Article 2. Whether the Scientific Revolution was uniquely Western.Objection 1. It would seem otherwise, because Western science grew out off the natural philosophy of ancient Greece, especially from Aristotle, Euclid, Galen, and Ptolemy. Also, Demokritos proposed a theory of atoms and Aristarchos proposed a heliocentrism, so in many ways Greek science was far ahead of medieval and early modern Europe. Therefore, the Scientific Revolution started in ancient Greece.
Objection 2. Furthermore, Western science was backward compared to Islamic science, and the West learned of Greek natural philosophy through Arab intermediaries. Therefore, the Scientific Revolution began in the House of Submission and not in the House of War.
Objection 3. Also, China anticipated many of the advances and discoveries of Western natural philosophy. For example, the 11th century accomplishments of Shen Kua included: the first discussion of magnetic declination, the application of permutations in traditional Chinese mathematics, a proposal to maintain daily records of lunar and planetary positions, the first suggestion in East Asia of a purely solar calendar, and an explanation of the process of land formation by both deposition of silt and erosion. Thus, China also had a Scientific Revolution.
On the contrary, physicist Stanley Jaki has written that “the Scientific Revolution was stillborn in every other civilization.”
I answer that while all peoples and cultures have accumulated "lore, skills, crafts, technologies, engineering, learning, and knowledge," Science is not the mere accumulation of facts. Facts are necessary for Science, but not sufficient. They must be arranged and understood within the context of natural laws and physical theories (even if those theories are falsified and replaced from time to time). It was only in the West that all the necessary elements for a Scientific Revolution came together.
N.B.: It can be argued that a Scientific Revolution might have occurred at some other time or place, or indeed that it almost did. But history is contingent, not necessary. That something might have happened does not affect what did happen. In short, we are stuck with the history that actually happened.There were several foundational preconditions for the emergence of Science.
- The idea that nature possesses immanent powers
- That these powers operate in an independent, lawful manner
- That these operations are accessible to the human mind working though generally reliable senses
- And hence are checked against experienced facts
- That these operations are, whenever possible, described in the language of mathematics
- That this study of nature proceeds more or less according to a system
- That this study of nature is a collegial occupation engaged in by the many
- That this study of nature has a "home base" reasonably independent of external authority
- That this study of nature is widely taught in the society
First and most basic, the normative belief in the culture must be that physical bodies must be capable of acting one upon the other from powers which they themselves possess. This doctrine of secondary causation infected the West from the teaching of Augustine of Hippo and others during the Autumn of Late Antiquity.
It is therefore, causally that Scripture has said that earth brought forth the crops and trees, in the sense that it [earth] received the power of bringing them forth. In the earth from the beginning, in what I might call the roots of time, God created what was to be in times to come. -- On the literal meanings of Genesis, Book V Ch. 4:11By the eleventh century this had become the default belief across Western Europe.
The emergence of modern Science depends upon the development of natural laws and physical theories. But scholars must believe that natural laws are possible before they will look for them. Historically, obstacles to belief in the lawfulness of nature have included:In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.-- St. Albertus Magnus, De vegetabilibus et plantisNature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship.
-- Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268
- Belief in a multitude of self-willed gods. No dependable laws of nature are possible if sundry gods might intervene in the world to contrary purposes. Venus overrules Mars or Poseidon countermands Hera. When inanimate objects – stars, trees, rivers – are creatures capable of aims, emotions, and desires, the search for scientific laws would be in vain. As Brian Stock writes, "[the Roman’s] daily experience led him to believe that nature’s forces could be imitated, even placated; he was less sure they could be understood" (Stock, 1978).
- Belief in the absolutely autonomy of God. When even the act of handwriting is ascribed to God’s direct intervention, "laws of nature" can be no more than "habits of God," and the reasons for them cannot be comprehended. Therefore, the search for scientific laws would be in vain.
- Belief in an infinite sequence of cyclic universes. If the cosmos and its repetitive mutations are eternal, all possibilities must eventually come to be, and scientific "laws of nature" are at best temporary concatenations with no universal significance.
The conviction grew that not only did physical bodies possess the power to act directly upon one another, but that they did so in a lawful manner, as expressed in the phrase "the common course of nature" or the maxim "acts always or for the most part." Furthermore, the Latin West followed Aristotle in its reliance of experience: "Nothing is in the mind that was not first in the senses." Peter of Maricourt wrote that an investigator "diligent in the use of his own hands… will in a short time correct an error which he would never do in eternity by his knowledge of natural philosophy and mathematics alone." And Albertus Magnus declared, "Experience is the only sure test." (Experimentum solum certificat in talibus). In this manner, Peter of Maricourt established the laws of magnetism, Theodoric of Freiburg discovered and measured the cause of the rainbow, etc.
The Western concept of synderesis (conscience) developed from Plato's Timaeus supposed humans had the capacity to recognize truth through reason. This influenced not only the unique development of Western Law but also the development of Science, for this human capacity extended not only to recognizing moral truths but also natural truths.
Moreover, this study, whether by experience/experiment, natural philosophy, or mathematics was not carried out haphazardly. Robert Grosseteste regularized two procedures in Aristotle and combined them into resolutio et compositio.
a scientific inquiry began with an experienced fact (quia), usually a composite phenomenon. The aim of the inquiry was to discover the reason for the fact (propter quid), the proximate cause or natural agent from which the phenomenon could be demonstrated. [...] [The] method of discovering the causal agent was to make first a resolutio, or analysis of the complex phenomenon into its principles, and then a compositio, or reconstruction and deduction of the phenomenon from hypotheses derived from the discovered principles. [Grosseteste] verified or falsified these hypotheses by observation or by [another] theory already verified by observation. (DSB, "Grosseteste")This is clearly the ancestor of the demonstrative regress used by Galileo and others in the Scientific Revolution. The method is not always applied in a mechanical way. There is plenty of room for inspiration and all the other human faculties that mess up any abstract schema. This is part of "the work of the intellect" (negotiatio intellectus) that links the a posteriori and a priori phases of reasoning.
Grosseteste also emphasized the importance of Mathematics for Science, esp. the geometry of optics.
Essential for the [propter quid] in natural philosophy was mathematics, to which Grosseteste gave a role based specifically on his theory, expounded in De luce seu de inchoatione formarum and De motu corporali et luce, that the fundamental corporeal substance was light (lux). He held that light was the first form to be created in prime matter, propagating itself from an original point into a sphere and thus giving rise to spatial dimensions and all else according to immanent laws. (DSB, "Grosseteste")Thomas Bradwardine said that "anyone who studies the Physics without mastering mathematics will never enter the portals of knowledge." The scholars of Merton College discovered and proved the main kinematical properties of uniformly accelerated motions, still attributed to Galileo by the physics texts. "In principle, the qualities of Greek physics were replaced, at least for motions, by the numerical quantities that have ruled Western science ever since. The work was quickly diffused into France, Italy, and other parts of Europe. Almost immediately, Giovanni di Casale and Nicole Oresme found how to represent the results by geometrical graphs, introducing the connection between geometry and the physical world that became a [...] characteristic habit of Western thought ... [Clifford Truesdale, quoted in Wikipedia.]
"Immanent laws" within the natures of things themselves expressed in the language of mathematics were explicitely shunned or even denied in other cultures.
Quantity has a quality all its own, and a critical mass of individuals operating collegially may make more from the same material than smaller, less active networks. The question is not when and where some people began to study nature, but when they began to study nature in the manner we now call Science.
The proliferation of universities between 1200 and 1500 meant that hundreds of thousands of students - a quarter million in the German universities alone from 1350 on - were exposed to science in the Greco-Arabic tradition. [...] Between 1150 and 1500, more literate Europeans had had access to scientific materials than any of their predecessors in earlier cultures, thanks largely to the emergence, rapid growth, and naturalistic arts curricula of the medieval universities. (Shank, 2010)
These uniquely Western institutions were self-governing organizations with recognised jurisdiction (Grant, 1996; Huff, 2003). Their curriculum was standard across the West and focused almost exclusively on logic, reason, and natural philosophy. There were degrees of attainment. As today, most of the students went back into normal life after their degree, spreading the knowledge of natural philosophy throughout the culture. The scholars were in communication across the network, and frequently went from university to university. (All this accelerated immensely after the invention of the printing press and the foundation of academies like the Lynceans and correspondence networks like those of Mersenne and Peiresc.)
Furthermore, the method of instruction included the afternoon disputations in which scholars were taught to argue both for and against propositions by considering the best arguments for each side.* This spirit of free inquiry, what Grant called a "culture of poking around," was essential to the emergence of science.
(*) disputations. The format for a disputation was a) statement of the question/proposition, b) the objections, principle arguments against the question, c) the sed contra, the principle argument for, d) the respondeo, the scholar's determination, often dividing the question into different cases, and e) the rebuttals to each of the prior objections. This arrangement would be made for publication after the question had been determined.In short, while proto-science had been done in ancient Greece and in the Greco-Roman lands occupied by the muslims, it was the West that took the ball and ran with it.
Reply to Objection 1. The ancient Greeks invented the very notion idea of "science" (historiê, lit., “inquiry”), as well as “nature” – and without that none of the rest would have happened. Yet the wheat farmer is not credited with making the bread. Individual Greek philosophers studied Nature, but it was hardly an avocation of ancient Greek culture as a whole. Moderns think the Greeks were more into rational inquiry than their papyrus remains would indicate because medieval scribes preferentially copied their works on logic, mathematics, natural philosophy and medicine rather than their works on literature, liturgical practices, and the interpretation of auguries. (See Dodds, 2004 for details.)
Greek Historiê as applied to Nature was mostly a non-empirical speculative philosophy. Their criterion for truth was logical coherence more so than correspondence to facts. Many, like Plato, doubted the reliability of empirical facts when they conflicted with a really kool theory. Aristotle, who did push empiricism, was more important in Islam and the West than in his own milieu, where Neoplatonism and eventually triumphed.
Aristotle OTOH denied that mathematics could be used in the physics, because mathematics (geometry and arithmetic) was static while nature was in constant motion. Despite his empiricism, the thought of a gentleman doing experiments, working with his hands was anathema. Individual philosophers taught followers, but these schools (σχολή: "spare time, leisure, rest ease; idleness; that in which leisure is employed") were more like schools of fish than modern schools. There were no curricula, degrees, research, collegiality, etc. that marked the European university.
In fact, the Greek philosophers did not believe wisdom could be shared with the masses, who were incapable of grasping deeper truths, and much of what they wrote deliberately scattered premises or used obscurantist language. (Aristotle's clarity may be one reason the Europeans preferred to translate him!) This sort of thing built in impedance to the spread of scientific philosophy.
Atomism and heliocentrism do not mark an ancient Greek Scientific Revolution for two reasons:
a) being outside the mainstream of Greek thought, they revolutionized nothing; andDemokritos’ "atoms" seem prescient only because we adopted his term to describe a very different entity. He ascribed the pain of fire to the sharp, tetrahedral shape of its atom. (Modern "atoms" are more like Aristotle's minima, which were much discussed and elaborated upon in medieval Europe.) The Pythagoreans placed the sun in the center because fire was a nobler element than earth and rest was a nobler state than motion. This might be called many things, but scientific is not one of them. Lucky guesses are not science. Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, et al. held that the heavens were divine and, in some sense, alive. (They conceived of the universe as an organism rather than a machine.) That the same physical laws could govern both the heavens and “the sublunar region” was literally inconceivable.
b) they were not scientific.
Nevertheless, Aristotle “lit the fire” of Science. He organized a large body of empirical observations within a coherent philosophical framework, making Science into a specific discipline. This had a stunning impact, first on Islam, then on the West.
Reply to Objection 2. Initially, Islam treated ancient Greek learning with greater enthusiasm than perhaps even the Greeks themselves. Further, they showed a willingness to extend what the ancients had written. However, these efforts were sporadic and not embedded in the culture. The madrasas, like the universities, were independently chartered schools, but taught no natural philosophy. Nor did they possess either a standard curriculum or defined degrees of attainment. Each mullah taught whatever book he wished and gave a certificate (ijaza) to the students who successfully memorized the book. No collection of ijazas was equivalent to a master's degree or doctorate (Huff, 2003).
Islam never had to come to terms with pagan learning. They came to it as conquering outsiders, and referred to it ever after as "Greek studies" or "foreign studies." (The Arabic word for philosophy is a foreign word.) No muslim Aquinas ever reconciled Aristotle with Holy Qur’an. The faylasuf who embraced Aristotle prospered only under the protection of favorable rulers, and when that favor was lost they suffered. The great al-Kindi, for example, was publicly flogged and his library confiscated (Grant, 2006). The writings of these faylasuf had greater influence on readier audiences in Western Christendom than in Islam itself.
Islam emphasized God’s power and autonomy over his rationality and rejected secondary causality as directly contrary to Holy Qur’an. According to the Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, Islamic theologians (mutakalimun) compared natural laws to the daily riding habits of the caliph – subject to change on a whim.
"[T]he thing which exists (in nature) with certain constant and permanent forms, dimensions, and properties only follows the direction of habit … on this foundation their whole fabric is constructed" [Guide to the Perplexed].Islamic theologians asserted that
"when a man moves a pen, it is not the man who moves it; for the motion occurring in the pen is an accident created by God in the pen. Similarly the motion of the hand, which we think of as moving the pen, is an accident created by God in the moving hand. Only God has instituted the habit that the motion of the hand is concomitant with the motion of the pen, without the hand exercising in any respect an influence on, or being causative in regard to, the motion of the pen.""Habits" are not natural laws. Ibn Rushd attacked this world-view, but in the end was stripped of all offices and forced to flee al-Andalus.
Ibn Khaldûn wrote, “the problems of physics are of no importance for us in our religious affairs or our livelihoods; therefore we must leave them alone.” An exception was made for the “practical sciences” of astronomy, medicine, etc., where Islamic scholars made superb contributions. Following Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s influential book, Tahafut al Falasifa [The Incoherence of Philosophy], the great but brief age of Islamic science faded. "The imponderable decisions of God cannot be weighed by the scales of reason," he wrote.
Arabic had no word for "conscience" until late (damir). The closest term was niyya, which translates as "intention." The very capacity of humans to know truth by their own reasoning power was doubted, at least in the dominant ash'ari school.* Just as the theologians were suspicious of the philosophers (faylasuf), the traditional scholars (mujtihid) were suspicious of theology (kalam). Like the Platonic and Neoplatonic tradition, the muslim scholars deliberately obscured their writings by
alluding to certain doctrines only symbolically; scattering or suppressing the premises of an argument; dealing with subjects outside their proper context; speaking enigmatically...; transposing words and letters [!]; deliberately using equivocal terms; introducing contradictory premises...; employing extreme brevity ...; refraining from drawing obvious conclusions; ... [Barry Kogan, Averroes, quoted in (Huff, 2003).]
(*) The mu'tazilites granted a higher role to human reason.
Science, which demands clarity and precision as well as collegiality and universalism, would expire like a patient with a vast pillow of words pressed into his face. The use of one style of writing for the masses and another for the in-crowd was condemned by the medieval Church as the "double truth."
Al-Ghazali had at least respected the use of logic, demolishing philosophy with the tools of philosophy. But ibn Taymiyyah, rejected philosophy and logic as contaminating faith, and his student, al-Suyuti, renowned for his spirituality, eliminated the profession of mutakalimun and the discipline of kalam (theology). "Thus the gates of ijtihād were closed," writes writes Najah Kadhim, "creating a mentality throughout Muslim society which took every word of Holy Qur’an at face value."
At the dawning of the Middle Ages, Islamic science, having assimilated Greek science, outshone the West; but by the end of the Middle Ages, their positions had been reversed -- and thus the causal factor must be sought in the Middle Ages. As with the Greeks, the muslim faylasuf were too few and too far between to sustain a chain reaction. They were never genuinely accepted by the larger culture* and we know of them largely because Western philosophers admired, translated, and commented on their works. The House of Submission came closer than anyone else to kicking off Science, but no cigar.
(*) never genuinely accepted. Even the vaunted House of Wisdom, though authorized by the Caliph, was run and staffed by Nestorian Christians: Hunayn ibn Ishaq and his nephews. Most of the great faylasuf were Spaniards or Persians. Many of the medical doctors were Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Persians.
Reply to Objection 3. If the muslims never had an Aquinas, the Chinese never had an Aristotle. Chinese sages had never integrated the study of the natural world into a coherent overall philosophy, as Aristotle and his Islamic and European successors had done done. Poetry, physics, gardening and alchemy were all ko-chih (“inquiring into and extending knowledge.”). In effect, while the Chinese had sciences, they did not have Science.*
(*) did not have Science. According to Benjamin Elman (1999), the distinction between ko-chih and po-wu (“broad learning concerning the nature of things”) is that ko-chih signified the accumulation of knowledge per se, while po-wu carried the connotation of "curiosities." Neither term properly denotes Science in the modern sense.
Far from seeking causes in the natures of things, Chu Hsi argued that one should seek principles in the outside realm in only thirty to forty percent of cases; otherwise, moral principles should be sought within. Even this was too much for Wang Yang-ming, who would later criticize Chu Hsi’s “externalist” views and claim that Chu Hsi had manipulated the Old Text of the Great Learning to validate a personal interpretation. Nathan Sivan described Chinese thought thusly: "Empirical knowledge is neither certain nor probable, merely given. … For certainty one looks to illumination, introspection, and other alternatives to purely cognitive processes. Certainty is, in the last analysis, a spiritual and moral stance."
The sages wished to identify the current point on the ever-repeating cosmic cycle, not to search for the material causes of natural phenomena. Issues of sequence, frequency, quantity, and magnitude had little interest. "If at a particular time," Jaki (1988) writes, "a mountain collapsed, a river ran dry, a man allegedly changed into a woman, and a dynasty came to an end, the Chinese sage took all these things as equally significant indications of a 'change of order' both in the cosmos and in history, without feeling any urge to search into causal relationships among them." For example, in their assessments of the then newly-introduced Tychonic cosmology, Mei Wen-ting and Wang Hsi-shan drew for explanation on metaphors from anatomy, zoology, etc.
Sivan points out that, in Western science, the test of truth is an appeal to "public, verifiable, and morally neutral facts" independent of the observer’s social status and immune to interference by magicians, gods, etc. But Western science "did not just appeal to facts; it created such facts for the first time – knowledge that had no value except truth value." The Chinese literati considered "objective knowledge without wisdom" as grotesque. This may be a good thing; but it is not the "science thing."
China's Imperial College was not the same kind of thing as a Western university. Unlike universities and madrasas, it was neither independently chartered nor self-governing, but rather a department of the imperial government. Unlike the universities, it taught no natural philosophy. It's sole purpose was to train bureaucrats for the imperial government by rigorous instruction in the Confucian classics. The famous examinations consisted writing an "eight-legged essay" on particular texts within rigid limits. It has been compared to composing a fugue based on a few introductory notes (Huff, 2003).
The 1487 exam presented a six-character quote from Mencius: Lo t'ien che; pao t'ien-hsia (Love Heaven person; protect Heaven-below). The candidate would then write a three-sentence introductory statement; treat the first half (lo t'ien che) in four "legs" (sections); a four-sentence transition; treat the second half in four legs; make a four-sentence recapitulation; and reach a grand conclusion. Within each four-legged section, the candidate's "expressions should be in antithetic pairs, such as con and pro, false and true, shallow and profound, each half of each antithesis balancing the other in length, diction, imagery, and rhythm." (Huff, 2003)This sort of thing may graduate accomplished sages and literati. It will not graduate scientists.
Until the arrival of the Jesuits, the Chinese employed arithmetic calculation, not geometric models or logical theories. In fact, there was no native term for "logic." When the Jesuits introduced Euclid to their Chinese associates, the latter were blown away. They had never seen that sort of careful building up of propositions from premises through careful reasoning rather than through poetic allusion and graceful antinomies.
If the Greeks valued logical theories more than facts; the Chinese prized facts without little concern for explanatory theories. Juan Yuan wrote, "Our ancients sought phenomena and ignored theoretical explanation... It does not seem to me the least inconvenient to ignore the Western theoretical explanations and simply to consider the facts."
Shen Kua described how, during Huang-yu reign of Northern Sung, civil examination candidates who prepared essays on astronomical instruments "were so confused about the celestial sphere, and the examiners themselves were so ignorant of the subject, that all candidates were passed with distinction." (This was during a brief period when astronomy (mathematics) was included in the exam.) His program for daily records of planetary positions was sabotaged by his own staff, who simply made up the data. He fired six of them, but to little avail.
From time to time, Chinese tinkerers invented terrific gadgets, but in a number of cases these inventions were subsequently forgotten. For example, the great Sung clock was in ruins when the Jesuits arrived, and no one knew how to repair it. Chinese arithmetical astronomy (datong) at its peak (AD 1300) had not achieved the accuracy that Ptolemy’s geometric astronomy had reached in Alexandria a millennium earlier. Three centuries later, it was "not clear that anyone was able fully to comprehend the old numerical equations of higher order, proto-trigonometric approximations, applications of the method of finite differences, and other sophisticated techniques." The Ming calendar "was regularly failing," yet the Directorate of Astronomy resisted Hsing Yun-lu’s reforms – not on technical grounds, but as sedition. A public admission of calendar failure amounted to a declaration that the Reign had lost the Mandate of Heaven, tantamount to a call for revolution.
The Chinese, like the muslims, denied the power of individual reason to grasp truths, with the same effect on inquiry into Nature. There was also a greater lack of intellectual curiosity than in Islam, Europe, or ancient Greece. Thus, although the Chinese accomplished admirable feats of engineering and invention, they did not produce anything like natural philosophy or natural science.
Continued in Article 3
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