The Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750
by David Wootton
Hardback first edition Published by Harper Collins 2015
Wootton claims there are two major philosophical camps among those who write about the history of science. He calls them the ‘realists’ and the ‘relativists’. The realists regard science as essentially a formalized application of human common sense. To them, science is a systematic method of asking questions about the natural world, which leads to reasonably accurate answers. As these answers build upon one another, collective human understanding grows. It’s almost inevitable. Relativists, on the other hand, see science as an aspect of human culture. Both the questions it asks and the answers it finds are culturally dependent, so it never obtains any objective knowledge and consequently cannot progress in the sense that it gets us closer to a true understanding of what the world actually is or how it works. Instead, it creates stories about the world that work for a particular culture at a particular time. Relativism, he claims, “has been the dominant position in the history of science” for some time (Pg. 117). (This seems odd to me since, of the two extremes, relativism seems the most absurd, but that’s what he says. Since he’s the expert and I’m not, I’m sadly willing to entertain the idea that he may be right about this.)
Wootton sees some merit in both of these perspectives, and this book is his attempt to reconcile them. His self-appointed task can be summarized in these quotes that appear near the end of the book:
The task, in other words, is to understand how reliable knowledge and scientific progress can and do result from a flawed, profoundly contingent, culturally relative, all-too-human process. (pg. 541)
Hence the need for an historical epistemology which allows us to make sense of the ways in which we interact with the physical world (and each other) in the pursuit of knowledge. The central task of such an epistemology is not to explain why we have been successful in our pursuit of scientific knowledge; there is no good answer to that question. Rather it is to track the evolutionary process by which success has been built upon success; that way we can come to understand that science works, and how it works. (Pg. 543)
And this is what he does in an extensively researched and exhaustively documented account of the development and evolution of science. The way of thinking, which we now call science, truly was new and revolutionary. It emerged primarily in Western Europe between the times of Columbus and Newton. Wootton doesn’t claim a single igniting spark, but he gives Columbus’s voyage in 1492 credit for providing a powerful challenge to the prevailing belief that the ancients had known everything worth knowing. Although Columbus himself never accepted that the land he found by traveling west from Spain was a previously unknown continent, others soon came to this realization, and it showed that the authority of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Holy Scripture were not as absolute as people believed. Here was an entirely new world, with strange animals, plants, and people, which the respected and authoritative ancients had known nothing about. Possibly just as significant was that the existence of these two huge continents was not found through philosophical reflection or by divine revelation. This new land was ‘discovered’ by a bunch of scruffy sailors—commoners!
From here, he explains that these emerging ideas added new words and new (and modern) definitions to old words, such as ‘discovery’, ‘fact’, ‘experiment’, ‘objectivity’, and ‘evidence’. These all have their current meanings because of the scientific way of viewing the world that emerged between the 16th and 18th centuries. (Personally, I think his discussion of the word ‘evidence’ goes into more detail and greater length than needed to make his point, but for those in academia, it may be helpful).
He also shows how culture influenced the development of scientific thinking. More often than not, the culture of this time hindered rather than helped. Prior to the scientific revolution, philosophical disputes were decided through clever rhetoric, creative verbal arguments, and appeals to tradition and authority. Because of this, early practitioners of science felt it necessary to justify themselves by citing the works of long-dead philosophers like Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius. Although none had the authority of Aristotle, they were ancient, which implied a certain respectability. The new scientific way of thinking, on the other hand, “sought to resolve intellectual disputes through experimentation.” (pg. 562)
I am more of an interested observer of science than I am a practitioner, but I have to admit that the realist view seems far closer to the truth to me than does the relativist concept. It is undeniable that science is done by scientists, that scientists are people, and that people are shaped by the cultures in which they live. But modern science originally began by challenging the assumptions of the culture in which it first emerged, and it retains that aspect of cultural skepticism to this day. I suspect that many current scientists are motivated, at least in part, by the dream of possibly overturning a prevailing theory or showing that it is somehow flawed or incomplete. In the 17th century, challenging cultural assumptions could bring a long, uncomfortable visit with inquisitors followed by a short, hot time tied to a stake. Today, it can bring a scientist fame and fortune.
Scientific progress isn’t inevitable, but it can and does reveal culturally independent facts. Scientists are products of their cultures, but the process of science intentionally strives to put those cultural assumptions aside. It may be the only human activity that does so.
People have a natural tendency to seek agency. If something momentous happens, then someone must have caused it. If something complex exists, someone obviously designed and built it. But this natural human way of looking at things leads to unwarranted assumptions. No one, for example, planned the evolution of life.
Ridley extends Darwin’s insight about biological evolution to human culture and invention. No one planned the development of language. No one planned the industrial revolution. No one planned today’s global economy. These things evolved. They weren’t designed from the top down. They emerged from the bottom up. In this book, Ridley specifically argues that Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand guides economics in much the same way that natural selection guides the evolution of life. Both emerge from the complex interplay of individual agents acting out of self-interest with no common goal. They operate without any grand plan, and yet they create (albeit unintentionally) complex, well-ordered, and reasonably efficient systems. He has great faith in the power of the Invisible Hand. Don’t try to direct it, and good things will happen.
To me, his belief in the power of the Invisible Hand seems a bit too…well, utopian. Simplistic. Possibly even a bit mystical. The Hand works in mysterious ways. We don’t know how, exactly, but we must have faith that it is all for the best and let it get on with things. As long as we don’t interfere, all will be well. Society will evolve for the better. The state will wither away, and everyone will live in peace and prosperity. His end state seems ironically similar to the one Karl Marx envisioned, and I think it’s flawed for one of the same reasons Marx’s was—people. They aren’t ready for it…yet. There are those, and I like to believe the number grows with every generation, who do not require coercion or the threat of divine or secular punishment in order to behave properly toward their fellow human beings. But many still do. The state may be an unfortunate necessity at this point in human evolution.
If it’s possible to be a cynical optimist, Matt Ridley qualifies. He makes several valid points in this book. Order can emerge from chaos. Actions motivated solely by self-interest can have unintended and broadly beneficial consequences. Human culture does evolve, and it has progressed and improved over time. But he makes an unjustified leap by concluding that it is therefore a mistake to attempt to bring about cultural change or broad social benefits intentionally. Evolution, both biological and cultural, he seems to argue, are best left to natural selection and the free market. Restraining the Invisible Hand leads to disaster.
Well, it can, except sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the Hand needs a shove. Or maybe it’s better to say that the Invisible Hand has more fingers than he seems to think it has.
Ridley often sounds like a cranky old man grinding philosophical axes*, and in this book, he vents his libertarian spleen on all things that smack of authority. This includes religion and crony capitalism, but his favorite target is government in all its current and historical forms. He doesn’t like government (which seems odd considering that Viscount Ridley is a member of the British House of Lords). He sees it as a top-down intrusion on the proper bottom-up evolution of human society. Let the free market work!
But there is no free market, and I doubt one would last long if there was. (See Saving Capitalism by Robert B. Reich https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24338377-saving-capitalism) Markets in our modern society depend on governments to protect capital assets and intellectual property. Governments provide the framework within which individuals and businesses negotiate contracts with one another, and they provide legal recourse in the event of contract violation. Governments maintain competition by restricting monopolies so that large corporations cannot eliminate their existing and potential competitors (e.g. through hostile takeovers, dumping goods, or intimidating suppliers). Governments also help bolster the economy by instilling consumer confidence. Because of governmental regulations, you can be fairly sure that the food and medicine you buy isn’t toxic; that your appliances, cars, homes, and other purchases are reasonably safe to use; and that whatever else you buy will function almost as well as the seller claims it will. If you are in the unfortunate position of having to work for a living, your workplace is probably safer, your workday shorter, your pay better, and you may even enjoy some kind of insurance or even paid holidays because of governmental policies.
A firm believer in laissez faire economics might argue that all of these benefits would come about on their own accord through the magic of market forces, but they didn’t, which is why these governmental policies came about. Worker exploitation, sweatshops, child labor, and unsafe working conditions were rampant only a century ago. The case of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City in 1911 is probably one of the most famous examples. (http://www.history.com/topics/triangle-shirtwaist-fire). In a bottom-up effort, voters demanded that something be done. Government responded by enacting laws. (e.g. the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972). Admittedly, these probably did not all work as well as many hoped, and some may have had unforeseen consequences, but these laws and others were passed because the ‘free’ market had not been able to prevent abuses by private businesses that exploited workers and cheated consumers. Clearly, not all business were dishonest or exploitative, but a top-down mandate was needed, not only to protect workers and consumers, but also to establish a level playing field to protect responsible business owners from unfair competition by those who were not.
So, were these societal changes examples of bottom-up evolution brought about by voter demand or were they top-down impositions on the free market by government? Both? Neither?
Personally, I think it’s a false dichotomy. Let me begin by saying that power bases emerge in human society whether you want them to or not. They form from the bottom up. We can’t prevent them, nor do I think we should try. They exist to pursue the interests of their constituents, and in doing so can provide benefits to each member that they cannot obtain as well on their own. But they can also unjustly impose their will on nonmembers. If one group becomes too powerful, or if two or more combine forces, they can oppress or exploit others. Maintaining some kind of power balance so that this does not happen can be difficult.
Prior to the Enlightenment, government, in the form of a monarch and sundry aristocracy, could be seen as a separate power base, as could the Church, landed gentry, craftsmen, and peasants. Each of these had its own unique interests, which they pursued, sometimes cooperatively but often competitively. If you wish to imagine society as something guided by an invisible hand, these would have been its fingers, the two strongest of which were the monarch and the Church.
Modern Western society has different fingers. These can be generalized as workers, consumers, business owners, and bankers. Religion is still with us, of course, and it does have unique interests and it does exert power, so it may be seen as a finger as well. As in the past, these groups may have overlapping constituencies, but they don’t have common goals, and the conflicts between them create the evolutionary pressures that move societies. Together, these five fingers shape human culture in unplanned ways. (I don’t include government as one of these modern fingers for reasons I’ll explain soon.)
All of these fingers represent their members and push society in some way. Consumers want quality products at affordable prices. Workers want secure, well-paying jobs. Religions want to spread their faiths. Businesses and banks want to earn profits for owners/investors. Democratic government is a bit different in that it represents (or should represent) interests common to everyone. As difficult as it may be to imagine at times, and despite the real differences that may exist between them, all people have more interests in common than not…safety, property, opportunity, freedom…or as the U.S. Declaration of Independence puts it, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
A properly functioning democratic government has the unenviable task of ensuring equal rights for all its citizens and for being an impartial arbiter when the goals of the metaphorical fingers come into conflict. Is it more important for consumers to have lower prices or for workers to have higher wages? Are these more or less important than business owners reaping high profits or banks charging high interest? When does a religion’s goal of spreading the faith intrude on the freedom of nonbelievers? These are not hypothetical questions. All have had to be addressed in the past, and it has fallen on governments to do so because market forces can’t, at least not as well. When one group attempts to dominate, exploit, suppress, or even eliminate another, the purely evolutionary solution of allowing the strongest to win is probably not the best one for the long-term survival of a civilization. The government stands in defense of all, regardless of numbers or wealth. It codifies protected rights that apply to all its citizens, and it acts as a societal ratchet to prevent these rights from being denied in the future. Once proscribed by law, such things as slavery, child labor, and racial discrimination are far less likely to reemerge. A democratic government provides a balancing force so that the many cannot dominate the few and the rich and powerful cannot prey on the poor and weak.
The balance breaks down if one societal power base exerts too much influence over governmental policies. Business control of government is just as detrimental to a society as governmental control of business. But democratic governments are self-correcting. They change from the bottom up. The dominating powers will fight to preserve their privileged positions. They’ll try to bend public opinion to maintain their position, but when voters feel that one group has too much influence, they’ll vote for change…and they might even achieve it. We may be seeing something like that happening now in the U.S. Time will tell.
There is much about Matt Ridley’s argument with which I do not agree, but his central point that complex systems evolve in unexpected and unplanned ways is undeniable. They do. No single strategy directed the course of human progress. The scientific discoveries and cultural changes humanity has made since our ancestors first chipped stones into knives two and a half million years ago (or thereabout) have created a world that no one could have imagined, let alone planned. These advancements emerged incrementally, iteratively, one thing leading to another, with all the parts interacting in complex and often unpredictable ways. In short, our society evolved. There was no grand plan, but many of the little steps along the way were planned, which is where the comparison of scientific and cultural progress with biological evolution breaks down. The two processes appear similar from a great enough distance, but they differ in the details.
Biological evolution lacks intent. Cells and microbes can’t imagine the future. They can’t plan. Over time, the individual cells that comprised the earliest forms of life came together, differentiated, and specialized to form larger and more complex organisms. This improved their survivability, but they didn’t adapt to survive. They survived because they adapted. This is an important difference. It’s a matter of cause and effect. It took natural selection billions of years to go from those earliest microbes to creatures like us because it operates without intent. It doesn’t build to a plan. Discrete biological changes (to DNA) are close enough to random to think of them as such, and most of those random mutations are fatal. Natural selection can create astounding complexity in this manner, but it’s hit or miss, and it takes a while.
Cultural evolution is faster. The time span from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens took almost two million years. The time span from steam engines to nuclear power was less than three hundred. Why? Well, a lot of reasons, but complexity isn’t one of them. There are more differences between Newcomen’s steam engine and a nuclear reactor than there are between you and your multi-great grandmother a couple million years ago. A big factor for the difference in time scale is that each evolutionary step from pre-modern humans to us relied on unplanned natural selection. Each development between steam power and nuclear energy was the result of human premeditated action. Each improvement, every new idea along the way was proposed and developed by a human mind with intent.
Ridley summarizes his position in the epilogue of his book. “To put my explanation in its boldest and most surprising form: bad news in manmade, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves.”
Ah, if only reality were that simple. The unfortunate truth is that most evolutionary changes are failures. Unplanned evolution doesn’t always bring success but neither does planned change. Most plans people make fail as well. What Ridley’s argument seems to boil down to is that evolutionary changes that have survived are successful. True, but tautological. Extrapolating from this dubious insight by claiming that unplanned evolutionary change is good and that manmade change is bad is simply absurd. It’s like claiming that doctors shouldn’t cut out tumors, prescribe antibiotics, provide vaccinations, or attempt to cure genetically inherited diseases because the bacteria, viruses, and genetic mutations they are trying to eliminate have evolved through natural selection and therefore must be good.
Let me offer an alternate idea. Human culture and technology have advanced rapidly because when people see problems, they take action to fix them. They don’t wait around for the slow plod of evolution to make things better or, alternately and more likely, to drive them to extinction. Humans are toolmakers. The things we create, from hammers to stock markets, are tools that we intentionally design to accomplish certain tasks, and we improve upon them over time to make them work better.
By all measurable criteria, our species’ quality of life has improved over time. People today (on average) are healthier, eat better, live longer, are freer, safer, and enjoy more material wealth than at any time in history. No one planned the current state of human affairs. It isn’t anyone’s imagined end state or ultimate goal. There is no end state. There is no final goal. Evolution is a continuing process. The reason our cultures evolve faster than our biology is partly that they have something biology does not. When it comes to the components of human culture, such as our religions, laws, forms of government, economic systems, philosophies, ethics, educational systems, music, art, inventions, and all other creations of the human mind, an intrinsic part of all of them is that they include an element of intent. People designed them from the top down in response to conditions imposed from the bottom up. They saw situations that they wanted improved, considered ways of adapting what they knew to the problems facing them, and came up with ideas they thought might work. Some did. Some didn’t. Those that work are more likely to survive. Richard Dawkins calls such ideas memes, but the important point is that these ideas do not spring up spontaneously. They originate in human minds. And although each of these ideas may be intended to address separate, seemingly unconnected issues, each forms a small component of a larger evolving system. Unlike biological evolution, human progress has an aspect of intelligent design.
Which brings me back to Ridley’s issue with government and the free market. The Invisible Hand of the free market is not a separate ineffable force any more than the human mind is separate from the brain and body that create it. Both can be seen as emergent properties. But perhaps a better way to view the free market for this discussion is as a process. Just as evolution describes the process of living matter reacting to its environment, the free market describes the process of humans interacting to improve their lives. To do this, they build tools. If those tools don’t work quite as well as we’d like, we try to improve them.
Businesses are tools. Banks are tools. Government is a tool. All of these are designed, built, modified, and used by people in order to improve their lives, and, over time and not at all miraculously, our lives have improved. Since this was and is the common intent, I’d say we’re not doing too badly. Evolution gave us our toolmaking ability. It would be a shame not to use it.
*So am I, but that’s beside the point.
A few recommendations for further reading on this and related subjects:
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11107244-the-better-angels-of-our-nature)
Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth, by Juan Enriquez, Steve Gullans (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22571741-evolving-ourselves)
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10954979-the-swerve)
The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, by William Rosen (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7863046-the-most-powerful-idea-in-the-world)
Can a book change the world? (Or at least the part that represents a good chunk of human culture.) I’m sure you can think of a couple that qualify, but can a book that claims no divine authority do so? The Swerve is an account of one that may have.
In 1417, Poggio Bracciolini had been the personal secretary of the pope, but when that pope was deposed, Poggio found himself in Europe, far from Rome and out of work. It was definitely a blow to his career, but he made the most of it by turning it into an opportunity to indulge in his hobby, his passion—finding and preserving old books. He roamed Europe, seeking out ancient and remote monasteries hoping to find copies of books lost after the fall of Rome a thousand years before. And he found one.
Poggio did not intend to cause a philosophical revolution. It seems his main concern was to preserve the beautiful Latin of bygone writers. But with the selection and arrangement of words came the ideas they expressed, and those in De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), written by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius before the birth of Christ, challenged the common beliefs of Poggio’s day and (more dangerously) the dictates of the Church. This was a time when curiosity was a sin and questioning authority was a crime. Lucretius encouraged both. He suggested that everything is made of atoms; that a divine creator did not make the universe for man, and several other ideas about the nature of man and reality that may seem like common knowledge today but were heretical then.
In The Swerve, Greenblatt contends that the rediscovery of Lucretius had a significant impact on European thought and helped loosen the iron grip of theological dogma that controlled almost every aspect of human life in medieval Europe. He goes on to suggest that Lucretius’s later influence on thinkers from Galileo to Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in shaping the modern world.
It’s impossible to say, of course. No one today can ask Jefferson, for example, how much influence Lucretius had on him when he was drafting the Declaration of Independence, or on his decisions when he was President (although Jefferson did have copies of De rerum natura in Latin, English, Italian, and French in his library and said it was one of his favorite books). Even if it were possible to ask him, Jefferson might not be able to say. Everything we read, everything we experience can have some effect on us. Assigning any particular action or inspiration to a single source may not be possible.
It is safe to say, I think, that the rediscovery of Lucretius was significant. If nothing else, it shows that the modern way of viewing nature as, well, natural (rather than supernatural), is not exclusive to our times or a result of science. That it is a necessary precursor to science, however, seems undeniable, and perhaps Lucretius deserves a more prominent place in books about the history of science because of this.
The story of Paggio’s discovery might also provide a good foundation for a work of historical fiction. The Swerve almost starts out as such, narrating the wandering scribe’s search for lost books much as a novel might. This draws in the reader before the author goes on to summarize some points of Lucretius’s Epicurean philosophy. When Greenblatt does pause to relate major ideas in Lucretius, it almost seems disruptive to the story of Paggio.
I enjoyed this book. I had known of Lucretius, but I had never heard of Paggio Bracciolini before reading this. Without him, Lucretius may have remained unknown, and, perhaps, history would have unfolded differently as a result. The Swerve provides an important reminder of how individual actions can have significant impacts. It also reminds us of how repressive the Middle Ages were and how those in positions of power at the time actively (and often brutally) discouraged the open sharing of ideas, which we now recognize as not only a fundamental right but also essential to human progress. It’s a good read. I recommend it.
What is real? Really real? Real for everyone everywhere? This is essentially the philosophical question Amanda Gefter is exploring in this truly unique book. It’s part memoir, part philosophy, and part science. It’s a narration of her personal quest to find an answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. It’s a story about how she finagles a job as a science journalist in order to talk to some of the most eminent people working in theoretical physics today, and it’s an exploration of the metaphysical implications of some of their ideas. (Reviewers note to reader: Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the ultimate nature of reality. It’s kind of like real physics, especially theoretical physics, but without all the messy math and testability requirements.)
I write (soft) science fiction, but I’m not a scientist. Relativity seemed rational enough to me (after some mental gymnastics), but many of the implications of quantum mechanics boggled my mind. It could make accurate predictions, but it never really made sense. It was like a superposition of ‘true’ and ‘bat-crap crazy’. After joining Amanda on her search in the pages of this book, I feel I have a better intuitive grasp of entanglement, wave-particle duality, the uncertainty principle, and entropy than those I possessed before. My shaky understanding may still be dead wrong, of course, but at least I have some framework to give these ideas structure now.
This would have been enough for me to proclaim this a great science book for nonscientists. But it has more.
She shows us some of the major physicists of our time not as embodiments of their ideas but as real people who interact with the world around them much as we of lesser intellect do. They have personalities, egos, disagreements, and quirks. They are real people who also just happen to be brilliant scientists. As she related her interviews with them, I thought about young students who might be reading this and drawing inspiration from it. We sometimes put great achievers on pedestals, implying that greatness is out of reach for us ‘normal’ people. Gefter brings them down to earth, showing us their humanity and thereby reminding us that they are not so different from the rest of us.
I think this book also reminds us of the tenuous relationship between theory, experiment, and the ‘reality’ behind them. Experiments yield data and theories provide beautiful equations, but what are they telling us about the underlying reality (assuming there is some)? This seems largely open to interpretation, at least on the quantum level. Yeah, the math works, but what does it MEAN? Is the ‘thing’ found ‘real’ or is it just a data point that tells us about a relationship with other data points from a particular point of view? Apparently, the answers depend on the questions asked, and if those answers seem contradictory, it may be because some of our underlying assumptions are wrong.
Some books about science suggest that scientists are simply fine tuning, adding details to the standard model, and working out a few remaining unknowns, such as the nature of dark energy or whatever. Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, I think, is telling us something entirely different. There are still a great number of things to learn and new theories needed to make sense of them. Science is not almost done. It has barely begun. There remains much to discover and understand.
I found this book informative, thought provoking, and entertaining. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in science and philosophy.
Has the human condition gotten better over time? In this book, Steven Pinker argues that it has, mainly by showing how dreadful it was in the past. People still intentionally inflict unspeakable harm upon one another, but compared to the atrocities of the past, (some of which, such as animal cruelty, genocide, torture, and rape as a spoil of war, they did not even considered atrocities at the time) we have made considerable progress. In this lengthy book, Pinker provides details, data, and analysis demonstrating his point. At times, it seemed almost too much. Despite the almost painful level of detail, I found this a thoughtful and persuading mixture of history, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. I highly recommend it as a much-needed counter for the mistaken idea that humanity has somehow digressed from an idyllic past.
When we are young, I think we are all looking for certainty, and there are good evolutionary reasons for this. Unknown things can kill you. Anything from not knowing where your next meal is coming from to being surprised by a leopard hiding in tall grass can have seriously unpleasant consequences. We want to know what is out there, what we can expect, and we want to know with certainty.
Unfortunately, the universe is not required to provide what we want. In cases when it appears that it does, it’s time to step back and ask if our philosophical spectacles are distorting our perspective. We may be seeing what we want to see because we want to see it, not because it is there.
It was not until I was well into adulthood that I appreciated that uncertainty is a good thing to maintain, both for individuals and for cultures. It is, I think, a much better attitude to adopt toward life, the universe, and everything than the alternative. For one thing, it is arrogant to think we can know anything with one hundred percent certainty, whether it concerns philosophy, religion, physical reality, our romantic relationships, or the absolute best way to run a government or to make scrambled eggs.
The universe is a complex place, and we are just a small part of it. We’re an insatiably curious part of it, though, so we explore, we observe, we reach out physically and intellectually to discover new things. We ask questions and we get answers, and then we question those answers. Still, no matter how much we learn, there will always be more to discover, and no matter how certain we are of our conclusions about any particular subject, I think it is important to leave room for doubt. We must always humbly admit that we could be wrong.
Even when we are tempted to think there is no room for doubt, there is. Say, for example, your mother tells you the Easter Bunny left a wonderful basket filled with candy and colored eggs for you in the backyard. Eagerly, you look out the window. On the picnic table, you see a large, decorated basket overflowing with goodies, and that’s not all! Peeking from behind a tree is a large, white rabbit — and it’s wearing a vest, which looks a lot like a picture in one of your storybooks. It must be the Easter Bunny! She tells you to put on a jacket and some shoes and then go get your basket. You rush to your room to comply, and when you get outside, the basket is there, but the bunny is gone. You’re certain about how the basket got there, though. The Easter Bunny brought it. You have the word of someone you trust, the corroborating support of a favorite book, and the evidence of your own eyes. What more could anyone require?
Some kids might be convinced. The existence of the basket and the glimpse of the bunny provide clear evidence of both effect and cause. You, however, being a bit wiser, might remain skeptical. After all, Easter Bunnies don’t really fit well with most of your other observations about the world. Your parents might have provided the basket. The bunny could be an escaped pet. It could be a stuffed toy put there as a joke or as a willful act of deception (because parents everywhere seem to think it’s somehow good for kids to believe in all sorts of unlikely things). You might be dreaming. The wild mushrooms your mom put in the spaghetti sauce you ate with dinner last night may not have been as healthfully nutritious as she thought they were, and they are causing you to hallucinate. There are a large number of possibilities, and though they may all be exceedingly unlikely, they do exist.
Still, with the evidence at hand, the existence of the Easter Bunny might provide a good working hypothesis that you could accept as if it were true. This truth, however, should be accepted as provisional, and you should be willing to reexamine your conclusion in the light of new evidence or a better explanation. If you don’t, you, or at least your kids, are likely to be unpleasantly surprised when the Easter Bunny fails to make an expected delivery some day.
Although I suspect that uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of the universe, as well as a rational recognition of our own limitations, some adults may still find the idea uncomfortable. It is a truism that we know what we like, and we like what we know. Some may not want to consider new facts or new ideas that challenge what they ‘know,’ and they may feel no need to. Imagined certainty provides a comforting sense of security, which is a difficult thing to sacrifice for some philosophical generalization.
I think part of this discomfort comes from our instinctive need for as much certainty as possible, and the failure to appreciate that this is different from absolute certainty, which is realistically unattainable. Absolute certainty is also counter-productive.
I have observed that certainty seems to take two forms. There is certainty that the full answer to a question is already known, and there is certainty that the answer is unknowable. Both, I think, are derived from arrogance about our own abilities. With dark lenses like these in our philosophical spectacles, we fail to recognize the simple fact that we might be mistaken. When our minds close, our eyes shut, and we become blinded to new information and new ideas, unless it is to disparage them. We close ourselves to the possibility of finding better explanations or solutions to our problems. What’s the point in continuing to ask questions if we are already sure of the answers? Certainty is like intellectual quicksand. It bogs us down and prevents us from moving forward. If we are certain that our current view is the best one possible, we remain stuck where we are. It prevents us from looking elsewhere. If we have no doubt, we lose our sense of wonder and make no additional progress. There is no need for more learning and no chance of further discovery.
But how can we hope to accomplish anything if we are constantly unsure?
That’s a good question. I’m glad I asked it. In our daily lives, we act as if we are certain while knowing we never can be, at least not entirely. When I get in my car in the morning and turn the key in the ignition, I’m certain it’s going to start. It always has. I plan my day on this being true. This kind of thing, however, is the type of certainty we all accept as provisional and with good reason. Although my current car has always started, I have had others that did not.
But what of other certainties? At one time, everyone ‘knew’ that Earth was flat and had been appropriately placed by God in the center of the universe. Some were certain that a woman’s place was in the home and that Rock and Roll was evil. Most of the people who held these positions were not fringe lunatics, at least not by the standards of their time. These were prevalent beliefs held by people of power and position, acknowledged experts in their fields. Today, some experts are certain that cold fusion is impossible, that the speed of light is unbreakable, and that low tax rates on the unearned income of the very wealthy somehow improves a nation’s economy. They accept these ideas and proceed as if they are true. They may be right, although I personally am not convinced of the veracity of at least one of them. But, true or not, we must always accept that some new discovery or fresh idea can challenge any notion we may hold as an absolute truth and be willing to reconsider our cherished certainties in light of them. We must remember that understanding is a process. It’s a journey more than it is a destination.
This is how science, generally speaking, approaches things. It takes what is known, or at least what has been observed about some aspect of the universe, and it works with it to learn other things. It formulates hypotheses about how various things interrelate, which provide clues and predictions about other things. And although the scientific method has been very successful in making new discoveries, it offers no certainties, just probabilities. Some may approach 100% confidence but none reaches it. The next bit of evidence or a better theory can come tomorrow, which may cause a revision to a previously accepted idea, and thousands of scientists around the world are constantly observing, testing, and forming hypotheses to discover it. There seems to be no greater goal for a scientist than to modify or overturn an accepted theory. This is what can earn them a Nobel Prize.
Yeah, but what about the big questions science can’t answer?
This question itself implies that some things may not be testable. This may be the case for things such as the existence and nature of gods and ghosts, string theory, and the question of whether or not our dogs really love us or if they’re just faking it for the biscuits. If we’re convinced the questions make sense, there’s nothing wrong with accepting an answer as if it were true or, better yet, simply accepting that we don’t know. If it matters to us, we can make a choice about what to believe, but we should leave some space for doubt. Others may choose differently, but if we are honest with ourselves about why we prefer one answer to another, we will better understand why it works for us. We may also better appreciate why it may not work as well for others.
I’m not saying there are no “right” answers. Some are clearly better than others are in that they are consistent with what can be observed, but if we are honest about our own limitations, we will be better able to make good choices about what to accept as if it were true and change our minds when circumstances warrant. Our current understanding may be quite serviceable about a great many things, but we should never conclude from this that we know everything about anything or that our present understanding of something is necessarily much more than a useful fiction.
I try, therefore, to maintain a good, healthy uncertainty. I make choices like everyone and I would like to think they are sometimes good ones, but I endeavor to keep in mind that those choices were made with incomplete knowledge by an inherently imperfect decision maker. I may need to change my mind at some time, and acknowledging my own limitations from the start makes this easier to do.
Philosophical spectacle lenses that tint uncertainty as something positive can prevent us from becoming intellectually stubborn or philosophical arrogant. They can inoculate us against zealotry, and they may allow us to adapt more easily to new ideas and new information. Uncertainty is a good thing.
Everyone has opinions about a great many things. This much is obvious, but I think there may be a relatively small number, perhaps a few dozen underlying ideas, that shape most of our separate opinions. I know I have them, although I’m not entirely sure I could make an accurate list. They can be thought of as philosophical spectacles because it is through these ideas that we see the world and ourselves.
Our philosophical spectacles are important. They can tint what we see to a lovely rose color or make it appear dark and foreboding. They can distort it, bring it into sharper focus, or obscure it entirely. What we see depends as much on our perceptual filters as the thing we are looking at.
I’m not talking about brain chemistry. Our brains take the signals transmitted by our senses and impose meaning on them based on our neural construction, our instincts, and our experiences. This is the only way we can experience a mass of subatomic particles and electromagnetic waves as something like a table, or an apple pie, or anything else. That is a different aspect of subjective perception. What I’m talking about here is more personal, more philosophical than scientific.
Everything we have ever seen, read, or experienced has gone into creating our philosophical spectacles and has shaped whom we are today. I don’t think we normally even consider how our previous experiences alter our current perceptions. We tend to assume that we observe things, events, and ideas as if they are unobstructed, as if we somehow witness them objectively. We don’t, and because we don’t, it seems to me to be a good idea to try to recognize what our philosophical spectacles are made of.
As a means to examine the components of my own philosophical spectacles, I’m planning to write occasional blog posts in which I will try to identify the big, overarching ideas that most affect how I see things. Since I’ll be looking at my spectacles through my spectacles, there are likely to be inconsistencies and contradictions in my observations. That is also a good reason to do something like this. If we discover that the components of our spectacles don’t fit well together, it may be time to change some of them. What we end up with may not clarify our worldview, but at least it will distort it consistently, possibly showing everything slanting a bit to the left or a bit to the right.
What I’m going to focus on in this series of blog posts are those basic thoughts and ideas that I suspect shape my view of the world, things I think are important to remember. The first of these big, overarching thoughts is that we all have philosophical spectacles.
About 2,500 years ago a truly inspiring book was written. Even today, The Tao Te Ching contains much that modern people might find relevant. I stumbled upon one such thing yesterday while rereading Stephen Mitchell’s 1988 modern English translation. He begins Chapter 80 with, “If a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content.” The full chapter is more of a short verse (as are all chapters of the Tao Te Ching) but it goes on to make clear that people in a well governed country, which Lao Tzu at the time considered should be ideally more like what we would think of as a community, would have no interest in conquering others or imposing its will on them. This focus is more obvious in other translations.
After being inundated with recent news about the seemingly infantile partisan bickering over the U.S. budget deficit, public reaction to this tragic comedy, and reflecting on how we got to this point, I can’t help thinking that we, as a nation, could benefit from the wisdom of this ancient Chinese philosopher. I may be giving our politicians more credit than they deserve by assuming they can read, let alone understand Lao Tzu’s observations, but I recommend they take a little time out from their never-ending quests for reelection to look at this short book. It’s only about 5,000 words and shouldn’t take them more than a couple hours. Maybe they could find time in their busy schedules the next time they’re on a plane bound for some self promotion event.
(Sorry – just feeling a bit bitter. Politicians should be held to a higher standard because of their positions of authority and responsibility and ours, in my mind, are simply not measuring up.)