Accuracy and the rise of modern science

by Dr Efthymios Nicolaidis, Project SOW Director

Claudius Ptolemy, the great Alexandrian astronomer of the 2nd c. A.D., begins his book Mathematical syntax of astronomy, known as Almagest, as follows:

 “Those who have been true philosophers, Syrus, seem to me to have very wisely separated the theoretical part of philosophy from the practical. For even if it happens the practical turns out to be theoretical prior to its being practical, nevertheless a great difference would be found in them; not only because some of the moral virtues can belong to the everyday ignorant man and it is impossible to come by the theory of whole sciences without learning, but also because in practical matters the greatest advantage is to be had from a continued and repeated operation upon the things themselves, while in theoretical knowledge it is to be had by a progress onward. We accordingly thought it up to us so to train our actions even in the application of the imagination as not to forget in whatever things we happen upon the consideration of their beautiful and well ordered disposition, and to indulge in meditation mostly for the exposition of many beautiful theorems and especially of those specifically called mathematical”.

Ptolemy says that his goal is to comply operations with principles; therefore to comply practice with theory. His reasons are aesthetic, he searches order and beauty in the theoretical method, two notions that haunted the ancient Greek philosophers. For Ptolemy and his predecessors, order and beauty were to be sought in the sky, and as for order, it was not an originality of Hellenic philosophy. Whether in Babylonian, Egyptian or Chinese astronomy, order is a main concern; without order, there is no prediction of the celestial motions. But what makes Greek astronomy original is the beauty sought in mathematics used for the of the modelling the world since Pythagoras. By introducing God as a great mathematician and creator, Plato transformed Pythagorean numerology into a geometric cosmology, and encouraged philosophers to search for the cosmic mathematical harmony; Ptolemy worked towards this goal.

Yet, during the early 15th century, Plato's philosophy spread throughout the Italian peninsula by Pletho Gemistus, and at the same time the texts of the Neoplatonists, already known in the Christian West via Arab scholars and indirectly via the translations of Maximus the Confessor and Pseudo-Dionysius by John Scott Erigena (9th c.), were propagated as a corpus organized by Byzantine scholars. This Neoplatonic revival strengthened the Christian concept that the understanding of nature includes metaphysical principles. The physical world was not conceived as separated from its formative and metaphysical principles, it was considered as a sacred book, and science as the intermediary between Humankind and Creation. God is a mathematician; he designed the world with the precision of a surveyor. This idea was truly crucial for the scientific quest of the European world and the originality of its thinking. It led to the birth of the new knowledge that emerged during the 16th century, which we define today as ‘science’. Spreading from astronomy, the Neoplatonic ideas raised the concept of accuracy in measurements of the physical world, and accuracy is closely related to the birth and the development of the ‘new science’. Indeed, the main feature of this area of knowledge, born in Late Renaissance Europe, is the transformation of the philosophy of nature into a field of knowledge where everything is mathematized and, consequently, accurately measured. Astronomy, which by its nature is a science of measurement and mathematization, is rightly considered as driving this transformation. The quest for the divine mathematical plan in hand together with the development of a Europe based on its technological superiority as a consequence of its scientific development, were, from the 16th century and onwards, the two pillars of the endless race of European society to accuracy.

Although the Christian East highly contributed to the propagation of Neoplatonic ideas to the West and that these ideas where taught in the East Roman empire without interruption from the end of the antiquity to its fall at the 15th century, we do not witness an analogous phenomenon of mathematization and accuracy in the Byzantine philosophy of Nature. The influence of the Hellenic tradition in the teaching of natural philosophy together with various theological trends that negate the thesis that philosophical approaches of Nature intermediate between Humankind and God’s creation, prevented Byzantine Humanism to transform ancient philosophical knowledge of nature as did the Christian West. Therefore, ‘science’ with the modern meaning of the world was introduced into Orthodox Christianity from outside, and its spread provoked debates and transformations that we can witness today in various approaches concerning contemporary science and technology.



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