The Origins of Science

Modern objectivity, the approach to knowledge which utilizes theoretical science along with derivative high technology to define our world, increasing the potency of both its own technical procedures and the professional practices that rely on its progress in an accelerating ascent towards the ecological hegemony of our species, is probably our most powerful avenue for actualization, but its emergence was not abrupt, a radical rupture with tradition, and perhaps not inevitable.  The development of objectivity stretches back thousands of years, to at least the 1st millennium B.C.E., arising from a long, gradual train of discoveries and insights by individuals throughout the world.

In ancient Greece, the philosopher Anaximander (b. 610 B.C.E.) was one of the initial Europeans to suggest based on astronomical observations what later ancients proved, that the Earth floats freely in space as opposed to resting on a foundation.  Democritus (b. 460) was the first philosopher to proffer that natural phenomena are caused by collisions between tiny particles he called ‘atoms’ in a cosmos governed according to mechanistic laws.  Eudoxus (b. 400) created the first astronomical model of the cosmos and became one of the earliest Greeks to conceive the method of exhaustion as a potentially unified system of mathematical principles, what in the 17th century C.E. would be refined into calculus.  Aristarchus (b. 310) proposed a heliocentric theory that the Earth revolves around the sun a full eighteen centuries before Nicolaus Copernicus, but his ideas were soon dismissed in favor of the geocentric model championed by Aristotle and others.  Archimedes (b. 287) made advances in mechanics, inventing ingenious devices, and also furthered hydrostatics, discerning many principles and possible uses of water pressure, while also working out some mathematical proofs, no doubt as a supplement to his protoscientific endeavors.  Eratosthenes (b. 276) calculated the Earth’s size and made contributions to what would become the science of geography.  Hipparchus (b. 190) determined the distance between the Earth and moon as well as the positions and magnitudes of hundreds of stars.

In India, Brahmagupta (b. 597 B.C.E.) became one of the first to use the number ‘0’, both in pure and applied mathematics.  Like the Greeks, Aryabhatta (c. 5th century) figured out the exact distance between the Earth and moon, as well as surmising that our planet is round and rotates on its axis.  Charak (b. 300), a doctor at royal court, wrote a book which outlined the principles of digestion, metabolism and immunity, as well as displaying a sophisticated grasp of genetics.  Varahamihira (b. 505 C.E.) postulated the existence of gravitational force, also that celestial objects reflect sunlight, along with contributing to advances in mathematics.  During the Medieval period, Indians contrived a version of atomism along with additional schools of thought, while dissemination of their culture’s irrigation technology throughout much of the Old World at this time facilitated the growth and stability of populations.         

In ancient Rome, Antonius Castor had been well-known as a botanist and pharmacologist in the first century C.E.  Pliny the Elder (b. 23 C.E.) wrote Naturalis Historia, an encyclopedia that compiled much of his era’s extant knowledge, as well as himself investigating many natural and geographical phenomena.  Claudius Ptolemy (b. 100) cataloged the positions, relative brightnesses and constellations of more than a thousand stars.  Galen (b. 129) was a pioneering physician who began to clarify the relationship between diet and health.  John Philoponus (b. 490) theorized that both projectiles and the motions of planets result from mechanistic forces exacted by and among them rather than due to some kind of divine vitalism.

In China, Cai Lun (b. 50 C.E.) invented a papermaking process, probably the first of its kind in the world.  Zhang Heng (b. 78) engineered a hydrostatic device called an armillary sphere, and also documented more than two thousand stars and a hundred constellations.  Zu Chongzhi (b. 429) estimated the value of pi to six decimal places.  Li Chunfeng (b. 602) introduced an extremely precise calendar.  Chinese civilization is credited with originating the abacus, compass and gunpowder, together with assembling an episteme that by the end of the Middle Ages consisted in natural sciences, medicine, mathematics and geology among much else.  And of course their intellectual founding father Confucius (b. 551 B.C.E.) had been instrumental in universalizing education and scholarship in China, an influence that persists to the present day as one of the most impressive movements in world history.

Arab civilization experienced a golden age of scholarship around the end of the 1st millennium C.E., and much progress was made.  Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali (b. 603), considered the father of Arabic grammar, founded a school of Islamic linguistics which did much to promote religion and intellectual life throughout an expanding empire.  Al-Asmai (b. 740) made great strides in zoology and taxonomy among additional domains of study.  Avicenna (b. 980) was a philosopher, physician, astronomer and literary figure, one of the most authoritative scholars produced by the Medieval world.  Ali Ibn Ridwan (b. 988), a notable physician and astronomer, commentated and expanded upon the ancient Greek and Roman knowledge which European civilization had failed to preserve.  Avempace (b. 1085) authored works in astronomy, physics, music, philosophy, medicine and botany.  Ammar al-Mawsili (11th century) was an ophthalmologist who invented the hypodermic syringe to perform cataract removal procedures that were state-of-the-art for the era.  The preeminent polymath Averroes (b. 1126) wrote on many subjects, such as medicine, astronomy, physics, psychology, mathematics, law and linguistics, while being one of the foremost Medieval analysts of Aristotelian philosophy.  Nasir al-Din Tusi (b. 1201) was a prominent architect, physician and natural philosopher who authored more than 150 works.  A whole host of Arabs from this epoch added to the field of mathematics, including their seminal system of linear algebra.

The European Middle Ages saw much progress in many areas.  Paul of Aegina (b. 625 C.E.), a Byzantine Greek surgeon, wrote a medical encyclopedia that was the standard for hundreds of years, unparalleled in its accuracy and completeness.  The Venerable Bede (b. 672) was a Christian monk who authored an important book on naturalism, required reading for the education of clergy, as well as making some original discoveries into the nature of the tides.  After a decline, Michael Psellos (b. 1017) helped reform the Byzantine university curriculum to emphasize Greek classics, a major stimulus for the Renaissance a few hundred years later, and composed treatises on grammar, law, medicine, mathematics and natural philosophy.  Robert Grosseteste (b. 1168) wrote texts on mathematics, optics and astronomy, also advocating experiment as a means to test theories, a substantial influence on the development of full-fledged empiricism a few centuries later.  Albert the Great (b. 1193) was key in integrating Greek and Islamic natural philosophy into European universities, and taught St. Thomas Aquinas among others.  Roger Bacon (b. 1214) contributed to mechanics, astronomy, geography, and an optics tradition that led to telescopes as well as a complete overhaul of cosmology in the 16th century.  William of Ockham (b. 1285) was a philosopher who established some of the main tenets of empiricism.  Jon Arderne (b. 1307) was an English physician who devised a new, particularly effective anesthetic in addition to innovating surgical procedures.  Nicole Oresme (b. 1323) authored works on mathematics, physics, astronomy and economics, notable for the originality of his thought.  Nicholas of Cusa (b. 1401) was a German philosopher who promulged some cutting edge cosmological ideas, such as that the Earth is not the center of the known cosmos, and that celestial objects are not perfect spheres, with their orbits noncircular and varying in relative velocity as they traverse the sky.  Regiomontanus (b. 1436) was a mathematician and astronomer who influenced the later Copernican theory of a heliocentric cosmos.

During the European Renaissance which reached its height in the 16th century, rate of empiricist progress started to increase, partly inspired by discovery of the New World.  The Paracelsians among others made much headway in alchemy from Medieval times to the beginning of chemistry in the 17th century.  Nicholas Copernicus (b. 1473), Galileo Galilei (b. 1564) and Johannes Kepler (b. 1571) revolutionized the model of our solar system with their astronomical observings.  Andreas Vesalius (b. 1514) described the anatomy of the brain and additional organs, while William Harvey (b. 1578) gave a complete account of the circulatory system and wrote extensively on medicine.  Navigation technologies improved dramatically during this era to further exploration of the globe.

From the Early Modern 17th century to the 21st century Information Age, European empiricism came into its own with what we recognize as modern scientific disciplines and their foremost progenitors: physics (Isaac Newton, b. 1646; Michael Faraday, b. 1791), chemistry (Robert Boyle, b. 1627; Antoine Lavoisier, b. 1743; John Dalton, b. 1766), biology (Antony van Leeuwenhoek, b. 1632; Robert Hooke, b. 1635; Charles Darwin b. 1809; Gregor Mendel, b. 1822), politics (John Locke, b. 1632; Charles Montesquieu, b. 1689; Karl Marx, b. 1818), economics (Adam Smith, b. 1723), and much else.

The quantity of intellectuals who gained fame for subsequent findings in diverse areas is of course massive.  In physics: James Clerk Maxwell (b. 1831), Max Planck (b. 1858), Marie Curie (b. 1867), Ernest Rutherford (b. 1871), Albert Einstein (b. 1879), Neils Bohr (b. 1885), Erwin Schrodinger (b. 1887), Werner Heisenberg (b. 1901), Paul Dirac (b. 1902), and Richard Feynman (b. 1918) to name a few.  In chemistry: Louis Pasteur (b. 1822), Alfred Nobel (b. 1833), Dmitri Mendeleev (b. 1834), Otto Hahn (b. 1879), Linus Pauling (b. 1901), Rosalind Franklin (b. 1920), Mario Molina (b. 1943), among many others.  In biology: Claude Bernard (b. 1813), Joseph Lister (b. 1827), Ernst Mayer (b. 1904), Norman Borlaug (b. 1914), coresearchers James Watson (b. 1928) and Francis Crick (b. 1916), Edward O. Wilson (b. 1929), Stephen Jay Gould (b. 1941), and the list could of course grow lengthy in all fields of study.

The entire world has been high achieving since late B.C.E. times, but with the globalization of Western civilization’s breakthrough objectivity in the 20th and 21st centuries, many cultures made progress in science and technology, blazing their trail to the Information Age.  By the 15th century C.E., Indians had become proficient in mathematics, astronomy and metallurgy, then in the 19th century the British made some enhancements to government and the education system.  By the latter half of the 20th century, India trailed only the U.S. and Soviet Union in technology spending, with a space program, nuclear science and biotechnology.  China has an illustrious technological history stretching back to pre-Medieval times, but after 20th century modernization undertook research into agriculture, genetics, bullet trains, aeronautics, nuclear physics, superconductivity and artificial intelligence, while being the 21st century leader in academic papers.  The Middle East, after a post-Medieval decline in progress, has matched or exceeded much of the world in 21st century science, especially in the domains of media technology and biomedical research.  South America produced premier 20th and 21st century scientists in nuclear physics, the life sciences, geology and information technology.  In 21st century Africa, science and technology expenditure is not as high as much of the world, but the continent boasts estimable education systems and a recent Nobel Prize winner.  Southeast Asia, Japan, and many other regions around the globe have made equally prestigious bequeathments to 21st century science, in electronics, medicine, engineering, and all professional undertakings.

The entirety of protoscientific and scientific accomplishment around the world cannot of course garner a mention, but this list is roughly proportional to the quantity of intellectuals immortalized by history, and proportions of permanently famous intellectuals correspond in an approximate way to the priority placed on academic culture in various eras, so that the foregoing list gives a good indication of where the main centers of philosophical and technological effort were located and when.  Focusing on the Old World, it seems to have been intellectually able since B.C.E. times, with an extraordinary concentration of activity in ancient Greece.  South and East Asia along with many other regions made academic and technological advancements throughout late antiquity and the Medieval period.  Europe, while under Roman dominion, preserved Greek learning with some minor additions, but then gradually fell off in productivity after the empire’s collapse, a diminishment in learning severe enough that the 10th century is referred to as a dark age.  During this deterioration, Arab culture experienced a golden age of empire and academia, conserving ancient Greek and Roman learning, which was reintroduced to Europe in the 13th century after the continent’s scholarship had revived for a couple hundred years.  During the 15th and 16th century Renaissance, European culture delved deeply into the study of ancient Greek and Roman traditions, ushering in a total revision of its cosmological model and an escalating technological ascent that by the 17th century was surpassing the rest of the planet.  By the 19th century, Europe had a clear advantage, and its knowledge began to spread throughout the world via colonization.  With the absorption of Western learning into cultures around the globe in the 19th and 20th centuries, humanity as a whole began to practice the philosophy and theoretical empiricism traceable all the way back to ancient Greece.  Universal modernization was the outcome, a drive towards scientific and technological progress which seems to have reached escape velocity from the uncivilized “state of nature”, probably destined to reconstitute life in unimaginable ways over the course of the next few hundred years, provided we do not destroy ourselves somehow with our own technical power.

Human beings have fashioned objectivity, a blend of speculative projections and fact-collations centered around a potent combination of rationalist and empiricist methodology which applies quantitative modeling for enhanced pattern recognition and prediction.  Institutions can at least in principle tap into this culture of objective science to globalize the episteme and improve public policy decisions.

Scientific discovery has become the foundation of human development, and at this stage only the worst of planetary cataclysms can threaten its ascendance, but this positive contribution to our species’ quality of life via technology and medicine was perhaps not inevitable.  As mentioned, if Islamic civilization had not been so well-organized and high achieving during the dark age in which Europe lost contact with its academic traditions, antiquity’s progress may have been wiped from history, incapable of affecting the 16th and 17th century Scientific Revolution and seeding modern quantitative analysis along with the many technological breakthroughs we take for granted.  If Mongol unity and expansion had not halted with the death of Genghis Khan, their unstoppable invasions may have decimated the European population, disrupted the continent’s governance, and made Medieval Scholasticism impossible to sustain, preventing a blossoming of academic science after the Renaissance.  If Europe’s “balance of power” political system, in which complex alliances were arranged and continually realigned in order to avoid decisive advantages, collapsed between the 18th century Enlightenment and the 20th century, world wars and invasions may have stunted mainland academia, made any colonization even more militaristic than intellectual, and inhibited or halted development of the philosophies and methods of science.  Most Enlightenment advances are associable with a surprisingly small region of the world – Southern England, Northern France, Germany, and some of their immediate neighbors – so that misfortunes such as a local natural disaster or an outbreak of war between only a couple countries could have demolished the infrastructure and general stability that made dissemination of progressive ideas possible.  And if at any point Western civilization had regressed into an orthodoxy that viewed pioneering intellectualism with hostility, science may have never come to fruition nor spread to the rest of the world.  

New technology of course impresses us immensely on a very instinctual level, but the philosophy of science which enables our technical paradigms to advance in dramatic ways requires consideration of many issues that are cognitively trying and sometimes exasperating.  We must figure out based on historical analysis how schools of thought change, the problems that surface during these transitions and how to resolve them, and also how to make advanced scientific concepts accessible for the entire population, with simplified explanations, well-constructed user interfaces and ergonomy, language that works in an interdisciplinary way, and most importantly a steady growth in the theoretical intuitions of general humanity.

All the world’s cultures have an important role to play in furthering science, technology and knowledge of what history can teach us while averting catastrophes of every type, including a degeneration in respect for our culture of objectivity which is ever threatening to set in, but what follows will primarily focus on Western civilization, where rationalist empiricism of the modern kind originated and from whence it became a juggernaut of potential progress on a global scale.  The most influential movements in Western academia along with some major thinkers will be discussed, and an attempt made to infer the implications of many historical sequences and current domains of knowledge for contemporary civilization and future investigations.  We can begin by looking at the inception of science in some depth, with introductory consideration given to contemporary theories of emotion.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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