It’s been a while since I wrote a sciency post, and I miss it! So, here’s a somewhat philosophical-leaning post about how my second-favorite science, came to be, and a timeline of sorts to help you understand what differentiates science, from whatever it was before! This is largely inspired from my History and Systems of Psychology course at AUB with Dr. Arne Dietrich.
It hurts me to see that in the time of Protagoras and Democritus, science was more advanced than in the 2000+ years after it. Four and five centuries before Christ, our ancestors were more enlightened than their counterparts for 2000 years in Human history.
The hard-to-explain and simultaneous, but separated, emergence of three different civilizations, namely the Buddhist philosophy (483 BC), the Confucius way-of-life (479 BC) and the Greek civilization (460), is one of history’s most fascinating occurrences. Perhaps that was when humans had successfully made their basic life necessities readily available, and the time we consecrated for hunting and gathering was now much less, leaving us enough time to start to think, reason and explore realms different than day-to-day matters.
Out of the three movements though, it is the Greek one that had the most profound impact, and today’s civilization is basically a byproduct of that period in Ancient Greece, in terms of thought, philosophy, politics, science, arts, theater, ethics, etc.
We move now to when Psychology began to form itself, with philosophers postulating about what the mind is, how we think, why we reason, what is memory and what does consciousness mean exactly.
Epistemology is how we acquire knowledge, or how at least theories about how we do. In ancient Greece, this field had two main camps. The first, included Protagoras and Democritus, who believed that through perception and the senses, we acquire knowledge. The second, included Socrates and Plato, who believed we already knew everything, and that reality was merely an illusion of the true “idea” world, which we “remember” through reasoning and thus acquire knowledge. Of course, the first camp was right, and the second, apart from being ridiculous to us now, will be science’s number one enemy for centuries…
Eventually, Aristotle, realized that we do in fact rely on senses to acquire knowledge, but our ability to reason and preform mental processes was something different from just senses. So, he basically was in the middle, or at least in both camps. Being Plato’s student, he was familiar with the “idea reality” proposed by his teacher. However, with time, Aristotle moved away from this dualism of mind and body, and effectively became a monist, believing the body and mind were one and the same.
This is the guy we are interested in, for his earlier writings were adopted by the Church in full, to fill the gaps the Bibles had not. Gaps such as how the world worked, the Earth’s flatness, the stars, sun, etc. The Aristotelian model was sanctified and integrated into the Church’s doctrine, and Aristotle, though several hundred year before Christ, is a prominent figure in the Catholic Church.
This was risky for the Church, for the model was an all-or-none type, if one facet falls, the whole system crumbles. From Aristotle’s time, some philosophers knew the Earth was round, and even calculated its circumference. But, Aristotle’s earlier thoughts fit better with Christian faith. For the next two millennia, civilization plunged into darkness, into what is correctly dubbed as the Dark Ages. Science was non-existent, and faith and religion were the basis of all knowledge. Illiteracy flourished, feudalism was the law and the Church had near-infinite power.
That’s until our dear friend Physics broke away from religion and its Aristotelian model. It all started with Mr Nicolaus Copernicus, the man who proposed the Earth was not in fact the center of the universe (geocentric theory), but that the Sun was (heliocentric theory). This rattled the foundations of the science-less world, and is credited with sparking the chain of events that led to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Then came Galileo who supported Corpernicus’ heliocentric theory and further advanced areas such as kinematics and other physical observations, which are undoubtedly the basis of modern science’s research methods. This is significant because the Church began to realize this was a threat, and threatened Galileo, banning his writings and dismissing it as heretical. But, things were already set in motion, and just like that, in the 1400-1500s, Physics was the first science to break away from religion and establish itself independently.
Next in line comes Chemistry, with Dalton’s Atomic Theory in the 1800s, which put a final end to the four-elements-theory (earth air fire water) and paved the way for the Mendeleev’s Period Table. This took several decades to accomplish, but Chemistry successfully shaved itself off of faith-based explanations and theories, and was the second branch of science to establish itself independently.
Now comes Biology’s turn. In just 5 short years, Charles Darwin rendered creation obsolete, and provided an explanation to how we came to be, with the publication of On The Origins of Species in 1859, it took to the mid-1860s for Natural Selection to become the acknowledged mechanism for the theory of Evolution. With that, Biology allowed the exponential expansion of science and scientific thought, extending it from the inanimate world of Chemistry and Physics, into the realm of life, which we are part of.
Darwin was careful not to tread into the mental and consciousness realm, even though he did have his theories. He feared that the shock and then-insufficient evidence would render natural selection obsolete and heretical. It took Psychology some time before it could also sever its ties with religion, mainly because of the ponderings of Mr. Rene Descartes.
His dualistic approach cleaved neatly the physical and the mental. This explained that the mind and soul was not matter, and this cannot be understood or studied. This was naturally gobbled up by the desperate clergy, who clung on to that shred of mystery science could allegedly not get to. But, I’m glad to say we have!
Psychology is the science of understanding the mind and behavior. In other words, things we thought intangible and spiritual. Few ventured there, but nevertheless they have, intermittently and inconsistently. In 1879, the science began, with Wundt’s Structuralism theory and the first laboratory setting for psychology.
Unfortunately, it took much, much longer for us to rid ourselves of pure speculation and not-so-scientific theories (such as Freud’s). In fact, it is in the last 3 or 4 decades that Psychology has lept, with the prospects of fMRI and EEG studies allowing us a look at our most intimate thoughts and emotions, in the hopes of deciphering them bit by bit to understand the most complex object in the known universe: the human brain.
So, think again when it comes to Psychology, and with the timeline above, I hope you’ll understand it’s just a matter of time before the things we have condemned to mysticism and doubt, are made clear, tangible and modifiable.