Why Is the Sky Blue?

Why science can explain why the sky is blue, but not why blue is blue. The shibboleths of a tribe. And how come there are so many more bookstores today, in a less and less literate world?

This leads us back to the difference between "quantitative" and "qualitative" approaches, and on that hangs an interesting tale of the birth of modern science in the 17th century, and the tacit decision, among the likes of Descartes, Galileo, and Newton, to exclude "secondary qualities" from the purview of science. The list of "primary qualities" which science treats, includes number, spatial extension, and physical action-and-reaction. (Tellingly, later versions of this list tend to be shorter than earlier ones-- you might almost say, as the world real to science shrinks.) "Secondary qualities" include color, sound, warmth, wetness, tingling, odor, taste, subjective emotional states, and everything else you can't count, measure, or plot on a coordinate grid with Mr. Descartes' algebraic geometry. Number rules, in a strangely reductive reprise of Pythagoras.

So science can explain to you why the sky is blue, but science cannot (even in principle) explain to you the blueness of blue. It is not clear there is any necessity to this (pardon an ugly term) methodological restriction, apart from the desire to filter out anything that cannot be readily "controlled." But, after 350 years, such a filter is not readily excised from the paradigm.

In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas said, "There is nothing in the intellect which was not first in the senses." One 19th-century anatomist said, "There is nothing in the brain which was not first in the nerves." I leave it to you to gauge the contraction of reality this shift represents. And, since "blueness" is not and cannot be in the nerves, I leave it as a thought exercise to explore just how much of a "world" we have left, once we fall (like a sack of cement) for this set of restrictions. (Lord, you can tell I've been reading more about Goethe, can't you?! Most recently a chapter on him in a book on the history of modern science by philosopher Ernst Cassirer... I have long been a "fan" of Cassirer's three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, but just happened on this book by accident in a used book store recently.)

One final clue: the term "desire to filter out anything that cannot be readily 'controlled'" should set off all sorts of theological alarm bells!

Did you know that Reinhold Niebuhr lays forth a sort of threefold philosophy of history in the second part of his The Nature and Destiny of Man? What we might call linear history, cyclical history, and "stochastic" history, though those are my terms, not Niebuhr's. Oddly enough, Charles Peirce toyed with very similar threefold philosophies of history from time to time, which he labelled (on analogy with the conic sections) "hyperbolic," "parabolic," and "elliptic." Or we might use the terms "personal," "law-bound," and "random" aspects of history. Or "personhood," "necessity," and "chance." (Peirce sometimes also turned to the Greek terms agape, ananke, and tyche.)

Although Reinie was, philosophically speaking, a pragmatist, I do not think he was influenced by Peirce, however.

Yes, the media are giving us "all the news [they see] fit to print"-- on Kosovo, Littleton, etc. This is one reason I have always found shortwave such a fascinating hobby-- it lets one do an end run around the American "mainline media cartel." I could give you some interesting figures on civilian casualties, and that was before NATO hit a passenger train, a suburb of Sofia in Bulgaria, etc. Quite predictably such figures have been "blacked out" in our U.S. reporting. The Voice of Greece also reports that nineteen U.S. troops have been quietly whisked out in body bags, but if so, this too has not been getting air time "at home."

Historical sidelight: Do you remember the weekly death tolls Walter Cronkite & company used to report-- U.S., Vietcong, etc.? These figures almost never ended in a "0" or a "5," because our military figured that "round numbers" don't sound as realistic.

My best wishes to you as your writing continues. Yes, the tribe of academe has its own shibboleths (I won't dignify them by calling them "ideas") about how things "ought" to be written. However, my own take on this: (1) Nobody but an academic reads what academics write, and even at that, many an academic goes completely unread. (2) A hundred years ago, nobody was writing "academic" books, at least, nobody outside of Germany; and as I'm sure you would appreciate, such cultural produce "made in Germany" should carry a warning label. (3) Few if any books written by and for academics have found, or ever will find, a readership among the general public, much less status as a classic; contrast this with William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, which can be read and digested by any intelligent member of the reading public.

My brother made an interesting observation to me the other day about books and their readers. Thirty years ago, Madison had the following bookstores: (1) University Book Store, on campus; (2) & (3) Brown's, an engineering-oriented competitor with two small outlets near campus; (4) Paul's Used Books; and (5) maybe a sparse selection of dictionaries, cookbooks, gardening guides, and "gift books" at a local department store or two. If you wanted to buy a "New York Times best seller" or any general "book in print" new, UBS was your only source in Madison-- for that matter, your only source this side of Milwaukee and Chicago. (Or was Pic-a-Book open too, back in those days?)

Then, about 1972, Walden's opened two outlets in Madison shopping malls (which were also a novelty at that time). I remember it, I was in high school, it was astonishing, it was the first time in my life I had ever seen anything like it. Science fiction titles by the dozens!

Today, Walden's has been overshadowed by Madison's Barnes & Noble, its two Borders outlets, and several other new book stores. There are well over a dozen used book stores in Madison, including two huge Half Price Books outlets. I can name half a dozen New Age bookstores near campus, whereas 30 years ago there was only Shakti Books (oops, omitted above), which in those days sold hefty Sanskrit grammars, instead of lightweight picture books on crystals and auras. (I also omitted the late "Red Star Books," which used to feature a giant banner portrait of Lenin in the window. Only in Madison!)

Yet for all the increase in bookstores, do you really believe that book readership has increased rather than declined? Do you really believe that the average reader is more literate, more thoughtful, better read in 1999 than in 1969 or 1949 or 1929? It used to be that writers like Lionel Trilling or Jacques Barzun or James Burnham or Edmund Wilson could aim their books at a small but significant, well-educated "reading public" which numbered maybe only a few hundred thousand, but I would guess that is a larger readership than writers of their ilk could count on today.

Every time I wander through a Borders, I wonder. I see lots of worthwhile books, but also lots of forests that were felled in vain. In either case, I wonder, who is reading these books? Where do these books end up? In bookcases? On coffee tables? In a landfill? I cannot believe that in 1999, even in a city like Madison, there are enough readers to buy and read and digest all these books in all these bookstores. Especially when there weren't a tenth as many books for sale in this town only 30 years ago, in much more literate times.