Thursday, July 4, 2013

Who really wrote "We hold these truths to be self-evident"?

[This is a slightly edited version of a previous post.]

Every American schoolchild learns that it was Thomas Jefferson who penned the mighty words "We hold these truths to be self-evident ...." But recently there has been more than a little confusion on this point.

In part the confusion is an honest and long-standing uncertainty due to the fact that in addition to Jefferson, both John Adams and Benjamin Franklin helped to forge the final version of the Declaration of Independence that was ratified by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. And in addition to Jefferson, Adams and Franklin, there were also two other members of drafting committee: Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston.

But Walter Isaacson has greatly exacerbated this honest uncertainty by stupidly declaring, in his biography of Benjamin Franklin, the following:
Franklin made only a few changes, some of which can be viewed written in his own hand on what Jefferson referred to as the "rough draft" of the Declaration. (This remarkable document is at the Library of Congress and on its Web site.) The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using the heavy backslashed that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson's phrase 'We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable' and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident.'"
[pp. 311-312]
Isaacson, that most esteemed representative of American middle-brow pseudo-intellectualism, makes it clear in the next paragraph that he is motivated by his own idiotic view that Jefferson was some kind of irrational romanticist whose thinking was tainted by religion, whereas Franklin was a true "rationalist" whose mind was unclouded by otherworldly metaphysics.

The idea of “self-evident” truths was one that drew less on John Locke, who was Jefferson’s favored philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and on the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. In what became known as “Hume’s fork,” the great Scottish philosopher, along with Leibniz and others, had developed a theory that distinguished between synthetic truths that describe matters of fact (such as “London is bigger than Philadelphia”) and analytic truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason and definition (“ The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees”; “All bachelors are unmarried”). By using the word “sacred,” Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question— the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights— was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality. 
[p. 312]

The problem for Isaacson is that no one agrees with his claim, except for those who foolishly rely on Isaacson as their only only source of information on the question. Everyone who has done independent research on the matter is either meticulously equivocal, or tends toward the accepted attribution of the words to Jefferson.
"Possibly it was Franklin, or Jefferson himself, who made the small but inspired change in the second paragraph. Where, in the initial draft certain 'truths' were described as 'sacred and undeniable,' a simpler, stronger 'self-evident' was substituted."
[David McCullough, John Adams, p. 122. Look here for a much longer excerpt of the relevant passage in McCullough.]

"The phrase 'sacred & undeniable' was changed to 'self-evident' before Adams made his copy. This change has been attributed to Franklin, but the opinion rests on no conclusive evidence, and there seems to be even stronger evidence that the change was made by TJ or at least that it is in his handwriting."
[Boyd, Declaration of Independence, 1945, p. 22-3." (link)]
Pauline Maier, in her "American Scripture: The Making of Declaration of Independence" simply says "the phrase is perhaps Franklin's". [p. 136]

Carl Lotus Becker, in his 1922 classic The Declaration of Independence: A Study on the History of Political Ideas, states that in his opinion the phrase "self-evident" was already in place before Benjamin Franklin had seen the working draft:
"Jefferson first wrote 'we hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable.' In the Rough Draft as it now reads, the words 'sacred & undeniable' are crossed out, and 'self-evident' is written in above the line. Was this correction made by Jefferson in process of composition? Or by the Committee of Five? Or by Congress? There is nothing in the Rough Draft itself to tell us. As it happens, John Adams made a copy of the Declaration which still exists. Comparing this copy with the corrected Rough Draft, we find that it incorporates only a very few of the corrections: one of the two corrections which Adams himself wrote into the Rough Draft; one, or possibly two, of the five corrections which Franklin wrote in; and eight verbal changes apparently in Jefferson’s hand. This indicates that Adams must have made his copy from the Rough Draft when it was first submitted to him; and we may assume that the eight verbal changes, if in Jefferson’s hand, which we find incorporated in Adams’ copy, were there when Jefferson first submitted the Draft to Adams — that is, they were corrections which Jefferson made in process of composing the Rough Draft in the first instance. With Adams’ copy in hand it is therefore possible to reconstruct the Rough Draft as it probably read when first submitted to Franklin."
[Chapter Four: Drafting the Declaration: link]

This is a case where there is room for some small amount of reasonable doubt. But there is in fact very little evidence against the traditional and accepted attribution of the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident" to Thomas Jefferson.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Andrew Barker on Ptolemy and experimental science

Here is an excerpt from the Introduction to Andrew Barker's book Scientific Method in Ptolemy's Harmonics:


"The task I have set myself in this book is to explore the Harmonics from a methodological point of view. Its own pronouncements on these matters are of great interest in their own right, and demand close analysis. But it will also be necessary to ask how far the treatise is faithful to the principles it advertises, in the actual conduct of its investigations. There are grounds for some scepticism here, and special reasons why the issue should be thought important. The complex combination of rationalism and empiricism which Ptolemy professes to adopt insists, among other things, on a crucial role for experimental tests of provisional, theorybased results. Here, as we shall see, the word ‘experimental’ is to be construed in a strict sense that will seem surprisingly modern. I hope to show beyond reasonable doubt that Ptolemy understood very well what conditions must be met if experimental tests are to be fully rigorous, and that he had a clear and persuasive conception of the roles they should be assigned in a well conducted scientific project. I do not think that these ideas are so fully worked out and so lucidly expressed in any other surviving Greek source. What is much harder to decide is whether the experimental equipment he meticulously describes was ever actually built, whether his carefully designed and controlled experiments were ever conducted, and if they were, whether he allowed their results genuinely to modify or to put at risk the theoretically grounded conclusions which they purported to test. Greek science in general is not renowned for its adherence to experimental methods.Harmonic scientists in particular often claim that their theoretical results are confirmed ‘by perception’, sometimes offering geometrically conceived descriptions of instrumental devices through which (they allege) these results can be presented to the ear. But their remarks seldom inspire much confidence in the supposition that the instruments were actually built and used, still less that they were used in an experimental spirit; they seem to have been thought of, at the most, as making manifest ‘rationally’ excogitated truths to the senses, rather than as putting them to the test. If we are to conclude that Ptolemy not only represented the use of strict experimental techniques as an essential element in a well conducted scientific project, but also carried his programme through in practice, the case will have to be argued in detail and with the greatest caution. Certainly the author’s explicit statements about his own procedures should not be taken at face value without a good deal of supporting evidence.

"To anticipate the book’s conclusions on this issue, I believe that a very strong case can be made in Ptolemy’s favour, and I shall do my best to provide it. If it can indeed be shown that when he wrote the Harmonics, Ptolemy not only had a well honed understanding of experimental methods but was also seriously committed to their use, that fact should obviously provoke the question whether this treatise is merely a freakish anticipation of later concepts of science, or whether once these methods have been drawn to our notice, we shall be able to find convincing traces of comparable procedures in other Greek works in the ‘exact’ or ‘mathematical’ sciences. Such questions have of course been asked before; but it may be that a starting-point in the Harmonics, where the issues are brought so insistently to our attention, will place them in a fresh perspective. My business in this book is only to provide the necessary point of departure. No doubt the wider questions are the more important, but they must be reserved for a different book and probably for a different writer. Here I intend to keep the focus as sharp as possible, restricting myself to an examination of this single text, without drawing elaborate comparisons or attempting to generate large conclusions about Greek science in general.

"Ptolemy’s treatment of the strictly ‘rational’ or ‘theoretical’ phases of his enquiry also raises issues relevant to the other sciences, particularly, perhaps, to astronomy. He proposes that what the ear perceives as musically admirable relations between pitched sounds are manifestations of mathematically intelligible and elegant form; and their complex and various structures can be derived, through orderly mathematical procedures, from principles of ‘reason’ whose credentials are accessible to the mind. This is all very fine and inspiring. But given that our initial data are simply patterns of sound which are perceived as musically satisfactory, we must plainly ask, first, how we are to represent them in ways that express their mathematical form and make them amenable to ‘rational’ (that is, mathematical) manipulation.We must also ask how we are to move from our initial perceptions to a grasp on the principles which govern their orderly relationships; why it is that these rational principles and no others are the appropriate ones for the task; why it is that some mathematically describable patterns are ‘better’ and correspond to ‘finer’ musical relations than others; by what procedures well formed musical systems are to be derived from the initial principles, and why (since different methods of derivation will yield different results); and so on. All these questions have their counterparts in astronomy, at least as Ptolemy conceived it, and the answers offered in the Harmonics may shed some light on the character of his reasoning in the Syntaxis, perhaps on that of other ancient astronomers too. But those issues, once again, will not be addressed in this book.

"From time to time in the course of this study it will be necessary to examine rather closely some of the finer details of Ptolemy’s arguments, partly for the light they shed on the nature and application of his method, and partly for their own intrinsic interest. The procedure of the Harmonics depends to a high degree on rigorous reasoning, and its sophisticated intricacies can on occasion provide matter for serious philosophical reflection. I shall also suggest, on the other hand, that some of his arguments fail to pass muster by the standards he purports to accept. Some of his constructive strategies seem to break down in their applications; and his criticisms of his predecessors are sometimes more rhetorically than rationally persuasive. It is not always possible to judge whether Ptolemy is merely being too hasty, or whether on some occasions he is deliberately seeking to mislead. This book is a discussion of procedures and the principles governing them, not primarily of the substance of Ptolemy’s conclusions or those of other writers in this field; but it would hardly be possible to explore the issues at which I have gestured, at least in any depth, without introducing some musicological technicalities. I shall expound them, however, only to the extent that seems necessary for my main purposes, and a good deal of detail will be ignored. I shall also do my best to introduce them in ways that will be accessible to readers unversed in the conundrums of Greek harmonics, and digestible by those for whom the subject is not itself of special interest."

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Announcing the formation of the Hypatia Academy of Ancient Science

Please answer the following questions to be considered for admission to the Hypatia Academy:

1. Briefly (or, if you prefer, not so briefly) explain why only a moron would suppose that ancient Pagans believed the earth to be flat.

2. In which of his works did Ptolemy give the most detailed presentation of his ideas about the use of experiments in the advancement of scientific knowledge?

3. The calculations of which ancient scientist were used by Christopher Columbus as the basis for his voyages?

4. Which two ancient poets were cited by Erasmus Darwin (Charles' grandfather) as the inspiration for his theory of biological evolution?

5. What was the profession of Galileo's father and why is this significant?

For those who would like to be considered for faculty appointments, please also answer the following five additional questions:

6. Write a detailed critique of the how the film "Agora" portrays ancient science.

7. What are your thoughts on the prayer to Venus at the beginning of Lucretius' "De Rerum Natura", and how this prayer relates to the rest of the poem?

8. Explain using specific citations to the works of Cicero how Platonic scepticism can be reconciled with Stoic cosmological and theological ideas.

9. In which ancient work are the earth's northern and southern polar ice caps described as they would appear to someone viewing the earth from outer space?

10. Write about the contributions of Francesco Patrizi to modern science with special attention to the influence of ancient Pagan philosophy on Patrizi.

Send your completed answers to cornelius "dot" anatole "at" Or simply submit your answers as a comment to this blog post.