Steven Weinberg’s new book on the history of science

ToExplainTheWorldCoverJerry Coyne has a post up discussing Steven Weinberg’s new book on the history of science, including an exclusive excerpt: Steven Weinberg’s new book on the history of science (with excerpts) « Why Evolution Is True.

The portion of the excerpt that spoke most clearly to me was this passage near the end:

Science is not now what it was at its start.  Its results are impersonal.  Inspiration and aesthetic judgment are important in the development of scientific theories, but the verification of these theories relies finally on impartial experimental tests of their predictions.  Though mathematics is used in the formulation of physical theories and in working out their consequences, science is not a branch of mathematics, and scientific theories cannot be deduced by purely mathematical reasoning.  Science and technology benefit each other, but at its most fundamental level science is not undertaken for any practical reason.  Though science has nothing to say one way or the other about the existence of God or the afterlife, its goal is to find explanations of natural phenomena that are purely naturalistic.  Science is cumulative; each new theory incorporates successful earlier theories as approximations, and even explains why these approximations work, when they do work.

I’m looking forward to this book.  As my long time readers know, I have a special interest in the history, philosophy, and methods of science, so I’ve already pre-ordered this one.  It comes out on February 17.

11 thoughts on “Steven Weinberg’s new book on the history of science

  1. Sounds like he’s addressing all the misperceptions of what science is and is not in one blow in that paragraph.

    I wonder what he means by this:
    “Though science has nothing to say one way or the other about the existence of God or the afterlife, its goal is to find explanations of natural phenomena that are purely naturalistic.”

    It sounds like the second clause is meant to be a counterpoint to the first. It would make more sense without the “though” because the second clause seems to be a reinforcement of the first. What am I missing?


    1. In truth, I found that sentence to be the weakest part of an overall excellent passage. Weinberg is a passionate atheist and anti-theist, so it’s a point I’m sure he felt compelled to make. I interpret it as, “Yes, science doesn’t disprove God, but neither does it look to God for explanations.”

      Which is true, today. As he notes, science wasn’t always like it is now. Arguably Isaac Newton, for instance, saw himself doing a type of theology and did evoke God for the parts of the solar system he couldn’t explain mathematically, something no scientist would do today, even religious ones, at least not in any kind of actual scientist capacity.


  2. I want to highlight just one word: cumulative. I have been struggling to explain the “cumulative” aspect of science for some time now, and I just couldn’t think of the right word. Now I have it!


    1. I know exactly what you mean. I sometimes struggle for a long time to find the right word or phrase to convey a concept, often using a variety of phrases when I can’t find one that nails it, in hopes that one of them will stick in the reader / listener’s mind.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Inspiration and aesthetic judgment are important in the development of scientific theories,..” which brought to mind one of my favorite Einstein quotes: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

    Another change that’s occurred to my mind is the rise of scientism. Science has been very effective in exploring our natural world, and that has lead to a tendency to apply it in reducing society to numbers — something I’m not sure has been beneficial.


    1. I can’t say I’m much of a fan of that quote, particularly given the views Einstein expressed in private correspondence: “For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition.”
      In that light, the first quote strikes me as pandering.

      I agree that scientism is misguided. Science can’t determine moral values, aesthetics, or many other things. The problem is that some people use that label as a cudgel on anyone who expresses skepticism of their questionable ideas. I’ve been called scientistic for requiring scientific proof of telepathy or similar claims.


      1. As you likely know, Einstein believed in Spinoza’s “god” — an embodiment of the physical laws behind the universe — but not in a personal god. He seemed, as I do, to draw a distinction between the idea of god and spirituality and its various and sundry earthly incarnations (which invariably turn out to be human-created social organizations of some kind). Gandhi spoke of how all religions were a bit wrong and a bit right — they are human attempts to understand the infinite.

        If you get to know Einstein’s feelings on the idea of religion versus its implementation, you’ll see he’s not pandering at all. I’d say his view expressed in the letter is consistent with his view overall.

        I understand the reluctance many have towards certain words due to their perceived freight, but I love words and their meanings too much to let how others misuse or abuse them affect me over much. (I see it as a way of granting others power they don’t deserve.) Say it loud, and say it proud! 🙂


        1. “Pandering” was perhaps too strong a word; maybe a better word is “accommodating”. If I recall that quotes’s context correctly, he was using the word “religion” to refer to aspects of culture outside of science including moral philosophy. In that context, I understand what he was trying to say. But he used language he had to know would be misinterpreted. (It’s worth noting that his use of “religion” in the letter was the common meaning.) I don’t blame him too much, since it was in remarks prepared for a conference on science and religion which he, as a world celebrity at that point, probably couldn’t avoid. He had to say something and I’m sure he didn’t want to come across as anti-theistic, since he most definitely wasn’t.

          I do know about Einstein’s belief in Spinoza’s god. I’m afraid you’ll find my thoughts here jaded. My understanding is that he expressed that belief when publicly challenged to reveal whether or not he believed in God. His answer was brilliant public relations, since it implied to the general public that he was religious in some esoteric manner, but signaled his actual views to the sufficiently educated. (As the letter showed, he was far more direct in private correspondence). He would have made a brilliant politician, if he’d been so inclined.

          On words, I see them purely as tools of communication, so I’m inclined to use them in the conventional sense, and clarify my meaning when I don’t, particularly if I use them in an accusatory manner, as scientism often is.

          Liked by 1 person

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