Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Rise of Science

Bertrand Russell wrote History of Western Philosophy during World War II. He covers every important philosopher and some non-philosophers from the Greeks up to his time. One of the more interesting chapters is The Rise of Science in the 17th century. He points out that before that time, the great philosophers of the Middle Ages like Aquinas or Averroes or Erasmus could have conversed with Aristotle and Plato. The language barriers would have to be overcome, but conceptually they were still on the same level. After Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, when philosophy and science diverged, the gap widened, and the ancients would have been clueless about things that are now taught in elementary school. 

Russell commends Copernicus for being bold enough to question Ptolemy, who said the sun revolves around the earth, and dedicated enough to collect the data and do the math to explain why he was doing that. These two forces; making bold hypotheses and the dedication to gathering empirical evidence led to modern science. You can apply this to just about every internet discussion ever, whether it’s aliens are coming or Obama is a socialist or that that bunny costume is cute or creepy.

Bold hypotheses are made, usually with no evidence. When challenged, the discussion turns to the openness of someone’s mind, how they laughed at Columbus and other useless statements. If the hypothesis is challenged, the response is to defend the right to state a hypothesis. If the evidence or lack of it is challenged, the challenger is accused of any number of thought crimes. If an attempt is made to explain the scientific method, science itself is attacked for being an entrenched bureaucracy of gatekeepers uninterested in any original ideas.

All of us were born into the world that has already absorbed the way of thinking that we call “modern”. Russell, Wittgenstein and Popper worked this out for us. They did it so well that we don’t bother discussing their arguments anymore. Just like we don’t need to understand Tusi’s couple or the stellar parallax to explain how we know the earth revolves around the sun we don’t need to regurgitate a definition of critical rationalism. Everything is fine until someone breaks the rule that you can have an idea but you need some evidence if you want others to go along with it.

Either part of that rule could be broken. Encouraging innovation is important. Allowing people to explore crazy ideas can be useful. Even when someone is wrong, we don’t want to suppress their creativity. Part of that encouragement of creativity should also include the hard work of bringing an idea to fruition. An idea alone does not have much value.

With so many important inventions in the last couple centuries, we have come to put a lot of emphasis on the idea people. It’s easier to remember that brilliant breakthroughs lead to progress than it is to remember all the testing, all the mistakes, all the tedious gathering of data that went into making that breakthrough a reality. Too much hero worship and not enough acknowledgment of the grunt work in my opinion. Ideas and innovation should be encouraged, but a crazy idea should still be called crazy and whatever other judgments between the extremes of crazy and brilliant should be considered, based on evidence.


  1. Hi, I am from Australia.
    What is a crazy idea?
    Please find a completely different Understanding of Reality via these references - most of which are about science and/or scientism

  2. Wow, anonymous, that is some major spam. Some of your links don't even work. If you're going to spam people, you should learn how to do it. Even in my worst days of believing all sorts of garbage, I wouldn't have fallen for any of what you linked. It is made up words, linked to sciencey sounding words to give them credibility. I don't know how anyone can sit down and write that stuff without laughing themselves to death.