Without God Would There Be a Theory of Gravity

An interesting piece by Noah Berlatsky entitled “Would Science Exist Without Religion” at the Pacific Standard on the history of science and how skepticism is really a double-edged sword.

Our age is science-infused in a way that may seem counter-intuitive to overly confident post-modernists 10-15 years ago, so how ought we think about science in light of faith. Polanyi, Kuhn, and others have shown that the distinction is not so clear.

Here Berlatsky comments on the somewhat unscientific ideas that provided the foundation for some of science’s greatest break-throughs.

The fact that the early scientific greats had numerous loopy ideas isn’t usually seen as that much of a problem. Kepler’s record as both an astronomer and an astrologer can be dismissed with mutterings about the superstitions of the time. The astrology is jettisoned, and the pure science is preserved.

Disaggregating isn’t necessarily always that easy, though. For example, Francesco Sizzi, one of Galileo’s critics, looked through the spyglass too—and where Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter, Sizzi saw nothing. Was this because he had poor eyes, or a bad telescope? Maybe, Lipking writes, “students of vision have repeatedly demonstrated [that] seeing something involves the mind as well as the eyes.” Based on what we know now about science, Sizzi failed to see because he lacked a theory that would put those moons into context.

Galileo, on the other hand, could see because he had the right theory. Evidence does not lead to theory; theory provides the context for evidence. Which means that Galileo’s discoveries came not just from a dispassionate evaluation of what he saw, but from his imagination. And if he imagined those moons of Jupiter, are we still imagining them with him?

Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend notoriously took this kind of reasoning and used it to question the entire scientific program—to argue that there is no categorical distinction between the “correct” scientific worldview (the Earth goes around the sun) and the alternate, “incorrect” ones, except for current fashion and institutional authority. Feyerabend argued that there was no real reason at the time to believe that the telescope showed an accurate view of the heavens; Galileo’s theories were based not on truth but on ad hoc guesses and leaps of faith—as Feyerabend argues, all science.

Lipking steps daintily around that particular gravitational pit; when he discusses Newton’s millenarian religious musings, for example, he is careful to note that the scientist’s breakthroughs “depended on meticulous calculations, not magical thinking.” But the pit still yawns off to the side distractingly. What after all do we mean by “depended”? Newton’s intellectual pursuits were inspired by his religious beliefs, and arguably vice versa. If Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter through his theory, didn’t Newton see gravity through his God? And if so, is the gravity there without the God?

Read the rest here.