It’s very easy for us to think of Science as a discrete part of Western culture, yet somehow transcendent at the same time. Perhaps that’s true as far as it goes, but understanding Science means looking at more than just how it’s different from the previous times in Western history.
Seeing science clearly requires understanding that it is not only a new way of learning about the world, but also heir of a tradition that goes all the way back at least to Ancient Greek philosophers, and more likely to Ancient Egypt.
Science is more than a method of collecting and analyzing data; It’s also a part of Western culture. Science is not just a way of thinking that replaced Alchemy, but also is alchemy’s cultural heir. More, in some ways science is heir to the whole tradition of the Western educational system.
Science, the Heir
We’re very used to thinking of Science with its triumphal plot arc: led by men who broke from the past and created a new world of rationality and order. But to understand the cultural role of science, rather than just the method, we need to comprehend the part that knowledge has played in the West going all the way back to the beginning of Western civilization.
As described in my last post, Science (writ large) rose to cultural power in the times following the Black Plague in Europe. It was a time when the Church’s cultural and political power was, after a thousand years, sustaining serious questions to its credibility. But Science didn’t spring out of nowhere. More accurately, it was an outgrowth of the work of the scholars of the West.
The growth of Western knowledge of the world had long been limited in certain ways by the political and religious realities of the power of the Church. The rise of science came at a time when the hierarchy of power was being shaken.
Yet the institutions of Science did not develop in a vacuum. Instead Science built on preexisting infrastructure, such as the institutions of learning that had been associated with the Church. Such growth made them bedfellows with politicians and kings.
Like other teachers (Latin: Doctor) of knowledge, there was a responsibility to advise political leaders when called upon. We sometimes focus on research and the scientific method when we try to understand science, but it is just as important to understand its relationship to the rest of society.
Science, the Grand Vizier
Fiction is the new mythology, and it gives us a window into otherwise hidden aspects of culture. Have you ever noticed the way science is treated in Western fiction? For the most part, it’s not very science-y. Most treatments of science have little to do with the research role of the scientist, and everything to do with their social role.
Though books are more likely to take the time explaining it (and there are whole sub-genres of science fiction that treat scientific research and discoveries with some consideration), in most movies and television, Science is treated as a discipline of almost magical wonder.
In fiction, Science is the source of MacGuffins of wondrous power, the way characters turn “can’t” into “can,” and an almost miraculous heal-all. Even where fictional science is used to solve problems, it is presented in mythological terms. The way science is shown inverts the actual pattern of scientific research.
In the real world, science is used to explore the unknown. In fiction, by contrast, science serves to drive the plot forward. The “Scientist” archetype has less to do with Einstein, and more to do with Merlin. The fictional Scientist takes the role of the wise advisor who understands the nature of the world.
Science not only devotes itself to furthering human knowledge, but also serves society. It serves by advising leaders, using its superior knowledge of the world. This pattern places it firmly in the same tradition as a thousand stories of King’s Counselors and Grand Viziers. In the US, the National Academies fill this role.
By acting as learned advisors of kings (and presidents), the scientists have taken over the role that alchemists, astrologers, and other old scholars once held. This isn’t the scientist in the laboratory, but the scientist who stands behind the throne.
Yet the learned have often counseled the leaders of the world. In some ways, science ushered in a new era of knowledge, but in other ways, they have provided a new face to an old role: the wise advisors of beneficent leaders, helping them to make decisions that benefit all people.