I recently wrote a post called The Cosmos and the Holy Book, which was largely about the conflict between religion and science and was inspired by my reading of Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos. However, religion is not the only thing that can hinder scientific advancement. Society has a great deal to do with it, as well–both its structure and its attitudes. Well, I say “structure and attitudes”, though I think it would take someone more well-read on society and probably smarter to me to talk much about those as separate topics; I rather see them as interconnected and influencing each other.
I am including this societal aspect in an addendum because it didn’t really fit in with the main topic I wrote about before. Also, this is more of a “Thoughts” post, and won’t be as well-researched as the other post…
What happened way back in history is doubtless more complicated than we know, or has been recorded, but still it appears we know the major highlights.
From what I’ve read in Cosmos, the first Scientific Awakening (at least for the Western World) happened on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor starting in the 500s BCE. This area was a crossroads of civilizations–Persian, Greek, Egyptian. It was an area big on exploration and trade. Exploration and trade thrive o
n innovation–new techniques, new materials, new ship designs, new navigational tools, all that stuff. This was prime ground for Scientists of all types–inventors, mathematicians, astronomers.
Ironically, though, they seem to have become victims of their own success:
An explanation for the decline of ancient science has been put forward by the historian of science, Benjamin Farrington: The mercantile tradition, which led to Ionian science, also led to a slave economy. The owning of slaves was the road to wealth and power…What slaves characteristically perform is manual labor. But scientific experimentation is manual labor, from which the slaveholders are preferentially distanced; while it is only the slaveholders–politely called “gentle-men” in some societies–who have the leisure to do science. Accordingly, almost no one did science. The Ionians were perfectly able to make machines of some elegance. But the availability of slaves undermined the economic motive for the development of technology. Thus the mercantile tradition contributed to the great Ionian awakening around 600 B.C., and, through slavery, may have been the cause of its decline some two centuries later. There are great ironies here. —Cosmos pg 186
I’m sure that is not the only explanation (meaning that there may have been multiple causes, not just the slave economy, and also meaning that there are probably other historians with other explanations), but it is compelling, especially in light of the following:
Plato urged astronomers to think about the heavens, but not to waste their time observing them. Aristotle believed that: “The lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master…Plutarch wrote: “It does not of necessity follow that, if the work delight you with its grace, the one who wrought it is worthy of esteem.” Xenophon‘s opinion was: “What are called the mechanical arts carry a social stigma and are rightly dishonoured in our cities.” As a result of such attitudes, the brilliant and promising Ionian experimental method was largely abandoned for two thousand years.
As mentioned just before, we don’t have a slave economy. We do, in a way, have slaves, if one were inclined to think of all our techno gadgets in that way, but that is very different. As it is, having technological “servants” aids scientific progress–looking for new materials, techniques, etc. But in the above examples, which came first–the attitude of “I don’t want to do manual labor” or the slave society? Probably they grew up together.
On the other hand, there was the United Provinces of the Netherlands–the Dutch. These northern Europeans of Germanic heritage broke free of Spanish domination and formed a Republic–and then had to figure out real fast how to stay alive!
Emblematic of the epoch of sailing-ship exploration and discovery is the revolutionary Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century. Having recently declared its independence from the powerful Spanish Empire, it embraced more fully than any other nation of its time the European Enlightnement. It was a rational, orderly, creative society. But because Spanish ports and vessels were closed to Dutch shipping, the economic survival of the tiny republic depended on its ability to construct, man and deploy a great fleet of commercial sailing vessels. –Cosmos 140
Sagan talks about a “zest for discovery” that went along with the obvious commercial interests of the Dutch, and “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake”.
A small country, forced to live by its wits, its foreign policy contained a strong pacifist element. Because of its tolerance for unorthodox opinions, it was a haven for intellectuals who were refugees from censorship and thought control elsewhere in Europe–much as the United States benefited enormously in the 1930’s by the exodus of intellectuals from Nazi-dominated Europe. So seventeenth-century Holland was the home of the great Jewish philosopher Spinoza, whom Einstein admired; of Descartes, a pivotal figure in the history of mathematics and philosophy; and of John Locke, a political scientist who influenced a group of philosophically inclined revolutionaries named Paine, Hamilton, Adams, Franklin and Jefferson….
In the Dutch tradition of encouraging freedom of thought, the University of Leiden offered a professorship to an Italian scientist named Galileo, who had been forced by the Catholic Church under threat of torture to recant his heretical view that the Earth moved about the Sun and not vice versa. Cosmos 141-142
So, a free, open, and largely tolerant society with a strong commercial and exploratory bent seems especially hospitable to scientific progress. Of course, that only makes sense–people generally don’t excel at anything (physical or mental) without some form of competition, whether it be the supreme conflict of war, or the lesser and arguably much more healthy conflict of the Race. Who will be first to the North Pole, to the South Pole, to the Spice Islands, to Space, to the Moon? And it also makes sense that a somewhat open society would be needed for that, because Orthodox thinking doesn’t get you to the moon. Of course, in that context, what do we make of the technological progress of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia? For the Nazis, I suppose that as long as you were Arian (and not some stinking Jew or Gypsy or Pole), then there was plenty of freedom–at least within certain circles or certain limits. There must have also been a more free zone within Stalinist Russia, for if the scientists would have been constrained as totally as the rest of society, I don’t think there is any way they would have done so well in the Space Race.
But again, we don’t have a slave economy now and we live in a rather open and tolerant society. Scientific progress is going forward pretty well, not least in terms of Tech: don’t want to sweep the floor? Buy a Roomba! Don’t want to drive to work? Buy a self-driving car (available within the next few decades)! Don’t want to go through the effort of opening a can of corn? Get an electric can opener! Can’t find your car in the mall parking lot? There’s an app for that! Don’t want to page through a ponderous encyclopedia or dictionary? Wikipedia and Google!
Wait a minute…what was that last thing? Wikipedia and Google? Yeah, now that is a great application of science and technology! The computer, the silicon chip, the Internet, air conditioning (a necessary pre-requisite for most computer technology considering how hot the components get and how bad a thing that is for them). All this has given rise to the Information Age! As James Madison said, “A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
But this gets more into the realm of societal attitudes. We have access to more knowledge and information than any society ever has…yet very few people seem to care. Our attitude toward learning, toward education, appears to be very negative. Mikey, over at Tech Savvy Mikey, laments that in a 2008 poll conducted of scientific literacy amongst US adults, a third disagreed with the statement “the earth goes around the sun once a year” (though I found it unclear if they were disagreeing with the fact the earth goes around the sun, or they didn’t know how long it took). By 2009, “53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.” That means 47% didn’t. That sounds rather discouraging.
It could be argued that stuff like that is trivial, that it really doesn’t matter if we know that. Possibly. However, in a more and more scientific world (Acid Rain or not? Hole in the ozone or not? Global warming or not? Nuclear energy or not?), not knowing something as basic as a solar year (or heliocentrism) doesn’t set a strong foundation for being able to have much understanding of the actually complicated issues.
But where does this anti-science, or possibly simply anti-education attitude come from?
I don’t know. There are a few sources. The anti-intellectual/anti-education attitude is strong amongst Fundamentalist religionists. They seem to think that scientists are just anti-God rebels bent on going out and finding a way to disprove the bible and the existence of god just because they are God Haters. I grew up in a group like this. This type of thinking is illustrated best, I think, by things like the Creation Museum.
Of course, most of non-fundamentalist, or more Mainstream religion has no detrimental effect on science or attitudes toward scientific advancement. Remember that Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler were all believers. There are other anti-education/anti-science/anti-intellectual ideologies. One might be
surprised to discover there is also a liberal war on science. There are others who are anti-education based on political ideology in that they feel that state run education is nothing but the state trying to mold people into good little citizens.
So, we live in a world of positive social forces, and negative social forces, so far as the advancement of science and learning goes. As I mentioned in the original post, I write this as a further justification to myself, as much as to anyone else, of me tossing my fairly small hat in the ring. If the anti-education/anti-science ideologies gain sway, then we’re headed for a new Dark Ages, made darker by contrast of the light that once was. If, however, the positive societal forces prevail, then we’ll continue our journey of discovery and enlightenment. Yes, science and scientists make mistakes, and some advances in science have been decided detrimental (nuclear weapons, biological weapons, bad medicine, etc), and further advances may be worse (how about when we finally learn how to manipulate the human genome?) but it is a learning curve and if we humans just give up because we’ve made a few mistakes…then we’re doomed.