Edgar Allan Poe’s way of thinking science with Eureka

There’s much more to Edgar Allan Poe’s work than wistful poetry, cleverly sarchastic humor tales or short stories of unspeakable psychologic horror, not to mention the unraveling of intrincate plots by Dupin and the futuristic and adventure tales. Besides all of that, Poe delivered us Eureka,  which he regarded to be his ultimate work. In it, although Poe was not a scientist and even lacked formal education, he took his chances by foraying into Cosmology.

Why is that Eureka gets more and more interesting as time passes? Perhaps because, apart from the dazzling scientific predictions Poe makes in Eureka, he also managed to anticipate epistemological issues that are part of the contemporary discourse.

To start with, Poe developes a deeply insightful view on the limitations of both inductive and deductive methods, culminating in what he regarded to be the source of all rational thinking – intuition and consistency. He draws attention to the narrowness of the well-established reasoning methods of his time: “their pompous and infatuate proscription of all other roads to Truth than the two narrow and crooked paths — the one of creeping and the other of crawling — to which, in their ignorant perversity, they have dared to confine the Soul — the Soul which loves nothing so well as to soar in those regions of illimitable intuition which are utterly incognizant of ‘path.’”

Isn’t it obvious? Not until 1934,  when the German philosopher Karl Popper boldly stated that deductive logic doesn’t function, by itself, as a source of true statements about the world, due to the problem it poses about regressitivity,  i.e., the fact that a previous statement would be required in order to justify the next, and so on, in an endless chain. And he wasn’t much kinder to inductivism either, which he regarded as never being strictly valid, but only  ‘true’ at a certain confidence level.

Subsequently, in order to ground his bold cosmovision, Poe readily dismisses these methods and delivers his own considerations to hold up his theory on the nature of the Universe. At some point,  he quotes: “We have attained a point where only Intuition can aid us: …. It is but the conviction arising from those inductions or deductions of which the processes are so shadowy as to escape our consciousness, elude our reason, or defy our capacity of expression.”

Well, Popper came to similar conclusions, stating that the way a hypothesis is conceived is utterly irrelevant to scientific knowledge, and in fact there is no logical method of having new ideas. As Albert Einstein put it, there is no logical path to universal laws.

Addressing the question of how axioms can be established, Poe states that  “…the axiomatic principle itself is susceptible of variation, and of course that axioms are susceptible of similar change. Being mutable, the “truths” which grow out of them are necessarily mutable too. Needless to say how prophetical this assertion was of what Thomas Kuhn would say in 1962: much more than through empirical observations, science  progresses through  changes in the paradigm, which stands for a coherent structure able to encompass all the  observational facts into  one singular logical and mathematical framework.  A paradigm shift, according to Kuhn, takes place whenever the “old paradigm” is no longer sustainable, and a new paradigm, at this point, slowly conquers hearts and minds.

Warning of the dangers of rigidly clinging to a particular method of thinking, Poe says in Eureka: “The end, with them, was a point of no moment whatever: — ‘the means!’ they vociferated — ‘let us look at the means!’” It took as much as  one and a half century until Paul Feyerabend, in 1975, came to argue that the setting of rules for the scientists work were futile and counter-productive, and to advocate complete methodological independence for scientists to successfully state new hypotheses to explain the physical world, in what he called an “epistemological anarchism” – rules just restrain the progress of knowledge.

But perhaps the closest mind to Poe’s is Sir Roger Penrose, the British mathematician and philosopher of science, who, in 1989, argued that the rational process transcends formal logic, which means that it is impossible to  recursively determine the chain of reasoning behind intuition.  These ideas echo what Poe asserts in Eureka: “Nothing was ever more rigorously deduced: —the processes lie out of the human analysis — at all events are beyond the utterance of the human tongue… “It is but the conviction arising from those inductions or deductions of which the processes are so shadowy as to escape our consciousness, elude our reason, or defy our capacity of expression.”

In a last remarkable foresight, Poe justifies his propositions by stating: “In spite of the eternal prating of their savans about roads to Truth, none of them fell, even by accident, into what we now so distinctly perceive to be the broadest, the straightest and most available of all mere roads — the great thoroughfare — the majestic highway of the Consistent?” Amazingly enough, the dawn of the 20th century saw the emerging of a school of tought known as  Coherentism, whose core resides in the proposition that, within a given set of propositions, each one is justified solely by being logically consistent with the others!

All that remains for us to do is wonder about how much more of Poe’s uncanny propositions and dreams will also prove to be true.

Read more essays on Edgar Allan Poe:

Edgar Allan Poe and Isolationism: His mysterious years in New York 

To the Dreamers I offer this Book of Truths: Edgar Allan Poe’s  lifelong quest for a livable world  

See Special Reports on Edgar Allan Poe.