CHAPTER 11: The Book of Nature


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nature as textual exegesis, which came to dominate medieval Christianity.

Cf. James J. Bono The Word of God and the Languages of Man: interpreting nature in early modern science (Vol 1: Ficino to Descartes) U. of Wisconsin Press 1995, p11: “The Judeo-Christian metaphorics of creation with its emphasis upon the creative power of God’s speech—His Word—transferred to human apprehension of nature the characteristics of textuality associated with the word and authorship, thus making nature a book whose secrets could best be contained in words properly framed in human languages.” Add to this the identification of knowledge with Aristotle and deductive reasoning, and you have the scholastic tradition, in which the same techniques that applied to biblical study could be applied to God’s other Book: nature. [p12]


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…the idea of nature as deductive system, on the model of geometry.

“[E]arly Greek cosmologies typically envision the large-scale structure of the universe in terms of geometrical models with a high degree of symmetry… Finally, analogies with various crafts are an important source of both the particular explanations and the geometrical models characteristic of this tradition… The earliest Greek cosmologies are an example of first-order knowledge; they attempt to set out images of the world rather than images of knowledge. Yet in their emphasis on systematic, reductive, and general explanation they represent a new kind of first-order knowledge that is quite different from anything to be found in ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt… [Schiefsky M. (2012) The creation of second-order knowledge in ancient Greek science as a process in the globalization of knowledge. In: Renn J. (ed.) The Globalization of Knowledge in History, Open Access Edition, p3]


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…rather than as the moment-to-moment unfolding of meaning in speech.

As recognized units, “words” are features of written language. And apparently there is no word for ‘word’ in languages that are spoken only. [Ronald N. Giere “How Models Are Used to Represent Reality” Philosophy of Science, 71 (December 2004) p742] Giere notes further that display of speech on an oscilloscope, for example, does not reveal clear breaks at what we recognize as words. While written, Japanese hiragana, for example, does not make obvious breaks between words in the way that English does, but is more like a continuous transcription of sounds.


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…Renaissance intellectuals had been involved with law or medicine, or both.

In early modern culture and education, the study of law was a passport to any intellectual profession. Bacon and Copernicus were lawyers, as were Fermat, Huygens, and Leibniz. Montaigne was a judge; Pascal and Machiavelli were sons of lawyers; Petrarch, Rabelais, Luther, Calvin, Descartes, and Donne were former law students. [James Franklin The Science of Conjecture: evidence and probability before Pascal John Hopkins U Press 2001, p351]


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…the Book of Nature, like scripture, was read for its prophetic value, not out of dispassionate curiosity.

For example, as expressed even much later by Berkeley: “And it is the searching after, and endeavouring to understand those signs instituted by the Author of Nature, that ought to be the employment of the natural philosopher, and not the pretending to explain things by corporeal causes….” [George Berkeley A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge 65-66]


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…Galileo craftily extols nature as a book that can be read “directly”…

He proposes formalization as the opposite of poetry, yet relies on a poetic device, insisting that nature is geometrical in essence, while downplaying the human origins of geometry and mathematics as descriptive tools. See James J. Bono The Word of God and the Languages of Man: interpreting nature in early modern science (Vol 1: Ficino to Descartes) U. of Wisconsin Press 1995, p195: “Rather than argue the relative merits of the texts written by Galileo and his scholastic opponents, Galileo instead cleverly alters the very ground of the comparison. Philosophy, for Galileo, is no longer a discourse fashioned by human beings… Rather, it is a text ‘written in this grand book, the universe’.” Galileo expresses his literalism as rejection of fanciful symbolic interpretation, or “poetry”: “fables and fictions are in a way essential to poetry… while any sort of falsehood is so abhorrent to nature that it is as absent there as darkness is in light.” [quoted in Bono, p194]


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It is present all at once, of a piece, autonomous and independent of the speaker.

The spoken word is inseparable from the speaker’s intonations and nuances of speech, gesturing, facial expressions, body language, etc. The written word is divorced from such form and context—leaving a residue of pure content, which is necessarily abstract. This purified content is the basis of the Turing Test, which searches the message for signs of the intelligence behind it, signifying the original organic subjectivity of which the textual message is purged.

The letters of the alphabet represent sounds; they transcribe speech, which is essentially a continuous stream of sound. A truer alternative to the spoken word is iconic writing (e.g. Chinese, whose characters nevertheless also represent sounds as well as ideas). Whatever role writing may have played in the evolution of mind and culture, it is by virtue of its visual focus and detachment from the speaker and auditory speech, more than through alphabetization per se.

The Bible is an eclectic collection of many authors, over centuries, in diverse circumstances, each with his own slant, which reflected the conditions and concerns of the time. It is in no way an integral document, such as one would have to pretend in order to ascribe it to the hand of God. Yet Christian believers typically do so ascribe it and approach it as an integral, finished body of revealed truth. This illustrates the very meaning of textualism: the text—whether religious, philosophical or scientific—is the authority and the object to be explored, rather than the reality it concerns and presumably reflects. While the text is the map, the map is of greater interest than the territory!


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…the fact that biblical prophecy is a function of the Bible as a text.

That is: the sort of prophecy, for example, that foretells Jesus’ role from the Old Testament, or which attempts to interpret current events in terms of the Book of Revelation. The prophecies of Nostradamus fall into this category; they are so vague that an interpretation in terms of historical events amounts to textual exegesis. Foretelling the future has a venerable history, of course, which includes astrology and divination of all sorts. Here I focus on the specific role and nature of written texts, as self-contained determinate systems. (A medieval horoscope might be an example, as opposed to casting runes or reading entrails.) Furthermore, the very notion of prophecy expresses the wish that life be a story or intentional construct, in which present and future are connected as they are in the sequencing of a text, rather than being a contingent and possibly incoherent series of unpredictable events. If told by an idiot, life is at least a tale! Similarly, the notion of the deterministic system responds to the normative concept of nature as predictable, controllable at least in thought. In both cases, human will asserts freedom from happenstance in the creative power of authorship.