Science at the simplest level is understanding of the natural world. There is much regularity in nature that, since the advent of Homo sapiens as a species, humanity has had to know for survival. The Sun and the Moon replay their movements regularly. Many movements, like the Sun’s regular “motion,” are easy to observe while others, like the Sun’s annual “motion,” are far harder to observe. Both of these movements correspond with essential earthly activities. Day and night provide for the basic cycle of human existence. The seasons decide the movements of animals that human beings have relied upon for survival for millennia. The seasons became even more important with the invention of agriculture, for failure to recognize the appropriate time for planting could lead to famine. Science defined simply as awareness of natural processes among mankind is universal and has existed since the dawn of human life.
However, the mere identification of regularities does not exhaust the full meaning of science. In the first place, regularities can be mere human mind constructs. Humans are leaping to conclusions. Chaos can not be accepted by the mind, so it creates regularities even when there is none objective. True regularities are to be identified by detached data analysis. Therefore, science has to employ a degree of skepticism to avoid premature generalization. Regularities are not fully satisfying for all, even when represented mathematically as laws of nature. Many argue that true comprehension requires clarification of the causes of the laws, but the greatest dispute exists in the field of causation. For example, modern quantum mechanics has abandoned the search for causation, and today rests solely on mathematical explanation. On the other hand, modern biology thrives on causal chains that enable the physiological and evolutionary processes to be understood in terms of the physical activities of entities such as molecules, cells, and species. But even if causation and interpretation are accepted as appropriate, there is little consensus in science about the kinds of causes that may or may be permissible. If the history of science is to make any sense whatsoever, it is necessary to deal with the past on its own terms, and the fact is that for most of the history of science, natural philosophers have contributed to causes which modern scientists would summarily reject.
The theories of Kepler, Newton’s absolute space, and Einstein’s rejection of the probabilistic existence of quantum mechanics were all based on assumptions that were metaphysical, not science.
A notable example of this concept is Einstein’s assertion that the wonder is not that mankind understands the universe but that the world is understandable.
In this essay, therefore, science is to be regarded as awareness of natural regularities which is subject to some degree of skeptical rigor and explained by logical causes. We need one more caution. It is only understood through the senses, of which the primary ones are sight, touch and sound, and the human notion of truth is distorted towards the manifestations of these senses. The invention of instruments such as the telescope, the microscope, and the counter Geiger allowed an ever-increasing range of sensory phenomena. Thus, the world’s scientific knowledge is only limited, and science’s development reflects human ability to make phenomena perceptible.
If the history of science is to make any sense whatsoever, it is necessary to deal with the past on its own terms, and the fact is that for most of the history of science, natural philosophers have contributed to causes which modern scientists would summarily condemn. From cave paintings and apparently frequent scratches on bone and reindeer horn, it is understood that prehistoric humans were keen nature observers who monitored the seasons and times of the year carefully. There was a sudden burst of activity around 2500 BCE which seems to have had a clear scientific meaning. Great Britain and Northwest Europe contain massive, scientifically impressive stone structures from that period, the most prominent of which is Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain in England. Not only do they show a high order of technological and social skills — it was no mean feat to move these huge blocks of stone considerable distances and place them in position — but Stonehenge’s original design and the other megalithic structures often seem to incorporate religious and astronomical purposes. Their architectures indicate a degree of mathematical complexity which was initially only assumed in the mid-20th century. Stonehenge is a circle but some of the other megalithic structures are egg-shaped and apparently based on mathematical principles which require at least practical knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem that the square of the right triangle hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. This theorem seems to have been known in Asia, the Middle East, and Neolithic Europe two millennia before the birth of Pythagoras, or at least the Pythagorean numbers that can be produced by it.
The fusion of religion and astronomy was central to science’s early history. It is present in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China (though much less so than anywhere else), Central America, and India.
Science only formed in the West, in its mature form. But surveying the protoscience that existed in other areas is instructive, particularly in view of the fact that this information was often, as in China, far superior to Western science until quite recently.