Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Koestler on The Evolution of Scientific Ideas

Arthur Koestler, in The Act of Creation, begins the chapter 10, “The Evolution of Ideas,” by mentioning a theory proposed by George Sarton, and held as self-evident by many scientists, which says that “the history of science is the only history which displays a cumulative progress of knowledge; that, accordingly, the progress of science is the only yardstick by which we can measure the progress of mankind; and moreover, that the word 'progress* itself has no clearly defined meaning in any field of activity—except the field of science.”

Koestler devotes rest of the chapter to proving that Sarton’s theory of scientific knowledge increasing in cumulative manner is not correct, and that instead of being gradual and continuous, the advances in science are often jerky, unpredictable and unscientific. He offers several examples from last 2500 years of critical scientific discoveries being forgotten, and rediscovered many centuries later. He notes that simple truths of science often get buried under manmade heaps of rubble, which are difficult to clear.

There are large number of scientists whose lives have been wasted in frustration and despair because their discoveries pass unnoticed. “The history of science has its Pantheon of celebrated revolutionaries—and its catacombs, where the unsuccessful rebels lie, anonymous and forgotten.”

Here’s an excerpt from the summary that Koestler offers at the end of the chapter:
The history of science shows recurrent cycles of differentiation and specialization followed by reintegrations on a higher level; from unity to variety to more generalized patterns of unity-in-variety. The process also has certain analogies with biological evolution—such as wastefulness, sudden mutations, the struggle for survival between competing theories.  
The various phases in the historic cycle correspond to the characteristic stages of individual discovery: the periods of creative anarchy to the period of incubation; the emergence of the new synthesis to the bisociative act. It may emerge suddenly, sparked off by a single individual discovery; or gradually, as in die history of electromagnetism, where a series of individual discoveries acted as 'links'. Each revolutionary historic advance has a constructive and a destructive aspect: the thaw of orthodox doctrines and the resulting fertile chaos correspond to the regressive phase of the individual reculer-pour-mienx-sauter phenomenon. Lastly, the process of verification and elaboration of individual discoveries is reflected on the map of history as the consolidation of the new frontier—followed by the development of a new orthodoxy, a hardening of the collective matrix—until it gets blocked and the cycle starts again. 
The developments in science, according to Koestler, follow the same historical pattern that we find in the areas of literature, music, painting, or architecture.

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