The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

Science has taken us from watching the moon to walking on it.

The word science comes ultimately from the Latin scire, “to know.” Science was once a straightforward synonym for knowledge. This parallels the Greek φιλοσοφία (“love of wisdom”), the ancestor of philosophy. All the earliest philosophers were at least equally scientists in the modern sense; the first we know of was Thales in the sixth century BC, who famously realized that one could calculate the height of the Great Pyramid by observing when shadows were the same length as the height of the objects casting them, and then measuring the pyramid’s shadow.

Modern people often consider ancient science rudimentary at best and ridiculous at worst. This is not entirely unjust. Early scientists accepted certain assumptions without testing them, and therefore built up elaborate systems on flawed premises, such as the geocentric model of the universe or the humorist theory of medicine. Nevertheless, their work was often more sophisticated than it is given credit for today. Ptolemy’s classification of constellations, for instance, is used in a modified form by the IAU. Similarly, Hippocrates pioneered surgical techniques that are still in use, and the Hippocratic Oath has formed the basis of ethics in medicine for at least twenty-three uninterrupted centuries.

Medieval science, too, is largely misunderstood. Significant advances took place in biology, engineering, chemistry, and physics during the Islamic golden age of the ninth to fourteenth centuries, particularly in Persia and Spain. We also see early forms of the scientific method emerge in the Middle Ages. Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln from 1235 to 1253, set forth an Aristotelian process of “resolution and composition”: observing facts and generalizing from them, then using the general principles to make predictions about further facts. Grosseteste took a particular interest in optics, basing his work on Arabic sources, and formulated surprisingly modern theories of light and color.

But beyond the bright searchlights of science,
Out of sight of the windows of sense,
Old riddles still bid us defiance,
Old questions of Why and of Whence.

However, intellectual culture in the Medieval period still tended to emphasize reasoning from first principles over experimental testing. The accent shifted gradually, from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, and brought about the distinction of science (grounded in observation and experiment) from philosophy (grounded in abstract logic). Francis Bacon, an advocate of empiricism, is emblematic of the change: his 1620 book Novum Organum gave a modern formulation of the scientific method. This developed further in the hands of scientists such as Robert Boyle, Sir Isaac Newton, and Blaise Pascal.

We see another development around the same time—the rise of what we may call scientism, the idea that only scientific knowledge is worth having. The Galileo affair is perhaps an early example; its disgraceful handling by the Inquisition is a byword, but one less-known fact about it is that Galileo was censured in part because he insisted that his theory was a fact, despite lacking adequate evidence to make such a claim at the time. The “war between science and religion” is partly mythical, but the myth does relate to a war between scientism and religion that has a firmer basis in history. The most notorious locus of the conflict is doubtlessly Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. But other contentious points, such as William James’ definitions and analyses in The Varieties of Religious Experience, are arguably more important in the history of thought.

The influence of modern science upon culture is incalculable. It compares to the influence of theology upon culture in the Middle Ages: while only an educated minority are really conversant with the subject, a far vaster segment of the population are moderately familiar with it, the field enjoys popularity and (a certain kind of) respect, and elementary misunderstandings abound, with consequences ranging from the disastrous to the laughable. Science fiction is one manifestation of this. It is rarely written by professional scientists, but often by authors with a lively interest in the sciences, and exhibits every degree of expertise, including none. Curiously, science fiction shows a strong tendency to reunite scientific and philosophical interests. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis of the celebrated film Blade Runner) and the writings of Isaac Asimov explore various ontological and epistemic implications of theoretical technology, while the futuristic works of H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley used science fiction as a form of contemporary cultural commentary.

Suggested reading:

The Hippocratic Oath
Grosseteste, On Light
Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems
Bacon, Novum Organum
Wells, The Time Machine


If you enjoyed this post, try one of our other pieces, like this profile of novelist Mary Shelley, this essay on the idea of angels, or this post on the CLT’s approach to controversial texts. Or head over to our weekly podcast, Anchored, where our CEO and founder Jeremy Tate converses with leading intellectuals on education and culture.

Published on 4th September, 2020.

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