The Scientific Worldview Fragment
Science is humankind’s most successful enterprise. It has emancipated us from the whims of the gods and set us free to uncover the machinations that lay beneath the phenomena. It launched a journey of exploration so successful it defies belief, revealing the mysteries of the quantum, the evolution of life, and the vastness of space and time, all while granting us the powers of the same gods it dispelled. Naturally, science has greatly impacted all worldviews. Not just in the conclusions it has reached but also in the methods and presuppositions it takes for granted. Here we will take a look at some of these core beliefs of the scientific worldview fragment—the belief that there are laws of nature, that we can postulate invisibles to explain visibles, that foundational truths are mathematical, and that empiricism is the royal road to knowledge.1
The insight that changes in nature are lawlike—perhaps the greatest discovery in all of history—is the foundational assumption of science. Metaphysically, the universe is really a cosmos—an orderly place ruled by the strict laws of nature, not the idiosyncrasies of the multitudinous gods. Only exceptional breaches of the processes of nature—miracles—retain any plausibility in some religious worldviews. Opposite to this is naturalism, the philosophical position that holds all phenomena, without reservation, to be the result of natural processes governed by the laws of nature. But what are these laws? In short, natural laws are universal and necessary regularities that play a role in the explanation of facts. The sun rising in the morning is a local regularity, not a law—at one time in the distant future there will no longer be a sunrise. Gravitation, on the other hand, is a law; it is held to be operative throughout space and time by necessity and it explains the sunrise, as well as other phenomena in the universe. A breach, if only momentarily and locally, would disrupt the naturalist’s clockwork universe and undermine this scientific edifice built on the inviolability of law.
In essence, laws of nature are invisible entities postulated to explain visible objects and events. This is what science does more broadly, but are we justified in believing in the existence of unobserved entities? Quarks, magnetic fields, genes, dark matter, dinosaurs, … are all theoretical postulates that explain phenomena in the laboratory and nature but which are not directly perceptible to us. Most of us nevertheless take up these entities in our picture of the world and we are justified to do so by virtue of consilience, or the concordance of evidence. This is the remarkable fact that different disciplines with independent models and unrelated methods postulate the same things to explain the same or related phenomena.2 Biological evolution, for example, is an invisible process that is postulated because it explains phenomena observed in palaeontology, biogeography, comparative anatomy and physiology, molecular biology, genetics, and more. Atoms, too, are postulated and justified by playing central roles in the kinetic theory of gases and statistical mechanics, Brownian motion, radioactivity, the entirety of chemistry, and much more. This unity of nature when we poke and prod it with variable instruments under shifting circumstances has been a powerful argument for the actual existence of the postulates of science, deservedly taken up in the worldviews of cultures around the world.
Be that as it may, science still only ever deals with models, simplified representations of a complex reality underneath, and as of yet these models have never managed to capture the full truth. If ever they do, though, there is little doubt in the mind of scientists that it is the language of mathematics that will represent that truth. This is thanks to the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in modelling natural phenomena: the mathematical model does not merely describe what is already known and observed, but it also points to new explanations, predictions, and yet unobserved phenomena.3 There are cases in history where this effectiveness has been near miraculous. As when Maxwell formulated his four equations that model electric and magnetic phenomena and combined them in a straightforward way, unexpectedly deriving an equation describing a wave in the electric and magnetic fields with a calculated velocity identical to the speed of light—indeed, light is such a wave. Or when Einstein wrote down the field equations for his general theory of relativity and it was found by Schwarzschild that they have an exact solution that models what we have very recently observed in the centre of our own milky way—a black hole.4 There are many more such examples.5 This has resulted in the mathematisation of the scientific worldview. The first exponent of this was Galileo, who stated that “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics”. Since Newton, this idea has been quasi-universally adopted in the physical sciences. Coupled with the idea that physics is the ground level of the scientific tower, any foundational truth is believed to be mathematical in nature. Some even go so far as claiming that the universe is mathematics.6
Beyond the application of mathematics, it was really the institutionalisation of empiricism that is key to the success of science. Empiricism is the idea that knowledge comes from the senses, rather than from pure thought. Though this was already a popular opinion in ancient Greece, the idea that we should provoke reactions from nature by targeted and controlled experiment, rather than rely on general experience gained through a long life, came much later and was put to general use from the Renaissance onwards.7 Institutionalisation meant that networks of researchers were set up, goals were aligned, norms of good research were installed, and stable funding was provided; a process that was accelerated with the establishment of various academies of science in 17th century Europe. The resulting epistemology meant that the singular armchair philosopher practising speculative metaphysics was no longer deemed relevant. Neither was scriptural exegesis still a valid avenue to knowledge—faith and reason were no longer required to concur. Experiment became the royal road to knowledge.
There are a few big ideas from science that greatly impacted our worldview besides those already mentioned, and they all severely challenge our self-importance. Historically the first truly revolutionary idea was the one put forward by Copernicus in the 16th century, which displaced the earth and humankind from the centre of the universe.8 No longer does everything revolve around us but around the sun. Further belittling us was the 17th century idea that the stars are not mere lighting on the dome of the universe but other suns, perhaps with planets of themselves. Yet another destabilising discovery was that of deep time. Geologists in the 18th and early 19th centuries started interpreting the stacked layers of rock they found as each representing different epochs of earth’s existence. The extremely slow processes that give rise to this stratification forced the earth to age from about 6000 years old to, eventually, 4.5 billion years. Not much later, this insight indirectly led to Charles Darwin’s discovery, which decentred the human being even more. No longer created in the image of God, but only a chance organism scurrying about to escape the grasp of natural selection as one of countless other species that fill approximately 3.5 billion years of natural history. Sufficiently desensitised, the coming inconceivable ideas of physics made relatively little impact. Space and time became relative with Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity and the bedrock of the world is now intrinsically random due to quantum indeterminacy. The rock we call home floats in an expanding universe that might be one of several multiverses that jolted to life with a Big Bang about 14 billion years ago.9 Cosmic insignificance is the result; every which way we turn we gaze into an abyss.
In conclusion, science has been as successful in shaping our worldviews as it has been in explaining the physical world. There is the foundational idea that the laws of nature govern the machinations of this world, a world made up primarily of invisible entities that we are justified to believe exist by virtue of consilience. The scientific process has used empiricism and mathematics to achieve its groundbreaking discoveries. And as a result, we have come to think of ourselves as accidental conglomerations of atoms in an infinite sea of space and time. “There is grandeur in this view of life”, as Darwin wrote, but it certainly defies us as well.10
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Consilience: the unity of knowledge by Edward O. Wilson (1998)
The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences (1960) by Eugene Wigner
Novum Organum by Francis Bacon (1620)
Coined by William Whewell and popularised (though with a slightly different meaning) by E. O. Wilson in Consilience: the unity of knowledge (1998).
From Eugene Wigner’s influential 1960 article on The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.
In May 2022, the Event Horizon Telescope photographed the monster black hole at the centre of the milky way, which you can see here.
Paul Dirac’s predicted existence of antimatter and the use of gauge symmetries in formulating the Standard Model of particle physics should at least be mentioned here as well.
See Max Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe for this new kind of Platonism.
The first to do so was Muslim scholar Ibn al-Haytham, who expounded the method in his Book of Optics around 1021. This was later taken up by Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon in the 13th century, and, in turn, by Francis Bacon in his influential Novum Organum (1620).
Though he was not the first. Already in the third century BCE, ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos advocated for heliocentrism.
Brian Greene discusses as many as nine types of multiverses in The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (2011).
From the last paragraph of On the Origin of Species (1859).