It seems very arrogant to think that today we are right but for thousands of years other people got it wrong. Our ancestors were just as clever as us. So I sometimes find the scientific worldview, with its hyper-positivism, hard to swallow. It is only a few hundred years old, after all. Surely it is the epitome of modernism’s vainglorious conceit to suggest that our worldview is correct where that of all our ancestors for millennia past was wrong. And yet, science works.

I have a similar problem with politics and the correct ordering of society. I am inclined to be conservative, at least politically, but my attempts to elucidate and defend conservatism in some comments on McCabism soon left me in a bit of a muddle.

With the above in mind, I was really looking forward to reading A Comprehensible Universe. It is a book about the origins of science and rationality, from the Ancient Greeks to today. It is about the relationship between philosophy, religion and science; the central mystery being the mathematical nature of the world. The authors are Catholic priests who work for the Vatican Observatory. They thus combine a passion and talent for science with a sensitivity to religion and non-scientific worldviews. I hoped to find something here that would help me either to clearly comprehend the flaws in the positivist attitude or to understand how we got it right after thousands of years of clever people getting it wrong.

What I actually found was a very well written book that provides a fascinating overview of the development of modern thought, from the first Ionians who sought to use reason rather than myth to understand the world, through the fusion of Hellenistic philosophy with Semitic religion in early Christianity, to the birth of the scientific method in the 16th and 17th centuries. The authors do not dismiss the efforts of past philosophers, rather they demonstrate a developmental continuum from the earliest Greek rationalists to the most recent scientists. Seen in this way, with clear explanations of each stage and discussions of the merits and defects of different philosophies, the idea that recent modes of thought might be improvements on earlier modes of thought seems obvious rather than arrogant.

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 4:34 pm  Comments (1)  

One CommentLeave a comment

  1. i enjoyed Bryan Appleyard’s ‘Understanding the Present’ which is also about the history of science.

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