Thursday, December 13, 2018

Science and civilizations

In my book Biological Evolution and Cultural Evolution in the History of Life and Man, published in Spanish, I analyze the cultural history of 23 civilizations and compare their evolution. In the particular case of science, I wrote this:
...the first-generation civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt and the American) reached their maximum scientific development in mathematics and astronomy. Egypt and Mesoamerica added medicine to these sciences. A second-generation (Greco-Roman) and a third-generation civilization (Islam) also practiced the natural sciences. As for the West, it is a unique and unprecedented case, as its scientific development has been overwhelming.
...astronomy was the first cultivated science... Mathematics emerged in parallel... It was soon found that both sciences were related, for mathematics supported astronomy, making it possible to perform complex calculations and predictions.
The pagan religions... tried to predict the future, using for that purpose sacrificed animals, which led to an accumulation of anatomical knowledge, soon applied to man, which mixed with ancient knowledge about the properties of medicinal plants, led to the formation of a corpus of medical doctrines.
On the other hand, the development of the physical, chemical and biological sciences was less urgent... and so it was attempted only by civilizations that had freed from the necessities of survival an important part of human work... This happened for the first time in Greece, the cradle of philosophy and most of the modern sciences.
What is the reason that the Western civilization has been (until now) the only one that has experimented a disproportionate scientific development, out of all comparison with any other civilization, precedent or contemporary? Why this spectacular difference between our civilization and the others, which is evident if one studies the history of science?
In all the first and second-generation civilizations dominated a cosmology incompatible with a scientific development similar to that of the West: the cyclical cosmology, which considers the history of the universe as a repetitive process, asserting that the same things happen once and again, and that the same people are born and die many times (metempsychosis). Cyclical cosmology gives rise to a pessimistic and defeatist idea, incompatible with sustained scientific progress. Let us see it expressed by the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius:
Emperor Marcus Aurelius
[The rational soul] travels through the entire world, the emptiness around it and its form; it extends throughout the infinity of time, embraces the periodic rebirth of the universal whole, calculates and realizes that our descendants will see nothing new, just as our ancestors saw nothing extraordinary...
Among the first and second-generation civilizations, only one did not accept the cyclical cosmology. Convinced of being the chosen people of God, depository of an Alliance, the Hebrew people adopted a different, unique cosmology, a linear concept of history, with a beginning and an end. Their cosmology begins with creation from chaos and will end with the consecration of Israel as the leader of all peoples, when the world will return to primitive Eden to remain there forever. The Hebrew culture, however, did not perform any scientific development and hardly had any philosophical activity, except in those aspects related to religion.
Christianity, the successor of the Hebrew from the theological point of view, spread through the Greco-Roman civilization and made the synthesis of two very different cultures, although its genesis was, above all, the consequence of a crucial historical fact:
a)      From the Hebrew culture it adopted the linear vision of history.
b)      From the Greco-Roman culture it adopted Greek philosophy (especially Plato and Aristotle) ​​and Roman law.
c)      The crucial historical fact on which Christianity was based was the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection.
Another civilization, Islam, shared the first two points: the linear vision of history and the influence of Greek philosophy. In fact, during the first centuries of its existence, the Islamic civilization made important scientific advances in astronomy, mathematics, medicine and alchemy. However, it soon ended up in stagnation, probably because it lacked the crucial fact of God’s interaction with man, His Incarnation in a person who shares the two natures: something that Muslims do not accept.
Christianity has made possible the explosive development of science, because the following two statements play a fundamental role in our conception of the world:
1.      The universe has been created by God. As God is a rational being, He must have created a rationally comprehensible universe, subject to laws that can be expressed logically.
2.      Man, as a rational being, has the inconceivable dignity that God became man. That huge dignity of man means that he cannot be an epiphenomenon, but a crucial element, capable of discovering and understanding the laws with which God has endowed the universe. To do this, we must resort to experimentation.
It was precisely the consciousness of our ability to discover and understand the laws of the universe through experimentation that has unleashed the scientific revolution in which we find ourselves. This explosion of science has only been possible in a Christian civilization.
Let us see how Christopher Dawson expresses this idea:
Christopher Dawson
For the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is not simply a theophany—a revelation of God to Man; it is a new creation—the introduction of a new spiritual principle which gradually leavens and transforms human nature into something new... The key to the Christian understanding of history—is to be found in the Incarnation—the presence of the maker of the world in the world unknown to the world. And though this divine intervention in the course of history seems at first sight to empty secular history of all ultimate significance, in reality it gives history for the first time an absolute spiritual value.
[Dynamics of World History]

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Science and History: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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