INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY AND
THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION
Hassan is the author of Prophecy
and the Fundamentalist Quest. Please visit
her website at: www.farzanahassan.com
wondered why Western civilization progressed far beyond others
in the realm of scientific discovery, technology and education?
Dr. Toby Huff, Research Associate at Harvard University’s
Astronomy Department, answers this intriguing question in his
well written and scholarly book entitled Intellectual
Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution.
(Cambridge University Press, 2010).
his book, Huff compares the scientific achievements of three
civilizations: Western, Chinese and Islamic. He examines the
economic, educational, political, religious and cultural backdrop
of the developments that set the West apart from the other two
was at the turn of the seventeenth century that Europe embarked
on a scientific quest unprecedented in human history. Much of
the knowledge gained would somehow come to be connected with
the invention of the telescope. The invention of the spyglass
in 1608 propelled the Western world towards even greater technological
advances resulting in “Europe’s scientific ascendancy.”
Across the continent, scientists worked diligently and enthusiastically
to reproduce the telescope, often with the result of greatly
improving the instrument. In no time, the cosmos and all the
vast possibilities it contained would come within the reach
telescope was also exported to China and parts of the Islamic
world. However, interest in the new invention there remained
perfunctory. Huff calls this indifference a “curiosity
deficit” that plagued both the Chinese and the Muslims
of the seventeenth century.
Chinese resisted the telescope as it often yielded information
that conflicted with their age old beliefs. Professor Huff states
that “the problem was that the new, Western astronomy
was embedded in a very different metaphysics. The unity of heaven
and the Chinese imperial throne was not in it . . . ”
the Chinese proved to be conservationists rather than innovators.
Furthermore, widespread suspicion of the foreigner led the Chinese
to doubt the motives of the Jesuits who brought the telescope
to China. In the middle of the 17th century, the Chinese scholar
Guangxian led a campaign against the Jesuit priests
who had undoubtedly come to his country in the hope of converting
the local population to Christianity. The reaction resulted
in Anti-Christian sentiment and a vehement rejection of the
scientific advances of the missionaries. Limits were set on
free inquiry and the free flow of scientific ideas. Western
science and Aristotle’s works on natural philosophy were
hence banned in China, resulting in intellectual stasis and
limited scientific progress. China remained a traditional society
leery of anything foreign or Western.
telescope was transported to Islamic empires as well. One would
imagine that with Islam’s long tradition of scientific
inquiry in the Middle Ages, Muslim scientists would receive
the telescope with enthusiasm. However, this was not the case.
The telescope failed to spark interest amongst the Ottoman and
Mughal scientists and rulers. As in China, the work of the Jesuits
was viewed with suspicion by Muslims. Certainly, converting
to Christianity would be deemed an act of apostasy. Moreover,
according to Huff, “when the telescope arrived in India,
the rulers and their officials were preoccupied with other things
such as building monument gardens and conducting military campaigns.”
the meantime, science flourished in the West. The invention
of the telescope was followed by the invention of the microscope.
Soon the microcosms and macrocosms were revealed to the curious
Europeans who continued indefatigably to build upon each additional
discovery and invention.
century Europe also witnessed an immense growth in literacy.
This proved to be another factor in the spectacular scientific
achievements of the West. The Protestant Reformation had fostered
a desire in Europeans to acquire knowledge so as to enable them
to understand and interpret the Bible. Education was hence made
accessible to all citizens, rich and poor. Widespread literacy
further nurtured a love of learning, research and exploration,
which consequently created a large talent pool, and what Professor
Huff refers to as Europe’s “intellectual surplus.”
might wonder if religious sentiment in Europe stifled scientific
creativity. According to Huff, the Catholic Church originally
reacted to Galileo’s heliocentric model of the universe,
but it failed to exercise influence outside of Italy. Among
Muslims on the other hand, religion sometimes acted as an impediment.
For example, dissections of the human body were deemed un-Islamic
by Muslim scientists based on hadith
that prohibited the mutilation of bodies.
educational experience of Western Christians and Eastern Chinese
and Muslims can further explain the differences in their attitudes
to scientific inquiry. Madrassah education was focused largely
on Quranic knowledge, while Chinese education lacked the methodology
to undertake natural studies. The Europeans on the other hand
developed strong secular curricula geared towards understanding
the intricacies of the natural world. “Put differently,
the Europeans institutionalized the study of the natural world
by making it the central core of the university curriculum,”
universities also enjoyed autonomy as a result of legal reforms
enacted in the twelfth century. Huff states: