"All science is intelligent inference: excessive
literalism (in the acceptance of data) is a delusion, not a humble bowing
to evidence." Stephen J. Gould
First of all, I would like to thank the philosophy department and the members of my committee for giving me the opportunity to address some issues that have preoccupied me for over 20 years. It has been a wonderful opportunity to face these issues systematically and within the context of being given such stimulating feedback from the esteemed members of my committee.
No matter how many times it has been studied, no matter how many papers have been written, it seems to me that anyone interested in scientific methodology, change, and evidence returns to the Copernican episode again and again for guidance and enlightenment. In my case attempting to understand it, and overcoming mistakes in understanding it, have played a large part in my intellectual development.
Speaking of enlightenment, we could probably all provide an interesting
list of illuminating events in our intellectual development. Here is my
1. The discovery in my first college history class that Columbus was not the nice guy my grammar school teacher said he was.
2. The discovery in an excellent physics course that ideas could exist and have substantial evidence for them, even though those ideas conflict radically with my Kantian categories of common sense and what I thought to be possible. (I am speaking here, of course, of Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.) Related to this would be the discovery in an astronomy course that the Earth is but a small blue dot in an immense space, and that the universe did not wait until we could take center stage -- that it had billions of things to do, over billions of years, before we showed up to declare how important we are.
3. The humbling discovery, in reading on my own Darwin's Origin of Species, in conjunction with a superb Zoology course, of the full ramifications of historical contingency -- that natural selection does not imply inevitable progress towards human beings, that we are just another (perhaps temporary) species, that we have been very lucky to be on one of the little tips of Darwin's evolving bush, and that we should take great care how we act on this planet.
4. Last but not least, and most relevant to this thesis, was the shocking
discovery, for me at least, that Copernicus and Galileo were both Catholics,
that the Catholic Church supported scientific development, that the Church
did very little to prohibit the study of Copernicus's De revolutionibus
for over 50 years after its publication, that Galileo's controversial book
was actually published with the approval of the Catholic Church and his
friend the Pope, and that the Copernican system was entertained and studied
by many supporters of geostasis.
Somewhere I had picked up the impression that Copernicus and Galileo were detached logical positivists totally unconcerned with religion, probably either agnostics or atheists, and their writings underground manifestos for a new counter-culture world order, in search of which gestapo-like soldiers for the Inquisition broke into homes.
I should quickly add that this list is not finished. Just a few short years ago I published a book that contained within it one of the major myths of the Copernican episode, i.e., that the Copernican system uses fewer circles than Ptolemy. Although I thought I had made it clear that the full Copernican system was just as complicated as Ptolemy's, and that there was a major epistemological question whether the feature of simplicity should be considered evidential, my students would invariably pounce on the numerical reference in their papers as to why the Copernican system was better than Ptolemy's. It did not help mitigate my horror that I had graduated from a receiver to a promulgator of myths.
In many ways this thesis is about myths. It is an attempt to see the Copernican episode anew, to walk a difficult path between what Popper called the myth of the framework (relativism and holism) and what Kitcher calls the myth of Legend (logical positivism, logical empiricism, and foundationalism). Unlike Legend, this thesis does not rationally reconstruct away the importance of the messy cultural influences that externally affected the normative decisions of methodology and evidence. In fact, it embraces them as helpful in the long run in promoting science. Furthermore, it denies that any transcultural, transtemporal methodological features exist that select out the Copernican system as clearly superior to the Ptolemaic early in the debate. On the other hand, unlike relativism this thesis portrays the Copernican episode as a highly rational affair for the most part, where the major players entertained a robust debate over numerous issues, but gradually became more aware that planetary linkages with the sun were much more important than previously thought. The thesis claims that although they did not agree on what path this might take, the major players became convinced that these linkages provided the fruitful key to an eventual correct understanding of their deity's construction of the universe.
This thesis also finds no fault with the relativist in part, that supporters of a theory often act very conservatively by not immediately bending to recalcitrant empirical problems or perplexing conceptual inconsistencies. Instead, we often, and rationally so, tinker with our theories, especially when they have been successful for a long time, and patch away to our heart's content. But the thesis takes issue with the claim that just any patch will work, that the process of patching appraisal is circular and framework dependent. Rather, it shows that one might win a short term battle with a patch, but lose the war in the long run of full scientific appraisal when one's patches are developed and scrutinized carefully.
In a nutshell, here is the story I tell about one important strand in the Copernican episode. Supporters of heliostasis drew attention to the fact that there was an impressive harmony and fixity of parameters in the Copernican system regarding the saving of the core observational problem, a harmony and fixity lacking in the Ptolemaic system. Nonsupporters agreed, but either disagreed that these systemic features were decisive in selecting out the Copernican system and/or that these systemic feature could not be incorporated into a modified geostatic system. So there was a major move in developing geostatic transforms -- Tycho-like geoheliocentric systems. Although successful in the short term, there was long term degeneration of this major patch to geostasis when it was recognized that its development conflicted with one of the main motivating factors for its advancement in the first place, i.e., allegiance to Aristotelian dynamics.
Being committed to this story and the rationality of most of the moves of the major players, I must also tell a normative story regarding harmony and fixity of parameters. In the literature one finds three different responses, all of which I challenge.
1. The systematic, locked-in nature of Copernican parameters allows us to double-count the evidence in favor of Copernicus. The empirical evidence might be equal on a first-order perspective of planetary positioning, but bears differentially in a second-order perspective in favor of Copernicus. Conclusion: The most rational players supported the Copernican system early. (Hanson, Glymour, and Lakatos)
2. The perception of harmony and fixity of parameters as important was culturally dependent, subjective, and irrational. It originated from, and hence was forever tainted by, mystical neoplatonism and pythagoreanism. It was "nothing" (Kuhn), a mere expression of a "metaphysical urge" (Feyerabend), an expression of a primitive theism, a desire for security and convergence of belief (Rorty). Conclusion: The major players were not detached objective scientists in the pursuit of truth; they were sleepwalkers and pons in a major social power shift.
3. Although one can grant perhaps a weak pragmatic status to harmony
and fixity of parameters, it ought not to have been very important. Not
only is the whole notion of systematicity transtemporally problematic (for
its time Ptolemy obviously had an elegant system), but fixed parameters
only grant at best an ease of prospective testability. As empiricists we
should never be allowed to retrospectively double-count any observations.
Hence no salient epistemic status can be given to parameter determination.
Conclusion: One is under no obligation to tell a story of early rational
commitment to the Copernican system, other than that it was new and did
a good job accounting for the core observational problem. Relativists can
sociologize away to their hearts content regarding the irrationality of
early commitment to heliostasis, and this will not phase the perception
that what was really important epistemically was the gradual empirical
and conceptual problem solving ability of heliostasis. (Comets, novae,
and telescopic observations for the former, and the destruction of crystalline
spheres, Galileo's dynamics, Kepler's ellipses, and Newton's physics for
the latter) (Laudan)
I argue that (1) is not only wrong epistemically, but it forces us to conclude that all supporters of geostasis were bad scientists and irrational. On the other hand, (2) is not only wrong epistemically, but confuses the message with its origin. A belief can possess epistemic merits regardless of its cultural origin. Although my thesis possesses deep sympathies with (3), I argue that it paints a picture of too much false consciousness and capitulates too much to the relativists, handing over as it does a large chunk of what key players in the Copernican episode discussed and deemed important. Even prior to the 1543 publication of De revolutionibus, discussion and a "lively expectation" regarding Copernican features existed. After publication, the now crystal clear planetary linkages with the sun received intense discussion, reaching a crescendo in the late 16th and early 17th centuries with the advancement of geoheliocentrism and the Church's realization that it had a formidable cosmological alternative on its hands that could no longer be written off as a mere calculation tool. I argue that it is important to see a normative argument for this major chunk of history to counter the bad stories that the relativists tell about this time, to undermine a key historical premise that they use repeatedly for their general disconsolate conclusions in matters of methodology.
It seems to me that relativists argue ala Zeno thusly: If the initial period of theory creation and pursuit is irrational, then all later periods of acceptance must be likewise. We cannot get to point B (rationality) from point A (irrationality) without going half way, and we cannot get to a half way point without also going half that distance, and so on. So, we never "move"; we are always at point A. Both (3) and my thesis believe this is wrong, but I argue that more piecemeal change is needed, that (3) gives the impression that the change from A to B was too abrupt, and that the very problem solving ability that (3) appeals to must be seen in a wider context. In other words, problems cannot be seen to be problems, let alone solved, unless shifts have taken place in a wider horizon of perception. Furthermore, the move to develop geostatic transforms occurred before the empirical and conceptual transitional developments that (3) cites.
Why do a few scientists boldly pursue a new theory while a majority either passively entertain or actively reject the new theory? The old view of Legend paints a picture of simple heroism, of a few reasonable scientists attempting to pull the rest out of Plato's cave of ignorance and dogmatism. Relativism easily demolishes this myth by using Legend's own methodological prescriptions to show that there was no decisive evidence in favor of the new theory, and then concludes that early allegiance to a new theory was due simply to idiosyncratic personality traits and/or circumstances. My response is to say, personality and circumstance involved? -- sure, but there must be something promising in the new theory to activate the circumstantial differences. I claim that in the Copernican episode case this is easy to explain. The feature that showed promise was commensurably acknowledged by both supporters and nonsupporters of heliostasis. Tycho's personality and political situation may have been a significant cause for his advancement of geoheliocentrism, but it did not keep him from recognizing the same positive feature of heliostasis recognized by Galileo and Kepler, i.e., the fixed planetary linkages with the sun.
Crucial then to my thesis is the role I attribute to parameter determination and the distinction between the theory relationship modalities of pursuit and acceptance. I argue that a major message learned from successful scientific practice is that coincidences often occur, but they are not our preferred conceptual way of interfacing with the world. In general, we prefer theories that tell stories about fundamental processes by linking postulates and parameters, so that we are not only granted answers to important questions, such that we are inclined to believe that when they get observations right they are not doing so by coincidence, but also are given leads to many other fields and answers to questions we did not even know we had.
For a sufficiently accurate analogy to make my point (it is somewhat of a caricature), consider the following. Suppose it were true that the standard quantum model and the new string theory both saved the core observational problem of what kind of universe we have. But string theory not only determined the 18 undetermined parameters in the standard model, but provided a major hint of how to unify quantum theory with relativity theory. Would there be any doubt as to what to advise a young physicist regarding a career move? We would be in no position to declare that string theory was true, or even that the evidence for it was overwhelming, because the distinction of what is coincidence and what is fundamental process is most often what needs to be determined by future testing. However, there would be little doubt in the distinct fruitfulness of string theory and the wisdom of pursuing its development. Furthermore, as to why this is so would not be because of just personality and circumstance, of a need for unity in our lives, belief in a benevolent deity, or a political and economic power shift, but simply because we have a good ampliative reason to believe that the world works in some sort of unified fashion, responding to us along many fronts, with unconnected differences in those responses only apparent.
Scientists know, regardless of their historical situation, that if they want to be successful theologically, economically, and/or politically, they had better back the most promising or reliable scientific theory. Legend says that good scientists are always looking straight ahead at the objective evidence. Relativists say that they are always looking over their shoulders, worrying about the social and political environment, and sleepwalking forward. My way of putting this is that scientists are indeed messy human beings, as our we all, and it is precisely because they have a lot to worry about over their shoulders that they pay acute attention to the epistemic situation in front of them.
I am not arguing that the Copernican episode was as clear as the string theory example. In fact, we need to see that the situation was messy to understand why every competent astronomer did not immediately back heliostasis. However, I am arguing that the situation was sufficiently close to understand why both supporters and nonsupporters of heliostasis abandoned strict Ptolemaic geostasis when its key parameters were perceived to be undetermined, offering a disturbingly flexible response to the core observational problem. They believed that their deity had created one world in such a way that everything would fit together. There may be many things that divide us from their time and our time, but today whether we are Duhemian instrumentalists or Popperian realists we can argue without any embarrassment whatsoever that a belief in one independent world that stays the same as our beliefs change and grow with time is better supported ampliatively than the relativist's story that we sculpt alternate realities with time and live in different worlds.
For what it is worth, I am very happy with the thesis. This satisfaction, of course, does not entail that I should pass or that its argument is flawless. But the thesis does go along way toward saving for me the core historical problem which I have been uncomfortable with for so long. Ever since I read the likes of Koestler, Koyré, Kuhn, and especially Feyerabend, while simultaneously experiencing the power and beauty of scientific methodology, I have struggled to reconcile human folly with the marvelous vision we have obtained of the universe. I believe I have made a significant contribution to getting it right, of explaining the meandering parade of debate and adjustment, of jockeying for position, and the gradual strengthening of some positions and eventual crumbling of others that was the Copernican Revolution.
Once again, much gratitude is owed to my committee members. I think it is safe to say that just about everyone practicing philosophy today has been a student in one way or another or Irv Copi. I can think of no other mentor in my life for which Henry Adam's aphorism regarding a teacher affecting eternity applies better. Ron Bontekoe's own Ph.D. thesis and our e-mail exchanges helped immensely in jump starting my own thesis. Rachel Laudan helped keep my historical analyses balanced, and forced me to make the concept of a hypertextual adjudicatory trail clearer. Ron Amundson's deep understanding of Ptolemy and challenging e-mails were not only incredibly entertaining, they made chapter 5 far superior to my initial draft. Larry Laudan was my most relentless critic. As Larry explains it, this criticism is due to the fact that we agree on so much! It was a great honor and opportunity to have him as my chair.
Finally, I would like to thank John Winnie who years ago as a young assistant professor first taught me that philosophy of science is philosophy enough.