The textbook for my Extraterrestrial Life course this semester is “Life in the Universe” (Bennett and Shostak, 2nd Ed., 2007). One of the introductory chapters discusses the science of life in the universe; beginning with ancient astronomy and the advent of science by the greeks, covering the Copernican revolution and the development of modern science, and discussing the nature of the scientific method and science in the modern world. It’s a fairly basic intro. I think it’s aimed at undergraduate students who may have not had any science courses before, or who have only had introductory level science courses. It is a good chapter though and it was a good read.
The first section of the chapter covered the ancient greeks and the foundations of modern science. One point they go into is the separation of many of the greek thinkers into two groups:
-One group were atomists: they believed that the universe (including the earth and humans) is made up of infinitely many indivisible parts called atoms (though they didn’t have any knowledge of the structure or nature of atoms).
-The other group were Aristotelians: they followed Aristotle’s belief that the universe consists of five elements; fire, water, wind, earth, and some fifth celestial element (called ether or aether).
The atomist viewpoint led some, such as Democritus and Epicurus, to believe that random motions in atoms across the universe allowed for many worlds to form and possibly many types of life on those different worlds. The Aristotelian viewpoint led to the acceptance of an earth-centered solar system and universe. Aristotle thought that the element Earth sunk to the center of the universe and so he did not believe other worlds, made of earth, could exist beyond our planet.
One awesome quote from this chapter of the book follows:
“Interestingly, Aristotle’s philosophies were not particularly influential until many centuries after his death. His books were preserved and valued – in particular, by Islamic scholars of the late first millennium – but they were unknown in Europe until they were translated into Latin in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) integrated Aristotle’s philosophy into christian theology. At this point, the contradiction between the Aristotelian notion of a single world and the atomist notion of many worlds became a subject of great concern to christian theologians. Moreover, because the atomist view held that our world came into existence through random motions of atoms, and hence without the need for any intelligent creator, atomism became associated with atheism. The debate about extraterrestrial life thereby became intertwined with debates about religion. Even today, the theological issues are not fully settled, and echoes of the ancient Greek debate between the atomists and Aristotelians still reverberate in our time.”
It would seem that humans have had the potential for rational thought since long before the time of the irrational movements of the Abrahamic religions. I’ve long thought that the rise of christianity was one of the greatest factors which led to the dark ages in Europe. The anti-intelligence mobs that destroyed libraries such as the great library in Alexandria and depressed rational thought in many ways pulled a veil of ignorance over the minds of the masses. It seems as though many theologians and authorities of the church tried their hardest to maintain this ignorance through the centuries. Without our curious minds and sense of exploration, our ability to derive morals without religious doctrine or authority, and rational thought we may never have escaped such brutal periods.