A couple of months ago, a friend of mine from Toronto was visiting and we got into a discussion about postmodernism (I guess). My friend, an English Lit major, was saying (I believe, although I’m sure I’ll butcher it here) that scientific theories, every century or so, are overturned or replaced by completely different theories; his point being that what we believe to be true today, may turn out to be completely false tomorrow. He also said something along the lines that literary criticism is just as good a tool for discovering what’s ‘true’ about the universe as science is. We eventually got on to talking about phlogiston to make our respective points.
The theory of phlogiston, which found favor between 1650 and 1750, tried to explain combustion, rust, and metabolic processes by positing the existence of a fire-like element called “phlogiston” that was contained within combustible bodies, and released during combustion.
As wikipedia puts it:
“In some respects, the phlogiston theory can be seen as the opposite of the modern “oxygen theory”. The phlogiston theory states that all flammable materials contain phlogiston that is liberated in burning, leaving the “dephlogisticated” substance in its “true” calx form. In the modern theory, on the other hand, flammable materials (and unrusted metals) are “deoxygenated” when in their pure form and become oxygenated when burned.”
My friend’s point was that people once believed in phlogiston, and now we don’t: i.e. science was absolutely wrong. My point was that indeed, that theory was wrong, but the new theory didn’t completely overturn everything before it. Wikipedia again:
“Phlogiston theory allowed chemists to bring explanation of apparently different phenomena into a coherent structure: combustion, metabolism, and formation of rust. The recognition of the relation between combustion and metabolism was a forerunner of the recognition that the metabolism of living creatures and combustion can be understood in terms of fundamentally related chemical processes.”
The discussion ended with no real resolution. However, recently I was reminded of it. As I am nerdily prone to do, I was watching videos on the Richard Dawkins youtube channel, and came across one that was pretty much just a guy reading excerpts from an essay by Isaac Asimov (video embedded below).
The essay in question was written because Isaac had received a letter from an English Lit major who wished to correct him on something he had written in a previous essay which “expressed a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight”.
The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern “knowledge” is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. “If I am the wisest man,” said Socrates, “it is because I alone know that I know nothing.” the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.
My answer to him was, “John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”
The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that “right” and “wrong” are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.
However, I don’t think that’s so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so.”
Isaac then goes on to write about how people once thought the earth was flat, and then spheroidal, and then oblate spheroidal (bulge at equator due to rotation), and then to the current belief that it’s kind of oblate spheroidal but with the south pole closer to the center of the earth by some yards than the north pole.
“The correction in going from spherical to oblate spheroidal is much smaller than going from flat to spherical. Therefore, although the notion of the earth as a sphere is wrong, strictly speaking, it is not as wrong as the notion of the earth as flat.”
“In short, my English Lit friend, living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs, may be imagining that because all theories are wrong, the earth may be thought spherical now, but cubical next century, and a hollow icosahedron the next, and a doughnut shape the one after.”
Anyways, I liked the essay because I feel like it hit the nail on the head as to how my friend was describing scientific revolutions. I’ve since sent him the video. I hope to update this post when I get a reply.