Boundary Conditions of the Scientific Revolution

What changed between classical antiquity and modernity? Universities, printing, scientific societies, and journals.

Recently I wrote an answer on Quora to the question Did any ancient civilizations come close to industrializing? This has proved to be one of my more popular answers, and I not only got a lot of views for this answer, but also a lot of interesting comments that spurred me to think more on the topic presented by the question. I find it intellectually stimulating to answer questions and respond to comments, and this recent exercise was especially fruitful, having provided me with much food for thought.

A parallel question would be did any ancient civilizations come close to a scientific revolution? This question is related to the above question because the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution are each implicated in the other. Here, however, the answer must be “No.” No ancient civilization came close to experiencing a scientific revolution. However, if the question is changed to did any ancient civilization practice science? then the answer must be “Yes” — but the practice of science in pre-modern civilizations differs from that of science in the modern world.

So what is it that distinguishes the science of the ancient world from modern science? Modern science has developed far beyond ancient science primarily due to the organization of the scientific community which has developed institutions that facilitate the dissemination of knowledge. In antiquity, even the greatest scientists usually worked alone, or at most had a few students. The isolation of scientists meant that idea diffusion was severely limited compared to what it is today, and it also meant that ancient science never embodied what philosopher of science Imre Lakatos called a scientific research program.

Here is Lakatos’ description of scientific research programs:

“…I claim that the typical descriptive unit of great scientific achievements is not an isolated hypothesis but rather a research programme. Science is not simply trial and error, a series of conjectures and refutations. ‘All swans are white’ may be falsified by the discovery of one black swan. But such trivial trial and error does not rank as science. Newtonian science, for instance, is not simply a set of four conjectures — the three laws of mechanics and the law of gravitation. These four laws constitute only the ‘hard core’ of the Newtonian programme. But this hard core is tenaciously protected from refutation by a vast’ protective belt’ of auxiliary hypotheses. And, even more importantly, the research programme also has a ‘heuristic’, that is, a powerful problem-solving machinery, which, with the help of sophisticated mathematical techniques, digests anomalies and even turns them into positive evidence.”

While an individual scientist might successfully formulate and test an isolated hypothesis, a community of scientists in continual communication is necessary to carry out a scientific research program on a scale such as Lakatos describes. The formulation and elaboration of a scientific research program is a communal activity, and it is the scientific community that undertakes this work. No such scientific community existed in the ancient world, and its institutions have only gradually come into being in the modern period.

What are these institutions? I will focus on four institutions that I take to be especially significant in relation to the difference between science in the ancient world and science in the modern world. These institutions jointly define the scientific community:

  1. the appearance of universities
  2. the introduction and rapid dissemination of movable type printing
  3. the foundation of scientific societies
  4. the establishment of scientific journals

I will consider each of these conditions in more detail.

1. The Appearance of Universities

Universities were a distinctive product of the European middle ages. There were schools in classical antiquity (most famously, Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum), and there were a few pre-modern institutions of learning such as the library at Alexandria and the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, but these were rare.

During the early middle ages, monasteries served as repositories of knowledge, and monasteries possessed libraries at a time in European history when no other institution possessed books in any number. But books were rare and expensive, often chained to the shelf so they would not be stolen. Moreover, access to the library was closely monitored by the religious order whose monastery it was, and scholarly activity involving the library was tightly-coupled with the aims of the monastic order.

Though early European universities were dominated by theological and philosophical studies, they represented a much greater degree of independence from the institutional church and its religious orders than did the monasteries with their libraries and scriptoria. Scholarly research within a university setting could be much more loosely-coupled with the institutional church and its many monastic orders.

Over time, and after industrialization, universities evolved into the multi-faceted research institutions that they are today. Particular departments of particular universities come to be known for their work in particular areas of knowledge, and the distinctive approach that they take. In other words, university departments often implicitly embody a scientific research program, and prospective students may take this into account in making a decision as to which university to attend. This results in a de facto selection process in which those most interested in a particular scientific research program are likely to attend the university that best exemplifies that scientific research program.

2. The Introduction and Rapid Dissemination of Movable Type Printing

The availability of relatively inexpensive books made an enormous difference in the dissemination of knowledge. The rapid printing of cheap pamphlets is often cited as one of the chief reasons the Protestant Reformation spread as rapidly as it did; in an earlier age, without the printing press, it is likely that only a few scholars would have known of Martin Luther and his 95 theses. As it was, Luther became an early modern celebrity.

Gutenberg’s printing press was introduced during the lifetime of Prince Henry the Navigator, and about 50 years before the first voyage of Columbus. The Age of Discovery that followed not only carried crews and cargoes around the world, it also resulted in early printing presses (and the books printed by them) being carried on the same ships — a lesser known aspect of the Columbian exchange. Printing presses, brought to the far corners of the world, were operating in Mexico City in 1544, in Goa in 1556, Lima in 1581, and Manila and Nagasaki in 1590.

3. The Foundation of Scientific Societies

Scientific societies represented the most direct form of social networking among scientists, hence the most direct form of idea diffusion. Many scientific societies were founded in the early modern period, though most of the them did not endure. Some, however, have endured to the present day. The Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina was founded in 1652 and claims to be the oldest scientific society continuously in existence. The Royal Society was founded in 1660 and remains an important institution in English academic life.

4. The Establishment of Scientific Journals

Five years after the Royal Society was founded, it began publishing Philosophical Transactions in 1665. The journal has been publishing continuously for more than 350 years. Today there are tens of thousands of scientific journals, disseminating specialized knowledge to communities of scientists engaged in broadly defined scientific research programs that constitute the state of the art in each discipline.

That the first scientific journal was established by one of the earliest independent scientific societies demonstrates an awareness of the importance of idea diffusion in the growth of scientific knowledge, and a willingness to create an infrastructure of knowledge that could serve the growing scientific community.

Prior to the scientific revolution, scholars had to be co-located in order to engage in collaboration. With books and journals, this was no longer the case. A scholar could be current with the most recent research in a given field by reviewing scientific journals, and could in turn collaborate at a distance by submitting papers to be published in them.

With the introduction of the internet, the process of the dissemination of knowledge that began in earnest with the easy availability of books due to printing with movable type has been accelerated significantly. Scholars routinely collaborate over international distances, with immediate access to enormous data sets shared over computers. In the case of astronomy, to take a particular instance, telescopes on distant mountain tops, aimed by precision machinery, send their images to astronomers anywhere in the world, who need not travel to distant outposts in order to have access to the data produced there.

Each of these four factors I have mentioned above themselves have deep historical roots, and cannot be disentangled from their context without doing violence to them. For example, the foundation of universities was uniquely a product of the European middle ages, so that the one is unimaginable without the other, and vice versa. In this sense, the whole of European civilization up to that time contributed to the foundation of universities, as it would later contribute to printing, scientific societies, and scientific journals.

The distinct institutions of distinct civilizations that did not experience a scientific revolution must be understood on their own terms, and not in terms of the lack of developments that occurred in another civilization. These civilizations had, and continue to have, very different histories because of the order in which they have experienced the introduction of modern science and industrialization, which came to them by way of idea diffusion from another civilization, rather than through indigenous development. How the distinctive institutions of these civilizations have responded to idea diffusion of western civilization has been different in each case, and these differences continue to inform the development of these civilizations.

We can think of the four factors discussed above as the boundary conditions of the scientific revolution, i.e., the “Goldilocks” conditions that are “just right” for a scientific revolution to occur. Without these Goldilocks conditions, it is still possible to do science (as occurred in other civilizations that did not experience a scientific revolution), but under these conditions science is practiced on a small scale, even a personal scale, without these institutions of idea diffusion that make collaboration on a scientific research program possible.

While the scientific revolution was a unique historical event that had to wait for Goldilocks conditions to obtain before it could occur, science without a scientific revolution was not historically unique. Nor have scientific research programs been unique to modern civilization. It would be fair to say that there was an ancient scientific research program, and indeed also a medieval scientific research program, but it must also be said that these early research programs differed from modern research programs in important ways. And while the difference between early and modern scientific research programs may be a difference of degree rather than a difference in kind, as we know from the study of emergent complexity, sometimes more can be different.

Ancient and medieval scientific research programs were a lot like technology, engineering, and industry before the industrial revolution: unfocused, hit-or-miss, idiosyncratic, and unsystematic. With the greater organizational resources of modern societies (which include the institutions I mentioned in my previous post — viz. universities, printing, scientific societies, and journals), scientific research programs pursued in the modern era are far more focused, disciplined, and systematic.

In my 2015 talk, “What kind of civilizations build starships?” (as well as in Chronometry and the STEM Cycle) I made a distinction between the loosely-coupled STEM cycle before the industrial revolution and the tightly-coupled STEM cycle after the industrial revolution. The “STEM cycle” is what I call the virtuous circle of science driving the invention of technologies that are engineered for industry, which in turn produces better scientific instruments, which allows further progress in science. This cycle existed prior to the industrial revolution, but it played out over hundreds of years, and sometimes over thousands of years. Since the industrial revolution, the STEM cycle has played out over decades, and sometimes over years or even months.

In the same spirit a distinction could be made between the loosely-coupled scientific research programs prior to the scientific revolution, and the tightly-coupled scientific research programs that have come into being since the scientific revolution, and which have only become more tightly-coupled over time. The tightly-coupled scientific research programs of today converge on results (or even upon falsification) much more rapidly than the loosely-coupled scientific research programs of the past, which might produce an interesting result every few hundred years.

One could say that Archimedes, Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy were engaged in a common scientific research program (cf. Addendum on the Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Thesis), and that this common scientific research program was the loosely-coupled scientific research program of classical antiquity. That something like a coherent scientific research program unified the efforts of ancient scientists in the Mediterranean Basin over a thousand years demonstrates the slow pace of development and diffusion that characterized scientific knowledge in the ancient world (i.e., its loosely-coupled character). Ultimately, even this limited idea diffusion of classical antiquity came to an end when the world of classical antiquity fell apart.

The modern world not only has tightly-coupled scientific research programs, in contradistinction to the loosely-coupled scientific research programs of the pre-modern world, but it also has a plethora of them, concurrently being pursued by communities of researchers, any one of which is far larger than the total scientific community of classical antiquity. Multiple concurrent scientific research programs mean a greater likelihood of one or several of them producing reliable results (or falsification), which in turn drives the growth of scientific knowledge at a measurable rate.

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