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When Testing Questioned Orthodoxy

Continuing on from the first and second posts in this series, let’s look at how testing, as it came to be in a scientific context, challenged a bit of orthodoxy.

For this post, let’s start our focus in the twelfth century CE. This was a time in Europe when the power of Rome was effectively gone but the Catholic Church remained quite strong.

The history that led to this point was that there were various kingdoms that controlled vast regions of western and central Europe. For the most part, these kingdoms were founded by invaders who set up shop once they conquered the area they decided to settle in. This was essentially the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Germanic kingdoms.

Eventually those kingdoms began to solidify by becoming Christian, even if in name only, and swearing allegiance to the current Pope. Thus eventually did we get what came to be called the “Holy Roman Empire” in the thirteenth century CE, which had some longevity, falling to Napoleon in 1806.

This empire was ruled by a Roman emperor who was essentially given that title and role by the presiding Pope.

A Worldly Power … Based on Philosophy

Thus the power of the Catholic Church at this time was quite worldly, often acquiring land and money in order to establish the power it needed to be able to confer legitimacy not only upon itself but also upon those that were chosen to rule. This being said, even with that worldly focus, the Church’s power rested ultimately on theology.

Yet in many ways, and in pretty much all the ways that mattered, the Church’s power was both directly and indirectly tied to philosophy.

Why is that? Because philosophers provided the intellectual foundation for Catholic orthodoxy. This was an arena that experimentation, and thus testing, would have to situate itself within.

Those aforementioned philosophers eventually became known as the Scholastics.

This group held up Aristotle as an exemplar of sound thinking, specifically logical deduction and syllogistic reasoning.

These Scholastics were not much for entertaining large, overarching principles about reality nor about questions related to the operation of the universe or nature. Rather, they were much more focused on rules and regulations and how to correctly apply them. Probably the most notable of these Scholastics was Thomas Aquinas.

An interest in Aristotelian thought grew and this was largely due to some of Aristotle’s own works being resurfaced. Many of these works had been lost, in part or in whole, in their Greek and Latin versions but were reconstructed from Arabic translations.

An Aristotelian Resurgence

This takes us to a guy named Averroës, pronounced aah-ver-o-ease.

Personally, I was curious about his name and, apparently, it was Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd. “Averroës” is the Medieval Latin form of “Ibn Rushd,” this being derived from the Spanish pronunciation of the original Arabic name, wherein “Ibn” becomes “Aben” or “Aven.”

Averroës found himself in the position of writing what we might call a commentary of Aristotle. This was at the behest of the current caliph in Marrakesh. What attracted Averroës to Aristotelian thinking was the insistence that things happened for reasons and thus that nature seemed to conform to laws “written by God,” as it were.

Most of Averroës’ work was done between 1153 to 1169 and his first commentaries on Aristotle were published in 1169. Averroës always referred to Aristotle as the Philosopher.

This is relevant because Aquinas, again one of the most notable Scholastics, was greatly influenced by Averroës. In fact, Averroës was referred to often simply as the Commentator.

This provides us with a key bit of context to keep in mind about this period of time. Catholic orthodoxy was to a large extent a matter of promoting certain beliefs because the Philosopher (Aristotle) said them and the Commentator (Averroës) elaborated them.

An Elaborate Philosophy Emerges

Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy, eventually referred to as Thomism, was front and center of all of this as the leading voice of the Scholastics. Thomism utilized Aristotelian ideas on motion and cosmology.

But the lineage of those ideas was a bit diverse.

Aristotle’s cosmology really came from a guy named Eudoxus of Cnidus, who lived around the early 300s BCE. Eudoxus was in turn inspired by Plato. And Plato formed a lot his ideas from Pythagoras. Or, perhaps more accurately, Plato formed his ideas from the fifth-century BCE group who became known as the Pythagoreans. Thomism also relied on newer interpretations of Plato, collectively referred to as Neoplatonism.

Much of this Thomistic philosophy was put in place from 1259 to 1265.

We’re making our way here slowly to Galileo. By the time of Galileo, reverence to long-standing orthodoxy, based on the philosophy I’m talking about here, would be deeply entrenched.

In fact, the concept of “learning,” if such it could be called, often consisted largely in understanding what the Philosopher (Aristotle) said, what the Commentator (Averroës) thought about it, and then how Thomas Aquinas (made a saint in 1323) tied all that together with Christian doctrine.

So testing was going to have to get a toehold in a world that had a slippery slope between philosophy — often somewhat unreflective philosophy, at that — and theology.

The Tug of Orthodoxy

Now, keep in mind that worldly aspect to the Church’s power that I mentioned.

The orthodoxy bit was important to the Church. And not necessarily for just pure belief reasons. Consider a scenario where the Church was seen to be split by dissent over issues; where the Church itself was divided into more-or-less antagonistic factions. Well, clearly, in that case — at least from the Church’s perspective — its position as the arbiter of God’s eternal truth would be undermined.

So, as many people recount history, the Church “ruthlessly” stamped out what it considered to be heresy. There’s truth to that but the “ruthlessly” part is very nuanced and not something I’ll tackle here.

Needless to say, this is the world that Galileo — our codifier of testing in the form of experiments — was dealing with.

Galileo wrote two new books that are very much worth considering in the history of testing, albeit obviously with a scientific focus.

One of those is called Il Saggiatore (“The Assayer”) published in 1623. This book offered a defense of what we might loosely call the scientific method. The focus here was on favoring reason based on observation and experiment over a reflexive and unreflective recitation of the “truth” that might be found in statements of philosophy promoted by authorities.

The other book is Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo, tolemaico e copernicano (“Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican”) published in 1632. This book makes a clear case for the superiority of the Copernican system over the Ptolemaic on its agreement with a wide range of observationally established facts. This superiority was based on observations that could demonstrably and empirically link cause and effect. Those linkages were considered accurate regardless of previous philosophical orthodoxy of how the Sun and the Earth and the planets “ought” to move given a presumed ordering, whether divine or not.

Testing Battles Orthodoxy?

All of that brings us to Galileo’s so-called “battle” with the Church.

I say “so-called” because the history of this is actually complicated.

At the bottom of it all were two questions asked specifically in the year 1616: “Does the Earth move and is the Sun stationary?”

What mattered, in the end, is who had the final say on that question.

For the Church, clearly, it was the language of the Scriptures that held ultimate authority. That said, we have to frame that slightly different. In fact, it was the language of the Scriptures as interpreted by the Church’s chosen and preferred scholars.

Keep in mind what I said earlier about the Scholastics. Intellectual exploration of the universe was not really their focus. And that meant that any such exploration by others was not, in itself, considered any sort of “dangerous” activity. Yet the goal of such exploration, at least in the eyes of the Church, was to find more and better reasons to support accepted beliefs.

This, in fact, was the essence of Thomist thinking. The Church is correct in whatever it says. So the purpose of any philosophical investigation was — indeed, must be — to arrive at that correct conclusion that the Church already reached. Perhaps new thinking might reach that truth in new and more convincing ways but those ways still had to lead to the “correct” conclusion.

But here comes the nuance. And I say that because, historically, if we look at concerns related to astronomy and mathematics, the orthodoxy of the Church was not really all that “Christian” in nature. Rather, that orthodoxy, as stated earlier, had its roots in all that (primarily) Greek philosophy. So what happened here is all that philosophy ended up getting attached to concerns that had doctrinal significance.

Thus any testing was essentially an argument from authority. Or what certain authorities said.

As Then, So Today …

Note to testers: doesn’t what I just said sound a little like what happens today?

Today’s testing communities often bear an increasing resemblance to the spectacle of the “Megachurch.” You have these cults of personality — effectively authorities — that attract lots of “believers.”

Those believers are all hopeful that their “prophets” can move them just an inch closer to testing nirvana and thus the industry closer to quality salvation. So those believers spend a lot — and I mean a whole lot — of their time repeating their talking points to each other and liberally quoting their prophets.

Yet, all the while, nothing really changes. For all this effort, the testing nirvana they hope for is distant and the quality salvation they strive for recedes even further.

As Today, So Then …

Galileo was effectively dealing with the same thing back then. Which is either interesting or sad depending on your point of view. I personally choose interesting because I think this is one of those cyclic things that happens historically.

Anyway, Galileo had a different kind of authority in mind. Certainly it was larger than any personal or institutional opinion.

The Church had the Scriptures and what we can charitably call a dogmatized form of Aristotelianism. What did Galileo have? Well, he had mathematics, sure. But more importantly Galileo had the idea of experimentation and the observations from experiments to refine theorizing. That theorizing then led to more experimentation. This was a healthy feedback loop.

Even more specifically, and I would argue more importantly, Galileo tied cause and effect to demonstrable and empirical aspects where the linkage was direct and obvious and the lineage of said linkage could be ascertained. Taking just one example, contrast that idea with our test industry today which, following some of its prophets, suggest that the use of the term “manual testing” has led to all the woes of the industry, from the rise of a technocracy, to lower pay for testers, for a compromised stature for testing in the industry and so on.

It is an argument entirely without basis regarding the lineage I just described. Yet it’s an easy thought philosophically, right? I mean, it would “make sense,” wouldn’t it? Just as it made sense to Aristotle that things fell because they had a “tendency” to do so based on a rooted “purpose” they had. But making sense philosophically, as I’ve tried to show here, often leads to an oft-quoted but not necessarily accurate orthodoxy.

Rise of a New Orthodoxy?

History, in some ways, may be repeating itself.

In our industry currently — and going for many years, actually — we have a rise of the relatively small professional class, for lack of a better term, that have an outsized impact on an upcoming generation of test practitioners.

Those practitioners spend most of their time being sycophants to the The Message (read: the orthodoxy). That gets reflected in massive numbers of testers who simply follow their Philosophers around and act as Commentators on what those philosophers are routinely saying. You then have the few Thomists who enshrine this even further, making it a form of doctrine.

Thus do we have a test industry that is basically talking to itself. We have a lot of Aristotle type people. We have a lot of Averroës type people. We have a lot of Aquinas type people.

What I fear we lack is a lot of Galileo type people.


This article was written by Jeff Nyman

Anything I put here is an approximation of the truth. You're getting a particular view of myself ... and it's the view I'm choosing to present to you. If you've never met me before in person, please realize I'm not the same in person as I am in writing. That's because I can only put part of myself down into words. If you have met me before in person then I'd ask you to consider that the view you've formed that way and the view you come to by reading what I say here may, in fact, both be true. I'd advise that you not automatically discard either viewpoint when they conflict or accept either as truth when they agree.

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