June 1st 2019


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Scomo routs Labor, the Green, GetUp and the left-wing media by Patrick J. Byrne and Peter Westmore

CANBERRA OBSERVED Surprise! Polls aren't what they used to be

GENDER POLITICS The true cost of childhood gender reassignment

OBITUARY Bob Hawke, R.I.P.: astute politician, flawed policies

POETRY AND SOCIETY T.S. Eliot and the modern condition

WATER POLICY The time is ripe to revisit the Bradfield scheme

ASIAN AFFAIRS Taiwan upgrades U.S. links, asserts sovereignty

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Recapping the trial as Cardinal Pell's appeal approaches

THE FAMILY AND SOCIETY Working to bring down the Sexual Revolution

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki Part 2: Science and ancient cultures

HUMOUR A tidy planet is a happy planet

MUSIC Charles Ives: Modern elements aimed at sounding good

CINEMA John Wick 1: The lighting of the fuse

BOOK REVIEW Novelised true crime a true thriller

BOOK REVIEW The experiences of Phoebe Raye

POETRY

LETTERS

FEDERAL ELECTION Queensland voted for jobs, life and country

NATIONAL AFFAIRS The trial of Cardinal Pell ... an injustice

EUTHANASIA D Day - June 19, 2019 - Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 begins operation

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HISTORY OF SCIENCE
Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki Part 2: Science and ancient cultures


by John Long

News Weekly, June 1, 2019

Where does science have its roots, its beginning, its infancy?

Most history books tell us that science had its beginnings in the late medieval period, with Nicholas Copernicus, who proposed that the earth moved around the sun in a circular orbit. Following him was Galileo Galilei, who without a doubt made great advances in fields such as astronomy and mechanics. Following Galileo was Isaac Newton, who, with his three laws of motion, marked the time when the scientific revolution really got going.

Main picture: the Sphynx and pyramids at Giza, Egypt;
left inset: the wheel of fate that represents the endless returns
of the Indian yugas; right inset: this clay tablet from ancient Babylon
bears a sexagesimal trigonometric table.

Did the Christian Church have anything to do with it? History books tell us no. In fact, most history books tell us that the Church was more of a hindrance than a help, and the dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church is usually presented as evidence that science suffers when religion meddles with it.

Father Stanley Jaki argued that, contrary to what we read in most history books, Christian thought, or philosophy, was essential for the rise of science in the first place. The worldview of the Jewish and Christian cultures was necessary for science to develop as a self-sustaining enterprise. In other words, the seven foundational principles of science can be found in Judeo-Christian thought.

Jaki points to the fact that the only place in history where all seven can be found, practised, and taught over many generations is the Judeo-Christian world. Many great scientific, mathematical and technological discoveries were made in other cultures, ancient Greece being the most prominent. But a closer examination reveals that these discoveries, while important, were for the most part isolated from one another and did not lead to further, self-sustaining discoveries.

As Jaki puts it, it is almost as if science and technology experienced a stillbirth in each of the other great cultures of antiquity. He considered in a wealth of detail the other great cultures of history, including India, China, America, and Greece.

All these cultures shared two important beliefs that militated against the birth and development of science. The first was the mistrust of nature. Nature was seen as a living being, an animal, with its own will. Mother Nature does what she wants, when she wants. The only rules she follows are her own, and she is free to change those rules. Trying to understand the laws of nature is pointless, because they certainly are not consistent, if they exist at all.

The second concept that existed in all ancient cultures except Judeo-Christianity, was that time runs in a repeating circle, not a straight line. Like the seasons, time travels in an endlessly repeating fashion; and, with it, both history and human events.

The stillbirths of science

We can consider Christendom to be the latest great civilisation. But before ours, in which science as a flourishing, self-sustaining and growing entity was born, there were, as we all know, several great civilisations that lasted for centuries in various parts of the world.

These include ancient Egypt and Babylon, India, China, Greece, Rome, and the Islamic world of the Middle East. Each of these made contributions to science and technology, many of them major. But they all possessed one common trait in which they differed from Christendom.

Scientific knowledge made some major advances in some areas within these cultures, but it never ignited into a self-perpetuating flame, where one scientific discovery or advance led to another, which then led to another, and so on. This only occurred in the Christian culture. I am speaking from the physicist’s point of view, where science really got up on its feet with the laws of mechanics.

Jaki examined these ancient empires and considered their scientific achievements. The principal ones are recounted here.

Egypt

We know well the technological feats of ancient Egypt. They include the pyramids, an advanced writing that helped lead to the Phoenician and Greek alphabets, developing and using the Nile River for their benefit, and adopting neighbouring technology to produce chariots.

Interestingly, though, the ancient Egyptians developed writing that was quite advanced for their time, but not mathematics, although both require abstract reasoning.

There is some evidence that Egyptian sailors travelling south of Africa could have been led to the conclusion that the earth is round, centuries before the Greeks suggested it. Egyptian poetry points to their desire for more knowledge and thus a better way of life.

But, in spite of a few bright sparks of in intellectual and technological achievement, science in ancient Egypt fizzled out. Why? Could it be that Egyptian lore used animals as the model of how the universe behaves, as shown in the numerous images of half-animal half-human gods and other beings?

Babylon

Archeological diggings in the Euphrates Valley have found 4000-year-old tablets on which are recorded mathematical puzzles equivalent to second-degree polynomials, lists of hundreds of plants and chemicals with highly accurate medicinal properties, and long lists of planetary positions. The writing itself seems not to have been derived from images of objects. Thus the Babylonians were able to develop abstract characters for language, perhaps even more so than Egypt.

But also on the tablets are stories of Babylon’s lore and cosmology. The universe was seen as a large, irrational, and dangerous animal, which could be appeased only by people engaging in wild rituals. The ferociousness and apparent irrationality of nature could be kept in bounds only by having similar kinds of rituals now and then. From this philosophy follows the account of the world’s coming to be from a bloody battle among the gods of nature. In other words, nature is at the whim of the gods. How could science develop within the context of this worldview?

India

Ancient India was home to some of science’s most important individual discoveries. Among its greatest accomplishments were the development of decimal counting, decimal positions for multiples of 10, and the integer number zero. Decimal counting has been at the foundation of mathematics for centuries.

But India had the philosophy that real continuous, linear progress of any kind never happens, because history moves round and round in endless cycles. The ancient Hindus had four ages in each cycle, called Yugas. The worst and shortest age was the Kaliyuga, where history finds itself now, to be followed by the new golden age, the Kritayuga, which was to last around 4000 years, four times longer than the Kaliyuga.

The Kritayuga was due to arrive by the year 300 BC. When it did not arrive, the Hindus did not scrap the Yuga theory. No, they recalculated the length of the ages by multiplying the time of each by 360, the length of a divine year. The original Kaliyuga was supposed to last 1200 years but, on the new calculation, it was to last 432,000 years; a long time to be in an age of ignorance, poverty, and disease.

The ancient Hindus no doubt longed for the return of the Kritayuga golden age, but, in the long run, this too was going to be followed inevitably by the remaining four ages, repeating themselves for all eternity. The only way that mankind is able to endure this is to become detached from the world, and to accept that every human enterprise at the end of the day comes to naught, even those that are great and noble.

Today India is a rapidly developing society that takes science and technology very seriously. Especially in the past 80 years or so, it has been absorbing and applying Western technology as fast as it can. I wonder, then, how devout Hindus reconcile their traditions and beliefs with India’s very rapid economic and technological development?

The BBC reported (January 7, 2019) prominent Indian politicians as stating that the technological and scientific advances we enjoy today were already discovered thousands of years ago and are documented in ancient Hindu texts. The trouble is that, with the cycle of the Hindu cosmos, those discoveries were lost, only to be painfully re-learned in the modern age.

Part 3 is this series will continue the survey of ancient cultures, taking in Greece, China and the Islamic world and examining why science failed to thrive in each of those cultures; more “stillbirths of science”.

John Long has undergraduate qualifications in physics and philosophy from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in physics from Monash University. He has taught physics and engineering at an Australian university for over 20 years.




























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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99


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