June 15th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Anthony Albanese: NSW left factional warlord takes charge

EDITORIAL Religious freedom: the political and legislative challenges

CANBERRA OBSERVED Will Bill Shorten emerge from the shadows again?

FEDERAL ELECTION Queensland voted for jobs, life and country

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Keating's 'nutters': Don't blame the messenger

ECONOMICS AND SOCIETY Health policy is not immune from neoliberal infection

HUMAN RIGHTS Canada accepts Asia Bibi and family as refugees

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Families keeping the faith: the Benedict and other options

IDEOLOGY Feminist claims for equality, Part 1: The context

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 3: More on science and ancient cultures

LIFE ISSUES Families, youth boost crowd at WA Rally for Life

MUSIC Muse of delight: The laugh ascending

CINEMA Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion

BOOK REVIEW Pioneering aviator's flights and fancies

BOOK REVIEW Catholic resistance in a forgotten war

BOOK REVIEW AFA patron's long life of public service


NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal, June 5-6, 2019: An account from the live streaming

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Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 3: More on science and ancient cultures

by John Long

News Weekly, June 15, 2019


The intellectual and scientific accomplishments of ancient Greece are seen as the greatest of antiquity. Mathematical discoveries such as geometry were its crowning achievements. Indeed, if you ask anyone who is responsible for paving the way for science in the West, you will almost invariably be told ancient Greece.

But the physics as taught by Aristotle which came out of Greece (such as regarding the motion of objects) was not only wrong, but was believed for centuries in spite of plenty of opportunities to discover that things were otherwise. The principle that an object’s acceleration towards the earth is proportional to its weight is one of the greater errors of Aristotle’s physics. Surely, says Jaki, over the centuries men working high above the ground on temples or other construction sites saw with their own eyes from time to time that objects of different weights fell with the same increasing speed!

Left to right: Chinese character printing blocks; a sketch of the human
optical system from the Kitab al-Manazir of Ibn al-Haytham;
Greek mathematician Pythagoras.

Underlying the Greek advances in knowledge was the religious and philosophical belief in the eternalness and cyclic nature of history. The “Great Year”, represented by one full cycle of the movement of the planets and stars relative to the Earth, lasts around 26,000 years. But, unlike the ancient Hindus, who saw themselves at the bottom of the cycle in terms of human happiness and advancement, the Greeks saw themselves at the top.

Jaki points out that, in four different works, Aristotle notes that not only does the cosmos move in eternally recurring cycles, so too do human affairs, including all the advances in culture and knowledge. For instance, Jaki quotes Aristotle’s comments in the Meteorologica: “We cannot help believing that the same opinions recur to men not once or twice but over and over again.”

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle cites the divine nature of the sky as evidence that the same ideas are developed, then forgotten, then thought up again over and over in the cycles of the universe.

That science was not viable in ancient Greece is perhaps the most disappointing because of the multitude of discoveries made there. An example is that, in spite of the genius of many ancient Greeks, they never developed the science of motion correctly, from which the discoveries of physics and mechanics could follow.

Jaki lays the blame for this on the notion, shared by all the ancient cultures except that of the Hebrews, that the universe itself is a divine being and naturally runs through eternal, repetitive cycles. This philosophy stifled the development of science because psychologically, if every innovation and advance was thought up before numerous times, forgotten, and rediscovered only to be forgotten again, then thought up again in the future, only to be re-forgotten, over and over, why would anyone go through the trouble of trying to advance knowledge?

Jaki calls this the “treadmill of perennial returns”, and a treadmill it would be, on which one expends a great deal of effort but goes nowhere. This treadmill would make anyone pessimistic about the real, long-term advance of knowledge and, as a result, long-term cultural goals would be set quite low.

He quotes Aristotle in the Metaphysics: “Probably every art and every philosophy has often reached a stage of development as far as it could and then again has perished.” This would also apply to social and technological development.

The Great Year pops up here and there in modern culture. Apart from the horoscope pages that can still be found in newspapers, a good example is in the Disney film, The Lion King. In this movie, the wise Mufasa repeatedly calls on his son to take his place in the “Circle of Life”. This is the chief message in the song of the same name, which features prominently in the movie.

Among the song’s lyrics are the lines:

But the Sun rolling high through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round
In the circle of life
It’s the wheel of fortune
It’s the leap of faith
It’s the band of hope
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle, the circle of life.

(I wonder whether Tim Rice, who wrote the lyrics, read Greek philosophy?)

Interestingly, James Earl Jones, who played the voice of Mufasa in the movie, narrated a documentary film in 2004 called The Great Year. According to the film’s website, “as the Sun curves through space carrying the Earth with it, our bodies and our planet move to a region where they are affected by different cosmic forces that indirectly result in the rise and fall of civilisation. As man’s consciousness expands and contracts, and the cycle plays out, just like a solar year with its seasons, it results in great ages of enlightenment and dark ages of misery.”

What would happen if our modern scientific and technological culture took the lessons from the Great Year to heart? I for one wouldn’t have bothered putting six years of my blood, sweat and tears into producing an original footnote in the annals of knowledge, called a PhD, if I believed that it had already been done before numerous times and will be redone in the future with the cycles of the eternally recurring cosmos.

And what of our belief in the linearity of time? Putting the speculations of mathematicians aside, science and engineering are done in practice by assuming that time is best expressed as an increasing positive number. If the cosmos moves in eternal cycles, and with it civilisation, how can anyone believe in the linearity of time, let alone use time as an instrument of measurement?


Jaki found similar patterns in Chinese history. The ancient Chinese invented printing, magnets, and gunpowder long before the West had them.

An interesting case. China had printing for centuries. Once it was introduced to the West, it developed and improved drastically in just a few hundred years. Why, one might ask, did China miss what was obvious?

China itself was slow and reluctant to adopt Western science. Just a few generations ago Chinese scholars saw science as a means to exploit nature and make man less human. They denounced the microscope, for example, as forcing nature into a straitjacket. As late as the early 1920s, some Chinese commentators, such as philosopher Yu-Lan Fung, claimed publicly that Chinese culture was better off without science.

Why science did not take off in China may be due to its long relationship with Confucianism. Confucianism is one of the best-known pantheistic philosophies, where everyone and everything is essentially part of one cosmic deity. “The Force” from Star Wars is an expression of pantheism. Everyone is Nature. Nature is everyone and everything, and is eternal.

If this is the case, and if people really believe this and put it in practice, then there is no point in even trying to understand it, let alone be its master. Since ancient China apparently lacked confidence in man’s ability to understand and control nature, it is not surprising that, in spite of some impressive technological achievements, science did not grow into a self-perpetuating reality there.

Jaki is fond of a quote by Albert Einstein, reportedly written in a letter in 1953: “The development of Western science is based on two great achievements: the invention of the formal logical system (in Euclidean geometry) by the Greek philosophers; and the discovery of the possibility to find out causal relationships by systematic experiment (at the Renaissance). In my opinion, one need not be astonished that the Chinese sages have not made these steps. The astonishing thing is that these discoveries were made at all.”

The Islamic world

Here is a more recent tragedy for science. Once established, the Muslim empire quickly absorbed all the Greek philosophy, science, and mathematics it could. It stretched from Spain to Afghanistan; for hundreds of years it enjoyed peace and prosperity that far surpassed the Christian West. The Muslims developed medicine, including ophthalmology (which required the study of optics). They developed trigonometry and algebra, building on what the Greeks had discovered, and adopted both the Chinese art of making paper and the Hindu decimal counting system (which had commercial uses).

Scholars from the West went to Cordova in Spain to learn Greek philosophy and science. But a few hundred years later, the Muslim empire stagnated while Christendom in the West flourished and, by the 18th century, Western Europe left the Middle East far behind in scientific achievement.

The Muslim world was in possession of Greek science for 500 years before that science was passed on to the Christian West in the late 13th century. But it never produced a Copernicus or a Galileo. The Muslim world saw great advances in medicine, but not so much in physics. One wonders why? After all, Islam is a monotheistic religion with a single Creator.

Jaki says that, philosophically, Islam was divided into two camps, both whose ideas were of no help in developing science. On the one hand, some Muslim thinkers thought that restricting the Creator to following any necessarily physical laws was blasphemous and denied him the freedom to do as he chooses with nature. Others said that the laws of nature would be a priori – must necessarily be what they are – following the Greeks, whose ideas they absorbed.

Following Jaki, in her book, Science was Born of Christianity, Stacy Trasancos, suggests that thinkers in the Islamic world separated science and religion with no reconciliation between the two, and were unable to break free from Greek concepts such as the Great Year. This apparent contradiction in the Islamic mind denied it the social psychology necessary for the birth of science.

Once the Christian West did obtain Greek scientific works, within 150 years Copernicus had proposed the orbit of Earth around the sun. Within 300 years there were the discoveries and advances of Galileo and Kepler, and shortly after that, Isaac Newton produced his great work on mechanics and his three laws of motion.

The seeds of science, although planted in a variety of powerful empires and cultures, found fertile ground only in Christendom, where it grew and flourished. Everywhere else, after some promising starts, it went nowhere.

Some of the reasons why in these other cultures science did not develop seem to be: first, that nature was seen to be some kind of cyclical animal; second, nature was viewed as being irrational; and, third, nature was necessarily what it was. Man then did not seem to have enough confidence either in nature, or in his mind to understand it and manipulate it to his advantage.

Part 4 of this series looks at the cosmos as the ancient Hebrews saw it, particularly its creation out of nothing; a view that Christianity took up and that later allowed for the blossoming of the scientific enterprise.
John Long has undergraduate qualifications in physics and philosophy from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in physics from Monash University. He has taught physics and engineering at an Australian university for over 20 years.

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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