Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Birth of Science: A Primer on Intellectual History (Part 2)

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci
The Late Renaissance
Another critical element for the Renaissance was the mechanical movable type printing press, which was introduced in Germany in 1450. The printing press afforded thinkers like Martin Luther, Desiderius Erasmus, and later, Niccolo Machiavelli an amplified voice. With the printing press, Renaissance thinkers shared their thoughts in mass production,  something that served to increases the dissemination of ideas and the rate of change in society.

The renaissance is typically dated as 1450 to 1600. These years are, as is true with all historical period mapping, general and not specific; the labels are described later in time by scholars who are writing their narrative of history. There are a few hallmark characteristics of the Renaissance mood, what we often call the Zeitgeist. These qualities include: individualism, personal religion, an intense interest in the past, and anti-Aristotelianism (Hergenhahn). It is interesting to note that Aristotle had ushered in the Renaissance within Catholic church doctrine (these Aristotelian church philosophers are called Scholastics) but later he was attacked by Renaissance humanists. This rejection of Aristotle had more to do with a rejection of Catholic Scholasticism than with Aristotle's work itself. The influential Renaissance theorists include Francesco Petrach, Giovani Pico, Erasmus, Luther, and Michel de Montaigne.

The burning of Giordano Bruno in 1600
In the later years of the Renaissance, a few key figures in the foundation of science emerged. Each of these figures contributed something unique to the foundation of what we call science. Nicolaus Copernicus published The Revolution of Heavenly Spheres in 1543. This book is important because it essentially changed the intellectual worldview from a geocentric (earth-centered) narrative to the heliocentric system (sun-centered) of the universe. This change took some time, and it had significant cultural repercussions. Copernicus had managed to escape the Catholic wrath that his book touched off, largely because he died the year it was published. Others who embraced Copernicus' heliocentric theory did not fare so well.

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for heretic views against the Christian church. Another figure who offended the Catholic church was Galileo Galilei who, in 1543 published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, and invented the telescope in 1609. Although he escaped the fate of Bruno, the Catholic church did place him under house arrest until his death in 1642. He continued to write.

I like to think of Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci as the two figures who embodied the spirit of Renaissance thinking, as well as the foundations for modern science. Both pursued knowledge in diverse ways, from art to experimentation. The etymology of the word science is scientia, which means knowledge. These two thinkers were scientists in the broadest sense, not bound by contemporary divisions of academic thought.

The question on the minds of the late Renaissance thinkers was, what is the best method for thinking? Renee Descartes published his Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences in 1637. Descartes' work focused on establishing a system of thinking that would lead us to sound conclusions about nature. I like to think of Descartes as one of four theorists who laid the foundation for modern thought. We typically discuss modernity as beginning in 1600 and ending somewhere around World War I and World War II. The other four philosophers that contributed to the groundwork of modernism are Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke.

The modern period (from 1600 to around 1905) is characterized by the attitudes of modernism. Modernism is an attitude that basis knowledge on systematic thinking, mathematics, logic, and objective experience. Renee Descartes contributed mathematics and deductive logic to this attitude. Francis Bacon worked extensively on induction and experimentation. Isaac Newton added mathematics and the idea of universal laws, and John Locke emphasized empiricism and universal laws. Central to the attitude of modernism, the idea that mathematics, logic, and a scientific method serves to answers all questions that humans face. The idea of objectivity, or the existence of an objective reality separate from human "subjective" experience dominates this scientific worldview. We call this tradition the Enlightenment (Age of Reason). We often refer to this period, which begins with Copernicus and melds into The Enlightenment, The Scientific Revolution. It describes the flourishing of mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, and empirical philosophy.

Albert Einstein
The modernist attitude reached its zenith in what we commonly call the classical period (mostly the 18th century) and lasted into the 19th century. In the philosophy of science we refer to the scientific worldview of this time as the old view of science. The philosopher of science, Hilary Putnam describes the old view of science as being based on the idea that scientist collect and accumulate facts and build those facts into a "treasure chest" of accumulated knowledge. The old science idea that inductive logic (collecting observable evidence), scientific method, and the gathering of facts verified by experiment, was replaced in the 20th century by the new view of science, which most sciences use today. The new view of science is marked by the attitude that there is a human contribution to the phenomenon of reality (not merely an objective reality), that there is not one "method" of science (each science does science differently), and that multiple "true" descriptions of reality exist simultaneously. The transition from the old view to the new view of science is mostly due to what we call the Einsteinian revolution, which took place in 1905, when Albert Einstein published his Annus Mirabilis papers on special relativity. However, some important events occurred long before 1905 that lead to this change in the way we think about and do science.