Tuesday, 25 May 2010

'Medieval science' - rediscovered and improved

Although I was 'brought up' on the religion of science, and retain great respect for philosophers such as Jacob Bronowski and Karl Popper, and for sociologists such as Thos. Merton, David L Hull and John Ziman; I have come to believe that this 'classic' science (the kind which prevailed from the mid-19th - mid-20th century in the UK and Western Europe) - in other words that activity which these authors described and analyzed - was 'merely' a transitional state.

In short: classic science was highly successful, but contained the seeds of its own destruction because the very processes that led to classic science would, when continued (and they could not be stopped) also destroy it.

(As so often, that which is beneficial in the short term is fatal in the longer term.)

Specifically, this transitional state of classic science was an early phase of professional science, which came between what might be called medieval science and modern science (which is not real science at all - but merely a generic bureaucratic organization which happened to have evolved from classic science). But classic science was never a steady state, and never reproduced itself; but was continually evolving by increasing growth, specialization and professionalization/ bureaucratization.

But classic Mertonian/ Popperian science was never stable - each generation of scientists had a distinctly different experience than the generation before due to progressive increasing growth, specialization and professionalization/ bureaucratization.

And indeed Classic science was not the kind of science which led to the industrial revolution and the ‘modern world’; the modern world was a consequence of causes which came before modernity. The modern world is a consequence of medieval science. So, the pre-modern forms of science were real science, and had real consequences.

What I mean is that medieval science was an activity which was so diffuse and disorganized that we do not even recognize it as science – yet it was this kind of science which led to the process of societal transformation that is only recognized by historians as becoming visible from the 17th century (e.g the founding of the Royal Society in 1660). But the emergence of classic science was merely the point at which change become so visible that it could not be ignored.

Since modernity it is therefore possible that science has been unravelling even as it expanded – i.e. that the processes of growth, specialization and professionalization/ bureaucratization were also subverting themselves until the point (which we have passed) where the damage due to growth, specialization and professionalization/ bureaucratization outstripped the benefit.

This is good news, I think.

Much of the elaborate and expensive paraphernalia of science - which we mistakenly perceive to be vital – may in fact be mostly a late and parasitic development. Effective science can be, has been, much simpler and cheaper.

When we consider science as including the medieval era prior to classic science, then it becomes clear that there is no distinctive methodology of science. Looking across the span of centuries it looks like the process of doing science cannot really be defined more specifically than saying that it is a social and multigenerational activity characterized by truth-seeking.

I would further suggest that science is usually attempting to solve a problem – or to find a better solution to a problem than the existing one (problem solving per se is not science, but science is a kind of problem solving).

The main physical (rather than political) constraint on science in the past was probably the slowness and unreliability of communication and records. This made science extremely slow to advance. Nonetheless, these advances were significant and led to the modern world.

The encouraging interpretation is therefore that even when modern professional ‘science’ collapses a new version of medieval science should easily be able to replace it, because of the already-available improvements in the speed, accuracy and durability of communications.

In other words, a re-animated ‘medieval science’ (amateur, unspecialized, individualistic, self-organized) plus modern communications probably equals something pretty good, by world historical standards - probably not so good as the brilliant but unstable phase of 'classic science', but better than 'modern science'.