Sunday, June 6, 2010

Civilization and science

I'm currently reading a fairly short book about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life (The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, by Paul Davies. Boston, New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). I just reached a section that especially got my attention, even though it's only tangentially connected to the question of extraterrestrial intelligence. As Davies discusses the various things that would have to happen in order for intelligent extraterrestrial life capable of communicating with humans to exist, he also discusses what we know about how modern human civilization emerged on earth. When he reaches the question of the development of modern science and technology (which would be necessary for any intelligent civilization to communicate over very long distances), he discusses the prerequisites for the development of the scientific method in human civilization over the past few centuries, and it is here that he gives what I'm sure is a fairly controversial opinion.

It is certainly fashionable, partly for reasons of political correctness, to assert that, here on earth, any human society would be bound to discover science and technology in the fullness of time. To say otherwise seems to be implying the superiority of European civilization, where science as we know it began, and this is regarded by some people as racist and chauvinistic. Personally, I have always been sceptical of the claim that 'science is inevitable'. The problem is that science works so well, and is so much a part of everyday life, that people tend to take it for granted. ... The 'obvious' view of science is seen to rest on flimsy foundations when placed in a historical context, however. Science proper emerged in Renaissance Europe under the twin influences of Greek philosophy and monotheistic religion. The Greek philosophers taught that humans could come to understand the world by the exercise of reason, which achieved its most disciplined form in the rules of logic and the mathematical theorems that followed therefrom. They asserted that the world wasn't arbitrary or absurd, but rational and intelligible, even if confusing and complicated. However, Greek philosophy never spawned what today we would understand by the scientific method, in which nature is 'interrogated' via experiment and observation, because of the Greek philosophers' touching belief that the answers could all be deduced by pure reason alone. The Greeks' remarkable advances in reason and mathematics were nurtured for centuries during the European Dark Ages by Islamic scholars, without whom it is very doubtful that science and mathematics would have taken root in European culture in medieval times. An echo of the Islamic phase survives in modern terms like algebra and algorithm, and in the names of familiar stars such as Sirius and Betelgeuse. In spite of the importance of the Islamic phase in the lead-up to science, for some reason (possibly political or social) Arab scholars did not go on to formulate mathematical laws of motion or carry out laboratory experiments in the modern sense of the term. (Paul Davies, The Eerie Silence, p. 72-73)

There is another influence besides the rationalism of ancient Greek philosophers that Davies believes was essential to the development of modern science, however. This is monotheistic religion - a surprise given the modern disputes between monotheistic religion and science.

Meanwhile, monotheism increasingly shaped the Western world view during the formative stages of science. Judaism represented a decisive break with almost all contemporary cultures by positing an unfolding cosmic narrative based on linear time. According to the Judaic account, the universe was created by God at a definite moment in the past, and developed in a unidirectional series (creation, fall, trials and tribulations, Armageddon, salvation, judgement, redemption ...). In other words, Judaism has a cosmic story to tell, of a divine plan revealed through historical sequence. This was in sharp contrast to the prevailing view that the world is cyclic: the rotation of good times and bad times, the rise and fall of civilizations, the revolving wheel of fortune. Even today, the unidirectional linear-time world view of Western civilization rests uneasily with other cultural motifs, such as the dreaming of the Australian Aborigines or the cyclicity of Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies.

The concept of linear time, and a universe created by a rational being and ordered according to a set of immutable laws, was adopted by both Christianity and Islam, and was the dominant influence in Europe at the time of Galileo. The early scientists, who were deeply religious, regarded their work as uncovering God's plan for the universe, as revealed through hidden mathematical relationships. What we now call the laws of physics they saw as thoughts in the mind of God. Without belief in a single omnipotent rational lawgiver, it is unlikely that anyone would have assumed that nature is intelligible in a systematic quantitative way, mirrored by eternal mathematical forms. The scientific method itself verged on being an occult practice at the time of Newton, and was conducted after the fashion of a secret society. Writing coded symbols on pieces of paper and subjecting matter to 'unnatural' experimentation in the sanctum of special laboratories is an arcane procedure by any standards. So science, though considered natural enough today, was little different from magic when it was first established. (Davies, p. 73-74)

Davies is pretty sure, in fact, that no other civilization besides early modern Europe had the intellectual tools to come up with the scientific method - even civilizations that were just as technologically advanced.

Suppose an asteroid had hit Paris in 1300 and destroyed European culture. Would science ever have emerged on Earth? I have never heard a convincing argument that it would. It is often remarked that in medieval times the Chinese were technologically far more advanced than the Europeans, which is true. So why did the Chinese not go on to become true scientists? Part of the reason is that traditional Chinese culture was not steeped in the monotheistic notion of a transcendent lawmaker. Outside the monotheistic world, nature was perceived as ruled by the complex interplay of competing influences in the form of gods, agents and concealed mystical tendencies. In medieval China, no clear distinction was drawn between moral laws and laws of nature. Human affairs were inextricably bound up with the cosmos, forming an indivisible unity. For the pagans of Europe and the Near East, who were in competition with Christianity and Islam at their formative stages, knowledge of the cosmos was to be gained through 'gnosis', a mystical communion with the creator, rather than through rational enquiry. Could gnosis eventually lead to science? I don't think so. Unless you expect there to be an intelligible order hidden in the processes of nature - fixed and analysable by mathematics - there would be no motivation to embark on the scientific enterprise in the first place. (Davies, p. 74)

I suspect that Davies' claims would strike many people as being culturally chauvinist, as he noted himself. Is there any historical evidence that could be used to show that they are true or false? History is notoriously inexact and unclear compared to the physical sciences, and there is no way of applying the strict experimental method to history ("... in group B, we will eliminate European civilization in 1300 CE and compare the rate of development of a scientific worldview with the control group that includes European civilization ..."). Still, there might be some way of evaluating these claims in a very limited way ....

(In the near future, I'll give my off-the-cuff evaluation ...)


1 comment:

catmint said...

Hi RPS, thanks for your comments on this book which sounds very interesting. I don't know if Davies can be accused of racism, but maybe he's like Richard Dawkins, thinks science and rationality are the only valid means of explaining the world. I look forward to your evaluation of the book. cheers, catmint