The Beginnings of WesternScience

by David C. Lindberg

This book traces the history of Western science from prehistory to 1450 CE. After a brief glance at science before the Greeks (basically, there wasn’t much), Mr. Lindberg plunges into the complexities of Greek science. It’s easy for us to dismiss Greek science because they got so much wrong, but we should not underestimate how much they got right. It’s not just the fact that they established solid basic principles for scientific inquiry. They also compiled a huge mass of scientifically sound information about the natural world. Let’s not forget that Eratosthenes measured the diameter of the earth to that was within 2% of the correct value. He also measured the obliquity of the ecliptic quite accurately.

The Greeks were best at geometry. I had never put into perspective the fact that Pythagoras died in 495 BCE, a century before the time of Socrates and Plato, yet he proved what we now call the Pythagorean Theorem. As it happens, just about every civilization came up with their own proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, but Pythagoras seems to have the been the first to do so.

Much more important, from my point of view, was the concept of proof. This is a uniquely Western idea that we take for granted. Other civilizations were happy to establish the truth of some principle, but the Greeks appear to have been the first to develop the notion of logically proving the truth. This concept was absolutely crucial to many fields of investigation. Most of the Greek proofs were geometrical proofs. In this they were hampered by the execrable number system they were saddled with. It was similar to the system we call Roman numerals. The Greeks did not develop the concept of 0; that lack crippled their ability to calculate. Instead, the Greeks concentrated their efforts on ratios between quantities. This makes Eratosthenes’ calculation of the diameter of the earth even more impressive.

The Greeks also made many advances in medicine. They carried out dissections and developed fairly good knowledge of human anatomy. However, their inability to look inside a living body cut them off at the knees; they never quite figured out the circulation of blood. And while the Greeks are not known for experimentation, they did in fact recognize the value of going outside and getting the facts from nature.

The Romans took over the Greek world, but they didn’t add much to the scientific corpus they inherited from the Greeks. For the most part, they simply preserved it.

It was a great stroke of luck that the conquering Muslims eagerly embraced Greek scientific knowledge; Christendom learned much of the Greek achievement from the Muslim world. The Muslims built on the Greek edifice and made their own contributions, especially in chemistry and mathematics. However, Islamic scientific energies faltered after about 1200 CE, just as the Christians were starting to pick up the ball.

We dismiss the Middle Ages as a time of superstition and darkness, but in fact Christian science flowered in the Late Middle Ages. Much of the problem can be attributed to the slavish embracing of the work of Thomas Aquinas. He rose to prominence just after some of the major works of Aristotle spread through the West. Aquinas realized the power of Aristotelian logic and applied it to Christian theology. He reasoned that logic would forever end the theological schisms that bedeviled the Church. His masterwork, the Summa Theologica, didn’t quite achieve his aim, but it was close enough that Christendom came to the conclusion that Aquinas had proven the correctness of Christian doctrine using Aristotelian logic. This in turn elevated the position of Aristotle in Christian thought to near-infallibility. Aristotelian thought was so highly thought of that it came to be identified with Christian dogma. To question Aristotle was to undermine the foundations of Christian faith.

But Christian thinking was more flexible than it seems at first glance. The cognoscenti enjoyed almost complete freedom. You could embrace any scientific concept, so long as you didn’t attempt to publicize your thinking. The reason why Copernicus feared the Church, and why Galileo was persecuted, was that they published their ideas to the world. Had they confined themselves to private theorizing, they would have been tolerated.

During the Late Middle Ages, Christian thinkers made many important discoveries. They established the basic principles of empiricism and scientific experimentation. Another thing: no educated Christian believed that the world was flat; the spherical earth was universally accepted. Even more striking was the perception of God’s role in the workings of nature. Most Christian scholars held that God created the world and all its operating principles at the same time, and ever since let it run according to those principles, with a few special exceptions known as miracles. Would that modern-day American creationists understood their religion as well as the Christian scholars of the Middle Ages!

A few tidbits: a Middle Ages scholar developed the concept of graphing variables with time long before Descartes. A Greek scientist established that bodies fall at the same rate regardless of their weights. The Greek scheme for the structure of the solar system was a lot more sophisticated than most people realize, and they continued to fiddle with it as their measurements grew in quantity and quality. Copernicus was able to prove the heliocentric model only because he had much more observational data than was available to the Greeks.

This book had quite an impact on me. The basic point that the author makes, and drives home repeatedly, is that people before the scientific revolution weren’t idiots; in fact, they developed some pretty impressive ideas. What separates us from them is our intellectual context. Expressed in our terms, early Western science looks pretty lame, but when you shift context and thing in terms of the intellectual scaffolding on which they worked, their ideas not only make a lot of sense, but they often work in the real world. I shall be revising various sections of my History of Thinking because of this book.