Science Fiction Project - Free Culture
Analog - All editorials - John Wood Campbell
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RELATIVELY ABSOLUTE

Human beings are so highly complex that, to date, no one of them has ever succeeded in figuring out (a) what he is, (b) what he wants, (c) where he's been, or (d) where he's going. Inasmuch as this includes you, me, and the rest of our friends, neighbors, and Wise Men, we need neither laugh nor shake our heads - though the gyrations resulting from the confusion above stated certainly range from the hilarious to the appalling.
Currently, the Russians are claiming that most of the major inventions of the last couple of centuries were originally made by inhabitants of that area of the world now known as the U. S. S. R. The suggestion that these inventors, who accomplished so much, lived and prospered under a Czarist society would not be welcome, in all probability. The fact that the inventors of the claimed devices generally recognized in the rest of the world - Bell, for example, as inventor of the telephone - lived in the capitalist countries is unacceptable to the Soviets, apparently. The Russian capitalist-area inventors are more acceptable, however, than non-Russian capitalist-area inventors.
This is, perhaps, an original reaction, unique to Russian Communists?
The history books available in this country's schools have a certain touch of precisely the same mechanism. Invention made by the now-enemy must be denied; invention made by the no-longer-dangerous enemy can be accepted safely.
The history books give Greece and Rome credit for starting modern science - which happens to be an extremely serious error. It's serious because it obscures an uniquely important fact: that only two cultures in the recorded history of Man have developed that combination of philosophical analysis and experimental cross-checking known as Modern Science. Greece and Rome are not among those two; neither culture achieved anything that hadn't been achieved elsewhere, and achieved a lot earlier. Oh, certainly there were details that only Rome, or only Greece achieved; it's also true that only the Greeks invented Greek as a language. The important thing is that other peoples had languages also.
The Chinese and Egyptians achieved high-order engineering several millennia before Rome did. Egypt's earliest engineering works were older, when Julius Caesar built his bridge across the Rhine, than Rome's monuments are today.
The Greeks did a lot with mathematics and geometry. The Babylonians had done so long before; the Egyptian surveyors of a few millennia before Rome was founded did considerable first-rate math, too. The Chinese had Pythagoras' Theorem worked out, too.
The Incas, quite independently, achieved a military road system that put Rome's to shame. The Mayas had a calendar far superior to that the Greeks and Romans developed.
Observation was old. Mathematics was old. It had been done before, and in many, many places, by many, many peoples. Rome's engineering feats weren't unique.

What we know as Western Culture is a highly hybridized product of much intermingling - and has the consequent hybrid vigor. Now the curious thing about it is that there's a great tendency to resist being hybridized, and consequently a great tendency to deny that hybridization has taken place. The Western Culture is, essentially, a hybrid resultant of Judeo-Christian philosophy, based on the old Semitic fundamentals, plus Greco-Roman admixtures, plus one other highly important admixture. The Greco-Roman-Semitic philosophy hybrid resultant had not done too well by the year 1000 A. D. The Dark Ages were not to be confused with Periclean Athens as an era of intellectual achievement. They say human beings want security; they had achieved it in Europe during that period. It was a magnificently static situation; nobody learned anything new, and nobody got upset by having to face a new idea for several centuries.
"Modern History" usually is measured from the beginning of the active phase of the Renaissance. What started the Renaissance?
Our unwashed, louse-ridden, feudal, and essentially barbaric ancestors had had their thick heads knocked together vigorously, and been unceremoniously pitched out on their ears by the highly civilized, powerfully progressive Islamic peoples. That happened not once, but four successive times. With the typical barbarian's assurance that they know all there is to know that's important, the Europeans had tried marching into Palestine.
They were trounced with appalling thoroughness and ease. They never established more than a minor beachhead against an Empire that stretched from Spain to India. Their nuisance value was minor, and if they could just be induced to behave in a semi-civilized manner, they were welcome to make any pilgrimages they desired.
During World War II, when the Russians drove through into Germany and the other Western European areas, their troops for the first time came into intimate contact with how the Western peoples live - what the actual Western standard of living is. It certainly isn't perfect, and is a long sight lower than it should be - but it infected the Russian troops with new and, for them, fabulously high ideas of how to live.
I suspect the same sort of thing happened to the Crusaders from Europe. Islam was civilized; Europe was not. Islam had achieved what no other civilization Man had developed had been able to; it invented Science.
Rome didn't, and Greece didn't; they had each produced one of the two ingredients - as had many another people before them, and other peoples also produced independently after them. Philosophy is fine - but it won't stand alone. Athens fell flat on its beautifully philosophical face - for lack of an even passable sewage and water system. Rome had magnificent sanitary engineering systems - and fell flat on the problem of philosophy.
Neither people ever cross-checked philosophy and engineering. The Romans had no respect for the airy-fairy philosophy of the Greeks; the Greeks never respected the harsh, materialistic Romans.
We did not get our legacy of Science from Rome or Greece; we got it from Islam, the only people who invented it in all human history!
We should laugh at Russia's curious maneuvers with inventors? We, who, because Islam was, at the time, the great and dangerous enemy, preferred to attribute their inventions to the long-conquered enemy, Rome and Greece? The early Christians hated Rome with a holy and burning hatred; read the New Testament's all out vilification of Rome! But that battle against Roman culture was long since won; it was safe, in 1400 A. D., to say that Romans and Greeks had been great and wise.
Islam was the enemy! They couldn't be wise or great!
So even a Czarist achievement is better than an American or French achievement in the eyes of the U. S. S. R.
Yes, I think we've played that same old game before. It has a familiar ring, even though the names are different. Some things that happen for the first time - aren't. Propaganda is much older than the word "propaganda". George Orwell's "Ministry of Truth" is much older than "1984".

The business about Islam, moreover, is important to the development of Mankind - because while Rome and Greece did not develop anything basically new, Islam did. And if we hide the fact that Islam, not Rome or Greece, invented science, we will miss the area in which must lie a unique force. Rome and Greece did not have that unique force; as pointed out above, many other peoples developed logic, mathematics and engineering. Studying Rome and Greece for the source-force that generated that unique thing, Science, therefore, would lead to frustration. You won't be able to find it, no matter how finely you comb the records; it wasn't there in the first place.
The contribution of Islam has been heavily occluded by propaganda started in the age when the West and Islam were struggling. Actually, most of our basic sciences are heavily larded with Arabic terminology. Chemistry has dropped the old Arabic prefix "al" from its own name, but retains it in alcohol - the Mohammedans invented distillation - and a number of other instances. The alembic is no longer used, but chemists need the Arabic numerals - borrowed from India - and algebra.
One of the major troubles was the chemists didn't borrow enough. Lavoisier is credited with introducing the balance into chemical investigations. But as early as the eighth century (A. D.) the Arab chemist Yber-Abou-Moussah-Djafer Al-Sofi reported that when metallic lead is heated and calcined in air, the resulting compound is heavier than the original metal. Somebody must have been using the balance a bit before Lavoisier thought of it.
Now at the time of Islam's greatest achievement, their influence extended from Spain to India. They were in contact with Hindu, Chinese and other civilizations. But, curiously, only two cultures in the history of Mankind have either invented or accepted Science. The highly civilized Chinese neither invented it, nor accepted it from the Arabs. The Hindus, likewise, failed either to invent or accept it. The Christians didn't invent it - but they did accept it.
In this, I mean by "science" that method of learning that involves the equal interaction and cross-checking of philosophical-theoretical thought, and actual physical-reality experiments, done as a conscious process for the consciously stated purpose of increasing knowledge and understanding - that is, increasing data and relationship-of-data.
Why? Why only these two?
Unquestionably, in any system so complex as a human culture, there is more than one factor. But we can find a factor that is present in these two, and missing in the others that achieved greatly - but didn't achieve Science.
The Scientific cultures have an Absolutistic philosophy - and a monotheistic philosophy. Remember that "religion" is, by derivation, the study of "the laws of things" - or "cosmology" in modern linguistic terms.
Both Mohammedanism and Christianity stem from the old Jewish philosophy of One God - an Absolute God, whose laws were absolute, and could be appealed only to the One Absolute God.
The Greeks were in a quite different Universe. It didn't have any single set of laws or rules; if Zeus made a ruling, one you found irksome, you could try getting Athena or Poseidon or Aphrodite, maybe, to change it. If there was some curious phenomenon observed - observe it and forget it. The whim of a god isn't lasting; some other god will change it. The smart man will study texts on "The Psychology and the Rivalries of the Gods" because that's the only way to get anywhere.
If an ancient Greek observed that it took longer to boil an egg on top of a mountain than it did at sea level - so what? You fool, don't you know Zeus and Poseidon dislike each other? Poseidon rules water; Zeus rules the upper air. What do you think is going to happen to water when you take it up nearer the upper air? Naturally it doesn't work as well.
And if you study Platonic philosophy, and find that it has certain uncomfortably binding restrictions on your actions - why the Sophist school is just as logical. It just appeals to other Gods - er, I mean other postulates - but it's just as logical, isn't it? Of course. And there's no need to stay with it, if it proves irksome; there are other philosophies, too.
A polytheistic cosmology is not going to lead to the development of science. Science is, moreover, going to be a mighty unpopular philosophy in any culture; it has an absolutism about it that says "It makes no difference who you are, what you are, or what you want. Neither does it matter what your wealth is, or your political power. These are The Laws; obey or suffer".
It could be considered, even, only by a culture that had already accepted the idea of an Absolute Power in the Universe.
The great difficulty with that problem is that, once you've found that Absolutes do exist - you're apt to go sort of absolutistic about it, and say "These are the Absolute Laws - and these are absolutely all the laws".
The Jewish people invented the monotheistic philosophy that made science possible - but they didn't invent science. They had too much of the absolute, perhaps. The Arabs were relatively absolute - and invented Science.
Christians and Jews have done fine with it ever since; until very recently nobody else has been able to!
It rather looks, then, as though Einstein's relativity is an essential part of the philosophy necessary to developing Science - but must be recognized as being necessary, but not sufficient. There is reason to believe that both relatives and absolutes are necessary to a developing science - that either, if held to be the Be All and End All of the matter leads to stagnation and non-achievement.
Now it is interesting that the whole progress of science has centered around that area where there are Absolutes - the areas where no man has a right to his own opinion. The progress made in the social sciences, where opinion has been dominant, and everything has been fanatically relative, has been very small indeed. Psychology claims to be a "young science"; we can go into that question some other time, but it's worth pointing out that Aristotle did a fine textbook on psychology, sociology and anthropology some two-thousand-odd years ago. "The Confessions of St. Augustine" has a most thoughtful and intelligent study of guilt feelings. The Aesculapian priests of Greece were using narcosynthesis-drug hypnotherapy - some twenty-five hundred years ago. The age of the Hindu Vedda is considerably disputed, but it's not much younger - and has considerable data on clinical psychosomatic medicine using hypnotherapy. There's really been astonishingly little progress in the humanic sciences in the last few millennia.
The progress has all been in those areas where dear old Mother Nature took a club to Man's thick skull, and said, in effect, "This is the unit you'll use - whether you like it or not. Your opinion on the matter is completely unimportant. And yes, Tom, your opinion is just as good as Dick's or Harry's - and all three are no good whatever". Where Nature supplied absolutely non-relative units, like atoms and photons, Science got somewhere.
Want to have some fun with the relativity formulas? Try taking some different units, and see what happens to them! The relativity formulas involve a lot of higher power terms - squares, cubes, and higher. If you take your unit of velocity not as centimeters per second, but as c, then all the higherpower terms of c reduce to 1.00, no matter what the power is. Then the v terms all become fractional, and higher powers of fractions are smaller values than the original fraction, whereas higher powers of quantities greater than 1.000 are increased by self-multiplication. By picking the right set of self-consistent units, you can make the most marvelous hash out of the relativity formulas - without altering the formulas an iota!
And if we've got a relativistic universe, with no absolutes in it, then I can play deuces-wild with the units. You start being relativistic, and I'll relativistic you right out of business! I'll make as much of a mess out of your science as the humanic scientists have made out of theirs. All I need is the right to make my choice of units purely a matter of personal preference!

July 1954

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