The Emergence of Science

{Continuation of previous post: Misconceived Project of Social Science}


Historical accidents have shrouded the emergence of science and the scientific method behind multiple veils of mystery. Misunderstanding the nature of science has led to seriously defective methodologies in modern social science, especially economics. The first barrier to understanding is created by Eurocentric history which states that roots of modern sciences originate with the Greeks. According to this account, the Muslims preserved Greek knowledge, and passed it on to Europe, without making any significant improvements. The Europeans took up the mantle of their Greek ancestors and have since made fantastic progress. The myth that “Europeans are unique in their capacity for rational and scientific thought” has been debunked effectively by many historians, notably Blaut in “Eight Eurocentric Historians.” Nonetheless, these ideas have been widely propagated, and permeate public consciousness.

Jack Goody in “The Theft of History” has shown that many inventions of other civilizations were appropriated by European historians and attributed to Europeans to create a Eurocentric History. Even though it is transparently obvious that the light from the advanced civilization of Islamic Spain ended the dark ages of Europe, one will not find any mention of this in the standard historical accounts. No one knows about “The ‘Arabick’ Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England” which led to creation of endowed chairs of Arabic in Oxford and acquisition of vast numbers of Arabic books in special libraries.  Similarly, conventional histories gloss over the breeding of corn by the master botanists among the Incas (which feeds half the world today), the crucial inventions of papermaking, printing, gunpowder and compass by the Chinese, development of calculus by the Kerala school of mathematicians (C.K.Raju documents the transmission chain to Newton/Leibniz), and the diverse and extensive contributions of the Islamic civilization in many fields. Quite apart from the injustice in this distortion of history, this process of negating the Islamic contribution to development of science results in a loss of understanding of the nature and significance of the contribution. If we peel apart the veils of these historical distortions, it becomes crystal clear that science and the scientific method originated in the Islamic civilization. The discovery of the experimental method by the Muslims was such an important advance on Greek science that it has been termed a conceptual revolution which was “greatest idea of the second millennium.” Our goal is to explain the nature of this advance.

The Greeks originated the first systematic study of Geometry, via the famous axioms of Euclid. The tremendous value and importance of these methods is obvious because these methods are still taught in schools and universities. The purely axiomatic and logical structure of these methods leads to iron-clad certainties which do not require empirical verification. When the Greeks turned to the study of nature, they tried to use the same method that had been so successful. Aristotle argued that induction from observations could be used to frame axioms, but the laws of science must be based on logic, parallel to geometry. Logic reveals grand universal truths, while observations can only reveal lowly “contingent truths” which are valid within a particular historical context under specific circumstances.

Richard Powers writes that “the most important idea of this millennium was (due to) Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn ul-Haitham (who) … remains little-known … But the idea that Ibn al-Haytham championed is so ingrained in us that we don’t even think of it as an innovation, let alone one that has appeared so late in the human day.” Greek axioms and logic had led to two rival theories about vision, which had remained deadlocked for 800 years. One way of framing axioms led to the conclusion that light emanated from the eyes and struck the object, while the other led to the reverse conclusion. Ibn-ul-Haitham used observational evidence to definitively settle the matter. For example, he argued that staring at the sun burns the retina, establishing that light travels from the sun to the eyes. His striking innovation was that he made no appeal to theory, axioms or logic. Instead, he demolished a whole mountain of Greek theory with a single appeal to data.

The difference between axiomatic-deductive methodology of the Greeks and scientific methodology developed by Ibn-ul-Haitham and followers, is like night and day. This difference can be illustrated and clarified by a wide range of examples. Before discussing these, note that just like the Greeks did not take into account the burning of the retina by the sun, so economists do not allow contradictory empirical evidence to impinge on their theories — for evidence of this, see: Empirical Evidence Against Neoclassical Utility Theory.  Coming back to the difference between Greek and Scientific methodology, let us consider the discovery of the atom.

Often credited for discovery of the atom, Democritus followed the typical Greek method. He argued that  if we kept subdividing matter, we would reach the smallest possible particle, after which no further subdivision would be possible. This was seen as a logical necessity in a thought experiment, not as an empirical fact. If viewed experimentally, this logic is deeply flawed. The process of subdivision is constrained by human experimental capabilities, not just the properties of matter. Experimentation and observational evidence have led to knowledge which could never be achieved by axioms and logic. Advances in experimental techniques led to the splitting of atoms, clarifying the structure of matter in ways which were impossible earlier.  Our experimental techniques and capabilities of splitting matter have changed over time, and improvements in these techniques, and careful observation of consequences of trying to split matter have led to improved understanding of the structure of molecules and atoms. The experimental approach to splitting matter leads to different results at different times, as human capabilities in this regard changed drastically with time.  It was precisely this time-bound and contingent nature of experimental truths which repelled the Greeks. The argument of Democritus is based on a “logical” impossibility of infinite repetition of the splitting operations. Thought experiments and logic can never obtain the information that one gets by experimenting with actually trying to split matter, and observing the result. In contrast to Democritus, Dalton’s discovery of the atom reflects the scientific method. The observation that certain chemicals only combine in fixed proportions led Dalton to hypothesize that this was due to properties of the unobservable atoms which made up the chemicals. Dalton deduced properties of “atoms” from the observation of a particular fact which was impossible to derive from logic or from intuitive certainties. Similarly, observational evidence about electrons led Niels Bohr to scientific theories which appear logically impossible – that electrons jump from one orbit to another without passing intermediate stages. If economists had imposed their axioms for rational behavior on electrons, forcing them to behave in a logical manner, we would never have arrived at quantum theory. The essence of the scientific method consists of letting observations guide the construction of theory, regardless of how crazy the theory appears to be logically. Contemporary economic methodology is firmly based on the Greek conception of science, and gives primacy to axioms and logic over observations. The mystery of why economists use a prescientific methodology, and confuse it with science, will be resolved later.

Posts on Diverse Topics:My author page on LinkedIn. Other works: Index . More material on Science & Scientific Methodology. Next Post in this sequence: Economists Confuse Greek Method with Science.

  1. observation of fact 1: All bank credit “money” is created as M1
    observation of fact 2: Savings (M2 minus M1) can be replaced with new M1
    observation of fact 3: In the USA M2 is typically 4 times M1

    M2 is total principal debt to banks. M1 is the total of CURRENT liabilities of banks (bank credit money).

    THEREFORE: at every moment in time, borrowers must make principal and interest payments on a total principal debt to banks that is 4 times the money available to pay it.

    observation of fact 4: Economists choose to ignore this argument completely, despite being unable to refute the facts, arithmetic or logic used to create this embarrassingly simple explanation of why our money system collapses in the absence of perpetual growth of debt to banks.

    THEREFORE: Economists are a stubborn impediment to useful reality-based knowledge.

    On that point I most heartily agree with the author.

  2. David Chester said:

    Paul failed to include in his calculation the amount of money created by the government by their use of what has been loaned to them through the national debt, and also their payment on interest on this loan, by printing new currency. According to Taylor, the ration of M2 to m1 is at least 8 times, not 4.

    • Anonymous said:

      M2 has a definition. I use the the actual figures defined by the definition and provided by the banks. And this only includes debts to commercial banks, not debts to the central bank, nor private debts (unknowable).

      The point is that banking creates impossible debt (in the aggregate) BY DESIGN. So how can economists not figure this out? How could it possibly still be a “mystery” why the economy is dependent on perpetual growth to avoid collapse?

      Any smart 5th Grader could do the arithmetic. Economists are so miseducated in nonsensical complexities that they can’t think straight about the simplest of math.

  3. M2 already includes that part of M0 that is in circulation as cash. That is the only part useful to borrowers for paying off their debts. M2, as you correctly point out does not include government debt. Nor does it include private debts which are unknown and unknowable.

    What the chart of M2 and M1 does prove is that the economic system’s instability problems are CAUSED by the banking system’s DESIGN and our limited concept of money as a “quantity” made valuable by its own scarcity.

    Any child in Grade 5 can understand the arithmetic. But economists simply close their ears to my scientifically rigorous analysis and continue with their endless self-flagellation for their failures. At the WEA blog they refuse to publish any comment from me while decrying the censorship the so-called “progressive” economists get from the mainstream. They endlessly call for a “new approach” while vigorously ignoring the very detailed and comprehensive analysis and solution I am offering.

  4. Uncycle said:

    Great points in the article! I am facinated to learn the same things.

    Also, double entry bookkeeping likley has come to Venice from India. Lall Nigam’s paper discusses this.

    I have enjoyed Saraswathi Ama’s book greatly. She has a background in physics and Sanskrit. In it there is a bit of calculus. And, an Indian derivation of the infinite series for Sine and Cosine. I’m still trying to understand their ingenious method as it is appears different than methods taught in the west. There are some more papers on the deriviation by others.

    Besides the great significance of their methods to derive it, the infinite series allows calculating trig. functions to any accuracy. Today we use computers and calculators that do it automatically. They could do it with the Hindu number system.

  5. @uncycle: Thanks. The link to C K Raju’s page on the Transmission provided more details on the Kerala School of Mathematicians. He argues that their methods are of contemporary relevance in that they can substantially simplify teaching of calculus today. Indeed he has developed a short sequence of lectures which provides the same training as standard one year calculus courses.

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