Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview

The Problems of Exporting Faust*

F. T. Fraser

Summary For more than a millennium before the Renaissance, the Chinese were ahead of Europe in applying their knowledge of nature to useful purposes. Yet the most powerful methods of such applications, those of modern science, were not born in China. Reasons for this inversion in the rate and direction of development of scientific knowledge have been sought in different social conditions, cultural values, philosophical stances, languages, and attitudes toward history.

This paper approaches the question of why modern science was born in the West by focusing on the functional basis of natural science: its demands for the mathematization of hypotheses about nature and the validation of those hypotheses by experiment. It suggests that the demands for number and measure originated in certain closely allied teachings about time that were native to the West.

The modern concept of scientific law grew out of the metaphysical conviction that processes may be divided into those that are timeless (lawful, quantifiable, eternal, divine) and temporal (contingent, qualitative, passing, earthly). This time-timeless dichotomy, with roots in Pythagorean number mysticism, Platonic idealism, and Christian theology, has become a part of the unquestioned metaphysical assumptions of science.

An identically stark division may be found in Christian moral philosophy. It is between the timeless, divine rules set for human conduct and the temporal demands of human instincts. The conflict between the rules and the needs suffuses the character of the industrial West: tenseness, restlessness, a mechanical-analytic turn of mind, admiration of inorganic naturalism, and the love of number and measure.

What we know as the scientific method is a pragmatic synthesis of the intellectual heritage of the West with Christian morality, in the spirit of the Reformation and in the service of early mercantile capitalism.

The absence of indigenous natural science in China might therefore be partly attributed to the traditional Chinese preferences for organic naturalism and to the Chinese regard of history as the most exalted form of knowledge, in contrast to the West's regard for mathematics as the queen of the sciences and its high esteem for inorganic naturalism.

The figure of Faust is used as a symbol for that cultural, social, and philosophical ambience that gave rise to the favored identification of truth with the numerical and the experimental. This paper examines some of the problems caused by transferring Faust from his native habitat to the heterogeneous cultural world of our age. The difficulty is in the taming and subordinating of modern science and technology to the needs of people.

In the People's Republic of China, the task is that of integrating modern science and industrial productivity into a non-Faustian civilization. In the West, it is the integration of the powers of the scientific industrial state into Western humanistic tradition.

It is argued that the necessary integration cannot be based on a natural philosophy that divides the world into time and the timeless, because such a bifurcation does not allow for a continuity in nature

____________________
Founder's Lecture

-1-

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