Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Science as a Search for the "Mind of God"

Why did science arise in the West? That's a loaded question; plenty of folks would argue that "science" arose elsewhere. Still, a quick scan of your surroundings will reveal electronics, plastics, time-keeping widgets, lighting, senders/receivers, engines, etc. It's Western stuff.

One Steve Fuller has an answer to the question: Christians, inspired by a search for the "mind of god", propelled science forward. Surprise, surprise, this Jesuit-educated disembodied blathering head believes that a Christian philosophical quest is responsible for science.

I find the view ludicrous. As I wrote on scienceblogs:

Let's not consider contingency,accidents, and snowballing effects in the development of science. Forget about climate and geography. Ignore abrahamic religions' needs for evangelizing and warmongering and manifesting/discovering magical substances. Toss out any complicating arguments about abrahamic religions' anti-science propensities. Toss out neutral events too (e.g. a need for time-keeping devices for medieval monks). Ignore what non-abrahamic religions actually say, and poo-poo any science that did emerge in non-abrahamic areas. And then Fuller can claim that science was motivated by the religion of his upbringing.

Fuller also says that the Abrahamic view that humans (as opposed to animals) are privileged, being created in the image of god, was a historical driver of science. Obviously, Hinduism and Buddhism lack this sort of creation myth, but anyone with a slight familiarity with these religions will know that humans have a superior birth to animals. The Tibetans, in their juicy way, compare the souls competing for a privileged birth while two humans are copulating to flies on meat.

Enough of my own views, however. How about the views of the folks around me at Mahidol University?

An Iraqi Student: The era of Muslim domination of science (roughly 900-1300) might have continued indefinitely had the Hulagu Khan not invaded Baghdad in 1255. He says the Tigris River turned blue as ink leached out of the pages of books that were tossed there by Mongol forces.

An Indian Muslim: The Western concept of separation between church and state was responsible for the rise of science in the west over the last 400 years.

An American Ichthyologist: Refuses to cop to the notion that science is a Western development, even when I attempt to narrow the scope down to the last few hundred years.

A Thai Toxinologist: The need for the technologies of war spurred science in the West.

The Director of a Dengue Research Lab: Life is easy in the tropics. Just pick a mango off a tree and gather up some frogs in the forest. Ingenuity was required in cold climates, however. He was also quick to chuckle about the supposed Christian/science link, knowing full well that Christianity has a history of feuding with science.

I'll add more views as they come in.

A few more words of my own: Ask for an example of non-Western ingenuity, and it's a decent bet that you'll get the Chinese invention of explosives. I wonder, though, if systematic thinking, a hallmark of science, was at all responsible here. In the bomb-making case, was there ever any attempt to formulate hypotheses, falsify them, and build on the results? And, if systematic thought is crucial for "real" science, how could the destruction of books signal the end of science in the Middle East? It seems like we need to discriminate between mere "technology" and "science", how-to-manuals and deduction/induction. Maybe my own cultural bias/ignorance is showing here, while I'm griping about someone else's. Correct me, if you wish.

Oh, the pic above is Marcel Duchamp's "Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even." I don't dig it, but it came to mind, somehow.


speakfreely said...

One could say it was entirely accidental that science arose in the West instead of the East, a disordered jumble of odd "contingencies, accidents, and snowballing effects", much as technological advancements are portrayed on the (excellent) old television series "Connections" that featured James Burke. But I think there actually is a reason for it, a religious one at that, though it's not the one Steve Fuller proposes: Buddhism
promotes an approach to solving problems by changing one's perception, rather than adressing the problem in the physical world. For instance, if you desire some object, the desire is seen as the problem, rather than
the lack of the object, and freedom (from desire, from suffering) is sought above all else. In a more extreme
example, if you are suffering from some disease, rather than taking steps to cure the disease, you work on your own perception of what is happening to the point where even pain is something to be optimistically curious about, rather than a force that controls your actions, and free yourself from suffering in that way. This
basic mentality puts all the responsibility for one's experiences on the individual. Contrast this with Judeo-Christian Religions, or maybe more generally, theism, which seeks always to redeem (or condemn) the individual through forces outside one's self; all the individual can do is seek to ally their self with these forces. I contend that it is this outward focus which directed the Western mind at the world around rather than the world within. I contend further that Buddhism's focus on the inner world succeeds in a spiritual sense, whereas the deist approach, (prayer and ritual aimed at invoking divine intervention) fails at about the rate of chance, creating many secret atheists. The vacuum this failure creates drives a desire to understand the world around in ways that are dependable. Hence the development of the scientific approach in the West rather than the East.

KenG said...

Actually, the bit about the need for time-keeping devices came directly from Burke's "Connections"!

I think you've got point #6 there. Of course, there are plenty of non-Abrahamic AND non-Buddhist/Hindu cultures out there (e.g. American Indian, African) that never developed much in the way of science. So it does make sense to wonder if there's some special quality about Christianity that promoted the development of science. Maybe there is/are...but like you say, I don't think Fuller has put his finger on it.

He has a book out this summer on the subject. I won't be buying it, but it will be interesting to read snippets on the internet and hear what critics/supporters have to say.

speakfreely said...

Point #6?

I want to be a little careful in claiming science for the West, too. I mean, anywhere that technological advancements took place, science was happening, though it may not have been recognized as such. Incan mathematicians used zero several thousand years in advance of its appearance in the Middle East. China had quite impressive ceramics, silks and of course gunpowder, long in advance of Europe. But the West really did embrace science and the quantitative approach before the rest of the world in a way that produced an explosion of technological advances like none seen before. I can only say I think it wouldn't have happened if, at every turn, there was concern over whether actions were in balance and harmony with the natural world, and whether, perhaps, the need might be satisfied by an internal shift rather than an outward action. It's not that the Buddhist mentality is in opposition to science or technology, it simply offers an alternative to taking action in the outside world.

KenG said...

Re #6: I paraphrased 5 folks' responses to the question of science arising in the West. Your response would be #6.

I recall one Rinpoche claiming that a saint by the name of Mipham invented watches, televisions, etc., in the 19th century, and then tossed them away cuz he figured they'd offer no ultimate benefits. (Not that I believe the tale)

But even if you discard Buddhist countries, you've got to explain why science didn't arise in the Americas, Africa, Oceania, etc.

speakfreely said...

#6, Ok, thanks!

In Burke's series, though the meeting of various technologies may seem happenstance, they require, as a substrate, a complex society, supporting trade and industry. There are places in the ancient world where societies reached that level of complexity, so I think we could narrow the question to ask why science didn't develop in those places and at those times.