A Curious Thing
Not a very short time ago, I became aware of a curious thing: Whenever Science!™ was extolled as the omnicompetent Guide to Life, it was very seldom science itself that was stroked. Rather, it was technology and invention. Science fiction generally features submarines, time machines, elixirs of immortality, trips to the Moon (Mars, Stars), and suchlike other Wonderful Inventions. It really ought to be called Techno-fiction or Invention Fiction.
One seldom hears science herself praised, but rather some practical end achieved supposedly with the aid of science.
How dare you criticize Science!™ Just look at air travel!Not, mind you, "Just look at Cayley and his formulation of the four aerodynamic forces of weight, lift, drag, and thrust." Although Cayley may be quickly googled and presented when it is pointed out that the Wright brothers were not scientists, and it therefore becomes necessary to unearth a scientist behind the Wrights, it is still true that the immediate impulse is to cite some profitable product that spun out of science, and not the science itself.
Of course, Cayley was an engineer. In one sense, he could not have been a scientist because the neologism 'scientist' did not exist in English until 1834. And that leads us to another Question.
|He's wearing a white lab coat
so he must be a scientist
To some fanboys "[natural] science" means any discovery about the natural world. So if a paleoindian discovers pressure knapping produces better flint arrowheads than does percussion knapping, that is by-God Science!™ Of course, in this sense, I knew a lot of mechanics and engineers in manufacturing plants who qualified as 'scientists' by this usage. Hmm. Maybe we need a better one?
Is the mere accumulation of facts, lore, and rules of thumb really what we mean by Science!™? If so, there never was a Scientific Revolution, and Moderns would be precluded from sneering at medievals for not doing science. Can't have that; so let's ask a Real Scientist. Henri Poincare once said that a pile of facts is no more a science than a pile of bricks is a house. (For the literal-minded, this science:house::facts:bricks thingie is what we humanists call an 'analogy.') So we suspect there must be more to Science than fact-collection. It isn't the facts, per se, but the way we connect the facts and make sense of them. We make "constructions of facts" the way we make constructions of bricks.
|Notice that pie are not square; pie are round.
An important corollary: until the 17th century, astronomy was a branch of mathematics, not of physics. That is, it was a specialized sort of arithmetic (plus, in Islam and the West, geometry) whose purpose was to produce tables of numbers for use by astrologers, navigators, mapmakers. (In China, the Dept. of Mathematics and Astronomy was part of the Bureau of Rites, which indicates its place in the scheme of things there.) Before the invention of the telescope, there was no clear conception of the heavens as a physical place within which physical discoveries might be made. Except for simple visuals, there was no empirical contact with the heavens. Similarly, perspectiva was a branch of geometry, though in the West lens-grinding and spectacles made a physical connection that eventually produced the telescope. Music was a third science that was essentially mathematical. They were called "the exact sciences," but here science was used in the old sense of "certain knowledge," not in the modern sense.Thus, while we project modern categories onto the past and suppose that advances in mathematics and its specialized branches of astronomy, perspectiva, and music (acoustics) "count" as scientific advances. But they were not advances in empirical data collection or formulation of physical theories, and it is anachronistic to regard them so. To their practitioners, they were not "natural philosophy."
Having Our Cake and Eating It.
|The three-layer cake of Science!
1. At the base are Facts, preferably metrical facts. "When you can measure what you are speaking about," Lord Kelvin once warned, "and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind..." This is something to keep in mind the next time you measure adaptation, fitness, or reproductive success to three decimals places.
|To be used when making Plancked Salmon
3. Last but not least, are Physical Theories. These are narratives or stories we tell ourselves about a body of facts such that a) the known facts "make sense," b) the laws can be deduced from the principles of the theory, and c) new facts can be predicted from the theory. Examples are Newton's theory of universal gravitation (absolute space and time; gravity a spooky "force" acting at a distance). This was superceded by Einstein's theory (contingent space and time; gravity an illusion created by a distortion in the field of Ricci tensors caused by the presence of mass). This is the part of science that is falsifiable. A new fact comes along that simply doesn't fit the theory, even after decades of trying.
Theory can … vary though all possible observations be fixed. Physical theories can be at odds with each other and yet compatible with all possible data even in the broadest sense. In a word, they can be logically incompatible and empirically equivalent."To put it another way, through any finite collection of facts one may draw an indefinite number of theories. For quantum mechanics there are several contradictory theories: the Copenhagen theory, the many-worlds theory, Cramer's transactional theory, Bohm's standing wave, etc. From each of them we can deduce the same laws of quantum mechanics and predict the same set of factual observations. So, until anomalous observations are discovered, there is no empirical way of distinguishing among them. Fanboys of empiricism, take note.
-- W. V. Quine, “On the Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation”,
Journal of Philosophy, 67 (1970).
This also means that it is unlikely that Darwin's theory of natural selection is the only theory that can account for the facts of evolution. Unfortunately, creationist woo-woo has caused evolutionary biologists to circle the wagons against the Great Unwashed and to treat any deviation from orthodoxy as heresy. So even alternative scientific explanations have a hard time. Even Eldredge and Gould found psychological opposition to their punctuated equilibrium, and were told they were giving aid and comfort to the enemy. No foolin'.Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Engineers.
Neither is Engineering the same as Science; although as we shall see, there is an important connection. The engineer cares only that something works reliably. The scientist wants to know how it works. The engineer can get by with a mathematical law that relates the curvature of a stamping tool to the gage of the metal being stamped. The scientist will wonder what theoretical reason there is why such a relationship obtains. For most of human history, Engineering led Science. That is, engineers figured out how to make something work and then scientists came along to explain why. Starting in the mid-1800s, this relationship began to reverse once 'scientist' became an occupational name. Scientific theory began to disclose possibilities that engineers could then exploit. It never occurs to many of the current generation that matters may ever have been different; so they retrofit Late Modernity onto earlier times. The matter is further muddied because engineers use mathematics, too. So engineers and scientists are often conflated, as Serbs and Croats are often conflated, simply because they speak the same language.
Scientists study nature. Engineers study artifacts. While artifacts do follow natural laws, it does not follow that nature follows artificial laws.
The final confusion is to conflate with science any endeavor which uses logic and reason (which would include theology...? Eeeuuuw!) or which uses empirical verification (which would include my auto mechanic, maintenance techs in a factory, and the school teacher who checks the exams against the standard/correct answers). But the sentences "Scientists use logic, reason, and verification" and "Auto mechanics use logic, reason, and verification" does not add up to "Auto mechanics are scientists."
Basically, fanboys with a vulgar understanding of the matter, generally try to define Science!™ as "anything that feels sciency to us Late Modern Westerners." But there is a better approach. To study history. After all, there was a Scientific Revolution and the Revolutionaries really did feel they were inventing something new. So why not find out what they thought Science!™ was, or ought to be.
|Medieval scientists. Two images are apparently contemporary.
In Ancient times, the object of science was the contemplation of the beautiful. An [ur-]scientist stood then in relation to an artisan much as an art critic stands in relation to an artist. That is, an artist is interested in the mixing of paints, the facrication of brushes, the kinds of strokes and colors used, and so on. IOW, the artist is interested in how he achieves the effect. The critic, otoh, is interested in the effect itself. Does the painting capture the image properly, is it effective, is there a balance of colors and composition, and so forth. This analogy meant that the ancient scientist was interested in final causes, in the beauty of nature and the way things worked together in harmony. This carried through to all those who inherited the Greek tradition: the muslims and the Latins. (The Byzantines, too; but that was brought to an untimely end by... the muslims and the Latins.)
Science in the Middle Ages, like that of the ancient Greeks, was directed toward the contemplation of beauty found in the workings of Nature. This meant a focus on formal and final causes, on the essential natures of things and their place/purpose in the Grand Scheme of Things.
If the lack of a denouement seems unimaginable to us, consider that in the 17th cent. telescopes quickly made their way from Europe to China, to the Ottomans, and to the Mughals and... Nothing Happened in those places.
|Rein de Cart
The new metaphysic was that henceforth Science was to be judged on its usefulness in helping man to dominate the universe. (A somewhat grand goal, considering it was only the 17th century and nuclear warheads, ICBMs, poison gas and the like were well into the future.)
The Masculine Birth of Time
|Bobby Boyle in search of Hair Club
for Men and Viagra
- Prolongation of Life
- Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour'd as in youth.
- A ship to saile with all winds and a ship not to be sunk
- The attaining of gigantick dimensions
- the acceleration of the production of things out of seed
- the art of flying
- the making of armor light and extremely hard
- the practicable and certain ways of finding longtitudes
- the cure of diseases at a distance, or at least by transplantation.
- potent drugs to alter or exalt imagination, waking, memory and other functions, and appease pain, procure sleep, harmless dreams etc..
- freedom from necessity of much sleeping exemplify’d by the operation of tea and what happens in mad-men
- the emulating of fish without engines by custome and education only
The thing that strikes us most forcefully is a) the adolescent male fantasy nature of the list, hence Way Kool SF stories; and b) it focus on Making Useful (and Profitable) Products.
This shift of Science!™ from contemplation of the beauty of Nature to binding Nature and her children in chains to serve man in his domination of the universe is what distinguishes Modern science from Medieval and Ancient science. And yes, Francis Bacon, Hume, Descartes, and others did describe the purpose of science in terms of Man clapping chains on [female] Nature. No wonder post-modern feminists [not to mention environmentalists] get the vapors over Capitalist Science!™. For a taste, Bacon's The Masculine Birth of Time can be found here. But Descartes' Discourse on Method and other works paint the same picture.
|Dirac in search of Beauty
We notice a curious thing when reading Bacon. He did not discard final causes because they had been "scientifically" disproved. You cannot use physics to disprove metaphysics. Nor did he discard final causes because they weren't there. They very obviously exist in nature. Words like "adaptation," "pathology," "information/code" reek with final causes. No, he dropped final causes because you can't use them to control and dominate Nature and bind her to your will. To note that a bird's wing is "for" flying is nice; but learn "how" a bird's wing makes for flying and you may invent an airplane or something. Bacon recognized this. Descartes flat-out banished final [and formal] causes.
And so Science was dragged from her ivory tower and... enslaved to the service of Engineering and Industry. Science would henceforth be harnessed to produce useful and profitable products: airplanes, wonder drugs, television. Napalm, nerve gas, atomic bombs, pollution, and television. The Age of Capitalism and Industry was beginning and Science was to be their Handmaiden. She may have been better off being the Handmaiden to Theology, who would at least buy her flowers now and then and maybe take her out to a nice meal.
|Government funding of science
But it need not even be the government calling the shots. Goal-directed Science carries an inherent risk from its internal contradictions. Namely, that if the Goal is important enough, it can eat the Science.
|The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame
Too many for Darwin?
|The Fighting Amish
in the Darwinian struggle for existence
"The most merciful thing that a large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it."
In any case, those who opposed breeding humans as if they were horses or dogs were accused by the Racial Hygiene folks of being "anti-science." Or at least "anti-Science!™" They did not notice that they had segued from a perfectly ordinary scientific theory (natural selection) into a socio-political policy recommendation (eugenics). Political polices are not scientific conclusions. But if you really really believe in the menace of polluting our precious bodily fluids, then obviously Science must be broken to the harness.
This has nothing to do with whether the Goal is noble or crass, either. We see it today with Save the Planet™ and Stephen Scheider's famed dictum:
On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.And if he can't have both, which does he choose? Yet he was not recommending Lying for Science!™, as is sometimes charged, but he was sensitive to the conflict between Science-to-Achieve-a-Useful-Goal and Science-to-Appreciate-the-Beauty-of-Nature.
--Stephen Schneider, interviewed in Discover magazine
BTW, it is at this point that fanboys of Science!™ will suddenly grasp the distinction between science and technology
It is true that ancient and medieval focus on contemplation of beauty via finality may have impeded the production of Useful Gadgets. But it is also true that the focus on Goals via efficient cause has likewise distorted science to the service of government and industry. It all comes down to a single word in Descartes Discourse on Method. He wrote "instead of" when he might have written "in addition to." Perhaps history really is a Hegelian dialectic and after the collapse of the Modern Ages, a new science will emerge that regards the contemplative beauty of the finality of Nature alongside the profitability of efficiency in Nature. Perhaps Science can be extracted from its entanglements so that the Post-Modern reaction against Industry does not tear down Science with it.
Say what you will about ivory-towered natural philosophers. They never got hit with the blame for such things as these.