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Galileo, Bacon and Descartes, the fathers of the scientific method

Although science was not born in the 17th century (because the need for objective information about the environment is inherent to any human society, and mathematics, astronomy or biology had already flourished splendidly in classical antiquity), we cannot deny that towards In the year 1600 , the history of mankind crossed a decisive threshold towards the exponential increase in scientific knowledge. A precondition for making such a huge leap had been the colonization of the Americas during the preceding century, which convinced many Europeans that there were fundamental facts about the world that the ancient Greek sages had completely ignored, and therefore perhaps had not been. to rely too much on the cosmology of an Aristotle or a Ptolemy. This loss of confidence in the theories and concepts inherited from Antiquity , together with the need to understand and promote the industrial and technological progress that was taking place thanks to the rivalry between the European powers, caused scientific research to experiment from then an unparalleled growth: the Scientific Revolution was born.

Reflection and debate on the methods of science

For the pioneers of that revolution, it was clear that obtaining this new knowledge in a massive and systematic way required not only questioning much of what was taught in the universities of the time (although not all: for example, geometry of Euclid continued to be accepted as an insurmountable pinnacle of learning), but it was also very important to pay special attention to the procedures (that is, the methods ) by which discoveries worthy of the name could be reached.

Reflection and debate on the methods of science thus became one of the fundamental elements of thought that would soon be called “modern” (as opposed to “ancient”). In particular, three of the greatest giants of this new type of thought, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), and René Descartes (1596-1650), devoted much of their intellectual effort to elaborating and discussing a set of strategies that came to be known as the scientific method . This expression, although we use it in the singular, should not be understood as referring to a kind of unique algorithm that converts empirical data into physical laws, or something like that, but rather to a family or conglomerate of practical rules that are not always definable with total accuracy. , and often not very compatible with each other. The scientific method is actually a rather heterogeneous sum of ‘methods’ , much as ‘Mediterranean cuisine’ or ‘Baroque music’ include remarkably varied ingredients, recipes and compositions. The abysmal differences between the methods defended by Bacon, Galileo and Descartes constitute the best proof of this deep diversity.

science policy

The Englishman Francis Bacon, who of the three made the fewest contributions to scientific research proper (his activity as a politician left him little time for that), advocated the application of what we now call the inductive method . In his work Novum organum (the Organon —“instrument”— was the compendium of Aristotelian books on logic), he advocated the systematic accumulation of data to investigate a given phenomenon (for example, rain), data that would be collected in three series differentiated: a table of presence (under what conditions does rain occur), an absence table (under what conditions does it not rain) and, much more important and innovative, a table of degrees (what conditions are such that when they vary in certain degree, the amount of rain that falls also varies, and to what degree).

Bacon clearly saw that, in order to guarantee the completeness and systematicity of said data, an essential factor was that its collection and analysis could not depend on a willing individual, it was necessary that there be institutions in charge of it and that they collaborate with each other in the various parts of the world. world.

In this way, even more than the scientific method, we owe to Bacon the very idea of scientific politics, hand in hand with what was perhaps his most important insight of all, that knowing exactly how nature works is the only way of being able to control it for our benefit: scientific knowledge is power and, therefore, something to which political power must pay special attention and resources.

Analyzing from the evidence

Almost at the opposite end of the Baconian method we find the proposals of the youngest of the three authors, the Frenchman René Descartes, who gave so much importance to this question that his most important book (and a true best seller at the time) was precisely entitled Discourse of the method . Unlike Bacon, Descartes was indeed a very productive scientist, making important advances in fields as diverse as optics, mechanics, and geometry (in fact, he was the creator of analytic geometry, that of Cartesian coordinates).

According to the Frenchman, more than collecting the most copious data possible, or carrying out very complex experiments, where the propensity of each individual to perceive things in a certain way could vitiate the quality of the observations, the important thing was to reflect on each problem in the most conscientious way possible , analyzing it from the simplest and most obvious elements and taking care that each step we take in our argument also has the greatest possible evidence. It is what we know as the deductive method . It is not that Descartes despised empirical observation (on the contrary, he gave more importance to learning directly from the world than from books), but he did not have as much faith as Bacon in the validity of his results and only accepted those observations that he could have made for himself. itself as rigorously as possible. In general, Descartes has gone down in history as a promoter of methodical doubt , that is, beginning any investigation by questioning everything we thought we knew about the matter, assuming that even our sensory perceptions may be nothing more than an illusion and we are left alone with those firmer and more indubitable principles that we can identify. In general, these principles will take the form of mathematical laws, so that the deductions that we can make from them can have the highest degree of rigor and validity. In Bacon’s defense, let us also say that his Novum organum begins precisely by making a systematic classification of the prejudices (or “idols”, as he calls them) that can and usually lead us into error.

But the most influential author of our trio in shaping the scientific method was the Italian Galileo Galilei, who not in vain was also the most brilliant and prolific scientist of the three. He shared with Descartes the ambition of reducing the phenomena that had to be investigated to a mathematical law that was as simple and obvious as possible (“the universe is written in mathematical characters,” he wrote), disregarding sensible qualities (color, texture, sound… ) as subjective and superfluous unless they could be accurately measured.

Galileo’s “clever observations” or experiments

But, unlike the Frenchman, Galileo was aware that most of these physical laws could not be deduced, in general, from “first principles” and that even when it seemed so to us, we had no choice but to take made very careful and often very ingenious observations to verify that in nature these laws did indeed hold. These “clever observations” are, of course, the experiments, which is why Galileo is considered the father of the experimental method .

What is most characteristic of a Galilean experiment is that it involves the construction of an artificial system . With him, we try to achieve two things. First, that only those causal factors whose consequences we want to observe influence the system (we try to reproduce the idealized conditions in which the physical law in question is also supposed to be valid). And secondly, that it is possible to easily measure the mathematical relationships that according to that law must occur, that is, the empirical predictions that we had mathematically deduced from said law.

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