Thursday, June 19, 2008

Could the Greeks Really Do Science?

Asking whether the ancient Greeks were any good at science might seem a silly question. After all, the conventional wisdom is that the Greeks invented science. But look a little more closely, and the Greek achievement is not quite as spectacular as it appears. Ask someone to name a scientific theory developed and proved by the Greeks and you may not get much of an answer.

Actually, there were a few genuine Greek scientific discoveries. Most important is Archimedes law of displacement and the work on statics that goes under his name. For instance, he knew how to calculate the mechanical advantage gained from a lever. Aristarchus of Samos famously suggested that earth goes around the sun, but the idea did not catch on. Eratosthenes’s measurement of the circumference of the earth is often brought up as a scientific achievement although he neither proposed a theory nor tested a hypothesis. I suppose you should say that proving the earth is a sphere is truly a scientific discovery, especially as early Greek natural philosophers doubted it.

Now the bad news. Greek medicine, both in general and in almost every specific was conceptually wrong and useless in practice. Greek astronomy and cosmology got almost nothing theoretically correct at all beyond the earth being a sphere and the light from the moon being a reflection from the sun. The basic principles of Greek kinematics and mechanics were erroneous and as a result everything derived from them was also false. Greek chemistry was devoid of any truth whatsoever and although many different atomic theories were suggested they never raised themselves to the status of a hypothesis. The ‘scientific method’ did not exist and the Greek alternative of ‘demonstration’ was incapable of generating natural knowledge.

None of this was the fault of the Greeks. The problem lay in the reasons they had for doing science. Almost none of the Greeks, certainly not Aristotle, did science for its own sake. They had no conception that discovering the way the world worked could be a good in itself. Rather, all science was at the service of philosophy and all theories about nature were intended to provide ballast for ethics. While medicine was practical, it was based on a holistic concept of man rather than the workings of the physical body.

So, no. The Greeks were not too hot when it came to science. And their mistakes took an extremely long time to shake off. Where they did excel was in the field of mathematics. There was a good reason for this. Greek thinkers considered the pure realm of numbers to be far superior to the tawdry material world. Thus, they devoted all their attention to it. It took Christianity and its belief in divinely-fashioned nature to re-orientate scientific attention towards reality.

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1 comment:

Tragic Clown Dog said...

OK, I agree with you, but could you explain to me why, if Christianity provided the necessary metaphysical presuppositions for science to take off, it didn't actually do so for nearly a millennium and a half? That's something that's always bothered me.