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Science and the Greeks

Academics cringe at the words truth and certainty. They believe that truth and certainty aren’t possible because philosophers have shown that neither empirical nor deductive knowledge can be made error free.

But in the case of a finite number of discrete entities, such as the chemical elements or the human genes, certainty is an appropriate word.

And in any event, our knowledge of atoms and genes is as certain as our knowledge of tables and chairs, and a lot more certain than our knowledge of human behavior.

— Alan Cromer

How nice to find a good book about science. And by a scientist too—not a philosopher of science, or a historian of science, or some enemy of science trying to denigrate what he cannot understand. Just a man who spent a lifetime teaching physics, and who ruminated on the fundamental nature of his subject.

Alan Cromer’s 1993 Uncommon Sense has been around for over ten years, and a Scandinavian correspondent put me onto it when she was struck by the similarity of the title to Lewis Wolpert’s 1992 The Unnatural Nature of Science. Here were two men (Wolpert is a distinguished embryologist) entirely at one in their conviction that whatever it is, and however it might be described, science is not just trained and organized common sense, as Darwin’s colleague T. H. Huxley thought, or “rooted in the whole apparatus of common sense thought” as Alfred North Whitehead similarly claimed.


Both books are written in response to the anti-scientific animus of our times. And both try to explain this hostility. There are quite a few suggestions put forward, from the seemingly incurable human attraction to the occult, to the childhood psychology of egocentrism (pointed to by Piaget) which makes it hard to distinguish between internal and external causation, to the lack of thinking skills needed to tell “the fanciful claims of astrology from the extraordinary claims of astronomy.” Again, the sheer novelty of a subject which “isn’t about the meaning of words, but about things in themselves”, makes it alarming to all those for whom true education is the interpretive study of words and meanings in books.

It’s surprising how new science is—post-Galileo, and only really taking off in the 18th century. Both Cromer and Wolpert point out that homo sapiens has today much the same cortical equipment he’s had for the 100,000 years, and that for the human brain to have given rise to science is a strange development. In Cromer’s words, “whatever evolution was after, it certainly wasn’t science.” Wolpert says similarly that “our brains have been selected to help us survive in a complex environment”, but that scientific ideas played no role in this process. Instead evolution was after pure and simple survival—and favored mechanical things that helped it like axes, and spears, and bows and arrows.

But axes and spears are technology—something far older than science (in fact millions of years old if we include the Old Stone Age), and they involve no science whatever. They were the product of natural commonsensical tinkering, whereas, says Wolpert, there’s very little that is “natural” about scientific thought.

Scientific ideas are, with rare exceptions, counter-intuitive: they cannot be acquired by simple inspection of phenomena and are often outside everyday experience. Secondly, doing science requires a conscious awareness of the pitfalls of ‘natural’ thinking. For common sense is prone to error when applied to problems requiring rigorous and quantitative thinking; lay theories are highly unreliable.

Unnatural thinking

Both authors are firmly of the view that science began in Greece. Wolpert points to Aristotle as a man who clearly understood that science is an “unnatural mode of thought”. When Pythagoras came up with a theorem about the diagonal of a square being a multiple of the square root of 2, who could have imagined—who, that is, in the commonsense world of apples and oranges or sticks and stones—that the result is not a whole number but has as many figures after 1.4142… as you care to count? Aristotle had this to say:

In some ways, the effect of achieving understanding is to reverse completely our initial attitude of mind. For everyone starts (as we have said) by being perplexed by some fact or other: for instance… the fact that the diagonal of a square is incommensurable with the side.

Anyone who has not yet seen why the side and the diagonal have no common unit regards this as quite extraordinary. But one ends up in the opposite frame of mind… for nothing would so much flabbergast a mathematician as if the diagonal and side of a square were to become commensurable. (Metaphysics, Book One, Chapter 2)

As Aristotle turns this over in his mind we can see him distinguishing at least four things: (1) An “initial attitude of mind” that is non-scientific or pre-scientific. (2) An intellectual process employing mathematics that “achieves” an understanding impossible without it. (3) The fact that scientific/mathematical understanding may entail the “complete reversal” of the assumptions of common sense. (4) The surprise of the naïve and untrained mind at learning truths it finds “extraordinary”.

Maths is not my province, but let me conclude with Wolpert’s own ever-so-slightly flabbergasted observation:

It is one of the most unnatural features of science that the abstract language of mathematics should provide such a powerful tool for describing the behavior of systems both inanimate, as in physics, and living, as in biology. Why the world should conform to mathematical descriptions is a deep question. Whatever the answer, it is astonishing.

The concept of objectivity

Both Cromer and Wolpert argue that the value of objectivity and the very concept of objectivity itself are fundamental to the scientific outlook. Subjectivity, in the form of inductive hunches, and clues, and natural human interests, often provides a stimulus in the first stages of enquiry. A concern for the health of sailors on long voyages at sea; a feeling that there’s a causal connection underlying long-term cycles of drought or flood; a suspicion that more than ordinary combustion is the source of solar fire—the range of interests and intuitions providing questions for science to answer is infinite.

But in Wolpert’s words, “being objective is crucial in science when it comes to judging whether subjective views are correct or not. One has to be prepared to change one’s views in the face of evidence, objective information.” One may have all sorts of hunches: but only science will lead to a correct explanation of scurvy, or of El Niño, or of nuclear fusion inside the sun. For his part Cromer agrees with Jacques Monod that objectivity is “the most powerful idea ever to have emerged” in human consciousness.

If objectivity is so unusual, historically speaking, and humanity is largely irrational and driven by egocentric feelings, emotions, and moods, how did science ever develop in the first place? “With difficulty”, writes Cromer dryly, going on to emphasize that it wasn’t the “natural unfolding” of some human potential, but “the peculiar invention of a particular culture in a particular time.”

The Greek achievement

And he has no doubt which culture it was. But how and why did science originate in Greece? Both authors say there were peculiar features of Greek life that favored science, though ultimately they each accept that it was something of a freak or a fluke. Cromer first points to the Greek public assembly where rival points of view were debated, and regards debates themselves, governed by rules of presentation and then by the collective assessment of evidence, as very important.

In addition to this there was “a maritime economy that prevented isolation and parochialism. Third was the existence of a widespread Greek-speaking world around which travellers and scholars could wander. Fourth was the existence of an independent merchant class that could hire its own teachers.”

One might think that Cromer would have little time for the myths and legends of classical literature. In fact he thinks Homer made a helpful contribution: “Fifth was the Iliad and the Odyssey, literary masterpieces that are themselves the epitome of liberal rational thinking. Sixth was a literary religion not dominated by priests. And seventh was the persistence of these factors for 1,000 years.”

Yet when all is said and done, the intellectual flowering that produced Aristotle, Euclid, and Archimedes remains almost inexplicable. That science is everywhere so hard for non-scientists to understand confirms Cromer’s suspicion that “it is something outside the mainstream of human development, perhaps a fluke.” Wolpert offers a quotation from Einstein pointing to the same conclusion. Asked why it was that science arose only once, and in Greece, where it was confined to a tiny élite, and then persisted only in the West, Einstein replied:

The development of Western science has been based on two great achievements, the invention of the formal logical system (in Euclidean geometry) by the Greek philosophers, and the discovery of the possibility of finding out causal relationships by systematic experiment (at the Renaissance). In my opinion one need not be astonished that the Chinese sages did not make these steps. The astonishing thing is that these discoveries were made at all.

Cromer has more to say about the Chinese sages, and why, given the social world in which they lived, they could never have got very far; but we shall return to these matters at a later date.

Posted in Science.