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'Scientific method' in non-Western societies? (historical question)

  1. Apr 17, 2004 #1


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    My impression is that the history of the development of what we today call science is fairly well researched, and several good books are available for the general reader.

    What about science, historically, in non-Western societies, especially where there was little subsequent input into the unfolding of science in Renaissance Europe? Can anyone recommend something to read?

    My interest is in the extent to which elements of what we today regard as science were developed - and used - in China, India, Sumaria, Egypt, ... independently or otherwise. I've heard of Needham's monumental work, and must take a look and see if examines the development of something like the scientific method. I imagine many possible independent developments of the scientific method are not accessible to research, e.g. the Maya, Aztec, Harappa, Inca, Zimbabwe (and no doubt many others), as there are essentially no written records.
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  3. Apr 18, 2004 #2
    Toby Huff's work would be a good introduction for you, although not all historians agree with the emphasis he places on the universities. For the Arab world, try Sabra. You'll find it difficult to understand the history of science if you insist on reading it as the development of a method that fails to account for the plurality we actually see in science, not least if you study the differences in the mechanistic and chemical views from the 1500s onwards. Indeed, looking for something (the "scientific method") that isn't there is likely to be more problematic than a lack of written records.
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2004
  4. Apr 18, 2004 #3


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    Thanks Hugo.

    "Toby Huff" = "The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West"?

    "Sabra" = "Dr. Abdelhamid I. Sabra"? If so, which work of his would you recommend reading first?

    My interest in focusing on the scientific method is that it's this aspect of 'science' today which most effectively - today - distinguishes what we call 'science' from mathematics, philosophy, religion, etc. This is not to say that the scientific method isn't used in other field of endeavour - engineering, medicine, even warfare - simply that (today) the absence of the scientific method in some area of research (e.g. 'creationism', alien abductions, religion) is enough for us to decide that that research isn't 'scientific'.
    For sure I'd be surprised if ancient Chinese texts referred to 'the scientific method'! However, to what extent can we determine that something like observaton and description, hypothesis formation, prediction followed by testing, independent repeatability, etc were recognised as important elements? IIRC, there are several good books on how these elements were refined and combined to form the scientific method we know and love today; the debts we owe are to people as long ago as the Greek philosophers, various Arab thinkers (also of long ago), a few bright sparks in the Dark Ages (e.g. William of Ockham), as well as many in the Renaissance and since. This is the rise of science 'in the West'.

    But what about the ancient Egyptians?
  5. Apr 18, 2004 #4

    Likewise. Try looking for a paper entitled Situating Arab Science.

    I'm going to assume you'd appreciate some critique of your ideas, so i hope i don't cause any offence. What you're referring to was called the demarcation problem in the past, but these days it's seen as simplistic (since Laudan described its "demise", really). It's not possible to separate science from these others as you might hope and to see why it's enough to actually look at the business of science across the board. A meaningful demarcation of science fails in large part because each of these are important parts of what we generalise to call science but is in fact a plurality of methodologies that cannot be reduced to that in your link above.

    Once again, the situation is rather more complex. Laudan argued at the Arkansas trial - contra Ruse - that appealing to a demarcation on the basis of a few criteria would lead to creation science, and it did. The criteria used are all subject to severe critique and a methodology such as Lakatos' is preferred to the old idea of science and pseudo-science.

    These were all known long ago, even if some (like Galen) didn't follow their own advice.

    No, it isn't. Which books are these? This picture is again far too simplistic and no historian of science of which i'm aware would claim that they suffice. Consider the well-researched and documented influences you omit:

    • The transmission and translation of ancient Greek texts by the Arabs
    • The Lyceum, Academy and Museum at Alexandria
    • The huge support given to scholars by the Muslim empire, particularly under the Abbasid caliphate
    • The rise and spread of the universities
    • Neoplatonic and hermetic philosophy, particularly in Ficino, Copernicus and Kepler
    • Vesalius' work
    • Political and economic factors, especially in Iberian lands and the response to Copernicanism
    • Portuguese and Spanish work on navigational problems
    • The spread of empires
    • Paracelsus and the court of the Holy Roman Emperor
    • The origins of chemistry with Libavius and Agricola as a result of their mining studies
    • Religion, particularly Christianity and its influence on men like Newton, Boyle and early Copernicans
    • The academies and Royal Societies of several nations
    • The role of rhetoric
    • Thematic influence and analysis
    • And so on...

    The rise of science includes much more and isn't linear. Moreover, the notion of a single scientific method as defined at your link is untenable. Here is an excerpt from an introduction to this problem that i offered elsewhere:

    I suggest you take a look at the different approaches used in the different areas of biology and physics, say, because counter-examples are legion. Alternatively, refer to the literature where those like Galison, Dupre and Cartwright are focusing these days on the disunity of science, as i said in the other thread.

    Well, i've already explained that looking for early signs of the "scientific method" is the wrong way to procede: it's anachronistic, at the very least. Historians of science don't treat the rise of science in this way and so looking at the Egyptians probably requires something different, too. What are you hoping to find?

    Edited to add:

    You're correct that a lot of research has taken place, but "the history of the development of what we today call science" is anything but definitive. That is what i've tried to give an inkling of above.
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2004
  6. Apr 18, 2004 #5


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    Thanks Hugo.
    Far from taking 'any offence', I welcome this, and hope that we can have more of it here in PF (BTW, do you know of any other forum where such topics are discussed?)


    Your comment describes well what I referred to in a post in Kerrie's thread - "The progress of science" includes a better understanding of what it actually *is*, and how it differs from what many perceive is the ideal (e.g. "the scientific method").
    Let us all have a reference to "a methodology such as Lakatos' " please!
    I can see from later in your thread that they might have been 'all known long ago', but how long ago? and what's the story in societies/civilisations/etc which didn't really contribute (directly) to the development of what we call science?
    I meant it as a short-hand; it's developments elsewhere, which didn't subsequently become incorporated into today's 'science', that I'm interested in. To make something preposterous up, for the sake of illustration, did the Incas develop - and codify - an approach analogous to the "scientific method" webpage I posted earlier (and embellish it with numerous examples, both positive and negative), but the book was burned by the invading Spanish?
    It is deliberately anachronistic (and yes, perhaps not very useful to boot). The bigger picture that this (hopefully) fits within is the relative effectiveness of the "progress of science" - what elements of science (as we understand it today) can be shown (through the warped lens of history) to be particularly effective (and what are only marginal)?
  7. Apr 18, 2004 #6
    Although we're still small, we discuss the history and philosophy of science often at my boards and have several experts there (along with me as light relief and for comic effect). You and anyone else would be most welcome.

    The philosopher of science Larry Laudan wrote a famous paper on this issue, entitled The Demise of the Demarcation Problem. When i'm posting here, my problem is guessing how much people already know or want to know, especially being new. I don't want to talk down to anyone, but at the same time i don't want to mention references that no-one has heard of. :frown:

    I meant Imre Lakatos' Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, which you can find in the work of the same name. I discuss his ideas briefly in an introduction to the philosophy of science that i wrote at my boards, if you're interested. (My apologies for offering my worthless bluster; it isn't my intention to plug it.)

    Well, we see empiricism in classical Greece and i wonder how useful it is to try to determine when your "scientific method" came about; that is, it would be anachronistic like i already said and likely require some creative work to make it fit.

    We find China well ahead of Europe for a long time, developing astronomical clocks, armillary spheres, records of sunspot activity and observatories that were supported by government. Even geodetic surveys were not beyond the Chinese of the eighth century. Experimenticism was present in Chinese (especially Daoist) alchemy and medicine was well advanced. They were also using magnets to navigate. However, it wasn't until the seventeenth century that they were exposed to Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomy, along with Euclidean geometry, with the arrival of the Jesuits. There is very little evidence of transmission of ideas from China to Europe and the former never came to the notion of natural law (or similar), in large part due to Daoist philosophical influences as to the unknowability of the Dao.

    What do you want to know about other societies?

    You'll have to be a little clearer. Are you looking for evidence of a proto-scientific method in areas that didn't contribute to the eventual development of the same? If so, to what end? Are you hoping that this so-called method is bound to develop, sooner or later and given the right circumstances?

    How would we answer a question like that?

    What do you mean by "effective"? It would probably make more sense if you questioned first the utility of your idea of "scientific method". Is this an appropriate heuristic to use in the history of science? Do we require an essentialist notion of what science is to study its history?
  8. Apr 18, 2004 #7


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    Very interesting; but don't you have be be a christian to really participate?
    Even if I had heard of this (I hadn't), I'm sure there are many other readers of these pages who hadn't. I only wish I had as much time and energy as the authors of Astronomy Picture of the Day, my default browser's home page; lots of good links for the reader who wants to learn more. :biggrin:
    I believe this is the same work which long-time, high-quality PF poster Canute mentioned.
    Is this what one would find if one had the time to read Needham's Science and Civilisation in China?
    Basically, output/input; how much incremental 'understanding of the nature and origin of universe (and all it contains)' does one get for each incremental unit of 'effort by scientists etc'?
  9. Apr 19, 2004 #8
    No. I'm baffled as to where you got that idea.

    Most of it; Needham's work is an excellent resource.

    Do you think that's a sensible approach to the history of science and this issue of progress?
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