Ancient and modern

It’s science, not protest, that will save the planet

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

One might expect that the challenge of climate change would encourage many young people to take up Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at A-level. Yet over the past ten years, with the exception of maths, numbers have risen only very slightly; and for ICT have dropped. Ancient attitudes to what then passed as ‘science’ may suggest a solution.

Ancient Greeks were scrupulous about one fundamental breakthrough that remains the cornerstone of all serious research: supernatural explanations were impermissible. The reason was that no human could know the mind of a god. This did not mean Greek ‘scientists’ did not acknowledge the gods; they simply took it as axiomatic that bringing gods into the equation rendered the conclusions valueless.

That said, the ancients did not understand, nor practise, science in the way that we do. The experimental method had not yet been invented, let alone the technology to explore at anything but surface level. They had to rely on reasoning from what they could see with the naked eye on the strength of the data they could gather. Aristotle’s stunning classification of animal life (he identified 495 species) into a ‘nested hierarchy’ showed what could be done, effectively inventing biology.

The earliest Greek ‘scientists’ c. 600 bc speculated about how the world was made. They took it for granted that there was a basic stuff (or stuffs) from which everything else derived, and argued about what it might be and how that stuff subsequently changed into the different forms of matter that we see around us. The most dramatic claim to emerge from this chain of reasoning was made by the 5th century Athenian thinker Leucippus, who invented an atomic theory of matter, i.e. that the single basic, indivisible stuff (an atomos) existed below the level of sense-perception and created the diversity of the world we see about us by combining in different ways.

These early philosophers were not concerned solely with the nature of the cosmos. Many interspersed their theories with ideas about human behaviour. But it was Socrates (469-399 bc) who, Cicero claims, ‘called philosophy down from the sky, set it in cities … and compelled it to consider life and morals, good and evil’. This is an exaggeration but, as Plato made Socrates reveal on the day of his execution, he had once been a keen student of cosmological theories but became disillusioned because they did not seem to have anything to do with ‘the one thing it is in a man’s interests to consider, with regard both to himself and anything else — the best and highest good’.

Socrates believed that the world was rationally ordered and everything had a function; man’s function was to fit in with that order, because that was the only way to lead a good and therefore happy life. So he set out to discover how man could fulfil that function, and concluded it was by means of moral knowledge — knowledge of what would bring good and what evil.

This belief that the best way to live was immanent in the natural order of the cosmos was deeply influential. No longer could ‘scientific’ speculation about the nature of the universe be divorced from its consequences for human existence. So the new philosophies described what the ethical life was and how to lead it, and derived their views about the ethical life from their understanding of the material construction and workings of the universe. All very holistic.

Epicureanism, for example, derived its principles from atomic theory, that the whole universe, including gods, was made of atoms. From that they concluded that gods had little interest in humans, that from atoms we came and to atoms we returned, and that death was nothing to be afraid of. Best, therefore, to lead a life of stress-free equanimity.

Global warming currently threatens to destroy our planet. Advocates of Extinction Rebellion order us to ‘unite behind the science’ that tells us that, but otherwise ignore science completely and find the solution in a carbon-free lifestyle, public protest and citizens’ assemblies. This, as the Royal Academy of Engineering has warned, is counterproductive. Understanding the nature of the world is crucial to dealing with the warming created by humans. How else do ER imagine, for example, that medical advances are promoted? By civil disobedience and hunger strikes?

So get off your mobiles, cars, aeroplanes, multi-million-pound catamarans and our streets, and into Stem subjects and laboratories. Science alerted us to global warming: it will be decisive in saving us from it.

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