Why Did Modern Science Arise in the West?

There have been numerous great civilizations -- in India, China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia -- that flourished long before the modern Western civilization of Europe. They have all contributed unique arts and innovations. They have maintained long centuries of peace and relative prosperity for their citizens. But there is no other civilization that compares to the West in terms of its rapid growth of technology, its scientific knowledge of nature, and its economic power. Within a period of about 400 years, the West has moved from the 'Dark Ages' of feudalism and medieval superstition to the present age of science and technology. How did this happen? What philosophical ideas were behind it?

Alfred North Whitehead, the 20th century philosopher and historian, although not a religious man in any traditional sense, has offered an answer to this question that comes from an unlikely direction:

"I do not think, however, that I have even yet brought out the greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement. I mean the inexpungable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles (causality). Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research: -- that there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled. How has this conviction been so vividly implanted on the European mind?

"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. By this I mean the instinctive tone of thought and not a mere creed of words.

"In Asia, the conceptions of God were of a being who was either too arbitrary or too impersonal for such ideas to have much effect on instinctive habits of mind. Any definite occurrence might be due to the fiat of an irrational despot, or might issue from some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things. There was not the same confidence as in the intelligible rationality of a personal being. I am not arguing that the European trust in the scrutability of nature was logically justified even by its own theology. My only point is to understand how it arose. My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative of medieval theology."

-- Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 18-19.

(See the Book List for additional literature on this issue.)


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