Book Excerpt: 2.8 The Birth and Development of Science and Religion’s Effect on its Progress

(As requested, here is section 2.6. If anyone else wants me to post another section feel free to tell me. I will probably post one more section before publishing the book.)

2.8 The Birth and Development of Science and Religion’s Effect on its Progress

Before the scientific method was invented, almost everything was explained by mythology and Gods. But a few people refused to attribute the cause of every event to mystical or supernatural forces. Many of these thinkers lived in the Mediterranean (the lower part of the Balkan Peninsula) mainly in modern day Greece and Turkey in ancient cities like Abdera and Miletus where religious and political oppression were nearly absent, at least for a short period. In these places religious myths weren’t accepted by everyone or enforced by many governments, and testing, inquiry and observation were all encouraged. Independent philosophy also thrived here.

The phrase “Know Thyself” is attributed to one of the Seven Sages of Greece, Thales of Miletus, (624 BC–546 BC) and it was engraved on his tombstone. This is one of the first known written philosophical statements that directly promoted self-awareness. Perhaps he knew self-awareness was the catalyst for human progression and greater control over identity.

Thales of Miletus could be called the father of science. He was the first known person to publish claims that events were not caused by supernatural forces but rather by physical laws. He believed the universe acted in consistent ways and that by knowing the nature of an object you could determine its future. (These ideas led to the discovery of the laws of nature.) He also believed there were basic constituents of matter. He didn’t specify what they may be, but he was the first to suggest the idea. He was also the first to claim that life originated from water, but he also believed that most of the universe is composed of water and that Earth is a circular disk floating in it. This theory did not contribute to science, but his belief that the universe could be understood and that events could be predicted served as the foundation of science.[xii] His endorsement of introspection and self-awareness was also very significant.

Pythagoras of Ionia (born around 572 B.C.) was another smart scholar, but he was not as open to scientific testing or inquiry as some of his predecessors. He created the Pythagorean Theorem and was the first to suggest that the Earth, stars, moon and planets were all spheres.[xiii] Pythagoras was a very logical, rational thinker. He and his predecessors believed everything in space happened for a reason. The Greek word “cosmos” (or kosmos, as it was spelled then) means order. Cosmos is the word we use for the entire universe because it is true that everything occurs for a reason, but not usually a meaningful one, as I have said. A better way to phrase this is to say that every action is a reaction governed by scientific laws. Pythagoras did not describe any of the laws of nature, but he believed that all events and interactions of matter could be explained by mathematical equations.

Plato, (424-348 B.C.) a Greek Philosopher and student of Socrates (470-499 BCE), was influenced by Pythagoras. He discouraged observation and testing as well because religious ideas were enforced much more strictly and severely at this time. This did great harm to science. Philosophy and religion were taking over science (or rather the scientific method). Most of the thinkers who came after Pythagoras had to claim their work was purely philosophical, speculative, or simply science fiction if their ideas were even remotely in conflict with Greek religious beliefs. They could say nothing that would upset the religious powers and if they did, they could be killed. (They were especially strict with theories that were credible and supported by science.)

Science can have a very strong impact on philosophies about life. To come up with a philosophy that withstands the test of time, it needs to have a strong scientific basis (or at least not contradict any scientifically proven facts). Current science is our best conception of reality so far, and it is constantly evolving. Many scientific discoveries also have a major effect on our own perception of our purpose and the importance of other people, so it is irrational to separate science from philosophy or religion. If a proven scientific fact contradicts a philosophy or a religious ideology, everyone ought to acknowledge this fact in their theories if they want their ideas to have any basis in reality.

Not all science involves experimentation and testing. This is the scientific method, but some of the greatest scientific thinkers formulated their theories simply by using their imaginations and initially had very little scientific or mathematical basis to support their theories, (Albert Einstein often worked this way) and many of these theories were later proven to be true once the necessary equations were formulated.

Science influences philosophy, but philosophy and speculation also influence science. To be a successful scientist, one must constantly explore alternative possibilities. Most scientific findings are called theories because they are tentative. But if the philosophers of Plato’s era had been doing less speculating and more empirical work, social and technological progress would have likely been faster. Some of them did, but most ignored the most obvious atrocities and examples of human suffering in society like the institution of slavery and political oppression. It didn’t make sense for them to philosophize about the human condition and life’s deeper meaning and not mention such palpable suffering.

Philosophers didn’t stay out of government altogether, however. In fact, Plato, Aristotle (student of Plato) and Socrates all had roles in government, writing constitutions and other documents. But questioning something as profitable and integral to society as slavery could have easily resulted in your execution, regardless of your position. Writing about subjects that contradicted religious beliefs could also result in execution and Socrates was executed for this very reason. He was also opposed to some of the leaders in government.

Plato and Aristotle may have avoided unpopular political and religious stances so that they wouldn’t share the same fate as Socrates, but they didn’t object to slavery in private either. Aristotle referred to slaves as “living tools,” and Socrates and Plato had similar views, which make them seem callous. But because slavery was commonplace and no one did or could question it without being punished it seemed like a natural part of life. This hardly excuses their actions, however. What we accept as commonplace is not always right either.

Aristarchus (310 BCE – 230 BCE) of Samos was one of the first to claim that our solar system is sun-centered or heliocentric. Aristarchus also estimated the distances between the planets in our solar system, but his estimates were too modest.  He was quite brilliant for his time period, but his heliocentric model of the solar system was strongly opposed by religious authorities and he was ostracized for his beliefs. Seleucus of Seleucia was the only astronomer who agreed with him for quite some time. No one knows why Aristarchus believed the solar system is heliocentric because most his work (along with the works of many brilliant others) was destroyed in the burning of the Library of Alexandria. The only work of his that has survived is his book, On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon, which was written before he came to the conclusion that the solar system is heliocentric.

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