Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Common Era - Modern Science

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Although I prefer to focus on the cultural matters, sometimes the things that history books spend most of their time on, Kings, Queens and military conquests, really do matter. One of those items that I have omitted so far in this story is the Mongol invasion. It is peripheral to my discussion, but played a central role in shaping the 13th century.

Covering more territory than either Islam or Western Europe, the Mongols were conquering the Far East with rapid precision. Their military tactics were far in advance of anyone in the rest of the world at that time. Genghis Kahn had little interest in nation building or new technology, only conquering.

By 1240, his armies had reached Europe. He had come near Islam, but went over it to the north instead of through it. Whether or not he could have taken all of Europe remains one of those interesting questions for historians to ponder. Polish armies were on the run after the Battle of Leignitz, but then the Mongol invaders suddenly packed up and returned home, a 6,000 mile journey. This was not from fear, but from a decree by the Kahn himself. Upon his death, a new leader must be chosen, and that must be done back in Mongolia.

After that process, battles continued, but infighting weakened their armies. They began to integrate with the countries they had come to rather than dominate. Unfortunately for Islam, one of their last advances was into Baghdad. In 1263, the city was sacked and rivers ran black with the ink of the books that were thrown into it. Both of these empires had spread themselves too thin and both were now in decline. Unfortunately they were able to inflict a lot of damage on the good that had come out of their rising.

Western Europe was just getting its act together and now it had a lot less to worry about. The problems on the western edge of the Islamic empire, in Al-Andalus would get no help from Baghdad. As Christians conquered Spain and Jerusalem they claimed that they were taking back what was rightfully theirs. But they did more than take back land that was once Roman territory, they found riches of knowledge. It was based on Greek texts, so they claimed that as theirs also, ignoring what had been done with them over the last 1,500 years.

I began this search with the question of why did science thrive in Western Europe and nowhere else. The Chinese have many inventions, Baghdad was a center of learning for centuries, but Europe gave us telescopes, the printing press, the crossbow and eyeglasses.

The answer is, it didn’t. The roots of science are nowhere near Western Europe. It was NOT the sense of a universe with a creator and immutable laws, or the concept of free will, or a tightly administered university system that gave rise to science. It was a spirit of openness and willingness to doubt. It required a tolerance of other cultures and a recognition that intelligence is widespread and not related to a particular worldview. It required contributions from entire known world brought together under one roof. And it required a financial commitment from the highest levels.

The reason we believe science came from Europe is that’s what the history books say. In this case, the adage is true, history is written by the victors. Europeans copied from Middle Easterners and Northern Africans who had gathered knowledge from the Far East. They stole their homework and called it theirs. Then they beat them up and took their lunch money. When their money ran out, they found some new kids and took theirs too. There is no one person to blame for this, but speaking metaphorically, Western Europe was the bully of the world.

They had successfully created a system that had all of the appearances of a system of checks and balances. The military needed the authority of the nobility and nobility was crowned by those who knew the word of God. God had come down to earth, humbled himself and declared himself one with all of us. According to this myth, the meek had inherited the earth. Dominion over all the earth would soon be achieved and 1,000 years of peace were at hand. Right after a few more savages were killed off.

Even learning had become an expression of the Almighty. Making sacrifices was primitive, but God was all knowing. Learning about nature was a path to understanding the glory of creation. God still had a plan, now it could be discerned not just by prayer, but by reading signs in nature. If nature seemed to be contradicting something in the Bible, it was best to consult the theologians. Once they had spoken, you could get back to your test tubes and telescopes.

It doesn’t help that science at the time was primitive. Some of what Galileo did during his lifetime has been labeled alchemy. The ideas of peer review and repeating experiments were not established. Early science was performed by people who had the time, money and resources, often funded by the Church or for the purposes of military expansion. You got published if you could afford to fund the publishing, not based on the merits of your discovery. Accusations of this continue to the present, and too often they are true.

The authority of science is often questioned and compared to the authority of the Bible as if they are equal. Ironically, questioning authority is a value of science. Scientific teaching, when done correctly, tells you what is unknown and tells you the weak points of its arguments. Scientists, if they are doing it right, acknowledge the discovery of new information and welcome changes to their understanding. That some scientists and some teachers get it wrong, does not make the scientific method wrong.

Like the Buddha said, “Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings - that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.”

I know of no other religious leader who says this and truly means it and means it to apply even to their self. It can’t be called a belief system because it is telling you not to believe, but to question. Only after examination do you take what you have found as a guide. Even then, if new information is discovered, examine again. That’s the modern world view that will solve the problems that the old world view got us into to.

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