Snowy Thoughts on the Scientific Revolution

Snowed in here on Presidents Day, I won’t claim to be quite as inspired as Descartes meditating in his overheated cabin, but I do have some thoughts to share.

Recently I read a number of books and book chapters on the Scientific Revolution. I wanted to know, what exactly changed in our society’s approach to knowledge? We have modern science today, and in the year 1500 the prevailing approach to knowledge in Europe was something else. What changed and why?

Obviously that’s a big topic and historians of the scientific revolution have tackled this problem from a variety of angles. There were social changes and institutional changes, including those associated with the Reformation and the Renaissance, there was the invention of movable type, the European discovery of the Americas, various technological changes, especially in glassworks that led to the construction of the first telescopes, mircoscopes, and barometers. There is a lot of fodder here for historians, and it would be too simplistic to ask, what was the one thing that caused people to empirically study the world around them? The Scientific Revolution is not about the defeat of superstition by reason (though David Wootton, in his wonderful history, The Invention of Science, argues that the Scientific Revolution led educated people to give up on their beliefs in witches, werewolves, magnets neutralized by garlic, etc.). Nor is it about people deciding to start observing the world – Aristotle himself, as well as many of the Medieval scholastics were very careful observers of nature.

Three of the books I’d recommend are:

  1. Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences, a concise book intended as kind of a textbook that neatly asks what it meant to know something in 1500 versus what it meant to know something in 1700. Overall, this book most directly gets at my interests.
  2. Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution. Shapin has some notoriety for his relativist take on science, but this is a worthwhile book. The philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith, in his textbook on the philosophy of science, says this is not a good history of the scientific revolution, but it’s an interesting book nonetheless. I agree that this is worth reading. Shapin considers what was considered worth knowing and why during the Scientific Revolution. The answer to this kind of question naturally involves a discussion of social changes, which of course were critical in the development of science. My criticism is that this book is too focused on changes in rhetoric alone (largely about the metaphor of a clockwork universe). When you view the Scientific Revolution as largely a rhetorical battle, you miss the impact of the new, quite radical empirical discoveries that occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries.
  3. David Wootton’s The Invention of Science. Hands down, this is the best history of the Scientific Revolution out there. It is carefully argued, with its claims backed up much more by extensive evidence than in any other broad book on the subject. Wootton’s unique approach is to understand the conceptual changes of the era by studying linguistic changes, made possible by online, searchable texts. Wootton uses the changing use of words like fact and discovery (and not just in English!) to chart conceptual changes. Wootton also, much more directly than any other historian that I read, directly engages with claims made in the philosophy of science. For example, the discovery of the complete phases of Venus, which was flat-out incompatible with the Ptolemaic system, led to a more silent paradigm shift than Thomas Kuhn would have predicted.

In any case, this is a long wind-up to the main point of this post. As complex as the Scientific Revolution was, for me the most interesting take is this: In the 17th century, the Aristotelian understanding of what it means to know something was replaced by a new understanding that largely still holds in modern science. Here’s what Aristotelians thought of what was called scientia:

The medieval Latin scientia, although cognate with the modern English “science,” referred to any rigorous and certain body of knowledge that could be organized (in precept though not always in practice) in the form of syllogistic demonstrations from self-evident premises. Under this description, rational theology belonged to scientia – indeed, it was the “queen of sciences” – because its premises were the highest and most certain. Excluded, however, were disciplines that studied empirical particulars, such as medical therapeutics, natural history, and alchemy, because there can be no absolute certainty about particular phenomena. (“The Age of the New”, Katherine Park and Lorraine Datson, Cambridge History of Science: Early Modern Science).

For Aristotelians, empirical disciplines were not science because their findings couldn’t be demonstrated with certainty. The Scientific Revolution turned this conception of knowledge upside down: empirical findings of non-self-evident phenomena became more reliable than syllogistic demonstration from self-evident premises. Aristotelians assumed most interesting phenomena were common knowledge, and all we needed to do was reason about them. The new meaning of the word ‘science’, however, was something else: discovery of new phenomena through experiment and explaining them with mathematical principles.

In other words, the old scientia was this: logical demonstration from self-evident principles to achieve certainty. The new science was this: fallible conclusions based on the empirical discovery of new phenomena beyond our everyday experience.

What this means is that, by giving up the need for absolute certainty, we managed to figure out the most reliable way to discovery knowledge that humans have ever hit upon.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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