Solution Science Is Not Inevitable

For science is like virtue, it's own exceedingly great reward.

Charles Kingsley, Health and Education

If an ETC is to communicate with us, presumably it will need to possess a high level of scientific knowledge. For only through science will it understand how to build a radio telescope (or some other device to enable interstellar communication). But even if an intelligent extraterrestrial species does learn to make tools, does develop technology, and does acquire language, will it then inevitably develop the methods of natural science?

Earlier we looked at a solution to the Fermi paradox that suggested that ETCs might develop a different science or mathematics. Here the suggestion is slightly different: perhaps there is only one approach to science, but so far only humans have found it. Perhaps the Galaxy is swarming with species more intelligent than us — creatures excelling in the arts and philosophy — but who lack the techniques of science. So we do not hear from these species because they cannot make themselves heard over interstellar distances. "They" — meaning, as always, intelligent communicating civilizations — do not exist.

Those who offer this as a resolution of the paradox — and it is implicit in thousands of SF stories — presumably take their cue from the historical development of natural science on Earth. Many civilizations developed mathematics and medicine, but the origins of natural science were much more restricted. Consider, for example, the Aborigines. Recent findings indicate that the Aborigines may have arrived in Australia as far back as 50,000 years ago — a landmark achievement in human history that is sadly underestimated. The culture of Australia's indigenous peoples is perhaps the oldest continuously maintained culture in the world; their stories and belief systems are the most ancient on Earth. They have lived in a wide range of environments with great success for an unimaginable length of time. Yet in all that time they never developed the techniques of modern science. It seems that science is not inevitable. The dawn of modern science only began about 2500 years ago with the Greeks; but, despite possessing some of the most brilliant scientists of all time, Hellenistic science was limited. It was shackled by a pervading intellectual snobbery that valued contemplation over experiment. It took almost 2000 years for science as we now understand it to really get underway, with scientists like Galileo and in particular Newton pioneering a quantitative approach to scientific reasoning. Why did it take so long for the seeds planted by the Greeks to flower into our modern scientific endeavors? And although science is now a global activity, why did the flowering take place in such a restricted geographical area?

After the demise of the ancient Greek civilization, many other civilizations developed sophisticated technologies and systems of mathematics. The Arabic civilizations in North Africa and the Middle East possessed some excellent mathematicians (much of our knowledge of Greek astronomy was preserved by them). The civilizations of South America had architects that built fantastic structures. The Chinese civilization was for many hundreds of years the most advanced on Earth. Yet none of them — nor any of the others civilizations around the world — developed the methods of modern science, and none of them developed the scientific approach to the study of Nature, which has proven to be so powerful. Why?

It may be that cultural factors played a role. For example, some authors believe the prevailing philosophy of the Chinese civilization encouraged a "holistic" view of the world, so it was more difficult for them to take a Western "analytic" approach to science. Newton was ready to consider a system in isolation from the rest of the Universe and apply his techniques to that idealized, simplified system. Had he attempted to provide a complete description of Nature in all its messy holistic complexity, he would surely not have succeeded. And in 1709, while the world was still absorbing the impact of Newton's great scientific books, the spark that ignited the industrial revolution — Abraham Darby's use of coke rather than charcoal for smelting iron — took place in Ironbridge, England. At the same time in China, a centuries-old iron works was in the process of being closed. The Chinese thought they had no further need of it.

Some authors, then, argue that the development of science is far from inevitable. There is a variety of reasons — luck, environmental hindrances, cultural factors, philosophical inclination — why ETCs might not hit on the techniques of science.

Yet it is hard to accept this as a plausible explanation of the Fermi paradox. Yes, it took almost 2000 years between the emergence of Hellenistic science and the rise of modern science. This is a long time on the human scale, but remember as always that this is not the correct timescale with which to consider these questions. In the Universal Year, 2000 years corresponds to 5 seconds. On a cosmic timescale it matters not at all that natural science was developed by a Western European civilization rather than the Incas, Ottomans or Chinese. Had it taken mankind a further 2000 years (or 20,000 years) to invent science, it would make little difference as far as the Fermi paradox is concerned.234 The scientific method had to be invented only once: it was so effective that it spread quickly, and is now the common heritage of our species. Should we not expect the same to be true for ETCs?

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