The Mythos of ‘Modern’ Science


‘Modern’ science, by which I mean science as essentially mathematical, like other communities has its own mythos, or self-narrative, by which community members identify as such, and understand their roles.  The specific mythos of mathematical science was largely invented during the period known as the ‘enlightenment’, a period that ironically shares many features with the ‘dark ages’, two of the most superstitious periods in recorded history, and both occasioned by a revolt against a way of knowing that was distrusted by much of the population.  Unfortunately, much of the mythos of modern science can be classified under the notions of ‘mere myth’, ‘superstition’, and ‘outright lies’, which hardly does wonders for science’s claim to be the sole arbiter of truth.

In any event, I’ll briefly outline the main elements of this mythos, and compare them with the actual history in which modern mathematical science arose.

Depending on the inclinations of specific writers, ‘modern’ science began with Copernicus, Sir Francis Bacon, Descartes or Galileo. Whether it began as the ‘Copernican Revolution’, the case for empiricism put forward by Bacon, the certainty of mathematics posited by Descartes, or the ‘case’ of Galileo, in each case science is posited as ‘against’ superstition and in favour of ‘evidence’, with ‘superstition’ involving anything not mathematizable, not measurable.

One of the key villains, aside from various usually unnamed religious, is Aristotle.  Which is a bit strange, considering the basic divisions of the actual sciences as they exist to this day were largely determined by Aristotle.  The mythical Aristotle, though, simply sat and wrote what he thought about things without ever bothering to make an observation.  When it’s pointed out that it’s difficult to imagine being able to come up with largely valid divisions between the different sciences, not to mention crucial contributions to most of them, with no observation at all, the usual response invokes Bacon, to the effect that Aristotle did observe, but he didn’t experiment.

This brings up another problem, though, in that what mathematical science determines as experiment is radically different from the empirical experiment envisioned by Bacon, in fact Bacon’s notion of experiment is far closer to Aristotle’s experiential observation of phenomena under as many different conditions as possible than it is to the ‘precisely repeatable’ notion of experiment held by mathematical science.  In being ‘precisely repeatable’, any possible conditions that might cause the result to differ have to be eliminated, bringing the experiment as close to the ‘ideal’ mathematical exposition as possible.

But to go back to the earliest posited beginning, the ‘Copernican Revolution’, historically it simply didn’t happen.  Copernicus, far from being revolutionary, was a cautious, quiet, conservative Roman Catholic cleric.  Nor did his work cause much stir within the Catholic Church; those who took issue with it were the early reformists.  Copernicus also came far too late, after the renaissance had already begun to give way to the reformation, yet much of the factual perspective of modern science arose during the renaissance and was precisely what the reformists were in fundamental opposition to.

To find the proper origin, then, we have to go back to the period prior to the renaissance.  A change in thinking certainly occurred that made the ‘middle ages’ give way to the renaissance, without which modern science as such would remain unthinkable, but the mythos of modern science has nothing to say on the subject.

Prior to this change, the common worldview of the west was largely determined, or at least perceived as determined, by Christianity.  For its part, Christianity absorbed a significant portion of Neo-Platonism during the early part of its history (3rd/4th centuries CE), most directly through St. Augustine.  Neo-Platonism had little use for Aristotle because it had little use for science in a general sense.

The introduction via reinterpretation of Aristotle, rediscovered towards the end of the middle ages and reinterpreted by St. Thomas Aquinas, was the key change that made the renaissance, and by extension modern science, at all possible.  The reinterpretation is a key factor in terms of the ‘mathematization’ of science, since

“Aristotle makes a distinction between the accuracy to be found in mathematics and that in other disciplines. Mathematical accuracy, he says, cannot be expected in all things but only in those which do not contain matter. In particular, then, one cannot expect mathematical accuracy in the study of nature since it is concerned with matter (995a15-20). If ‘mathematical accuracy’ means the grasp of necessary and invariable relations among terms, then the study of nature will, by definition, have no such accuracy because what it studies contains matter. “

  • Parry, Richard, “Episteme and Techne”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

This of course helps understand why experimentation in the modern sense would have been of no value to Aristotle.  What isn’t immediately clear is how it became of value, i.e. under what conditions could ‘reality’ be conceived as fundamentally mathematical?

The conditions required were precisely the religious understanding of St. Thomas Aquinas himself, and the ways in which he reinterpreted Aristotle as a result.  Aristotle was ontological in his thinking, though the reduction of being to essence in a certain sense modified ontology into an ontotypeology, nevertheless Aristotle was not ontotheological in the sense that Neo-Platonism, and by extension Christianity, became.  Only within the context of an ontotheology could it become reasonable to believe that, as ‘imago dei’, a game man invented a relatively short time ago (in terms of human development overall) would describe reality as it is in itself.

Descartes posited the certainty of mathematics as the source of the certainty of knowledge; however that certainty was also purely arbitrary.  Mathematics can be certain and exact because it has its own rules and operates by no others, including whether or not it had any validity when applied to anything outside itself.  This purely ‘subjective’ certainty, to use Descartes own terminology, implies nothing about the ‘objective’ certainty that mathematical science claims.

The last necessary part of the scientific mythos, and the one invoked whenever the validity of science’s truth claims are questioned, is modern technology as ‘applied science’ and the undoubted success of modern technology.  As any storyteller knows, even the most initially ridiculous story can be made credible if it’s repeated often enough in slightly different contexts.  The ‘case’ of Galileo, though, itself a major part of the mythos, inherently contradicts the notion that science precedes technology rather than vice-versa.

Galileo’s major contribution was his theory of the moons of Jupiter.  However, without the technology of the telescope pre-existing the observations that led to the insight formulated in the theory Galileo would have had no knowledge that Jupiter had moons.  Proving his theory correct had to wait another couple of hundred years until technology had improved (and spread geographically) sufficiently to make two simultaneous observations far enough apart geographically to demonstrate the effect he had predicted.

While many might think that, in the case of a simpler technology such as the telescope, my contention that technology comes first may hold, but not in the case of complex technology such as that of the 20th and 21st centuries.  However the technologies used for quantum observation were from the beginning relatively complex and Heisenberg was clear on the relation when he stated that “physics does not show how reality is, it shows how reality behaves when specific technical manipulations are applied to it.”

Other examples often invoked, such as atomic energy, space travel, modern medicine, etc., neither factually use scientific method nor are dependent on any specific physics or chemistry.  Nothing more was required for the notion of atomic fission than the evidence of radiation, itself provided by earlier technology.   Rocketry had existed for hundreds of years, and even the probes sent deepest into space rely on being able to make constant adjustments to their trajectory, since none of the predictions of any gravitational theory are sufficiently accurate (or even possible in a realistic situation).  Modern medicine, for its part, relies primarily on the technical capability to modify chemicals based on chlorine, together with the same trial and error that has characterized it since its inception millennia ago.

It should be obvious, from the simple fact that something has to already be revealed in some way in order for it to become an ‘object for science’.  By and large that revealing, in the case of modern science, is always performed by technology.  Rather than technology being applied science, science is an accounting-for what technology has always initially revealed.

Bertrand Russell lamented the fact that none of the non-theistic societies (taking theism in a fairly restrictive sense) developed science in the mold of modern, mathematical science.  Eliot’s contention that those who claim liberalism could have occurred without Christianity are being absurd, since there’s no evidence of liberalism occurring in any non-Christian society (other than it being forced on other societies by colonialization), is as applicable in the case of modern science.   Had Russell thought further about what he merely lamented he might have seen that modern science depended, and remains dependent, not simply on Christianity as the justification of its basic assumptions, but specifically Catholic, post-Aquinas Christianity.  Science’s problems with the theologically reformist sects of Christianity are precisely the same as the problems Catholicism (in the wide sense) have with reformist Christian sects.

The requirement for methodological naturalism within the sciences, far from implying that scientists either are or must be naturalists in the sense of a general worldview (something difficult to make any sense of, since naturalism can account for virtually anything, religion included, in terms of its evolutionary use value, everything except science itself), implies a basically theistic worldview.  Were most scientists in reality naturalists, there would be no need to make methodological naturalism a requirement, since it would simply be the general mode.  It becomes a requirement for a theist, since otherwise anything can be explained by simply saying ‘because God’.  The notion of the imago dei (man in God’s likeness) implies that man can at least partially and finitely understand reality in somewhat the same manner.  To factically accomplish this, though, requires the suspension of any explanation in terms of the divine.  This suspension is precisely what is termed methodological naturalism, and is the reason it is merely methodological.

This helps understand the reality that many of the greatest figures in actual scientific history up to and including the present were/are Christian, in the wide sense (i.e. perhaps politically reformist, but not theologically reformist) Catholic. It also helps understand how an atheist such as Nagel, in Mind and Cosmos, in order to justify science is forced to posit both reason and consciousness as pre-existing all reality.  While Nagel is careful to keep the terms separate, we only have evidence of reason as rational consciousness.

Finally, it helps understand why the largest funder of actual scientific research remains the Catholic Church, while ‘organizations’ such as Dawkins’ ‘Foundation for Science’ use the money contributed by naïve atheists to politically promote the privatization of Britain’s university system.

Given the mathematical bent of many ‘naturalists’, perhaps in completion I should point out that 0 and 1 are not, properly speaking, numbers.  1, as nothing but the act of counting itself, is the precondition for any system of number, and as a result behaves differently than any other number.  0 represents the lack of that precondition.  Whether one counts the number as 0 or 1, given that the nature of the god so counted is not itself called into question, simply implies that you either do or don’t perform the act of counting.  Predictably, nothing in the assumptions of atheists is significantly different than in the assumptions of theists.

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