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3. What is Science?: History

Let’s do a very quick history lesson. For much of human history, folks made very impressive observations about natural phenomena that led to amazing projects like Stonehenge, the observatory at Chichen Itza, the Egyptian and Central American pyramids, gunpowder, ship building, navigation, etc. To these people, there was little division between the natural and the supernatural. Physical processes occurred due to the actions of the gods. To the extent that natural laws were separate, it was the gods that provided mechanisms for apparent violations of the laws. In spite of their amazing achievements, the natural world was still viewed as capricious and chaotic, and human understanding was recognized as being limited, thus elaborate rituals were performed to appease, placate, and/or supplicate the gods of nature.

Starting with the ancient Greeks, it began to be consciously realized that the universe was rational enough to be studied philosophically, and observations could be formally tested through experimentation. However, much of it was still up to the gods. A few hundred miles away, the Jews were developing a monotheistic culture based on an intelligent, personal and involved Creator. It can be argued that the expansion of Judeo-Christian theology in the context of Greek and Roman philosophy ultimately led to the Renaissance. The concepts of a rational universe, coupled with the creation of the universe by a single god who was loving and personal instead of capricious and random, ultimately, over the centuries, allowed Western philosophy to come to a point where the universe was viewed as completely rational and able to be studied in an organized way with mechanisms that occurred independently of specific action, although initiated by this god, leading to a cohesive framework of knowledge. Indeed, the early modern scientists such as Galileo and Newton expressly viewed their research as a way to better understand God. Their logic was that if this god was personal and real, then studying creation revealed aspects of personality and character, much the way studying paintings might reveal something about the painter.

Even the “Dark Ages” weren’t as ‘dark’ as we are lead to believe, as the monastic system preserved scholarship and learning during the waves of barbarian invasions. Some communities actually had surprisingly advanced understandings of natural processes. Early Christian fathers such as Augustine even indicated a belief in an old universe, and many understood the spherical nature of our planet. While the masses and even many royalty were so focused on surviving the next invasion that accurate natural understanding became fairly rare, it is a mistake to assume that no one was maintaining or even advancing what we would today call scientific understanding.

It was also during the time of the Renaissance that different aspects of reality began to be studied independently of each other, leading to the various branches of academic fields we have today. Initially, all were viewed as specialties in the art of philosophy. Scholars who were leaders in philosophy were titled ‘doctors of philosophy,’ hence, regardless of the academic field, the terminal (highest) degree is still called a Ph.D. Early fields were things like pure philosophy, natural philosophy, and the humanities.

Natural philosophy was the forerunner of modern science. It was concerned with the study of the natural world, and since mechanisms operated due to rules and laws rather than by divine intervention at every turn, a conscious separation between the natural and supernatural became formalized. In their worldview, God was still free to intervene, suspending or altering the natural mechanisms and consequences, but otherwise things ran according to the initial conditions and structure He set in motion.

Our understanding and knowledge of the natural universe expanded very quickly from this point, and hasn’t stopped accelerating. Parallel developments in philosophy, politics, and sociology also accelerated. As we understood nature better, we became more adept at manipulating it, leading to major technological advancements with increasing frequency. Our academic fields became further defined along discipline specialties.

With all of these things happening, people increasingly began to see the universe as purely mechanistic and separate from any theological foundations, and indeed there was an increasing belief that religion was necessary for imposing moral order upon society but was no longer needed for imposing physical order on the world. This viewpoint served as a foundation of the Enlightenment, which developed philosophy to the point where it is now in some circles viewed as being self-sufficient for creating moral order. These worldviews still coexist and intense debate between them has resulted in bitter disputes and even wars. Today there are basically four camps: (1) those that maintain that God is needed both for moral order and physical order, as explicitly revealed in some holy text, (2) those that maintain that God is needed for moral order and creation, but the relationship between God and mechanism is more complex, (3) those that maintain that some sort of supernatural force is out there, but what role He/She/It has/had with things isn’t clear and may not be all that important, and (4) those that maintain that both moral and physical order are fully explainable without God, therefore, He/She/It must not exist as deities were invented by early humanity to explain what wasn’t understood.

It is helpful to examine how the debate arose, where various sides have erred, and try to reestablish some reasonable boundaries and definitions for having more fruitful discussions. This introduction is painting with a VERY broad brush, and it is a given that there are folks all over the place who will bitterly argue that it is at the very least inaccurate in aspects of its summary. They have a point; however, for every criticism, whole academic careers have been spent trying to straighten it out, and it is foolish to expect it to be accomplished in these few posts. The purpose here is to briefly show how we got to where we are today and how to move forward with a minimum of bloody noses. This quality of understanding the philosophical limits of our fields—how to have constructive dialogue, how to critically and graciously examine the arguments of others, and how to make a reasoned response (as opposed to an emotionally driven gut reaction)—is vital for us as academics.

 (It is important to note somewhere in all of this that the history and process described here is traditional Western science in modernity. There is currently great debate on the limitations of it in terms of its assumptions and attitudes. One example in mainstream culture is the debate between ‘modern’ and ‘alternative’ medicine. This introduction attempts to illustrate another area where philosophical limitations lead to conflict.)


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