How the West (was) Won

Famous author James Burke once noted that humans are “insatiably curious.” This infinite lust for knowledge has been the driving force of science and technology since the dawn of humanity. This desire, often arising out of religious motives, has prompted us to ask questions over time such as “What?”, “How?”, and “Why?” Today, in a world where “knowledge is power”, science is king. Modern science, the source of new knowledge, is the culmination of thousands of years of Western thought and approaches. Contemporary science, like its ancient roots, has attempted to examine, and possibly explain, that which we do not understand. Furthermore, science has examined that which society deemed relevant throughout history. Grounded in the real world, conducted with precision, and verified with evidence, modern western science is now the dominant method for investigating the natural world. Rather than turning inward for enlightenment or outward for magical powers, modern science provides a satisfying understanding of the world through objectivity and experimentation.

Technology, the exploitation of nature, is a derivative of science. More specifically, technology is the application of science. Freed by Christianity’s view that nature is ours to exploit, technology has since provided us with world-altering products. Among many things, technology today intends to make lives easier, more productive, and healthier. Inventions from the compass to the personal digital assistant all aim to improve our lives. “Progress,” a conceptual byproduct of technological advances, has become a societal obsession. Who doesn’t want the latest, greatest gadget out there? In fact, we crave things not yet invented! Consequently, technology drives society, and society drives technology. This symbiotic relationship has led to the pervasion of technology in every aspect of our lives.

Science in the ancient world was dominated by two major philosophies: Platonism and Aristotelianism. Platonism, developed by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, was based in a deep belief that numbers were the only incorruptible idea. A form of Pythagoreanism, Platonism described and interpreted the world through numbers. Aristotle, a student of Plato, took a separate path and developed his own philosophy. Aristotelianism emphasized the use of perception and the senses to investigate the natural world. Additionally, Aristotle created a system of overlapping tetrads with corresponding qualities and elements to explain any object. These two natural philosophies, while quite different than modern ideas, were extremely “satisfying” to individuals of the ancient world. In effect, because these ideas explained the world in such a satisfactory way, other explanations were deemed unnecessary for a long time. Interestingly, ancient society was only concerned with understanding the world. Technology was irrelevant as society was unconcerned with “improving.” The invention of the Greek alphabet, if considered a technology, was probably the most important invention of ancient times. Giving man the ability to externalize and process complex thought, the invention of the written word completely transformed the social, political, educational, and psychological landscape of the ancient world. Science and technology in the ancient world, in essence, created the foundations that later discoveries and advances would build upon.

As societal focus shifted from natural philosophy to pure religion in the early Middle Ages, science and technology retreated to the Eastern world in Islam and China. There, investigations into the natural world and technology did not remain stagnant. In fact, Islam and China surpassed the ancient world in all aspects of natural philosophy. Mathematics, physics, and chemistry were all further developed, benefiting from the Chinese and Islamic social structures. However, because the Eastern world held quite different views of the world than the West, technology was seen in a different light. For example, the invention of the clock in China was irrelevant to Chinese society. They saw no need for it. Contrarily, when the clock eventually reached the Western world, it completely altered the social system at work, home, and church. In short, Chinese “progress” was to survive and minimize change. The Western world, on the other hand, was hungry for technology and change. When science returned to the West in the late Middle Ages, it was supported in a religious framework. Natural philosophers such as Bacon, Grosseteste, Magnus, and Aquinas all believed the study of the natural world could, in effect, lead to greater spiritual enlightenment. The study of astronomy, for example, was believed to be a way to reveal the divine plans of God. Western science’s ability to explain the world with religious harmony was a key factor in helping it become the dominant method of investigating nature.

During the European Renaissance, Western science and Magic came to a head. Western science, specifically Pierre Gassendi, championed “Mechanism,” while metaphysicians such as Giordano Bruno supported “Magic.” Mechanism, the concept that all natural things can be explained as machines, was a radical, yet satisfying, way to conceive the world. Conversely, magic attempted to explore the natural world through supernatural powers. Interestingly, both concepts were equally legitimate ways to understand the world. However, the Western approach succeeded as it accommodated religion while Magic attempted to reform religion. The 1500s to 1700s, spurred by technological advances such as printing, also saw a complete revolution in scientific thought. René Descartes with “methodical doubt” and Francis Bacon’s “New System” contributed to a new way of examining the world. Their belief that information should be gathered from meticulous experimentation and evidence, guaranteed a new level of certainty in knowledge. Additionally, old models such as Ptolemy’s conception of the heavens were no longer satisfactory. Science now demanded that models actually represent real-world workings. Johannes Kepler’s decision to replace circular heavenly motion with ellipses represented a major breakthrough for Western science. Lastly, increased use of instrumentation led to a shift to quantitative natural philosophy. By the turn of the 17th century, Western science and technology officially dominated society.

Because of our questioning nature, humanity is always seeking answers. Western science and technology, with its roots firmly planted in ancient Greek philosophy, has provided those answers for over 2,000 years. Its ability to accommodate religion and to explain the world at varying levels, are a few of the qualities that have allowed Western science and technology to become the principal mode of investigating and exploiting nature today.