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Why Wasn’t Science Born in Egypt?

April 4, AD 2013 24 Comments

Science in EgyptFirst we defined “science” and then we defined a “stillbirth of science“ à la mode de Father Stanley L. Jaki, author of The Savior of Science, a Benedictine priest and leading thinker in the philosophy and history of science who authored more than two dozen books on the relation between science and Christianity, and was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1987 for furthering the understanding of science and religion. He argued that Modern Science was born of Christianity. We are exploring that question.

The first stillbirth he discusses is the stillbirth of science in Egypt, “an Egypt to be buried in the sand.” In ancient Egypt, impressive discoveries and achievements were recorded in history. They constructed grand pyramids of such prowess and awe that one can only wonder how they did it. They invented hieroglyphics, a highly developed form of phonetic writing which may have possibly been the greatest intellectual feat ever. They had medical arts. They were successful in using the Nile as an abundant resource. They adopted better weapons, such as chariots, from other countries when the opportunity arose. They had sailors who voyaged around the Eastern shores of Africa.

They had the talent and the skill to notice that everything in the material world is in motion and is, thus, observable and quantifiable. They had the talent to realize that the Scientific Method can be applied over and over to answer questions about the universe, to determine scientific laws. They had the ability to innovate. They even had the ability to communicate it. They demonstrated the ability to communicate and learn from other cultures (e.g. the chariots). Science could have been born in ancient Egypt.

But it wasn’t. All of that progress came to a standstill, a stillbirth.

If they were able to build pyramids to bury their glorified kings, why didn’t they innovate grand constructions to live in?

If they were able to develop written language, why didn’t they have a similar breakthrough with quantities, measurements, and calculations, which are more easy to represent than abstract symbols of the spoken word?

If they were able to preserve mummies, why didn’t they find more cures for diseases?

If they were able to utilize the Nile, why were they complacent about utilizing more natural resources?

If they were able to adopt better weaponry for war, why didn’t they adopt a way to share new ideas with other cultures?

If they sailed for three years along the eastern shores of Africa and returned from the direction of Libya and the sun shone on the ship differently, why didn’t they question whether the earth is not flat?

Jaki also points out that to argue that “the Egyptians of old failed to develop more science because they did not feel the need for more is an all too transparent form of begging a most serious question,” a bad, if not conceited psychology. If they had been but an animal species, as Darwinian theory would have it, they would have never even tried to innovate. They would have continued on their way with things as they were, just as all other animals do until natural selection and genetic mutation evolves them.

But there is also plenty of evidence that they longed for something better. During the reign of Akhenaton, the Pharaoh noted for abandoning traditional Egyptian polytheism and introducing worship of Aten, a monotheistic religious view, Egyptians responded in great number to throw away long established rigid artforms and seek “warmly humane representations of life and nature.” They wanted something better. Yet after his death the traditional religion was restored and Akhenaton would be archived as an enemy.

The longing is evident in the poetry they sang, the inspiration they took from the animal kingdom in their carvings of animal and human combined bodies, effigies which now are, as Jaki put it, “buried in the sand as if to symbolize that there was no future in store for the Egypt of old.” In a culture of polytheism, where innovation only went as far as to serve the rulers and gods, Modern Science could have been born, but was not — according to Jaki.

Shall we debate this claim?

Next: Hindus

Hello, and thank you for reading. My name is Stacy Trasancos. I am a wife, mother of seven, and joyful convert to Catholicism. I write from my tiny office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge that overlooks a small spring-fed lake. Read more about me here. Find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, or contact me by email. God bless you!
  • John Darrouzet

    Great read to start the day! I sense we are looking at the problem of “starting points.” Christianity has a unique one. All other religions and philosophies have similar ones. How the Christian starting point leads to the birth of science is definitely a story worth telling. I look forward to your continuing posts, especially when you write so well.

    • StacyTrasancos

      Yes, that is Jaki’s point later in this book. Christianity has a unique starting point, that science was born of a Virgin birth, which is only part of all that was born, salvation for mankind was born, the freedom to do science and to see the world as it is came from that. In my opinion, Jaki was best when he wrote about that birth, it literally moved me to tears.

      • John Darrouzet

        I have ordered Jaki’s book to learn more about his understanding of this starting point. Thanks for letting me know.

        • StacyTrasancos

          John, I find his writing hard to follow. He knows so much, and tends to go on tangents. I’ve spent hours researching a single sentence to find out what he meant, but it has been worth it. This wasn’t a book I read, and in the middle of it couldn’t put it down. It was one I had to make myself finish, and then at the end it all came together. So I reread it, and now I’m studying parts of it. Lots of meat there. (Like I said before, I’m slow on the uptake.)

  • James

    I can only marvel at the audacity to dismiss the great pyramid as stillborn science. What remains to be rediscovered could in fact take us back to Egypt. I refer to a book by Joseph B Gill and
    titled The Great Pyramid Speaks – an adventure in mathematical archaeology. For the record,
    it has been Jewish minds that have advanced recent and modern science.

    • StacyTrasancos

      James, as I said, I’m happy to debate these claims. If you are saying that science was born in Egypt because of the great pyramids, could you provide the evidence? Something more specific than a book title? Fr. Jaki said as much about the great pyramids, that they are an adventure in mathematical archaeology. It’s an honest request. If you read the previous two posts, I have said that I’m following the argument of Stanley Jaki, but I am also aware that not even all Catholic theologians are in agreement with him. I think I do agree with him, but I’m willing to consider other arguments.

    • Henschel Vanderbel

      Audacity? I should think he has merely stated the obvious. There is no real debate about this. A pile of rocks is hardly comparable to mapping structures that cannot be seen, and retrodicting and predicting motion in the neighborhood of billions of years in each direction. Moreover, to make such a silly claim that Jews alone have been responsible for contemporary science, simply because a few of the most famous happened to be Jewish, is absolutely ridiculous. It is not worthy of refutation. The real issue here is metaphysical. All ancients (besides the Jews) were immanentists. They did not have the philosophical language-thought tools to analyze the world from the perspective of eternity, or outside the universe, which is the only basis for positing laws, discoverable intelligent design (not evolution, but simply that man and God are analogous, and the universe is created to be rational and graspable by man, etc.) Without these mental constructs, everything is conceived of as wholly mysterious, and all knowledge resolves into relativism, either by way of a materialism that imagines the mind to be an epiphenomenon, or by way of sheer skepticism. These were the main schools of thought in the world immediately preceding Christ. Christianity introduced Jewish transcendentalism to the world. Hence, millions of more people are suddenly introduced to thinking about the world, and ultimately the whole universe, as a limited whole that can be understood. Ergo, civilization was set on an inevitable course of discovery. Once God became the Creator God, or Necessary Being, and the universe became a designed whole, all that could ever follow was a more or less steady unfolding of a universal contexualized worldview favorable to the discovery and manipulation of fundamental motion, which is, at bottom, what science is. Of course, this allows for advanced technologies. The ancient trap admitted of no such conception of the universe. Indeed, they had no conception of a universe. Everything was only grasped from the inside, so to speak. “Gods,” in the plural, can only refer to fellow contingent objects in space and time, subject to ever-higher orders with no terminus. One of the greatest historical linguistic tragedies was calling the Judeo-Christian God, God, as if the one transcendent cause of all order were anything resembling polytheistic energies that must co-exist according to a higher order. This transcendental mindset was certainly the turning point of human history, and if you can see that civilization today is radically advanced compared to all previous forms, you have missed the point of everything. Indeed, even modern atheists (who would essentially turn back the clock, if they had their way) tacitly fill their writing with fundamental aspects of the Christian worldview in order to preserve some semblance of the transcendentalist perspective that is the prerequisite for science. They run into all sorts of contradictions when they try to make the scientific project compatible with an immanentist perspective. Ultimately, rejecting any standpoint from which man might, even hypothetically, view the universe from the “outside,” saws off the branch on which science has hitherto been perched. It leads to relativism, and hence, superstition. As atheism spreads throughout society, even though we are at our scientific peak, more and more people return to ancient superstition. Just look at the statistics of people who believe in astrology, for example, or engage in various pseudo-magical arts. The figures are staggering, and they directly correlate to an absence of genuine Judeo-Christian metaphysics in public education. Meanwhile, the productive scientific community shrinks, as their overarching picture becomes more and more hazy, relying more on seeking commonality between competing assumptions, than taking falsification seriously. Hence, innovative universal theories are rarely explored, and was remains inevitably becomes deeply politicized. This is because the movement is becoming less concerned with truth, and more concerned with perpetuating a solidified ideology. In other words, it is becoming superstitious (take, for example, positing that most of the universe must be composed of dark matter and energy that no one has ever detected, rather than admitting that the fundamentals of our current big picture are simply inaccurate). The appeal to magic is always the mark of a degraded science. This is why many Jews continue to excel, since their communities are more isolated and traditionally emphasize the transcendence of G-d, and thus they enjoy a greater clarity of thought in regard to categorizing the phenomena of the world.

      • Henschel Vanderbel

        Sorry for the typos. No edit function…

        “This transcendental mindset was certainly the turning point of human history, and if you *can’t see that civilization today is radically advanced compared to all previous forms, you have missed the point of everything.”

        ” Hence, innovative universal theories are rarely explored, and *what remains inevitably becomes deeply politicized.”

        • StacyTrasancos

          Jury’s still out on the Disqus comment system. I’m testing it out. Sorry about that, my other system had an edit function. I thought Disqus did too. Thanks for your patience! And for your comment!

  • Mjeck

    5000 years is a long stillbirth; 3000 more than the church; jury still out on this i think.

    • StacyTrasancos

      Mjeck, Welcome to the new digs. Are you implying that Modern Science has not yet been born?

  • james

    Stacy, what is stillborn here is this premise that Christianity carries a torch that other
    civilizations dropped. It’s not the great pyramid that anyone should be considering -
    It is the MATH, the incredibly complex angles and sines and cosigns. That science,
    the mother of all science, came from before the pyramids and without it any future
    science would never have been achieved. Unless you find the SOURCE OF THE
    MATH, no religion or civilization can take credit for anything. As a scientist you
    know that it was this tool ONLY that advanced humankind and the Egyptians were
    in possession of it whether or not they eventually put it down for historical reasons.

    • StacyTrasancos

      James, the question (it seems to me) is why didn’t the ancient Egyptians in all that time take the math and apply to understanding nature? They focused it on one thing – tombs for royalty. You have to go to the other two posts I wrote and try to understand what Jaki means by stillbirth. He’s not (to my understanding) arguing that Christianity is responsible for all science ever in the world. He’s arguing that science got its first viable birth under the Christian mindset. I haven’t gotten to that yet (it’s in the book and I will) but for now, the question is whether Modern Science was born as a self-sustaining entity in Egypt.

    • rightactions

      Mathematics is not a science as previously defined by Ms. Trasancos for the purposes of this discussion:

      It is a systematic body of knowledge about nature gathered by sense experience and organized by reason.
      Stacy Trasancos

  • Howard

    When you quoted, “…because they did not feel the need for more…all too transparent form of begging a most serious question”, I thought that I would have a serious disagreement here but you really explained it later. Because, the first reason that came to my mind was that there was only the need to satisfy the demands of gods and rulers – what else is needed. Not an apathetic view of the world, but a view with a purpose.

    A couple of years ago I had breakfast with a woman and her son who had just returned from Egypt. I commented about the massive number so of slave labor used in the construction of the pyramids. She told me that her guide said that the workers were paid laborers and not slaves. I do believe that Egypt did keep slaves as a result of wars, but apparently, in our language, public works was an occupation. I guess the concept of wage slavery can’t be used retroactively.

    As a side note, travelling through Mexico a few years ago is was very surprised to see gigantic public statues of political figures. Can’t remember the exact ones or how many, just my impression that people do seem to build very large things that they care most about. Maybe the 747, the Airbus 380, the Antonov An-225, the Spruce Goose, the Great Wall of China, the Hadron Collider, AND, the cathedrals of Europe (and Mexico) are corollaries.

    • rightactions

      …people do seem to build very large things that they care most about.

      Yet wedding rings aren’t even the size of hula-hoops.

      P.S. “Wage slavery” is a contradiction in terms.

      • Howard

        “Yet wedding rings aren’t even the size of hula-hoops.”

        Very good, I liked that answer.

        I would counter with this. A wedding ring is a LARGE as is humanly possible to wear or afford, even pyramids have more room to expand. Beyond that I would refer you to the Taj Mahal.

        A phrase is not always understood by it’s individual parts. It is probably way before your time to experience, during an era when we transitioned from a farm subsistence
        to an industrial one and after. The use of the phrase “Wage Slave” has a very noble
        history in employee relations with employers.

  • James

    All the evidence in Gill’s book points to the Egyptians being more concerned with the cosmos and soul journey, not tombs. It was their version of a NASA program. They took the science
    to an almost metaphysical level. Ok, now that Jaki’s simplier thesis has deflated my interest
    I guess it’s time to get back to splitting wood.

    • Howard

      James, was not a concern with the soul absolutly metaphysical? I find it revealing of the modern world that you equate this with the goals of NASA and not religion….then quit.

    • StacyTrasancos

      I hope you explain what you meant. I will take a look at the book in the meantime while I sit comfortably in a warm house burning up the wood my husband split. Splitting wood is important work! :-)

  • StacyTrasancos

    Just an administrative note – I’m trying out this new commenting system. The comments show up automatically by “Best” but if you click that word you can select “Oldest” in the drop down menu and they’ll show up in that order.

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  • X Contra

    You are reading the important books, I see. Jaki was excellent!