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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Understanding Nature

In the Italian reader I am working through at present, the essay on the Renaissance declared (I translate from memory) "During the Renaissance, the idea arose that nature was not a mystery but something that humans could comprehend."

You see this idea around often... and it is nonsense. Thinkers in the Middle Ages certainly believed that nature is comprehensible. The quote in Latin currently at the top of this blog is from the Middle Ages, and it can be translated:

All the world's creatures
As a book and a picture
Are to us as a mirror

The natural world was a book, written by God. It was rational and comprehensible because it was authored by a rational mind, albeit a mind far greater than ours, so that the book might be challenging to read.

Now, it is true that the Scientific Revolution brought a great change in the human attitude towards nature. But the change was not from dumbfounded incomprehension to comprehension, but was in the way one was to go about understanding nature. Francis Bacon summed up the change nicely as follows:

"My only earthly wish is... to stretch the deporably narrow limits of man's dominion over the universe to their promised bounds... [nature will be] bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets."

Rather than observed and contemplated, nature was to be forced to reveal her secrets. This change in attitude brought remarkable results, some good and some bad: penicillin and the atomic bomb, space telescopes and concentration camps. If we want to understand the change, and perhaps mitigate its evils while retaining its benefits, it is important that we don't adopt a false picture of what the change was.

10 comments:

  1. I don't know about this. I connect that Renaissance attitude with Scholasticism, which is very distant from the naive empiricism of Bacon. Would you trace them both to Aristotle?

    More to the point, are you arguing that the West would have been better off if it had been more influenced by Al-Ghazali than Aristotle?

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  2. "I connect that Renaissance attitude with Scholasticism, which is very distant from the naive empiricism of Bacon. Would you trace them both to Aristotle? "

    Sorry, I'm not following that. Bacon saw himself as breaking from Aristotelianism, in any case.

    "More to the point, are you arguing that the West would have been better off if it had been more influenced by Al-Ghazali than Aristotle?"

    Don't know Al-Ghazali well, but I don't think so... occasionalism does not sound promising!

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  3. And, by the way, I fully agree that F. Bacon's empiricism was naive -- those who cite him as "the father of the scientific method" are talking nonsense -- no significant science was ever done following Bacon's methods, which were mere fact collecting. But in the quote above he was on target: what is a cyclotron but an attempt to put nature on the rack and torture her for her secrets?

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  4. Interesting post. That Bacon quote gives me the creeps.

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  5. Bacon saw himself as breaking from Aristotelianism, in any case.

    Yes, a break from "This is true because Aristotle said it" to "This is true because we tested it (and Aristotle said something like it)." (You have to start somewhere...)

    what is a cyclotron but an attempt to put nature on the rack and torture her for her secrets?

    What is that question, but an over-the-top reification of "nature" to disparage pursuit of scientific knowledge?

    Sure, a cyclotron targets atypical cases to extract more accurate information about nature; so do telescopes. A comparison to torture via the rack is a little extreme, yes?

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  6. 'Yes, a break from "This is true because Aristotle said it"'

    That attitude never existed anywhere at any time. This is just another Enlightenment myth. Aristotle works were questioned and debated as soon as they were re-discovered. Here is a sample:

    "Two figures dominate the reception of Aristotle at the beginning of the fourteenth century: John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. They would determine the reading of Aristotle not only by their own efforts, but by the prominence of their disciples over the next two centuries.

    "No brief description of the engagement of either Duns Scotus or Ockham with Aristotle can fail to be misleading. The thought of each is not only difficult, but continues to occasion strikingly different interpretations, let alone evaluations. Duns Scotus' writings are brutally original in manner of expression and teaching. Ockham writes more conventionally, but in the service of a critique of prevailing views no less sharp. Neither hesitated to reject central Aristotelian teachings: Duns Scotus denies Aristotle's accounts of intellection and substantial individuation, Ockham the accounts of linguistic foundations and ethical truth. "
    --http://www.texttribe.com/routledge/A/Aristotelianism,%20medieval.html

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  7. "What is that question, but an over-the-top reification of "nature" to disparage pursuit of scientific knowledge?"

    OK, Silas, you seemed to be behaving better, so I let you post again, and here you go once more. First of all, why the obnoxious tone?

    Second of all, once again shifting into obnoxious mode has shifted you into dumb mode as well. Who is disparaging the pursuit of scientific knowledge? Certainly not me! And somehow you failed to notice that THIS METAPHOR IS BACON'S, not mine. And F. Bacon was hardly trying to disparage the pursuit of scientific knowledge! His adult life was spent glorifying that.

    And while Bacon and I both understand this is a metaphor, you apparently don't.

    "Sure, a cyclotron targets atypical cases to extract more accurate information about nature; so do telescopes. A comparison to torture via the rack is a little extreme, yes?"

    Have you noticed that most uses of a telescope do not blow the object studied into little smithereens?

    In any case, I am not condemning cyclotrons; I am only giving an instance of what Bacon was talking about.

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  8. Thankfully nature is not protected by the Geneva Conventions.

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  9. The problem is that Francis Bacon never actually used those words, though the false quote has been repeated ad infinitum on the internet.

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    Replies
    1. Interesting, AKL. I found the quote on wiki quotes; Leibniz seems to have attributed something like that to him. And obviously many others do. But I indeed haven't been able to find it in Bacon's online works. Do you have any idea where the attribution comes from originally?

      In any case, it does not affect the basic argument here whether or not Bacon said those words.

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