Modern Science

If we are to agree or disagree about the existence of science in the distant past, we must first agree on what science is. A brief, ordinary characterisation of science would surely include most of the following: (i) It is objective. The scientist puts his passions aside and relies on reason, (ii) It is non-religious. No longer does an instinct veneration for a creator structure the search into nature. In being objective, passionless, creatorless, it alone produces tangible truth, which in modern society is given privileged status (and which science often consciously opposes to faith), (iii) It is experimental in its verification of its theories, (iv) Science and the research that continues to build it are in practice directed to the practical business of manipulating nature. Its self-confidence is increased by every successful manipulation of nature: it appears to be self-proving, (v) Its manipulative nature has strong links to technology, (vi) It has universal law-like statements, often mathematical and with Boyle's law as a paradigm.5

Little of this can be found in the ancient world. No one in antiquity strove through philosophy to manipulate nature except perhaps the Magi and the doctors (and it is very questionable whether they were using philosophy). Control of the human mind (achieving ataraxia, freedom from fear) was a much more common goal; and ataraxia was a subjective state, quite different from the objective goals of science. Nor does science seek to enforce a moral or religious code of behaviour in its practitioners, as much ancient philosophy did.

Mathematics was an available resource when science was constructed, but its earlier connection with the natural world was at the metaphysical and religious level if at all. Natural philosophy had understanding nature as one of its goals, but since this aim did not include manipulation, it did not use technology. Often natural philosophy denied the power of the gods to intervene in human affairs, but that did not prevent philosophy being a manifestly religious affair. It was not experimental.

Even less satisfactory have been attempts to show that the 'science' of the Greeks failed to have certain features of modern science, and so was limited in its nature and progress.6 Failure implies some shortfall in an enterprise with a known goal: what could such an enterprise have been in the ancient world? It is clear that ancient philosophers did not always expect their subject to progress and certain that none of them were aiming at modern science. Others have extended the argument and asserted that some activties of the Greeks were scientific in a limited way, and that for example doctors and root-cutters were gaining scientific knowledge of plants, while others were working on geometry or explaining how thunderstorms happen. Quite apart from the question of why these people were doing these things it surely is the case that the broad principles of science apply to all of its parts—this is the reason for calling anything 'scientific'—and that it is not a collection of localised explanations. That science is a unitary thing is recognised by all of its practitioners whatever their own branch of it may be. Certainly what the Greeks thought about plants, geometry and thunderstorms may have prompted later people to think about them too, or even to adopt Greek explanations; but even when such a process extended down to the age of science it does not mean that the Greeks were practising science. At most they were writing what came to be used as resources for people who did come to practise science. Perhaps you want to build a garage. It has to be a certain shape in order to house your car, which is its function, and the thing that identifies it as a garage. You may take the bricks from a derelict Victorian stable, which was another shape for a related reason. But your use of the bricks does not make the stable an early garage, in an age without cars.

Fragments of world-views (like bricks) may certainly look scientific when presented in isolation. Fragments presented collectively, as in source-books of ancient or medieval 'science' and put (silently) into modern categories, take on an authority which none of the fragments had its own context.7 More persuasive are examples of 'the scientific attitude' which are often used to show how the ancients, although getting the details wrong, were investigating nature in the right spirit. So much has been said about myth, magic, superstition and rationality,8 objectivity and science, largely by scientific historians, that the terms are largely debased currency.9

Some historians have recently recognised that to see science in antiquity we have to have a definition of science so broad as to be meaningless.10 Whether it is Aristotle's 'all men by nature desire to know' (he said it in the Metaphysics and by any account it is a broad definition) or a 'systematic knowledge of nature'11 we are left with something so vague that it can scarcely have a history.12 Why, after all, should we use a modern term to denote ancient usage, when the categories and terms of the past are better?

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