The unchanging truth?

ptolematic_universe

Scientists are not interested in the history of their disciplines. Books teaching physics or chemistry pay lip-service to the past, but the foundation for their current ideas are deemed unimportant.  It’s the newest insights that matter. The implication is that the most recent science is the only relevant story.

Students who come to study the history of science in my classes need to come to grips with the insight of science-historian Thomas Kuhn.  Mid-twentieth century he showed that science has deep history and that this history is not a seamless story of triumph.  Newton modestly claimed that he was standing on the shoulders of giants to provide a wider vision of truth. Not so much.  He had to destroy the old science to make room for new science. Kuhn calls this process a paradigm shift.

Students are more than happy to call the geo-centric universe of Aristotle and Ptolemy un-scientific.  Using Kuhn’s insight that scientific knowledge form immiscible paradigms, students have to learn that a geocentric universe is as scientific as the Copernican heliocentric one.

Ptolemaic astronomers observed, measured, and calculated celestial events accurately with the rules of that astronomy. Comes Copernicus in the 16th century and some two millennia of science was rendered obsolete. But not un-scientific!  That is old news, but surely we are all past these types of upheavals? Our technology is now so brilliant that today’s science is no longer subject to further paradigm shifts. Or is it?

Dennis Overbye (New York Times, January 14, 2014) reminds us that “the true currency of science, after all, is not faith or even truth, but doubt.” This is a fundamental but hard lesson to teach and to learn. The website edge.org is the place to explore the following question:  what scientific ideas are ready for retirement?  Scientific knowledge is just a moment in time and not some eternal edifice. It’s time to look for new paradigms.

Some bedrock scientific varieties that are under scrutiny at Edge include paradigms such as the existence of a human nature, the relationship between cause and effect, the concept of free will and evidence-based medicine.  Do these ideas need to be retired?  University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihaly who defined that moment in which we are creative, the flow, cautions that “truths” are not good for all time and place.

Cause and effect? An artifact of our story-telling module.  Mind and matter? Pace, Descartes, but they are not separate. Drop the notion of an infinite universe and then drop the notion of “universe” itself.  Death? Yes, life has ceased, but the body is just in a new state, transforming back to a simpler level.

Science is not a calm, dispassionate enterprise.  Knowledge is not cemented into some eternal edifice.  The shifts in paradigms are tumultuous and exciting events.  The study of the history of science is not static and, goodness knows, it’s never dull.

Black matter, anyone?

 

Dr. Ewa Bacon

About Dr. Ewa Bacon

Dr. Ewa Bacon is a professor of history at Lewis University. Her areas of expertise include the Holocaust, Auschwitz, concentration camps, Russian history and Central European history (especially Germany and Poland).

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