Decisive moments of human thought – How the virtues of science developed 

„The other peoples of this group, who have not cultivated the sciences, resemble animals more than humans. […] Their character is therefore cool, their humor primitive, their bellies fat, their color pale, their hair long and stringy. Thus, they lack sharpness of mind and clarity of intelligence, and are overwhelmed by ignorance and apathy, lack of judgment and stupidity.”

This is what the Arab-Andalusian judge Said Ibn Ahmad wrote in the 11th century about the European peoples and their intellectual achievements. He considered the westernmost part of the then known world, today’s Europe (with the exception of the Arabic-influenced Iberian Peninsula), to be the most backward and regrettable cultures of all. And yet it was from precisely this part of the world that a few centuries later the most important revolution of the human mind was to emerge: the development of rational, scientific thought.

For after the Medieval Ages, often described as the Dark Ages, one of the most significant developments in the history of man and the human mind began in Europe: a new way of thinking was born, and with it, in ever faster steps, ever greater knowledge entered the European mind. With this knowledge and the subsequent technological progress, their continent was to become the undisputed economic, political, and military world power in the centuries following the Middle Ages, indeed the center of the world. It also led to the Western world today living in a state of prosperity that has far exceeded any hope and expectation of previous generations.

Scientific thinking was not born out of a sudden inspiration. Its origins reach far back into the history of thought. The intellectual virtues that had to be developed and learned for this purpose can in rudimentary form be already recognized in antique thought. They were buried in the Medieval Ages, which from the perspective of scientific thought is rightly described as „dark“. Only in the course of many centuries – and with numerous setbacks – did these virtues find their way into the minds and hearts of European thinkers as of the middle of the second millennium.

The triumph of the sciences was accompanied by the emergence of four essential intellectual virtues that form the basis of our modern rational scientific thinking. It took each of these four essential virtues many centuries to become firmly anchored in the minds of humans. In the case of the fourth virtue, this process is still not complete today.

      1st virtue: The turning away from dogmas.

Science is a culture of doubt, not faith. Dogmas eliminate doubt and make open discourse impossible. What authorities declare to be true in the end proves to be untrue all too often. All-encompassing models of world explanation, philosophical constructs and scientific theories must be put to the test again and again. Thanks to their uncompromising curiosity, some scholars have dared to critically question views that have existed for centuries. Only such an attitude of intellectual integrity, of questioning conventional truths and of accepting the possibility of one’s own error allows us to grasp the world as it really is.

      2nd virtue: Trust in your own observation.

For many centuries it was decisive how the world should be philosophically seen. Scholars, for example, could speculate endlessly with each other about how many teeth a horse should theoretically have. Simply looking at it was literally out of the question. Only when people found the courage to rebel against philosophical and religious authorities was the way clear to recognize the world as it is through their own observations. The view that the world can only be grasped realistically through the use of one’s own senses became accepted only slowly, but with increasing strength. Scientific experiment became the center of this new, strictly empirical approach.

       3rd virtue: The search for the great whole.

As long as the observations of individual scholars and the results of their experiments stand alone, the power of the sciences cannot unfold. Galileo Galilei was the first to realize that the language of nature is mathematics. It is quite astonishing: The abstractions of mathematics can be applied concretely to nature. With its help, general laws of nature can be derived from isolated observational data. When we master mathematics, we understand how the world functions as a whole. And when scientists were able to recognize and mathematically describe the universal laws of nature, the way was clear for those to be used.

       4th virtue: The application of knowledge for the well-being of mankind.

Knowledge itself does not make the world a better place. It should rather serve people to make their lives easier and safer. Thus, knowledge of the laws of nature developed into the possibility of its technological application. With it, the well-being of mankind was increased more and more. And this remains the case today because the development of this virtue of scientific thinking is not yet complete. Technology is still being consciously used to harm people. It poses a particularly great danger if its use leads to a serious deterioration in living conditions without our intending it – climate change is the best-known example of this effect. So there is still much room for improvement in the anchoring and application of the fourth virtue.

Strangely enough, Western culture today faces the great challenge that all four virtues are being attacked and threatened simultaneously:

  • Fundamentalist dogmatic movements that reject scientific truths are spreading unchecked.
  • More and more people underestimate the value of their own perception. They fall for fake news even when it obviously contradicts their own experiences.
  • The big picture gets out of focus; the world is splitting up more and more into individual information and truth bubbles. It becomes acceptable again to create one’s own truth.
  • It is obvious that we have not yet reached our goal in the application of technology for the benefit of mankind. To our credit, we can show unbelievable successes, but negative effects are also accumulating. For example, thanks to digital technologies, autocratic governments are able to oppress their citizens more and more efficiently.

There is hardly anything more exciting than a journey through the exciting development of scientific thought. You will meet, among others, the unique Arab scholar Alhazen from the 10th century, the courageous theologian Peter Abelard from the 12th century, adventurous seafarers from the 15th century, the courageous natural scientists Copernicus, Kepler and Galilei, and last but not least the brilliant mathematician and first theoretical physicist Isaac Newton. You will also meet clever engineers like Archimedes and risk-taking entrepreneurs like Johannes Gutenberg, whose inventions brought light to the world. There is great hope in this historical presentation of the development of the scientific virtues: When we realize how long and arduous the road was until rational thinking could finally dispel the belief in authority and magic, we will hold the four scientific virtues in even greater esteem. For then we will realize that rational thinking cannot be taken for granted – and that we must never give up the four scientific virtues without a fight.

Lars Jaeger, Sternstunden der Wissenschaft. Eine Erfolgsgeschichte des Denkens (in German), Suedverlag GmbH, ISBN-13: 9783878001409, publication date: 7th September 2020


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