Something Pertinent to Comparing Chinese and Western Civilization in this age of “civilizational” conflict.
My most recent blog post was “The Panda Hugger’s Handbook”, a review of a book titled “Why China Leads the World”. I agreed with the book’s main thesis that China will lead the world by example in this century. The culture and civilization of China provides a better basis for a viable state and society in the conditions of this century.
However, I have some concerns that this leads to an idea that there is something wrong and toxic with western civilization. The world’s great civilizations all have their drawbacks, but they have something positive to offer the world or they would not have been around for thousands of years.
I do not support this idea of “clash of civilizations.” Instead, I think that with the modern world and modern technology closing the distance between civilizations, all these world civilizations will over time merge into one world civilization. Both China and the west will have much to add to it.
All civilizations have gone in cycles. All have had periods of great advance and of stagnation. All have had inward looking stages and bursts of aggressive expansion and imperialism.
China has been through a bad period and is rising now. The western nations have gone very bad lately and are now in a serious decline. They are likely to go into an age of isolation and eventual rejuvenation, and of course to eventually merge with the rest of the world.
However, there is one very valuable and unique thing which western civilization has given the world. That is, the scientific revolution. This enabled the huge advance in technology and standard of living which most of the world now enjoys.
I happened to write an essay about the scientific revolution when I was still doing university courses, some years back now. I titled it “The Magician and the Artisan” because what the scientific revolution seemed to be to be about was the rise of the Artisan, the practical person who could create things because he/she was able to use “scientific method.” Somehow the Magicians, who ruled over all civilizations for millennia through the use of superstition, were disempowered.
I did not get a great mark for it. I never did fit in well with the philosophy department of the University of Toronto, which seemed to regret the scientific revolution and to be committed to medieval ideas of education. I would have preferred an education for the modern world.
I do not think I was supposed to answer the question; “what caused the scientific revolution”, by saying that it is impossible to say exactly what brought it about but we should all be glad it happened. Maybe some brain mutation occurred around that time. The fact is, right around the year 1500 in Western Europe, a critical mass of people started using their brains much more effectively and thus started increasing the quality of life for all.
Prior to that, in the West, in China, in India, in Ancient Egypt and in the American civilizations, people were slaves, serfs, and peasants, grunking out survival under the control of a small elite. Even China, where Confucian ethics usually led to more humane government, and which was usually the most technologically advanced place on earth, scientific progress was incredibly slow. Innovation was usually seem as a threat to stability.
The Scientific revolution and the scientific method has been the west’s great gift to the world. Yes, the west’s technical superiority enabled the imperialism of the past centuries. However, I do not think that any of the other civilizations, with the same advantage over the others, would have acted differently, or finally ended up any less culturally and morally poisoned from it.
So, to further discussion of western and Chinese civilization, I have pulled my old essay out of my memory hole. In the light of time and my improved writing skills, I can see some of its flaws. I have fixed it up a bit and stripped out the citations, which I doubt if anyone is interested in.
Of course if you are interested in my source material, I can send it to you.
My own views have advanced a bit from all this, especially on the topic of “magical thinking.”
The Magician and The Artisan
The magicians and the artisans have been around from neolithic times. The latter were the people who actually found natural laws and applied them to human benefit; to develop and produce the needed goods, and to make predictions important for human survival and well being. The former were necessary to maintaining elite control over both the artisans and the peasants who produced the surpluses.
The magicians depended on the artisans but as much as possible appropriated their knowledge. The magician’s power depended on their prestige, the emotional dependance of the whole society on the knowledge they possessed or were thought to possess, and on the prevalence of magical thinking in premodern times.
The magicians became specialized into priests, medicine men, and wise men. By 1500, these had become the clergy, physicians, and philosophers, the three main careers trained for in the medieval universities. The artisans were now the masons who designed and built the churches, the barber/surgeons who did the cutting for the physicians, and the craftsmen who made the instruments for the philosophers to do “natural philosophy” with.
By 1700, the magicians had lost the power to define what is now called “scientific truth” to the artisans, or the kindred spirits of the artisans, because they had lost their credibility. This was the most important change during the period referred to as the “Scientific Revolution”. The historical significance of this is well known; people generally began to think in more useful ways.
This led to an accelerating build up of technology, leading to the industrial revolution. It is more difficult to discuss the origins of this development; the “why”. It emerged with relative suddenness after millennia of very slow human progress. But the “how” can be shown simply by means of the most common stock story about the scientific revolution, the debunking of the “geocentric universe”.
The word “magic” comes from the Magi, the ancient Persian Zoroastrian priests. The word “magic” has many meanings even among modern scholars, including the ““high” or “Hermetic” magic of late medieval and renaissance times”. This essay refers to the human tendency to magical thinking and its use as a means of social control by the Magi’s kindred spirits.
The best definition of magical thinking and “magician’s folly” is the most inclusive; “mistaking an ideal connection with a real connection”. In other words, construing things as you would like to believe them to be rather than as they are.
Magical thinking has a psychological purpose in enabling people to cope with disturbing situations they have no solution or explanation for, or control over. It is not healthy to be totally “unmagical”; magic only becomes pathologic when it leads to bad analysis of situations, wrong reactions, and missing better explanations.
However, magical thinking is an effective political control; it makes analysis of existing social relationships more difficult. Magicians could convince publics that they had the final answer to all things, in order to get acceptance of a political order that suited them and the rulers they served. The scientific revolution should be seen as key elements of European society losing their awe of the magicians and beginning to think in non magical ways, to see much of the “natural philosophy” of the time as nonsense, and to begin to ridicule it.
“Science” is a modern word for what was usually called “natural philosophy” in those times. The “renaissance” was occurring at the same time as the scientific revolution but this term is used to describe two things that happened at the same time which had little to do with each other or directly with the scientific revolution.
One was the dissatisfaction of the aristocracy with the Aristotelean natural philosophy they were being taught, its uselessness, and their revival of even older magic which also proved useless. The other was the “cultural rebirth” of western civilization. But the “rebirth” was not the scientific revolution, which was a unique development in history.
No factor or combination of factors can be isolated as the origin of the scientific revolution. The printing press was invented in Europe in the fifteenth century, but book printing began in Korea in the thirteenth century. This did not lead to a Scientific Revolution in the east.
Improvement of ships led to voyages of discovery, leading to debunking of Ptolemaic geography. Improved instruments led to debunking of Ptolemy’s geocentric system. Improved technology clearly led, rather than followed, the scientific revolution, but other cultures were overall as technologically advanced as Europe at the time.
The feudal order was failing, the city states were rising, and religious authority was challenged by the reformation. But there have been many periods of turmoil and rapid change in history; only one brought about the scientific revolution. While it is interesting that Marxist historians seem to miss this development, nothing can be said definitely about why it occurred when it did, and to say that many historians have tried to do so is disputatious and only proves this point.
However, it is fairly easy to make a statement about the process by which the scientific revolution occurred, by means of the chain of discovery from Copernicus to Newton, developing a realistic model of the cosmos, and the way the religious authorities reacted and finally adapted to this. The problem was, the geocentric universe was magical thinking.
It is asserted in its defence that this was the most logical explanation at the time. No. It was nonsense in Aristotle’s time, in Ptolemy’s time, and in Pope Urban’s time.
These people made up an ideal explanation, assuming connections they had no basis for; fifth element, levity, and deferent point, and were uninterested in real connections. For example, with the rotation of the earth and the argument about things flying off it; Aristotle and Ptolemy had available all the ways of investigating the laws of inertia and gravity which Galileo used, but had no interest in doing so.
Relating the seven metals to the seven planets was associative magic; some thing has a point of similarity to another unrelated thing, such as a color, and so it should be able to influence the other thing.
The esteemed doctor Paracelsus explains to us how gold is created from the other metals through the “spirit of heaven” and by starting with the outermost planet/metal and working down to the sun. It is all very simple, but if you do not understand it, you should just keep quiet about it.
Geocentricity was a political allegory; “…it was fitting that inferiors should be ruled and governed by superiors – the heavenly bodies.” The magicians worked for the rulers and both wanted people to accept that the rulers were above the ruled, and could control what was below them, but that those below had no influence over their superiors, and that this was as it should be.
The scientific revolution was a political defeat of the magicians. The religious authorities began to find themselves in a bind when they tried to define what scientific truth was. They no longer had the power and prestige to merely eliminate people with divergent ideas, and could only attack by indirect means.
For example, the immediate cause of the “Galilean Controversy” was simple miscommunication. Galileo was on good terms with Pope Urban. He was led to believe he was clear to put his ideas the way he did.
Urban may have thought he was being mocked, as the “Simplicio” character repeated his own arguments. He was certainly under pressure from more conservative factions in the Catholic church. Galileo immediately “recanted” everything and was placed under house arrest.
Thirty years previously Giordano Bruno was burned for challenging orthodoxy. Galileo was very popular, well connected, and really wanted to be onside with the church. The idea that he really deserved what he got because he “went about things in the wrong way” is contemptible.
In contrast, Giordano Bruno was not popular, had no defenders, and seemed to have a serious death wish. But we do not know how unjust his persecution really was; all records “went missing”. An example of a more indirect attack on those embarrassing the establishment in this way was the witch trial of Kepler’s mother.
Descartes found the mechanical concepts needed to adequately explain motions of planets; including centrifugal force. This made nonsense of the “Ptolemaic” idea of “spheres”. Descartes was notably sarcastic toward the “philosophers (or rather the sophists)”.
However, he was aware of Galileo’s persecution and gave the religious authorities a way out by posing his ideas as merely fables. In this way, he could still promote important principles. He could claim that giving a name to the idea of ‘gravity’ is not the same as knowing what it is.
The Jesuit order went with this strategy to protect the prestige of their institution. It amounted to a stepwise backing away from Aristoteleanism.
First, heliocentrism was ignored. Aristotle was taught unless there was a consensus about some point contradicting him, and then they would agree with the majority. They quoted Aquinas; “scripture speaks according to the opinion of the people.”
Second, they asked what the ancient philosophers would have said about it if they reincarnated in the present. Third, they characterized heliocentrism as a “novel idea” among many and stopped expecting any “coherent system”.
Finally came the Boscovic concept of absolute and relative space. This “saved the appearance” of an immobile earth in absolute space, while allowing for a mobile, “relative space” earth as well.
Obviously, organized religion felt it had to fear ridicule. It left the magical scientists without its protection and themselves open to ridicule. They were ridiculed, as shown by the popular entertainments of the time.
In the play, “Three Hours After Marriage” by John Gay, the character of Doctor Fossile, an “aging, pompous scientist” engages in debates with a charlatan called Plotkin about whether a piece of gold was really created from lead. The joke was that Fossile really could not refute Plotkin without discrediting himself as well.
The scientists of this time were more ruthlessly mocked through the stock character of “Dottore” in the Italian Commedia del Arte; who would make pronouncements such as that he has “proved” that the sky is blue. Ridicule was the weapon by which the magicians were defeated.
The defeat of the magicians was the triumph of the artisans. The bourgeois class, with its artisans and seafarers, people with attitudes shaped by practical experience with the real world, became able to safely contradict this old social order and create the scientific revolution from below.
How it happened was; society became complex enough that the problem solving ability, and the productivity, of practically oriented artisans, navigators and engineers was critical. The rulers needed them. They began to form a bourgeois or middle class with some status.
The practical minded artisans were naturally offended by the quasi-magical science of the church controlled universities. When the artisans began criticizing the magicians, the rulers tended to protect them.
The three key figures in proving heliocentricity were all artisans in spirit. They had connections with the universities and learned from them, especially about mathematics. They all had ties to “the courts”, the governments of that time.
Descartes was protected by the Queen of Sweden. The Duke of Tuscany and even officials of the Catholic church exerted influence in Galileo’s defence. Kepler enjoyed the patronage of several rulers.
But they were also connected with the bourgeois craftsmen of the time, and all made practical discoveries as well as astronomical ones. Galileo had a business manufacturing his advanced instruments. Kepler was the first to explain how eye glasses worked. Descartes discovered analytical geometry, a very practical invention.
The historical significance of this triumph is obvious; nothing more damning can be said about Aristotelian science than that modern technology, the world we have today, could never have developed from it. The artisans and magicians, and the rulers, had been around since the last great human revolution, the neolithic or agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago. In that time technological progress had been incredibly slow.
Since the artisan’s ascendancy it has been accelerating dramatically. However, the “scientific revolution” was no clean break with the past; analytical thinking occurred before and became predominant afterwards, but many of the new scientists still slipped into magical thinking.
Francis Bacon, considered an advocate of new methods of science, still advocated “natural magic” on the idea that the occult was still part of nature, therefore God’s work. This was still confusing the ideal with the real, his wish with the knowable. Bacon never discovered anything, but Newton disappointingly also made magic; he conjured new colors and musical notes in order to make so what he wanted to be so.
Keynes called Newton “the last of the magicians”. Unfortunately, he was not. The tendency to fall into the magician’s folly remains with us today and probably always will. We even still have Aristotelean “natural philosophy” discussed in universities like it is something to take seriously. However, the tendency to live within reality has prevailed since the sixteenth century.
The scientific revolution was the most important period since the neolithic revolution ten thousand years ago, when humans began to farm and herd. What happened was the overthrow of the descendants of the neolithic tribal magicians by the artisans, whose descendants are now called the bourgeoisie, the middle class, the professional class, the technocrats, or “the scientists”.
How this happened is clear; the magicians began to be ridiculous, opening space for people to begin to think in a different way. The world we have now is the result. Why this happened where and when it did seems to be unknowable. We should just be glad it did happen.