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Science and the Philosophers.
By Peter Landry.

My work in the area of science has been essentially a string of short biographies of those persons who first appeared during that historical period of time which we have come to know as the great awaking, The Renaissance, a time when the classic ideals concerning human existence were rediscovered after fourteen centuries of comparative neglect. The expression, "The Renaissance" was first used by the 19th century historians to describe that era when men shook the medieval shackles of the twin headed dragon: the barbarism of the northern hordes and the religion of the Christian church. Scholastic thought, centering around the traditional views of Aristotle and Aquinas: no longer, generally, commanded men's respect.

"... the closed and authoritarian system of the Middle Ages was replaced by the open and relativistic world of modern times. The closed geography of feudal Europe was pried open, first by the Crusades, then by the discovery of new trade routes, and finally by the world-wide explorations of the great navigators. The flat two-dimensional earth became a spheroid, three-dimensional world. The limited and static spatial theory of Ptolemy [see Copernicus] gave way to the dynamic heliocentric theory of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. Time, as well as space, was broadened. The development of chronology, the recovery of ancient monuments, and speculations about the future expanded the temporal scope of men's views. Economically, the closed and largely self-contained feudal estates were replaced by cities and towns, with the mutual interdependence that comes from the specialization of labor, till the whole medieval scheme of production was made over into the "free" system of commerce and industry."1
Controversy exists on the chronological limits of the Renaissance period but most would agree that it is within the period from 1350 to 1600. At some point in this period, it became intellectually popular to read the original Greek treatises, uncorrupted by the hands of the monks. The scientific method was discovered and applied to the natural world which these intellectuals found about themselves. Though it was a gradual realization, it dawned on men that while things were indeed mysterious, they were not necessarily unsolvable; the thinkers of The Renaissance showed the way. By 1600 the post-Renaissance period had arrived and men of science in most all of the western countries were busy being creative and discovering many things: Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Harvey were each busy within there own spheres.

Authoritarianism gave way before a new concept of individual freedom. The movement has received from the historians the moniker, Naturalism.2 Naturalism, as the word suggests, was an approach which put emphasis on native intelligence rather than on faith, the way of the church. Natural philosophers, scientists, examined natural causes with the aid of natural reason. Asceticism and self denial of the Middle Ages were no longer in style; men's thoughts turned less to the rewards of an imagined heaven, and more toward the good things in life; a new lust for life spread throughout the land.

"These [the writers of The Renaissance] all sought, not the stifling of natural desires, but the satisfaction of them. Their goals were self-culture, political power, worldly fame, and the satisfaction of man's questing curiosity, rather than the attainment of an eternal reward. With this shift in aims, there was a corresponding change in men's judgments about social behavior. Desirable behavior ceased to be that enjoined by the Church and became that which was "natural" to a given situation and to an immediate goal."3
A blaze of knowledge and discovery pierced the darkness during the years the years 300-200 BC with Alexander as its centre. Under the encouragement of the Macedonian (Greek) rulers (Ptolemy I and II) knowledge was organized and, with Aristotlian principles, it was investigated; the state of science reached new and high levels, not to be seen again until the 16th century.
"Alexander had already devoted considerable sums to finance the inquiries of Aristotle, but Ptolemy I was the first person to make a permanent endowment of science. He set up a foundation in Alexandria which was formally dedicated to the Muses, the Museum of Alexandria. For two or three generations the scientific work done at Alexandria was extraordinarily good. Euclid, Eratosthenes who measured the size of the earth and came within fifty miles of its true diameter, Apollonius who wrote on conic sections, Hipparchus who made the first star map and catalogue, and Hero who devised the first steam engine, are among the greater stars of an extraordinary constellation of scientific pioneers. Archimedes came from Syracuse to Alexandria to study and was a frequent correspondent of the Museum. Herophilus was one of the greatest of Greek anatomists, and is said to have practised vivisection."4
Then came the Dark Ages and all passed away into obscurity.

"The Dark Ages" was a period of time which marks the characteristic of that time: intellectual darkness, a period of obscurantism and ignorance. There is no beginning or ending date for this period. It is usually thought to be the early period of the Middle Ages, between the time of the fall of Rome and the appearance of written documents in the vernacular.5 Edward Gibbon gives us the date for the fall of Rome, 476 A.D. The German goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with replaceable wooden or metal letters in 1436. In 1452, Guttenberg's Bible was published becoming the first book to be published in a volume. However, it was in 1466 that the first printed Bible in the German language came out. The earliest book in English at the library at St John's College, Cambridge, U.K., is dated 1481.

It was in the year 1543 that Copernicus brought out his De Revolutionibus, or On the Revolution of the Celestial Sheres. It represented his life's work and it came out during the year of his death.6 Copernicus, though of German parentage, was from Poland. He is the father of modern astronomy. In his work, De Revolutionibus, Copernicus set down, using the inductive method, his proof that the sun is the center of the universe (a proposition which was somewhat better than that which was postulated by the church at the time, viz., that the earth was at the centre of things.) His theories were formulated after having dedicated a major portion of his life to the study of mathematics and astronomy (he was also a foremost authority on cannon [church] law, and a medical doctor who devoted much time to the treatment of the poor). That the world was spherical, and that "the movement of the celestial bodies is regular, circular, and everlasting" -- was brand new stuff to those who populated the times of Copernicus. With Copernicus, it can be said, man was starting to put his universe into perspective.

The Copernican perspective was what was to lead to the great discoveries of the laws governing our universe. Men with common sense figured out that it was useless to ask the question -- Why do things happen? The question asked by men of science since Copernicus is -- How do things happen?7

One can only speculate as to why things happen. However, it may be determined, factually, in many instances -- as to how things happen. There is a method, the scientific method. It might be best summed up by stating that all conclusions in science are empirical, tentative, and undogmatic. Scientific theory has its roots in the Humeian view that all concepts must be built with ideas of substance, ideas of matter which truly exist in the external world and not figments of pure imagination -- ideas consistent with all observed phenomena. The approach calls for the gathering in of all observed impressions, all the available pieces of the puzzle, so to speak; and, then, to use the imagination to fill in the gaps, sufficient to make a statement about the whole, a supposition, a theory. We then (at least we ought to) proceed to conduct our affairs on the basis of this theory, until we come onto a piece of evidence that doesn't fit the theory. It is at this time we ought to adjust the theory; not only to fit the new observation, but the old ones too; and then to set out once again. "All scientific laws are empirical: they are all accepted or rejected on the basis of empirical evidence." These are Karl Popper's words. Popper continues:

"This has sometimes been called the hypothetical-deductive method, or more often the method of hypothesis, for it does not achieve absolute certainty for any of the scientific statements which it tests; rather, these statements always retain the character of tentative hypotheses, even though their character of tentativeness may cease to be obvious after they have passed a great number of severe tests. ...
[We thus deduce a prognosis.] We then confront this prognosis, whenever possible, with the results of experimental or other observations. Agreement with them is taken as corroboration of the hypothesis, though not as final proof; clear disagreement is considered as refutation or falsification. ...
... all tests can be interpreted as attempts to weed out false theories -- to find the weak points of a theory in order to reject it if it is falsified by the test ... it is our aim, to establish theories as well as we can, we must test them as severely as we can; that is, we must try to find fault with them, we must try to falsify them. Only if we cannot falsify them in spite of our best efforts can we say that they have stood up to severe tests. This is the reason why the discovery of instances which confirm a theory means very little if we have not tried, and failed, to discover refutations. For if we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. In this way it is only too easy to obtain what appears to be overwhelming evidence in favour of a theory which, if approached critically, would have been refuted. In order to make the method of selection by elimination work, and to ensure that only the fittest theories survive, their struggle for life must be made severe for them. ...
The question, 'How did you first find your theory? relates, as it were, to an entirely private matter, as opposed to the question, 'How did you test your theory?' which alone is scientifically relevant. And the method of testing described here is fertile; it leads to new observations, and to a mutual give and take between theory and observation."
Popper points out that we should not get hung up too badly over the actuality that such a method only ever gives forth a tentative position, one that is always open to further testing. We should not proceed to tear our hair out looking for absolutes; because, well, in science, absolutes are not to be had; we shouldn't proceed that theories, provisional by definition as they are, must ultimately to be replaced by proven theories, -- to do so "leads to a host of entirely unnecessary difficulties."

The method described by Popper, is, the scientific method which led to all the great discoveries in science as is evidenced by the great works of science, which, since Copernicus have tumbled into the scientific literature works such as Newton's Principia, 1687; Darwin's Origin of Species, 1859; and, Einstein's Special Theory Of Relativity, 1905.

Both classical mechanics and electrodynamics were largely closed chapters by the end of the nineteenth century. With the advent of the twentieth century, a chaotic period for physics began. New discoveries made it possible to study atomic structures, and it was soon apparent that in events taking place in the microworld of the atom were not governed by the same laws that applied to the phenomena that had been studied up to that time. The motions of the electrons, which circled the minuscule but heavy nucleus, did not conform to the laws of classical mechanics. Quantum mechanics (or wave mechanics), which was developed during the 1920's, supplied the answers to our questions about electrons, and as a result we are now well informed about the structure of the atom outside the nucleus.

"By applying this single law [Newton's great synthesis] (which in mathematical symbols fills half a line) we can determine the motions of the moon and the planets in the sky, the place at which a hurled projectile will land, the height and magnitude of the waves created by a steamship, the tone and the sonority of a flute, or the maximum cargo of an airplane. The significant test, then, of classical mechanics has been the revelation that all these apparently widely disparate phenomena are indeed merely unlike aspects of the same phenomenon."9
It seems that classical mechanics has been reduced to a single law; but we continue our quest, "Einstein's dream," to square up, in one basic law of nature, that which describes all of nature, one which will encompass classical mechanics and nuclear forces.
"The ultimate problem of physics is to reduce matter by analysis to its lowest condition of divisibility, and force to its simplest manifestations, and then by synthesis to construct from these elements the world as it stands. We are still a long way from the final solution of this problem; and when the solution comes, it will be one more of spiritual insight than of actual observation."
This is a quote from a work of John Tyndall's, Fragments, written in 1871. Decades were to pass before scientists had their "spiritual insight" into the workings of the atom.

It was the intent, in this paper, to deal with the science of nature, not the "science" of society. My purpose was to explore the meaning of science. I intended to restrict myself to certain of the "real" scientists that have revealed themselves to their fellows over the generations. In the process we may discover, each together, the meaning of the word "science." It may well turn out that the word "science" may be limited only in describing the method of discovering and defining the natural world and have no application, at all, in respect to human relationships. Maybe there does exist a science which might be applied to society, but if so, it has yet to be revealed. This is how Popper put it, "The social sciences have yet to find their Galileo."

Authoritarian systems do have their intellectual giants, but they are few; and, such systems are never able to plug into the masses of thinkers that exist in our society. It is only in a politically free market do we see millions of people working on millions of problems, each individual going in the direction in which her particular interest leads her, where for her the rewards are the greatest (not necessarily of the monetary nature). A politically free system deploys more minds and allows them greater play than can any central system, which, with or without ideals, attempts to perform the impossible task of consciously controlling each individual in the population.



1 In Frederic R. White's introduction to his work, Famous Utopias of the Renaissance (Chicago: Packard, 1946) at pp. x-xi.

2 Naturalism produced more "results in science and technology in a decade than scholasticism had produced in ten centuries." (White, op. cit., p. xv.)

3 White, op. cit., p. xiii. The connection between philosophy and science came together with the work of Bacon; it was he who "rang the bell that called the wits together." Bacon himself made no great discoveries, indeed many of his assertions were wrong. Bacon or not, there are those that have said that the world during his times was "primed and ready for empirical thinking." [Bowen's biography, Francis Bacon - The Temper of the Man (Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1963), p. 13.

4 H. G. Wells, A Short History of the World (1922) (Collins, 1953) p. 96.

5 Written documents to the end of the dark ages, were by hand, in Latin. They were done up by a clerical order who were strictly under the control of the Christian church.

6 Galileo's years were 1564-1642, and thus more the contemporary of Bacon, 1561-1626. See my separate work on Copernicus.

7 Men of science examine and describe the universe. Darwin defined science as an activity which "consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them." (See Darwin's autobiography.)

8 The Poverty of Historicism (1957) (Routledge, 1969), pp. 131-5.

9 Hannes Alfvén's Atom, Man, and the Universe (San Francisco: Freeman, 1969), p. 9-10.

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2011 (2019)

Peter Landry