parent of all other motives of inquiry, which Aristotle describes in his account of the beginnings of science and wisdom.

Surely it is disheartening to reflect that we live in an age when it can be necessary, not merely to explain Einstein's speculative goal, but even to defend it against another type of mind which would have it that his time might have been better spent in the practice of plumbing. But the spirit of intellectual nihilism is gaining ground. It is frightening to think of the extent to which people are now being encouraged to banish from the minds of their children great questions as devoid of all meaning; to dispel the wonder which is a young mind's birthright; to confine their spirit to petty problems that can be answered once and for all to the satisfaction of reasoners incapable of raising a question to begin with. We now have a philosophy to show that there are no problems but those which it has shown to be no problem; and to decree that there is no philosophy other than one that is a denial of philosophy. Under the twinkle of a fading star, Hollow Men rejoice at a hollow world of their own making.

De Koninck was a Belgian Thomistic scholar who taught on the topic of "the compatibility and complementarity of philosophical knowledge and scientific inquiry".  Apparently the late Dr Ralph McInerny studied under him.   There are several writings of De Koninck's linked online at Good Catholic Books

Interesting factoid, if Wikipedia is to be believed:

De Koninck and his family hosted and entertained many notables in their Quebec City residence, among them Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his fiery writer-artist wife, Consuelo Suncín, during their five week stay in the province in the spring of 1942. The De Koninck's precocious eight year old son, Thomas, whom Saint-Exupéry met, may have served as an inspiration for the extraterrestrial visitor of his most famous novella, The Little Prince.


  1. Wow! That is a rich and thought provoking quote. If I understand it correctly, the author feels some thinkers have taken the *tools* created to ask better questions and better understand the universe and misconstrued those tools to be the answer. For example, they might take a scientific model, meant to expand our thinking, and say "this is the answer" cutting off any further sense of wonder and curiosity. Does he give a specific example of this? And is this what he means by "intellectual nihilism?"

    Love the image of the little prince -- what better way to illustrate a sense of wonder. :-)

    Hope I'm understanding your post.

    Merry Christmas, Willa! I'm glad to be reading your blogs again.

  2. Hi Stephanie,

    Merry Christmas to you! I am so glad you are back in the blogosphere again too.

    I think that what you say is true. In the context of the article I read, he was talking about how physicists speak about length as something to do with a certain platinum-iridium bar that is kept at controlled temperatures in Paris (I'm not sure if they still use this standard or not). So length occurs only when length is measured on something. Which is fine for what physics is doing, but doesn't work if that is the only way to think of what things are.

    He says:
    "the construct is the subject qua construct, and it is only this operational aspect of mathematical entities that is applied to the investigation of nature."

    He says they speak of "how" something is, not really "what" it is. Even after all the physical questions are answered, supposing they could be, nothing has really been said of the questions that people ask before they forget how.

    For example, he talks about the "lifeless" world of biology because the first thing you or your children would notice about animals and plants vs rocks is the very thing that is hardly studied or even explained in formal biology classes.

    Maybe it's a bit like in chapter 21 of The Little Prince, where the Little Prince sees a whole garden full of roses and is upset because they all look alike and look just like the flower on his planet, who thought she was unique. But the fox tells him that his flower is different because it is his, because he knows her. Indeed, the flower is unique, but because of the prince's love for her. THe fox tells him,

    "What is essential is invisible to the eye"

    I am probably not explaining very well, but I take it that De Koninck thinks that while modern mathematics work very well as tools just because of their "hollowness", they are not sufficient and if we think they are the only way to perceive reality we will make all kinds of mistakes even in our original physical goal, to know more about physics.

    I hope you have a great, relaxing Christmas and New Year!

  3. Just a note: De Koninck is in some way the "grand-father" of Thomas Aquinas College in CA. He taught most if not all of the founders and, I think, inspired to a large degree the particular blend of science and philosophy that the students of that college have the privilege of studying.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!