Gennady Gorelik
. The Needham Question and “Well-Ordered Science”.
Letter to the Editor, Isis, Vol. 105, No. 2 (June 2014), pp. 398-399.


I could have been flattered by Jonardon Ganeri, who placed my name between the names of Joseph Needham and Stephen Hawking and qualified my answer to the Needham question as “the most astonishing.”1 And it could help me to hope that my idea is crazy enough to be right, if Ganeri had grasped my arguments and had not ascribed to me a ludicrous one. While Needham and Hawking meant physics, Ganeri has defined a brand new “well-ordered science” based on “ideal conversation among the whole public under conditions of mutual engagement,” which definitely excludes the science of physics.

While Needham was talking about science based on mathematized hypotheses about Nature, Ganeri is speaking about studies of art, literature, and all the rest as parts of a universal “rational scientific inquiry.” However, the latter expression doesn’t well describe modern physics, if “rational” means “logical.” In physics logic governs (though not absolutely) verification of knowledge, but the whole scientific enterprise involves pretty irrational inventing of new fundamental concepts and axioms.

Einstein explained this combination of the rational and irrational by a diagram in his letter to M. Solovine (of 7 May 1952):

Here fundamentals of theory (“axioms”) are “free inventions of the human spirit” made by the force of intuition, and specific statements deduced from invented axioms are to be verified by experience.

In Einstein’s view, “concepts can never be derived logically from experience and be above criticism,” and “unless one sins against logic, one generally gets nowhere.” He meant “the logic of previous theory,” but when the intuition lifts off, there is no other logic. It is well-preordered intuition inventing nonevident fundamental concepts that is the key distinction of modern physics from pre-Galilean physics. All the notions in Archimedes’ physics are evident and logical—weight, density, geometrical form—while in Galileo-Einstein’s physics the fundamentals do not have to be evident—they are validated by the whole scientific enterprise. Galileo’s nonevident and “illogical” vacuum was followed by Newton’s gravity, Maxwell’s field, Planck’s quanta, etc.

It is the key role of inventive intuition in modern physics that helped me to interpret four general—sociological—facts about its birth and “meteoric rise” (in Needham’s words):
(1) (The Needham question) Modern physics propagated freely over Europe, including backward Russia, but no “Easterner” contributed to it for at least three centuries, while earlier Eastern scientific ideas (like Hindu-Arabic numeral system and Alhazen’s optics) were assimilated in the West;
(2) (The Merton Thesis) In the “meteoric rise” of modern physics the leading role shifted from Catholic scientists to Protestant ones;
(3) The space and time of the Scientific Revolution clearly correlated with the surge of social significance of the Bible due to book printing and the Reformation;
(4) All the originators of modern physics were true biblical theists.

My interpretation, which astonished Ganeri, is based on the fact that the Bible was the only real common cultural (and interconfessional) factor in all the countries where modern science took root.2

The first indication of the Bible’s involvement in the history of modern science was found by the historian of science (and atheist) Edgar Zilsel back in 1942, when he discovered that the expression “physical law” emerged in the seventeeth century as a “metaphor originated in the Bible”; the idea of the Universe governed by laws decreed by God transformed into a basic secular notion.3 However, a specific phrase is less important than the role of the biblical worldview in the thinking of the first modern scientists.

One of them, Kepler, in Einstein’s words, “lived in an age in which the reign of law in nature was by no means an accepted certainty. How great must his faith in a uniform law have been, to have given him the strength to devote ten years of hard and patient work to the empirical investigation of the movement of the planets and the mathematical laws of that movement.

All the originators of modern science shared such a faith in the fundamental lawfulness of the Universe, intellectual freedom, and cognitive optimism. The most natural (even if somewhat supernatural) source of this faith was their biblical worldview with its basic ideas, or rather images, of the Creator-Lawgiver, of Man as His highest purpose and His likeness endowed with the capacity to have dominion over all the other creatures. Such a faith emboldened the originators for “the boldest speculation [to] bridge the gaps between the empirical data” (Einstein) by inventing nonevident “illogical” fundamental concepts.

Such a supernatural support for natural sciences could seem philosophically unnatural in the twenty-first century, when quite a few fundamental physical laws have been discovered, but it wasn’t so in the seventeenth century, when Galileo discovered the first fundamental laws (of free fall and of inertia). As to nonrational contributions to rational realistic science, Einstein in the twentieth century clearly appreciated them when he stated that “our moral leanings and tastes, our sense of beauty and religious instincts, are all tributary forces in helping the reasoning faculty toward its highest achievements,” when he praised intuition, inspiration, and imagination, which “embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution,” as “a real factor in scientific research.” It was even more so in the seventeenth century.

A philosopher could be sorry for such a strange collaboration of rational, experimental, and religious factors, but a historian of science, even if he is a full atheist, could not afford to ignore a really powerful force of human history.

According to Ganeri’s final statement “in answer to Needham,” the science of Galileo and Einstein as “rather non-well-ordered” is a vicious thing. It’s an interesting statement for history of philosophies of sciences, but I doubt it is shared by Indian physicists and non-philosophical Indians accustomed to cell phone and internet.




1 Jonardon Ganeri, “Well-Ordered Science and Indian Epistemic Cultures: Toward a Polycentered History of Science,” Isis, 2013, 104:348–359, on p. 350.

2 Gennady Gorelik, “How the Modern Physics was invented in the 17th century,” Scientific American, Guest Blog, 6, 7, 8 Apr. 2012.

3 Edgar Zilsel, “The Genesis of the Concept of Physical Law” (1942), in Zilsel, The Social Origins of Modern Science, ed. Diederick Raven, Wolfgang Krohn, and Robert S. Cohen (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000.)