Friday, September 11, 2009

Whewell on Theory Change

I posted this in a comment over at Thony C.'s place, and thought it interesting enough to post here.

The history of science suggests the reflection that it is very difficult for the same person at the same time to do justice to two conflicting theories. Take for example the Cartesian hypothesis of vortices and the Newtonian doctrine of universal gravitation. The adherents of the earlier opinion resisted the evidence of the Newtonian theory with a degree of obstinacy and captiousness which now appears to us quite marvellous: while on the other hand, since the complete triumph of the Newtonians, they have been unwilling to allow any merit at all to the doctrine of vortices. It cannot but seem strange, to a calm observer of such changes, that in a matter which depends upon mathematical proofs, the whole body of the mathematical world should pass over, as in this and similar cases they seem to have done, from an opinion confidently held, to its opposite. No doubt this must be, in part, ascribed to the lasting effects of education and early prejudice. The old opinion passes away with the old generation: the new theory grows to its full vigour when its congenital disciples grow to be masters. John Bernoulli continues a Cartesian to the last; Daniel, his son, is a Newtonian from the first. Newton’s doctrines are adopted at once in England, for they are the solution of a problem at which his contemporaries have been labouring for years. They find no adherents in France, where Descartes is supposed to have already explained the constitution of the world; and Fontenelle, the secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, dies a Cartesian seventy years after the publication of Newton’s Principia.

Whewell, "Of the Transformation of Hypotheses in the History of Science", delivered to the Cambridge Philosophical Society on May 19, 1851. This is one of two ways in which Whewell explains (relatively) sudden change of view in the sciences: the other involves the gradual transformation of the theory until it breaks, leaving only its rivals standing.

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