Pseudo-science, proto-science, pre-science or just plain science?

Having posted my recent article on the history of pseudo-science and science I went off to bed. Whilst I was wrapped in the arms of Morpheus an interesting little debate was taking place on my twitter stream. One of the participants thought that astrology and alchemy in the Early Modern Period should be considered as proto-sciences and not pseudo-sciences whereas his companion preferred the term pre-sciences. Their objection to the use of the term pseudo-science certainly has historical validity but if we are searching for a non-anachronistic substitute then as I answered in the morning, when I read their little debate, one should simply refer to them both as sciences. This discussion actually has a deeper meaning and I thought it might be of interest to take a closer look at the objections to the use of pseudo-science and my, for many people provocative, suggested solution.

The discussion that follows is, on a very superficial level, one on the philosophy of science, which some people, I think largely correctly, consider to be nothing other than epistemology. I should state that although I studied philosophy of science formally for ten years and informally for much longer I do not consider myself to be in anyway an authority in this area so if you wish to blast my arguments to smithereens in the comments please feel free to do so.

My twitter friends were of course perfectly correct to object to the label pseudo-science being applied to astrology and alchemy as practiced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However I was using the term in the sense in which it is used currently by Skeptics and other self-appointed defenders of the purity of science. In fact my whole point was that in earlier times these disciplines had not been decried but taken seriously and had thereby made substantial contributions to the evolution of the sciences. My twitter friends had realised this and were suggesting alternative terms based on their belief that astrology and alchemy aren’t really sciences but were treated as such in the Early Modern Period and thus proto- or pre-science. This raises visions of Thomas Kuhn’s pre-paradigmatic disciplines suggesting that because astrology and alchemy never developed paradigms they never succeeded in becoming sciences, unlike for example physics. I think this view is wrong.

I have provocatively labelled our two esoteric disciplines sciences as they were conceived in the period under discussion and here we have, in my opinion, the crux of the matter; the meaning of the term science is not and never has been cast in concrete but has itself changed over the centuries.

The current meaning of the term as understood by most people today, that is a study of nature governed by some form of logical scientific method, only really emerged in the nineteenth century, earlier it meant something rather different.

Science is the English translation, via the French, of the Latin term scientia, which was in the Middle Ages the standard translation in the works of Aristotle and others of the Greek term episteme in turn usually rendered in modern English as knowledge. The term first appears in English in the thirteenth century and according to Deborah Harkness in her The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (2007) (an excellent read) was in common usage in the Elizabethan period.

For Aristotle episteme of the natural world was ideally derived deductively from predetermined axioms; common sense statements that could be accepted by all without further proof, a very different concept of scientific knowledge to our modern one.

There is a modern debate as to whether scientific knowledge is the only form of knowledge or just one of several that I do not intend to go into here (or ever for that matter; that way lies madness!) However in the Early Modern Period it was freely acknowledged that there were different forms of knowledge with differing justifications. At the top of the pile was religious knowledge, which was revealed knowledge, revealed through God’s word in the Bible. This was in everyway superior to mere empirical knowledge. In fact as I pointed out in an earlier post Galileo’s famous two books argument, the book of God and the book of Nature, was a sneaky attempt to raise empirical knowledge to the same level as religious knowledge.

In the sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth century empirical knowledge was not justified in the first instance by repeatability but by personal testimony. A natural philosopher would give a list of those who had witnessed his discovery, the higher the social status of the witnesses the higher the justification of the knowledge. Although this situation gradually changed throughout the seventeenth century we still find strong examples of its use. When Pascal published the results of sending his cousin up a mountain with a barometer he did so with a list of those who had witnessed the experiment. Galileo who is often credited, wrongly, with having invented modern science sent out his telescopes not to astronomers but to bishops and aristocrats because their testimony carried more weight than that of the astronomers.

Both astrology and alchemy were considered to be epistemic disciplines, that is deliverers of knowledge. The justification in this case was philosophical and can be found in the concept of micro-cosmos/macro-cosmos. This philosophical axiom was particularly prevalent in the Renaissance and was the belief that the earth was a miniature model of the heavens and that through celestial influence the heavens in some way controlled what happened on the earth. In an extension of this philosophy the human body was an even smaller model of the cosmos producing a sort of Russian doll effect. This philosophical concept occurs in almost all schools of Greek philosophy and was taken over by the scholastics in the Renaissance.

Astrology was supposedly a way of determining this celestial influence whereas alchemy, in its Renaissance form, and natural magic were supposedly ways of controlling or manipulating that influence.

The collapse of these Renaissance esoteric sciences came about largely because the micro-cosmos/macro-cosmos philosophy was abandoned towards the end of the seventeenth century thus withdrawing their epistemic status. This is not something that happened overnight for example as I’ve written before although Isaac Newton completely rejected both astrology and natural magic he accepted alchemy as an epistemic discipline as did both John Locke and Robert Boyle.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of science, Renaissance Science

7 responses to “Pseudo-science, proto-science, pre-science or just plain science?

  1. Pingback: Pseudo-science, proto-science, pre-science or just plain science? | Whewell's Ghost

  2. This reminds me of the debate a few years back amongst historians of science over the question: what is the history of science a history of? Asking the question was probably as important as any answer that they came up with. Some decided that what they were really interested in was a history of experimental method (which of course leaves out much that many of us would want to label “science”).

    As you suggest in the post the really interesting question (then as now) is who gets to decide what is science/evidence and what is not. Steven Shapin is good on the importance of social status and status of evidence.

  3. Pingback: Pseudo-science, proto-science, pre-science or just plain science? | Tudo o resto |

  4. I’d reserve the word ‘pseudoscience’ for practices that can quite easily be seen to be flawed in their own time. These flaws are overlooked because of a failing on the part of the practitioners involved, such as:

    – they’re impressed by technicality and/or apparent rigour rather than by good explanations

    – they fail to give due consideration to a reasonable hypothesis because they consider it to be immoral

    – they’re taken in by the supposed authority of experts, or by mere consensus

    – in yearning for certainty, they give a “foundational” role to observation instead of honestly testing hypotheses.

    I wouldn’t expect everyone to agree with this incomplete list of my own – I’m just trying to point at various sorts of culpable vanity. We can see it in some work of philosophy such as those of Heidegger or Derrida – it looks like philosophy to some, but more like nonsense to others. If there’s such a thing as “pseudo-philosophy”, there can be such a thing as pseudo-science, even if we disagree over what it includes. It probably wouldn’t include alchemy even in the seventeenth century.

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  6. Pingback: Diets, fads and the methods of science | Vanessa Heggie | Womens Health

  7. Pingback: Diets, fads and the methods of science | Vanessa Heggie

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