Science—Mankind’s Ongoing Search for Truth
Religion and Science—A Poor Mix
THOUSANDS of years of searching for scientific truth seemed to have established a solid basis for subsequent research. Surely nothing could stand in the way of further progress. And yet, says The Book of Popular Science, “science fared badly indeed during the third, fourth and fifth centuries A.D.”
Two events significantly contributed to this situation. During the first century, a new religious era had been ushered in with Jesus Christ. And several decades earlier, in 31 B.C.E., a new political era had been born with the founding of the Roman Empire.
Unlike the Greek philosophers who preceded them, the Romans “were more interested in solving the everyday problems of life than they were in the search for abstract truth,” says the above-mentioned reference work. Logically, then, “their contributions to pure science amounted to very little.”
The Romans were instrumental, however, in passing on the scientific knowledge that had accumulated until that time. For example, Pliny the Elder made a scientific compilation during the first century called Natural History. Although not without faults, it did preserve various kinds of scientific information that might otherwise have been lost to later generations.
On the religious front, the rapidly expanding Christian congregation was not involved in the scientific search of that time. Not that Christians were opposed to it as such, but the Christian priority, as set by Christ himself, was plainly in understanding and spreading religious truth.—Matthew 6:33; 28:19, 20.
Before the end of the first century, apostate Christians had already begun adulterating the religious truth they had been commissioned to propagate. This later led to their establishing an apostate form of Christianity, as had been foretold. (Acts 20:30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3; 1 Timothy 4:1) Subsequent events showed that their rejection of religious truth was accompanied by an attitude of indifference—at times even of antagonism—toward scientific truth.
“Christian” Europe Loses Its Lead
The World Book Encyclopedia explains that during the Middle Ages (from the 5th to the 15th century), “in Europe, scholars were more interested in theology, or the study of religion, than in the study of nature.” And this “emphasis upon salvation rather than upon the investigation of nature,” Collier’s Encyclopedia points out, “was more of a hindrance than a stimulus to science.”
Christ’s teachings were not intended to serve as such a hindrance. Nevertheless, Christendom’s labyrinth of false religious concepts, including an overemphasizing of the salvation of the supposed immortal soul, encouraged this development. Most learning was under the control of the church and was cultivated chiefly in the monasteries. This religious attitude slowed down the search for scientific truth.
Scientific matters took second place to theology from the very beginning of the Common Era. Practically the only scientific advancement worthy of mention was in the realm of medicine. For example, Roman medical writer Aulus Celsus of the first century C.E., called the “Hippocrates of the Romans,” wrote what is now considered a medical classic. Greek pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscorides, a surgeon with Nero’s Roman armies, completed an outstanding pharmacological textbook that was widely used for centuries. Galen, a second-century Greek, by founding experimental physiology, influenced medical theory and practice from his time through the Middle Ages.
The period of scientific stagnation continued even after the 15th century. True, European scientists did make discoveries during this time, but for the most part, they were not original. Time magazine notes: “[The Chinese] were the world’s first masters of science. Long before the Europeans, they knew how to use the compass, make paper and gunpowder, [and] print with movable type.”
Thus, because of the general vacuum of scientific thought in “Christian” Europe, non-Christian cultures took the lead.
By the ninth century, Arab scientists were fast becoming the leaders in matters of science. Particularly during the 10th and 11th centuries—while Christendom marked time—they enjoyed a golden age of accomplishment. They made valuable contributions to medicine, chemistry, botany, physics, astronomy, and above all, mathematics. (See box, page 20.) Maan Z. Madina, associate professor of Arabic at Columbia University, says that “modern trigonometry as well as algebra and geometry are in considerable measure Arab creations.”
Much of this scientific knowledge was original. But some of it was based on the broad foundation of Greek philosophy and was brought about, strangely enough, by religious involvement.
Comparatively early in the Common Era, Christendom spread into Persia and afterward into Arabia and India. During the fifth century, Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, became embroiled in a controversy that led to a schism within the Eastern church. This led to the forming of a breakaway group, the Nestorians.
In the seventh century, when the new religion of Islam burst onto the world scene and began its campaign of expansion, the Nestorians were quick to pass on their knowledge to their Arab conquerors. According to The Encyclopedia of Religion, “the Nestorians were the first to promote Greek science and philosophy by translating Greek texts into Syriac and then into Arabic.” They were also “the first to introduce Greek medicine into Baghdad.” Arab scientists began building upon the things they learned from the Nestorians. Arabic replaced Syriac as the language of science in the Arab empire and proved to be a language that lent itself well to scientific writing.
But the Arabs gave as well as took. When the Moors moved into Europe through Spain—to stay for over 700 years—they brought along an enlightened Muslim culture. And during the eight so-called Christian Crusades, between 1096 and 1272, Western crusaders were impressed by the advanced Islamic civilization with which they came in contact. They returned, as one author put it, with “a host of new impressions.”
Arabic Mathematical Simplification
One significant contribution the Arabs made to Europe was the introduction of Arabic numerals to replace the Roman use of letters. Actually, “Arabic numerals” is a misnomer. A more accurate term is probably “Hindu-Arabic numerals.” True, the ninth-century Arab mathematician and astronomer al-Khwārizmī wrote about this system, but he had derived it from the Hindu mathematicians of India, who had worked it out over a thousand years earlier, in the third century B.C.E.
The system was little known in Europe before the distinguished mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci (also known as Leonardo of Pisa) introduced it in 1202 in Liber abaci (Book of the Abacus). Demonstrating the advantage of the system, he explained: “The nine Indian figures are: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. With these nine figures and with the sign 0 . . . any number may be written.” At first the Europeans were slow to respond. But by the close of the Middle Ages, they had accepted the new numbering system, and its simplicity encouraged scientific progress.
If you doubt that Hindu-Arabic numerals are a simplification over the previously used Roman numerals, try subtracting LXXIX from MCMXCIII. Stumped? Perhaps 79 from 1,993 would be somewhat easier.
Rekindling the Flame in Europe
Beginning in the 12th century, the flame of learning that had burned brightly in the Muslim world began to dim. It was rekindled, however, in Europe as groups of scholars began forming the forerunners of modern universities. In the middle of the 12th century, the universities of Paris and of Oxford came into being. The University of Cambridge followed in the early 13th century, and those of Prague and of Heidelberg both in the 14th. By the 19th century, universities had become major centers of scientific research.
Originally, these schools were strongly influenced by religion, most studies centering on or slanted toward theology. But at the same time, the schools accepted Greek philosophy, particularly the writings of Aristotle. According to The Encyclopedia of Religion, “the Scholastic method . . . throughout the Middle Ages . . . was structured according to the Aristotelian logic of defining, dividing, and reasoning in its exposition of the text and its resolution of difficulties.”
One 13th-century scholar intent on combining Aristotelian learning with Christian theology was Thomas Aquinas, later called the “Christian Aristotle.” But on some points he differed with Aristotle. Aquinas rejected, for example, the theory that the world had always existed, agreeing with the Scriptures that it had been created. By holding “firmly to the belief that ours is an ordered universe that can be comprehended by the light of reason,” says The Book of Popular Science, he “made a valuable contribution to the development of modern science.”
For the most part, however, the teachings of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen were accepted as gospel truth, even by the church. The aforementioned reference work explains: “In the Middle Ages, when interest in scientific experiment and direct observation was at a low ebb, Aristotle’s word was law. Ipse dixit (‘He himself said it’) was the argument that medieval schoolmen used to prove the truth of many a ‘scientific’ observation. Under these circumstances the errors of Aristotle, particularly in physics and astronomy, held up scientific progress for centuries.”
One who challenged this blind adherence to former views was the 13th-century Oxford friar Roger Bacon. Called “the greatest figure in medieval science,” Bacon was almost alone in advocating experimentation as a means of learning scientific truths. It is said that as early as 1269, clearly centuries ahead of his time, he predicted automobiles, airplanes, and motorized ships.
Yet, despite foresight and a brilliant mind, Bacon was limited in his knowledge of the facts. He strongly believed in astrology, magic, and alchemy. This demonstrates that science is indeed an ongoing search for truth, always subject to revision.
Although scientific investigation appeared to lie dormant in the 14th century, as the 15th century neared its end, mankind’s search for scientific truth was far from over. In fact, the next 500 years would far overshadow what had preceded them. The world stood on the threshold of a scientific revolution. And as is true of every revolution, this one would have its heroes, its villains, and above all, its victims. Learn more in Part 4 of “Science—Mankind’s Ongoing Search for Truth” in our next issue.
[Box on page 20]
The Golden Age of Arabic Science
Al-Khwārizmī (eighth-ninth century), Iraqi mathematician and astronomer; noted for originating the term “algebra,” from al-jebr, meaning in Arabic “the union of broken parts.”
Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (eighth-ninth century), alchemist; called the father of Arab chemistry.
Al-Battānī (ninth-tenth century), astronomer and mathematician; improved Ptolemy’s astronomical calculations, thus determining with greater accuracy such things as the length of the year and of the seasons.
Ar-Rāzī (Rhazes) (ninth-tenth century), one of the best-known Persian-born physicians; first to distinguish between smallpox and measles and to classify all substances as either animal, vegetable, or mineral.
Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) of Basra (10th-11th century), mathematician and physicist; made significant contributions to the theory of optics, including refraction, reflection, binocular vision, and atmospheric refraction; first to explain correctly vision as the effect of light coming from an object to the eye.
Omar Khayyám (11th-12th century), renowned Persian mathematician, physicist, astronomer, physician, and philosopher; best known in the West for his poetry.
[Pictures on page 18]
Aristotle (upper) and Plato (lower) strongly influenced scientific thought through the centuries
National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Musei Capitolini, Roma