Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Reading :: The Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution
By Steven Shapin

Steven Shapin's name is familiar to me because he coauthored Leviathan and the Air-Pump with Simon Schaeffer. That book, a history of the development of the experimental method in the conflicts between Hobbes and Boyle, was extensively discussed in Latour's We Have Never Been Modern. So when I saw this book at the used bookstore, I had to pick it up—especially after I opened the front cover and saw that it had been previously owned by Maxine Hairston.

Unlike Leviathan and the Air-Pump, The Scientific Revolution is a history meant for a lay audience. It describes a period that only gained an identity in retrospect: as Shapin says in his first sentence, "There was no such think as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it" (p.1). The phrase "the Scientific Revolution" was coined in the early to mid 20th century (p.2) and used in retrospect to draw together "four interrelated aspects of changes in knowledge about the natural world and changes in means of securing that knowledge" (p.13): the mechanization of nature (i.e., using mechanical metaphors to understand natural phenomena); the depersonalization of natural knowledge (i.e., separating what we subjectively sense from what objectively occurs); the attempted mechanization of knowledge-making (i.e., using rules or methods to lead us to objective understandings); and "the aspiration to use the resulting reformed natural knowledge to achieve moral, social, and political ends" (p.13).

These were indeed big changes. As Shapin explains in Ch.1, one of the most revolutionary things about Galileo's work was that he described sunspots. In Aristotelian thinking, the earth was imperfect and the heavens were perfect and unchanging, so imperfect phenomena such as sunspots (as well as irregularly moving phenomena such as comets) were construed as either in the atmosphere or below the moon (p.17). That is, the doctrine came before the observation (p.18). "Pre-Copernican cosmology was literally anthropocentric," Shapin explains, but not in a way that connoted special virtue: the perfect rose to the heavens, the imperfect sank to the earth, and the real center of the cosmos was under the earth - in Hell (p.24).

Furthermore, for Aristotle, "all natural motion had a developmental character" (p.29): bodies moved to where they should naturally be. "Aristotelian physics was in that sense modeled on biology and employed explanatory categories similar to those used to comprehend living things" (p.29). But for the modern philosophers, a more attractive metaphor was that of the machine (p.30), especially the clock (p.32). Applying this metaphor led them to this analogic thinking:
clock : clockmaker :: nature : intelligence
The clock metaphor led philosophers to think of matter, not as active (as in the biological metaphor), but as inert (p.44). They began distinguishing between primary qualities, which belonged to the object (size, shape, motion), and secondary qualities, which were derived from primary quantities (e.g., color, sweetness, warmth) (p.53). This separation is better known as objective vs. subjective: a wedge between philosophical legitimacy and common sense, one that disallowed sensory experience as a reliable guide (p.53). Boyle went on to say that forms were figments of the human mind (p.54).

As Shapin points out, mechanical philosophy did not explain as much as it claimed to; adherents were convinced that the mechanical explanation was superior to alternatives (p.57) and began to see God as a master mathematician (p.66).

In Chapter 2, Shapin asks: How was it known? At the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, the existing philosophical traditions rested on human textual authority—such as the works of Aristotle—rather than on evidence of natural reality (p.68). By the end, they were looking at a different "book"—the "book of nature" (p.69; notice the metaphor). The transition was eased because although people were convinced at the beginning of the period that the ancients knew more than moderns ever would, the extant texts were clearly corrupted and two copies of the same text would diverge. Which corrupted source was the most accurate? They began comparing the texts to direct observations to find out (p.76). As the Protestant Reformation went on, laypeople could read the Scripture for themselves; analogically, they decided that they could also read God's other book, the Book of Nature (p.78). Yet people sometimes saw different things in that "book." Eventually, Boyle and the Royal Society developed the experimental method to discern causes from effects—a development that was violently opposed by philosophers such as Hobbes (p.110).

In Chapter 3, Shapin asks: What was the knowledge for? Eventually, reading the Book of Nature began to be understood as a contribution equal to that of the theologian (p.138). This chapter traces that development, examining how it changed the dynamics of the period.

If you're interested in the development of scientific thought, definitely pick up this interesting and readable book.

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