• Ernst Homburg

    Mooi verhaal, maar weer typisch een blog van een fysicus. De 18e eeuwse technologen als Beckmann hadden goed door dat je de techniek in twee segmenten moet verdelen: mechanische techniek (waar deze blog over gaat) en chemische techniek (die hier geheel uit het zicht blijft). Naast motion, force, energy en information, blijven twee belangrijke dimensies dus buiten beeld: het besef van de verschillende aard van materie (elementen (kwalitatieve klassen)), met belangrijke waterscheidingen in de 2e helft van de 18de en 2e helft van de 19de eeuw, én de technologische pendant scheidingsprocessen (kwantitatieve zuiverheidsstappen), met breuken ca. 1800, ca. 1920 en na de 2de wereldoorlog. Ernst

    • Frans van Lunteren

      Dank voor je reactie. Je hebt natuurlijk gelijk dat in dit beknopte ‘grote verhaal’ van alles buiten beeld blijft. Maar het leidt wel tot een eenvoudige fasering van een tijdsbestek van meer dan vier eeuwen, waarbij elke fase gekenmerkt wordt door een specifieke visie op de natuur in haar geheel, op de ultieme bouwstenen van de wereld en op de aard van het leven. Dat al die aspecten op een tamelijk natuurlijke manier verbonden kunnen worden met een apparaat dat in die periode tevens belangrijke en zichtbare maatschappelijke functies vervult en vervolgens ook nog een betekenisvolle rol gaat spelen in het natuurwetenschappelijk onderzoek zelf, lijkt me veel verbazingwekkender dan het feit dat daarbij van
      alles buiten beeld blijft. Dat laatste geldt overigens niet alleen voor de scheikunde, maar ook voor de biologie en de fysica zelf. De grote breuklijn in de natuurkunde is traditioneel het ontstaan van de relativiteits- en quantumtheorieën in het begin van de twintigste eeuw. In mijn schema komen ze niet voor. Dat is onderdeel van de fijnstructuur. En laat ik het omdraaien: noem mij een chemische technologie die een vergelijkbaar zichtbare rol vervulde in de samenleving, gebruikt werd als metafoor voor uiteenlopende natuurlijke en maatschappelijke processen, gepaard ging met een nieuwe visie op het leven zelf, en die resulteerde in een aanscherping van bestaande fundamentele begrippen, die ook een centrale rol kregen buiten de scheikunde. Ik neem die met alle plezier op in mijn schema.

      • Bart Karstens

        Yes, this is a physics centered blog post, but that would not be problematic if the suggested analytical perspective promises to be a suitable candidate for ‘big history’. And here I have not yet been convinced. Just to say that a big picture of the history of science involves “ a concise overview of the rise of modern science, with a clear structure allowing for a rough division in periods,” strikes me as superfluous. Big pictures have been set up in history and philosophy of science for two specific reasons: 1.To maintain the unity of knowledge, and 2. To demarcate good science from bad science. These two may obviously be interrelated but this need not be so, and it is useful to consider them separately.

        With respect to 1. we can for example think about the logical positivist project, which aimed to secure all knowledge claims in one ‘house’ of logical propositions. Other examples to maintain the unity of knowledge involve the very concepts Frans is
        referring to, i.e. everything in the world can be mechanically explained, or everything that happens involves exchange of information, etc. I don’t see how his proposal involves a new view on the unity of knowledge, as it appears to accept strong discontinuities in thinking on this matter.

        With respect to 2. I also fail to recognize the required continuous element of Frans’ proposal. Demarcating good science from bad science has to do with specifying a (meta)-methodology. When we seek the origins of modern science in the scientific revolution, this often means that from thereon the correct way to do science was found, involving a sustainable marriage between empirical research and logical/mathematical proof, which, through continuous criticism, keeps itself progressively going. Philosophers of science, such as Popper and Lakatos, have put forward a variety of more detailed meta-methodologies. Such
        meta-methodologies specify what good science is irrespective of the context in which it is practiced. But it has proven very difficult to maintain these philosophical schemes in light of contextual empirical research stemming from both history
        and sociology of science.

        Pickstone has offered us an interesting alternative big picture of science, which does not involve one strict meta-norm of rationality, but instead indicates a number of continuous elements, the five ways of knowing, which are present in any period of time. We can explain (just describe?) change in science by looking at changes between the five ways of knowing. This
        relationalism is based on accepting a number of continuous elements but at the same time allows one to identify discontinuities and produce divisions into distinct periods. The four ‘machines’ in Frans’ proposal do allow for a neat periodisation, but they stand for distinct views of the world and distinct conceptions of science itself. Notwithstanding the many interesting, and indeed surprising, points of the blog post, I fail to see the continuous aspect of an approach that “focuses on nature’s fundamental principles and substances as perceived in successive periods.” A big picture would at least have something to say on the transitions between these periods and how the changes in perception of nature’s fundamental principles and substances cohere.

        • Nice to see you here, Bart! =) I’m not completely sure after all what your primary objection is: is it (A) that this particular big picture is lacking in glue between its parts (i.e. you want a story of how the four episodes are causally related to each other), or is it (B) that it is not even a candidate for a big picture, since it does not maintain and support a unity of knowledge and does not do demarcation?

          I can understand A, which seems to me to be an appeal to the author to write more than a blogpost about this. I don’t understand B, and I’m not sure from where these criteria for Big Picture-ship get their authority. We are talking about big pictures in history of science after all, not about new schemes in philosophy of science; and why should a big picture in history of science do any more normative work than a big picture in political or economic history?

          I think I see your point about continuity. I’m not sure how unfavorably this compares to Pickstone – it’s been a long time since I actually read WoK, but Pickstone’s scheme always seems more like a classificatory device to me: it claims that what happens in STM can be fitted into the categories of natural history, analysis(&synthesis?), experimentation,… and, well, the others (can’t think of them now). The presupposition there seems to be: whatever historical change we see in our research subject (STM), takes place against a continuing background of at least the possibility for these modes of research. Is that what you mean? But don’t the four episodes in FvL’s big picture have a lot in common as well (especially: that there is, at all stages, a feedback between machines, metaphors, scientific practice, and machines again)? Doesn’t that at least provide something of the conceptual continuity that you desire?

          • Bart Karstens

            Hi Jeroen, you know as well as I do hat Big Pictures of the history of science are often philosophically informed (if you want a source check Cunningham and Williams ‘ Decentering the Big Picture’ for example). They involve definitions of what (good) science is and have universalist aspirations. New Big Pictures (this is what interest us) stemming from historians must be pluralist. I interpret Pickstone as saying: science is always comprised of 5 ways of knowing: world reading, natural history, analysis, experiment and technoscience, but his ‘definition’ is not essentialist, as relations between these 5 shift over time. To your last question about conceptual continuity the answer still is ‘no’, what do distinct paradigms have in common? I am curious to hear what Frans thinks on this matter as well. Best, Bart

          • Frans van Lunteren

            Hi Bart, It is gratifying to see that my blog provokes some critical reactions. Actually, Jeroen more or less anticipated my reaction to your criticism, phrasing it much better than I could have done. Apparently, my view of big pictures is far
            more pragmatic than yours. As we all know history is infinitely complex , full of contingencies, and devoid of clear
            discontinuities. The same may be said of science. What I expect of a ‘big picture’ of the history of whatever field we are dealing with is simply a bird’s eye view of long term developments with a discernable structure, preferably in terms of distinct periods that allow for a general characterization of each of these periods. No less and no more. See it as a first order approximation. So the main question is where to draw the fault lines (artificial as they are) and, in this specific case, that of the history
            of science, to briefly characterize the knowledge regimes in the resulting periods. It is basically an exercise in classification. Whenever you classify, you have to draw boundaries and explicit differences. Different points of view lead to different
            classifications. Some look more natural than others.

            Classifying knowledge regimes in different periods also requires us to look for meaningful similarities, resemblances or analogies in different branches of science in the same period. Certainly not unity, for I do not believe that there was or is such a thing as the unity of science. I do however strongly believe that our scientific outlook in many ways mirrors out outlook on society. So I prefer forms of classification that allow us to make connections between science and society. The strength of my big picture, as I see it, is that is does allow for such connections. Moreover, my shared characteristics manifested themselves in widely varying fields of knowledge. I have suggested that the notion of ‘balance’ was immanent in views of the political economy around 1800, the recent blog by Manuel Buitenhuis nicely illustrates how the notion of energy conservation affected mathematical theorizing in economics around 1900 (as it affected physical chemistry and psycho-analysis). It would not be difficult to connect more recent developments in economics with information theoretical approaches. Perhaps the role of game theory would be an appropriate example.

            What about continuity? First of all in a first order approximation one must exaggerate contrast, e.g. by highlighting differences. Of course, the more we zoom in on the boundaries, the more blurred they become. To a certain extent, discontinuities are an artifact of big pictures. Apart from that my big picture allows for continuity in another way. Each of the fundamental concepts
            that was produced or sharpened in the subsequent periods received a kind of permanence. None of them disappeared. We still use concepts such as motion, force, and energy in the information era. In this regard science is progressive. In the course of
            time we acquire more and sharper conceptual tools.

            I fully agree with Jeroen that one cannot and should not require a big picture to tell good science from bad science. This is not a task for the historian of science, but rather one for philosophers and so far they have all failed to deliver. We historians tend to attribute this failure to the hopelessness of the task. I don’t believe that previous big pictures aimed to do anything like this. At hindsight we may discern some positivist strands in early proponents of the Scientific Revolution, but they would have been offended by the attribution of such motives. Their main point was that the development science is not a triumphant march of
            increasing discovery, but that it is characterized by sudden and radical switches in the ways we conceptualize nature and investigate nature, the main and towering revolution being that of the seventeenth century. In some respects, I still think this a useful and attractive approach although I would place earlier and later shifts in our view of nature and our methods on a par with that of the 17th century. Best, Frans

          • Bart Karstens

            Dear Frans,

            Thanks for this clarifying reply. I still do not clearly see why we need a general picture, or bird’s eye view of the history of science, if not for the ‘old’ reasons I mentioned. However I see what your aim is and like the connection between the cognitive and socio-cultural realms your proposal brings about.

            You write: “ Apart from that my big picture allows for continuity in another way. Each of the fundamental concepts that was produced or sharpened in the subsequent periods received a kind of permanence. None of them disappeared. We still use concepts such as motion, force, and energy in the information era. In this regard science is progressive. In the course of time we acquire more and sharper conceptual tools.”

            To make this more explicit is a very exciting prospect. A computer for example is of course first and foremost a mechanical device. The extension of conceptual tools as a measure of progress reminds me of Giere’s idea that we progress by extending our cognitive resources. The later Kuhn was of the same opinion. Thus diversity (hence
            pluralism) is a virtue!

            Best, Bart

            p.s. I certainly did not call proponents of the concept of The Scientific Revolution positivists. On the
            contrary, I clearly distinguished them in my post. Of the 1st generation of professional historians of science only Sarton may be classified as a positivist, the others not.

          • Timo Bolt

            Gezien de rol van de computer in deze ‘big history’ wil ik jullie onderstaand citaat uit het afscheidscollege van de gynaecoloog/klinisch epidemioloog Frank Helmerhorst niet onthouden (zie voor het hele afscheidscollege; https://www.lumc.nl/over-het-lumc/hoo/oraties-redes/2014/Helmerhorst-Prof-dr-F-M-%28Afscheidscollege%29/). Tevens moest ik denken aan het werk van de filosoof De Mul over de ‘informatisering van het wereldbeeld’.

            Hartelijke groet, Timo

            Welke ontwikkeling heeft mij verbaasd en uiteindelijk verder geholpen in
            mijn professionele bestaan gedurende die 45 jaar geneeskunde? Ik neem
            wat hoogtepunten uit deze periode met u door.1 Waren het orgaantransplantaties? Te ver van mijn vakgebied, dacht ik, maar recentelijk werd2
            een transplantatie van een baarmoeder beschreven. Ik vrees echter dat
            de procedure meer bijwerkingen dan werking voor moeder én kind met zich
            meebrengt, terwijl er een redelijk alternatief is, de draagmoeder. Was
            het de genetische technologie waardoor een gen geïdentificeerd,
            geïsoleerd en gekloneerd kon worden? De toepassingen van deze
            technologie zijn legio, in de dagelijkse patiëntenzorg en ten behoeve
            van het wetenschappelijk onderzoek. Maar heeft deze technologie mij als
            dokter anders doen denken? Nee, net zo min als de verbluffende
            beeldvormende technieken die werden ontwikkeld in de jaren 70 en 80,
            zoals de CT of wel CAT3 scan, de MRI4 scan en de
            echoscopie. Dan was de geboorte van Louise Brown in 1978, ontstaan na
            een IVF-behandeling toch wel doorslaggevend voor mij? In 2012 ontving
            Bob Edwards de Nobelprijs voor de ontwikkeling van In Vitro
            Fertilisatie. Door IVF kreeg ik meer zicht op het bevruchtingsproces en
            op de innesteling van het embryo, kortom, op de eerste fasen van ons
            bestaan. Vele paren konden hun kinderwens daardoor vervullen. Maar heeft
            het mijn denken fundamenteel doen veranderen? Nee. Wat maakte dan wel
            het verschil? Voor mij is een toepassing van een stuk elektronica, de
            computer, en wel de gepopulariseerde versie ervan, de ‘personal
            computer’, beter bekend als de PC, die ons in de geneeskunde een
            beslissende verandering in ons denken en doen & laten mogelijk
            heeft gemaakt. Daarbij betrek ik ook het internet als afgeleid product
            van de computer.

          • Frans van Lunteren

            Dank voor deze verwijzing. Ik zag trouwens dat in oktober dit jaar een aantal hotemetoten uit verschillende disciplines (waaronder ‘t Hooft) in Groningen bijeenkomen om enkele dagen van gedachten te wisselen over prangende vragen als “Is the universe one giant information processing machine?”: http://www.isgtw.org/event/information-universe-conference

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