Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Birth Of Science

Agriculture, invented in desperation and by trial and error when wildlife dwindled, fed more people and initiated civilization which, however, remained vulnerable to barbarian invasions. After initial technological progress, writing generated a conservative priesthood committed to social stasis. Much later, scientific knowledge liberated society from the limitations of water-, wind-, fire- and muscle-power but, Poul Anderson argues in Is There Life On Other Worlds? (New York, 1963), science was not inevitable.

Scientific knowledge is not mere facts but organized facts about the physical universe although this might still be insufficient: the Babylonians' mathematically organized facts about stars and planets amounted to astrology. Isolated observations need to be linked by a theory that suggests new observations. Thus, science can be described as:

"...a body of more or less organized fact and theory together with a process of discovery involving hypothetical explanations whose deductive consequences are checked against observed data and that are discarded when they don't work." (p. 146)

- whereas conservative priesthoods maintain traditional practices whether they work or not!

Alleged precursors of modern scientists were:

the earliest observers of natural phenomena;
Egyptian surveyors;
Babylonian astrologers;
Greek philosophers;
Roman engineers;
medieval alchemists.

More generally:

accidental discovery;
practical techniques;
improvement of techniques.

These constitute accumulated knowledge, necessary but insufficient for science - incapable of generating, e. g., electromagnetic theory or electronics. Scientific method originated historically recently in Europe and spread from there so how did it start? Medieval Arabs had inherited Greek and Hindu knowledge, then innovated in optics, astronomy, chemistry and medicine but stopped short of a scientific revolution.

Proto-scientific imports to Europe included the indispensable mathematical zero and alchemical laboratory techniques. The Greeks had:

a prototype steam turbine;
Archimedean appreciation of mathematics and machinery;
some automata;
water wheels;
hypotheses about atoms and material substances;
Galenic medicine.

Thus, they had logic, theory, data and techniques but never combined these into science because, apart from deficiencies like no lenses or printing, manual labour, even when highly skilled, was the province of slaves, not of intellectuals, who sought only pure, abstract, rational, impractical, non-empirical knowledge. (Plato has a lot to answer for.) Slave owners did not need machines and did not address engineering problems which, later, instigated pure research, e. g., in thermodynamics.

Social attitudes matter. Later Europeans, unlike earlier Greeks or contemporary Byzantines, valued mechanics. Anderson suggests that the Dark Ages technological advances (horse collar, horse shoe, mold-board plough and deep-water ship) occurred because Germanic barbarians, disdaining neither work nor trade, had to cope with the technologies, problems and labour shortage of the declining Roman Empire.

Medieval architecture and trade required precise knowledge, for example navigators needed astronomy, and the universities adapted Classical philosophy. By the Renaissance, there were:

magnetic compasses;
clear glass;
water mills;
speculation about practicalities, not about ideals;
opposition to blind acceptance of authority;
mutual respect and even identity between philosophers and engineers.

Thus, scientific method began in the later Renaissance because of:

the long established respectability of trade and handicraft as against the ancient Classical attitude;
accumulated technology;
capitalist support for makers of discoveries;
one further factor -

"...a logical, analytic approach is just as necessary as an empirical one. The development of this thought pattern may perhaps be traced back to the scholars and theologians of the Middle Ages." (p. 153)

How come?

"The tolerant Classical world could let any number of different philosophies flourish, but Christendom required unanimity. This led to fierce competition between rival schools of thought, which in turn forced the development of sharp intellectual tools. The Judaeo-Christian tradition also discouraged the fuzzy subjectivism of Asia, insisting that the nature of the world is independent of man but discoverable by him." (pp. 153-154)

It is ironic if the intellectual tools applied to finding out about this world were developed in order to clarify religious doctrines and to differentiate them from heresies but Anderson's argument is precisely that science originated because of accidents that might have happened earlier, later or not at all.

The dismissive remark about Asia is a generalization. Uncompromising Zen meditation yields clear self-knowledge and understanding, not "...fuzzy subjectivism..." I think that we now need a synthesis incorporating scientific research, philosophical tolerance and Eastern meditation.

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