Seiler on Science

Thoughts on the history of science, with a special focus on the relationship between religion and science through history, all coming from an Objectivist perspective. ("Seiler" is pronounced "Sy-ler")

Location: Virginia, United States

Friday, September 3, 2010

Seeking the Truth: a book by Richard Schlagel

The full title of this book is Seeking the Truth: How Science Has Prevailed over the Supernatural Worldview (published in 2010 by Humanity Books, 518 pages). Written by philosophy professor Richard Schlagel, this book purports to present the history of science from a secular, pro-reason, anti-mysticism world-view. According to Schlagel:

Western civilization was formed by two contrasting traditions, the empirical-rationalistic perspective of the ancient Greek philosophers and the mystical-revelatory approach of the Hebraic-Christian prophets. (p. 490)
This is an excellent observation which identifies the fundamental philosophic conflict continuing throughout the history of western civilization. On the one hand, there is a philosophy of reason (based on observation and logic), and on the other hand, there is a philosophy of mysticism, revelation, and faith.

The book makes several excellent points like this, but unfortunately they are spread rather thin in an otherwise straightforward history of science that covers ancient Greece up to the twentieth century.

I found several points particularly interesting. One involves Plato's view of astronomy. Scientists and historians have often held up Platonism as pro-science because of Plato's very positive view of mathematics—which is a key tool of the modern scientific method. But Schlagel identifies Plato (correctly, I think) as more of a villain than a hero in the history of science. Plato liked mathematics because it could help to lift us out of the sensible world, not because it was the key to the sensible world. In fact, according to Schlagel, “Plato has no conception of mathematics as an applied science.” Plato is explicit about this in the Republic, where he says that in astronomy there is no point to looking very carefully at the stars:

If we mean, then, to turn the soul's native intelligence to its proper use by a genuine study of astronomy, we shall proceed, as we do in geometry, by means of problems, and leave the starry heavens alone. (530c; also see all of 529-530)
Turning to the Dark Ages, Schlagel points out the dominance of the attitude that studying the natural world is worthless, since what counts is God's word (the Bible) and the next world. Here is this idea expressed by Saint Ambrose, one of the patristic fathers of Christianity:

To discuss the nature and position of the earth does not help us in our hope of the life to come. It is enough to know what Scripture states, 'that He hung up the earth upon nothing' (Job, xxvi, 7). Why then argue whether He hung it up in air or upon the water [the views of Anaximines and Thales] … Not because the earth is in the middle, as if suspended on even balance [the position of Anaximander], but because the majesty of God constrains it by the law of His will, does it endure stable upon the unstable and the void. (p. 198)
Given Schlagel's generally good understanding of the relation between science and religion (as opposed to that of most historians of science today), I really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately the book has a very serious flaw: a consistently poor quality of writing. Painfully awkward sentences are found on almost every page, and I even found a number of sentence fragments masquerading as complete sentences! In addition, many non-essential details interrupt the flow of the text, and some paragraphs leave the reader guessing what the main point is.

On top of this, the book has another serious flaw. There is not a single illustration in the entire book. For a book on the history of science, this is unforgivable. To take just one example: Ptolemy's system of the cosmos, with its deferents, epicycles, and equants, really needs some diagrams in order to be understood by the general reader. The same goes for the Copernican system, Kepler's three laws, and many other theories that Schlagel discusses.

For completeness, I'll note a couple of further flaws, which are minor compared to the others. Schlagel occasionally (and needlessly) interjects his ethical view (altruism) and political views into the text. He also concludes the book on an overly optimistic note, saying that today science is “clearly in the ascendency” over religion.

So in conclusion: I cannot recommend this book. If you feel compelled to read it for the occasional insights on science and religion, be prepared to wade through some particularly bad writing.