Generating rebellions in science
Post on 06-Jul-2016
GENERATING REBELL IONS IN SCIENCE or : e = mc 2 with mass rebell ious and energy generat ional*
The title, Einstein and the Generations of Science, is a conscious double entendre. In this book Lewis S. Feuer is concerned with the social and
psychological origins of key discoveries in modern physics: hence with the factors extrinsic to science which generate scientific concepts. His primary explanatory thesis centers on generational rebellion as the creative force appropriately channelled by the "reformist, intergenerational, constitutional republic" which is the international scientific community. The problem is important, for it has the potential to clarify our notions of how people's ideas relate to their activities and environment. In its pursuit Feuer has gathered some valuable material and charted a course not frequently attempted. Unfortunately his thesis illuminates his subject less than it exposes his own political stance. The title's pun veils a disproportion between intention and accomplishment resulting from a political bias no less obtrusive for being disclaimed. (Sociologists who still insist that their approach is value-free require sharp watching.)
There is an increasing recognition thai factors extrinsic to science may be decisive in shaping the hypotheses and concepts with which scientists work. As usual, academic teaching of the subject lags behind. However, few philoso- phers or historians of science would argue any longer that the concepts that scientists use to organize so-called "raw data" derive directly and immediately from those data. As a poetic passage in a recent textbook in anthropological theory points out:
One has merely to observe birds flying, smoke rising, clouds drifting, feathers floating and stones plummeting to realize that Galileo's formula-
Princeton University, Program in History and Philosophy of Science
* I am most grateful for the careful reading and instructive comments on earlier drafts of this essay by Ludo Abicht, Oliver Loud, John McChesney, and Andy Winnick.
tion of the laws of motion could not possibly have resulted from the mere
collection of facts9 9 The normal mode of scientific procedure i s . . . something quite differ- ent from what Bacon supposed. 1
Of equal interest is that scientists themselves, at least some of the most
creative, have recognized this all along.
Galileo himself, in an oft-quoted and pungent remark, expressed his admira- tion for Aristarchus' and Copernicus' ability to reject their unmediated empirical perceptions and instead enable "reason . . . to commit such a rape upon their senses as, in despite thereof, to make herself mistress of their belief. ''2 As to his own work, he wrote that his conclusions did not derive from his experiments, since he did the latter only to persuade others of what he had already figured out. "To satisfy his own mind alone he had never felt it necessary to make any. ''3 It seems likely, if the story is not wholly apocryphal, that the famous experiment of dropping objects of differing physi- cal characteristics off the tower of Pisa was performed not by Galileo but by an opponent9 Given that special conditions not regularly occufing in the atmosphere of Pisa are necessary completely to confirm Galileo's mind- experiment, this forgotten scientist, depending on the physical qualities on which he focused, probably went home either confused or triumphantly beguiled by the evidence of his senses9
Ernst Mach, an important influence on Einstein, explicitly adhered to a modern nominalism in which concepts are means of organizing experience rather than eternal verities about an underlying objective reality. He also had followers among some of the Bolsheviks, who read him as saying that the tools for organizing scientific experience are social products and thus that major scientific breakthroughs would require a social revolution9 His influ- ence was such that Lenin took a year off to study Machian physics and compose a critique, which has been an embarrassment to Marxist philosophy ever since. 4
Both Einstein and Niels Bohr thought extensively about epistemology. Neither was able to recognize the prevailing inductive model as conforming to their own creative experience. Both were great physicists precisely insofar as they were philosophers9 Indeed, as Feuer tells, the repudiation of Baconian methodology was for each of them an important contribution to their physical theories. For Einstein, the conviction that scientific concepts are not responsive exclusively to sensory observations and purely rational considera- tions was itself a recognition of relativist premises. Likewise Bohr's musings
on the role of personal choices by the experimenter and the absence of any absolutist determinism, shaped his anticipations of discontinuity and indeter- minacy in ultimate, sub-microscopic, physical phenomena.
I do not mean to imply that Einstein and Bohr were in accord on a positive model of science or on what other kinds of factors do influence conceptuali- zation. Their agreement was only on a negative, on what valid scientific methodology is not. In important respects their scientific goals and expecta- tions were radically different. Bohr, by way of Kierkegaard, is reminiscent of the medieval positivists who despairingly renounced the hope that mere humans could ever know the reality behind phenomena. Einstein, on the other hand, was a modern Copernicus, intent on providing a new cosmology closer to how things really are, while hopefully improving on the predictive capacity of the archaic understanding. In his continued unease with probabi- listic quantum theory, he explicitly reacted against the discordant world-view of which he saw it a manifestation.
Of course, recognizing that concepts are mediated, that there are intervening processes between conceptual formation and perception of the data, and that those processes are influenced by factors outside science, still leaves a range of possibilities. It may be that the concepts inhere in the data and that external factors enable us to perceive the pre-existing relationships. A subtly distinct view is that external factors enable a creative prams by scientists. From this perspective, the connections do not simply inhere in the data waiting to be discovered, but rather, in part, are brought and imposed by scientists. The same data permitting multiple interpretations, the test of validity actually employed (though rarely on a conscious level) is both what connections seem to make sense in terms of how scientists at any particular
time think about tile world as a whole, as well as what is sustainable by the data. It is the former, I shall suggest later, which is the point of entry for factors external to science, primarily the scientists' social existence and societal context. Only what seems to make sense from a socially conditioned general perspective is actually perceived in and tested out on the data. In this view, close to that expressed of Mach, science is not simply an ever- nearer reflection of an integral underlying reality, and scientists are more than neutral mediators between that reality and an audience.
The really creative scientists, in general, have been those not tracked into "normal science" (in Kuhn's connotative phrase). They have developed their new insights when relatively young, and have tended to be outside the established institutions. They have also been characterized by philosophical leanings, questioning the premises and outlooks on which the prevailing
understandings in their field have rested and thinking deeply about the processes of their own creativity. Sometimes that questioning has led them to recognize that factors extrinsic to science are important in how data are chosen and construed. Some of these attributes are sufficiently familiar to bring occasional anguish to ambitious thirty-five year olds who have not yet made their mark, and disquiet some who see few personal alternatives to academic careers. As components of a somewhat stereotyped model of scientific creativity, they are also implicit acknowledgements of deficiencies in the usual image of scientists as split personalities whose scientific thinking in unaffected by the rest of their thoughts and lives.
To an extent remarkable only by contrast with how we have been taught to think about scientists, twentieth century physics has been significantly influ- enced by twentieth century politics. By that I mean neither the micro-politics of scientific institutions-who gets promoted or how research resources are divided-which sociologists of science are now extensively exploring, nor the macro-politics of resource allocation by governments and how that affects the training of scientists and which research problems and approaches are con- sidered feasible, nor the scientists' own anticipations and fears about the potential social and military uses of their findings. Rather I have in mind here the impact on their most basic tools of understanding the world, their concepts and modes of conceptualization, of their own political participation and perceptions. Because scientific concepts have usually been immune to this type of analysis, and because the biographical information is not widely known, Feuer's contributions on this question are the most suggestive part of
Take, for example, the principle of relativity. In its everyday usage the concept underlying the word was the focus of political debates by the radical student groups of which Einstein was a member. From Marx, through reading Veblen, he derived the understanding that social and economic laws are not eternal or absolute but historically relative to particular systems. He took part in discussions on whether proletarian and bourgeois observers could arrive at a common description of the same society, and which social standpoint would permit a closer approximation to an understanding of reality. These were debates which led to the later establishment of the sociology of knowledge as a formal discipline, and which also had direct implications for political ethics. When Einstein's friend Friedrich Adler, a Maqhian physicist, prominent socialist leader, and political assassin, was on trial for his life, his statement of defense used the idea of relativity to discuss the difficully of justifying his act. Adler intermingled relativity in ethics, in history and in physics, seeing the same world-view as the foundation of each.
Actually, while Einstein very likely developed some of his basic outlook and
came to some of his insights about physics through these debates, his principle of relativity is more than an application to physics of ideas gleaned from politics. What is relative is not simply the knowledge possible of reality, but reality itself, consisting of different coordinate systems none of which is more irreducibly objective than the others. Underlying that relativity, how- ever, are certain absolutes: the independence of the laws of nature from the standpoint of the observer, their conformity to the three mathematical transformations of relativistic mechanics, and the constancy of the speed of light in free space, no matter its source or the observer's frame of reference. "Relativity," as Einstein later wrote, is thus a misnomer. Why, then, did he use this politically charged phrase? Its choice lends support to the case for political influences on the formulation of his physical theory.
Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle partly originated near the other end of the political spectrum. As a youth, Heisenberg was a member of an authoritarian and anti-Semitic group, which looked for its ideals to the myths of medieval romance. His politics, of course, were consciously anti-Marxist, and his sensibilities anti-materialist. Against the determinism of the Marxists, the Bavarian romantic activists reinstated human intention as an active force. Against the notion of elementary particles as physical substances, Heisenberg rebelled even as a schoolboy, replacing materialism with mathematical forms. These shades of an earlier outlook later solidified in his argument that measuring the position of an electron causes unknowable changes in momen- tum, and vice versa, and in his insistence, with others, that physical laws, even as to individual events, are operative only statistically.
Einstein showed profound judgment in probing for the underlying attitudes and more general outlooks on life which scientific concepts manifest. Natural science theories influenced by political perceptions probably do not retain
the original ideological implications. The origins of anything need not neces- sarily reflect on its continued usage and value. Often the same ideas have very different implications in different contexts. On the other hand, there is a broader sense in which scientific concepts do have political implications. Insofar as they reaffirm the socially based world-views on which in part they rest, concepts in science as in other areas of thought either reinforce or challenge an existing social structure. Further, William Leiss has recently argued provocatively that modern science as a whole has premises which must be considered political. He suggests that science is not inherently bound to an attempt at dominating nature, and that this attempt has been a historical adjuvant of social domination in the interest of some social groups over others, s
In any case, recognizing that concepts are shaped by more than the data with which they are directly concerned raises the possibility of distinct scientific approaches, not perforce reconcilable, dealing with the same phenomena. The same suggestion has been aired in discrediting circumstances. However, the best response to nonsense like that of the Nazis about "Jewish science" may not be to insist on the invariable unity and integrity of science. Such insistence carries with it the baggage of commitment to the status quo in inore than science. Ascertaining, to the extent possible, what factors specifi- cally have shaped particular concepts raises the prospect of scientists no longer trained to attribute their concepts only to the data, but instead even to take some personal responsibility for how they have come to interpret the world. Dare it be said? Even in science the realm of necessity could become, within the bounds set by the existence of an objective external world, the realm of freedom.
Observers are people conditioned by their~societies; the directions, empha- ses, and repressions of their observations depend in part on the social character of the observers.. . The purely 'personal equation' in perception has long been known. . , dependent not only on movements in the objective stimulus but on the 'expectations' of the observer.. . The great observers have been the unsocialized personalities of their...