Curiosity: a new fragrance by Philip Ball.

—why is the sea salty?
—have animals souls, or intelligence?
—has opinion its foundation in the animate body?
—why do human beings not have horns?
—how is it that sound in its passage makes its way through any obstacle whatever?
—how is it that joy can be the cause of tears?
—why are the fingers of unequal length?
—why, if you have intercourse with a woman after she has lain with a leper, will you catch the disease while she will escape?
—what reason is there for the universality of death?
—why do we need food so frequently, or at all?
—why are the living afraid of the bodies of the dead?
—how is the globe supported in the middle of the air?
—why does the inflow of the rivers not increase the bulk of the ocean?
—why, if a vessel be full and its lower part open, does water not issue from it unless the upper lid be first removed?
—when one atom is moved, are all moved? (since whatever is in a state of motion moves something else, thus setting up infinite motion.)
—why do winds travel along the earth's surface and not in an upward direction?
—why does a sort of perpetual shadow brood over the moon?
—granted that the stars are alive, on what food do they live?
—ought we regard the cosmos as an inanimate body, a living thing, or a god?

— Adelard of Bath (c.1120)

Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (2012) by Philip Ball.

Another history of the origins of science: our long trek to GWAS, livermorium, and CERN via astrology, natural magic, alchemy, Neoplatonism, herbalism, occultism, and philosophy. So, superficially, the book is just about an especially fruity context of discovery. But this period holds two of the most important lessons in history: 1) science grew out of work by people who diverge wildly from the modern idea and practice of science, whose variously false frameworks led to the Royal Society and e.g. the Newtonian triumph. (And from there to contemporary, professional, university science.) So wrong people can still make progress if their errors are uncorrelated with the prevailing errors. And, 2) a small number of the most powerful people in Britain - the Lord Chancellor, the king's physicians, the chaplain of the young Elector Palatine and bishop of Chester, London's great architect, Privy Councillors * - successfully pushed a massive philosophical change, and thereby contributed to most of our greatest achievements: smallpox eradication, Sputnik and Voyager, the Green Revolution, and the unmanageably broad boons of computing are partly theirs.

The received view of all this is one-dimensional: you have superstitious, pompous cretins at one end and rational, experimental moderns at the other.

But really you need five axes before you get a basic understanding of the great, great revolution that began in the C16th - before you can see how science differs from every other community:

  • Supernaturalism vs Naturalism. Did they explain things solely in terms of natural causes? (Absentee Gods only.)

  • Apriori vs Aposteriori. Did they view actual observation as decisive and indispensable? **

  • Qualitative vs Quantitative. Did they make measurements? Did they model the data? Did they use standard units?

  • Holism vs Reductionism. Did they analyse things into their constituent features? Did they explain phenomena in terms of ?

  • Infallibilism vs Fallibilism. Did they allow for the possibility of error? Did they view uncertain knowledge as still worthwhile? ***

  • ****
So I'm modelling science as naturalist, fallibilist, quantitative empiricism with pretensions to openness. I've categorised the early scientists mentioned in Curiosity according to this: you can see the data with additional justifications here. (Ball doesn't state this model, but it floats around in his debunkings and "well actually"s.)

All of the pieces of science are very ancient - we had mathematics and data collection well before the Ten Commandments, naturalism before Buddha and Confucius, reductionism before the Peloponnesian War at least one controlled trial centuries before Christ, fallibilism likewise. Everything was ready BCE; we can see indirect evidence of this in the astonishing works of Ancient Greek engineers, mostly unmatched for 1000 years until y'know.

So the question is not "was Bacon the most original blah blah?": he wasn't, particularly when you remember Alhazen's Baconian method, developed in the C11th. But we need an explanation for how we messed it up so badly. The received view, which is all I have at the moment, is that the fall of Rome, Christian anti-intellectualism and, later, the enshrining of Aristotelian mistakes was enough to destroy and suppress the ideas. I want deeper explanations though. (For instance, what did we do to the economy?)

A fun regression on this data would be to see how my scienciness measure correlates with the importance of the person's work. It would not be that highly proportional, in this time period.


Back to the book eh!

Book structure is lots of little chapters on fairly disjointed topics: early modern ideas of space travel, universal language, pumps, etc. Chapter on "cabinets of curiosity" is great though: suddenly their dull zany blare makes sense and I want to build one:
this was more than a case of 'look what I've got'. The power with which Wunderkammern were imbued was... in that they created their own complete microcosm: a representation of the world in miniature... By possessing this microcosm the collector-prince was not just symbolising but also in a sense exercising his mastery of the world. The cabinet acted as a kind of mental laboratory within which the relationships between things could be contemplated via a process that shared elements of both experimentation and Gnostic revelation.
Ball doesn't like us calling the Scientific Revolution a revolution, and I agree: the revolution didn't consist in the theories of Bacon or Newton: it consists in the diffusion of the worldview into all subjects and all inquiry. It transformed society and gave us marvels, but it hasn't finished happening. The general will, or default state, is still strongly unscientific. (The largest and most grievous holdout, larger even than the enduring hold of fideist religion, is our tribal politics and our largely nonempirical government policy.)

Ball expends a lot of time on a history of wonder vs curiosity vs dispassionate robot inquiry. People hated all of these things for various reasons, up until the Renaissance when curiosity became acceptable on what are now classic economic grounds, or in line with the Italian cult of the virtuoso - someone who's so bloody brilliant that you have to just let him get on with it.

I always like Ball's drawling prose and catty editorialising. (For instance, Margaret Cavendish - the darling of arts academics who latch on to the only woman in sight in this period - gets a round dissing by Ball, as an anti-experiment idiot, a vitalist, and a misogynist.) Stimulating as always.

4/5. [Library]


* Bacon has some claim to being the most influential philosopher ever, in terms of counterfactual effect on history. (Rather than number of bloody citations!) No-one with his social standing was resisting the Aristotelian consensus in 1620; his prototype scientific method is a century ahead of its time. (Yes, ibn al-Haytham's was 7 centuries ahead of its time, but to limited avail.)

** This one is hard to refer to, because we now find it incredibly easy to understand why "go and look" works as a general route to knowledge; Medieval thought rejected this on the basis of things like the problem of induction.

The cliched way to refer to the split between those who want to start with the apriori and those who want to start with data is "Rationalism" vs "Empiricism". But these words confuse people: the two of them are also used in a C17th debate about psychology, to do with the nature of mental content.

More: it can't be a dichotomy, since many of the greatest rationalists (Descartes, Leibniz) were experimentalists too, doing what we now call empirical work. Three meanings of rationalism, and three words for them:
  • 'Rationalism1': Belief in innate ideas. Call it 'Continental Rationalism'. Descartes and Leibniz but not Dawkins and Shermer.
  • 'Rationalism2': Belief in the supremacy of apriori knowledge over empirical knowledge. Call it 'apriorism'. Aristotle was apriorist, as was Descartes.
  • 'Rationalism3': Belief that everything should be subject to reason and evidence. Includes Descartes and Leibniz and Dawkins and Shermer. Contemporary rationalists are highly if not radically empiricist.

I use Alberto Vanzo's criteria for deciding if someone was enough of an experimentalist:
let us consider four typical features of early modern experimental philosophers:
  • self-descriptions: experimental philosophers typically called themselves such. At the very least, they professed their sympathy towards experimental philosophy.
  • friends and foes: experimental philosophers saw themselves as part of a tradition whose “patriarch” was Bacon and whose sworn enemy was Cartesian natural philosophy.
  • method: experimental philosophers put forward a two-stage model of natural philosophical inquiry: first, collect data by means of experiments and observations; second, build theories on the basis of them. In general, experimental philosophers emphasized the a posteriori origins of our knowledge of nature and they were wary of a priori reasonings.
  • rhetoric: in the jargon of experimental philosophers, the terms “experiments” and “observations” are good, “hypotheses” and “speculations” are bad. They were often described as fictions, romances, or castles in the air.
This is unusually inclusive: the famous Rationalist Leibniz counts as experimental under this rubric. But a stronger definition of aposteriorist - like "refuses to use purely analytic reasoning", or even "spent most of their time running experiments and analysing data" would exclude many contemporary scientists. Sticking with Vanzo for now.

*** Hard to imagine a fallibilist apriorist: perhaps Lakatos. (Some say Leibniz was, in practice.) I actually have met a methodist infallibilist apriorist, but I won't meet another.

**** I had included "openness" in the model -
  • Obscurantism vs Openness. Did they write in the vernacular? Did they publish for a wide readership? Did they spurn Noble Lies? Did they encourage replications with and data sharing? Did they build scholarly networks?
- but I admit this is just wishful/normative thinking: modern academic science fails at this. Whether with its low-status replications, unreadable prose, paywalls on most research (tax-funded or no), pathetically low levels of data sharing, or the prevalence of noble lies... But it's definitely a core aspiration now: the greedy impulse behind hermeticism is blatantly unscientific, if not actually shunned by actual scientists. First, lip service...

Things can be science without being published, obviously: consider the invention of public key cryptography by a GCHQ wonk, classified for 25 years - or even the secret infrastructure and algorithmics of high-frequency trading.

^ Obviously these five factors aren't the end of the matter either. But I reckon it catches a decent amount of the variance in the term "scientist". Others e.g.

  • Particularism vs Consilience. Did they believe that the scientific method could explain every phenomenon?
  • Realism vs Instrumentalism. Most scientists are realists about best current theories
  • Theism vs Nontheism

I had included non-theism in the core of modern science - and so it is, in the form of strong naturalism. Scientists, on the other hand, differ from this, globally. This is partially because humans are so compartmentalised and can hold severe contradictions indefinitely. But, clearly, atheism is not an essential part of the modern method. But causal closure and (at most) a private faith are.

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