Peter Caws

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The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy

I've been lucky enough to work in two very different but related academic fields, physics and philosophy. Making the switch meant a shift of attention from what actually happens in the natural world to what and how we know about it.  Scientists think about things, what they are made of and how they behave; philosophers think about thinking, and how scientists find out about things and how reliable their knowledge is. The things natural scientists think about are in the natural world, but the theories they invent to explain those things are not in the natural world – studying the theories is an activity that belongs not to the natural sciences but to what I call the human sciences. The big difference between the two cases is that the natural world does what it does whether or not we think correctly about it, or indeed whether we think about it at all, whereas the human world (money, literature, religion, etc., and the sciences themselves) is the result of thinking – our own thinking and the thinking of all our predecessors since the beginning of society and of wonder.

The world scientific theories are about doesn’t know or care how scientists think about it or whether what they think is right. We name things – animals, vegetables, minerals, atoms, molecules, genes - but the things we name don’t know their names; dogs don’t know they are dogs, electrons don’t know they are electrons, the moon doesn’t know it’s the moon.  I’ve found that a quick way of summarizing this serene detachment of the natural world from the human activity of science is to say that “the stars are indifferent to astronomy.”  Nothing could have pleased me more than to have Nada Surf adopt this tagline for their new album.  It’s possible that that particular turn of phrase has shown up somewhere in the literature before – it’s very risky to claim originality in such matters* – but if so I’m not aware of it (and would be glad to hear about it).  The album continues in the thoughtful tradition of “The Proximity Effect,” “The Weight is a Gift,” and others, and I’m very proud to be associated with it.

* I find something similar, though with a very different emphasis, in Olaf Stapledon, A Modern Theory of Ethics (London: Methuen, 1929), where he says “If the stars are indifferent to this vast crusade for the good, so much the worse for them.”  In my own writing the full expression occurs in several places - for a typical example see Yorick’s World: Science and the Knowing Subject (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), p. 8.