Nathan Sivin, who studies history and technology in China, writes:
“Ernst Geller has pointed out a particular way in which the European Scientific Revolution is more than a leap to a new form of knowing. It is natural to assume that in science the crucial test has always been “is it true?” But earlier that was only one of several equally important questions: Is it beautiful? Is it conventional? Is it morally improving? Does it lead to perception of the Good? Does it conform to certain esthetic patterns that all truth must, as astronomers up to Kepler believed that celestial orbits must be compounded of perfect circular motions? In science the test of truth has displaced most of these and redefined the others. This demand for truth above all was an appeal to fact-fact that was in principle public, verifiable, morally neutral, that did not change with the social circumstances of the observer, that was immune from interference by magician, or god, or human need. But the new science did more than appeal to facts. It created facts of that kind for the first time, knowledge that had no value except truth value. That is an awesomely original creation. It took place in Europe between the time of Copernicus and Laplace and has spread across the world since.
The same leap was not taken in seventeenth-century China. People there considered the idea of objective knowledge without wisdom, without moral or esthetic significance, grotesque.”
His comments on the modern paradigms of science are particularly interesting in that it points out what the concern of modern science is and what is not. The “objectivity” of the scientific approach has taken away the morality, beauty and the wiseness of understanding the universe and nature. Rather it has become a flashlight that only lightens what it points at, that is what it perceives as true or provable; instead of a spherical light source that it used to be, which provided light to all its surroundings as long as they were close enough. In other words, those that were willing to understand and reflect on the universe and nature were able to take any path, which is lightened by the same source, to reach an understanding with no restrictions. And move a step further in their journey of wisdom.
However, it is also debatable whether a type of knowledge should be considered something that either promotes wisdom or not. For, we can not know that a finding that seemingly does not contribute to any values, would or would not eventually nurture into a form that actually does. Therefore, a wiser approach could be to pursue knowledge regardless of its moral benefits but with a purpose, which does not question whether something is true, provable or systematic but intends to find beauty in it and embraces it with its soul. Not taking it away.
What you present here seems to do a good job at encapsulating the debate between science and religion that has gone on since the Renaissance.
To me, morality has a circular logic. E.g. This is good because God (or some other high authority) says so. Why did God say so? Because, it is good. Ultimately this makes no sense, and only empowers authority figures who want unquestioned rule.
On the other hand, objective knowledge has a sterility that can kill the human spirit. So to make science useful, I think we have to find a way to connect objective knowledge to the life within us. As in, how do we feel about that knowledge? And what human needs can that knowledge satisfy? Which I think may be what you’re getting at in your final paragraph.
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Your argument about morality seems interesting. However, it is also true that an approach of asking “Why” questions always give birth to more “why” questions and never reach an end. It is just like the mathematical formulas which are derived from other formulas which are derived from some other… until we end up with some mathematical statements that are considered as ‘axioms’ which are not provable or derivable but are considered as true. Perhaps, we have to approach such questions in the same manner. It is good because it is good. And I think that if we remove the ‘God’ factor when talking about morality, we also remove the ‘axioms’ of morality.
Also, thanks for stopping by and for the feedback! Significantly helps when I hear other thoughts 🙂
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It’s my understanding that the early scientists were chiefly concerned with three things. In no particular order: Truth, God, and human well-being.
Truth was from the outset defined by Galileo as empirically measurable. The empiricism was not an arbitrary choice, but rather based on the need for some means of arriving at consensus. Since, the early scientists had no armies to compel consensus, they had to rely on the evidence of the senses to accomplish that job.
As an aside, it is notable that science got started as a communal endeavor and not, say, some lonely alchemist trying to get rich via knowledge he keeps secret and to himself.
God came into the picture as the creator of nature. Thus, to know nature was to know something about God — perhaps even the will of God. Today, this motive is often underappreciated, but most of the early scientists were devout believers that they were discovering something about God when they discovered something about nature.
The last chief concern was human well-being. The early literature is full of ambitions to bring about utopias in which there would be no more famines, diseases, untreatable infirmities, and even no death.
Personally, I agree with Galileo when he said, “They seemed to forget that the increase of known truths stimulates the investigation, establishment and growth of the arts; not their dimination or destruction.”
Perhaps I do not understand Sivin, but it seems to me he is basically arguing for shifting the burden to be wise from humans in general to scientists. If so, that strikes me as shirking one’s responsibilities — one of the oldest sins of human nature.
Yet, there is nothing about a scientifically established fact that stops us from making wise — or foolish — use of it. To want the fact to come labeled with some morality or aesthetic is, I think, to duck our own responsibilities. Then again, maybe I don’t understand what Sivin is getting at.
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I think that your comment on the concerns of early scientists is pretty accurate. I had never read about that quote from Galileo before, I am delighted to have read such beautiful thinking. It is a cake for the mind.
When it comes to Sivin, I believe that he does not mean to form an aristocracy. As far as I remember, he investigates the question: “Has scientific revolution happened in China?”. And he tries to point out why such a question is wrong. He does so by digging into the understanding of science in ancient China, which did not have empirical paradigms but valued practicality of knowledge, rather than it being nothing more than something that is true. However, the methods were considered “primitive” by the western science world. And Sivin argues against the claim.
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Ah, the old “primitive” label. You see that less and less each year now, and with good reason. I think I can see where Sivin is coming from now. If so, more power to him!
Curious bit of trivia. Europeans did not perceive Africans as “primitives” until they began selling them into slavery. Funny how that happened. That was, at least, the finding of one scholar.