Philosophy isn't dead?

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Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby Indrajala » Fri Jun 14, 2013 5:57 pm

The Guardian ran a brief opinion piece arguing that philosophy isn't dead:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree ... y-einstein

    In 2010 Stephen Hawking, in The Grand Design, announced that philosophy was "dead" because it had "not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics". He was not referring to ethics, political theory or aesthetics. He meant metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that aspires to the most general understanding of nature – of space and time, the fundamental stuff of the world. If philosophers really wanted to make progress, they should abandon their armchairs and their subtle arguments, wise up to maths and listen to the physicists.

    This view has significant support among philosophers in the English-speaking world. Bristol philosopher James Ladyman, who argues that metaphysics should be naturalised, and who describes the accusation of "scientism" as "badge of honour", is by no means an isolated case.

    But there could not be a worse time for philosophers to surrender the baton of metaphysical inquiry to physicists. Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years. Endeavours to unite them, such as string theory, are mathematically ingenious but incomprehensible even to many who work with them. This is well known. A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.

    Beyond these domestic problems there is the failure of physics to accommodate conscious beings. The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally, if only because there is no way of accounting for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same) are not. In short, physics does not allow for the strange fact that matter reveals itself to material objects (such as physicists).

    And then there is the mishandling of time. The physicist Lee Smolin's recent book, Time Reborn, links the crisis in physics with its failure to acknowledge the fundamental reality of time. Physics is predisposed to lose time because its mathematical gaze freezes change. Tensed time, the difference between a remembered or regretted past and an anticipated or feared future, is particularly elusive. This worried Einstein: in a famous conversation, he mourned the fact that the present tense, "now", lay "just outside of the realm of science".

    Recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of nothing, which rely on questionable notions such as spontaneous fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, the notion of gravity as negative energy, and the inexplicable free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings for the moment of creation, reveal conceptual confusion beneath mathematical sophistication. They demonstrate the urgent need for a radical re-examination of the invisible frameworks within which scientific investigations are conducted. We need to step back from the mathematics to see how we got to where we are now. In short, to un-take much that is taken for granted.

    Perhaps even more important, we should reflect on how a scientific image of the world that relies on up to 10 dimensions of space and rests on ideas, such as fundamental particles, that have neither identity nor location, connects with our everyday experience. This should open up larger questions, such as the extent to which mathematical portraits capture the reality of our world – and what we mean by "reality". The dismissive "Just shut up and calculate!" to those who are dissatisfied with the incomprehensibility of the physicists' picture of the universe is simply inadequate. "It is time" physicist Neil Turok has said, "to connect our science to our humanity, and in doing so to raise the sights of both". This sounds like a job for a philosophy not yet dead.



Hawkin's opinion is noteworthy, but moreover is the following from Al-Jazeera:

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinio ... 60647.html

    According to Hawking, the conversation about the truth of the world rests in the hands of elite physics professors funded by multinational corporations and national governments. Should we believe this pronouncement just because it comes from an eminence such as Hawking?


I think a lot of intellectuals sympathize with Hawking's views, which probably explains to some degree why the humanities, which often deals extensively with value rather than fact, is crumbling while science and business studies remain well-funded.

If physics is dissolving to the quantum level and ends up with untenable measurements, presumably all you're left with is scepticism about your own methods. Science doesn't work if you can't measure anything. If that's true, why the chauvinism and cheer leading on the part of theoretical physicists?

With that in mind, we might discuss if Buddhist metaphysics has any role to play in the present day dialogue about the value of metaphysics.

If the discussion, however, is framed with logical positivism and/or materialist assumptions as axiomatic, can Buddhism even step foot into the discussion? I say that because various models of metaphysics proposed by past Buddhist thinkers can be regarded as idealist, nominalist, nihilistic or even mystic, but hardly materialist and/or in line with the basic premises of logical positivism, especially since Buddhists generally don't regard sensory data as ultimately reliable. Mathematical treatment is also uncommon amongst Buddhist thinkers.

If the goal is to effectively transcend the body and mind, then measurements and metaphysics are just a means to an end, albeit still quite usefull. However, that end goal for the Buddhist is entirely different from most scientists and western philosophers. Metaphysics for the Buddhist is heavily tied in with mysticism and cultivating the lived experience of liberation. Metaphysics for western philosophy and science is now at times about understanding how science works and how to improve one's technique in it (which is what the Guardian piece is suggesting).

So, I wonder if metaphysics for Buddhists is really applicable or even useful for the aforementioned present day discussion in academia. The goals and premises are very different.
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby Karma Dorje » Fri Jun 14, 2013 7:07 pm

Indrajala wrote:So, I wonder if metaphysics for Buddhists is really applicable or even useful for the aforementioned present day discussion in academia. The goals and premises are very different.


The Continental/Analytic divide is as wide as it has ever been. There is certainly more synergy between Buddhist thought and thinkers like Derrida and Merleau-Ponty than Russell or Quine but I wouldn't give up just yet. Thomas Nagel has some very interesting ideas, and there is much in feminist epistemology that is similarly edifying.

Of course, on a personal note I was living with a philosopher of science who strongly identified with the analytic school (even though she was an expert on Kepler!). We had constant battles, but I knew it was over when she told me, "You know, Geoff... your epistemology troubles me."

Oh snap.
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby anjali » Fri Jun 14, 2013 7:28 pm

Karma Dorje wrote:Of course, on a personal note I was living with a philosopher of science who strongly identified with the analytic school (even though she was an expert on Kepler!). We had constant battles, but I knew it was over when she told me, "You know, Geoff... your epistemology troubles me."

Oh snap.


:rolling: O course this raises the question, how did you know that you knew it was over? ;)
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby Knotty Veneer » Fri Jun 14, 2013 7:35 pm

No. It just smells a bit funny. :tongue:
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby uan » Fri Jun 14, 2013 8:28 pm

Indrajala wrote:
Hawkin's opinion is noteworthy, but moreover is the following from Al-Jazeera:

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinio ... 60647.html

    According to Hawking, the conversation about the truth of the world rests in the hands of elite physics professors funded by multinational corporations and national governments. Should we believe this pronouncement just because it comes from an eminence such as Hawking?


I think a lot of intellectuals sympathize with Hawking's views, which probably explains to some degree why the humanities, which often deals extensively with value rather than fact, is crumbling while science and business studies remain well-funded.




I'm not sure I'd call Hawking an "eminence" especially in Philosophy. I think his statement alone is prima facie evidence that he is misquided. Some scientist mistake fact with truth. And a scientist, of all people, should know how flimsy their facts really are (check out Richard Feynman on that).

Philosophy really deals with meaning. I don't see that he has added anything of note to that conversation.

I do think that knowledge gained in science (Quantum physics, String Theory, etc.) have a lot of relevance in how philosophers should be looking at the world.
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby Zettel » Fri Jun 14, 2013 9:49 pm

Karma Dorje wrote:
Indrajala wrote:So, I wonder if metaphysics for Buddhists is really applicable or even useful for the aforementioned present day discussion in academia. The goals and premises are very different.


The Continental/Analytic divide is as wide as it has ever been. There is certainly more synergy between Buddhist thought and thinkers like Derrida and Merleau-Ponty than Russell or Quine but I wouldn't give up just yet. Thomas Nagel has some very interesting ideas, and there is much in feminist epistemology that is similarly edifying.

Of course, on a personal note I was living with a philosopher of science who strongly identified with the analytic school (even though she was an expert on Kepler!). We had constant battles, but I knew it was over when she told me, "You know, Geoff... your epistemology troubles me."

Oh snap.


I agree with your first point; while the analytic tradition has very little space for dialogue with Buddhist philosophy, continental philosophers like Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and maybe Levinas and Buber have some overlap.

I had to laugh at your second paragraph. My partner is a philosopher of science (physics/cosmology) and we occasionally have similar tensions. But I think we ultimately both recognize an inner tension between continental and analytic modes of thought.
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby tobes » Sat Jun 15, 2013 8:16 am

The cowherders are doing some interesting work on Analytic philosophy and Buddhism. Usual suspects - Garfield, Siderits, Priest et al

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0195381564

www.amazon.com/Moonshadows-Conventional ... pd_sim_b_2

:anjali:
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby oushi » Sat Jun 15, 2013 9:04 am

Indrajala wrote:However, that end goal for the Buddhist is entirely different from most scientists and western philosophers.

Both share he same goal, some just don't know that yet. To reveal that, It is enough to keep on asking "why?".
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby Indrajala » Sat Jun 15, 2013 9:10 am

tobes wrote:The cowherders are doing some interesting work on Analytic philosophy and Buddhism. Usual suspects - Garfield, Siderits, Priest et al

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0195381564

http://www.amazon.com/Moonshadows-Conve ... pd_sim_b_2

:anjali:


Is it really going to make an impact on the more mainstream discussion about metaphysics?

I mean, a lot of alternative voices are ignored like Rupert Sheldrake. Why would Buddhism have any stronger credentials, especially coming from the side of mysticism?
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby tobes » Sat Jun 15, 2013 9:32 am

Indrajala wrote:
tobes wrote:The cowherders are doing some interesting work on Analytic philosophy and Buddhism. Usual suspects - Garfield, Siderits, Priest et al

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0195381564

http://www.amazon.com/Moonshadows-Conve ... pd_sim_b_2

:anjali:


Is it really going to make an impact on the more mainstream discussion about metaphysics?

I mean, a lot of alternative voices are ignored like Rupert Sheldrake. Why would Buddhism have any stronger credentials, especially coming from the side of mysticism?


I think you're looking at it the wrong way round - you need to ask: what is it about contemporary analytic metaphysics which makes Buddhist thinking an attractive proposition for (some) analytic philosophers?

i.e. there's quite a lot of interesting stuff going on; it has moved a long way from the logical positivist days.

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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby Indrajala » Sat Jun 15, 2013 9:53 am

tobes wrote:i.e. there's quite a lot of interesting stuff going on; it has moved a long way from the logical positivist days.

:anjali:


Right, but how many mainstream scientists who call the shots for the moment take such philosophers seriously? The academy generally holds logical positivism as the root outlook on which hard sciences are based. Anything else is seen as intellectual play and not much else. Like try reading physics as a panpsychist or something to that effect.
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby tobes » Sat Jun 15, 2013 10:13 am

I think that genuine scientists are similarly marginalised. Real science at the elite level is a very uncertain affair.

The people who really call the shots are the bean counters; although I suppose you may mean pop science or scientism as the implicit ideology of our times - of that one can only remain silent, because it is close to being meaningless. It's not worth being bothered by it - in all epochs there are always idiotic beliefs.

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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby Indrajala » Sat Jun 15, 2013 10:38 am

tobes wrote:I think that genuine scientists are similarly marginalised. Real science at the elite level is a very uncertain affair.

The people who really call the shots are the bean counters; although I suppose you may mean pop science or scientism as the implicit ideology of our times - of that one can only remain silent, because it is close to being meaningless. It's not worth being bothered by it - in all epochs there are always idiotic beliefs.

:anjali:


I don't think you can ignore it. Institutions are directed by such an ideology. In terms of cold hard cash it has a strong voice in where things go.

I mean look at this speech arguing for a higher pay scale for science teachers from 3:50:

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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby Wayfarer » Sun Jun 16, 2013 1:15 am

Indrajala wrote:Is it really going to make an impact on the more mainstream discussion about metaphysics?


I don't think these kinds of ideas are ever really mainstream. I suppose it will sound elitist, but most people, including most scientists, will never understand metaphysics - because metaphysics requires metanoia. You can't even begin to understand the subject until your own mind is transformed by it. Many Buddhists will understand that because meditation is naturally transformative in that way. (The Sansrkit equivalent of 'metanoia' is 'paravritti', as explained by D T Suzuki in his commentary on the Lankavatara Sutra.)

Due to the habits of extroversion in the Western outlook, this approach is rarely or never understood by scientifically-oriented thinkers. They are pre-occupied with some thing or object in terms of which everything can be explained - even the mind that is doing the explaining! And if you try and show why this is the wrong way around, they won't understand your objections. They put their fingers in their ears and say 'WOO! WOO!' really loudly.

I heard Lawrence Krauss interviewed on Sydney radio a few years back. The interviewer, a fairly science-literate breakfast presenter on the national broadcaster, brought up dark matter and they talked about that for a while. Then the interviewer said something like, we could actually be sorrounded by this 'dark matter' right now, and we would never know. Krauss casually agreed - and the conversation moved on.

Whoa, I thought. We're sorrounded or embedded in some extra-physical kind of reality, some substance (although that is surely the wrong word) which comprises more than 90% of everything, and we don't know what it is, and can't see it. And that isn't even a cause for comment? What if the 'dark universe', which according to their own theories, is far vaster than the Universe that science can actually detect, corresponds to some of what the mystics have described as higher realms or dimensions? Of course, this could be complete nonsense, and such 'matter' might not exist at all. But there is no logical reason that this might not be the case. They simply lack the imagination to even consider it. They seem proud of the fact that their theories tell them more than 90% of the universe exists in a form they can't comprehend, or that the universe is simply a tiny bubble in an endless ocean of incomprehensible other universes.

As to what Buddhist philosophy can bring to bear on these questions: it is essentially existential, that is, concerned with the reality of life and existence, not with abstractions. Secondly the basic teaching of Śūnyatā has been validated by physics, insofar as no self-existent entity or permanent abiding thing has ever been discovered by the World's Most Expensive Machine. The measurement problem and the Cophenhagen Interpretation both lend support to the notion that reality itself is in some real sense a vikalpa, as the mind-only Buddhists say.

Many of these ideas are discussed in the book The Quantum and the Lotus by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan. Furthermore there are some physicists, like Arthur Zajonc who have written extensively on the parallels of quantum theory and Buddhism, which since the Tao of Physics was published, has become a kind of philosophical sub-culture. (Just out of interest, have a look at what you get back when you enter the search term'quantum Buddhism' in Amazon.)

(Here are a couple more relevant reviews - Philosophy Lives, in First Things; and the NY Times review of Krauss' Universe from Nothing.)
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby Indrajala » Sun Jun 16, 2013 3:24 am

jeeprs wrote:Due to the habits of extroversion in the Western outlook, this approach is rarely or never understood by scientifically-oriented thinkers.


I think this stems from two primary factors:

- Emphasis on facts, disregard for values.

- Exclusive concern with objectivity, even though much of what we experience is internal, subjective and equally important to what goes on externally. Knowledge gained from "within" is not normally treated as true and real within the framework of logical positivism, so the notion of yogic insight generating real knowledge that is untreatable in any objective sense will always be rejected or at the very least remain largely unrecognized by empiricists.


Whoa, I thought. We're sorrounded or embedded in some extra-physical kind of reality, some substance (although that is surely the wrong word) which comprises more than 90% of everything, and we don't know what it is, and can't see it.


This reminds me of the theory of multiple dimensions which a lot of physicists speak of as almost matter of fact, yet this is clearly just inferred based on tentative mathematical theories. Most humans do not perceive multiple dimensions, nor do we see dark matter, or knowingly interact with it, yet we're expected to believe it is all there because such theories are scientific.


They seem proud of the fact that their theories tell them more than 90% of the universe exists in a form they can't comprehend, or that the universe is simply a tiny bubble in an endless ocean of incomprehensible other universes.


The ideas coming from theoretical physicists often sounds religious to me. It is treated with logic and mathematics, sure, but then you can have "religious" cosmology formed in a likewise fashion as well. Apparently the Vedic gods really like math.

You might even introduce another perspective and introduce language in there, and how the cosmos begins with a " a " from whence everything else emerges. Linguistic analysis of reality was favoured by a lot of ancient Indian philosophers, and in my mind this is equally as valid as using mathematics or logic to explore and form models of reality.

I think, perhaps, modern science is suffering the law of diminishing returns. As time goes on discoveries cost a lot more of manpower and resources, both intellectual and technological, yet the tangible results are declining. This is different from a few generations ago where a chalkboard and a good mind could come up with ground breaking work. The discovery of radiation was a big game changer, yet it seems like we're not getting such discoveries any longer. A particle accelerator that costs billions of dollars is a lot of fun to construct and use, but does the end result really have any benefit to people? It remains to be seen, but nevertheless the cost of discovering a particle sure didn't come cheap.



Secondly the basic teaching of Śūnyatā has been validated by physics, insofar as no self-existent entity or permanent abiding thing has ever been discovered by the World's Most Expensive Machine.


Funny how that had to be validated again despite in ancient times atomic theory having been refuted.
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby Wayfarer » Sun Jun 16, 2013 5:17 am

There are some interesting discussions of the ancient debates on atomism in McEvilly.

Indrajala wrote:I think, perhaps, modern science is suffering the law of diminishing returns. As time goes on discoveries cost a lot more of manpower and resources, both intellectual and technological, yet the tangible results are declining. This is different from a few generations ago where a chalkboard and a good mind could come up with ground breaking work. The discovery of radiation was a big game changer, yet it seems like we're not getting such discoveries any longer. A particle accelerator that costs billions of dollars is a lot of fun to construct and use, but does the end result really have any benefit to people? It remains to be seen, but nevertheless the cost of discovering a particle sure didn't come cheap.


We loose sight of why scientists believed that discovering the 'fundamental particle' will reveal the 'secrets of the Universe' in the first place. If you consider the origin of materialism, the underlying idea was that 'the atom' - meaning 'indivisible' or 'uncuttable' - was the imperishable reality underlying the manifest world of form. I am of the view that we still cling to that idea. After all if you ask the man in the street what 'reality' consists of, I am sure a majority would answer, without hesitation, 'atoms'.

But I think the fact is there actually are no atoms - in the sense that the word originally implied. Sure, the meaning has changed, the word 'atom' now refers to 'the standard model' which takes pages of advanced mathematics to describe. But in the midst of all this, we have lost sight of what physics was supposed to provide an explanation for in the first place. So now specialists like Hawkings will postulate mathematically-expressed theories like 'M Theory' which only he and a few mathematical specialists can even understand. And yet this is what 'philosophy' is supposed to have 'not kept up with'. :thinking:

There is a columnist for Scientific American by the name of John Horgan who wrote a controversial book in the 90's on just this 'diminishing returns' idea called The End of Science - Facing the Limits of Science in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. This sparked a lot of controversy and many angry rebukes, but I think, 15 years after it was published, his basic idea still stands up pretty well.

Anyway, that said, I also want to add that materialism has been extraordinarily creative in some ways, and has done things that no other cultural tradition could have possibly done. And secondly, I don't believe that the mainstream of Western philosophy is actually 'scientific materialism', but much nearer to Pythagoras and Plato. And their ideas certainly ain't dead.
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Re: Philosophy isn't dead?

Postby Indrajala » Sun Jun 16, 2013 5:44 am

jeeprs wrote:But in the midst of all this, we have lost sight of what physics was supposed to provide an explanation for in the first place. So now specialists like Hawkings will postulate mathematically-expressed theories like 'M Theory' which only he and a few mathematical specialists can even understand. And yet this is what 'philosophy' is supposed to have 'not kept up with'. :thinking:


There's often a sense in the academy of a need to determine how reality really is and coming up with testable models to explore it, but then quite often the issue of function is overlooked. Materialist science is good for investigating the physical world, but not other areas of reality that we experience (but then the lived experience of non-physical things is supposedly reducible to complex bio-chemical processes in the brain). You don't use a screwdriver for a hammer's work. That's a simple even juvenile statement to make, but it often gets overlooked.

Complex mathematical theories are good for some things, but not everything. It probably won't work well when someone is trying to unravel some deep existential question in their mind. But again, many members of the academy would reduce those experiences to material processes, which are then dissolved into even more complex physical processes. Reality, they presume, is reducible to various stratified layers. The material trumps the mental. The physical trumps the material. The quantum trumps the physical. Any attempt to offer an alternative model, like giving precedence to language instead of mathematics as many ancient Indians did, would be met with laughter.


There is a columnist for Scientific American by the name of John Horgan who wrote a controversial book in the 90's on just this 'diminishing returns' idea called The End of Science - Facing the Limits of Science in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. This sparked a lot of controversy and many angry rebukes, but I think, 15 years after it was published, his basic idea still stands up pretty well.


Joseph Tainter in the 80s wrote his Collapse of Complex Societies and he pointed out the declining number of patents issued per X number of scientists over the previous number of decades. His argument was that increased complexity does not actually produce increased yields after a certain point, but in fact the law of diminishing returns comes into effect. He noted how increases in average longevity become more and more energy intensive to ensure, whereas at the beginning investing a bit of energy in hygiene, sanitation and basic medical care increases average life expectancy considerably. Even the most comfortable and long-lived nations in the world (Japan, Canada, etc.) have limits to how much they can get out of the most advanced medical research.

But that's how ecology works, too. There are limits to everything given natural laws.


Anyway, that said, I also want to add that materialism has been extraordinarily creative in some ways, and has done things that no other cultural tradition could have possibly done. And secondly, I don't believe that the mainstream of Western philosophy is actually 'scientific materialism', but much nearer to Pythagoras and Plato. And their ideas certainly ain't dead.


Sure, our civilization decided on materialist science and went off from there. The Romans decided to pursue the limits of logic. The ancient Indians the limits of grammar.

On the other hand, our science and its complexity is largely indebted to fossil fuels which enabled the requisite social complexity required to produce so much knowledge and ways of storing and reproducing it. Increased (usable) energy usually leads to increased complexity in a given community (in ecology it works like this too).

If it wasn't for the industrial revolution, science would have progressed much much slower and might have remained largely within the realm of backyard enthusiasts like Darwin. It was only after a certain point, maybe around WWI, when science became useful enough for it to be actively weaponized or employed for commercial purposes. Before that a lot of innovation was done by technicians and engineers who just knew what worked. I mean a Man-of-War was an incredibly complex vessel, but the shipbuilders probably didn't understand the physics of buoyancy or the organic properties of oak. They just knew from experience what worked and how to improve things.
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