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Ancient and Modern Science: Some Observations
Ian Johnston

[This document has been prepared for students in English and Liberal Studies classes at Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University). The text is in the public domain, released June 1999. This document was last revised on August 9, 1999]

Science . . . 1. The state or fact of knowing; knowledge or cognizance of something specified or implied; also, knowledge (more or less extensive) as a personal attribute . . . . 2. Knowledge acquired by study; acquaintance with or mastery of any department of learning, late ME. b. Trained skill. . . . 3. A particular branch of knowledge or study; a recognized department of learning: often opp. to art. . . . b. A craft, trade or occupation requiring trained skill. -1600. 4. A branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws, and which includes trustworthy methods of the discovery of new truth within its own domain. 1725. 5. The kind of knowledge or intellectual activity of which the 'sciences' are examples. In early use, with ref. To sense 3: What is taught in the Schools, or may be learned by study. In mod use chiefly: The sciences (in sense 4) as dist from other departments of learning; scientific doctrine or investigation, late ME. B. In mod use, often = 'Natural and Physical Science. Also attrib. as in s.-master, -teaching, etc. 1867. . . . (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary)



As the above historical definitions of the word science suggest, the term has undergone a significant shift in meaning over the many centuries it has been in use. In general, we can characterize that change as a tendency for the term to become increasingly specific and limited. Hence, what the term meant for the ancient Greeks or medieval Christians, that is, any knowledge acquired by study or any department of systematic knowledge (the first group of meanings above) has largely disappeared, and what we now mean by the term science tends to be a very specific method of learning about certain parts of the world. We have largely ceased to distinguish between what used to be called natural science (i.e., the disciplined study of nature and the methods appropriate to it) and the more general term science (i.e., the disciplined study of everything). For example, when students nowadays enroll in a postsecondary institution to study science, they are selecting very clearly demarcated areas of study and very particular methods. The term science is routinely used in contrast to other areas of study, called the arts (an area which includes philosophy, the name for the activity from which science and natural science originated) and the social sciences.

If we look back on the history of science (understood in the modern sense as the disciplined study of nature) we can see other important changes which are not immediately apparent in a catalogue of the shifting meanings of the term, as outlined by a historical dictionary. These changes concern the understanding of the purposes and methods of a disciplined inquiry into nature. It may well be the case, as we shall see, that many of the most important concepts which underpin the modern activity we call science originated in the work of the Classical Greek philosophers, so that we can talk usefully about Classical Greek science and establish links between what went on twenty-five hundred years ago and the modern research laboratory. But we need to be careful about overemphasizing these similarities, for in many ways the science practiced by the Classical Greeks and by the Medieval Christians had a purpose fundamentally different from what we might call modern science, a comparatively recent form of understanding the world.

The purpose of this essay is to explore, in a very basic and inevitably cursory way, some of these similarities and differences. If we claim, as I think we can, that the development of what we now call science is one of the very greatest achievements of Western Culture, then we need to be aware of some key elements about that development. This point is particularly true if we wish to come to a better understanding of modern science, an activity and way of thinking which dominate our culture and which, therefore, any citizen who wishes to be intelligently informed about her own culture needs to think about.

Greek Science I: The Milesian Materialists

We can trace what we now call science to a way of thinking which originated in ancient Greece at some point in the seventh and sixth century BC. We know little about these origins, so reconstructing a narrative necessarily involves a great deal of speculation on the basis of later stories and a few fragments of texts quoted by later writers. That origin seems to have involved (as all great revolutions involve) a small group of people who began asking some new questions about important things, questions which the traditional ways of thinking about the world could not answer.

What were these questions? Well, one of them clearly was something like this: What is the single material stuff out of which everything in the world is made? This question, like all serious questions about the nature of the world, presupposes that there is an answer and that the answer must be found in the terms defined by the question. Thus, to inquire into the single stuff out of which the world was made means that one presupposes at least two things: firstly, that there is a single primordial stuff and, secondly, that there is a way in which this stuff can produce the multiplicity of different phenomena we see around us every day.

This question was a revolutionary one because it broke decisively with the existing tradition of explaining things through mythology. A myth is an inherited story (a narrative) which often serves an explanatory function. Characteristically one of the functions of myth, among others, is to account for the existence of the heavens and the earth and of the many different forms of matter (living and non-living) on it. The ancient Greek myths carried out this function with reference to a huge interconnected family of gods and goddesses whose irrational purposes, quarrels, and interactions with human beings gave rise to those things people wished to understand. The myths were not rational (in the sense that they answered to some form of logical argument), but they were emotionally intelligible (that is, they allowed people to come to an understanding of why things were they way they were).

The question I have referred to above, first posed by a group of Greek thinkers living in the city-state of Miletus, ignores the mythological explanation and sets out to find a materialistic answer. Instead of seeking for causes in the old stories of divine will and power, the Milesian thinkers decided that the appropriate place to seek for an understanding of the world was in the nature of matter itself. Hence, they have come to be called materialists (those who seek to explain natural phenomena with exclusive reference to material stuff, rather than to divine action or other non-material spiritual processes).  This decisive step, in effect, banishes traditional supernatural powers from explanations of natural events.

What led to this radical break with the received mythological tradition? We have no way of knowing. It must be the case that some people found the old myths unsatisfactory for some reason, perhaps because the system of gods and goddesses was too irrational or because the philosophers disapproved of the frequently erratic (and immoral) behaviour of the ruling deities. Or perhaps, given the location of Miletus, the thinkers were frustrated by a world of competing and incompatible mythological explanations.  Or perhaps the entire Milesian school began as a speculative exercise among citizens with time on their hands and a curiosity about new ways of thinking.

At any event, this first materialist approach to understanding the world soon foundered on an obvious paradox which it could not explain, namely the problem of thinking through some way in which the proposed primordial stuff (air, water, or some form of ether) might differentiate itself into all the various natural things familiar to us. For if the origin of all things is a single undifferentiated homogeneous substance, then what would induce it to change, what material reason would it have to change? And how could it produce so many different, even entirely opposite, things (heat and cold, fire and water, rock and vapour, and so on). Given their materialistic doctrine, these thinkers could not appeal to divine intervention, for they had started their inquiry by rejecting divine will as the causative force in the natural world. Hence, this line of inquiry soon ran into difficulties.

Greek Science II: The Mathematical Formalists

A way beyond this materialist paradox was opened up by a simple experiment which the reader can try for herself. If someone exhales forcefully onto her wrist with her mouth wide open and then repeats the effort with her mouth pursed (as if she was trying to whistle), a perceptible difference is at once apparent: the first attempt produces breath which is much warmer than the second one. How can this be? In each case the source of the breath is the same, and in each case the measuring device is the same. Repeated attempts establish that this result is inevitable. So what is causing the change in the temperature?

The only logical explanation is that the form of the air in each case must be different. Hence, the causative factor in the natural event (the different temperatures) does not come from the material stuff (the exhaled breath) but from the mathematical structure of the material stuff. The difference in temperature must be somehow connected to the way the particles of air are formally arranged, rather than the material stuff making up the air. The conclusion thus is that the original materialists were wrong in posing the question the way they did. The proper approach to understanding natural phenomena should not seek out some essential original stuff, but must concentrate on a mathematical understanding of the arrangement of stuff. Mathematics thus becomes the key element in understanding nature.

A line of thinking similar to this point linked the inquiries of later Greek thinkers about the world to the language of mathematics, particularly to geometry. A key thinker here is the mysterious figure of Pythagoras, who formed a secret band of followers. They devoted themselves to the study of numbers and geometry (and, so legend has it, to an endless diet of beans), seeing in mathematics the only reliable way of coming to a finer understanding of the nature of things, including moral issues, since they linked numerical properties with divine qualities. Plato emphatically follows Pythagoras in this respect. He sees the study of mathematics, and especially of geometry, as absolutely essential to an understanding of anything and everything worthwhile.

This interest in mathematics inevitably encouraged (and was, in part, fostered by) a study of astronomy, because the motions of so many celestial phenomena apparently follow geometric patterns which can be established with some accuracy by careful observation, calculation, and mathematical modeling. Whereas the ancient myths accounted for the positions and motions of the stars and the shape of the constellations with old and often very fanciful narratives, the mathematical explanations did away with the received traditions and substituted in their place spheres, lines, orbits, and equations.

The importance of this mathematical understanding of nature, especially in early astronomy, cannot be overestimated. Why the Greeks should be the first ones to set out on this line of inquiry is a mystery. Other cultures had much more sophisticated systems of mathematics than the Greeks, had been observing the stars for hundreds and hundreds of years longer, and had been keeping detailed records for generations (e.g., the Babylonians and the Egyptians). But they had not united the various activities. For the Babylonians, the study of numbers was designed to promote a form of mystical numerology, and the study of the heavens was essential to their interest in astrology. They produced records of observations that were of great help to the Greeks, just as the Egyptian knowledge of geometry provided an invaluable resource. But neither culture made the sorts of connections which placed a mathematical understanding at the centre of the understanding of the heavens, of the kind carried out by the Greeks. Whatever the reason for this innovation, these Greek philosophers established the basis for the activity we now call science, the study of the world by rational principles as established in the deductive principles of mathematics (especially geometry). This, of course, is still the heart of the endeavour.

Greek Science and The Vision of the World

We should not, however, too quickly claim to see the start of everything in the modern enterprise we call science in the activity of these ancient Greek thinkers. For there were some really important differences between the old philosophers and the modern scientific researcher. To begin with, the primary aim of the Greek thinkers was to arrive at a better contemplative understanding of the nature of things. They had no notion of using their speculations as a means of gaining control of nature or of altering the natural conditions of life.

This point is crucial. At its heart, the Greek philosophical interest in mathematical investigations of the natural world was moral and religious. It was motivated above all by the desire to arrive at a higher knowledge of the divine, the permanent ordering principles by which the world, in all its manifestations, was arranged. In a sense, these philosophers saw a rigorous study of mathematics as a process of spiritual cleansing designed to prepare the human mind for the contemplation of the divine purpose (in other words, as an alternative to many irrational religious rituals, myths, and mysteries).  This tradition is very much a part of Socrates's entire project (as recorded and interpreted by Plato).

Since the ancient Greeks saw nature as divine, as having a mysteriously vital soul of its own, an essence with which human beings constantly interacted, there could be no question of "changing" nature or seeking in some ways to alter the given facts of life. Such an endeavour would have violated the way these philosophers understood the world. Nature (including the world around them and the cosmos) was a divinely alive mystery which might be intellectually apprehended and contemplated (at least in part). The aim of scientific speculation was to assist in that essentially spiritual exercise.

For that reason, Greek scientists showed no great interest in experimentation and no desire to develop their scientific thinking into practical applications. By the Hellenistic period (the fourth and third centuries BC), for example, Greek scientists knew about all the principles necessary to construct a steam engine. But the notion that they might actually build one and use it to overcome certain natural limitations never occurred to them. Nature was there to be wondered at, contemplated, even worshipped, not to be tampered with or altered.

Moreover, since the mysterious divine powers which were the creative source of everything, including political structures just as much as natural phenomena, were good, a mathematical understanding of the world linked the inquiring spirit of the thinker with the search for the ultimate purposes of things. To such a mind, it was far less important to figure out how things worked than to focus upon what these things might mean in the overall moral arrangement of the universe. Hence, the pursuit of what we might call science was primarily an inquiry into questions of value. A properly disciplined inquiry into nature could lead to a fuller understanding of the moral issues on which questions of justice in the community depended. The practical value of such inquiry was thus primarily moral.

The Four Causes

This major emphasis on value becomes most apparent in the Aristotle's famous explanation of the different causes for all phenomena. If scientific speculation is, in very large part, a search for rational explanations of cause (i.e., for an answer to this question "How did this natural phenomenon come into existence?"), then, according to Aristotle, there were four possible ways of accounting for that cause: the Material Cause, the Efficient Cause, the Formal Cause, and the Final Cause.

The material cause explains the phenomenon in terms of the material out of which it is made; the efficient cause explains the phenomenon in terms of the process which puts the materials together; the formal cause explains the phenomenon in terms of the plan or design or arrangement of the materials; and the formal cause explains the phenomenon in terms of its purpose (especially its moral purpose).

So, for example, if we wanted to account for the existence of, say, a house, the material cause would be the wood, nails, glass, concrete, and so on which make up the house; the efficient cause would be the actions of the various workers who constructed it (carpenters, roofers, carpet layers, and so on); the formal cause would be the architectural design and drawings; the final cause would be a moral reason why the house ought to be built at all and why it should look the way it does in the wider context of the community and the world.

The explanations sought by classical science were concerned above all with the final cause, that is, with an account of whatever one was speculating about which placed it in the overall moral scheme of the universe, linking that object or institution with a sense of moral purposiveness and hence with the divine structure of the universe (what Plato and Aristotle call the Good). This was the central purpose in almost all the most important speculations of Greek philosophy about the natural world or about politics, simply because for these thinkers the most challenging fact of life was an ethical concern: knowledge about the world only mattered if it helped people to understand how they ought to behave (i.e., gave them insight into the ultimate standards of morality and justice). Such thinking is called teleological (from the Greek word telos meaning goal), because it seeks explanations for things in terms of their final purposes.

Given this emphasis, it is not difficult to appreciate why ancient Greek science placed little emphasis on experimentation or working with theories which might enable them to manipulate nature (i.e., change some factor in nature). Of course, like all cultures the classical Greeks had a certain technical knowledge, for example, in medicine, metallurgy, pottery, construction (especially of ships), and selective breeding of domestic animals, but it is clear that the philosophers inquiring into nature considered this form of knowledge (which we prize highly as something immediately allied to our scientific endeavours) distinctly inferior. Extending this technical expertise in some way played no role whatsoever in their speculative theories (even though some of them were experts in technical matters, like military defenses and weapons).

Medieval Science: The Great Chain of Being

The development of science after the Greeks and the Romans (who did not significantly advance Greek speculations about nature) is a long and complex story, which we can only quickly and inadequately summarize here. Generally speaking, early Christianity in the first ten centuries had little interest in anything we might call science. The Greek inheritance had largely been lost (in Western Europe), the organized centres of education had been closed, and the emphasis in early Christianity on the supreme and exclusive authority of the word of God as revealed in the sacred writings (eventually codified in the Bible) offered no encouragement to rational speculations about the nature of the world. Everything one needed to know (or was able to know) was in the sacred text. Besides, this world was for many a distraction from the really important concern of life: preparing for the next world beyond death.

Another important factor in this early neglect of science was the Christian attitude to nature itself. Unlike the Greeks, the Christians firmly rejected any notion that nature was divine and that, therefore, speculations about nature were, in themselves, a way of apprehending the nature of God. According to scripture, God stood over and apart from nature. Nature was His creation, and it was entirely appropriate that one should acknowledge His divinity in the beauty and variety of the natural world. But God did not exist in nature, and any attempt to worship nature was the most serious heresy (this firm rejection of nature worship, which the Christians appropriated from the Jewish tradition, sets Christianity in opposition to all sorts of non-Christian beliefs). This is a key distinction between Christian thought and pagan Greek thought. The fact that so much pagan religion was very closely associated with nature made many early Christians all the more suspicious of those who might be overzealous in their celebration of the natural world. It is a common observation to note that in pagan religion there were no holy people, only holy places (e.g., sacred groves, grottos, and mountains where many of the most important religious rituals took place). In early Christianity the emphasis is reversed: there were no naturally holy places, only holy people. If a particular location had a special religious significance, that came about because someone very holy had done something there or had left a part of his body there. There was no particular holiness in nature itself.

However, once the Greek influence began gradually to reassert itself, Christian thinkers started to make a synthesis of the Greek rational understanding of nature (especially as manifested in the works of Aristotle) with Christian doctrine. Again, this is a long, rich, and complex development, which there is not time to review here. What is important for our purposes is the major image of the world which this tradition produced and which became the most fundamental organizing principle for all rational inquiry into the natural world: the Great Chain of Being, the single most long-lasting and historically important scientific principle in the history of Western thought.

The Great Chain of Being derived from two Greek ideas. The first originated (so far as we know) in Plato and is called The Principle of Plenitude. It states that, since God is perfectly good, therefore He must have created all possible forms of life. Any deficiency in the created variety of the world would be a mark of incompleteness, something incompatible with God. The second idea derives from Aristotle and is called The Ladder of Life. It states that all forms of natural phenomena exist on a hierarchical scale, rising very gradually by degrees from the lowest forms of inanimate matter (like rocks), to simple forms of life, to more complex forms, to human beings, and (as later developed by Christian thinkers) to the planets and fixed stars through all the various orders of angels right up to God Himself. Thus, every natural and spiritual phenomenon has its own particular ranked place in the comprehensive scheme of God's creation.

This model lent itself very readily to an understanding of astronomy. At the centre of this scheme stood the Earth, with the lowest point of the universe at the centre (in many depictions the centre of the Earth was the location of Hell, the place furthest removed from God). On the Earth the various forms of life existed in a hierarchical order, and, as one moved away from the earth, the orbits of the planets (which moved in perfect concentric circles around the Earth) marked the different levels of spiritual being, until, at the very highest point one reached the Heavens, the dwelling place of God.

The Great Chain of Being was an organizing metaphor, a classification system, into which one could fit each individual element of God's creation. The hierarchy was essentially a moral scheme, too. The higher the position of a particular entity, the closer it was to God, and thus the more spiritual value it possessed. Everything existed between higher and lower forms and participated in (this idea, as we shall see, is vital) a single unified creation, with a clear sense of its place. For human beings the central moral purpose of life was to acknowledge one's position on the scale (which included various levels for the different ranks of human beings) and to live up to one's responsibilities to those forms of life below and to one's obligations to those above one on the scale. The greatest error of all was to aspire to a position higher than the one appointed; hence, pride and disobedience to one's natural superiors in an attempt at personal self-aggrandizement were the greatest sins of all (that's why the last circle of Hell in Dante's great poem, the eternal home of the worst sinners, is reserved for those who betrayed their masters, those to whom they had a special obligation).

It is important to stress that the Great Chain of Being was a complete and closed and static system. It was not subject to change. All forms of life were eternally a part of the scheme. This idea meshed well with the doctrine in Genesis that God had created everything in the six days of creation and thus that there was no sudden development of new life or disappearance of old life. The natural world, like the entire cosmos, was a beautifully ordered static arrangement ordained by God. Its presence was a wonderful manifestation of His power and goodness.

For the person with an interest in the natural world, the Great Chain of Being provided a means of fitting in all observed phenomena into a preordained scheme in which the central point was the clear linkage between everything and God Himself. The metaphor was designed above all to keep at the centre of the thinker's consciousness the overall moral purposiveness of God's creation, that is, to reinforce a sense of the Final Cause in every natural event. The image did not encourage one to believe that there was any possibility of applying one's thinking to changing the ordained order; in fact, such an idea was considered a manifestation of pride, the deadliest of sins.

Since human beings were a part of this wonderfully divine order, their role as observers and thinkers about nature was to celebrate it as a manifestation of God's power and goodness, of the moral purposiveness with which all natural activities were filled and in which human beings, as part of the natural order, participated. To tamper with this given order, as mentioned above, was to go against the given purposes of God. Hence, the development of new inventions to alter the human being's relationship with the world around him were, in some way, wrong. Even something quite common to us, like wearing glasses to compensate for failing vision or draining swampland to make more arable fields, could produce fierce opposition.

The Great Chain of Being was much more than a scientific metaphor in any narrow sense. It was for centuries the fundamental organizing principle of understanding politics and of communicating an artistic understanding of nature (for example, Dante's cosmology in his epic poetry or Hildegard's imagery in her paintings). The metaphor of a great hierarchy of life organized in a series of concentric circles from the lowest forms up to God Himself provided at the same time a classification system, a moral understanding of one's duties and responsibilities, and a pleasing sense of the beauty and coordination of God's entire creation.

In such a world the main purpose of science was to confirm the truth of this great vision.  Hence, explanations for natural phenomena tended to be linked to God's purposes in creating such a harmonious structure.  So if, for example, one asked why a certain living creature had the particular physical features it did, the answer would, as often as not, describe how these features are linked to or reminders of God's desires for the world.

The Challenge of Modern Science

What we call modern science began in the sixteenth and seventeenth century as a challenge to the traditional Christian and Greeks views sketched out briefly above. The origin of this challenge is commonly ascribed to the views of a Polish monk, Copernicus, who speculated that one way of understanding the universe might be to put the sun at the centre with the planets revolving around it in circular orbits. In making this radically different theoretical speculation (which some Greek thinkers had also entertained), Copernicus was not intending to break with tradition, and his ideas were in many places (including the Papacy) acknowledged as interesting hypotheses.

The really decisive challenge came from those who, in defense of Copernicus's suggestion, insisted that the very nature of science must change, that it must work from a different purpose and by different methods. It must rely upon observations and shape the understanding of the universe on the basis of those observations, rather than fitting all observations into the traditional framework of Christian belief. Here the work of Galileo is centrally important. His observations of the skies with a telescope led him to conclude that the heavens could not be the perfectly ordered realm of the divine, for there were irregularities and imperfections (like comets, sun spots, and the irregular surface of the moon). The Great Chain of Being did not correspond with sense experience. And faced with such a clash, Galileo proposed radical alterations to the traditional view in order to bring a scientific understanding of the world into line with human observations.

Why was this so decisive? Again, this is a complex question, but the essence of the business is that the new scientists insisted on privileging sense experience, on shaping theories to fit that sense experience, and on subjecting such speculations to test by experimental observation. It was no longer the case that the basic working model of the universe was known and invoked to explain phenomena; scientists had to abandon tradition and boldly launch out to construct new models which might answer to a new demand: the desire for power over nature.

Traditional science, relying on the Great Chain of Being, subordinated inquiry into nature to moral concerns. The aim of science, like the aim of all life, was to confirm, celebrate, and acknowledge the given truth of the world. The new science began out of a frustration with this method, because it never produced any new knowledge. All explanations simply ended up confirming what was already known. As the most energetic advocate of the new science, Francis Bacon, repeatedly remarked (in the seventeenth century) that to explain the cause of some natural phenomenon by attributing it to some essential property in keeping with God's overall plan for the universe was an explanation of no practical value. And Bacon, like his French colleague Descartes, wanted above all a practical science, an understanding of nature that would give human beings more power over nature and lead to what Descartes called "the relief of man's estate" (especially in medicine).

For the traditional scientific understanding of natural events provided no explanations which might enable human beings to control the phenomenon in question, because the ultimate cause was a supernatural source.  Take, for example, the common experience of lightning.  A traditional explanation (Christian or pagan) established the cause of the destructive powers of lightning by pointing to God's anger or His justice or some other aspect of His will.  This, we should note, is an explanation, and, as such, it enables the enquirer to understand the event.  But because this is a description of a Final Cause (the moral purpose of the event), there is nothing that enquirer can do to control the phenomenon (other than through prayer or offerings).  However, once scientists began to concern themselves exclusively with secondary causes, they came to understand lightning as a physical phenomenon, a stream of electricity originating in mechanical processes, and they soon realized that a metal rod placed on the high point of a building and connected to the ground could control the direction of the discharge and thus avert the destruction.  This line of enquiry not only provided a new explanation; it also gave human beings control over the deadly natural phenomenon.

Hence, the new scientists called for an end to a preoccupation with final causes. Scientists should not focus on these, but rather on the efficient causes (often called secondary causes). What particular events cause something to behave the way it does? To foster an understanding of these, the new science called for mechanical models of the stuff of nature, experiments to understand their mathematical properties, and constant adjustment or readjustment of the shaping theory in order to fit the mechanical model. The basic metaphor now was that nature was something like a clock. To understand the clock we should not focus on its moral purpose but on its inner mechanical workings.

This change in emphasis may sound simple enough. In practice, however, for many people it was anything but easy. For it demanded a radical reorientation in how one thought about nature and one's place in it. To approach the natural world as if it were a clock mechanism required two changes: first, nature had to be imagined as essentially dead, as a machine with complex inner workings but no vital irrational spirit or any unpredictable divine intervention (which would not be susceptible to mathematical and experimental investigation), and, second, the scientist had to place a distance between himself and nature. Nature became, in effect, an object to be studied and manipulated by the subjective mind of the scientist. The test of the validity of a particular view of the world was the extent to which it brought a natural process under human control (through experiments). This view, which insists upon a separation between the knowing mind and the object known (the central image in Descartes's work), marks a distinct break from the older tradition of seeing human beings participating in nature, both subject to God's presence as a vital principle in their behaviour, with the major purpose of inquiry into nature being the attainment of contemplative wonder at the beauty and benevolence of the Creator.

Why did this relatively sudden change come when and where it did? Why after more than a thousand years of relatively calm acceptance of the traditional view of science, did European thinkers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries suddenly demand such a radical reorientation of our understanding of the world? There is no clear answer. Perhaps it had something to do with the rising demand in Europe for a greater emphasis on individualism, on breaking away from tradition, on moving out beyond old confines into the New World--that combination of newly optimistic hopes about what the human mind was fully capable of if left to its own devices, a development which we associate with the Renaissance. Perhaps it all happened by accident. However, once the new science began to demonstrate the rapidity with which it could generate new knowledge, new powers over nature, it began to acquire an increasing momentum until it became what we are familiar with, the central driving imperative of our western culture.

Modern Science and Moral Purposes: The Design Argument

At first glance, the rejection of final causes and the privileging of efficient causes seems to emancipate science from any moral concerns. The activity is about figuring out how things work mechanically, not about what they are worth or what their moral purpose might be. However, the rejection of the notion of final cause as the principal concern of the natural scientist did not at once lead people to conclude that science had nothing to do with morality at all. Descartes and Bacon saw the relief of human misery (especially with medicine) as an important moral imperative. And, beyond that, many thinkers were spurred on in their scientific endeavours by the hope that a better understanding of secondary (efficient) causes would help to reinforce a religious understanding. If we could better understand the mechanisms of nature, without worrying about ultimate purposes, we might come to a better appreciation of the nature of God, who created the machine.

It is very wrong to see modern science as arising in opposition to religion or to argue that the history of science is a narrative of constant religious obstacles thrown up in the way of new theories. In fact, many of the most prominent early natural scientists (men like Boyle and Newton) were devoutly religious. They sincerely believed that coming to an understanding of the great cosmic clock, subjecting nature to a human understanding of the mathematical principles by which the elements in the machine worked, would promote religious awareness and confirm, if not the absolute truth of scripture, the validity of Christian doctrine.

The faith in this idea that an attention to efficient causes might finally lead to a better understanding of final causes (the notion that paying attention to how something works mechanically will reveal something about its purpose and value) has come to be called the Design Argument, a vitally important way of reconciling (or attempting to reconcile) the new science and religion. Briefly stated the Design Argument claims that we can conclude the existence of God by the analogy between a wonderfully complex work and a creator. Where we see something as complex as, say, a clock, we can reliably conclude that someone made it (it did not just happen by chance). So in the natural world, the extraordinarily complex design of something like an eye or the extreme mathematical precision of certain natural phenomena (like the rate of acceleration in a falling object or the relationship between the pressure and volume in a gas) offered proof for the existence of a divine creator. Such complex order and harmony could not just, well, happen. Hence, inquiry into efficient causes could serve as a strong inducement for religious belief.

The most powerful evidence for this design argument was clearly the work of Newton, who seemed to have demonstrated to everyone's satisfaction that the entire cosmos was arranged and moved according to eternally fixed mathematical principles. And in the first two centuries of the new science, Newton's model of the heavens became the standard image to which one could appeal to establish a link between science and religion. In a sense, using this model one could re-establish the central tenets of the Great Chain of Being--the sense of an ordered hierarchy. The ideas of Newton and his predecessors had significantly changed some of the details (for example, that the orbits of the planets were perfect circles or that the earth was in the centre), but the moral quality of the old image could still be invoked.

The Destruction of the Design Argument

The sanguine hopes contained in the Design Argument proved over-optimistic. For as scientists continued increasingly to focus upon efficient causes and turned their attention to the Earth itself, it became increasingly clear that the Earth was undergoing a process of constant change. There was no fixed and static design. Some animal species had become extinct (obvious evidence for poor design), new animals had appeared, some organs appeared to have no function at all, the surface of the Earth was quite different from what it had been only a few hundred years before, and so on. How could one talk of a divine creative design when changes, often inexplicable, arbitrary, and obviously destructive changes, increasingly seemed to be the way in which the world worked?

In addition, philosophers of science (like David Hume and Immanuel Kant) pointed out that the Design Argument rested on a logical fallacy. It might be reassuring to have faith in a divine designer, but there was no way one could logically conclude the existence of divine attributes from non-divine material stuff. If God is radically different from the material of his creation, then one cannot logically connect the two, supposing that one requires the existence of the other (just as, to take a trivial example, one cannot logically infer the mental and spiritual qualities of a person by an exhaustive mechanical inspection of, say, her lawnmower engine).

The Design Argument, however, has never disappeared. It resurfaces periodically in various guises and remains a common way of linking modern science and religious awareness (it is very much alive on the Internet under the term Intelligent Design). The enduring popularity of the argument, in spite of its logical fallaciousness, is a testament to the enormous unease we still feel about divorcing the most strenuous efforts to understand the world from a sense of higher purposes.

The importance of the Design Argument helps to explain, too, why so much of the hostility to science focuses on Darwin's theories, because at the heart of natural selection lies an insistence on the total absence of design: randomness drives the process, so that terrestrial life, including human beings, are the results of a process which did not have them in mind, temporary accidental by-products of a complex, all-powerful, and never-ending transforming force without any overall purpose, other than mere survival.

The Victory of Power Over Wonder

The spectacular successes of the new science in the last three hundred years are a tribute to the effectiveness of the process set in motion by Descartes, Galileo, Bacon, Newton, and other sixteenth and seventeenth century scientists. The search for secondary causes and the application of mechanical models to an understanding of nature have brought us a control over nature that would have been unimaginable before (and would no doubt really amaze those gentlemen themselves). The "relief of man's estate" which they so desired has, in many ways, been fostered enormously by their insistence on a new way of knowing the world. The fact that we live longer, safer lives with less fear of natural disasters is a good thing, and we owe that change entirely to what the new science has brought us.

But that knowledge has, as most of us realize, come at a price. For we have lost what was central to the old science of the Greeks and medieval thinkers: the sense of an activity guided by shared moral principles and a desire to satisfy our sense of religious wonder. Science now, for the most part, moves under a new imperative: the desire for power. We do not pause (as we should) to think about whether that power is something we ought to have, something that will bring us closer to God. We plunge ahead, because gaining power over nature has become an imperative in itself, and all sorts of reasons other than a pure desire to know are in play (especially military and commercial factors).  Many of those in the best position to raise some questions about these matters, professors in university science departments, have themselves turned their professional activities (frequently accompanied by the students' curriculum) over to corporate or governmental interests (their sources of funding), institutions whose immediate priorities do not include radical questioning of their entire mission.

When people express, as they often do, a certain anxiety about science, about what it is doing or may do to how we live our lives, they are frequently lamenting the loss of that shared sense of the moral purposiveness of all human activity. Simply put, they are acknowledging that we do not know how to guide or what to do about the scientific genie we have released from the bottle, and developments in reproductive technologies, cloning, stem cells, genetic engineering, nuclear physics, and computers, among other things, provide all sorts of things for us to worry about.

Of course, there are still scientists drawn to the activity by the old curiosity and wonder at the amazing richness of nature. Many great scientists (especially physicists) this century have been profoundly spiritual and have seen their work through the eyes of a contemplative. Such spirits are often dismayed at the practical uses to which their theoretical speculations are put (e.g., nuclear bombs). Many students are drawn to science primarily by a desire to understand or to celebrate the mystery of nature. But such attitudes, it would seem, are increasingly in the minority in the research establishment. The driving force behind scientific research now tends to be intensely practical, often seeking short-term power over nature (and the financial benefits that brings) rather than anything else. And that drive for power acknowledges no limits, least of all some sense of a final cause.

Periodically there are calls for us to impose some restrictions on a particular scientific endeavour (e.g., on cloning, space research). But of course, it's much too late for that. Having so emphatically banished formal causes in order to launch the new science, we cannot now invoke them as an effective guide (perhaps, if things get bad enough, especially in the environment, this situation will start to change). Moreover, where there is power to be gained, there is never a shortage of those willing to seek it out, and the methods of the new science are no mystery. For better or worse, modern science in western culture and the rest of the world now runs by its own momentum, and it would take a rash prophet to wager where it will take us in the next century or two.


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