Math isn’t science

Science daily has posted an article on some new discoveries about Plato’s thoughts that were recently discovered in codes he had written. But, it seems that science daily is confused about what was important about the Scientific Revolution.

The hidden codes show that Plato anticipated the Scientific Revolution 2,000 years before Isaac Newton, discovering its most important idea — the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. The decoded messages also open up a surprising way to unite science and religion. The awe and beauty we feel in nature, Plato says, shows that it is divine; discovering the scientific order of nature is getting closer to God. This could transform today’s culture wars between science and religion.

The book of nature follows laws and patterns, and mathematics is the name we have given to the collection of tools that we use for exploring patterns. But, is mathematics the most important idea to come out of the scientific revolution? Certainly not. The wonders of mathematics were celebrated long before the Scientific Revolution.

Noticing that math is useful for understanding astronomy was discovered by all of the great pre-scientific civilizations. It is an ancient idea. It is great that Plato noticed it too, but this hardly anticipates the Scientific Revolution.

The Scientific Revolution was a revolution in the ideas of astronomy, but also a revolution in the question of how we know things. Previously, being able to describe something with math meant that you knew that thing. In astronomy, it was already well understood that the motion of the planets could be described by math, thanks to the ancient astronomers. In fact, they had beautiful mathematics which could predict the positions of the planets to whatever precision they desired. If math is what science is about, they were done!

The problem with the Ptolemaic system for describing the planets, is that there are no orbits you could observe that can’t be described by it:

The only prediction made by the Ptolemaic system is that planetary orbits will happen in a plane. Since this is true, the belief is ‘good enough’ for any astronomer. But, the Ptolemaic system was eventually overthrown because of Kepler’s prediction of the transit of Venus, which he predicted by throwing away the common ideas about epicycles and circular orbits. With Newton’s unification of gravity with Kepler’s laws, the Scientific Revolution fundamentally changed how people thought about planetary motion. The key idea that brought about this change was that the leaders of the Scientific Revolution were not arguing what was true based on the beauty of mathematics (circles were considered much more beautiful than Kepler’s ellipses), their arguments were about physical evidence. Science rejects the beautiful in favour of what is actually true. I’ll let you decide for yourself how this idea factors into ‘today’s culture wars between science and religion’.

The real big idea of the scientific revolution was that you can get better beliefs about how astronomy works by critically evaluating your ideas against physical evidence. Science is about the discovery that even the most beautiful mathematical models can be overthrown by new physical evidence. Science is not about math, it is about evidence.

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