What Did the Romans Know? An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking (II)

I finished the book.

I did not have a lot of nice things to say about the second half of it on goodreads. I felt it was a bad idea to blog the book right after I’d finished it (I occasionally do this) because I was actually feeling angry at the author at that point, and I hope that after having now distanced myself a bit from it perhaps I’m now better able to evaluate the book.

The author is a classics professor writing about science. I must say that at this point I have now had some bad experiences with reading authors with backgrounds in the humanities writing about science and scientific history – reading this book at one point reminded me of the experience I had reading the Engelhardt & Jensen book. It also reminded me of this comic – I briefly had a ‘hmmmmm…. – Is the reason why I have a hard time following some of this stuff the simple one that the author is a fool who doesn’t know what he’s talking about?‘-experience. It’s probably not fair to judge the book as harshly as I did in my goodreads review (or to link to that comic), and this guy is a hell of a lot smarter than Engelhardt and Jensen are (which should not surprise you – classicists are smart), but I frankly felt during the second half of this work that the author was wasting my time and I get angry when people do that. He spends inordinate amounts of time discussing trivial points which to me seem only marginally related to the topic at hand – he’d argue they’re not ‘marginally related’ of course, but I’d argue that that’s at least in part because he’s picked the wrong title for his book (see also the review to which I linked in the previous post). There’s a lot of stuff in the second half about things like historiography and ontology, discussions about the proper truth concept to apply in this setting and things like that. Somewhat technical stuff, but certainly readable. I feel he’s spending lots of words and time on trivial and irrelevant points, and there are a couple of chapters where I’ve basically engaged in extensive fisking in the margin of the book. I don’t really want to cover all that stuff here.

I’ve added some observations from the second half of the book below, as well as some critical remarks. I’ve tried in this post to limit my coverage to the reasonably good stuff in there; if you get a good impression of the book based on the material included in this post I have to caution you that I did not think the book was very good. If you want to read the book because you’re curious to know more about ‘the wisdom of the ancients’, I’ll remind you that on the topic of science at least there simply is no such thing:

“Science is special because there is no ancient wisdom. The ancients were fools, by and large. I mean no disrespect, but if you wish to design a rifle by Aristotelian principles, or treat an illness via the Galenic system, you are a fool, following foolishness.”

Lehoux would, I am sure, disagree somewhat with that assessment (that the ancients were fools), in that he argues throughout the book that the ancients actually often could be argued to be reasonably justified in believing many of the things that they did. I’m not sure to which extent I agree with that assessment, but the argument he makes is not without some merit.

“That magnets attract because of sympathy had long been, and would long continue to be, the standard explanation for their efficacy. That they can be impeded by garlic is brought in to complete the pairing of forces, since strongly sympathetic things are generally also strongly antipathetic with respect to other objects. […] in both Plutarch and Ptolemy, garlic-magnets are being invoked as a familiar example to fill out the range of the powers of the two forces. Sympathy and antipathy, the author is saying, are common — just look at all the examples […] goat’s blood as an active substance is another trope of the sympathy-antipathy argument. […] washing the magnet in goat’s blood, a substance antipathetic to the kind of thing that robs magnets of their power, negates the original antipathetic power of the garlic, and so restores the magnets.[15] […] we should remember that — even for the eccentric empiricist — the test only becomes necessary under the artificial conditions I have created in this chapter.[36] We know the falsity of garlic-magnets so immediately that no test [feels necessary] […] We know exactly where the disproof lies — in experience — and we know that so powerfully as to simply leave it at that. The proof that it is false is empirical. It may be a strange kind of empirical argument that never needs to come to the lab, but it is still empirical for all that. On careful analysis we can argue that this empiricism is indirect […] Our experiences of magnets, and our experiences of garlic, are quietly but very firmly mediated by our understanding of magnets and our understanding of garlic, just as Plutarch’s experiences of those things were mediated by his own understandings. But this is exactly where we hit the big epistemological snag: our argument against the garlic-magnet antipathy is no stronger, and more importantly no more or less empirical, than Plutarch’s argument for it. […]

None of the experience claims in this chapter are disingenuous. Neither we nor Plutarch are avoiding a crucial test out of fear, credulity, or duplicity. We simply don’t need to get our hands dirty. This is in part because the idea of the test becomes problematized only when we realize that there are conflicting claims resting on identical evidential bases — only then does a crucial test even suggest itself. Otherwise, we simply have an epistemological blind spot. At the same time, we recognize (as Plutarch did) how useful and reliable our classification systems are, and so even as the challenge is raised, we remain pretty confident, deep down, about what would happen to the magnet in our kitchen. The generalized appeal to experience has a lot of force, and it still has the power to trick us into thinking that the so-called “empirically obvious” is more properly empirical than it is just obvious. […]

An important part of the point of this chapter is methodological. I have taken as my starting point a question put best by Bas van Fraassen: “Is there any rational way I could come to entertain, seriously, the belief that things are some way that I now classify as absurd?”[45] I have then tried to frame a way of understanding how we can deal with the many apparently — or even transparently — ridiculous claims of premodern science, and it is this: We should take them seriously at face value (within their own contexts). Indeed, they have the exact same epistemological foundations as many of our own beliefs about how the world works (within our own context).”

“On the ancient understanding, astrology covers a lot more ground than a modern newspaper horoscope does. It can account for everything from an individual’s personality quirks and dispositions to large-scale political and social events, to racial characteristics, crop yields, plagues, storms, and earthquakes. Its predictive and explanatory ranges include some of what is covered by the modern disciplines of psychology, economics, sociology, medicine, meteorology, biology, epidemiology, seismology, and more. […] Ancient astrology […] aspires to be […] personal, precise, and specific. It often claims that it can tell someone exactly what they are going to do, when they are going to do it, and why. It is a very powerful tool indeed. So powerful, in fact, that astrology may not leave people much room to make what they would see as their own decisions. On a strong reading of the power of the stars over human affairs, it may be the case that individuals do not have what could be considered to be free will. Accordingly, a strict determinism seems to have been associated quite commonly with astrology in antiquity.”

“Seneca […] cites the multiplicity of astrological causes as leading to uncertainty about the future and inaccuracy of prediction.[41] Where opponents of astrology were fond of parading famous mistaken predictions, Seneca preempts that move by admitting that mistakes not only can be made, but must sometimes be made. However, these are mistakes of interpretation only, and this raises an important point: we may not have complete predictive command of all the myriad effects of the stars and their combinations, but the effects are there nonetheless. Where in Ptolemy and Pliny the effects were moderated by external (i.e., nonastrological) causes, Seneca is saying that the internal effects are all-important, but impossible to control exhaustively. […] Astrology is, in the ancient discourses, both highly rational and eminently empirical. It is surprising how much evidence there was for it, and how well it sustained itself in the face of objections […] Defenders of astrology often wielded formidable arguments that need to be taken very seriously if we are to fully understand the roles of astrology in the worlds in which it operates. The fact is that most ancient thinkers who talk about it seem to think that astrology really did work, and this for very good reasons.” [Lehoux goes into a lot of detail about this stuff, but I decided against covering it in too much detail here.]

I did not have a lot of problems with the stuff covered so far, but this point in the coverage is where I start getting annoyed at the author, so I won’t cover much more of it. Here’s an example of the kind of stuff he covers in the later chapters:

“The pessimistic induction has many minor variants in its exact wording, but all accounts are agreed on the basic argument: if you look at the history of the sciences, you find many instances of successful theories that turn out to have been completely wrong. This means that the success of our current scientific theories is no grounds for supposing that those theories are right. […]

In induction, examples are collected to prove a general point, and in this case we conclude, from the fact that wrong theories have often been successful in the past, that our own successful theories may well be wrong too.”

He talks a lot about this kind of stuff in the book. Stuff like this as well. Not much in those parts about what the Romans knew, aside from reiteration and contextualization of stuff covered earlier on. A problem he’s concerned with and presumably one of the factors which motivated him to writing the book is how we might convince ourselves that our models of the world are better than those of the ancients, who also thought they had a pretty good idea about what was going on in the world – he argues this is very difficult. He also talks about Kuhn and stuff like that. As mentioned I don’t want to cover the stuff from the book I don’t like in too much detail here, and I added the quotes in the two paragraphs above mostly because they marginally relate to a point (a few points?) that I felt compelled to include here in the coverage because this stuff is important to me to underscore, on account at least in part of the fact that the author seems to be completely oblivious about it:

Science should in my opinion be full of people making mistakes and getting things wrong. This is not a condition to be avoided, this is a desirable state of affairs.

This is because scientists should be proven wrong when they are wrong. And it is because scientists should risk being proven wrong. Looking for errors, problems, mistakes – this is part of the job description.

The fact that scientists are proven wrong is not a problem, it is a consequence of the fact that scientific discovery is taking place. When scientists find out that they’ve been wrong about something, this is good news. It means we’ve learned something we didn’t know.

This line of thinking seems from my reading of Lehoux to be unfamiliar to him – the desirability of discovering the ways we’re wrong doesn’t really seem to enter the picture. Somehow Lehoux seems to think that the fact that scientists may be proven wrong later on is an argument which should make us feel less secure about our models of the world. I think this is a very wrongheaded way to think about these things, and I’d actually if anything argue the opposite – precisely because our theories might be proven wrong we have reason to feel secure in our convictions, because theories which can be proven wrong contain more relevant information about the world (‘are better’) than theories which can’t, and because theories which might in principle be proven wrong but have not yet been proven wrong despite our best attempts should be placed pretty high up there in the hierarchy of beliefs. We should feel far less secure in our convictions if there were no risk they might be proven wrong.

Without errors being continually identified and mistakes corrected we’re not learning anything new, and science is all about learning new things about the world. Science shouldn’t be thought of as being about building some big fancy building and protecting it against attacks at all costs, walking around hoping we got everything just right and that there’ll be no problems with water in the basement. Philosophers of science and historians of science in my limited experience seem often to subscribe to a model like that, implicitly, presumably in part due to the methodological differences between philosophy and science – they often seem to want to talk about the risk of getting water in the basement. I think it’s much better to not worry too much about that and instead think about science in terms of unsophisticated cavemen walking around with big clubs or hammers, smashing them repeatedly into the walls of the buildings and observing which parts remain standing, in order to figure out which building materials manage the continual assaults best.

Lastly just to reiterate: Despite being occasionally interesting this book is not worth your time.

March 28, 2014 Posted by | Books, History, Philosophy, Science | 5 Comments