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Tag Archives: History Of Science

Aristotle’s physics

Physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote the article “Aristotle’s Physics: A Physicist’s Look” published in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association, Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2015, pp. 23-40 with a free version available here. Luke Barnes summarizes the article here. For more on limited domains see here and here.

Below are some excerpts from the free version:

Aristotelian physics is a correct and non-intuitive approximation of Newtonian physics in the suitable domain (motion in fluids), in the same technical sense in which Newton’s theory is an approximation of Einstein’s theory. Aristotelian physics lasted long not because it became dogma, but because it is a very good empirically grounded theory. The observation suggests some general considerations on inter-theoretical relations. p.1

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Amateur and independent science

An independent scientist (or gentleman scientist) is someone who pursues scientific research while being independent of a university or government-run research and development body. “Self-funded scientists practiced more commonly from the Renaissance until the late 19th century … before large-scale government and corporate funding was available.” (Wikipedia)

Independent scientists are amateurs in the sense that they are doing scientific research for the love of it (the word is from the French amateur, “one who loves”) rather than as an occupation. They may have an occupation in a related field such as teaching science but their scientific research is done on their own time. Or they may be professional scientists in a specialty other than their research.

I remember years ago hearing the great Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős remark that an “amateur mathematician” had done work in number theory. He explained that the amateur was a professional mathematician but not a professional number theorist. That made the person an amateur number theorist. It is the same with professionals in any specialty outside their own.

Some great scientists were professors of mathematics, such as Galileo, who was a professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, and Isaac Newton, who held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge.

In the history of science many breakthroughs have been done by amateurs. Here are some great amateurs or independent scientists:

Albert Einstein – physics
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek – microbiology
Charles Darwin – biology
Gregor Mendel – genetics
Joseph Priestley – chemistry
Michael Faraday – electromagnetism
William Herschel – astronomy

One could add others who were primarily inventors such as Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers, since science is often given credit for inventions.

On a related note, Robert A. Stebbins wrote Amateurs, Professionals, and Serious Leisure (McGill, 1992) and other works on productive uses of one’s free time.

Reality and conventions #4

This post continues a series of posts. The previous one is here.

Modern natural science attempts a systematic account of the causes of change in the physical world, and is willing to go against the appearance of the physical world if that will further its goals. This differs from the ancient Platonic attempt to “save the appearances” at all costs by placing appearances within an ad-hoc but meaningful system.

In one sense, philosophy is the helpmeet of science. It aids in the task of putting our conceptual household in order: tidying up arguments, discarding unjustified claims. But in another sense, philosophy peeks over the shoulder of science to a world that science in principle cannot countenance. As Professor Scruton put it elsewhere, “The search for meaning and the search for explanation are two different enterprises.” Science offers us an explanation of the world; it may start out as an attempt to explain appearances, “but it rapidly begins to replace them.” Philosophy seen as the search for meaning must in the end endorse the world of appearance. The New Criterion, vol. 12, no. 10

Saving the appearances famously led to tweaking Ptolemaic astronomy despite its inability to explain why celestial bodies should move in epicycles. The Newtonian system didn’t give ultimate explanations but at least it gave laws that applied on Earth and skyward.

Yet there is nothing “wrong” with saving appearances such as the motion of the Sun relative to the Earth. In that sense, geocentrism was never wrong despite generations of people being taught so. Whether saving the appearances or saving the system is a goal, both must accept some conventions that include things such as the celestial body of reference – or lack thereof.

One may legitimately pursue a phenomenal science that saves appearances by sacrificing some consistency in conventions. For example, the Moon is in orbit relative to the Earth and the Sun is in a different kind of orbit relative to the Earth. In order to save both of these appearances, one would have to use a gravitational dynamics for the Earth-Moon system and a levitational dynamics for the Earth-Sun system. Awkward, perhaps, but legitimate.

Reality and conventions #2

This post continues the topic of the previous post here.

Every pair of contrary opposites may have one or more conventions associated with it. That is because there is a symmetry between the two that can be reversed. Note this is not the case with contradictory opposites: they are not symmetric. Note also that terms may be symmetric without the references of the terms being exactly symmetric.

I’ll start with the latter point. A common example is the terms for male and female. In some respects they are symmetric opposites but in other respects they are not. The language can mislead on this point. Males and females have some similarities, some contrary (or complementary) differences, as well as differences that are not contraries, just different. Some aspects of male-female relations are conventions but not every aspect is.

The deconstructionists associated binary opposites with power structures (not unlike Hegel). They would reverse the meaning in order to undermine them. That assumes pairs are complete contraries, which is not as common as they thought. Deconstructionism works mostly on texts, in which the language of contrary opposites is deconstructed. The conventions associated with contrary opposites can be reversed but not all binary opposites are genuine contraries.

Contradictory opposites such as good and evil or true and false are not symmetric, contrary to the language that is often used. Not-evil is not necessarily good and not-false is not necessarily true. What is a matter of goodness or truth are not mere conventions.

There is a reality independent of us (or of our minds) but some things are conventions that are dependent on us. Motion is real but all motion is relative so it is a convention as to what motion is relative to. Galileo and the Scholastic philosophers (and their supporters) were wrong to think of the Earth as either only at rest or only in motion. Whether or not the Earth moves is a convention.

Classical Model of Science

Another paper that should get wider exposure: “The Classical Model of Science: a millennia-old model of scientific rationality” by Willem R. de Jong and Arianna Betti. Synthese (2010) 174:185-203. Excerpts:

Throughout more than two millennia philosophers adhered massively to ideal standards of scientific rationality going back ultimately to Aristotle’s Analytica posteriora. These standards got progressively shaped by and adapted to new scientific needs and tendencies. Nevertheless, a core of conditions capturing the fundamentals of what a proper science should look like remained remarkably constant all along. Call this cluster of conditions the Classical Model of Science. p.185

The Classical Model of Science as an ideal of scientific explanation

In the following we will speak of a science according to the Classical Model of Science as a system S of propositions and concepts (or terms) which satisfies the following conditions:

(1) All propositions and all concepts (or terms) of S concern a specific set of objects or are about a certain domain of being(s).

(2a) There are in S a number of so-called fundamental concepts (or terms).

(2b) All other concepts (or terms) occurring in S are composed of (or are definable from) these fundamental concepts (or terms).

(3a) There are in S a number of so-called fundamental propositions.

(3b) All other propositions of S follow from or are grounded in (or are provable or demonstrable from) these fundamental propositions.

(4) All propositions of S are true.

(5) All propositions of S are universal and necessary in some sense or another.

(6) All propositions of S are known to be true. A non-fundamental proposition is known to be true through its proof in S.

(7) All concepts or terms of S are adequately known. A non-fundamental concept is adequately known through its composition (or definition). p.186

The Classical Model of Science is a recent reconstruction a posteriori of the way in which philosophers have traditionally thought about what a proper science and its methodology should be, and which is largely set up, as it were, by abduction. The cluster (1)-(7) is intended, thus, to sum up in a fairly precise way the ideal of scientific explanation philosophers must have had in mind for a very long time when thinking about science. p.186

A proper science according to this Model has the structure of a more or less strictly axiomatized system with a distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental elements. p.186

The history of the conceptualization Science knows three milestones: first of all, Aristotle’s Analytica posteriora, especially book 1; secondly, the very influential so-called Logic of Port-Royal (1662), especially part IV: ‘De la méthode’, written mainly by Antoine Arnaud and relying in many respects on Pascal and Descartes; and finally Bernard Bolzano’s Wissenschaftslehre (1837). p.187

The formulation coming closest to a systematization of the ideal of science we codify in the Model is perhaps the description of scientific method given in the Logic of Port-Royal, ‘The scientific method reduced to eight main rules’:

Eight rules of science

1. Two rules concerning definitions

1 . Leave no term even slightly obscure or equivocal without defining it.
2. In definitions use only terms that are perfectly known or have already been explained.

2. Two rules for axioms

3. In axioms require everything to be perfectly evident.
4. Accept as evident what needs only a little attention to be recognized as true.

3 . Two rules for demonstrations

5 . Prove all propositions that are even slightly obscure, using in their proofs only definitions that have preceded, axioms that have been granted, or propositions that have already been demonstrated.
6. Never exploit the equivocation in terms by failing to substitute mentally the definitions that restrict and explain them.

4. Two rules for method

7. Treat things as much as possible in their natural order, beginning with the most general and the simplest, and explaining everything belonging to the nature of the genus before proceeding to particular species.
8. Divide each genus as much as possible into all its species, each whole into all its parts, and each difficulty into all its cases. pp.187-188

… the Model is a fruitful analytical tool. Its influence lasted until recently; having persisted at least to Lesniewski, it in fact extended far beyond what one might expect at first glance. It is certain, however, that at a some point the Model was abandoned without being replaced by anything comparable. p. 196

Science and uniformity

Science studies uniformities. There is uniformity in the physical universe and science is the study of that. In addition to uniformity there is uniqueness in the universe. One can study that, and apply science to understand it better but science does not study uniqueness per se. Other disciplines deal with aspects of uniqueness – history, philosophy, theology, and literature for example.

One does not need a principle of uniformity – that nature is uniform – in order to do science. Behind a principle of uniformity is a logical point as to the nature of induction. John P. McCaskey has explained this and is writing a book on the topic. I have written before on this topic here.

A uniformity principle implies that the future is like the past but cannot say which past properties imply which future properties. That is what induction does: it classifies things that share essential properties, whether in the past or future. Inductive classification is needed, not a principle of uniformity.

Science need not affirm that there is only uniformity in the universe or that nature is only uniform. That was understood before the late 19th century, when naturalism was promoted by TH Huxley and others as the only way to do science.

Scientists should say that the science of biology covers the uniform part of biology and the rest is handled by others. But scientists assert that the science of biology covers all of biology, which is false unless one accepts naturalism or defines biology as the study of those aspects of organic life that are uniform.

Science studies uniformities. Uniqueness also exists but science is not the study of that. One can be open to what is unique, non-uniform, or mysterious and do science.

Unlimited banks of explanation

In his 1869 Presidential Address to the Geological Society of London on the subject of Geological Reform TH Huxley said:

Catastrophism has insisted upon the existence of a practically unlimited bank of force, on which the theorist might draw; and it has cherished the idea of the development of the earth from a state in which its form, and the forces which it exerted, were very different from those we now know. That such difference of form and power once existed is a necessary part of the doctrine of evolution.

Uniformitarianism, on the other hand, has with equal justice insisted upon a practically unlimited bank of time, ready to discount any quantity of hypothetical paper. It has kept before our eyes the power of the infinitely little, time being granted, and has compelled us to exhaust known causes before flying to the unknown.

He went on to say that Evolution “embraces all that is sound in both” of them. If only that were true. Instead evolutionary theories draw from “a practically unlimited bank” of force and time.

Explanation is easy with an unlimited bank of resources to draw from. With two unlimited banks, force and time, one can explain just about anything. The problem of explanation is solved. The problem then is that explanation is too easy.

Consider if one had “a practically unlimited bank” of money to draw from to explain contemporary events. You could easily show how money controls everything — just chercher l’argent (look for the money trail) and you’ll find suggestive evidence everywhere. Pick your boogeyman and match them with money since there’s “a practically unlimited bank” of liquidity floating around.

Good explanations require something better. They require a balancing of solution spaces and solutions. An equation that is easy to solve for complex numbers may be very difficult to solve for integers, which is the challenge of Diophantine Equations.

What is the right domain of solutions? The one that is real. People don’t believe in speeds greater than the speed of light because that would lead to imaginary values for space and time. Restricting the domain is necessary to maintain correspondence to reality.

Somehow many people accept deep time, deep force, deep multiverses, etc. Meanwhile science gets deeper in debt to inflated explanations and goes off the deep end.

Renaissance for today

What does it take for a renaissance? A willingness to go back and take another path. That is, a willingness to go back in history and take the words, thoughts, and actions of others as applying to the present. Ad fontes was the cry of the Renaissance, and later the Reformation, which looked to the sources of civilization and religion.

The “now generation” will never have a renaissance. Those who think the present is superior or who merely ignore the past will never have a renaissance. They are too self-satisfied, self-uncritical, and self-focused.

Progressive disciplines have a problem here because they have an inherent bias toward more recent knowledge and practice, which are taken to be superior to anything prior. How can they reconsider the past which in some ways has been rejected?

A renaissance is spurred by a reconsideration of the past, which could arise because of new discoveries about the past such as recovery of lost or forgotten manuscripts, or from a crisis in the present, which leads people to reconsider another way forward. The latter is the situation of today. Many, even a majority depending on what is asked, agree that contemporary civilization is in crisis, that things are going in the wrong direction.

What can be done? We can reconsider what has been rejected. Some are doing this in regard to Christianity, and are rejecting Christianity for other religions or the religion of “none”. The question then is whether what is rejected is a certain variety of Christianity or Christianity in toto. I think it is the former because critics of Christianity are often using Christian criteria to reject Christianity.

It should not be a matter of mere rejection but of openness to other ways of thinking, with an implied critique that current ways of thinking are not adequate. But it must be aimed at something that is a major component of current thought and action. Otherwise, it will lead only to an alternate way of doing things, rather than a challenge to current ways.

For example, a major component of current thought and action is naturalism, which arose in the 19th century, especially from the influence of Thomas Huxley, and took hold in the 20th century. Those challenging the limitation of the natural sciences to naturalistic causes today are the intelligent design theorists and those working in the Goethean approach to science.

The foundation of the modern world is anchored in the rejection of geocentrism and the acceptance of a mechanistic view of the world, as modified by quantum and relativistic theories. This includes the establishment of absolute time — now modified by relativity but otherwise intact — within a 3D spatial universe. I have challenged some of this but more work needs to be done to open the door to a renaissance of civilization.

Ad fontes!

Invention of the uniformity of nature

Previous posts review Matthew Stanley’s book, which describes how theistic science was displaced by naturalistic science in 19th century Britain. He calls the latter “scientific naturalism,” which is accurate since it is a version of the philosophy, naturalism. It would be opposed by “scientific theism,” though I don’t think he uses that term, perhaps because he didn’t want it to be confused with a particular version, such as the Scientific Theism of Augustus Hopkins Strong (of Strong’s Concordance fame).

One theme of Stanley’s book is the meaning of the uniformity of nature to theists and naturalists. However, he does not say that this was a new principle, one that was not previously thought necessary.

As John P. McCaskey points out in Induction Without the Uniformity Principle, the principle of uniformity goes back to Richard Whately and J. S. Mill and is based on their view of induction, which has this form:

This is true of some.
What is true of some is true of all.
Therefore, this is true of all.

The second statement (the major premise) is a uniformity principle. J. S. Mill made this central to induction. In 1843 he wrote:

Every induction is a syllogism with the major premise suppressed; or (as I prefer expressing it) every induction may be thrown into the form of a syllogism, by supplying a major premise. If this be actually done, the principle which we are now considering, that of the uniformity of the course of nature, will appear as the ultimate major premise of all inductions.

But in fact induction does not require a uniformity principle. McCaskey points out:

The other, and older, way to think about induction—Aristotle’s way, later revived during the Scientific Revolution—was to think not of particular and universal statements but of particular things, kinds of things, and universal properties, especially defining properties. If, say, attracting iron is a defining property of magnets, then by definition all magnets attract iron. In this way of thinking, the hard part is to figure out what properties should qualify as necessary to the class.

McCaskey’s whole article is worth reading but let me quote two more paragraphs:

The whole project of mature abstract thought is to identify similarities and differences, uniformities and changes, and to classify accordingly. And that—to Aristotle and followers such as Bacon and Whewell—is what induction is.

For them, classification, and therefore induction, comes before uniformity, not the other way around. It’s not that you must presume uniformity in order to classify. It’s that you classify to find uniformities. For Whately, uniformity is primary. For Aristotle’s followers, classification is primary.

These two views of induction encapsulate two kinds of science: (1) a science in which classification and the distinction of types is primary, whereas questions of uniformity or change are secondary; and (2) a science in which uniformity and uniform change are primary, whereas classification and the distinction of types is secondary.

The uniformity view of induction prepared the way for Darwin. An extreme version of the uniformity of nature prepared the way for scientific naturalism.

From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 8

Part 7 is here. Chapter 7 is on how the naturalists “won.” In short, they pushed their agenda with their opponents hardly noticing.

p. 242 – Huxley won. Modern science is practiced naturalistically, and most scientists would be baffled to think that there was any other way — precisely what the scientific naturalists were trying to achieve.

This is exactly how Huxley wanted one to think about science — it had always been naturalistic, just at times forced into a theistic prison that disguised it. All that needed to be done was to release it. However, as we have seen in previous chapters, this was not the case. The connections between theism and scientific values were deeply rooted, and indeed seemed completely necessary to most men of science.

The historical arc resulting in modern naturalism is long and complicated. Even in the Victorian period, many of the relevant ideas appeared outside science … However, I am interested in a precise, but critical, part of the story: how did practitioners of science come to embrace naturalism as essential to their work?

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