Galileo and the ‘Scientific Method’

While Galileo played an important role in the development of the ‘scientific method’ as we acknowledge it, his attribution as being the sole inventor of it is a ‘whiggish’ assessment that few historians will still maintain today. However, views put forward by figures such as Blackwell, Koestler, Bronowki, and to a lesser extent Schuster could mistakenly result in someone believing such a conclusion. These authors appreciate not only his use of experiments to facilitate discovery, but importantly his Neo-Platonic ideological ‘grid’, as Schuster would say, that uniquely and innovatively funnelled his observations through rigorous mathematics that aimed to justify and represent his findings. So too, his distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ characteristics is proof among some that this is evidence of his role in creating a scientific methodology. Alternatively, authors such as Wisan, Drake, and again Schuster, present a counteractive viewpoint, suggesting that while his influence is undeniable, he did not singlehandedly ‘invent’ the scientific method because, as Drake (1978, p. 101) puts it ‘he did not say (as we do) that science has a method but that it is a method’. I aim to assess the authors’ claims of Galileo’s influence on the scientific method, and examples and other authors that refute these claims.

Sometimes referred to as a distinction between ‘scientific’ observation and the more contemplative, natural philosophical desire to know ‘why’ things happened, Galileo’s reputation as a less mystical Neo-Platonist meant he was much more concerned with the ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ of processes and nature. This outlook can be interpreted as being a basic precursor of modern physics. Koestler (1959 p. 352) applauds his distinction between tangible, measureable ‘primary’ qualities such as an objects solid state, rather than ‘secondary’, objective traits such as taste and smell which Galileo himself referred to as ‘mere names’ that ‘reside in consciousness’ (Drake, 1957, p. 274) and not reality. This is indicative of his pursuit of ‘facts’ which he believed, as with all his scientific endeavours, he could deduce with mathematics or a combination of it and experimental observation. This focus on mathematics and observation was at the time a unique combination; arguably incorporating Aristotle’s method of categorization, Bacon’s ‘observation, hypothesis, experiment’ methodology, and Galileo’s own reliance on Neo-Platonic mathematical principles to produce the ‘Two New Sciences’ 1638 publication. This outlined, among other things, his Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment which he claimed proved other theories like Aristotle’s theory of gravity to be wrong as a result of his evidence.

Schuster (1995 p. 27) claims early on that there isn’t an objectively perfect, accepted ‘scientific method’. The fact that ‘books are being written right this second expounding precisely what scientific method [is]’, is evidence that neither Galileo, nor anybody, can claim to be the single inventor of the scientific method. Schuster (1995 p. 80) outlines the ‘theory loading of perception’ when he states that despite having dissimilar perceptions, two different people can claim they’re obeying scientific method if they ‘observe and generalise’ the ‘facts’ based on their own theory. With this in mind, we can see that ‘truth… consists of the correspondence between perceptions and facts’ (1995, p. 47) and ‘perceptions’, moreover, ‘are manufactured products… by your brain’ (1995, p. 51) meaning that the ‘scientific method’ can’t produce absolute, objective ‘coagulated fact’ (1995, p. 46) and we’ll always be burdened by our own inherent conceptual grids, similar to divergent perceptions of Gestalt figures. These conceptual reservations aside, Schuster does agree that Galileo aspired to perform scientific observations objectively through ‘experiment and mathematization’ (1995, p. 32), despite his inaccuracies and drive to prove Copernican theory. Schuster still believes that Galileo was not performing experiments in a vacuum, and his inclined plane experiment wasn’t an ‘act of nature’ but an ‘experimental apparatus’ that his ‘assumptions and theoretical commitments and even his aims were manifested … as modes of practice’ (1995, p. 92). Schuster is critical, though, of Galileo’s motives and desire to prove himself right, but he concedes that his ‘tactic — reinterpret the test and its theory’ (1995, p. 112) was an innovative addition to the scientific method. Ultimately, Schuster frowns on the very concept that there is a scientific method and that it produces airtight objective facts. Facts are ‘communicable’, but ‘shaped by the languages and theories or systems of communication’ as well as variable over time, and so can never aspire to be anything more than someone’s perceptions at any point in time (1995, p. 59).

Blackwell (2002, p. 106) is more accepting of the pretence that perhaps Galileo did significantly innovate the scientific method. He commends him for his adoption of ‘the method of observing and conducting experiments directly on actual objects in the natural world’, echoing the sentiments expressed by Drake (1957). Galileo’s earthbound observations such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment did utilise his penchant for physical experiment and/or mathematical speculation and application. The claim however, mightn’t be one Galileo’s detractors would wholeheartedly agree with. Early pessimism of the ‘telescope’ invention in regards to how it worked, why it would sometimes produce blurry images, and other times nothing at all dogged Galileo throughout his academic career, and he was unable to sufficiently respond to any of these claims with anything other than claiming his colleagues simply weren’t using the device correctly.

Wisan (1978 p. 1) is much more dubious of Galileo’s implicit contribution to the scientific method, stating the scientist failed to ‘provide a systematic account of views’ and only ‘brief’ comments on his own method are scattered about, with ‘passages … often obscure, usually fragmentary, and sometimes contradicting’. While Blackwell commends his intrinsic methods in his experiments and observations, Wisan directly critiques Galileo’s lack of explicit reference to his the process he undertook. What little he did do in preparing for an experiment and outlining his goals, Wisan examined ‘suggest both his aims and his methods were quite different from those generally supposed.’ (1978, p. 2) At odds with Blackwell and Koestler, Wisan suggests that despite others thinking he invented the scientific method, the man can barely follow it himself, or document his doing so. This is not an assessment held only by Wisan; Stillman Drake says that his work is actually ‘nearly devoid of methodological and philosophical arguments.’ (1978, p. 1) This judgement I find a bit far-fetched, as almost all of his publications involving the solar system were motivated by the desire to prove the heliocentric Copernican theory as the correct model of the solar system. Methodologically, as Drake himself said (1978, p. 101), Galileo simply was not concerned with establishing a scientific ‘method’, believing that science is the method and that’s all that matters. This statement is similar to the view that Schuster puts forward; scientific method is not clear cut and so neither can observations derived from it be. Thus, less importance should be placed upon what the method determines to be true, but what the observer’s ultimate perception on the outcome is. Drake later grants that Galileo’s ‘method’ simply ‘become second nature to him, and identified with his science itself’, backtracking on his initial criticism somewhat and aligning himself with Schuster. (1978, p. 101).

In 1973, the BBC’s Ascent of Man television show aired an episode entitled ‘The Starry Messenger’, titled obviously after Galileo’s 1610 publication of the same name. In it, the presenter said ‘’Galileo is the creator of the modern scientific method.’’ (1973, p. 202) Perhaps this is the qualifier. Perhaps, we can accept his role not as the inventor, but the innovator who ‘modernised’ the method into its recognisable format allowing a ‘reinterpretation’ (Schuster, 1995, p. 112) of test results and the theory behind it, leaving room for error and not simply discarding of an idea that’s not immediately falsifiable.

To that end, Feyerabend (1978, p. 98) commends him for this insight, writing ‘[Galileo] is to be applauded because he preferred protecting an interesting hypothesis’ rather than simply giving up and conceding defeat. Feyerabend aligns himself with the aforementioned BBC production and Schuster in this conclusion. Koestler’s similarly didn’t regard him as inventor, but as the figure who introduced the distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities of objects which Blackwell similarly praised as being ‘’actual’ objects in the natural world’. Drake conceded that perhaps Galileo needn’t have stated his methodology as it was too deeply integrated in his work to separate and that was not the goal of his work anyway. Wisan is much less forgiving then Drake however, finding little in the way of technique and procedure from the man who supposedly invented accepted system we use today.

In conclusion, the presumption that anyone, least Galileo, ‘invented’ the scientific method has proved to be a troublesome, ‘whiggish’ statement. Some say he definitely did, others disregard his influence almost completely. An aggregated consensus of the assessed authors will find, nevertheless, that while Galileo mightn’t have ‘invented’ it, he can be viewed as a figure whose experiments and findings evidently utilised components of the scientific method that we observe today. Schuster’s belief that there is not even an objectively perfect infallible method today, and any observations made through this are subject to individual interpretation, further casts doubt on the scientific method being an ‘invention’ in the first place. Summarily, Galileo’s reputation as the ‘inventor’ is an inaccurate, ‘whiggish’ assumption. It appears to be a result of the combination of many different interpretations of his actual contribution(s), forged into a single representative figure due to his own combination of other people’s techniques and processes.


 

Reference list:

Book:

  • Blackwell, RJ 2002, Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland
  • Koestler, A 1959, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe, Hutchinson, London
  • Feyerabend, PK 1978, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, Verso, London
  • Schuster, John Andrew 1995, Scientific Revolution: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science, Dept. of Science & Technology Studies, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, N.S.W pp. 45-113

 

Internet Source:

 

Journal Articles:

  • Drake, S 1978, ‘Ptolemy, Galileo, and scientific method’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 9, no. 2, pp. 99–115
  • Wisan, W 1975, ‘Galileo’s Scientific Method: A Re-examination’, The Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science, 14, pp. 1-57

Television Program:

  • The Starry Messenger, The Ascent of Man, 1973, television program, British Broadcasting Corporation, February 11, 1975
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