This post in the eighth in a series on Science, Technology, and Society. The previous post in the series is here, and the next post is here. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook.
In their 1985 collaboration, Leviathan and the Air Pump, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer argued that the contest between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over the nature of vacuums, the origins of the experimental method, and the politics of restoration England were inextricably linked. To put the argument as briefly as possible, the country had just emerged from a generation of civil war (Cromwell, Charles I, Puritanism, etc.) and no one wanted to go back to that. How to best organize a polity in order to prevent chaos was a major concern, which led directly to Hobbes's treatise on absolutism.
According to Boyle, the best method in natural philosophy (and politics) was experiment and observation. Free consent freely arrived at would ensure both philosophic truth and political order by allowing room for disagreement, and thereby containing it. By extension, any proposition which could not be established through experiment was no philosophic proposition at all, and as such unanswerable. The method was inductive and eliminative - the goal was not to establish truth, but to eliminate falsehood, and this could only be done by observing actual events as they actually occurred. As proof of his method Boyle offered the air pump, an instrument intended to produce a vacuum, inside which various experiments on could be performed, which would allow philosophers to reason about air, vacuum, fire, etc., with the benefit of observation.
Hobbes disagreed. He believed that observation could never displace deduction as a form of reasoning because observation always admitted of multiple explanations, and without rigorous definitions there was no way to decide between them. Boyle was thus wrong to eschew metaphysics - no number of experiments with air pumps could establish whether a vacuum was present or not unless Boyle could define what vacuum, air, etc., were. Boyle had not specified any criteria for evaluation, and was thus free to impose whatever interpretation he wished on the results of his experiments. Hobbes further argued that the experiments were cases of circular reasoning because the definition of a working air pump (at the time a fragile and complicated device that had to be made by hand) was that it replicated Boyle's experimental results. How, then, could results of experiments that took place within it independently verify those of the original, or of each other? He who calibrates the instrument, Hobbes argued, controls the experimental result. For Hobbes the ideal philosophic community, like the ideal political community, was ruled by force - that is, the force of deductive reason. In philosophy no less than in politics, the absence of force led inevitably to the collapse of consensus, chaos and war. After a generation of ideologically driven war, England could not take the risk.
Boyle's argument obviously prevailed, but according to the authors Hobbes's critiques are still relevant. Their further claim is that politics and science are inseparable, as this (and by extension, other) episodes demonstrate. There's much more to this work that it would be fun to get into, but those are I think the main points.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society in nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
Brian Buchbinder says
Thanks for this Daniel. I had read this book a few years ago, and had forgotten that Boyle had anticipated Popper’s reformulation of Hume’s moderate skepticism. One can see from Hobbes’ writings that he was terrified by any philosophical system which could not claim absolute truths. Since induction could never amount to proof of any positive conclusion, the openness of interpretation corresponded to the openness of religious interpretation that had led to the disorders not only of the English Civil War but of the century preceding it.
Centuries later, we still experience discomfort at the the openness of interpretation particularly in the sciences. The quest for certainty has instead confirmed that while we may disconfirm falsehood, we’re unlikely to ever confirm absolute truths.
Hobbes project to reinstate metaphysics corresponds to all sorts of attempts that continue to this day to impose stasis in the face of destabilizing change and uncertainty.