A Shift in Scientific Method
Today, one rarely conflates the allegedly separate areas of philosophy and science. While the previous discussion of Greek antiquity was quite philosophical and seemingly “unscientific,” it is the modern era of science which began to separate philosophy from science. That is to say, modern science has separated itself from the ancient and medieval world by shifting its method. The so-called scientific method, largely developed by the likes of Galileo, was centered on actively and intentionally experimenting. As Clark infers, we must not assume, as is commonly done, that the Aristotelian era was deductive as opposed to modern science’s inductive method. Rather, both deduction and induction were used by the ancient Greek philosophers as well as the modern scientists.
Indeed, it is important to understand that the new method of science included experimentation that was deliberate and sought out. Clark provides a useful illustration that will be drawn on more fully later in this essay.
“Galileo, for example, although his study of the pendulum may have started accidentally, did not wait to observe some chance body fall from whatever height it happened to be. […] He deliberately rolled marbles down and inclined trough which he had carefully smoothed and polished. […] The experimenter does things to the material he is examining. He cuts it, or heats it, or dissolves it in acid, or passes an electric current through it, or what not.
Not only did Galileo prepare his trough and roll the marbles down, but what is more, he varied the length of their descent. This means he measured the distances; he measured the times also. And he made these measurements for the purpose of manipulating them mathematically” (Clark, 44).
Thus the Renaissance era scientific revolution had begun and the scientific method was born. No more was Achilles’ failure to pass the tortoise a problem. The alleged glories of experimentation did not wait for solutions to be offered to Zeno or Heraclitus. And perhaps Aristotle too had wasted his time on definitions. In the words of Clark, the “new generation” did not care “to prove that motion occurs nor would they waste time on futile definitions or explanations of motion in general” (Clark, 33).
It was the initiation of this method which began to undermine the Aristotelian understanding of nature. For it was through Galileo’s effort by experimentation to understand the nature of the pendulum swing that he determined that “a body moving in a horizontal plane will continue in motion at the same velocity, without any further force applied to it, unless it is retarded by an external force in the opposite direction” (Clark, 35). But this conception of motion, which would later be turned into the law of inertia by Sir Isaac Newton, contradicted the very basis of Aristotle. While Aristotle saw nature as such that motion was caused by a change that took place within the body itself, Galileo and Newton realized that change was not occurring in the body, but rather, a change in motion was caused by “an external force.” The quality of the body itself was not changed, but something acting on the body caused the change.
Thus it was by the new method of science that the history of science passed from medieval to modern. Our relevant question then, is whether or not the new method of science brings us any closer to a philosophy of science. The new system is the basis of the majority of claims today that “God does not exist.” But are such claims even warranted given this new basis? We must therefore deal with this new system if we are to both defend the faith and declare a philosophy of science as a whole.
Under the scientific method of experimentation, scientific law is the result of prediction and a subsequent verification. What is the source of this prediction? The answer to this is mathematical deduction. “Mathematics is the soul, or… the ‘mainspring,’ of modern science” (Clark, 44). It was by mathematical formulations that the concept of inertia was given a law and gravity was used as the explanation for planetary motion in an era of much heated debate. There are two chiefly important ideas here that are necessary to expound upon. Clark addresses these over the course of his second chapter titled Newtonian Science, and we will here attempt to summarize them. The first is the word “explanation;” and the second is the phrase “mathematical formulations.”
It is important to keep in context the fact that Clark was pursuing to demonstrate that Newton’s discoveries were, after Newton, used by others who desired to use them beyond their intended (and logical) application (Clark, 54). For it was not Newton who denied the existence of a “higher power,” but rather it was those who came after him. Newton was sure that gravity could be used to describe why the planets orbited around the sun, but he was also sure that gravity could not explain the original “positions of the orbits themselves.” Thus, he wrote that the solar system “could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent being.” Our two “chiefly important ideas” are then a crossroads of sorts and how we understand them will help us to determine our philosophy of science.
What is Meant by Scientific Explanation?
It was Newton who was able to solve many of the problems relating to planetary orbit that frustrated his contemporaries and predecessors. The problem that thousands of years of astronomy could not overcome was how the planets could move in circular orbits. It is true that Copernicus made magnificent headway by “working out a heliocentric astronomy” (Clark, 37) and Kepler expanded on that with his laws of planetary motion, but they were not able to explain why the planets move as they do. Why do they “fall forward” in their motion and rotate around the sun rather than simply move in a straight line, past the sun, toward the edge of the universe (if there is one) like Galileo’s law of inertia indicates should happen? It was Newton that gave the world the concept of gravitation, a word that, even today, can be used by any seven-year-old to answer the question: “why does the rock fall to the ground when one lets it go?” Indeed, the answer to the question of a falling body is the same as the answer to the question of planetary motion. Gravity is said to be the cause of both.
Now, we must mimic Clark in noting that there is a necessary distinction between an explanation and a description. We cannot say that gravity explains the motion of the planets, for we do not know what, exactly, gravity is in and of itself. It is certainly, to use Clark’s vocabulary, invisible and intangible. And we therefore must ask whether it is “useless as an explanation of motion” (Clark, 39). We do not even have the information available to answer the question, “what is the cause of gravity?” Newton did not know and famously noted “Hypotheses non fingo” (I frame no hypothesis). It is here too that Clark points out that Newton attributes the placement of the planets to “an intelligent and powerful Being.” But this is no explanation; indeed, Newton refused to explain gravity. And how could he? Gravity is unobservable.
We are, however, interested with Clark in the implications of this refusal. “What does this refusal mean? If gravitation cannot be explained, can gravitation explain anything else? What is meant by scientific explanation?” (Clark, 40). When we answer that a stone drops to the ground “because of gravity,” what, exactly is meant? Have we explained what happened? Clark applies the law of gravity to “freely falling bodies” by writing that,
“The body falls with an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second per second. Now, to substitute the law itself for its name, the question, Why does a stone fall? Is answered by saying it falls because it falls with an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second per second. But how does a statement of the rate of the fall explain what makes the stone drop in the first place? […] Does it not become clear upon reflection that the law of gravitation is not an explanation? It explains neither the fall of the stone nor the revolution of the planets” (Clark, 41).
Rather than being an explanation then, the law of gravity is a statement of fact. Clark writes: “A statement of fact is not an explanation: it is the very thing that needs to be explained.” So then, while it is true that the scientist has written out laws of nature, we must realize that these laws do not give explanations at all. They certainly aim to describe what is happening, and perhaps this is a noble cause, but once we realize this, it surely puts a damper on science if we want it to explain the universe.
Clark has shown that scientific law is not good enough to explain reality because science only seeks to answer questions of how (i.e. How does a body fall? Answer: with an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second per second). Therefore, the scope of science is narrower than many might suppose. And further, since “how is not the only question that can be legitimately asked,” there must be other fields of study that address what science does not. Thus it is illegitimate to claim that science itself does away with God completely. Science cannot explain anything ultimately, but rather, focuses on description.
What about the nature of the description, the “scientific law” itself? We turn there next.