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On the Development of Science in Europe

2150 words

Science is one of Man’s greatest methods. Being a social convention, science is done in conjunction with other people. Since a “method” is how goals are achieved, then using a “scientific method”, then we would be achieving scientific goals. What we now know as “science” was formulated by F. Bacon in 1621 in his Novum Organum. He describes three steps (1) Collect facts; (2) classify the facts into certain categories; and (3) reject what does not cohere with the hypothesis and accept what does. But before F. Bacon espoused what many hold to be the bedrock of modern science, there was another Bacon that developed similar ideas to F. Bacon.

Some of the very beginnings of the practice now known as “science” can be attributed to Roger Bacon. R. Bacon is even called “Britain’s first scientist” (Sidebottom, 2013). R. Bacon developed his thought on the basis of Islamic scholar Ibn al-Haytham’s empirical method. The principles of what are now known as science (or should I say scientism?) were first expressed by R. Bacon in the 15th Century Dingus Manuscript:

Having laid down fundamental principles of the wisdom of the Latins so far as they are found in language, mathematics, and optics, I now wish to unfold the principles of experimental science, since without experiment nothing can be sufficiently known. There are two ways of acquiring knowledge, one through reason, the other by experiment. Argument reaches a conclusion and compels us to admit it, but it neither makes us certain nor so annihilates doubt that the mind rests calm in the intuition of truth, unless it finds this certitude by way of experience. Thus many have arguments toward attainable facts, but because they have not experienced them, they overlook them and neither avoid a harmful nor follow a beneficial course. Even if a man that has never seen fire, proves by good reasoning that fire burns, and devours and destroys things, nevertheless the mind of one hearing his arguments would never be convinced, nor would he avoid fire until he puts his hand or some combustible thing into it in order to prove by experiment what the argument taught. But after the fact of combustion is experienced, the mind is satisfied and lies calm in the certainty of truth. Hence argument is not enough, but experience is. (Quoted in Sidebottom, 2013; Sidebottom’s emphasis)

This seems to me to be a proto-view of ‘scientism‘—the claim that we can only gain knowledge through our five senses. When R. Bacon said that “argument is not enough, but experience is”, this is a clear predecessor to current scientistic thinking. The a priori is irrelevant to the a posteriori. That is, empirical evidence is irrelevant to a priori (deductive) arguments. In any case, R. Bacon’s writings on this matter were partly the catalyst for Europe’s scientific revolution. You can also see how R. Bacon distinguished between deductive and inductive arguments/thinking—which would come into play in 1600s Europe. Lastly, there is no “either-or” here, as both modes of thinking (deduction and induction) are more than sufficient for generating knowledge.

Deductive reasoning (which was pioneered by Rene Descartes) is where we attempt to see the implications of information that we already know. For example, one can construct an a priori argument—an argument that provides justification for thinking that p (a proposition) is true based on thinking or understanding p. If all of the premises in the argument are true, then the conclusion necessarily follows. On the other hand, inductive reasoning (pioneered by R. and F. Bacon) is where we attempt to located patterns in natural phenomena while attempting to predict what will occur under controlled conditions (or amassing observations to draw specific conclusions). For example. a scientist can observe a phenomenon and then predict what will occur under the controlled environment of an experiment. The conclusion in inductive arguments is not certain (as it is in deductive arguments); it is only a prediction of what may be. Inductive and deductive reasoning need not be at ends, though. (lest we fall into the trap of scientism—the claim that all knowledge is derived from the 5 senses).

F. Bacon argued that, attempted attempts to falsify (that is, test) and verify hypotheses is group effort. That is, science is a social convention. Science is predicated on prediction—predicting the future from what we currently know under a set of controlled conditions (the scientific experiment). Basically, a scientific prediction is a claim about an event that has yet to transpire. So the test of an explanatory theory is whether or not it is successful at predicting novel facts (facts that were unknown before the formulation of the hypothesis). And if a hypothesis generates a novel fact-of-the-matter, then we are justified in believing the hypothesis since the only way the prediction would come to pass would be either (1) the hypothesis is true or (2) chance. If the same result keeps generating, then we can be justified in stating the prediction that is derived from the hypothesis is not due to chance, so one can then be justified in the belief of the scientific hypothesis. This is what is known as “predictivism.” But there is a danger we must be wary of—we must take care to not retrofit facts in order to save a pet theory. A theory has to have some reach outside of what is already known; this is where the generation of novel facts comes into play.

Even before F. Bacon, the scientific method did have a predecessor (who came after R. Bacon) in the works of Galileo, Copernicus, Tycho, and Kepler. Going against the accepted wisdom of the day, Copernicus claimed that the sun—and not the earth—was the center of the solar system; the earth rotates and this rotation is what causes the seasons; and that all planets revolve around the sun. Copernicus did this only using his eyes, as the telescope was invented by Galileo in 1608. This came to be known as Copernicus’ “helio-centric” theory—the theory that the sun, and not the earth, was at the center of the solar system. During the European middle ages, the people were more religious (even though science was just starting to blossom), and since they were religious they believed in God and thought that Man was special. He is the ‘highest’ organism, has dominion over all animals, and the plane that God created for them is the center of it all.

But when Galileo pointed his telescope at the heavens, he had then confirmed Copernicus’ hypothesis that planets revolve around the sun; the sun does not revolve around the earth. He discovered this by observing the moons of Jupiter (what he called the “4 Medicean stars”), which he then mapped in the night sky. Galileo’s obtaining and analyzing of data is seen as science “before science”, as he utilized methods that scientists use today of observation and prediction (which were also espoused in previous centuries).

Tycho was not like Copernicus; instead of believing in what we currently know about the solar system, he—using observation—suggested that the planets orbited the sun and then the whole system revolves around the earth. So Tycho could account for different planets, but he did not upset the Ptolemiac order that the earth was the center of the system. Then, in the late 1590s, Tycho took all of the data that he had amassed over the years and became the court astronomer to the Holy Roman emperor. This is where Tycho met Johannes Kepler. Kepler had believed that everything that was created had been created according to mathematical laws. After Tycho died, Kepler inherited Tycho’s position and all of his notes and data. Tycho, being an Aristotlean, believed that the planets had a circular orbit and that planetary motion was uniform. But Kepler showed that the planets had an elliptical orbit (his first law) and that planetary speed varies as a function of distance from the sun (his second law).

Now, today, we have a four-step scientific method which is somewhat similar to what R. and F. Bacon, Galileo, and Copernicus used: (1) Observe; (2) formulate a hypothesis to explain the observation; (3) predict effects using the hypothesis; and (4) carry out experiments to see if the predicted effects hold. Now, that is very simplistic today. There is no one “scientific method”, although we can identify ways in which scientists use similar methods to derive their conclusions based on their hypotheses and experiments. If you think about it, there are numerous different fields of science, so why should there be “one true scientific method”?

Copernicus, Galileo, and R. and F. Bacon have all paved the way for the modern world, while creating and utilizing tools and modes of thought that are still in-use today. Copernicus and Galileo overturned the centuries-old knowledge of that day which were based on unfounded assumptions and replaced them with a method in which one has to observe a thing, so one would assume that it has something to do with “reality.” The observations by Copernicus and Galileo led to them being seen as heretics since they went against the Church’s teachings and so, they were driven out of society. As can be seen throughout history, developing something new to further develop knowledge and thought to challenge current-day hierarchies may have seemed like a bad idea at the time (to Galileo), but in the end, the truth won out: He used the principles of science and he learned a new fact.

Newton was interested in optics, mathematics, and gravity. Newton had shown that light was produced by different-colored rays, which refuted Descartes’ belief that color was a a secondary quality which was produced by the speed of particulate rotation and that light was actually white. He also had invented integral and differential calculus. Lastly, and perhaps what he was most famously known for, was his theory of gravity. Why did the apple fall straight down and not, say, sideways? Why, it’s because it was drawn to the earth. (Newton did not speak on what causes gravity. It was when Edmund Halley (discover of Halley’s comet) had asked Newton if there was any mathematical proof for the claim that the planets had elliptical orbits.

But what does it mean to “explain a phenomenon scientifically”? A “phenomenon” is an observable thing that happens. Science deals with nature, with things that occur in nature. “What happened?” and “Why did it happen?” are two questions an inquisitive mind may ask. The scientist asks questions, so in a way they create puzzles for themselves which is what a “scientist” is to Kuhn (1996: 144), “a solver of puzzles, not a tester of paradigms.” So if we are attempting to explain a phenomenon scientifically, we are attempting to solve a puzzle—how and why something may happen, for example.

What can be seen today—just as it could be seen over 500 years ago with Galileo and Copernicus—is that science is a social institution that is driven by politics, contrary to those who claim that scientists are “objective observers in a search for truth.” The biases of scientists—and the society they are in—influence both their research questions AND their conclusions from their research. Their own prejudices and preconceptions cloud their thoughts, what they want to research, and the conclusions they draw. If science is a human tool, then science will be used for whatever the human wants it to be used for. Social institutions can definitely attempt to stymie certain forms of research (like what happened to Galileo AND NOT hereditarians in the 1900s to the present-day, see Jackson and Winston, 2020). So we can see how science can be used to confirm or de-confirm certain things (i.e., people’s preconceived notions about the world). Thomas Kuhn said that “The answers you get depend on the questions you ask.” And, if you think about certain questions that certain people who fancy themselves scientists may ask, then quite obviously the conclusion (the answer) is already known and they are trying to justify their own prejudices and a priori beliefs (eg hereditarians).

Using the methods developed by Francis and Roger Bacon (no relation), we have achieved what our ancestors would have thought impossible—they would have called much of what we do today “magic” since they would not understand—that is, they would not have the frame of reference—that what they are seeing is natural, coming from the natural world. The modern world needed the scientific revolution that came from Europe, as without it (along with what was invented at the time and thought that would later become the bedrock for inventions and scientific thought today), the world would be a different place. What the so-called ‘heretics’ of the time showed was perseverance and getting what they thought to be the truth out no matter the cost and with these thoughts and ways of thinking and seeing the world, they changed it.