When was modern science invented?
"All intellectual life is polemic". A Q&A with David Wootton, author of a new book about the scientific revolution.
When was modern science invented? According to David Wootton, anniversary professor of history at the University of York, it happened between 1572 (when astronomer Tycho Brahe saw a new star in the sky) and 1704 (when Isaac Newton drew conclusions about the nature of light, based on experiments). This was the scientific revolution, a period explored in Wootton's new book, The Invention of Science. Here, he discusses some of the issues at stake.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I became an historian of science by accident - I used to teach some classic history of science books in a course I taught on historical method, so I had an interest in the field, but only as an outsider. Then I was encouraged to propose a book to a publisher, and I suggested a book on the history of the mind. My wife pressed me to add a jokey PS - "When I've done the history of the mind I'll do the history of the body." And I got an email straight back saying "Mind rejected, body accepted." So I found myself writing a history of our ideas about the body, and I was stuck until I realised one couldn't do it unless one wrote about how knowledge had advanced - despite the fact that historians aren't supposed to write about progress. The notion that any discussion of progress must be anachronistic and disrespectful of cultural difference established itself in the 1970s, and no one in the profession has really dared question it since, and the result has been that historians of medicine don’t discuss, any more, whether doctors were actually helping their patients. The result was Bad Medicine, which some people loved and others hated. In view of the controversy that book generated I was keen to see how I could improve my method and test my assumptions, so when I was asked if I would do this book I jumped at it.
It is a revisionist account of the scientific revolution. What was wrong with previous interpretations?
Well the book is an 800 page answer to that question, but very briefly two things: first, for the last thirty years historians have shied away from any discussion of why knowledge of nature improved in the seventeenth century because of their fear of writing what is called Whig history, history which is written with the benefit of hindsight; and second, some procedures - such as the experimental method-- seem so obvious to us that we have difficulty in thinking our way back into a world where that method was not employed; and some ways of thinking, embodied in our language, seem so natural that people simply haven't been aware of the historical process which led to their construction. The scientific method is a very peculiar cultural construction, but our own culture is so suffused with scientific modes of thought that we find it difficult to grasp that those ways of thinking are not universal.
Has the scientific revolution been poorly understood?
Worse than that, the general line has been that there is no such thing as the scientific revolution, that nothing important changed, that the new science of Galileo and Newton was no better than the philosophy of Aristotle; so my book is intended to bring the subject back from the dead.
You examine the discovery of America – why was this such a seminal moment?
The discovery of America proved that the knowledge of the Greeks and the Romans was seriously incomplete - it encouraged people to believe in the possibility of progress in knowledge, and this was embodied in a new word, "discovery", and a new practice, eponymy, naming discoveries after people (America after Amerigo Vespucci). It is only after the discovery of America, for example, that Pythagoras’s theorem is named after Pythagoras – innovation was now rewarded with immortal fame. But that’s not all. According to medieval theories at least one hemisphere of the globe must be underwater: the discovery of America destroyed a well-established theory of how the universe was constructed. The old knowledge was not just incomplete, it was wrong, and new knowledge was based on what they called “experience” and we would call “evidence”. After 1492 knowledge of the natural world became a progressive enterprise for the first time, and it became clear that long-standing debates amongst the philosophers could be definitively settled by the acquisition of new information - the idea seems obvious to us, but that is only because we live in a post-Columbus world.
One fascinating element is that language changed to express these new ideas.
All the key words we use to think about science - fact, theory, hypothesis, experiment - acquire their modern meanings in the seventeenth century. Fact and (a word that becomes popular a little later) evidence come from the law; theory and hypothesis from astronomy. The crystallisation of this new language marks the moment when something we may call modern science is born, because the terms in which people understand what they are doing when trying to understand nature became fixed and have remained fixed until the present day.
How did the development of, for instance, the printing press, contribute to the scientific revolution?
There had been all sorts of key breakthroughs in knowledge before 1492, but they had always been the work of isolated individuals who have little influence on their contemporaries and successors. Aristotle has no successor in his biological enquiries, Archimedes in his mechanics, al-Haytham in his optics. The printing press is crucial in intensifying the communication of information - it makes it possible to consult more sources, compare authorities, keep up to date with new discoveries. It thus creates a new type of intellectual community and a new type of knowledge - knowledge that has passed the test of being subjected to the critical inspection of a wider community of experts, what we call “peer review”. The idea of the fact marks this new hardening of knowledge as it becomes tested and reliable. Communication by letter and manuscript continued to be very important in the seventeenth century, but I think one can safely say that there would have been no scientific revolution without the printing press. Some people think my book is eurocentric, but the printing revolution, and the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution which follow from it, are distinctively European phenomena. It is only in seventeenth-century Europe that a continuing process of advance in knowledge of nature is initiated, an ongoing revolution which transforms the whole culture of the society.
Do scientific historians sometimes overlook the relevance of cultural developments?
It depends what you mean by cultural developments. People keep trying to argue that science is shaped by external political and cultural factors. Pasteur, we are told, for example, was opposing Darwinist atheism when he attacked spontaneous generation. When I wrote my book I tried to think of a really good example of such an external influence that stood up to sceptical inspection and I couldn't. But each intellectual community creates its own culture: most French intellectuals could not accept Newton's theory of gravity because Descartes had convinced them that action over a distance was inconceivable. Newton, I argue, could only propound his new theory of gravity because he had the idea of a “theory” - something very different from a proof on the one hand or a working hypothesis on the other. So I think historians and scientists as they work on the history of science regularly overlook the power of certain intellectual tools and certain governing assumptions - in that sense they ignore the culture of science. So my book is primarily about cultural developments, but the developments took place within science and then, in many cases, spread out from science to the wider society.
There have been many studies of the relationship between Christianity and early science. What is your view of the role of religion in the scientific revolution?
There are lots and lots and lots of books which claim that Christianity was in some way an essential precondition for modern science-- that the idea of a law of nature, for example, which is new in the seventeenth century, derives from Christian theology, or that Puritanism encouraged a new engagement with the practical affairs of the world and so led to a new interest in science and technology. I wrote a biography of Galileo, and the idea that there is something peculiarly Protestant about the scientific revolution seems unconvincing to me because there were plenty of Catholic scientists. But I was quite prepared, when I started on the book, to find that key concepts from medieval theology lay at the roots of scientific thinking. I was therefore astonished to discover that the key source for the idea of a law of nature was Lucretius's great atheistical poem the De rerum natura, "On the Nature of Things".
I now think that I didn't lay nearly enough stress in my biography of Galileo on Galileo's interest in Lucretius. In that book I argued that Galileo was no Christian. Plenty of the most important scientists of the seventeenth century were devout believers of one sort or another - Pascal, Boyle, and Newton, to name just three-- so I wouldn't go so far as to argue that the new science was irreligious, but there was nothing specifically religious about it, and I am not convinced, for example, by those who argue that Newton's science and his religion were closely linked (strangely, no one nowadays seems to feel the same need to argue that Pascal's science and his religion were closely linked). So I think it is an important innovation in my book that I have put the question of the relationship between Christianity and the scientific revolution into a brief appendix, which is only there to acknowledge the extent to which I differ from many of my predecessors.
I think this raises, indirectly, a very difficult question I faced in writing this book, which is how far to engage explicitly with the arguments of my predecessors - how far to make it a polemic. I feel very strongly that all intellectual work involves engagement with one's predecessors, and to conceal that engagement, to write as if arguments just stand on their own, without a context of previous debate, is to falsify the intellectual process, so I do believe, as Alexandre Koyré, a great historian of science, said, that all intellectual life is polemic. One of the key tasks of the historian, after all, is to reconstruct the polemical context within which new ideas are formulated.
At the beginning and end of my book I try to make clear that I understand the arguments of those with whom I disagree, and that I have good reasons for rejecting them - that seems to me the right thing to do, and I have tried to ensure that you can grasp the issues even if this is the first book on the scientific revolution that you have ever read. But I realise that there is a view that what you do when you write a history book is tell a story, preferably with a beginning, a middle and an end; my book does that, but it also lays out a set of intellectual choices that you have to make if you are going to find my story more convincing than the alternatives on offer. History of Science has always been a special sort of subject because it has been closely tied to Philosophy of Science, and some of the most important practitioners (Thomas Kuhn, Ian Hacking) have done both history and philosophy; my book isn't just a history book - it is also an intervention in the philosophy of science, where I defend a position which is much closer to that of Karl Popper than is currently fashionable.
Why is it important to re-examine this revolution and its legacy? What relevance does it have for us today?
First, science has made our world, and ours is the first culture to be engaged in a continuous process of intellectual and technological revolution as a result of our commitment to the scientific enterprise. If we want to understand how our world was constructed we need to understand the origins of modern science. Second, we are now caught up in a revolution which is likely to prove every bit as important as the printing revolution - the digital revolution. If we want to understand how our own world is changing it helps to have a comparative perspective, to look at a previous information revolution. But third, understanding science is part of the process of defending reason, something that all humanists are committed to. There is a central paradox about the values that rationalists defend: those values develop in very particular cultural contexts, but as rationalists we have to argue that despite their local, imperfect origins they should be generally recognized as superior and universally adopted. This is the puzzle that lies at the heart of multiculturalism: we need to respect other cultures, but not at the expense of abandoning fundamental principles of rationality and justice. Any rationalist or humanist, therefore, must be committed to defending the principle that some values and some forms of knowledge are superior to others, and that involves defending the idea of progress, which is at the heart of my book.