Science in Christian Perspective
The Birth of Science
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From: JASA 33 (March 1981): 57-58
To command the professors of astronomy to confute their own observations is to enjoin an impossibility, for it is to command them not to see what they do see, and not to understand what they do understand and to find what they do not discover.- Galileo Galilei
Yet the first stirrings of the scientific spirit were comparatively recent. Academics usually point to the Ionian outposts of Asia Minor in the 6th century B.C., where Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes first formulated theories of the universe, without relying on a divine hand. Rationalists like Renan euphorically refer to this as "the only miracle in history."
And in one sense they're right. Previous civilizations, notably those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India, conceived of the universe as peopled by spirits, friendly or hostile. They divided reality into the sacred (crucial) and the profane (insignificant). Charmed by the idea that like produces like, they attempted to control nature by means of sympathetic magic. (If a frog croaked the rains came, so men dressed in frog costumes and mimicQ frog sounds.) They followed common sense and tradition, and did little to rock the boat of political and social stability. For as John Dewey once remarked, "If we once start thinking, no one can guarantee where we shall come out, except that many objects, ends and institutions are doomed."
What were the early "scientific" theories that so antagonized the ancients? Thales of Miletus announced, "All things are made of water ... .. It seems to me," declared a member of the Hippocratic school that epilepsy "is no more divine than any other disease. It has a natural cause, just as other diseases have." "Nothing is created out of nothing or destroyed into nothing," hypothesized Democritus, and "by necessity were foreordained all things that were and are and are to be." "The eyes and the ears are bad witnesses for men," taught Heractitus, "if the mind cannot interpret what they say."
Do you feel the sense of Greek alarm? Often these men were castigated as "atheists" by the populace, though it is more ac curate to call them indifferent to religion, than actively opposed. The state not infrequently capitulated to popular indignation and banished the troublemakers or closed down their academies. Even Socrates, who in his youth once followed their teachings, later denounced them for being more concerned with astronomy than ethics. And by his famous maxim, "the unexamined life is not worth living," he attempted to turn the Athenians from looking at the physical universe to a concern for their own immortal souls.
While the forerunners of the Greeks made significant contributions in mathematics and astronomy, they were never prone to the same consistency, clarity, and simplicity that so marked Greek thought. The Egyptians developed a decimal number system and a solar calendar based on a 365-day year. They measured the fall of the Nile for over 700 miles with an error of only a few inches. They could compute the area of a circle. triangle, rectangle and a trapezoid and used 3.1605 for pi. From embalming they derived an elementary knowledge of anatomy (though their conclusions on organ functions are invariably wrong). Nevertheless, as Otto Neugebauer discerns, "The only texts which have come down to us . . . . are crude observational schemes, partly religious, partly practical in purpose. Ancient science," he concludes, "was the product of a very few men; and these few happened not to be Egyptians. "
Few, if any, were Babylonians either, despite the invention of the sun-dial, the water-clock, and the polos. The Babylonians knew how to fertilize palm and date trees, compiled tables of squares, square roots, cubes, cube roots, divided the circle into 360', charted the irregular motion of the planets and mapped the ecliptic, or yearly path of the sun through the fixed stars. However, the Babylonians' greatest discoveries-those in the field of astronomy-never broke away from the stranglehold of astrology. And unlike the Greeks, their careful observations and conclusions were the exclusive property of priests and royalty, and not meant to enlighten the common man. (To be fair, the number of known texts on science and mathematics from Egypt and Mesopotamia are slight compared to those from Greece.)
A number of Greeks, however, believed in rational inquiry, scientific observation and mathematical formulas of reality. Their influence can be divided into at least four geographical schools: Ionia, southern Italy, Athens, and Alexandria. Ionia, historically the first, was distinguished for its cosmology; but today these ancient discussions strike us as absurd. Thales argued that the universe was solely composed of water, Anaximenes air, and Anaximander a primary substance he called the Unlimited or Indeterminate. Yet philosophically it is a giant step from the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian view, namely, that the universe was a huge box and the earth was its floor, to the Ionian concept of the earth as a body floating freely in space, equidistant from the periphery of the vortex. Yet even here we are more in the realm of curiosity and speculation, of men "who walk into a well from looking at the stars." Still, the prerequisites have been met. In creating models of reality men could test their application. As Alfred North Whiteheard was to write some twenty-four centuries later, "The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanation of complex facts."
This process of simplification was advanced further by the Italian school of Pythagoras. Here, at last, mathematics strove to become what Wordsworth called, ". . an independent world,/ Created out of pure intelligence." By the fifth century B.C. its members had classified numbers into odd and even, prime and secondary, perfect and "friendly," and devised a theory of proportions. They argued that the earth and the celestial bodies were spheres that moved in circles and believed that a celestial fire, not the earth, was the still point in the turning universe-around which ten bodies (earth, moon, sun, rive planets, the fixed stars, and a "counter-earth") revolved. However, for them mathematics was more than simple curiosity; it bordered on becoming a religion. They thought the world was orderly and harmonious because it sprang from a geometer God. Soon, for them, numbers took on a mystical significance. The school's greatest scandal was its discovery that the square root of 2 is an irrational number, a secret they tried to hush up lest it undermine belief in reason.
The most famous of the ancient schools, namely that of Socrates and Plato, continued Pythagorean interest in numbers, but at the same time espoused an idealism antithetical to empirical research. For Socrates the only statement of the physicists worth a straw was: "In the beginning everything was confusion, then Mind came and reduced it to order." Socrates practiced universal definitions and inductive reasoning, but he scorned physical work, the body, and experiments.
Plato continued in his master's footsteps, but his star pupil, Aristotle, revolted against the other-worldly tendencies of his teacher, and proceeded to make the most significant contributions in ancient biology. His description of the habits of the cuttlefish in the island lagoon at Pyrrha, his concise, but accurate, account of the life cycle of a gnat, and his notes on the woodpecker's tongue or the owl's eyes-conjure up an image of a man who spent hours in the open air contemplating the world of nature teeming with life before him. (How far this was from the magical conceptions of ancient Egypt where animals had such a compelling effect on the observer that they were worshipped in awe, rather than analyzed and studied.) This is the essence of the scientific spirit: disinterested observation. Yet even for Aristotle nature could not resemble soulless machine of Newton; instead he portrayed it as the work of a craftsman or an artist, arguing that nature never produced anything imperfect or in vain.
Finally, the head of Aristotle's Lyceum moved to Alexandra, where in the three centuries before the birth of Christ, the final burst of ancient scientific creativity broke out. Strato enunciated the principles of pneumatics and Hero demonstrated them in working models. Apollonius discerned the characteristics of cones and introduced the words parabola, ellipse, and hyperbola. Ptolemy improved on trigonometry and gave geography a scientific basis by insisting on accurate latitudes and longitudes. And Euclid in his Elements of Geometry accomplished one of the greatest syntheses of all time, by drawing extensively on the earlier work of the Pythagoreans. William James could well have said of Alexandria: "Science, like life, feeds on its own decay. New facts burst old rules; then newly divined conceptions bind old and new together into a reconciling law."
Still, the Greeks were far removed from the world of modern science. They were more impressive in their theories and their rational inquiry than in developing the empirical method. In one sense, they were stymied by their own success; thus Parmenides invented logical games of the One vs. the Many, which caused havoc for years. The Greek love for symmetry, the tendency to rely on a priori reasoning and to jump quickly to conclusions, always made science a child of philosophy, rather than a grown-up equal. Their skepticism of sense data could just as easily lead to mystery cults and ecstatic union with a god, as to the creative study of earthly and heavenly phenomena. However, the earlier catalogues and entangled superstitions of ancient Egypt and Babylon, by comparison, look like the incoherent babblings of an infant.
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Muller, Herbert J., The Loom of History.
Neugebauer, Otto, The Exact Sciences Ln Antiquity. Sarton, George, A History of Science, v. 1.
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The Fabric of the Heavens.