The Long View of Science
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Update 2: Here is the recoded video – https://youtu.be/VqUm8Q3XKkE
Update 1: here are the slides
This webinar has as its main objective correcting some common misconceptions, for example:
- That religion and science have always been enemies
- That “real” science began with Galileo, and
- Linked to the above, that science is strictly a product of Western civilization.
These old views have been disproven by historical research over the last 50 years. The following examples will be explored in this webinar.
Greek philosophers started by teaching Asian philosophy, and in some cases claimed to be holy men similar to the Indian practice. However, it was a unique aspect of Greek culture that non-philosophers treated philosophy as a sport. Entrepreneurs held prize-fights for philosophers, debates in which the audience decided which philosopher should win the purse. From this competitive aspect arose a desire for arguments that would always convince anyone, what we now call “proof”. In the 6th century BCE Thales invented geometric proof. In the 4th century BCE Aristotle developed what we now call logic, that is proof by verbal argument. Neither of these had been developed anywhere before as far as we know.
Another unique aspect of Greek philosophy was the interest in explaining natural phenomena. Like Hinduism, Greco-Roman Paganism was a form of animism so traditionally everything was explained as the work of a spirit. However, Greeks had practical concerns, so they wanted to know about physical mechanisms that they could take advantage of. Hence Greek philosophy turned to physical mechanisms. For example, in the 5th century BC Anaxagoras of Clazomenae found the correct explanation for eclipses of the Sun and Moon. As far as I can determine he was the first to figure it out.
A third great discovery was the deduction that every substance in the world must consist of minute atoms, and that there must be a finite number of types of atoms.
In the 5th century CE the Western Roman Empire fell, after which Greco-Roman culture continued in the Eastern Empire and in various cities of Northern Italy. But learning was not completely lost in other parts of Latin Europe, rather it was taken over by the Catholic Church. In the 11th century the church established a school system (modelled on Plato’s Republic) with parish schools at the bottom and universities at the top. In the universities scientific research continued, carried out by Dominican friars.
In the 13th century Chinese chemists discovered what we now call gunpowder, but at the time it was used for fireworks. Within a century the knowledge reached Europeans who turned gunpowder into a means for propelling projectiles, (i.e., they invented the gun. That knowledge travelled East, and was soon employed by the Mongol Empire. The bi-continental gunpowder revolution had other consequences; in 1453 Constantinople fell to Turkish cannon but Venice continued as the last outpost of the Eastern Empire and refugee scholars from Constantinople helped to promote the Renaissance.
During Galileo’s life the Renaissance was in full swing. Galileo was himself a university teacher and therefore a Dominican friar. Galileo defended Copernicus’ proposal for geocentrism but he was unable to persuade the Church because it seemed that such a movement would defy known physics. (The same argument had been made in pre-Christian antiquity with the same outcome, so this was not Church prejudice.) Eventually Galileo invented a new physics of motion (later mathematized by Newton) which allowed for geocentrism, and the Church permitted him to publish and teach it. In his text Galileo makes mention of several tough physics puzzles, such as predicting the path of a cannonball fired from a cannon pointed vertically in a smoothly sailing ship. In the 1970s Marshall Claggett proved that these puzzles came from medieval texts, hence there was continuity in physics from antiquity right through to Galileo.
Medicine is another science that continued from antiquity to the modern era. Medical doctors continued circulating scientific literature right through the Middle Ages. Up until WWI medical schools still used textbooks written in antiquity by Celsus and Galen.
Chemistry is a special case. There were scientists doing chemistry right through the Middle Ages, but not in universities. Alchemists were both mystics and practical bench chemists. They were disapproved of by the Church but continued their work in private. Meanwhile the schoolmen did no experiments whatsoever but insisted on the ancient four elements. Finally, in the 18th century mainstream scientists including Newton and Lavoisier combined the praxis of alchemy with modern mathematical analysis to create what we now call chemistry. Although this case excludes the medieval schoolmen it still shows continuity, via private practice, from CE 100 right through to the modern era.
Gord Deinstadt has degrees in Classics and Philosophy and has taught Ancient Science and Technology at Carleton University on and off since 2007. For those interested in the course you can find a profile under this course number TSES2305.