Sunday, September 21, 2008

Scientific revolution as one of perspective

Jacob Bronowski discussed some scientific revolutions in The Ascent Of Man. Specifically, those of Copernicus, Newton and Einstein.

(In human terms, Bronowski grouped together as social revolutions the American, the French, and the "English", or industrial revolution.)

Elsewhere, Stephen Jay Gould mentioned Freud's take on three pillars torn down in removing humanity from its pedestal as centre of the universe. Freud listed Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud himself (this was meant to be about shattering the illusions of the rationality of humans). To that list, Gould added the notion of deep time as something linking the revolutions of Copernicus and Darwin.

Bronowski was a mathematician by trade, Gould a paleontologist; this informs their choices.

Copernicus' paradigm shift gives us our cultural use of the term 'revolution'.

Bronowski's characterisations illustrated the revolutionary nature of some of these changes. For Copernicus, the observed movement of heavenly bodies could not not be explained with simplicity from where he was located: the patterns were not related to the observer's perspective. The movements made more sense from a heliocentric perspective, and thus humans were not of or at the centre of the universe.

It's inevitable that the spiritual establishment, the Catholic church, would decry, forbid this challenge to established thought, of which they were the sole arbiters. The challenge to authority it represented was bad enough to invoke punishment and censorship for a long time afterwards. The challenge to humanity's position (in the centre of the universe) was intolerable then as it would be in most ages.

Darwin's dislocation of humanity as a unique creation, to become a mere player - albeit a major one - in a succession and a panoply of species is also destabilising. Even now, the Vatican is unapologetic over its reaction, even as it acknowledges evolution as a validity (being "compatible with the bible").

Bronowski characterises Einstein in intellectual flight as imagining he was travelling on a beam of light - in effect, outside the grasp or capability of human life. Again, a paradigm shift invoked by an imagination that was able to think outside the framework of the human scale.

Those I find easy to identify as revolutionaries are Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein. For each of their breakthroughs, the human scale was an emotional barrier, but ultimately proven a simply inadequate perspective. And in each case, the scientist's conception far preceded scientific verification. Those men were revolutionary because they were capable of extending their thinking towards the universal.

I've referred several times to the significance of deanthropocentrism in the study of evolution. It's not a pure necessity in coming to grips with the very basics, but deep understanding is so much more of a struggle where the effort is not made to remove one's human shackles. As a reward, the ability to displace oneself from the human scale has constant application at all levels of understanding of the field.

I cannot claim these three are the only revolutions in this fashion. And I cannot say we are finished. We may never complete the journey because we may never be able to say we have reached the universal.

But our forward progress has an immediate stumbling block. One of the great barriers to successful stewardship of this planet is our perception of our inalienable right to exploitation of the whole of its resources... even to destruction. The pace travelled so far does not yet seem to fast enough to overtake the perils of anthropocentrism.

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