Friday, August 25, 2006

Yes, Virginia, Pluto Is a Planet

Dear Editor— I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say Pluto is not a planet. Papa says, "If you see it in Let the Finder Beware, it's so." Please tell me the truth, is Pluto a planet?

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the nominalism of a nominalistic age. They do not believe except they name or label. They think that no general term can be which is not first defined by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great and antecedently real universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, Pluto is a planet. Planethood is a real universal instantiated in Pluto and in every planet. Or rather, planethood is a cluster of closely related real universals; and this leads to a form of ambiguity. For there are planets in the astronomical sense of the term; and there are planets in what we might call the human or cultural sense of the term. Either sense of the term "planet" refers to objective realities, and up till now they have referred, at least superficially, to the same set of objects, the same list of planets. The problem lies in the fact that a pack of braying astronomers has now peeled the astronomical sense of the term "planet" away from the human or cultural sense of the term "planet."

So the International Astronomical Union has now voted that Pluto is not a planet. Actually, if they are using the term "planet" in a purely astronomical sense, this is no problem. If their definition of "planet" does not prove useful or valid in a scientific framework, then sooner or later their proposed usage will be taken out to the curb along with the rest of the trash. That is what science is all about: any garbage will eventually be carried out to the curb. And if a definition has nothing in it which could ever lend itself to being corrigible or "toss-outable," why, then it is not science, is it? If something is not scientific, it may well be valid, it may be useful, it may even be true; but, tautologically, it is not science.

The problem, and the ambiguity, arise from the fact that there is also an age-old and venerable human or cultural sense of the term "planet." That, and also the fact that we live in a culture where it is often held that any sense of a term other than its scientific sense is somehow bogus and contemptible. This dismissive attitude is itself a human or cultural view, and not a scientific view, since the notion that anything but science is bogus or contemptible is itself not susceptible of being tested or falsified. But let us not dwell on that house of cards known as scientism, which (being neither testable nor falsifiable) is not to be confused with science.

Let us rather note that the IAU might just as well have voted that Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are planets, while the paltry minor rubble called Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Pluto, and 58 other bodies in solar orbit, shall henceforth be classified as "contemptible miserable worthless stupid dwarf planets." Let them so vote; if it is science, then any garbage proposed or produced will eventually be carried out to the curb.

Let the IAU propose whatever astronomical definition of "planet" they wish, and let their definition in the long run stand or fall on its own demerits. I for one will continue most of the time— that is, when not speaking IAU Astronomese— to use the word "planet" in its human or cultural sense, sanctioned by the long usage of history and tradition. And in that latter sense, in that human and cultural sense, yes, Virginia, Pluto is a planet.

Science has its instruments and its empirical data, and I do not presume to be in competition with it. But, as Goethe put it, Man is the finest instrument: and when I speak of Mars red with blood and war, or Mercury, Stilbon, "the Sparkler," I speak of deep realities, realities mediated on a human and cultural level, and inaccessible to us except on that level. Not realities in competition with science, in any sense; but realities nonetheless. "Planet" in the astronomical sense is a real universal; "planet" in the cultural sense is a distinct and not entirely overlapping real universal: and, as the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce put it, the test of whether any general sign, any real universal, represents truth is whether it would stand up over an infinite long run of interpretation. If it would so stand up, then there is no sense in saying it is not real, is not true, or does not refer to the realities beyond itself to which it purports to refer.

Postscript: I post below a rerun from several months ago. It talks about Venus instead of Pluto; but allowing for that difference, it's on much the same wavelength.

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Blogger The Tetrast said...

Pluto, Cthulhu, and Santa Claus are all in your debt!

By the way, have you heard the rumors of an anti-Graeco-Roman plot, masquerading as pedagogical literalism, to rename Mars "Rusty"?

Friday, August 25, 2006 9:44:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

LOL! "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"

Saturday, August 26, 2006 7:43:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Yes, Virginia, there is a Cthulhu

(h/t The Tetrast)

Saturday, August 26, 2006 7:52:00 AM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

And let's remember that the young uns may never have heard of the original "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus"

Saturday, August 26, 2006 11:51:00 AM  

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