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Thursday, October 09, 2008

The (Ideological) History of Science

I just picked up The Scientists by John Gribbin. I had thought I was bying a book on the history of science, but unfortunately I've discovered I have bought a work of ideology disguised as history.

Gribbin opens by saying "The most important thing science has taught us about our place in the Universe is that we are not special." Oh really, and just how did science discover that "fact"? Is there some "specialness-omter" scientist have invented recently? What is the measure of "specialness" that proves Gribbin's assertion?

There is none, for of course the assertion is sheer rubbish. The contention of Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and so on is not that humanity is special in possessing some unique physical property -- which science might be able to disprove -- but that humanity is spiritually special. Buddhism, for instance, contends that humans are spiritually uniquely positioned to achieve enlightenment. Just how is science supposed to have "taught" us that this is not so?

One of Gribbin's arguments for how science shows we are not special is the old chestnut about the Copernican system removing man from his "special" location at the center of the universe, a move that supposedly "demoted" man from a place of prime importance in creation. There is one rather serious problem with this oft-repeated tale: while it is true that, in Aristotelean and Medieval cosmologies, the center was a special place to be, that is because it was an especially bad place. For Aristotle, the center was where gross, corrupt matter descended, and it was the heavens that were perfect and unchanging, and the closest realm to God. As my lecturer in the history of science at King's College, John Milton, asked: Who was at the center of the universe in Dante's Divine Comedy? Why, Satan, of course, and hell! And Professor Milton mentioned that he could find no record of anyone at the time worried about Copernicus because man would no longer be at the center. This idea is almost certainly an invention of the same Enlightenment anti-clerical thinkers who invented "The Middle Ages," and who falsely alleged that Medieval natural philosophers held that the Earth is flat.

Gribbin continues: "It would have been natural [given the great ruins left by the Ancients] to accept that they were intellectually far superior to the ordinary people who had followed them, and to accept the teaching of the ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Euclid as a kind of Holy Writ, which could not be questioned."

But that is precisely what Medieval thinkers did not do with Aristotle. Medieval thinkers generally considered themselves the superiors, not the inferiors, of the Ancients, because they had Christ's revelation at hand. Indeed, many Christian thinkers urged their fellows to ignore the Ancient philosophers as having nothing to teach Christians. And almost as soon as Aristotle's works were re-discovered, they were questioned. The Church issued edicts as to the many contentions of Aristotle's that had to be rejected. Buridan and Orseme seriously modified his mechanics. The idea that these people unthinkingly accepted every word of Aristotle's is historical nonsense.

Euclid is a somewhat different story, for, while Euclid was unchallenged in the Middle Ages, so he was also by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Kant! It was not until the 19th-century that non-Euclidean geometries were developed.

And, ironically, the attitude of inferiority to the Ancients really came to the fore with the rise of Humanism in the Renaissance -- just when Gribbin says it was ending!

UPDATE: Gribbin actually gets much, much better once he is done with the Middle Ages. I have the feeling he actually researched the period from 1450 on, whereas he just cribbed popular opinion for his views on everything earlier.

5 comments:

  1. Good stuff Gene. I love how these pop science books repeat "history" that they have grown up reading from each other. (I'm sure Austrian libertarians do the same thing, e.g. with people explaining the success of the Keynesian revolution. I just hope that at least our parroted history is true!)

    Another good one is when people say that if you think there is a goal to evolution, then you've misunderstood the theory. And here I thought falsifiability was the criterion of science.

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  2. Wabulon2:06 PM

    Apropos "having nothing to teach Christians," I am reminded of a legend about the burning of the Alexandrian library: When one of his ministers pleaded with the sultan to spare the books, he replied, "If they echo the Quran, they are unnecessary; if they do not, they are useless or worse."

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