The injunction to expand and apply knowledge is a product of the Christian West.
By Guy Crouchback
A number of science fiction writers have written somewhat self-congratulatory (from the human point of view) scenes in which aliens from space are flabbergasted at how quickly the human race has advanced – “They’ve gone from animal-power to space-flight in 200 years!” etc.
Harry Turtledove has a series of books, Worldwar, in which intelligent but slow-developing and methodical aliens, having previously sent exploration-probes to medieval Earth and discovered that the most advanced military technology is represented by armoured knights, return with a conquest-fleet which they have fitted-out expecting to have to overcome more of the same.
The vast distances of space mean that they take several centuries to arrive so that they reach Earth in 1942 and receive shocks as great as those received by the humans.
However, since we have no actual standard of comparison, another interpretation of human scientific and technological history might be that progress has been very slow – indeed for much of the time non-existent.
It may be that modern progress often seems so fast because in preceding millennia it occurred hardly at all. A more misanthropic story might tell of more go-ahead aliens exclaiming scornfully: “Geez! It took them that long?” We cannot judge from a sample of one.
But we know that for many millennia after highly-developed human brains with vast capabilities came into existence there was basically almost no scientific and technological progress of Earth beyond the simplest tools.
The great religious and moral codes of the world, ancient and modern, tend to contain broadly common values and commandments – to be charitable and benevolent, to honour one’s parents, to tell the truth, not to steal, murder, etc, even to have good manners. These appear to be immutably necessary for any viable society, and to receive lip-service even when they are not obeyed.
But there is no immutable and universal injunction to expand and apply knowledge. Only in the Christian West has that arisen, and by no means universally even there.
It does not seem a universal human instinct.
Progress is not an “immutable” aspect of society, civilisation or human life. It does not obey a Categorical Imperative: in general it has never happened.
If we tend to assume that it is somehow universal, this may be the product of what has been attacked by the politically correct as a “Eurocentric” view of world history. The politically correct, however, may be less happy to be reminded that a non-Eurocentric view of world history is one which contains largely slavery, starvation and stagnation.
Only once has the impulse to experiment been carried on, generation after generation, to create a scientific civilisation.
This, I suggest, depended upon a number of unique or rare, but also largely interdependent, factors coming together.
These came from different “angles,” and from different times in history.
They included among many other things the Judeo-Christian religion and associated ethics, values, intellectual disciplines, aesthetics and eschatology, including most importantly the partnership of religion and reason and a notion of achievements “to the greater glory of God.”
Above all, perhaps, they came from a religion whose mysteries were public and which was friendly to and supportive of Reason. History shows that scientific and technological civilisation is the child of Christianity and of no other system of belief.