Monday, February 23, 2015

Leviathan and the Air Pump

"It is ourselves and not reality that is responsible for what we know." 

In their 1985 collaboration, Leviathan and the Air Pump, Steven Shappin and Simon Schaffer argued that the contest between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over the nature of vacuums, the origins of the experimental method, and the politics of restoration England were inextricably linked.

To put the argument as briefly as possible, the country had just emerged from a generation of civil war (Cromwell, Charles I, Puritanism, etc) and no one wanted to go back to that. How to best organize a polity in order to prevent chaos was a major concern, which led directly to Hobbe's treatise on Absolutism.

According to Boyle the best method in natural philosophy (and politics) was experiment and observation. Free consent freely arrived at would ensure both philosophic truth and political order by allowing room for disagreement, and thereby containing it. By extension, any proposition which could not be established through experiment was no philosophic proposition at all, and as such unanswerable. The method was inductive and eliminative - the goal was not to establish truth, but to eliminate falsehood, and this could only be done by observing actual events as they actually occurred. As proof of his method Boyle offered the air pump, an instrument intended to produce a vacuum, inside which various experiments on could be performed, which would allow philosophers to reasone about air, vacuum, fire, etc., with the benefit of observation.

Hobbes disagreed. He believed that observation could never displace deduction as a form of reasoning because observation always admitted of multiple explanations, and without rigorous definitions there was no way to decide between them. Boyle was thus wrong to eschew metaphysics - no number of experiments with air pumps could establish whether a vacuum was present or not unless Boyle could define what vacuum, air, etc., were. Boyle had not specified any criteria for evaluation, and was thus free to impose whatever interpretation he wished on the results of his experiments. Hobbes further argued that the experiments were cases of circular reasoning because the definition of a working air pump (at the time a fragile and complicated device that had to be made by hand) was that it replicated Boyle's experimental results. How, then, could results of experiments that took place within it independently verify those of the original, or of each other? He who calibrates the instrument, Hobbes argued, controls the experimental result. For Hobbes the ideal philosophic community, like the ideal political community, was ruled by force - that is, the force of deductive reaaon. In philosophy no less than in politics, the absence of force led inevitably to the collapse of consensus, chaos and war. After a generation of ideologically driven war, England could not take the risk.

Boyle's argument obviously prevailed, but according to the authors Hobbe's critiques are still relevant. have Their further claim is that politics and science are inseparable, as this (and by extension, other) episodes demonstrate. There's much more to this work that it would be fun to get into, but those are I think the main points. 

Part of a series on Science Technology and Society (XIV of XX)

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