The Origin of Modern Science

The ancient world saw some of the greatest minds ever to have studied nature. More than three millennia BC, astronomers in Egypt developed a 365-day calendar based on patterns they had observed in the rising and setting of stars. Some relatively advanced forms of medicine were also practiced in Egypt by that time. Ancient Babylonian astronomers developed techniques to measure the changing length of daylight throughout the year, and were able to predict the times when planets would appear and disappear from the night sky. Chinese astronomers discovered sunspots as early as the fourth century BC, and the magnetic compass was invented in China before the second century BC.
portrait of Thales of Miletus
Thales of MiletusImage credit: Ernst Wallis et al, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
c. 624 - c. 546 BC
In ancient Greece, a remarkable history of innovative thought began with Thales of Miletus, who was (according to Aristotle) the first Greek philosopher to search for the “causes and principles” behind natural phenomena. He theorized about the nature of matter, determined the dates of the summer and winter solstices, predicted a solar eclipse in 585 BC, and even tried to estimate the diameters of the sun and moon via geometrical calculations. Many other able-minded philosophers followed his lead, and this Greek tradition reached its zenith in the work of Aristotle, who was indisputably one of the most impressive and influential thinkers in the history of mankind.

However, despite their brilliant minds and impressive achievements, none of these great civilizations or traditions produced anything comparable to the sudden burgeoning of discovery and innovation that occurred in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Before that period of rapid scientific development, known today as the scientific revolution, the progress of science had been relatively slow and often stagnate. For example, although ancient Egyptian medical practice was quite advanced for its time, it remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years. Similarly, Aristotle’s theories of physics and cosmology went largely unchallenged for a millennium and a half. Then suddenly, in the relatively brief span of a few hundred years, nearly every branch of natural science—astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and numerous sub-disciplines within each of these fields—exploded into maturity at a rate unprecedented in the history of the world.

How did that happen? Why did science emerge so suddenly in early modern Europe? Were the Europeans just smarter than everyone else? Hardly. Was it the invention of the printing press, which allowed scientists to disseminate their work and build upon each other’s contributions more readily? No doubt the printing press did help to accelerate the growth of science, but printing presses—including sophisticated moveable-type varieties—had been used in China and Korea for centuries before Johannes Gutenberg started the “printing revolution” in Europe. There must have been something more, something unique about the culture of early modern Europe.

In a famous series of lectures, delivered at Harvard University and published in 1925 as the book Science and the Modern World, eminent scholar Alfred North Whitehead attributes the rapid growth of modern science to a cultural mindset that emerged near the end of the medieval period in Europe. Modern science was spawned by what Whitehead calls the scientific mentality—a view of the world which “holds that all things great and small are conceivable as exemplifications of general principles which reign throughout the natural order.”Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925; reprint New York: Pelican, 1948), 5. Early modern Europe was the first civilization in which this mentality really took hold. Sure, other civilizations and cultures may have boasted a few geniuses here and there who held such a view of nature, Whitehead says. But there had never been a society in which the educated public embraced the scientific mentality, and for this reason there was never a sustained, collaborative search for the principles underlying natural phenomena: “Either people were doubtful about the existence of such principles, or were doubtful about any success in finding them, or took no interest in thinking about them, or were oblivious to their practical importance when found.”Ibid., 5-6. The civilization of late medieval and early modern Europe, in contrast, held “the inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles.”Ibid., 13.

So, what brought about this cultural attitude in Europe? What convinced these early modern scientists that natural principles (or laws of nature) could be found, and that the search for such principles would be worthwhile? Whitehead’s answer is worth quoting at length:

When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality. Remember that I am not talking of the explicit beliefs of a few individuals. What I mean is the impress on the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries.Ibid.

Whitehead is not alone in this assessment. Other prominent historians and philosophers of science have also argued that the Christian faith, and especially the influence of Christian theologians from the medieval period, played a crucial role in the development of modern science.Among these are anthropologist Loren Eiseley and sociologist Robert K. Merton.