Monday, August 27, 2007

Could the Ancient Greeks Have Created the Scientific Revolution?

The Fjordman Report

The noted blogger Fjordman is filing this report via Gates of Vienna.
For a complete Fjordman blogography, see The Fjordman Files. There is also a multi-index listing here.

A note from Fjordman: This essay was written as a response to Conservative Swede’s claim that the Scientific Revolution was a result of Greek logic, not Christianity. My claim would be that it would have been impossible without the new cultural synthesis created during the Middle Ages, which very much included Christianity.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The term “medieval” has, somewhat unfairly, come to carry decisively negative connotations. There was indeed unrest and social upheavals for a prolonged period of time following the collapse of Roman authority, which triggered substantial population movements across the continent. However, even during these turbulent and troubled times there were exceptions. The Carolingians managed to halt the Islamic invasion in France in the 8th century and for some time rebuilt a stronger state.

Christianity spread among the barbarians, and especially from the 11th century onwards, Europe witnessed the rise of stronger states and more political stability. This was the period during which the first European universities were founded, and crucial improvements were made in the fields of agriculture and commerce, paving the way for a rapid rise in Europe’s population.
- - - - - - - - -
In some important ways, especially regarding the accumulation of wealth and scientific knowledge and the willingness to invest in the practical application of technology for long-term gains, the Middle Ages not only caught up with, but greatly surpassed the achievements of the Classical Age. The Renaissance was an important event in Western history, but on balance, the modern West probably owes more to the Middle Ages than to the Renaissance.

Neither the Nordic lands nor most of Germany or many of the Celtic or Slavic nations of Northern and Eastern Europe were ever a part of the Roman Empire, yet we still talk about our shared “Greco-Roman heritage.” The Classical heritage came to us on the back of Christianity.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Read the rest at the Brussels Journal.


History Snark said...

I recently re-watched Carl Sagan's "Cosmos". It's still a great series, though it sure feels dated.

At one point, he's talking about the Pre-Socratic philosophers, and he asserts that, had they followed (or been allowed to follow) the path they were on, then our scientific progress would have been much further along.

Microwave ovens in the 15th century, space travel in the 18th, and so on.

Pure speculation, and he also misses out on the point that purely scientific research without any underlying ethics is a recipe for disaster.

I guess I consider that our society got where it is as a result of our entire shared history. We "discovered" things when we had the time, money and energy. And by building upon what our predecessors did.

David M said...

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 08/27/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

X said...

The problem with this particular thesis (Scientific knowledge being essentially greek) is that the greeks themselves weren ot scientists. They were philosophers and engineers, but not scientists, and in their philosophical mode tended to appeal to authority and logic rather than empiricism. It's always possible that the greeks could have invented the scientifi method but it was unlikely, because their social structure prevented it. Greek society was stratified and polygamous, and striated by the fissues of nature-worship and a pantheon of gods that prevented the discussion of what made nature tick. It was the gods that made it tick, so why bother checking? It is not a society that is conducive to industry, nor was it a society conducive to the scientific curiosity of letting people poke things and then poke them again to see if they reacted the same way. Greek society tended to be rather dismissive of scientific study, preferring conjecture and speculation. It wasn't until western society began to structure itself around the family rather than the tribe, and reduced and repudiated the practice of polygamy, that the scientific revolution really started to kick off. From there it was a steady progression forward. And even then we were often set back by appeals to that same greek way of thinking. Newton hit it hard while he was studying at university. His lecturers would quote Aristotle, set up an experiment that would fail to live up to the quote and then say that the experiment was obviously faulty. Appeal to authority was anathaema to Newton, illogical, yet the greeks had considered to perfectly logical within their frame of reference. Newton, Gallileo and people like them were true scientists who removed the shackles of greek philosophy and metaphysics, and a large part of their inquisitive nature was born out of their christian heritage.

The greek part was necessary at some points. Christianity wouldn't have survived without the influx of greek philosophy and logic which melded with the hebrew faith, rendering concrete the hazy hebrew assumption of a rational god by providing a logical framework for discussion of that rational god. Greek ideas propelled christianity forward, but they held science back until those very ideas of logic, given a new frame of refernce in christian rationalism, allowed science to begin working on a truly rational basis of observation rather than speculation.

Simply put, you can't separate one from the other, which is rather ironic considering the greeks were very big on compartmentalisation...

Jungle Jim said...

I have heard it said that the main reason why the 'Dark Ages' are now considered to be so 'Dark' is because historians have largely ignored that period.

Henrik R Clausen said...

Two excellent books on this topic:

Rodney Stark: The Victory of Reason

Thomas E. Woods: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization

They agree, and I agree, that the Greeks are overrated. Three examples: Their idealism was a hindrance, not a boon, to science. We invented democracy in Europe independently, not by looking at the Greek city-states. And the European university system (also a product of the 'Dark' Ages :) far surpassed the learnedness of ancient Athens.

This is an important subject for appreciation of our own culture and evaluating others. The books are quite easy to read and highly recommended for anyone wishing to understand our cultural heritage.

Anonymous said...


No offense, however regarding democracy how can something be "invented independently" when already in existence for centuries?

Also, in regards to the European university system "far surpassing" the learnedness of ancient Athens, is that not like saying baseball players of today "far surpass" the players at the turn of the 20th century?

Profitsbeard said...

gun-totin' wacko-


Ethics must determine science, not the other way around.

Science determining ethics leads to self-extinction, because "scientifically" we are nothing but irritated protoplasm, not the sacred heirs of a divine sense of the universe.

The Greeks were more intriguied by the mind than the phsycial world, and it's lucky for us they were, otherwise we could have had nukes by the time Mohammad started plaguing the world.

And none of us would now be here to know why we weren't.

AWOL Civilization said...

I think it is instructive on this issue to read Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy. He shows how so much of Europe's heritage is derived from the Romans, how they provided the model in so many realms for the explosion of art, science, and renewed interest in rational law that was characteristic of Machiavelli's world (16th century Italy).

An important part of Montesquieue's Spirit of the Laws, which is a masterpiece, is an update of Aristotle's typology of regimes.

One can go on and on with further examples of how the seeds of everything the West has created, materially and intellectually, can be traced to Greece and Rome.

Profitsbeard said...

AWOL Civilization-

The discoveries from India- mainly their sublime number system (called "Arabic" numerals because the Mohammedans brought them from India to the West) and their genius of the ZERO- also cross-pollinated and freed-up the intellectual framework of the clumsy, Roman Numeral-hampered Europeans.

The valuation of the individual by Christianity, alloyed to Greek philosophy and Roman technology (proto-science), and annealed by unique, groundbreaking imports from Asia (paper, gunpowder, moveable type, etc.) all coalesced magnificently in the West.

Hero of Alexander to Roger Bacon Anaxagoras to Copernicus, Epictetus to Schopenhauer, the possibilities for intellectual freedom in the non-monolithic kingdoms of Europe outstripped every other part of the world.

It is up to us to defend and preserve the brilliance of our ancestors.

Jungle Jim-

"How the Irish Saved Civilization" is a fun read and neatly counters many of the cliches about the "Dark Ages".

Nemecis said...

Two great books on science, written by scientists:
Alan Cromer’s 1993 Uncommon Sense &
Lewis Wolpert’s 1992 The Unnatural Nature of Science

Both, among many other topics, investigate the question:
”But how and why did science originate in Greece?”

As Cromer puts it:
Science is: “the peculiar invention of a particular culture in a particular time.”

A synopsis here:

AWOL Civilization said...

Profitsbeard wrote: "It is up to us to defend and preserve the brilliance of our ancestors."

I agree. When all is said and done, this is the bottom line.

YoelB said...

There are two words I expected to see from my American/Anglo centric viewpoint and didn't: Magna Carta. Christianized Norse limiting the power of a king.

Also omitted: science cannot prosper without relatively reliable, relatively fast communication. (This also answers Ethnocentrist's question: If Ethnocentrist doesn't know of my discovery because there's no society I can present it to that publishes its proceedings, or freestanding journals with international circulation, Ethnocentrist can't build on what I did, (or challenge it,) and may rediscover it independently.

Changing the subject, it is the fissiparous nature of Protestantism that was necessary for the development of democracy in the Anglosphere.
Crudely put, when you and your neighbor are each convinced that the other one's afterlife will be considerably warmer than hoped (due to his doctrinal error) but you still have to get along, and maybe your town is dominated by your church, but the next town over mostly goes to your neigbor's denomination, and you're both in the same district so that you have the same Assemblyman.... You wind up with no religious tests for Federal office, and no established church, and a few other useful things.

Henrik R Clausen said...

Ethnocentrist, democracy didn't 'exist for centuries'. It existed in the Greek city states, but was absent (without leave :) for a millenium. Then was developed independently by the guilds and merchants in the European city-states. As YoelB notes, Magna Carta is the birth certificate of modern forms of government. Here in Denmark, we took a very clear inspiration from Magna Carta in the first solid law of the land. It's distinctly European.

While the learnedness of ancient Athens was legendary, it was not nearly as extensive or systematic as what came out of the European university system from the 12th century onwards. It was a great spark in Athens, as was Carlemagne's efforts in the 9th century. It became a continous stream in Europe in the 12th century onwards.

The High Middle Ages were a great time. Next, you might expect that I credit it for inventing science, too. But I won't. Middle Ages was a great time for tinkering and invention, but not yet for systematic theories and formal experimentation. I think Descartes found that in what became known as the Age of Reason.

But all good stuff. There's a lot to be proud of, in a friendly way, in European culture.

Henrik R Clausen said...

The Greek philosophers had a great obstacle to being scientific: They insisted that if ideals and observations contradicted each other, the observations had to be wrong. Not the theory...

Needless to say, that was a problem. Copernic, for all his observations, never went beyond the Greek notion that the planets had to move in circles - for the simple and incorrect reason that the circle is the most perfect of shapes.

Kepler broke with the Greek dogma and figured out the ellipsis to be the answer. After that, observation was being permitted to dictate theory, which is the scientific way.

Yorkshireminer said...

There is a lot of drivel spouted here culture art and how the different religions and cultures affected each other, Greco Roman this, Greco Roman that, and how it affected Christianity and the rise of science but the driving force of the world was improvements in technology and this had nothing to do with science, they were all artisan driven usually some ignorant artisan finding a better way to build a better mouse trap, and all this would have been for naught if some enterprising artisan had not found a way of coupling a power source to his better mouse trap.

The amount work you are able to do is dependent on the amount of energy you can expend. A human at rest give off about 35 watts of energy, equivalent to a dim light bulb, very dim in some cases. Working fairly hard it rises to about 100 watts and you are not going to get much higher than that. It means that a coal miner is never going to be able to shovel more than between 14 and 17 tons of coal in a shift, however big you make the shovel or whether is a high tech shovel and is made out of titanium with a carbon fiber handle. Civilization had its breaks the invention of windmills and watermills were certainly the most significant before the industrial revolution and they certainly had an effect on society but they soon reached there optimum power output, you are not going to get much more than 5 horsepower out of a windmill and perhaps 20 horsepower with a watermill. It was only when James Watt invented the external condenser for the steam engine that humanity broke the barrier of the amount of work an human could do that society really took off and developed into what it is now. James Watt didn't invent the steam engine Newcombe had one pumping water out of a coal mine in the midlands 50 years before . What he did do was increase the efficiency and so reduce running cost. It then became cheaper to to buy and run a steam engine that did the work of fifty men than hire the 50 men. All the inventions from then on were made mainly by artisan with a few exceptions right up until nearly the beginning of the 20th century. Edison and the Wright brothers are two excellent examples. It was a question of suck it and see until you got it right. The Industrial revolutions was a blue collar driven revolution. Science did play a part, notably chemistry, but for the rest art culture literature had no insignificant input. Christianity had an effect but then only the protestant branch with its work ethic and attitude to thrift which helped with the accumulation of capital. The first areas to industrialize were the protestant areas of the west with the exception of Belgium. The best that can be said about our Christian Greek Roman so called heritage is that it didn't actively hinder the Industrial Revolution, the way Islam would have done.

Another point I would like to make which might sound like blasphemy and that is that the industrial revolution affected Ideas and not the other way round. The call for the abolition of Slavery and final abolition was certainly driven more by the ideas brought about by the industrial revolution than by the efforts of a group of middle class Christians petitioning parliament.

Fjordman also has it wrong concerning China. China certainly had the beginning of an industrial revolution they certainly had the technology. They had a thriving coal and Iron smelting industry which was producing at its peak over 125,000 tons of iron a year using coke and supplying a blast of air through special bellows. We in England couldn't duplicate this until well into the middle of the 18th century. All this was happening around about the time of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Britain didn't even reach that level of production, until around the turn of the 19th century. They were certainly well ahead of the west in Ship building technology Cheng ho had reached the coast of Africa in ships four times the size of any we had in the west, and did it a hundred years before Vasco De Game sailed into the Indian ocean. The interesting Question is why it failed in China, and succeeded in the west.