by Cristian Violatti
published on 23 January 2013

The term science comes from Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”. It could be defined as a systematic attempt to discover, by means of observation and reasoning, particular facts about the world, and to establish laws connecting facts with one another and (in fortunate cases) to make it possible to predict future occurrences. There are some other definitions of science, but they all refer in one way or another to this attempt to discover facts and the ability to figure out patterns. There is a truly inspiring quote from Carl Sagan about the scientific attitude.

If we lived on a planet where nothing ever changed, there would be little to do. There would be nothing to figure out. There would be no impetus for science. And if we lived in an unpredictable world, where things changed in random or very complex ways, we would not be able to figure things out. But we live in an in-between universe, where things change, but according to patterns, rules, or as we call them, laws of nature. If I throw a stick up in the air, it always falls down. If the sun sets in the west, it always rises again the next morning in the east. And so it becomes possible to figure things out. We can do science, and with it we can improve our lives.
(Carl Sagan, 59)

Early developments

In North America, the Cherokee said that eclipses were caused when the moon (male) visits his wife, the sun and the Ojibway believed the sun would be totally extinguished in an eclipse, so they used to shoot flaming arrows to keep it alight. According to the Vikings, the sun and the moon are being chased by two wolves, Skoll and Hati. When either wolf successfully catches their prey, an eclipse occurs. This is why Nordic people rushed to rescue victims by making as much noise as they could to scare off the wolves.

Skoll the wolf who shall scare the Moon
Till he flies to the Wood-of-Woe:
Hati the wolf, Hridvitnir’s kin,
Who shall pursue the sun.
(The Elder Edda. Grímnismál, 39)

It is reasonable to think that after some time people realized that the sun and the moon would eventually emerge from the eclipse regardless of whether they scared off the wolves. In societies where they had record keeping on celestial events, they must have noticed after some time that eclipses do not happen at random, but rather in regular patterns that repeated themselves.

Some events in nature clearly occur according to rules, but there are others that do not display a clear pattern of occurrence and they even do not seem to happen as a result of a specific cause. Earthquakes, storms and pestilences all seem to occur randomly and natural explanations do not seem to be relevant. Therefore, supernatural explanations arose to account for such events. Most of these explanations merged with myth and legends.

Since primitive times we have tried to control the course of natural events. Supernatural explanations gave rise to magic, an attempt to control nature by means of rite and spell. Magic is based on man’s confidence that he can dominate nature directly: he is convinced that by performing certain spells, a specific event will take place. James Frazer has suggested that there is a link between magic and science, since both believe in the cause-and-effect principle. In magic, the causes are somehow unclear and they tend to be based upon spontaneous thoughts, while in science, through careful observation and reasoning, the causes are better isolated and understood. Science is founded on the idea that experience, effort and reason are valid; magic believes that intuition and hope cannot fail nor can desire deceive.

Ionian school

According to Greek tradition, the process of replacing the notion of supernatural explanation with the concept of a universe that is governed by laws of nature begins in Ionia, present day Turkey, a region which was colonized by the Greeks. Thales of Miletus, about 600 BCE first developed the idea that the world can be explained without resorting to supernatural explanations. He was famous for predicting an eclipse which took place in 585 BCE.

Anaximander, possibly a student of Thales, argued that since human infants are helpless at birth, if the first human had somehow appeared on earth as an infant, it would not have survived. Anaximander reasoned that people must therefore have evolved from other animals whose young are hardier.

Around the same time Pythagoras, also Ionian, is credited with the formulation of the first known mathematical formulation, the theorem named after him: that the square of the longest side of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Arithmetic and geometry existed already in many other parts of the world, but deductive reasoning from general premises seems to be an Ionian innovation: mathematics, in the sense of demonstrative deductive arguments, begins with Pythagoras.

Aristarchus of Samos (one of the last Ionian scientists) around 300 BCE came up with a revolutionary hypothesis. By careful geometrical analysis based on the size of the earth’s shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse, Aristarchus concluded that the sun must be much larger than the earth. It is possible that the idea that tiny objects ought to orbit large ones and not the other way around, he became the first known person to argue that the earth was not the centre of our planetary system, but rather that it and the rest of the planets orbit the much larger sun. Aristarchus also suspected that the stars we see in the night sky are actually nothing more than distant suns.

Atomism begins around 450 BCE with Leucippus and Democritus. This point of view was very similar to that of modern science, and avoided most of the faults to which some of the Greek speculation was prone. Atomists believed that everything is composed of atoms, which are indestructible and physically indivisible. They were also strict determinists, who believed that everything happens in accordance with natural laws and rejected the notion of purpose or final cause. The “final cause” of an occurence is an event in the future for the sake of which the occurence takes place, in other words, the why. But when we ask “why?” concerning a particular event, we may mean either two things: “What purpose did this event serve?” or we may mean “What earlier circumstances caused this event?” The answer to the first question is a teleological explanation, or an explanation by the final cause; the answer to the last question is a mechanistic explanation. Experience shows that mechanistic questions leads to scientific knowledge, while teleological questions do not. The atomists asked the mechanistic question, and gave a mechanistic answer.

The successors of the atomists were more interested in the teleological question, and thus led science up a blind alley until the Renaissance. In particular,  Plato used the concept of final cause to explain things. In the words of Bertrand Russell:

[...]he [Plato] is hardly ever intellectually honest, because he allows himself to judge doctrines by their social consequences. Even about this, he is not honest; he pretends to follow the argument and to be judging by purely theoretical standards, when in fact he is twisting the discussion so as to lead to a virtous result. He introduced this vice in philosophy, where it has persisted ever since.

(Russell, History of West., 99)

The Ionian approach was rational and based on observation and in many cases led to conclusions surprisingly similar to what our more sophisticated methods have led us to believe today. Even those Ionian speculations that were inaccurate are to be regarded as scientific hypothesis as long as they do not show undue intrusion of supernatural elements, anthropomorphic desires and moral ideas.

Key points on science

  • Theology consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has been unascertainable and it is based on tradition or revelation. Science appeals to human reason rather than to tradition or revelation and it is concerned with testable knowledge. We could add that in general, Philosophy is something intermediate between these two: like theology, its speculations tend to be on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science it uses human reason rather than tradition or revelation.
  • Scientific ideas are based upon observation and reasoning. Technological developments sometimes allow observations to be more accurate and thus, scientific ideas have to be reviewed. This is not a weakness of science, but probably its major strength: an error-correcting process that allows its knowledge to be modified as newer and better data becomes available. It is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it. His beliefs are tentative, not dogmatic; they are based on evidence and observation, not on authority or intuition.
  • Every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into superstition and pseudoscience.
  • Science could be interpreted as faulty and unreliable because scientific knowledge has been constantly changing since its very beginning. One could argue that those who hold that view show a misconception of what the science truly is: science is not a body of knowledge, it is a way of thinking.

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.


  • MALINOWSKI, BRONISLAW. Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. The Free Press - Glencoe, 1948.
  • RUSSELL, BERTRAND. History of Western Philosophy. Unwin Brothers Ltd. - London, 1947.
  • RUSSELL, BERTRAND. Religion and Science. Thornton Butterworth Ltd. - London, 1935.
  • SAGAN, CARL. Cosmos. Abacus - London, 2002.
  • STEPHEN HAWKING and LEONARD MLODINOV. The Grand Design. Transworld Publishers - London, 2010.

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Visual Timeline
  • c. 1600 BCE
    Earliest Egyptian water-clocks in use.
  • c. 647 BCE - c. 627 BCE
    Extensive collection of clay tablets acquired known as Ashubanipal's Library at Nineveh.
  • 597 BCE
    Babylonian king Nebuchadnezar captures Jerusalem.
  • 28 May 585 BCE
    A battle between Media and Lydia broke off immediately as a result a total eclipse of the sun and the two armies made peace. The eclipse was successfully predicted by Thales of Miletus.
  • c. 450 BCE
    Parapegma star calendar invented in Greece by Meton and Euctemon.
  • c. 450 BCE
    First klepsydra - water timekeeping device - used in Athens.
  • 420 BCE
    Democritos develops an atomic theory of matter.
  • 310 BCE - 290 BCE
    Life of Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos.
  • 287 BCE - 212 BCE
    Life of Archimedes, physician, mathematician and engineer.
  • c. 275 BCE
    Ctesibius invents first sophisticated multi-cogged water-clock.
  • 270 BCE
    Aristarchos of Samos proposes a heliocentric world view.
  • 190 BCE - 120 BCE
    Life of Hipparchus of Nicea, an ancient Greek mathematician, astronomer and geographer, regarded by many historians as a scientist of the highest quality and possibly the greatest astronomical genius among ancient Greeks.
  • c. 159 BCE
    First water-clock set up in Rome.
  • c. 110 BCE - c. 50 BCE
    Tower of The Winds by Andronicus constructed in Athens.
  • c. 50 BCE
    Antikythera instrument invented, an astronomical measuring device.
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