(Minghui.org) What is science? In Western society, people usually equate it to empirical science. In Communist China, science is manipulated as a political tool to brainwash the general public or target minority groups. Here I would like to take a step back and explore what science is truly about.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said that only existence that has no history can be appropriately defined. This sentence can be interpreted in various ways. But regardless of one’s understanding, it does point out that clearly defining a term – such as “science” – may not be straightforward, partly because its meaning changes over time.
The English word “science” originated from the Latin word scire (know) or scientia (knowledge). The Chinese word 科学 (a contemporary term for science) actually comes from the Japanese, which means a sub-discipline of knowledge. In fact, many such terms that emerged in recent Chinese history are from the Japanese and the translations are not accurate. Another example is “philosophy.” Derived from Greek philo (love) and sophia (wisdom), it means “love of wisdom.” The modern term in Japanese, 哲, however, means smartness, which is very different from the original meaning of wisdom.
Interestingly enough, the term 哲 (philosophy) also meant wisdom in ancient China, similar to sophia in ancient Greek. In both cultures, the term’s meaning narrowed over time, especially in modern society.
The same thing happened with “science.” Especially after the mid-19th century, science lost its meaning of knowing or knowledge, becoming “modern science,” a term that refers to “natural and physical science.”
In addition to the definition, we can also gain some insights by analyzing several changes in history.
In Greek, the word knowledge is epistēmē. Aristotle believed that knowledge is knowing necessary causes – especially the final causes, instead of superficial description of prediction. In particular, he insisted that knowledge is to understand the purpose of a thing’s existence.
This is consistent with the viewpoints of other ancient cultures. Mathematical texts were found in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt in about 2000 BC, while in China, mathematics traces back to the Yellow Emperor 4,700 years ago. His minister Lishou was said to have invented mathematics and tools like the abacus. Two thousand years later, both Buddhism and Taoism appeared in the East, bringing an entire new level of understanding of mankind, society, and our universe.
In the West, Thales of Miletus (about 600 BC) in Greece used geometry to solve problems such as measuring the height of a pyramid. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Arabic areas advanced the sciences with alchemy (from Arabic al-kimiya), algebra (from Arabic al-jabr), and astronomy, with this flush of developments ending in the 1200s.
The sciences in ancient China boomed from the Tang Dynasty until the late Ming Dynasty (1600s) with the development of the belief in the harmony between Heaven, Earth, and mankind. More specifically, the sciences had four major subjects including agriculture, medicine (with proponents such as Sun Simiao, Li Shizhen), astronomy (proponents including Li Chunfeng, Shen Kuo), and mathematics, as well as key technologies in the areas of ceramics, silks, and construction. It was not until the Crusades in the late 11th century that the Chinese Four Great Inventions (the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing) as well as the Greek sciences were brought to the West by the Arabs.
After the glory of art, architecture, science, and literature during the Renaissance, modern science developed in the areas of mechanics, chemistry, electricity, magnetism, and optics. Collectively, they led to the industrial revolution and the science we see today.
Looking back in history, one would find that major scientific discoveries, such as those made by Nicolaus Copernicus and Isaac Newton, came from the persistent pursuit of truth. This includes, but is not limited to challenging the existing doctrines. In addition, many of them were based on hypothesis, reasoning, and deduction. Very often there was no experimental proof at the time.
Once the system of modern science was established, such an open mind was often forgotten. Many people, including scientists, tended to simply follow or defend the established system while opposing or attacking those with different opinions. This is nearly opposite to what the founding fathers of science did.
One example is the theory of evolution. From its introduction to the modern day, it has many gaps that remain unanswered. In 2006, over 500 doctoral scientists signed a statement questioning the validity of Darwinian evolution. But other than rare events like this, most scientists have been targeted and alienated by their peers or the public for questioning the theory of evolution.
“The list of scientists, teachers, students, and others who have faced retaliation or discrimination for their public skepticism of Darwinism is long and growing,” wrote John West in his March 2022 article titled “Do Scientists Have Freedom to Question Darwinism?” In fact, several biology professors lost their jobs because of this at San Francisco State University, George Mason University, and others. Faculty members in other departments also faced similar discrimination and mistreatment. Examples include the math department at Baylor University, the chemistry department at the University of Mississippi, and the physics department at Ball State University. Universities are well respected for their academic freedom. But modern science, once in place, has become nearly reckless in wiping out opposing voices or opinions.
The harm extends beyond ruining the careers of dissenters. When people in modern society, especially the younger generation, are glued to the virtual world created by computers and phones, they are pulled away from the real, physical world. “There is evidence to suggest that children’s cognitive development can be damaged by prolonged internet use, including the development of memory skills, attention span, abilities for critical reasoning, language acquisition, reading and learning. However, more research is needed to draw conclusions,” stated the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) report in May 2020 titled “Potentially negative effects of internet use.”
Besides its impact on children, other risks related to modern science have also surfaced in recent years, including the nuclear threat, the ecological crisis, the energy crisis, and the cultural crisis. Plus, with coal and petroleum as the major energy sources, its limitations and the world’s over-dependence on them could one day cause serious catastrophes for mankind. Even in the 21th century, people were unprepared as the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and associated tsunami that killed about 230,000 people. Similarly, the recent pandemic has infected nearly 487 million people worldwide with a death toll of over 6 million. Are we able to prevent or stop future disasters such as plagues, power outages, and so on? Only time will tell.
Across cultures there are legends that mankind was created by the divine. By preserving virtue and taking good care of one another, mankind would be blessed with longevity and prosperity. Without these attributes, any advanced civilization could be dissolved instantly. From Atlantis to Pompeii, from ancient Greek culture to Sodom and Gomorrah, there are many examples of this kind. This situation has also been described in an old Chinese saying: When things reach an extreme, they will move in the opposite direction.
In fact, many of the greatest scientists have been highly religious. “To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge,” wrote Nicolaus Copernicus (February 19, 1473 – May 24, 1543), a Polish mathematician and physicist.
Newton once created a model of the solar system. With a pull of the handle, all of the planets started to move in their own orbits. When his friend Edmund Halley praised him for the work, Newton replied that although the model was intricate, it was almost nothing compared to the real solar system. If the model had come from his design and hands, wouldn’t the real solar system, something way more sophisticated, have been created by the all mighty God?
“As a blind man has no idea of colors, so have we no idea of the manner by which the all-wise God perceives and understands all things,” Newton once said.
Albert Einstein was also amazed by the delicate arrangement of our world. “In the view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognise, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views,” he remarked.
Nearly all these great scientists encouraged open-minded thinking. “The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science,” Einstein explained.
There are still many unanswered questions in science such as the Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, Near-Death Experiences, and the Sixth Sense. In history, many incidents have been passed down from ancient times such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus. In China, the legends of Zhou Yi (Book of Changes) and great physicians like Sun Simiao and Bian Que have also left countless inspiring legends and wisdom.
Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper once argued that, for a theory to be considered scientific it must be able to be tested and conceivably proven false. One example can be the hypothesis that “all swans are white,” which can be falsified by observing a black swan. With so many unanswered questions in our lives, on our earth, and in the universe, simply ignoring them and defending modern science is not the wisest approach.
The ongoing pandemic offers us an opportunity to think through many things, including who we are and why we have come to this world. “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me,” Newton once said. Such humility and gratitude may help us understand the world better, both for ourselves and future generations.