Why Does Science Rise and Fall?
by Francois Tremblay (e-mail: FTremblay@liberator.net) [June 27th, 2005]

There is what seems to be a peculiar arbitrariness to historical facts. However, I wish to address a specific historical fact: the fact that science has arisen and persisted at one time, and not at any other. Without science, after all, mankind would be in a sad state. The movement that Francis Bacon is acknowledged to have spear-headed has been the salvation of human life itself.

As a matter of fact, science has emerged in other times. And looking at its fall, may give us indications of why it persisted. But before I continue, I must answer the more basic question, which is, how do we define the emergence of the scientific method? Science is based on the principle of the uniformity of nature - that nature can be measured, analyzed, and synthesized through what we call laws. These laws hold true at all times, and thus are always available for examination.

Another way the scientific method emerges is through the recognition that empiricism - the gathering of knowledge through sense perception and instruments that extend our senses - is necessary for any scientific understanding. If physical, empirical operations are devalued, then science cannot progress.

I talked about a previous emergence of science which failed. This took place in Ionia around 500 BCE. According to Dr. James Williamson, many factors triggered the appearance of science. Diversity of thought between the different islands of Ionia was conductive to free inquiry. Being close to different civilizations led to the widespread adoption of the Phoenician alphabet, and the diversity of religions led to skepticism towards the idea that gods ruled and regulated nature.

Most importantly, however, is the value placed upon manual labour:

"Some of the brilliant Ionian thinkers were the sons of sailors, farmers, and weavers. Therefore, it was quite natural for these men to perform manual chores from an early age. And doing experiments in science requires manual work, something that intellectuals elsewhere, having been raised in luxury, looked down on and assiduously avoided." Dr. James Williamson, "Will Science Die Again?"

Heron invented steam power in 50 CE. How incredible would modern society be, if industrialization had occurred during the period we call Antiquity! With steam power available for development, there was no material obstacle to this. Instead it remained a curious novelty, used to impress the people by opening doors without human effort. But steam engines only appeared 1651 years later. An incredible waste of time in the interval!

So why did science die? Why didn't it develop as industrialization developed in the 19th century? Plato said that mechanism was a corruption of the purity of geometry. Aristotle thought that utility was vulgar. Plutarch said about Archimedes that:

"(...) regarding the work of an engineer and every art that ministers the needs of life as ignoble and vulgar, he devoted his earnest efforts only to those studies the subtlety and charm of which are not affected by the claims of necessity"

Two main factors are identified as having prevented science from developing outside of Ionia.

  1. The religious attitude of the Socratic era made scientific inquiry heretical.
  2. The rise in slavery in Ancient Greece prevented a healthy attitude towards empiricism to develop.

The best example of the rejection of empiricism is Aristotle himself. While he proved to have revolutionary thinking in some areas, his approach was greatly rationalist. Nowadays "rationalist" is understood to mean "following reason", but more specifically it refers to thought based on "pure logic", and is opposed to empiricism. To put it simply, to use rationalism is to believe things without actually looking at them.

In one well-known example, Aristotle believed that men had more teeth than women, "[b]y reason of the abundance of heat and blood which is more in men than in women" ("On the Teeth"). He also believed that the heart was the seat of thought, that mud generated insects, that the mother's menstrual blood contributed to reproduction, and so on.

Aristotle also contributed greatly to the description of animals, amongst many other things, but Christian thinkers of the Dark Ages were enamored by Aristotle not for his empirical work but for his rationalism. They sought to reconcile his "pure logic" with the abstractions of theistic belief.

"In ancient Greece the scope of experimental research remained restricted because the Greeks, with very few exceptions, failed to take the decisive step from observation to systematic experimentation. Thus hardly any links were formed between the few branches of science that developed, and they did not expand sufficiently to produce a coherent and interdependent system. (...) The scientific world-picture of Aristotle (...) became dominant in Greek and medieval thought." Samuel Sambursky, "The Physical World of Late Antiquity", pp. Ix-x

Rationalism is useless. Only empirical understanding of the underlying processes - the laws - that regulate facts can lead us to prediction, the most powerful function of science. Without this understanding, any guess we make about the nature of things will always remain bound to common beliefs, which are invariably wrong.

Christianity had the same destructive effect over scientific discovery than the Ancients' pantheons. Christians believed - and many still believe - that all truth about the Universe is contained in the Bible, and that inquiry was heretical. Francis Bacon is credited for codifying the scientific method.

"Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature. Beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything. (...) There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled and immovable, proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of middle axioms. And this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried." From the Novum Organum

This rebirth of science, as it were, is usually attributed to the battle between the emerging empirical movement, which included people like Da Vinci (pioneer in the empirical examination of nature) and Galileo (pioneer in observing the motion of objects and stars alike), and the alchemist movement. Bacon's Novum Organum was designed as a rallying document for scientists against the rationalism of alchemy. In this he succeeded: the scientific method yielded increasing fruits. The rest, as they say, is history.


  • Constitution Society: The New Organon Or True Directions Concerning The Interpretation Of Nature
  • Thomas A. Jonard: What Is Science? Page

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