2019-09-02

Book Review: "The Invention of Science" by David Wootton

I've recently read the book The Invention of Science by David Wootton, after seeing it pop up on the SMBC comic reading list a few years ago. This book puts forth a comprehensive attempt to answer the question of when the modern practice of science can definitively said to be born, and comes up with the response that it was "invented" between 1572 and 1704 in Europe through a series of changes that can be viewed as a single transformation, on par (and in many contexts in tandem) with the Industrial Revolution. Far from being a quick overview, it provides a detailed history of the linguistic and philosophical developments surrounding various aspects of the scientific method, including the basic ideas of "facts", "experiments", "hypotheses", "theories", and similar terms by tracing through the experimental apparatuses early scientists constructed, the debates they and other philosophers had among their own groups and between each other, and the effects of new technologies like the printing press, steam engine, and others. Among its key aims is to comprehensively critique the strongest forms of relativism in the modern history of science (to which I will refer with phrases of the form "of relativism", because for a physicist like me the term "relativistic" means "of/pertaining to [Einstein's theory of special and general] relativity"), which posits things like science being an entirely social enterprise where theories become ascendant only through societal power structures and the power of persuasion while notions of the power of evidence are entirely misleading, and to a lesser extent to critique the strongest forms of realism, which contrarily posits that scientific theories are an exact reflection of reality. In opposition to these, the book argues that science as a whole can be said to objectively progress as new theories can both continue to properly explain evidence that old theories can while also explaining new evidence that old theories cannot adequately explain, and that scientific developments are path-dependent and do to some degree depend on cultural context.

The book is very well-written but, as I mentioned earlier, it is a significantly heavier (literally as well as philosophically) tome than a typical popular history of science. It deeply contextualizes a lot of different, seemingly disparate, aspects of the development of scientific research between 1572-1704 in Europe in view of linguistics, philosophy, religion, and interpersonal relationships. Given that I'm a layperson when it comes to philosophy, there were a lot of passages that I found difficult to follow even after multiple careful readings simply because I was unfamiliar with many of the people and texts quoted. For example, for a while when reading, I thought that the author's criticisms of Thomas Kuhn's notion of paradigm shifts (whose seminal work on the subject I've reviewed here) were in a general sense; it took me a while to realize that the criticisms were more specific to the context of the development of the scientific method as opposed to developments since then, and even after that I needed reassurance from the concluding section that this was indeed the author's intent. However, there were a lot of things that I appreciated learning from this book. Foremost among them is the idea that the notion of inevitable progress really only originated in the 16th century, and before that the dominant view of history was that it developed in cycles, so there really was no sense that anyone could discover things unknown to their predecessors and peers; this really made me better appreciate why the mentality of a glorious past that must be returned to is still so pervasive in circles outside of scientific fields. Plus, the argument that the voyage by Christopher Columbus to Hispaniola catalyzed this new notion of "discovery" in itself was new to me, and I was surprised by how compellingly it was argued. I also appreciated the explanation of the emergence of a linguistic distinction between "physics", whose practitioners are "physicists", and "physiology", whose practitioners are "physicians".

There are a few criticisms that I have from my perspective as a lay reader. The first is that the author spends a chapter discussing the emergence of a notion of "facts", and distinguishes different kinds of "facts" when discussing the building of scientific knowledge in order to argue against the claims of strong relativism that all scientific theories are ultimately equally acceptable. However, the presentation of these distinctions is quite muddled from the beginning, which not only harms the intelligibility of the arguments for settling science through "matters of fact", but gives an opening for arguments from relativism that all "facts" ultimately depend on the existence of a shared language and cultural context for interpretation. The second is that some of the arguments against even weaker forms of relativism (like Thomas Kuhn's ideas), suggesting that theories being underdetermined by the facts at hand means that any number of theories could be equally valid, seem somewhat weak. One particular example discussed is that once the terraqueous theory (that the Earth was composed of land and water in a single "sphere" as opposed to two "spheres") was established thanks to certain findings (like the European rediscovery of the American continents and consequently acknowledging the possible existence of antipodes on land), last-ditch alternative theories were already seen in their day to be problematic, which led to the swift and relatively uncontroversial abandonment of such alternatives. The problem with that example is that it conflates the inability of thinkers of that time to come up with a viable alternative with the lack of existence of a viable alternative, and the latter is a much stronger statement which isn't actually proved by that example. (As an aside: the way I see it, the construction of scientific theories is like optimizing a fit function to a set of values that are outputs for input points sampled in a very large high-dimensional space. Paradigm shifts occur when newly sampled input points produce output values that are very far from what existing fit functions predict, while new fit functions that can accurately predict values at existing points and these new points would look quite different in form. In this context, the possibility of other cultures or even sapient alien species developing entirely different scientific theories could be explained by sampling very different sets of points to begin with, due to very different experiences, and consequently coming up with very different-looking fit functions, with perhaps only a few common sample points where different theories come close to each other.) The third is that there isn't much discussion of other cultures outside of Europe, with the exception of Arabic writings on astronomy and other sciences, and the little discussion there is seems to be casually dismissive, glibly describing such societies as "hierarchical" rather than "egalitarian" without getting into the subtleties of those terms in context; initially, I gave the author the benefit of the doubt in wanting to keep the scope of the book focused, but considering how much was said about religious philosophy and linguistics, I think a fuller picture would really have benefited the book. Related to this, I would have liked to see a somewhat clearer discussion of the extent to which the emergence of the scientific method affected and was affected by shifts from church-focused hierarchical communal philosophy to individual-centered humanism; there was some of that, but there are probably other parts of the book where that relation could have been clearer. Finally, I got the sense that the writing and the message of the first few chapters as well as the last few chapters were fairly clear, but the arguments of the middle chapters were harder for me to follow in themselves and in the broader context of the book overall; perhaps each of the middle parts could have been a separate shorter book in a series, so that readers wouldn't feel compelled to read all of those parts in order, and the author could have felt more free to restructure and explain further as needed.

This was definitely an interesting read and was unlike the last several books that I've read given its deep look at the subtleties of European philosophy in the mid-2nd millennium. I wouldn't recommend it as a light jaunt through the historical development of science, but I would recommend it to those who want a deeper look at the various philosophical factors guiding its development.

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