Science—Mankind’s Ongoing Search for Truth
The Search Begins
“NO ONE knows who first discovered fire, invented the wheel, developed the bow and arrow, or tried to explain the rising and the setting of the sun,” notes The World Book Encyclopedia. But discovered, invented, developed, and explained they were, and the world has never been the same since.
These accomplishments were early steps on a journey in search of truth that by now has lasted some six thousand years. Humans have always been curious, wanting to understand the living and nonliving things in the world around them. They have also been interested in applying what they learn, using it in a practical way to benefit themselves. This inborn thirst for knowledge and the desire to apply it have been driving forces in mankind’s ongoing search for scientific truth.
Of course, those first attempts to put scientific knowledge to practical use were not called technology, as it is known today. For that matter neither were the individuals who made such attempts called scientists. In fact, science in its modern sense did not even exist during the greater part of mankind’s existence. As late as the 14th century, when the English poet Chaucer used the word “science,” he simply meant all the different kinds of knowledge. This was in harmony with the word’s etymology, which goes back to a Latin term meaning “to know.”
The First Zoologist Leads the Way
Regardless of what it was originally called, science got its start in the garden of Eden as soon as humans began investigating the world around them. Even before Eve’s creation, Adam was commissioned to give the animals names. To assign them appropriate names required that he carefully study their characteristics and their habits. Today, we call this the science of zoology.—Genesis 2:19.
Adam and Eve’s first child, Cain, “engaged in building a city,” so he must have had sufficient scientific knowledge to develop necessary tools. Later, one of his descendants, Tubal-cain, was called “the forger of every sort of tool of copper and iron.” By then scientific knowledge and technology had obviously increased.—Genesis 4:17-22.
By the time Egypt became a world power—the first mentioned in the Bible—scientific knowledge had progressed to the point that the Egyptians were able to construct giant pyramids. The design of these pyramids, says The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “was successfully achieved only after much experimentation, in which great engineering problems were solved.” Solving these problems required a substantial knowledge of mathematics and indicated the existence of certain related scientific skills.
Of course, scientific curiosity was not limited to just the Egyptians. The Babylonians, besides developing a calendar, set up numbering and measuring systems. In the Far East, the Chinese civilization made valuable scientific contributions. And the early forefathers of the Incas and the Mayas in the Americas developed an advanced civilization that later surprised European explorers, who hardly expected such achievements by “backward natives.”
Not everything these ancient peoples originally viewed as scientific truth, however, turned out to be scientifically correct. The World Book Encyclopedia tells us that alongside the useful tools the Babylonians produced for scientific research, “they also developed the pseudoscience of astrology.”a
Babylon Is Everywhere
To Bible students ancient Babylon is synonymous with false worship. In the astrology that was practiced there, a different god was believed to rule over each section of the heavens. The Bible, which teaches that there is but one true God, is scientifically correct when it rejects the pseudoscience known as astrology.—Deuteronomy 18:10-12; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 12:6; Ephesians 4:6.
Religion was an integral part of the life of early man. So it is understandable that scientific knowledge did not develop apart from religious beliefs and ideas. This can particularly be seen in the realm of medical science.
“Ancient documents illustrating Egyptian society and medicine during the Old Kingdom,” says The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “show that magic and religion were integrally associated with empiricorational medical practice and that the chief magician of the pharaoh’s court also frequently served as the nation’s chief physician.”
During the third Egyptian dynasty, a noted architect named Imhotep gained prominence as a physician of no small skill. Less than a century after his death, he was worshiped as Egypt’s god of medicine. By the end of the sixth century B.C.E., he had been elevated to the position of a major deity. The Britannica says that temples dedicated to him were “often crowded with sufferers who prayed and slept there with the conviction that the god would reveal remedies to them in their dreams.”
Egyptian and Babylonian healers were greatly influenced by religious ideas. “The prevailing theory of disease at that time, and for generations to come,” says The Book of Popular Science, “was that fevers, infections, aches and pains were caused by evil spirits, or demons, invading the body.” For that reason medical treatment generally involved religious offerings, spells, or incantations.
In time, during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E., a Greek physician named Hippocrates challenged this view. He is particularly well-known because of the Hippocratic oath, still generally viewed as embodying the medical code of conduct. The book Moments of Discovery—The Origins of Science notes that Hippocrates was also “among the first to compete with the priests in finding explanation of man’s sicknesses.” Practicing medicine in the spirit of science, he sought natural causes for diseases. Reason and experience began to take the place of religious superstition and guesswork.
In separating medicine from religious dogma, Hippocrates took a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, even today we are reminded of medicine’s religious background. Its very symbol, the snake-entwined staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, can be traced back to the ancient temples of healing where sacred snakes were kept. According to The Encyclopedia of Religion, these snakes embodied “the capacity for renewal of life and rebirth in health.”
Hippocrates later became known as the father of medicine. But this did not prevent him from at times being scientifically incorrect. The Book of Popular Science tells us that some of his unsound notions “seem quite fantastic to us today” but cautions against medical arrogance, saying: “Some of the medical theories that are now most firmly established will probably seem just as fantastic to men of a future generation.”
Thus, the discovery of scientific truth has been a gradual process, entailing the culling of facts from mistaken theories over centuries of time. But for this to be possible, the findings of one generation had to be accurately passed on to the next. One way of doing this, obviously, was by word of mouth, since humans were created with the power of speech.—Compare Genesis 2:23.
This method of passing on observations, however, would never have been reliable enough to provide the accuracy that scientific and technological advancement demand. There was clearly a need for preserving information in written form.
Just when humans began to write is unknown. But once they did, they had at their disposal a marvelous process by which to pass on information upon which others could build. Before paper was invented—probably in China about 105 C.E.—writing was done on such things as clay tablets, papyrus, and parchment.
Substantial scientific advancement would have been impossible without numbering and measuring systems. The importance of their development can hardly be exaggerated. Calling the applications of mathematics “universal in scope,” The Book of Popular Science reminds us that “its analyses have led to many all-important scientific advances.” Mathematics also serves “as an invaluable tool for the chemist, the physicist, the astronomer, the engineer and others.”
Over the centuries other factors have added momentum to the search for scientific truth. Travel, for example. The Book of Popular Science explains: “The man who makes his way to foreign lands is likely to find his curiosity sharpened by new sights, sounds, smells and tastes. He will be tempted to ask why things are so different in a strange land; and in his attempt to gratify his curiosity, he will acquire wisdom. So it was with the ancient Greeks.”
Yes, Those Ever-Present Greeks
Read about the history of religion, politics, or commerce and you will find more than passing mention of the Greeks. And who has not heard of their famous philosophers, a term drawn from the Greek word phi·lo·so·phiʹa, meaning “love of wisdom”? The Greeks’ love of wisdom and thirst for knowledge was well-known in the first century when the Christian apostle Paul visited their country. He referred to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who like “all Athenians and the foreigners sojourning there would spend their leisure time at nothing but telling something or listening to something new.”—Acts 17:18-21.
So it is hardly surprising that of all ancient peoples, the Greeks left science the largest heritage. The New Encyclopædia Britannica elaborates: “The attempt of Greek philosophy to provide a theory of the universe to replace the cosmologies of myth eventually led to practical scientific discoveries.”
In fact, some of the Greek philosophers made significant contributions to the search for scientific truth. They strove to weed out the erroneous ideas and theories of their predecessors, while at the same time building upon the basis of what they found to be correct. (See box for examples.) Thus, the Greek philosophers of yesterday came the closest of any ancient people to thinking like the scientists of today. Incidentally, until relatively recent times, the term “natural philosophy” was used to describe the different branches of science.
In time philosophy-loving Greece was overshadowed politically by the newly founded Roman Empire. Did this have any effect upon scientific progress? Or would the coming of Christianity make a difference? Part 3 in our next issue will answer.
a Astrology, a study of the movements of heavenly bodies in the belief that they influence people’s lives or foretell the future, is not to be confused with astronomy, which is the scientific study of stars, planets, and other natural objects in space without any spiritistic connotations.
[Box on page 22]
Pre-Christian Greek “Scientists”
THALES of Miletus (sixth century), particularly known for his work in mathematics and for his belief that water forms the essence of all matter, had a critical approach to the cosmic framework, which The New Encyclopædia Britannica says was “crucial in the development of scientific thought.”
Socrates (fifth century) is called by The Book of Popular Science “the creator of a method of inquiry—dialectic—that comes close to the very heart of true scientific method.”
Democritus of Abdera (fifth to fourth century) helped lay the foundation for the atomic theory of the universe as well as the theories of the indestructibility of matter and the conservation of energy.
Plato (fifth to fourth century) founded the Academy in Athens as an institute for the systematic pursuit of philosophical and scientific research.
Aristotle (fourth century), a knowledgeable biologist, formed the Lyceum, a scientific institution that researched many fields. For over 1,500 years, his ideas dominated scientific thought, and he was considered the supreme scientific authority.
Euclid (fourth century), the most prominent mathematician of antiquity, is best known for a compilation of knowledge about “geometry,” which comes from a Greek word meaning “measurement of the land.”
Hipparchus of Nicaea (second century), outstanding astronomer and founder of trigonometry, classified stars into magnitudes according to brightness, a system basically still in use. He was a forerunner of Ptolemy, an eminent geographer and astronomer of the second century C.E., who expanded Hipparchus’ findings and taught that the earth is the center of the universe.
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The snake-entwined staff of Asclepius, a reminder that science has not developed apart from religious influence