Friday, July 02, 2010

Examining the Beginnings of Modern Science

I am reading a very interesting book, "The Science of Liberty" by Timothy Ferris. Mr. Ferris argues that science was the thrust to liberal democracy, and while about a third of the way through, he presents a strong case for his thesis.

Beyond his main theme, I am also enjoying the history behind the founding of modern science thought and its process. This history includes the two most famous giants, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. But some others, who most forget about, include Nicolas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, William Gilbert, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, John Locke (a contemporary and good friend of Newton),and Robert Boyle. There are certainly a number of other important early scientists, but I find this group the most intriguing.

For centuries the Aristotelian approach to thinking about the physical world dominated. Logic and perceived common sense were the 'tools' through which one should reach conclusions about why things work the way they do. The classic example is dropping a heavy object along with a light object. Of course, without knowing anything about basic physics, most would think the heavy object should hit the ground first. Makes sense, in a logical frame of thinking, since gravity is obviously pulling harder on a heavy object. And that is the end of the discussion. For whatever reason, which is so foreign to modern thinking, no one simply picked up two different sized rocks and dropped one did the experiment. At least there is no documented instance of this happening prior to Galileo's famous experiments. Tradition (especially religious), respect for past genius, a mindset that what was in books was the final word on a subject, and a culture that did not yet appreciate the notion of some process resembling experimentation, kept limiting advances in human thought, at least when it came to the physical world. Part of the reason for this was the fact that there was no formal public education for the masses. Smaller groups of the 'elite' and privileged, both aristocratic/governmental and religious, dictated life, kept the masses in a static intellectual state, and worked to maintain the status quo.

Liberal democracies did not exist in those times, up until the scientific revolution had begun through the work and sacrifice of the names listed above. Science is based on facts, physical evidence, open minded thinking, and the ability to test ideas and observe results of those tests. Science is a collaborative process. It relies on the exchange of ideas and findings, and allows curiosity to cross geographical and geopolitical borders. Science does not care what one's socioeconomic status is, but rather whether one has done careful, thoughtful and thorough work that leads to evidence that supports one's conclusions. It is a mindset, a process, and a culture all in one. There is no single leader, for everyone's work is put through the ringer of independent tests and possible rebuke by the rest of the scientific community. If a better idea or theory arises based on new experiments, then old theories are abandoned. Even the great Newtonian mechanics in Newton's Principia, which was the greatest singular piece of work in science history (for it formally established the power of the scientific process and showed the world what science was capable of), met its match with Einstein's relativity theories.

Wherever the word science is used in the above paragraph, substitute in 'liberal democracy.' Does it fit into such a description of characteristics? Largely, yes. Democracies depend on ideas being exchanged. Ideally, it depends on large educated groups of citizens and followers. It is a mindset, a culture and a process. There is no singular leader, but when someone else comes along with a better idea and can convince the masses that he or she is correct (and preferably with evidence that it is a better idea), then that person becomes the new leader. The founders of the early democracies, for example in the United States people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams either were scientists or endorsed the scientific process. The early Founding Fathers were all highly educated and committed to the principles first introduced and practiced with good results in the scientific revolution that began in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Liberal democracies did not exist prior to the science revolution, which still persists today. These are Ferris's arguments in his book.

One quote that sticks with me is from William Gilbert in 1600:
"In the discovery of secret things and in the investigation of hidden causes, stronger reasons are obtained from pure experiments and demonstrated arguments than from probable conjectures and the opinions of philosophical speculators...Men are deplorably ignorant with respect to natural things, and modern philosophers, as though dreaming in the darkness, must be aroused and taught the uses of things, the dealing with things; they must be made to quit the sort of learning that comes only from books, and that rests only on vain arguments from probability and upon conjectures."

This approach and way of thinking is precisely what jump-started the science movement and revolution that followed. Galileo and then Newton took this approach and ran with it, along with others who are not as well known, and world history changed forever. In keeping with this relationship between science and liberal democracy, we still hear about the "Great American Experiment" which is our own democracy. Science, and therefore democracy, is not static, but instead dynamic and evolving. If something works, it lasts, but when evidence shows it is not working, the machinery is in place to make change. Only time will tell where we will end up.

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