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Full text of W. H. Newton-Smith’s The Rationality of Science (1981) now available free online

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If one wishes to consider the extent to which the scientific community’s image of itself corresponds to the realities of the situation, a fruitful starting point is to investigate the phenomenon of scientific change. For viewed sub specie eternitatis scientists (even physical scientists) are a fickle lot. The history of science is a tale of multifarious shiftings of allegiance from theory to theory. Newtonian mechanics had its hour of flourishing with virtual universal allegiance. Then, following a dramatic and brief period of turbulence, relativistic mechanics came to the fore and is espoused with the same universal allegiance and firm commitment on the part of the community.

Much scientific activity consists in accounting for or explaining change. This shifting of allegiances from theory to theory which will be referred to as scientific change is itself a type of change that requires explanation. But what sort of explanation? In regard to this question we face what Kuhn would describe as a pre-paradigmatic situation. Unlike the situation in contemporary physical sciences where for many areas of investigation the community of investigators are generally agreed on the form or type of explanation to be sought, we find that when we take science itself as the subject of our investigation there is no such agreement. In this case detailed putative explanations are few and far between. Instead we find only radically divergent types of explanatory sketch. The differences between the proponents of these sketches go as deep as intellectual divergences ever go, involving in this case differences concerning the objectivity of truth, the possibility of rational discourse, the nature of values, language and meaning and explanation, among others. It will be fruitful to begin by dividing models for the explanation of scientific change into two classes, one to be called rational models of scientific change, the other to be called non-rational models. For as we shall see, we shall only be justified in regarding scientific practice as the very paradigm of rationality if we can justify the claim that scientific change is rationally explicable. At this stage the division must be regarded as a tentative one drawn to assist us in focusing on the central issues in this area. In the course of this book the division will be seen to be of more than organizational significance.

7 Replies to “Full text of W. H. Newton-Smith’s The Rationality of Science (1981) now available free online

  1. 1
    Graham2 says:

    Newtonian mechanics had its hour of flourishing

    What a lot of rubbish.

  2. 2
    steveO says:

    Newtonian mechanics had its hour of flourishing

    My understanding of what the author is referring to is the period of time (about 250 years) in which the physics community thought Newton’s mechanics was the definitive mechanical description of Nature under all circumstances.

    Its predictions agreed with all experiments performed up until 1905.

    We now know that the behaviour of subatomic particles at velocities approaching c are inexplicable using newtonian mechanics.

  3. 3
    Graham2 says:

    Newtonian mechanics was, and still is, a description of just about all dynamic behaviour, extreme relativistic behaviour excepted.

    O’leary is pouncing on this with glee because of the word ‘fickle’. The (virtually) universal application of Newtonian mechanics then and now is hardly a good use of the word.

  4. 4
    bornagain77 says:

    Of related note as to how sure we can be that quantum mechanics will not be overturned by some other future theory of science, the following experiment is of interest:

    The foundation of quantum mechanics within science is now so solid that researchers were able to bring forth this following proof from quantum entanglement experiments;

    An experimental test of all theories with predictive power beyond quantum theory – May 2011
    Excerpt: Hence, we can immediately refute any already considered or yet-to-be-proposed alternative model with more predictive power than this. (Quantum Theory)

    Can quantum theory be improved? – July 23, 2012
    Excerpt: However, in the new paper, the physicists have experimentally demonstrated that there cannot exist any alternative theory that increases the predictive probability of quantum theory by more than 0.165, with the only assumption being that measurement (conscious observation) parameters can be chosen independently (free choice, free will, assumption) of the other parameters of the theory.,,,
    ,, the experimental results provide the tightest constraints yet on alternatives to quantum theory. The findings imply that quantum theory is close to optimal in terms of its predictive power, even when the predictions are completely random.

    of note:

    What does the term “measurement” mean in quantum mechanics?
    “Measurement” or “observation” in a quantum mechanics context are really just other ways of saying that the observer is interacting with the quantum system and measuring the result in toto.

    Now this is completely unheard of in science as far as I know. i.e. That a mathematical description of reality would advance to the point that one can actually perform a experiment showing that your current theory will not be exceeded in predictive power by another future theory is simply unprecedented in science! This experiment and the milestone in science it represents should surely garner more attention and respect than it currently has. Moreover to have free will and conscious observation built into quantum mechanics as starting assumptions is certainly a very interesting finding to find in what many consider the most successful theory in the history of science.

    As to the conscious observation assumption in quantum mechanics, the argument for God from consciousness can now be framed like this:

    1. Consciousness either preceded all of material reality or is a ‘epi-phenomena’ of material reality.
    2. If consciousness is a ‘epi-phenomena’ of material reality then consciousness will be found to have no special position within material reality. Whereas conversely, if consciousness precedes material reality then consciousness will be found to have a special position within material reality.
    3. Consciousness is found to have a special, even central, position within material reality.
    4. Therefore, consciousness is found to precede material reality.

    Four intersecting lines of experimental evidence from quantum mechanics that shows that consciousness precedes material reality (Wigner’s Quantum Symmetries, Wheeler’s Delayed Choice, Leggett’s Inequalities, Quantum Zeno effect):

    “It will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality” –
    Eugene Wigner – (Remarks on the Mind-Body Question, Eugene Wigner, in Wheeler and Zurek, p.169) 1961 – received Nobel Prize in 1963 for ‘Quantum Symmetries’

    “No, I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
    (Max Planck, as cited in de Purucker, Gottfried. 1940. The Esoteric Tradition. California: Theosophical University Press, ch. 13).

    “Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”
    (Schroedinger, Erwin. 1984. “General Scientific and Popular Papers,” in Collected Papers, Vol. 4. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences. Friedr. Vieweg & Sohn, Braunschweig/Wiesbaden. p. 334.)

    As to the free will assumption in quantum mechanics, in the following experiment, the claim that past material states determine future conscious choices (determinism) is falsified by the fact that present conscious choices effect past material states:

    Quantum physics mimics spooky action into the past – April 23, 2012
    Excerpt: The authors experimentally realized a “Gedankenexperiment” called “delayed-choice entanglement swapping”, formulated by Asher Peres in the year 2000. Two pairs of entangled photons are produced, and one photon from each pair is sent to a party called Victor. Of the two remaining photons, one photon is sent to the party Alice and one is sent to the party Bob. Victor can now choose between two kinds of measurements. If he decides to measure his two photons in a way such that they are forced to be in an entangled state, then also Alice’s and Bob’s photon pair becomes entangled. If Victor chooses to measure his particles individually, Alice’s and Bob’s photon pair ends up in a separable state. Modern quantum optics technology allowed the team to delay Victor’s choice and measurement with respect to the measurements which Alice and Bob perform on their photons. “We found that whether Alice’s and Bob’s photons are entangled and show quantum correlations or are separable and show classical correlations can be decided after they have been measured”, explains Xiao-song Ma, lead author of the study.
    According to the famous words of Albert Einstein, the effects of quantum entanglement appear as “spooky action at a distance”. The recent experiment has gone one remarkable step further. “Within a naïve classical world view, quantum mechanics can even mimic an influence of future actions on past events”, says Anton Zeilinger.

    In other words, if my conscious choices really are just merely the result of whatever state the material particles in my brain happen to be in in the past (deterministic) how in blue blazes are my choices instantaneously effecting the state of material particles into the past?,,,

    Of note: since our free will choices figure so prominently in how reality is actually found to be constructed in our understanding of quantum mechanics, I think a Christian perspective on just how important our free will choice is in this temporal life, in regards to our eternal destiny, is very fitting:

    Is God Good? (Free will and the problem of evil) – video

    “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.”
    – C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

    Hell – A Warning! – video

    Verse and Music:

    Deuteronomy 30:19
    This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live

    As for Me and My House – John Waller

  5. 5
    scordova says:

    Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
    God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.
    It did not last; the devil howling “Ho
    Let Einstein be!” restored the status quo.

    — Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
    — Sir John Collins Squire (more recently)

  6. 6
    Bruce David says:

    “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.”
    – C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

    God loves us absolutely and unconditionally. He is always there, waiting for our return. We always have a second chance and a third, and another, and another—as many as we need through as many lifetimes as we choose or in between lives or after all our earthly existences have ended.

    This idea that we can make a choice to deny Him which He then casts in stone for all eternity violates the very nature of His Love. It was invented by men as a way to control the masses through fear. It is the most pernicious aspect of most religions, including Christianity.

    It is false.

  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:


    Have you ever heard of the Ultraviolet Catastrophe, or the disturbances caused by the Michelson-Morley ether-drift experiment? Then, onwards the impact of the Planck solution tot he Black Body radiation problem and that, c. 1905, to the photoelectric effect?

    Physics did undergo a scientific revolution c. 1880 – 1930, and this overturned the Newtonian consensus post c. 1680.


    Yes, Newtonian dynamics is a good description of what happens to large, slow moving bodies, but that is exactly the point, there has been a sea change in how we understand it, one that affects ideas such as mass, energy, length [as in Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction], time and more, much more.

    More to the point, this brought out the latent limitations of Inductive reasoning as Newton himself alluded to in Query 31, Opticks:

    As in Mathematicks, so in Natural Philosophy, the Investigation of difficult Things by the Method of Analysis, ought ever to precede the Method of Composition. This Analysis consists in making Experiments and Observations, and in drawing general Conclusions from them by Induction, and admitting of no Objections against the Conclusions, but such as are taken from Experiments, or other certain Truths. For Hypotheses are not to be regarded in experimental Philosophy. And although the arguing from Experiments and Observations by Induction be no Demonstration of general Conclusions; yet it is the best way of arguing which the Nature of Things admits of, and may be looked upon as so much the stronger, by how much the Induction is more general. And if no Exception occur from Phaenomena, the Conclusion may be pronounced generally. But if at any time afterwards any Exception shall occur from Experiments, it may then begin to be pronounced with such Exceptions as occur. By this way of Analysis we may proceed from Compounds to Ingredients, and from Motions to the Forces producing them; and in general, from Effects to their Causes, and from particular Causes to more general ones, till the Argument end in the most general. This is the Method of Analysis: And the Synthesis consists in assuming the Causes discover’d, and establish’d as Principles, and by them explaining the Phaenomena proceeding from them, and proving the Explanations. [[Emphases added.]

    Yes, science properly makes only provisional knowledge claims subject to further observations and exposure of limitations in reasoning so far. That is, we here deal with a weak form, fallible knowledge claim. One tied to the nature of induction as an approach to knowledge about our external, experienced world.

    And, this is for experimental sciences.

    When it comes to observational sciences, we have to wait — for one reason or another — on the state of the world to provide empirical data, such as with a volcano or the heavens. Or, in some cases experiments would be unethical as often happens in medicine. (The Nazis did carry out such experiments, which were medical atrocities. Reluctantly, for 30 – 40 years, medicine made use of the results, with a troubled conscience. IIRC, some point in the 1980’s, the same results were fully established ethically, and the Nazi data were retired to the hall of shame. But, I remember med students in my hall of residence discussing how the number of lives saved by using the tainted results exceeded by far the number lost in the holocaust. Which did not remove the taint.)

    And then, we come tot he even more difficult case, origins.

    We simply were not there to observe the actual past, and should accept this as a clear limitation on our reconstructions.

    What we do is to construct a model past based on observing traces from the actual past in the present, and applying Newton’s uniformity principle and inference to best current explanation in light of current empirical investigations that identify characteristic consequences of causal processes. Which is critically dependent on not censoring out any reasonably possible causal factor.

    Where, of course, design is just such an empirically known causal factor and is too often excluded on frankly ideological grounds, as Lewontin so plainly documented, along with the US NAS and NSTA, etc. (Cf here on in context.)

    Which brings us to the issues debated so often in this blog.


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