Is the Voynich manuscript a scientific problem?

Originally posted to the Voynich mailing list around Christmas 2008

Dear all,

It’s so good to see the Christmas spirit prevail on this list, where so many people of different nations and backgrounds come together peacefully to find the truth. Alas, the same Christmas event we currently celebrate some thirty years after the fact gave rise to Pontius’ Pilate’s question — “What is truth?”

And, in a less esoteric and sarcastic manner, I’m kind of puzzled by the manner terms like “facts” and “science” have been used on this list lately. (It may be a language thing, so please bear with me if I’m completely off topic.)

Back when I was younger I studied physics and finished with something comparable to a master’s degree. I think I know what science is: The process of accumulating knowledge by manner of theory, experiment, and measurement. (In a nutshell.) I can measure the speed of light with an experimental repeatable setup and arrive at a numerical value of something around 300,000 km/s, within a certain confidence interval. All this allows one predictions of future events, which serve to falsify or support one’s theory. I take you all know the framework, how to arrive at a theory, and do the whole Popper-Occam thing, etc.

Now, unfortunately, the VM holds two different aspects, and only one of them is accessible to science.

One aspect is the cryptography. This is essentially applied mathematics (although any mathematician worth his title would tell me “it’s calculating, not mathematics” ;-) ), and any decryption attempt can be put to scientific tests — “Does the solution make sense?”, is the only reasonable scientific test in this context.

The other aspect is history. History is part of the humanities, and as such cannot be put to the test with experiments, rarely yields reasonable numeric measurements, and I’m not aware of a unifying, generally accepted theory of history which would allow one to make predictions with a certain degree of success. (See the latest economical crisis which apparently came out of the blue for everybody.) While the humanities do yield insight and facts, they are of a different quality than “scientific fact”.

As a simple example, take the famous Walk to Canossa:

Is it a fact that Henry IV, German emperor, in 1077 met Pope Gegory to do penance?

Most of us (including me) will accept this as fact, while it really is only “consensus”. What do we actually know? We have no authentic, first-hand, reliable recording of this meeting. We have biographies and chronicles and letters (most of which are propaganda-tinted, hearsay, or written long after the fact, hence unreliable), but that’s it. We can try to reconstruct a chain of events which is “reasonable”, but to understand what’s reasonable requires us to know the mindset of the actors, which is again something we don’t know firsthand. (Besides, people are known to act unreasonably at times.)

Did Henry really kneel for three days barefoot in the snow? Here things become uncertain. Was he perhaps properly dressed, and only put on his hair shirt over his regular garb as a token? Did he spend most of the time in Canossa’s taverns and only once a day showed up to knock at the castle gates to see how things were going? The facts become uncertain. Few things can be ruled out.

So, what is my point?

I’d love to see people using the terms “scientific” and “fact” less often in the context of the VM. Usually, people will call their own faith “scientific” and their beliefs “fact”, while the others are “wildly speculating”.

In the context of the VM, as always in the humanities, “true” and “false” are not hard black and white qualities — rather, there’s lots of shades of gray. While we can safely assume that Henry and Gregory met in 1077 (Can we? See the Donation of Constantine ;-) , circumstances around that event become less and less established fact: The further we stray from the light, the more shady and dim our knowledge becomes.

Aside of very few hard facts, we must then invoke “consensus” and “common sense” and “that which is reasonable” ever so often in our theories — which in itself is not a bad thing, but which are weak pillars to build a scientific reputation upon.

While I’m not saying that every notion is as valid as any other (aka, there’s certainly bogus out there), please let’s treat each other in a spirit of tolerance and creativity on this list.

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One thought on “Is the Voynich manuscript a scientific problem?

  1. This was a good post. One thing though, to a certain extent, future predictions are possible with human history, it just takes knowing all the facts.

    Most Americans are oblivious to the restrictions put in place after the Great Depression circa 1930 to prevent this very situation. Even more of us are oblivious to the dropping of those restrictions some time in the 1970’s I believe.

    If this event was common knowledge, and if people knew organizations were purposefully taking on more debt than possible, anyone could have predicted this crisis. But since these things are done by leaders and bosses in a way that the public can’t piece 2 and 2 together, our view of the future is clouded by ignorance.

    History repeats itself, this I am pretty sure we know. But it’s true that humankind may surprise us one day. ;)

    At least we have come together to discuss the vms, a common goal without borders. Of course it won’t always be smooth, but it will always be noble.

    Sorry if my paragraphs arn’t spaced properly, my phone my new lines off sometimes.

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