Observation and Theory's Cyclical Nature

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The Cyclical Nature of Theory and Observation

The advent of mankind’s ability to observe, reason, and create contributed to the human need to organize and understand the natural world. Although John Locke’s tabula rasa philosophy is a renowned Western belief, human beings are genetically preconditioned to be biased in attempts to comprehend life and existence. The conception of a unique and wholly original idea is rare; instead, a “new” theory is a contradictory response to an accepted dominant ideology or is a different perspective on the same observations. In this respect, Einstein noted, “It is theory that decides what we can observe.” Because no human being is a blank slate, all observations are filtered through the contemporary expectations and understandings. These tainted observations lead to “new” theories, which result in a cycle of revised theories and observations. This cycle can be demonstrated through John Pickstone’s ways of knowing and ways of making, his categorization of advancements in science, technology, and medicine. In this essay, I will argue that changed and proposed theories are a result of a convoluted cycle in which popular theories influence the observations that inform the next generation of theories. I will accomplish this by demonstrating how Pickstone’s three ways of knowing, natural history, analysis, and experimentation, and his three ways of making, craft, rational production, and systematic invention, shaped the worldviews of their times.

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Pickstone’s first way of knowing, natural history, is intimately intertwined with the first way of making, craft. Natural history is the “description and classification of objects.” These objects do not exclusively refer to animals and plants. Instead, this categorization allows for any article that can be named and collected, whether it is natural, artificial, conventional, or morbid, for intellectual, commercial, or industrial purposes. This definition of natural history subtly indicates the influence motivations have on the classification of observations. Craft, natural history’s partner, is the creation of natural objects during the Renaissance. In the time period prior to the Renaissance, the age of Scholasticism, observations were forced to cater to the established beliefs. Because the world was understood through the Bible, dialectical methods, in which a scholar presented an argument, counterargument, and evidences from the Bible, reinforced this religious worldview. Although this worldview was replaced during the Renaissance, the ideological system of using texts to comprehend the world persisted. The Bible was simply beginning to be replaced by the original Greek texts. During the Renaissance of the seventeenth century, a new aspect of natural history evolved in which descriptive observations were recorded and emphasized, while the mechanics were largely ignored. This era’s celebration as a “rebirth” highlights the influences of the prior period, to which the Renaissance responded. The effect of Scholastic observations on Renaissance theories is clearly expressed when Pickstone asserts that changing perspectives were influenced by market culture, appreciation of life and crafts, and the view of God as a craftsman instead of an author. Although natural history and craft developed during the Renaissance, the mixture of medieval ways of thinking and reintroduced Greek perspectives clearly characterizes the impacts of old theories on observations and the development of innovative theories.

Although the time period in which natural history and craft emerged supports my argument that there are no completely new theories, only informed ones that step in an altered direction, disciplines within this time frame demonstrate this as well. This assertion is exemplified by Pickstone’s description of anatomy, which was a combination of medieval and Renaissance postulations. Around 1500 C.E., illustrations of the human body had naturalistic outsides and diagrammed insides, or “Renaissance outsides, medieval insides.” Anatomy was described in terms of exploration, resulting in the body mirroring the world. Arteries and veins resembled streams and plant branches as travelers found unknown continents and returned with these descriptions. In this respect, surgeons, apothecaries, and physicians began considering natural history, culminating in the influence of disease studies and case histories. Because case studies documented the progression of a patient’s illness, they were collected as series of natural historical observations. However, these observations were guided by the classical theories of Hippocrates. For example, Thomas Sydenham, a medical reformer and contemporary of John Locke, did not selectively document the individual, but recorded the constitutions of the time and place as well. Another example of theories influencing observations leading to the development of “new” theories is the creator of the scientific binomial naming system, Carl Linnaeus. In 1730 Sweden, Linnaeus was inspired to organize this categorical system by the need for botanists, horticulturalists, and apothecaries to communicate in regards to plant species. This necessity determined his observation of plants and his subsequent system of organizing them. The examples of anatomy, Sydenham, and Linnaeus illustrate the cyclical nature of theory and observation. Theories bias observations, which lead to diverging theories, which in turn distort observations.

Analysis, the second way of knowing, also goes hand in hand with the second way of making, the rationalization of production. According to Pickstone, analysis occurs “when objects can be viewed as compounds of ‘elements,’ or when processes can be viewed as the ‘flow’ of an ‘element’ through a system.” Therefore, analysis “seeks order by dissection,” breaking order and classification into its individual components. Rational production is characterized by the “deconstruction of craft activities and their reconstruction as machines.” Pickstone describes analysis and rational production as a new form of comparative classification and exhibition because the breakdown into elements allows for new structures of appraisal. Although craft is not eradicated, analysis and rational production characterized the Age of Revolutions (1780 – 1850), which included the French Revolution (1789 – 1802) and the British Industrial Revolution. Pickstone argues that nineteenth century science was predominately analytical and observed by those working in industry, agriculture, or medicine, clarifying the impact of these fields on the interpretations of revolutionary age. Pickstone contends that the impact of theories of previous eras on the observations and theories of the Age of Revolutions is demonstrated because “Newtonian mechanics, the creation of the seventeenth century, served as a key mode;’ that some new analytical disciplines, notably chemistry, then served as models for others.” The impact of Newton’s theory on the principles of chemistry, and chemistry’s influence on further concepts clearly supports my argument of the cyclical nature of theory and observation. Chemistry, medicine, and industrial arts altered the comprehension and practice of analysis. Chemistry, for example, included elements of natural history, craft, and natural philosophy, and was also modeled after the categorization of botany. Chemists also attempted to explain chemical characteristics through Greek and alchemical terminology. France also served as a demonstration of the importance of diverse practices, such as the taxonomy of chemical elements, information about gases and reactions, the interest in weighing, on the developments of the new science of chemistry. Laennec, for example, rationally produced the concept and process of knowing a disease. He was excellent at predicting the number of lesions on the lungs of a tuberculosis patient, all informed by the observations of physicians before him. Therefore, the development of chemistry and Laennec’s ability to analyze disease demonstrates how established postulations colored observations, which led to “new” ways of understanding.

The final ways of knowing and making are experimentation and systematic invention, respectively. Experimentation was the controlling and combination of elements to make new phenomena and novelties systematically. It consisted of a collection of procedures theorized and institutionalized in the mid-nineteenth century. This time period was characterized by the belief that if God was a craftsman, His crafts could be broken down in the same ways that human crafts could. To illustrate the effect of theories on observations, Pickstone describes physiology as the biomedical science most closely related with experimentation, in which Albrecht von Haller inspired Xavier Bichat, who inspired Francois Magendie, who inspired Claude Bernard. This succession of inspiration demonstrates the influence previous theories had in the formulation of new ones. Bernard based his demonstration of the possibility of medical experiments in his on research on animal function. His presentation of controlled experiments in physiology was similar to Berthelot’s chemistry synthesis model. Louis Pasteur also serves as an example of experimentation and invention influenced by the dominant theory of the time. Pasteur’s discoveries were made in response to industrial problems, his alliance with beer-makers, and silkworm epidemics. His chemical education informed his research on the “‘model diseases’ of wine and beer.’” Bernard and Pasteur exemplify the influence theories of previous scientists had on their observations in their respective field, which then formulated the new ideas they proposed.

Through the explanation of the time periods, worldviews, key figures, and ideologies of each way of knowing (natural history, analysis, and experimentation) and way of making (craft, rational production, and systematic invention), I have successfully argued that each wave of “new” theories are actually biased by observations that were themselves prejudiced by the theories that prefaced them. Thus, theories and observations constitute a cycle that modern scientists believe is rolling towards accuracy and truth. Understanding the history and inspiration for current theories allows the comprehension of the complex system behind every idea, as well as the recognition of the context and possible limitations. This knowledge also allows for proper attribution. Instead of labeling the creators of breakthroughs “geniuses,” historians can dissect the factors that prompted a discovery to take place. In conclusion, this essay supports Einstein’s statement, “It is theory that decides what we can observe.”

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