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Tag Archives: Science

sciences in general, what they are and their methods

Distinguishing history and science

The post continues several posts on history and science such as here and here.

All histories are part of the humanities, which are separate from the sciences. There is no scientific history or historical science – that would be like a round square.

A purported scientific history or historical science is either science and not history or history and not science. A scientist who writes histories is to that extent an historian, not a scientist.

Histories are focused on significant dissimilarities, discontinuities, and particulars. Sciences are focused on significant similarities, continuities, and universals.

Histories are diachronic; sciences are synchronic. A history takes a region or subject and follows it over time. A science takes a period or object and explores it over space.

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Conventions in science

The main convention of modern science is that it is based on observation only. This convention treats experiments, interventions, and projectiles as if they always happened naturally. Then it is easy to assume, for example, that the transmission and reception of light are at the same speed, a convention promoted as a fact.

It also makes it easy to assume that heavier bodies have the most effect in dynamics, since they move the least and so are seemingly the least impacted. This is like the observer who sees but does not intervene, and so is little impacted by what happens (quantum mechanics nonwithstanding).

But this obscures the fact that scientists do perform experiments and do intervene in various ways – and people in general do, too, as they move about. It also obscures the fact that conventions determine much of science.

Take dynamics, for example. Newton set the convention by taking the ancient concept of gravitation and ignoring its inverse, the ancient concept of levitation. One could as well reverse the convention and take levitation as the standard. That would mean that instead of distance weighted by mass for the bathycenter (Greek bathys, deep) as the center of motion, the weighting is by inverse mass for the ‘pechocenter’ (Greek pechos, shallow) of motion.

It so happens that observation of the Sun orbiting the Earth fits well with the inverse convention. The irony is that science purports to follow observation, but ends up discounting many ordinary observations, not because they are wrong, but because they are against conventions.

Science and conformity

For the purposes of understanding science it is best to focus on “closed theories” – Heisenberg’s term for theories that are superseded. That’s because we understand the limits of closed theories, so a true evaluation of their content can be made.

This fit well with the old model of academia: focus on a canon of classics, not on the latest hot ideas. Such an education provided time for contemplation and understanding. The humanities were king then, with the arts and sciences following along.

That changed in the 19th century, with the spread of the the Prussian model of education. Universities were to engage in cutting-edge scientific research and teach the latest theories rather than the ideas of the past. The sciences were repositioned to the top of the academic hierarchy and “open” theories were promoted with their seemingly limitless potential to transform society. “It’s all different now” was born.

One problem was that old academic weakness: conformity. A school is not in the position to say “we don’t know” without making students wonder why they are there. Instead, what is taught as knowledge covers everything and is everywhere authoritative.

Academic conformity didn’t much matter when the canon was fixed and the debates focused on the fine points. But when the canon became open and the latest ideas were now in play, academic conformity sought a rapid end to scientific debate. The consensus was formed quickly and doubt silenced.

Science changed. (The humanities did, too, but that’s another story.)

Science today has become more like the old humanities: debate is about the finer points – not the larger questions, which were decided some time ago. Anyone who doubts this is a “science denier”.

The irony is that all the great scientists of past centuries were “science deniers” in this sense. Following the crowd rarely leads to great advances. Like the old Scholasticism arrayed against Galileo, the science establishment has ways to enforce conformity. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Wonder vs. skepticism

It is often asked why the angel Gabriel treated Zechariah and Mary differently since their reaction was similar (Luke chapter 1). Note the parallel passages:

1:11-12 And there appeared to [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.

1:28-29 And [Gabriel] came to [Mary] and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.

Gabriel responded similarly at first:

1:13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”

1:30-31 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

Their responses were seemingly alike:

1:18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

1:34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

But Gabriel’s reaction was different:

1:19-20 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”

1:35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”

So he answered Mary’s question but rebuked Zechariah’s skepticism.

Asking questions and being skeptical are often confused. People with questions are said to be skeptical, and those who are skeptical are said to be just asking questions. What is the difference?

The difference is illustrated in the word “know” in Zechariah’s response (1:18): “How shall I know this?” The skeptic focuses on what they know or don’t know. But the questioner wonders and looks for further information.

It is often said that science requires skepticism, but what it actually requires is wonder and curiosity – asking questions to find out more, never being content with what is known so far. Skepticism adds nothing to science but undermines it since skepticism is essentially doubt about knowledge.

Aristotle wrote that philosophy starts with wonder. Science, a child of philosophy, starts with wonder, too, and grows with wonder and curiosity about everything. Questions grow from wonder, and lead to further knowledge. That is the opposite of skepticism.

Science proper

Science is the study of change. Where there is no change, there is no science.

It is said that chemistry is the study of matter but it is really change that is studied:

Every chemist I know studies change. Some chemists study a material before it has changed. Other chemists study a material after it has changed. Some even study a material while it is changing. Many materials are made specifically to resist change. For some chemists, the manner (pathway) in which a material changes is most important. There are also those who want to make a new material out of an old material and will spend years looking for a way to do it. http://sciencegeist.net/the-science-of-change/

Mechanics is the part of physics that studies motion, which is a kind of change. But all of physics studies physical change in some respect. Thermodynamics, for example, studies change in heat and temperature.

It is said that evolutionary biology studies change in organisms and species over time. But all of biology studies change in some respect – genetic change, developmental change, ecological change, etc.

It is said that history is the study of change over time but what distinguishes history is the determination of what actually happened in the past, and why particular events happened. Once that has been determined, the various sciences can study the deltas – the differences between peoples or times or places.

Because science is the study of change, science always begins with a conditional. “If” is the beginning of science. The study of reality in itself or the ultimate origin of anything is beyond science.

Ultimate boundary conditions are exogenous to science. There may be practical limits to what can be observed – as the discussion of superluminal speeds shows. But whether or not a practical limit is ultimate is a matter of metaphysics or religion, as is knowledge of the actual existence of anything posited by science.

Thus science is dependent on other disciplines – notably, history, metaphysics, and theology – to say whether or not its constructs actually exist. Or else science is taken to be only a theoretical discipline, similar to mathematics.

Upper and lower causes

This post continues the discussion posted here.

Aristotle’s four causes (or my version of them) may be divided into two groups: an upper group and a lower group. I call the upper group hyperaitia (from Greek hyper, over, above + aitia, cause) and the lower group hypoaitia (from Greek hypo, under, beneath + aitia, cause):

Causes Δ time Δ space
hyperaitia final formal
hypoaitia efficient material

Natural science uses only the lower causes; it is hypoaitial. One might say that Aristotle’s science was hyperaitial since that is where he started. His metaphysics was hylemorphic (or hylomorphic) since it posited that everything has form and matter.

A science that uses only efficient and formal causes may be called dynamorphic. Such is the emerging science of dynamic information.

A top-down science or process, etc. may be called hyperhypo. A bottom-up science or process, etc. may be called hypohyper. A form applied to a material is hyperhypo. A material with emerging form is hypohyper.

Temperament and explanations

The temperament of science exists within the typology of philosophy. Aristotle’s typology of causes (explanatory factors) provides a fourfold typology, which provides the basis for each twofold scientific temperament. The four causes/factors are the final, formal, efficient/mechanism, and material.

Final Cause or Teleology Formal Cause
Efficient Cause or Mechanism Material Cause

The scientific temperaments are:

hylomorphic – material and formal (Aristotle)

dynahylic – efficient/mechanism and material (lower; modern)

dynamorphic –and formal (design)

dynatelic – efficient/mechanism and final (transportation)

teleomorphic – final and formal (upper)

The teleomorphic is the inverse of the dynahylic. Each temperament is a explanatory axis of the full explanation.

These explanatory factors address why and how. There are also other factors to consider: who, when, and where.

Singular and regular

There is a basic distinction between what is singular, unique, non-repeating and what is regular, usual, natural. The latter is the domain of science, both natural and social science, whose premise is that if something repeats, it is characteristic of the way things are. What if something does not repeat? Then science cannot deal with it, except perhaps as an outlier that becomes a footnote or is simply removed.

History is different. It is the singular, the unique that stands out and needs explaining. Why did someone not do the culturally usual thing? Why did the singular characters of history arise instead of the many other common characters? Why did war break out here but not there or there?

History goes beyond science to investigate singular people and events. In fact, these are the most important things about history. The common appearances of the sun and moon, the regularity of the tides and seasons, the life-cycles of countless humans and other organisms are not the core of history.

What’s history is what happens that’s different. As the old newspaper line has it, “When a dog bites a man, that is not news. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”

Some people say that anything that is not natural is “supernatural”. That implies it must be something beyond or against nature, but that is not necessarily so. Something unexpected is not necessarily beyond or against nature. It may be that a unique set of circumstances called for a unique response. It may be that an unusual individual rose to the top at a unique time in history.

A balanced knowledge of reality requires taking into account both sides, the singular and the regular. If we only look to science, we will miss the singular things. If we only look to history (or the news), we will miss the regular things. Science needs history and history needs science. A science or history that monologues is deficient. They need to dialogue to be balanced.

Wasmann on biology and evolution

From Modern Biology and the Theory of Evolution by Erich Wasmann, S.J.

Translated from the Third German Edition by A. M. Buchanan, M.A. London, 1910

Excerpts from Chapter IX, Thoughts on Evolution (with most footnotes omitted)

Note: creatio e nihilo means ‘creation from nothing,’ a slight variation on creatio ex nihilo, ‘creation out of nothing’.

p.256

2. THE VARIOUS MEANINGS OF THE WORD ‘DARWINISM’

For over forty years a conflict has been raging in the intellectual world, which both sides have maintained with great vehemence and energy. The war-cry on one side is ‘Evolution of Species,’ on the other ‘Permanence of Species.’ No one could fail to be reminded of that other great intellectual warfare regarding the Ptolemaic and the Copernican systems, which began about three hundred and fifty years ago, and raged with varying success for over a century, until finally the latter prevailed. Perhaps the present conflict between the theories of evolution and permanence only marks a fresh stage in that great strife, and, if so, how will it finally be decided?

The contest that we have to consider was stirred up by Charles Darwin, when he published his book on the ‘Origin of Species’ about the middle of last century. The theories advanced by Lamarck and Geoffroy St. Hilaire at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries may be regarded as causing preliminary skirmishes, but Cuvier’s powerful attacks soon succeeded in overthrowing the new ideas of evolution (see p. 28). It was not until the year 1859 that the great battle began, which has received its name from the commander-in-chief of the attacking army, Charles Darwin. The warfare with which we are now concerned centres round Darwinism, so-called.

I say, so-called Darwinism. A few words of explanation are absolutely necessary. The thick smoke of the powder, which hid the battlefield from our gaze, is gradually dispersing,

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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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