The birth of science

On May 28, 585 BC, a total eclipse of the sun was visible from the Ionian island of Miletus. What makes this particularly noteworthy is that Thales of Miletus predicted the event. Thales was the first thinker that we know of to propose that every observable event has a physical cause. He rejected supernatural causation and the role of the gods. It’s not clear exactly how he knew the eclipse would occur, but he explained it as a natural event, evidently on the basis of knowledge of the cycles of solar and lunar motion and eclipses. He apparently understood that the sun was darkened because the moon passed in front of it, not because the gods were upset or were trying to tell us something. This belief in natural causes and in our ability to discover them was the hallmark of his legacy. To quote from the article about Thales in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Because he gave no role to mythical beings, Thales’s theories could be refuted. Arguments could be put forward in attempts to discredit them. Thales’s hypotheses were rational and scientific. Aristotle acknowledged Thales as the first philosopher, and criticized his hypotheses in a scientific manner.”

In short, Thales was the first to articulate what we would describe today as the scientific approach to knowledge. In last week’s What’s New, Robert Parks said that the eclipse marks the birth of science, and that seems as good a way to see it as any.

For me, the birth of science marks the beginning of a tremendous coming of age for our species. When you stop to think about it, it really is astonishing that we bipedal apes, with our inherent cognitive biases, limited life spans, and severely limited physical survival zone, have managed to learn so much about not only the things we see around us every day, but the distant past of our planet, the microscopic and quantum underpinnings of our world, and the far reaches of the universe.

This is why I’ve never really understood a recurring lament in the western world. The story goes that life was pretty good for us when we had a story of a god who created the world, damned us, and then redeemed us, a story that put us at the center of the narrative of all of history. We thought we had a purpose, because this god had given us one. We thought that if we did the will of this god here on earth, he would give us eternal life with all of our loved ones hereafter. We thought that however capricious he might seem to be, he loved us and was looking out for us, despite some severe testing from time to time (or, for many people, more or less constantly).

This cozy nursery story of a personal god and his plan for us was challenged by Copernicus’s suggestion that the sun did not go around the earth, and that in fact it was the other way around. Earth is not the center of the universe, but merely one of several planets circling the sun. Worse was to come: The sun wasn’t the center of the universe, but merely one of many stars in the galaxy, and not even a particularly prominent one at the center—not Rome or London or New York, but some dusty backwater in the provinces. The galaxy was one of many galaxies in the cosmos, none of them particularly favored with a central location. Furthermore, the earth was vastly older than the Biblical story taught. For many, the most serious blow is that all the evidence suggests that we, and all the other living beings on this planet, were not created ex nihilo by a deity, but were the result of a long, entirely natural process, what Carl Sagan described poetically as a matter of time and death.

The basic story line is that science has slowly ejected us from our place at the pinnacle of earthly creation, below only the angels and god, that it took away our belief in ourselves as having a special role and a unique meaning. However, I think this is totally backward. When Thales predicted that eclipse, we were still in our infancy in terms of coming to terms in a rational way with the physical reality in which we live. We were at the mercy of superstition and ignorance. Since then we’ve been like children leaving the illusory safety (and real bullies) of the playroom and becoming increasingly better acquainted with reality. The millennia since Thales have been a remarkable, if sometimes slow, journey. All those ejections from the center of the universe have actually been a series of amazing gains in our knowledge and abilities. We’re not being demoted; we’re growing up! It’s not been a continual story of loss and exile; we’re coming home! We’re learning the true nature of our surroundings and our true place in the big picture. Weeping over what we supposedly lost is like mourning over losing the helplessness and ignorance of childhood.

The world is not lonely and empty without the supernatural. It’s still filled with all of our fellow humans (some of the ones who are not here any more have even left their thoughts behind for us to share), not to mention our rich connections with the natural world. The world is not devoid of meaning; we can decide what it means. Many are choosing systems of meaning that are free from concepts of sin, divine retribution, and inherent guilt; once you realize that we are, to some extent, creating our own viewpoint, why not create a positive one? The emotional connections we form with family and friends can be strong and enduring even in the total absence of the supernatural; I think they offer all the comfort possible or needed in an imperfect world. There is not a shred of evidence for life after death, save the brief immortality of living on in the hearts and minds of those with whom we have shared ourselves. That’s enough, in my opinion.

If you yearn for connection to something bigger and more permanent than yourself, at least two compelling possibilities are available. First, human exploration and the expansion of knowledge are an enduring intergenerational saga that rivals any other story ever told for drama, satisfaction, heroism, struggle, adversity, and triumph. Second, the natural world was here long before we appeared and something of it will go on long after the last of us is not even a memory. Like it or not, we’re a part of it, and we can turn the story of our planet’s ecosystems toward tragedy or toward fulfillment. Either or both of these grand narratives offer enough meaning to fill many lifetimes.

Furthermore, the story of our species, our planet, our universe, is fascinating. It’s not always comforting or comfortable, but it’s the bedrock physical reality on which we live. We need to know how it works in order to know how to live well within its limits and understand all of its possibilities. Not only that, though: it’s beautiful! From fragments of ancient bone, we can slowly trace our lineage. From photons shed long ago by distant stars and galaxies, we can puzzle out the story of the universe. We can sit on a mountain at 7000 feet and see the fossils of marine animals, or walk along an Indiana creek and see the fossilized crinoids, and understand a former world very different from the one we know. We can examine DNA and begin to understand the deepest biochemical roots of our nature and the evolutionary links in the tree of life. Scientific knowledge is not just a source of power; it’s a source of wonder.

So, happy birthday, Science! I offer best wishes and great respect to all who have used careful observation, dispassionate analysis, and reasoned argument to advance our knowledge.


  1. “The world is not devoid of meaning; we can decide what it means.”

    There is no scientific basis for your proclamation of the existence of the capability within humans to “decide” or to assign “meaning”. On science alone humans are nothing more then particles moving about in the void according to mathematical/mechanical laws. There is no mention of will, belief, value or emotion in science.

    So, whats with the supernatural magical woowoo? Join the zombies.

  2. I’m not clear on what you’re saying here. My point was that even if there is no externally imposed meaning, we don’t need to live in a world without meaning, as the brain is quite capable of finding its own. It should be clear from the overall tenor of the post that I favor reality-based meanings and see no need for supernatural ones.

    Are you denying that the human brain does in fact assign meaning to the world outside of itself? Psychology and neuroscience do examine the human capacity for will, belief, value, and emotion. What is supernatural or magical about referring to the result of these totally natural processes?

  3. This post really captures the beauty and magic of science and nature. Thank you.

  4. Science does too show us that we can assign meaning to the world around us.

    Consider the basic placebo experiment. The experimenter promises to the subject that the pill they are about to take (containing an inert substance) will make them anxious. After the subject has eaten the pill, the scientist measures objective factors of anxiousness: heart rate, blood composition, response time, dexterity. They find that in X% of the subjects, some post-ingestion symptoms correlate strongly with the symptoms of amphetamine ingestion.

    In most experiments, we think of this effect as “noise,” and attempt to invent various control mechanisms to eliminate its effect from our data. Most experiments are focused on measuring the effectiveness of the substance in the pill. But in the process of eliminating the placebo effect from our data, we have inadvertently studied a gerat deal about the process by which we assign meaning to the world around us.

    And we’ve found that for some of the people, some of the time, faith is enough to affect heart rate, but that it is not enough to transubstantiate a sugar pill into amphetamine. We’ve found that faith is enough to start or end a war — thus forming a feedback loop with evolution (providing a new survival criteria). We’ve found that faith will not move a mountain. But we’ve also found that the mountain won’t move without faith (for what is it but [often misplaced] faith that could compell thousands of people to act together for an outrageous common goal?).

    Thanks to Goedel we even know that there are things which worth knowing which cannot be proven.

    The meaning that we assign to the world has a real and measurable effect on the world. That effect may be indirect and unpredictable, but it _is_.

  5. I really like this post!

    So, you’re challenging the common narrative of humankind being “demoted” from the scientific standpoint. I’d like to offer a challenge from the historical/religious standpoint. C. S. Lewis addressed this in at least one essay and probably others as well. Oh–what is the name of the main one? When I get my books sorted out again I can let you know. (It’s been a while since I’ve read Lewis much, in large part because I no longer think of myself as Christian). He says that pre-Copernican preachers, even if they thought of the earth as the center of the universe from a physical perspective, used the comparatively small size of the earth (which they knew, sort of, even though they were off by orders of magnitude) in order to impress upon their hearers how unimportant we were. God and the angels were vastly farther above us than we really comprehended. In other words, “the center of the universe” doesn’t necessarily mean “the most important place in the universe”, and it seems reasonably probable to me that society didn’t give it that meaning *until* we no longer believed we were there.

    I suspect that both viewpoints were out there, really–the fact that these preachers Lewis quotes would have had to remind their hearers of the great size of the universe suggests that many of them were naturally assuming that human beings were relatively important.

    For a way to combine an understanding of modern astronomy with Christian belief, read the contradictory dialogue near the end of Lewis’s _Perelandra_. It’s an interesting read even if you’re not Christian, I think, though I don’t imagine many people who aren’t Christian would be able to appreciate the whole book that much.

    Anyway, just wanted to make the picture a little more complicated, even though I agree with the way you portray the understanding we’ve gained as we’ve come to develop our scientific abilities. I think of the fight against Galileo and so many other scientific discoveries by religious folk as being sad accidents, almost–the main problem is that a religious establishment that relies on a certain type of authority to maintain itself happened to have endorsed a particular position that made sense to everyone at some point in the past, and then, damn it, they’re locked into that belief and can’t revise their opinion with later evidence, because to do so is to undermine the authorities of the past whom they endorsed. The belief may or may not have been religiously significant at the time it was accepted, but now that it’s been woven into the structure of the religion, it can’t be discarded–at least not as quickly as if the scientific premise of the nature of our understanding prevailed.

  6. Thanks, Elizabeth and Greg, for the insightful comments! I read Perelandra a long time ago, but I’ll have to go back and look at it again. Complicating the picture makes it much more interesting.

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