Thursday, April 03, 2008

Classical Pagan science

Science and Medieval Christianity by Richard Carrier (with lots of comments on classical pagan science). A fascinating blogpost, but I must take issue with the author's definition of religion:
'To be clear, by "religion" here (since I use that word in a different sense in other contexts) I mean any belief system that places faith above evidence and reason, accepting evidence and reason only when they do not conflict with an accepted set of faith-claims. Hence those two options for a religious person faced with scientific facts that contradict her faith: she can change her faith (and thus place science, and hence evidence, first in authority when choosing what to believe) or oppose science. Religion always produces the latter sort of person, even when it also produces the former, and that's what's wrong with it.'
That's kind of a circular argument. The word religion means "reconnection" (from religare). What he is referring to here is a creedal religion. Both ancient and modern Paganisms were and are non-creedal (i.e. there is no standard set of beliefs to which Pagans must adhere). Many Pagans employ something like the scientific method in trying to understand our spiritual experiences - i.e. we have a working hypothesis to interpret them, test it against others' experiences and hypotheses, and so on.

Similarly, many Buddhists (including the Dalai Lama) place reason and evidence above faith. For example, the Dalai Lama was once asked what he would do if it was scientifically proved that reincarnation doesn't happen; he said that he would advise his followers to stop believing in it.

Similarly, Unitarians have three main values: freedom, reason, and tolerance, and do not impose a creed (and many of them are atheists, or at least non-theists).

The difference is, that these people feel the need to follow a spiritual path of some kind, which is focussed on values and not beliefs. Also many of us would admit mystical feelings and experiences as quasi-evidence (not the same as observable material evidence, but enough to base a working hypothesis on).

However, there's loads of interesting points about science in ancient pagan times. Some scientists were persecuted, but not everywhere:
Anaxagoras was prosecuted by the Athenians for blasphemy simply for theorizing the sun is a hot stone. Other pagans tried to launch a blasphemy prosecution against Aristarchus when he claimed the earth revolves around the sun. Lucian had a contract put out on his head for claiming the miracles of a certain cult had natural explanations in ordinary fraud. Likewise, Neoplatonism sometimes resembled medieval Christianity in its disinterest in empirical studies and obsession with mystical approaches to science, often through armchair reasoning and "inspired intuition." But there was one enormous difference: science-hating pagans never had the institutional power and clout to enforce their views on the general society (all Anaxagoras and Aristarchus had to do to avoid their influence was leave town), but the Christians achieved and maintained precisely that power for many centuries, and so pervasively there was no way to escape their influence. What they did with that power was sufficiently scary that we should never want that to happen again.
Olaf the Lofty, the scientist in Noggin the NogThere is of course another reason for disliking science - the potential for the invention of firecake and the like (nuclear weapons, etc.).

However, the benefits of science (medicine, astronomy, etc.) probably outweigh its disadvantages.

The reason that any pagans who hated science couldn't gain any leverage was because paganism (like Hinduism, Buddhism, Unitarianism, Judaism, and even Islam) accommodated and accommodates many different schools of thought:
freedom of thought not only existed, but was widely practiced and embraced, across the whole of the Roman world before Christianity came to power. Although things did start to roll toward fascism during the chaos of the 3rd century ... before then the vast diversity of philosophical and scientific sects and schools is evidence enough. Such open diversity could not have been the case had freethought been effectively opposed, and would not have been the case had it not been widely enough encouraged. Political freedom of speech was limited. But science was apolitical. Indeed, the phenomenon of "eclecticism," a widespread independence of thought whereby scientists and philosophers could pick and choose principles and theories from among all sects and schools as they themselves saw fit (rather than aligning themselves with only one) was the dominant intellectual fashion under the Hellenistic Greeks and especially the Romans. This is a fact of the times, a social and intellectual phenomenon that Christianity often attacked and then effectively eliminated.
Also, ancient pagans had some pretty inspiring ideas:
the greatest aspirations of the pagans [were] their struggling ideals of democracy and human rights, just like their empirical ideals and the scientific spirit they inspired...
And in a comment, the author continues:
the values that you learned to embrace that inspire you to value the pursuit of science came ultimately from pagans, and even though through Christian intermediaries, these were always (as history shows) intermediaries heavily influenced by the pagans who got this ball started. This is as true in democracy (a pagan idea filtered through Christian intellectuals heavily influenced and inspired by the pagan democratic thinkers and pagan democratic ideals) as in science.
And in a discussion about the relative merits of Plato and Augustine:
Plato ... advocated the advancement of science: he insisted on an education in, a deep study of, and actual progress in the mathematical sciences (particularly harmonics and astronomy) and he himself attempted to further work in those fields with his own advice and direct support of scientists in his school.
There's another discussion about astrology, as a Christian apologist asserted that Christians abolished astrology; the author points out that:
Attacks on astrology, often very sophisticated and bold, were already a staple in pagan antiquity.
The author maintains that there's nothing particular about paganism as a religion that actually encourages scientific enquiry. I beg to differ. A belief that the divine is immanent in the world (whether pantheism, animism, or polytheism) encourages curiosity about this world, and a love for it. Belief in magic encourages a desire to learn about the hidden workings of the world, and hence to science (i.e. chemistry came out of alchemy, physics from cosmology, and astronomy out of astrology). Not having a creed allows freedom of thought and enquiry.

He also asserts that the contribution of Hindus and Muslims to science were relatively minor. Really? Then how come we're using a Hindu numerical system? (0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9) Hindu mathematics was very advanced - they even had quadratic equations. Whereas the Christians had a superstitious fear of zero. (See The Nothing That Is: A natural history of zero by Robert Kaplan.) The Hindus also had advanced metallurgy. What about algebra (and algorithms, from Al Khwarizmi, the bloke who invented algebra)? And the many other Muslim inventions, in fields as diverse as Agricultural sciences, Applied sciences, Astrology, Astronomy, Chemistry (from al kimia, the black art), Earth sciences, Mathematics, Mechanics, Medicine, Optics, Psychology, Social sciences, and Zoology?

But it's a really good article, and I strongly recommend reading it.


Richard Carrier said...

Thanks. I agree with your qualification of my use of "religion" (as I already hinted originally, I also use that word differently elsewhere, and I like the way you formulate the distinction). But I don't agree that all immanentist theologies encourage curiosity about the world (in a scientifically meaningful sense), and even if they did, that isn't enough--a religion must also encourage empiricism (in a methodologically meaningful sense) and progressivism (the belief that progress in knowledge of the world is both possible and morally good). The fact that science only arose in one pagan context (despite some scholars insisting the contrary, real science, of the kind achieved by the Greeks and Romans, never arose in pagan China, who nevertheless advanced considerably in technology, which is not the same thing) pretty much proves paganism does not, in itself, inspire the values that produce science.

But that's not the same thing as saying it tends to oppose those values, either, although there is also nothing innate in paganism that would prevent extreme developments in that direction, too (e.g. besides the examples I gave that you cite, there is evidence that pagan taboos against touching corpses impeded the science of anatomy, until they were overcome, and even the pagan Chinese were in the habit of burning witches).

As you point out, paganism is highly open and variable, and therefore can develop in many different ways, good and bad, but far more freely than, as you put it, creedal religions (which, even as they inevitably fragment, still almost always fragment into repetitions of the same basic dogmatic model, disagreeing only on what the dogma should be).

As far as my saying "relatively minor" contributions to science, you haven't really refuted my point. What characters we use to represent numbers is no more important than the fact that we use Roman characters to write our English. It's just trivia. Ancient science and mathematics worked fine without Arabic (not, BTW, Indian) numerals. Just because it's "strange" to you doesn't mean it's harder or less efficient. It's just different.

Likewise, quadratic equations (and in fact all the basics of pre-theoretical algebra) were invented by the Greeks (with some influence from earlier Babylonian practice, though again the key innovations were Greek and the elements they borrowed were relatively minor, and often in themselves dead ends within their own cultures). They certainly had and used the number zero (and I've never heard of any Christian fear of it), as well as, incidentally, place notation systems. The Greeks also had formal trigonometry. That we use the Indian system now is simply an accident of history.

The Indians and Muslims merely tweaked these things with some refinements--refinements worth noting and appreciating, but again, relatively minor. And I don't know what other "advances" you mean in the various scientific fields you mention. Almost all that was transmitted, even from Muslims and Hindus, were (often inferior) repeats of things already achieved by the Romans and Greeks, while the remainder were (again, relatively) minor advances and additions in comparison with the contributions made to those same fields by the Romans and Greeks.

But otherwise a good post overall.

Richard Carrier said...

In addition, about pagans more readily embracing quasi-scientific thinking and certain liberal values (as of some modern religions), your remarks are also valid, up to a point.

For example, non-creedal religions by definition are not committed to defending a scriptural or authoritarian source of religious knowledge, and therefore can experiment with sources of knowledge, and thus are often free to experiment with the knowledge thus obtained, and this can manifest in ways either more or less scientific, but always quite different from what creedal religions do in the same domain (and in fact the more a creedal religion tries to act this way, inevitably the less creedal it becomes, as Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists both show).

The ultimate (ancient) manifestation of this was what we call "philosophy," which was actually just pagan theology, based on reason and empiricism (more or less competently) rather than scripture, revelation, or authoritarianism. I shall say something briefly on this point in my next book.

Yvonne said...

Interesting points, thanks. Yes, there are elements within contemporary Paganism(s) that are massively irrational (and doubtless there were in classical paganism too). Some are even pseudo-science, bad science or even anti-science (see my posts on the ancient human remains controversy for a case in point).

However, many contemporary Pagans actively want their religion not to conflict with science, but also feel the spiritual life (meditation, ritual etc) is worthwhile.

Numbers: the characters aren't important, but the place system is (I think you'd enjoy that book I mentioned, The Nothing That Is. Basically it explains that the place system (units, tens, hundreds, etc, with zero as a placeholder) allows more people to access complex mathematics - you'd have to be a genius to do maths using the ancient Greek system, or with the Roman system, because using places makes arithmetic much easier. And apparently some churchmen inveighed against the use of zero.

I just get a bit worried when people start extrapolating from Christianity to other religions without noting the massive philosophical difference between it and the other religions (I'm not saying that you're doing that, but a lot of atheist writers do).

Personally I'm a non-theist - I think it's irrelevant whether gods exist or not, but I do have a soft spot for the Pagan gods (especially Odin, Cernunnos, and the Moon Goddesses). Rather like the wizards of Discworld, I suspect that gods may exist (and if they do, they're emergent from the universe, not pre-existent of it) but I don't want it to get too personal. As to what gods are, they may well be processes in the collective unconscious, or something that we project onto the world, or something that we have called into consciousness by our social interaction with the world, but going round acting as if they have a right to tell people what to do is a Bad Thing.

a religion must also encourage empiricism (in a methodologically meaningful sense) and progressivism (the belief that progress in knowledge of the world is both possible and morally good)

Yes, true - both good values. I expect that's why so many 18th and 19th-century scientists were Unitarians (Joseph Priestley, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Carpenter, etc). But interestingly, a lot of contemporary scientists are Pagans. Probably because you don't actually have to believe in stuff that offends reason.