The Stillbirth of Science in Babylon
NOTE: Today we continue our weekly series of essays by Dr. Stacy Trasancos on the "stillbirths" of science. They're based on Fr. Stanley L. Jaki's research into the theological history of science in the ancient cultures of Egypt, China, India, Babylon, Greece, and Arabia. See past articles here.
In The Savior of Science, Jaki mentioned the history of science among cultures that communicated and developed in succession–Babylon, Greece, and Arabia. Knowledge was transmitted to the Sumerians from the Egyptians and then on to Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians (c. 2900 B.C.– mid 7th century A.D.). From there knowledge was transmitted to the Greeks and then to the Arabs, and this history is recorded in detail. Just as in other ancient cultures, there was obvious skill.
Jaki devoted the first few pages of the chapter “The Omen of Ziggurats” in Science and Creation to those massive structures built by the Sumerians and Babylonians as an example of their technological ability. “The planning, building, and decorating of the ziggurats,” Jaki wrote, “implied craftsmanship and practical geometry and is application on a grand scale, especially if one considers the temple complex and city surrounding the ziggurat.” Towns were planned around these temples, with defense walls, palaces, and quarters of the cities. The temples were made of mud bricks laid in a herring-bone pattern with mud mortar overlaid with bitumen or lime plaster, which could be smoothed and polished to a high-quality finish, to waterproof them. (Crawford, Sumer and the Sumerians, 60-67)
According to Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian (c. 484–425 B.C.), the ziggurat of Babylon was exceeded by no other city:
“[Babylon] lies in a great plain, and is in shape a square, each side fifteen miles in length; thus sixty miles make the complete circuit of the city. Such is the size of the city of Babylon; and it was planned like no other city of which we know.” (The Histories, Book 1, Chapter 178, section 3)
Jaki credited the Babylonian discovery of “mathematical puzzles equivalent to second-degree equations, lists of hundreds of plants and chemical compounds, together with their astonishingly accurate medicinal properties, and even longer lists of planetary positions” as extraordinary items of learning. The lists of planetary positions were the factual proof that Hipparchus, a second-century B.C. Greek astronomer and mathematician who discovered the precession of the equinoxes, relied on Babylonian astronomical data to reach his conclusions, another “one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all times.” The Babylonians had the skills necessary to apply mathematics to nature, but they did not take this step.
It may seem contradictory for Jaki to have claimed that science was “born” of Christianity and “stillborn” in other cultures while he also credited those cultures with great scientific discoveries. This point is often missed, so it is useful to pause here to point out something in Jaki’s use of the word “stillbirth” of science. He acknowledged cultural wombs that were capable of developing science even to the point of viability as a sustained discipline. His choice of the word “birth” was to show that the final step from isolated dependence to universal independence was not taken in any culture before the Scientific Revolution in the Middle Ages.
Historians have argued that “all subsequent varieties of scientific astronomy, in the Hellenistic world, in India, in Islam, and in the West–if not indeed all subsequent endeavors in the exact sciences–depend upon Babylonian astronomy in decisive and fundamental ways.” (Aaboe, “Scientific Astronomy in Antiquity, 21-42) Jaki would not have agreed with this argument, and the reason has to do with how he defined “exact science” and how he considered the theological implications of ancient cultures as well. All subsequent varieties of science may have depended in some way on Babylonian astronomy, but not in decisive and fundamental ways.
The Babylonians may have mathematically modeled astronomical appearances, but their cosmology is evidence they believed a very different reality behind the appearances. The Enuma elish was a portrayal of personified forces engaged in bloody battles; the mother goddess, Tiamat, is dismembered to form the sky, earth, waters, and air. Jaki explained, “Such a cosmogony was certainly not a pointer toward that kind of understanding of the cosmos which amounts to science.”
The Babylonians observed celestial phenomenon as a service to a religious worldview steeped in magic, and the calculations were abstracted from physical objects. Jaki held that it was absolutely necessary for a true science, the “quantitative study of the quantitative aspects of physical objects in motion,” for calculations not to be abstracted from objects.
A viable birth of science could not have been made in such an environment where the mathematical formality was cut off from the physical reality. The failure was neither geophysical nor socio-economical, but rather an intellectual inertia that prevented a systematic investigation of the world and its lawfulness. There was no confidence in the reasonability of such an enterprise under the belief that people were part of a huge, animistic, cosmic struggle between chaos and order.
Next week, Greece.
- Stanley L. Jaki, Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, Ltd, 1986), 85-99.
- Stanley L. Jaki, The Savior of Science (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 38-39.
- Harriet Crawford, Sumer and the Sumerians, Second Edition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 60-67.
- Herodotus, The Histories, with an English translation by A.D. Godley (Cambridge, UK: Harvard University Press, 1920), Book 1, Chapter 178, section 3.
- A. Aaboe, “Scientific Astronomy in Antiquity,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, A. 276 (1974), 21-42.
Adapted from Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki.
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