Lecture 4: The New Science

Foundations of Liberty
The Intellectual Crisis of the Modern World

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

In the last lecture we saw Aristotle’s twofold reaction to Socrates’s demand for universal teleological explanation, i.e. explanation in terms of purposes or what is for the best. He accepted and implemented the program in his own scientific work to explain not only living but also inanimate phenomena, but he rejected as impossible Plato’s assertion that living things move themselves.

For some eighteen hundred years science followed Aristotle’s quest for teleological explanation. Nature did nothing in vain, and the task of the scientist was to uncover the hidden purposes of Nature, the good that each natural thing achieved in the overall order of things.

But while the concept of natural good arises immediately as soon as any living thing arrives on the scene, since some things will be good for it and other things will be bad for it, this is not true of inanimate things. Nothing is good or bad for inanimate things, except in relation to human purposes. The consequence of this was that all attempts to explain inanimate nature by teleological purposes proved to be in vain. While it may have given a certain quantity of intellectual satisfaction to know that the reason why fire goes upwards is because that is its nature, and that when we throw a stone up in the air we treat it in a way that is violent and contrary to its nature, since its nature is to go downwards, seeking the center of the earth, explanations of this kind brought little or nothing in the way of visible benefit to the condition of the human race. They did not in any way increase our mastery either of fire or of stones. They did not enlarge our actual knowledge. Even in the sphere of the living, the focus on teleological explanation, often of an obvious kind which added nothing to common sense, drew attention away from the task of probing the deeper mystery of life.  In short, after eighteen hundred years of Socratean and Aristotelian science, the conditions of human life and the benefits we obtained from the science of nature were just what they had been eighteen hundred years before.

The situation began to change with Copernicus. But while Copernicus gave us a new view of the heavens and the earth, he did not change the nature of science. This can be dated to the year 1600.

1. The Abandonment of Teleological Explanation


In 1600 a book was published which took a giant step down a new path. It was the work of an English physician, William Gilbert (1544-1603). Its title (in English translation from the Latin): On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies and on the Great Magnet the Earth.   It was the first work of a new science.  The aim of this new science was not to find out the purposes things serve or the good that they do, but only what the facts are about the physical world, what the laws of nature are, and what causes what,  the mechanical causes of things. In his first chapter Gilbert reviews in some detail the opinions of almost everyone who had written about magnets and loadstones as well as about amber and electricity (for many thought these two were the same) before him, both ancient and modern, and shows that almost all of them are false.  They were the product of the theories of “the Greeks,” which he has no patience with.

This natural philosophy is almost a new thing, unheard-of before ; a very few writers have simply published some meagre accounts of certain magnetic forces. Therefore we do not at all quote the ancients and the Greeks as our supporters, for neither can paltry Greek argumentation demonstrate the truth more subtly nor Greek terms more effectively, nor can both elucidate it better. Our doctrine of the loadstone is contradictory of most of the principles and axioms of the Greeks.

Aristotle admits only two simple movements of his elements—from the centre and toward the centre; light objects upward, heavy objects downward: so that in the earth there is but one motion of all its parts toward the centre of the world—a wild headlong falling….

But Gilbert has discovered that instead there are five movements associated with magnets. They are:  attraction (he prefers to call it coition since it is mutual between magnets), direction (towards the earth’s poles), variation (deflection from its normal path), declination (the descent of a magnetic pole beneath the horizon) and revolution or circular movement. None of these are teleological.

As for the causes of magnetic movements referred to in the schools of philosophers…these we leave for roaches and moths to prey upon.


Five years after Gilbert, in 1605, Francis Bacon published his great work on The Advancement of Learning.  He reports on the condition at that time of each of the main branches of learning. Here is his assessment of the situation in the sciences:

…the inquiry of final causes, which I am moved to report not as omitted, but as misplaced. And yet if it were but a fault in order, I would not speak of it; for order is matter of illustration, but pertaineth not to the substance of sciences. But this misplacing hath caused a deficience, or at least a great improficience in the sciences themselves. For the handling of final causes, mixed with the rest in physical inquiries, hath intercepted the severe and diligent inquiry of all real and physical causes, and given men the occasion to stay upon these satisfactory and specious causes, to the great arrest and prejudice of further discovery…  For to say that “the hairs of the eyelids are for a quickset and fence about the sight;” or that “the firmness of the skins and hides of living creatures is to defend them from the extremities of heat or cold;” or that “the bones are for the columns or beams, whereupon the frames of the bodies of living creatures are built;” or that “the leaves of trees are for protecting of the fruit;” or that “the clouds are for watering of the earth;” or that “the solidness of the earth is for the station and mansion of living creatures;” and the like, is well inquired and collected in metaphysic, but in physic they are impertinent. Nay, they are, indeed, but remoras and hindrances to stay and slug the ship from further sailing; and have brought this to pass, that the search of the physical causes hath been neglected and passed in silence. And, therefore, the natural philosophy of Democritus and some others, who did not suppose a mind or reason in the frame of things, but attributed the form thereof able to maintain itself to infinite essays or proofs of Nature, which they term fortune, seemeth to me (as far as I can judge by the recital and fragments which remain unto us) in particularities of physical causes more real and better inquired than that of Aristotle and Plato; whereof both intermingled final causes…; not because those final causes are not true and worthy to be inquired, being kept within their own province, but because their excursions into the limits of physical causes hath bred a vastness and solitude in that tract.

2. Skepticism

The sixteenth century was a time of great upheaval. On its eve in 1492 the New World was discovered, providing a vast enlargement of human horizons.   In 1517 Martin Luther published his 95 theses, initiating the Reformation, which divided Christian civilization in the West violently against itself. One result of this was an increase of skepticism.  In 1562 and again in 1569 translations were published, and widely read,  of the Outlines of the second century skeptical philosopher Sextus Empiricus. Sextus argued that only reports of direct subjective sense experience, or sense appearances, can be reliable.  I can be justified in saying such things as “I have the sensation of seeing a table,”  which simply reports a sense experience, because I cannot be deceived about the sensations I receive from my eyes, but that does not necessarily mean I am entitled to say there actually is a table, since appearances can be deceptive.

In 1641 Descartes laid this skepticism at the foundation of his entire philosophy, which itself became the foundation of much of modern philosophy and also of modern science.

In the first Meditation I set forth the reasons why we can doubt generally about all things, and particularly material things, at least so long as we have no other foundations for the sciences than we have had till now. But although the utility of such a general doubt may not appear at first,  it is nevertheless to this extent very great, that it delivers us from all kinds of prejudices, and prepares an easy path for us to accustom our mind to detach itself from the senses; and finally it makes it impossible for us ever to doubt what we have once discovered to be true.  (Meditations on the First Philosophy. My translation and emphasis.)

Twenty years later, in 1661, Robert Boyle published The Sceptical Chymist, generally recognized as the first book of modern chemistry. Boyle was skeptical about the claims of two groups, the Aristotelians who reasoned much but discovered little, and the alchemists, who laid a cloak of mystery and magic over the secrets of the earth. In this book Boyle makes it plain how modern chemistry arose out of skepticism and remains based on skepticism.  And this is a general truth about modern science: it arose out of skepticism in a way that ancient Greek science never did. Skepticism means not accepting beliefs or theories until they have been proven; or at least, proportioning one’s acceptance to the strength of the evidence for it. This became a foundation principle of modern science. Greek science, by contrast, had arisen out of simple curiosity, the desire to have knowledge. As a result it never felt the same pressure to prove its claims. In truth, however, as we shall see, in science few theories can ever be regarded as genuinely proven.

3.  Experiment

The great instrument of the new science is not philosophical analysis but experiment.  In the first sentence of his book Gilbert sets out the rationale for this:

Since in the discovery of secret things and in the investigation of hidden causes, stronger reasons are obtained from sure experiments and demonstrated arguments than from probable conjectures and the opinions of philosophical speculators…; therefore to the end that the noble substance of that great loadstone, our common mother (the earth), still quite unknown,  and also the forces extraordinary and exalted of this globe may the better be understood, we have decided to begin first with the common stony and ferruginous matter, and magnetic bodies, and the parts of the earth that we may handle and may perceive with the senses.

But if any see fit not to agree with the opinions here expressed and not to accept certain of my paradoxes; still let them note the great multitude of experiments and discoveries—these it is chiefly that cause all philosophy
to flourish.

Over a period of 18 years Gilbert seems to have carried out hundreds of carefully measured experiments (not rendered any easier by the fact that his unit of measurement was the barleycorn) with loadstones of many different shapes and sizes, magnets and mariner’s compasses, and also with amber and the force we know as electricity, for which he created the name (electrum being the Greek name for amber), so that he could tell the difference between these two forces which in some ways appeared alike.  Among other things he created a “terrella,” a globe made of loadstone which can duplicate on a small scale the characteristics of the magnetism he found in the globe of the earth. Through these experiments he discovered hundreds of previously unknown facts. Loadstones are not essentially different from magnets. Both are made of iron.  There are two magnetic poles, both in magnets and in the globe of the earth. Each pole of a magnet attracts the opposite pole and repels the same pole. Three magnets linked together function as one large magnet. The earth itself is a magnet, and the explanation of this fact must lie deep within the earth.  The lines of magnetic force on the globe of the earth vary geographically, and he discovers many facts about these variations. All this and much else was new. Everything we know today about magnets was still to be discovered when he started, and most of it is in his book (save, of course, for the link made by Maxwell in 1873 uniting electricity and magnetism).  Because of his innumerable experiments, Gilbert’s book is filled with new, hard knowledge.  It is all elementary knowledge now for us, but it first had to be tried and tested, item by laborious item.

The Greeks had never emphasized experimentation. Boyle points out that they used experiments only for the purpose of illustrating beliefs they already had, not for discovering new ones.

4. Ockham’s Razor

This is the principle, attributed to the mediaeval philosopher and theologian  William of Ockham (1288-1348),  that in devising a hypothesis one should not postulate more beings than are necessary.  (Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate, in one mediaeval formulation.)  It is often referred to as the principle of parsimony in explanation.

The source of many errors in philosophy is the claim that a distinct signified thing always corresponds to a distinct word in such a way that there are as many distinct entities being signified as there are distinct names or words doing the signifying.(Summula Philosophiae Naturalis III, chap. 7, see also Summa Totus Logicae Bk I, C.51).

We are apt to suppose that a word like “paternity” signifies some “distinct entity”, because we suppose that each distinct word signifies a distinct entity. This leads to all sorts of absurdities, such as “a column is to the right by to-the-rightness”, “God is creating by creation, is good by goodness, is just by justice, is powerful by power”, “an accident inheres by inherence”, “a subject is subjected by subjection”, “a suitable thing is suitable by suitability”, “a chimera is nothing by nothingness”, “a blind thing is blind by blindness”, “a body is mobile by mobility”. We should say instead that a man is a father because he has a son (Summa C.51).

The success of Copernicus is an example of Ockham’s Razor. The movement of the planets in relation to the earth and the sun can be described in principle with equal truthfulness  by both the Ptolemaic theory that preceded Copernicus, which placed the earth at the center, and by the theory of Copernicus which placed the sun at the center, if sufficient complexities (epicycles etc.) are added to the earlier system, since all movement is relative to other movements. But Copernicus’s theory is now universally accepted for the sole reason that it is simpler.

If, therefore, you can explain a phenomenon satisfactorily by using two factors, it is superfluous and irrational to use three. But that does not mean that the simpler explanation is the true one.  We choose it, not because of any objective feature of the world, but because of a subjective feature of our own mind.

The principal question that arises for the Razor is, when does a more complex explanation become necessary? This is an important but difficult question. It does not seem there is any simple or single rule that will decide it.  The most obvious case is where the explanation explains more of what needs to be explained.

The principle of parsimony was already clear to Aristotle (Physics). But he does not make use of it in his science because it would eliminate his teleology. For a mechanical explanation is always simpler than a teleological explanation.

For the explanation of any human action we always have two possibilities: that it is the product of free will, an action initiated by the individual, or of predetermined mechanical necessity, the result of prior causes. The concept of free will is ultimately a complete mystery in that we cannot analyze it or break it down into component elements. [Yet in a holistic and qualitative way we actually understand freedom without any trouble.]  But we think we understand mechanical necessity or causality without any difficulty, so that the rational explanation seems to be the mechanical one—unless it can be shown that the other explanation, free will, is necessary. In practice most people are directly conscious of having the power of free choice. We know we could have chosen to do something different. For most people, then, only free will corresponds adequately to our experience of ourselves. That can be considered to make it necessary.

Ockham’s Razor is one of two chief reasons why modern science is reductionist.

5. Scientific Method

The second reason is another feature of scientific method, as it has been described by Karl Popper. A rational theory is one that takes account of the objections against itself (Aristotle, Aquinas). While it is important, then, in arguing for any theory, to show fully the reasons in favor of it, it is at least equally if not more important to test it against the counter-evidence.  To test a theory, one must first find a consequence of the theory that has two qualities: it must follow from the theory by strict necessity, and it must be capable of being observed empirically. If a necessary consequence of a theory does not take place, the theory cannot be true.

A good example of this is the case of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. As explained by Einstein, one of the implications of the theory, published in 1916, was that a ray of light coming from a distant star close to the sun would be bent by the gravitational field of the sun in the direction of the sun.  If this did not happen, the theory was mistaken. In 1919 an expedition, led by the English physicist Arthur Eddington, to the island of Principe in the south Atlantic off the coast of Africa, was able to measure this bend during an eclipse of the sun (needed because otherwise the stars close to the sun are concealed by the light of the sun) on May 29 and found it did indeed occur.  While this did not precisely prove the theory, it gave it strong support. (It only takes one test to disprove a theory. If the theory is confirmed by every test, the probability increases that it is correct. But it will always remain true that one more test may undermine it. It is very rare in science to claim that any theory is definitively proven.)

For our present purposes the crucial thing is that the consequence must follow from the theory by strict necessity. If it merely might possibly follow or possibly might not, no prediction can be made and nothing can be deduced from it. Only those scientific theories can be tested, then, from which definite measurable predictions can be made. But such predictions can be made only with mechanistic theories. Teleological causation does not allow of such definite predictions. We know this most directly from human beings. The best explanation of a person’s action is usually his intention or motive. But it is impossible to predict with any certainty what any individual person will do, since people can always change their minds. Even with the lower forms of life, plants and animals, while it is possible to make general predictions, such as that plants will turn towards the sun, it is impossible on the basis of any theory to make definite measurable particular predictions about what they will do.

6. Mechanicism

Modern science, then, is based on skepticism, and is mechanistic. Since it is based on skepticism, it can accept any theory only if the theory can be proven. But only mechanistic theories can be proven. This holds good not only for the realm of the inanimate, but also for that of living beings.

This means that mechanicism, the philosophy according to which all the forces at work in the universe, living as well as non-living, are mechanical, rather than teleological, is not a conclusion from science, it is not a discovery of science, but an assumption or precondition of science.  In other words, it can be mistaken.

As an example of how automatic this assumption has become in our society, here is a quote from a report issued last Wednesday by the publication Science Daily. The headline reads: Astrobiologists discover ‘sweet spots’ for the formation of complex organic molecules in the galaxy.

Scientists have compiled years of research to help locate areas in outer space that have extreme potential for complex organic molecule formation. The scientists searched for methanol, a key ingredient in the synthesis of organic molecules that could lead to life. Their results have implications for determining the origins of molecules that spark life in the cosmos. (Emphasis mine.)

(Posted: 02 Nov 2011 04:00 PM PDT)

The writer here takes it for granted that life can be explained as the result of a purely mechanistic process of the interaction of chemical molecules.  The possibility that life may involve a fundamentally different kind of causation is not even hinted at. Yet our experience of living things is very different from this mechanical causation. All our experience of living things is that they are purposive, they contain a plan within themselves of how they ought to be and what they must do to develop, they know what to do to heal their wounds, and to reproduce themselves.  When we are not trying to be scientific, we all know that an immense gulf separates the living from the dead.

In coming lectures, beginning after the next one, we will examine evidence that has been building up in science itself in recent years which seems to give some support to this latter viewpoint.