The Intelligibility of Nature

In American Scientist, Margaret Jacob’s reviews Peter Dear’s The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World:

Why are science’s instrumental techniques effective? The usual answer is: by virtue of science’s (true) natural philosophy. How is science’s natural philosophy shown to be true, or at least likely? The answer: by virtue of science’s (effective) instrumental capabilities. Such is the belief, amounting to an ideology, by which science is understood in modern culture. It is circular, but invisibly so.

Readers are apparently expected to conclude that, although other disciplines that accumulate knowledge display many factors that explain their relative effectiveness or success, science alone is solely about theories and methods of inquiry. Truth or lesser falsity cannot explain science’s success, nor can the replication of experimental methods and results. And the historical circumstances, or context, that may have shaped the science are also irrelevant.

Let’s see how this approach works for the history of 17th-century science. Once, when Aristotle held sway, natural philosophy was seen as distantly related to instrumentality and superior to it. Gradually, thanks to Bacon, Descartes and especially Newton, “doing things and understanding things . . . became increasingly folded into one another.” The resulting ideas we have today about nature “are all shaped by our acceptance of the images of reality that we owe to science in its guise as natural philosophy.” If we assign intelligibility to the world, it is because science has “powerful social authority . . ., which serves to render most people unable to refuse a knowledge-claim presented as a ‘scientific fact.'”