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Tag Archives: History Of Science

Balancing contraries

Other posts on contraries include this.

Contrary opposites entail one another. There is no north without south or tall without short, for example. Some things such as sex are contraries in some respects but not in all respects.

Contrary opposites are symmetric. Contraries can be reversed or inverted, and they are still there. Since mirror opposites do not necessarily exist, mirror images are not contraries, though they exhibit a symmetry.

Because contraries entail one another and are symmetric, it is arbitrary to always prefer one to the other. One could just as well prefer the opposite contrary.

Contrary opposites can be unified into a higher perspective that contains them both. Unification is an expanded position that incorporates contraries.

Contrary opposites can be balanced in a duality that resists unification. A static equilibrium or dynamic harmony favors contrary opposites equally.

Ancient science prefers static contraries in balanced duality. Modern science prefers dynamic contraries in progressive unification.

All theories are limited

This post continues previous posts on this topic, such as here.

Once a theory becomes established, it is always valid. It is never falsified. What happens is that its limits are discovered. Any pretense to being universal breaks down.

All theories are limited. Theories are analogies, and all analogies have limits. It is the scientific fashion to initially present a theory as universal, but this is a manner of speaking, not to be taken literally. No theory is universal because all theories have their limits.

When the limits of a theory are known, it is what Werner Heisenberg called a closed theory. An open theory is one whose limits are not known. It may be considered universal, even though it is not. But until its limits are known, no one knows its limits so it’s as if there are none. Eventually, limits will be found.

This means for example, there are three valid theories of the figure of the earth: the flat earth, the spherical earth, and the ellipsoidal earth. Each is valid within a certain domain of accuracy and precision.

There are several valid theories of the celestial bodies: simple geocentrism, Ptolemaic geocentrism, Copernican heliocentrism, Tychonic geoheliocentrism, Keplerian heliocentrism, Newtonian barycentrism, and Einsteinian cosmology. They are all valid within their domain of applicability.

Several theories of biological diversity are valid: fixed species, fixed kinds with limited change, and change over time (evolution). None of these are universal. They all have their limits.

Creation and evolution intersect

The controversy over creation vs. evolution, or creationism vs. evolutionism (naturalism), is often treated as an either-or, one-or-the-other proposition. In fact the creation models of today contain much that would be classified as ‘evolution’ (change over time).

Before the 19th century, theories of creation accepted a static model in biology, geology, and astronomy. That is, the universe of today was considered virtually the same as it was when first created. Extinction, for example, was widely considered impossible. In the 19th century Georges Cuvier and others showed that fossils were the remains of living beings and extinctions did occur. That upended the static model of creation.

Opponents of creationism, from Darwin to today, define creationism as the static model of creation. However, creationists have included change over time to their model of creation, starting in the 19th century and continuing today. Much of what commonly comes under the heading ‘evolution’ is part of the creation model today: adaptation, natural selection, speciation — all are part of creationism.

It is false to identify creationism with a static model of creation.

What parts of evolution theory are not part of creation theory today? Universal common descent is part of evolution theory but not creation theory. Change over time is limited in creation theories to within life forms or kinds (similar to genus or family), whereas there are no limits to change over time in theories of evolution. The postulate of deep time is necessary for theories of evolution, but not for theories of creation.

Importantly, humans are different only in degree from other animals in theories of evolution, but in theories of creation humans are different in kind from other animals. This point goes beyond mere biology to a statement of what it means to be human. Accordingly, it is open to other disciplines. For example, Mortimer J. Adler’s The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes makes a philosophical case for humans being different in kind from other animals.

Theories of creation and evolution intersect. Their differences are about the limits to change over time, rather than the existence of change over time.

History of theories of creation

A theory of creation (also known as a creation theory) is an older term that has been overshadowed by the terms creation science and especially creationism since 1980 (see Ngrams here and here). This overlooks the long history of theories of creation, and implies that the subject is of recent vintage, purely a reaction to theories of evolution, which is badly mistaken.

This brief survey shows that there were and are various theories of creation before and after Darwin and Huxley. First, let us show when creationism arose. The Online Etymology Dictionary states about creationism:

1847, originally a Christian theological position that God immediately created out of nothing a soul for each person born; from creation + -ism.

As “science teaching based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis, the scientific theory attributing the origin of matter and life to immediate acts of God,” opposed to evolutionism, it is attested from 1880. Century Dictionary (1897) defines creationism in this sense as “The doctrine that matter and all things were created, substantially as they now exist, by the fiat of an omnipotent Creator, and not gradually evolved or developed.”

A search of the text of Darwin’s Origin of Species shows that what he called “the theory of creation” is the same as the 1897 definition of creationism. Darwin referenced no exponent of this theory, and yet he made it the sole foil for his “theory of descent with modification”. The conclusion is that Darwin is the originator of the creation theory he has in mind. What for Darwin was bad science was for TH Huxley not science at all, as if he could remove pre-Darwinian biologists from science.

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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 notwithstanding).

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 barycenter (Greek barys, heavy) as the center of motion, the weighting is by inverse mass for the ‘elaphrocenter’ (Greek elaphros, light, unheavy) 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 vs. metaphysics

Modern science began with a turn away from medieval debates about metaphysics to focus on how things happen, rather than a metaphysically-adequate why. This was an indifference to metaphysics, not a deliberate ignorance or repudiation of the subject.

But that began to change in the 19th century with the influence of materialism, secularism, and the professionalization of the sciences, culminating in TH Huxley’s effort to make the sciences “agnostic”. Huxley promoted science against other forms of knowledge, not in addition to them.

Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. TH Huxley

His intention behind agnosticism was to establish and maintain epistemic merit of science without any unknowable, metaphysical or theological, apparatus. Science is the practice of agnosticism, and for this reason, our best way to knowledge. J. Byun

This is a form of scientism, an assertion that science is the pre-eminent or even the only legitimate source of knowledge. The irony is that scientism implicitly makes a metaphysical claim about the reality that can be known, which is the metaphysics of naturalism.

“Methodological naturalism” is the contemporary term but it amounts to the same thing: science must ignore or repudiate the possibility of other knowledge. Instead, the science community and its promoters should be indifferent to metaphysics so that regardless of whatever metaphysics people accept, they should also accept the claims of science.

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.

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.