A Battle Against Medieval Barbarism

Today, we’re diving back into the history of science to dust off the origins of a humble but critical component of modern life, a piece of our perspective so integral to how we think that we usually only notice it’s value when it’s corrupted. I’m talking about facts – the concept of a fact really – those objective bits of information about reality on which we build our understanding of the world. We tend to take facts for granted, but they represent an invaluable intellectual technology, which is only a few centuries old, and which was forged in a fight that raged between two of history’s brightest thinkers battling over the best way to rescue their society from the madness of medieval barbarism.

There is a book that gives us a front row seat to that fight, whose title presents the two opposing symbols in the clash over how we would come to know the world: Leviathan and the Air Pump, published by the historians of science Steve Shapin and Simon Schaffer in 1985.

After nearly 35 years in print, the book remains vital because it’s still the best historical account we have of that pivotal argument. The conflict erupted over 350 years ago in the mid 1600s between Thomas Hobbes, the author of modern social contract theory espoused in his great work, Leviathan, and Robert Boyle, a chemist who used the cutting-edge technology of his day – air pumps – to establish the modern experimental scientific method. The debate between these two men centered on the question of how new knowledge could and should be created, and out of their decade-long philosophical duel, the concept of an objective fact as we now know it was born.

It’s amazing that, today, after three and a half centuries of taking facts for granted as the bedrock of truth, we find ourselves in a situation where their authority is once again in doubt. Politicians are manipulating facts, infecting official discourse with phrases like “alternative facts,” ideologues are sacrificing facts at the alter of feelings to challenge everything from climate change to biological sex differences, academic activists are ignoring the facts of economics and history to push theories of postmodernism, and news outlets everywhere are jumping on the clickbait bandwagon to leverage outrage in place of objectivity for the sake of profits, facts be damned.

This book enables us to travel back in time to an era when revolutionary thinkers were confronting far higher stakes in the struggle to determine what’s true. Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes, though enemies in the battle to verify the value of objective facts, were allies in the larger war to deliver Europe from an age of religious hysteria, when belief dominated knowledge and made the European mind a slave to tyrants and mobs. Between them, they contributed powerful ammunition to the twin projects of Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, and this book, Leviathan and the Air Pump, supplies key insight on a key phase of their legacy.

I’m willing to bet that most of you listening to this episode have never even heard of Leviathan and the Air Pump. It’s one of those esoteric, academic books designed for specialists in the history of science, loaded with jargon and long sentences, and outside of the field it’s basically been invisible. But among historians of science, Leviathan and the Air Pump is notorious, perhaps one of the most important books ever published in the profession. I had to read it at least twice in pursuit of my PhD. You see, it set off a little scholarly war when it appeared because what the authors Shapin and Schaffer proposed was nothing less than a historical defense of Thomas Hobbes’ side of the argument with Robert Boyle over the question of how new knowledge could and should be produced. And taking Hobbes’ side was pretty shocking because modern science is built on Boyle’s victory.

Robert Boyle was a chemist who helped pioneer the use of experimental apparatuses and instruments, like balances and hydraulic pumps and barometers, to probe nature’s secrets more effectively than humans were capable of doing on their own. He provided not only the model of a modern experimental scientist, but the methods too, doing more than any other scientific revolutionary to innovate the procedure of systematic, empirical observation, measurement, and testing of hypotheses that is the backbone of science today. His most famous and most productive scientific instrument was the air pump – a device he helped to invent and perfect over the years between 1659 and the 1670s and that he used to discover all kinds of scientific facts, facts about the effects of air pressure and vacuums and combustion and sound and respiration… discoveries that have since become fundamental to huge swaths of science and technology. Boyle even has natural law named after him. The air pump was basically just a glass sphere, a little bigger than a basketball, connected to a pneumatic pump that could suction out practically all of the air from inside the sphere, in which Boyle could then perform his experiments. The air pump, along with all early scientific instruments, were crude by today standards, but they were the particle accelerators and satellite telescopes and supercomputers of their day, and like all scientific equipment, they enabled people to investigate how the world works with superhuman power. Without all of our scientific equipment, most modern knowledge and technology wouldn’t be possible, and in large part, we have Robert Boyle to thank for systematizing its use. Thank goodness, he won the argument with Thomas Hobbes and prevailed in setting such a productive path for modern science.

The utility of scientific apparatus is obvious to us now, but 350 years ago Boyle faced many philosophers who doubted that such fancy gadgetry actually showed us anything real about nature. His greatest foe was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’ intuition, strange as it may seem, was that scientific gadgetry didn’t reveal new things about how nature actually worked, but instead made nature appear to behave in ways that were quite unnatural and unreliable. What was more, Hobbes regarded any so-called “facts” that were allegedly discovered through experiments as highly suspect. He spent a lot of time, for example, criticizing the mechanics of Boyle’s air pump, arguing that it simply didn’t work the way Boyle suggested; it leaked, it broke a lot… and this was true, much to Boyle’s frustration. But Hobbes had other, more serious objections. Even if he granted that Boyle’s air pump worked as advertised, there was still the issue of interpretation – what exactly happened during the course of an experiment might be interpreted differently by different witnesses. Getting any useful knowledge out of experimental results ultimately relied on each witness’s subjective impression or memory, which was likely to be highly variable and highly unreliable. Hobbes had little faith in most of his fellow men. And, Boyle’s reliance on subjective impression made his experimental science useless at best and dangerous at worst in Hobbes’ assessment. Remember, 17th century Europeans were used to slaughtering each other by the millions over disagreements, a history that horrified Hobbes, and one that he was determined to avoid repeating. But, the only way to avoid scientific disagreement about experimental outcomes, Hobbes assumed, would be for Boyle to ensure strict rules about experimental witnessing. He would have to control everything; dictating exactly what witnesses were supposed to focus on, how they were supposed to focus on it, how they interpreted what they witnessed, what they should ignore, and on and on and on. As a result, Hobbes argued, any so-called scientific facts that Boyle might pretend to have simply discovered would turn out in the end to have actually been very carefully socially constructed. That’s right, Hobbes was arguing that Boyle’s modern concept of objective scientific facts were, in reality, socially constructed, and therefore vulnerable to the corruptions of social power. And here was the rub; the authors of Leviathan and the Air Pump agreed with him.

To wrap our heads around exactly what this means and why it matters, it’ll be helpful to take a step back and look at how historians understanding of science has changed over the generations.

Through the early 20th century, most historians held triumphalist views of science. George Sarton (1884-1956), one of the founders of the field of the history of science, asserted that science was “the only human activity [that was] truly cumulative… [and that] its history was the only sort that could illustrate the progress of man.’” But toward the middle of the 20th century, mostly because of how destructive scientific power showed itself capable of being through the World Wars, historians began to question the triumphalist march of progress narrative. One such scholar by the delightfully British name of Herbert Butterfield wrote a famous book in 1931 titled The Whig Interpretation of History which criticized “the tendency of many historians . . . to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.” This criticism would apply to our reverence for Boyle, of course – we only believe Boyle should have won his argument with Hobbes because he did win it. Indeed, Butterfield’s warning went on to become an overarching ethic in the profession of history, drilled into graduate students from the day they enroll. We were admonished to reject the interpretation of history as a march of progress toward the present. We were taught to reject what academics might call a teleological view of history.

Teleology is an important term in philosophy and history – it is the doctrine or view that interprets phenomena in terms of the purposes they seem to serve or ends they appear to reach rather than in terms of the causes by which they arise in the first place… similar to how the idea of intelligent design imposes predestined purpose on biological structures like eyes or brains, a teleological view imposes design and purpose on the flow of historical events. So, a teleological view of history would be a view that past events were in some sense building toward a specific moment or outcome. The standard example is indeed Herbert Butterfield’s criticism of the so-called Whig interpretation of history, in which people assumed that all of history was building toward the apex of human achievement in the form of the Enlightenment. Karl Marx committed the same historical sin, interpreting all of history as building toward the Proletariat revolution and the establishment of utopian communism. Butterfield emphasized instead the importance of understanding the past on its own terms… in other words, seeking to understand how events of the past were perceived by the people who actually lived through them, rather than warping that lived experience by judging it according to present perceptions and values.

Taking Butterfield’s cue, historians began to revise their interpretations of the past to better appreciate how people who lived centuries ago made sense of their world, no matter how strange or primitive their notions might now seem. Historians embraced relativism and talked more and more about studying the past “on its own terms.” Countless scholars in the history of science actually began to devote their time to mastering Ptolemaic Astronomy, Aristotelian physics, astrology, and other arcane dead-ends in humanity’s long journey toward understanding reality. In Leviathan and the Air Pump, Shapin and Schaffer discuss these scholarly shifts in an effort to contextualize, if not justify, their sympathize for Thomas Hobbes and his rejection of Boyle’s experimental science. For example, they write, “where George Sarton organized his historical practice around notions like ‘discoveries,’ the historian Alexandre Koyre meant to shift attention to the structure and arrangement of scientific ‘concepts.’ And what made Koyre’s work so exciting…was its insistence on the historical integrity of past science. For example, Aristotelian physics is false – there can be no doubt about that – but it is, Koyre insisted, systematic, intelligible, and coherent… What Koyre did was at once to stipulate the historical integrity of past conceptual schemes and to invite historians to work out the historically specified rules of the game by which they were played.” Ah… we hear a little bit of Thomas Kuhn sneaking in here already, don’t we? Let’s not think of the history of science in terms of “making discoveries” but in terms of “arranging concepts.” What a handy little euphemism for making the pursuit of truth relative! And only a short step from there to Kuhn’s notion of scientific paradigms. Indeed, the authors write that Kuhn himself “acknowledged the influence of Koyre in helping shape his views, showing ‘what it was like to think scientifically in a period when the canons of scientific thought were very different from those current today.’ Kuhn’s work – and especially his notion of ‘normal science’ – later became decisively important in the development of the sociology of scientific knowledge.” This is how the sausage of academic nonsense gets made. Why were we so quick to judge old world-views as wrong or primitive, these antiquarians prodded? Aristotelian physics is certainly wrong from our perspective today, but it seemed to work well enough for the ancient Greeks, and from their perspective, it would be our physics that would seem crazy. Who were we to judge? It’s all relative. And this is where the authors of Leviathan and the Air Pump saw themselves contributing to the field. By siding with Hobbes in problematizing Boyle’s experimental program, they believed they were enriching our appreciation for the philosophical complexities involved in the birth of modern science. And at the risk of sound like a pedantic snark, I must say, I think they succeeded… despite themselves.

A lot of historians weren’t so charitable when Leviathan and the Air Pump was published back in 1985. One quite prominent historian of science, Michael Hunter, went so far as to label Shapin and Schaffer as “anti-science relativists,” and their book as little more than “an attempt to undercut the pursuit of truth by presenting all knowledge as relative and socially formed.”
I sympathize with Hunter’s critique, but I think that the book’s value shines through in spite of the authors intentions because the star of Shapin’s and Schaffer’s story is actually not Boyle or Hobbes, but rather the modern concept of a scientific fact at the moment of its birth. No one else has done a better job documenting the struggle to establish the modern concept of a fact than Shapin and Schaffer, and no one else has demonstrated how far back in time efforts have gone to undermine the authority of facts for the sake of ulterior social schemes. In my last episode on Context, during my conversation with the intellectual historian Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, I surmised that pragmatists and postmodernists try to collapse the category of scientific, objective truth into the category of culturally constructed, subjective truth, and this turns out to be very much in line with how Shapin and Schaffer describe the aim of their book, “Leviathan and the Air-Pump was an attempt to see the problem of knowledge and the problem of [social] order as the same problem.” Later on, they’re more to the point, stating that “this book was an exercise in the sociology of scientific knowledge.” I think they failed that exercise, or maybe it was doomed to begin with, because what they actually succeeded in doing was to demonstrate not only how scientific truth is distinct from social truth, but also how Robert Boyle fought against Thomas Hobbes by leveraging precisely that distinction in order to establish facts as the foundation of modern knowledge.

A key part of the distinction between scientific and social truth that Boyle advocated concerned the kinds of questions that are appropriate to science. In order for science to be effective, Boyle showed, it should limit its questions to what happens and how, and avoid questions about why things happen the way they do. Speculating on why the world works the way it does might be the business of theologians and philosophers, but not scientists, and in any case, disagreements about why the world works the way it does had driven Europeans mad, and energized religious and civil wars that regularly left millions dead. The English Civil War between 1642 and 1651 alone killed nearly 200,000 people. So, the distinction that Boyle was trying to make between scientific questions and all other kinds of questions was, right off the bat, one of the most life-saving ideas in human history. Unfortunately, it was also one that most people at the time, including Thomas Hobbes, simply could not wrap their heads around. For thousands of years, the greatest thinkers in Western civilization assumed that the goal of knowledge was to understand the causes of things – why nature behaved as it did. According to Aristotle, for example, the reason why pieces of earth, like rocks, fell was because their natural place was the center of the universe, which he believed was the the earth. For millions of Christians, the reason why disease struck their towns and cities was because God was angry. Both Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes would have rejected Aristotelian physics and Biblical plague as medieval nonsense, but for different reasons. For Boyle, these were examples of unscientific thinking; preconceived speculation that made empirical reasoning impossible. But for Thomas Hobbes, the manner of thinking wasn’t the problem, it was simply that Aristotelians and Christians had identified the wrong causes for falling rocks and epidemics, among other things. As much as he fancied himself modern, however, Hobbes fundamental way of thinking remained quite medieval. Throughout his philosophy, he too made all sorts of assumptions about the causes of why the world worked the way it did, and the assumption that produced the most conflict between him and Boyle was that a vacuum – which is to say an absence of air – did not and could not exist in nature.

Hobbes assumption that a vacuum was impossible had been widely held among philosophers for millennia. It seemed obvious; in the way water remained in a glass turned upside down as long as its opening remained submerged, in the way that plates of smooth metal or marble tended to stick together, in the difficulty of pulling a piston out of a sealed shaft, in manifestations of suction of every sort. Philosophers just assumed that the reason why all of these things happened was because nature abhorred a vacuum, and so whenever they encountered a pneumatic question, they proceeded to think it through based on that assumption. This is why Robert Boyle’s air pump was so revolutionary, and why it caused Hobbes so much frustration. Here was a machine that was explicitly designed to investigate the existence and effects of something that Hobbes assumed did not exist. Any explanation that Boyle could provide for why his experiments with air pressure went the way they did, therefore, were completely useless. But, accounting for why anything happened in his air pump was explicitly what Boyle sought to avoid. According to the authors, Boyle’s overarching concern was “to protect the matter of fact by separating it from various items of causal knowledge, and he repeatedly urged caution in moving from experimental matters of fact to their physical explanation.” Indeed, as Boyle himself wrote, “my business is not to assign the… cause of the [pressure] of the air, but only to manifest that the air hath a [pressure], and to relate some of its effects.” As the authors conclude, “the language game that Boyle was teaching the experimental philosopher to play rested upon implicit acts of boundary-drawing. There was to be a crucial boundary between the experimental matter of fact and its ultimate physical cause and explanation.” Instead of speculating on causes, Boyle simply described how his experiments were designed and what happened inside his air pump with as much precision as possible. And to be sure those accounts were objective, he recruited dozens of other members of the Royal Society to witness the experiments for themselves and independently record their own notes on how the experiments proceeded and what they witnessed. He had illustrations drawn by the best artists to depict the exact setup of every important experimental trial, he had assistants measure and tally every detail, every pump, plunge and placement of apparatus so that, at least in theory, anyone anywhere with the means to do so could perfectly replicate his experimental trials. With such an unprecedented effort, even some of Boyle’s friends suspected his sanity – no one had ever orchestrated such a scientific spectacle before and taken such care with the details of reporting and replication. But Boyle understood exactly what he was doing, and so do all scientists who have relied on the replication of results and peer review ever since. In Boyle’s experimental program, the authors wrote, “multiplication of the witnessing experience was fundamental. An experience, even of a rigidly controlled experimental performance, that one man alone witnessed was not adequate to make a matter of fact. If that experience could be extended to many, and in principle to all men, then the result could be constituted as a matter of fact.”

In principle, practically all scientific facts are provisional; the provision is that everyone else will discover the same facts if they investigated the same slice of reality in question. To me, this is just semantics; facts are still points of contact with reality that exist whether or not humanity has discovered them and regardless of how many people reach out and touch them. To the authors, however, this puts an asterisk on the notion of objective truth and allows just enough semantic wiggle room for them to reframe facts as social constructions. But in so doing, they actually abandon their own ethic of historical objectivity and adopt Thomas Hobbes’ argument against Robert Boyle. For example, they fixate on “how…[exactly] one [policed] the reports of witnesses so as to avoid radical individualism. Was one obliged to credit a report on the testimony of any witness whatsoever? Boyle [himself] insisted that witnessing was to be a… social act.” This is a good example of how academics seek to problematize an otherwise straightforward concept. For another example, listen to how the authors criticize Boyle’s reliance on replication of results and peer review: “[Boyle] had no option but to rely for a substantial part of his knowledge on the testimony of witnesses; and, in assessing that testimony, he had to determine their credibility. This necessarily involved their moral constitution as well as their knowledgeability… Thus, the giving of witness in experimental [science] traversed the social and moral accounting systems of [17th century] England.” Ah… that’s one way of putting I guess? But why obfuscate by using language like ‘traversed the social and moral accounting systems of 17th century England?’ How does this language help us better appreciate or understand Boyle’s innovation? Why not just acknowledge that Boyle was inventing the modern scientific standard of replication of results and peer review? There really isn’t a problem here – Boyle needed a consensus of subjective confirmation of his experimental results to satisfy the standard of objective fact discovery, and the witnesses that comprised his subjective consensus needed to be solid people. Pretty sensible. And, we should be able to leverage our knowledge of 350 years of successful science ever since to deepen our appreciation for just how brilliant and pioneering Boyle’s epistemological innovation really was. The authors ignore that historical wisdom for the sake of resurrecting the unsuccessful perspective of Thomas Hobbes, as the final passage of the book confirms, “As we come to recognize the conventional and artifactual status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in a position to realize that it is ourselves and not reality that is responsible for what we know. Knowledge, as much as the state, is the product of human actions. Hobbes was right.”

I believe that the authors succeeded in enriching our appreciation for the birth fact-based science because, even though they took Hobbes’ side in the fight against Boyle, they revealed just how revolutionary Boyle’s modern concept of a fact really was, and how hard it was to overturn 2000 years of philosophical impulse and convert a novel way of reasoning into an obvious one. Steve Shapin and Simon Schaffer are excellent historians of science, among the top in the field, and despite their indulgence in relativistic history here, they still clarify Boyle’s invaluable legacy. One point they emphasize in particular, and which should make Boyle all the more worthy of our reverence, is how Boyle was emphatic that “[factual] disputes should be about findings and not about persons. It was proper to take a hard view of reports that were inaccurate but most improper to attack the character of those that rendered them.” In the early 21st century, many of us are growing weary of the personal attacks and character assassinations that increasingly substitute for facts, reasoned argument, and good faith engagement. Social media and political ideology are contributing to a culture of outrage that is inhospitable to objectivity. But while we may gripe about the decline in civility and reason on Twitter and in presidential speeches, Robert Boyle was struggling to create the modern conventions of fact-based reason against the backdrop of real bloodshed on a mass scale, real witch hunts and real mob violence that erupted on a hair-trigger of disagreement or misunderstanding. The authors Shapin and Schaffer do help us to better appreciate the mortal stakes involved at the time, when men like Boyle stood up to men like Hobbes. In an age racked with Civil War and religious madness, Boyle and his fellow scientific revolutionaries weren’t just tinkering with expensive gadgetry or elitist concepts, they were trying to establish a practical system for their civilization to escape a tradition of violent disagreement about what was true. As Boyle himself wrote, “As for the practice of many, who write, as if they thought railing at a man’s person… necessary to the confutation of his opinions… [I think] it is as unwise as it is provoking. For if I civilly endeavor to reason a man out of his opinions, I make myself but one work to do, namely, to convince his understanding; but, if in a bitter or exasperating way I oppose his errors, I increase the difficulties I would surmount, and have as well his affections against me as his judgement.”

The thing is, Boyle knew that the acceptance of facts did hinge on feelings; facts mattered most to people who did not feel personally threatened. He knew that civility wasn’t just nice, it was necessary for the objective parts of our minds to work. And if he could summon civility in his historical context, we certainly should be able to in ours.

I’m Brad Harris. So long.

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