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Pre-sciencentific Thinking

Published onApr 02, 2019
Pre-sciencentific Thinking

One of the initial ideas was to make a course that can be understood as an applied philosophy of science lecture, suitable for first semester students. In order to understand the enormous changes that the scientific revolution brought about, we start with a brief introduction to alchemy as an example for pre-scientific thinking.

We inspect some early scientists who saw themselves as alchemists, eg. Galileo, Kepler, Leibnitz or Newton and show how secrecy was one of the key elements of alchemy. It is because of this secrecy that to this date we don’t know definitively who of the last two mentioned above invented calculus. Alchemy was based on secrets, hermetism and isolation. We discuss Newtons description of gravity using alchemical terminology, and how his believe in spirits allowed him to describe it in a mathematical form still used today.

What separates the later alchemists from the kind that we know from popular culture was that they longed for open exchange, scrutiny and discussion, knowing it would further the knowledge they tried to gain more than secrecy, and that striving for knowledge is more important than striving for money. The establishment of the first scientific societies in the 17th century who then started printing scientific journals can be read as a rebellion of scientists against their financiers, mostly aristocrats and rich citicens, who wanted them to keep their findings secret. One of the better known stories entagled in this conflict is the european »invention« of porcellain, documented in the historical novel »The White Road« by Edmund de Waal.

We then point out the interesting parallel that especially in informatics, academic patenting and privately funded research has recently increased the need for secrecy, making the current situation somewhat similar to how researchers felt during the time of alchemy. This section closes with a critical discussion of the idea sof intellectual property and software patenting, leading to the introduction of the concept of open science.

Next: scientific thinking

Calls for discussion

  • Where do you think we could improve this chapter? Are we missing essential bits?

  • We need more concrete examples of practices or contexts where science is damaged/hindered in a way that resembles alchemy, like overblown secrecy or overzealous academic patenting.

  • Do you know examples of successful open science/citizen science project native to computer science/informatics, similar to galaxy zoo/zooniverse.


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