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The persistent fluidity of science

Today we compare ideas of science across Babylonian, Greek, and modern times with Dr. Francesca Rochberg, PhD from the University of Chicago and Catherine and William L. Magistretti Distinguished Professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.


David: Despite the fluidity you describe in the definition of science over time, is it possible to identify enduring features?


Francesca: Paradoxically, change is perhaps one of the enduring features of science, which is to say that the one thing for sure about science is that it does not stay the same over time, even if certain features become regularized—at least until they are replaced altogether. As a historian trying to justify the use of the term science for a very alien system of knowledge, the Babylonian, I take the term science to refer to cultural activities that establish practices and methods of inquiry into and which result in systems of knowledge of what a particular community perceives as its phenomenal world. Of course what phenomena are, at least those of interest to science, also changes over time.


David: If Babylonian science had not been pressed into the service of religion, would it be considered more scientific today?


Francesca: I don’t find the religion versus science a useful dichotomy until the Early Modern period. What about Medieval science? That was far more “in the service of religion” than ancient science.

David: For the purposes of this conversation, let’s adopt a simplistic ten-word definition of science as a process designed to generate better explanations of the world. Were the patterns identified in the heavens by the pre-Greek civilizations of Mesopotamia less scientific than the predictive but faulty assumptions about circular motion of the Greeks?


Francesca: It is interesting that you put this question in this way. Note that in my definition of science under the first question I didn’t make explanation part of the goal. It is true that the Babylonians were not interested in causal accounts, or “explanations,” of the planetary phenomena. For them it was the prediction of the next phenomenon in a set of cyclical phenomena that was the goal, not an explanation of why, in a physical sense, a phenomenon was cyclical or that it would occur in position x at time y. The Greeks produced a physical causal account of planetary motion because indeed they were interested in matter in motion! They wanted to explain where a planet was at some given time t, whereas the Babylonians wanted to predict where in the zodiac and when the planet would be in its next synodic moment. The position of the planet in between those phenomena at some time t could be obtained by interpolation, not by a theory of how the planet moved around the celestial sphere with Earth/eye of the observer as the center. Was this less scientific? Not in my view. Each had different interests in the planetary phenomena, different ways of understanding them, and produced different sorts of theories about them. The Greeks’ theory was physical—it was about physics. The Babyonians’ theory was mathematical and predictive, not about physics. Both were interested in the phenomenal world of their experience and developed methods of inquiry to deal with them, i.e., to answer the questions of interest to them about the phenomena. For me, both are science.

David: I find that my colleagues tend to put those who theorize about the world up on pedestals, where they can be worshipped and/or feared. Is there a historical anchor to this mindset?

Francesca: Perhaps! Certainly in ancient Mesopotamia the astronomers and astrologers were members of a tiny literate elite. In the 7th century BCE they held positions at the royal court. In the 3rd to 1st centuries BCE they were priests in the major temples in the major cities of Babylon and Uruk. Were they worshipped or feared? We don’t know about that, but they were thought of as very learned and specialized, rather the way we look at scientists and scholars today in the sense that we don’t understand what they do but we respect it.

David: I find that astronomers often produce antiseptic research products designed to avoid controversy, limiting themselves to reporting observations in a non-committal way even when their data paints a clear picture. I find this to be an abdication of the responsibility as scientists to contribute to generating better explanations of the world. Perhaps modern astronomy is more Babylonian than Greek?

Francesca: The comparison of the Babylonians to the Greeks is such an interesting one. John Maynard Keynes famously said about Newton, that he “was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind that looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.” Richard Feynman also famously used the Babylonian to Greek comparison to make a point about mathematical reasoning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaUlqXRPMmY.

I think the best answer to your question was given by my student, Eduardo Escobar in this: https://ifk.uchicago.edu/news/babylonian-knowledge-and-the-challenge-of-history/


David: Thank you Professor!

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