England and the concept of science

The development of the concept of what we call science is arguably  the most  dramatic intellectual event in history,  for it  utterly  changed both  the way in which men viewed the world and provided them with  the means to mould it ever more completely to their will.

Science is the opposite of “by guess and by God”.  It is the process of not  only knowing that something has worked before and replicating  the event or process to achieve the same result,  but of understanding  the process behind an event or process. 

The  classic   scientific  experiment involves  the  generation  of  an hypothesis to be tested (for example, the behaviour of falling objects) or  a  defined  field  to be investigated  (for  example,  an  animal’s behaviour),  the  creation  of  the means of  doing  so  and  a  strict observance of the rules by which the experiment is  to be conducted and meticulous  recording  of   data.  That in essence  is  the  scientific method,  although  in practice  science is far from being as  neat  and regular  as that.  Nonetheless,  it does encapsulate  what  science  is supposed   to  be  about:   the  rigorous  observation   and   rational interpretation of what is rather than what  the mind might fancy to  be the case. It is inductive  rather than deductive.

The beginnings of the scientific mentality can be found in the minds of two  13th Century Englishmen,  the Franciscan Roger Bacon  (c1214-1292)  and Robert Grossteste (c1168-1253),  Chancellor  of Oxford then  Bishop of   Lincoln.   Both  saw   the  importance  of   experimentation   and observation,  Bacon  advocated mathematics as the  sure  foundation  of science  while  Grosseteste  anticipated the  idea  of  the  scientific hypothesis.    Grossteste was also the first to understood the value of falsification,  namely,  although any number of observed events  cannot prove beyond doubt that something is  generally  true  it can be proved false by  a single case which shows it to be false.  There  are  difficulties with  the  principle  of falsification philosophically  but  it  is,  in Practice, a most useful tool for scientists.

Another important intellectual tool for the scientist was developed  in the  fourteenth Century by the  Franciscan,  William of Ockham.  Ockham formulated  the  principle of parsimony which we know today as Ockham’s Razor.  This  is  commonly  expressed   as  “entities  are  not  to  be multiplied beyond necessity”   or,  more bluntly,   always choose   the simplest explanation  for something unless there is good reason not to.  Apart  from being philosophically important,  this dictum is  immensely valuable  as a guide for scientists,  especially those engaged  in  the “hard”   sciences  of  physics  and  chemistry,    where  the  simplest explanation has often been found to be the correct one.   

Roger Bacon, Grossteste and William of Ockham were also responsible for a  substantial  amount of important philosophy  related  to  the  other aspects of the physical world and to metaphysics.  In addition, Ockham was a radical political theorist who fought the conciliar case in the  long schism  in  the papacy (which straddled the  fourteenth  and  fifteenth Centuries),  arguing that authority within the  Church should not  rest solely  with  the  Pope but be delegated in part to a  council  of  the Church.

At  the beginning of the Seventeenth Century Francis Bacon   moved  the idea of the scientific method forward  in his Novum Organum (1620),  in which  he  laid  out  the classic  version  of  scientific  method  and reinforced the ideas of induction and the importance of  falsifiability (Bacon  stands  as  the first in the long  line  of  important  British empirical   philosophers).    Bacon  was  also  responsible   for   the re-classification  of  sciences  to something approaching  their  modern divisions  in his Advancement of Learning (1625) and argued  vigorously  for the separation of reason and revelation.

On  the practical science side there is  William Gilbert with his  work on  magnetism (published in his De Magneto 1600),  who was one  of  the first men, even perhaps the first, known to have conducted a controlled experiment, that is, one in which the experiment is entirely artificial and  can  be  exactly repeated.  It is the  difference  between  simply watching  falling objects which fall without human intent and  creating  a situation where falling objects can be observed repeatedly under  the same conditions.

It would be a vainglorious  exaggeration to say that science was the invention of England, but they played a great part, arguably the greatest part, in its creation.

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