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The ABCs of Abstract Science

For years, scientists and historians have wondered why the Chinese, who introduced technological innovations like gunpowder, paper, iron smelting, and the segmental arch bridge to the Western world, never developed abstract science. Robert K Logan, a physicist with a special interest in phonetics, postulates in his new book The Alphabet Effect (William Morrow & Company, 1986) that the rise of the phonetic alphabet in the West was a necessary precondition for the development of modern science. Th

By | January 12, 1987

For years, scientists and historians have wondered why the Chinese, who introduced technological innovations like gunpowder, paper, iron smelting, and the segmental arch bridge to the Western world, never developed abstract science. Robert K Logan, a physicist with a special interest in phonetics, postulates in his new book The Alphabet Effect (William Morrow & Company, 1986) that the rise of the phonetic alphabet in the West was a necessary precondition for the development of modern science. The pictographic writing system of the East, Logan says, supported a practical technology but not the kind of abstract reasoning that is the underpinning of modern science. Moreover, the Eastern writing system prevented the most effective use of another Chinese invention, movable type, which was essential to the growth of modern science in the West. The following is adapted from the Logan book.

The earliest form of science as it was practiced in ancient China, Egypt and Mesopotamia was strictly phenomenological and concerned with practical questions. It was based exclusively on observation and not on some theoretical foundation. Joseph Needham, the China scholar, argued that the Chinese contributed to the development of abstract science in the West because of their many practical inventions and the transfer of technology from East to West. His assertion leads naturally to the question: Why did abstract theoretical science not begin in China itself but rather in the West?

I once suggested that monotheism and codified law, two features of Western culture absent in China, led to a notion of universal law, which influenced the development of abstract science in ancient Greece. When I first shared this hypothesis with my coworker Marshall McLuhan, he agreed with me but pointed out that I had failed to take into account the phonetic alphabet, another feature of the West lacking in China, which had also contributed to the development of Western science. Together we developed the hypothesis that the highly abstract thought patterns in the West that lead to abstract theoretical science developed, in part, because of the development of the phonetic alphabet.

China created what was probably the most sophisticated form of nonabstract science the world has known. But technological sophistication by itself does not guarantee the development of abstract theoretical science. Other factors (social, economic and cultural), obviously present in the West and not in the East, must have played a crucial role. I believe that the first scientific literature, whether Oriental or Occidental, was destined to be written in an alphabetic script because the alphabet creates the environmental conditions under which abstract theoretical science flourishes.

The phonetic alphabet played a major role in ancient Greece in the development of deductive logic and abstract science. The linking together of standardized repeatable elements to form words enables the alphabet to serve as a paradigm for deductive logic in which ideas or statements are linked together to form arguments, and arguments are linked together to reach a conclusion. The deductive reasoning implicit in formal logic and geometry also formed the basis of early Greek science, which attempted to derive its description of nature from first principles. Hesiod's systematic treatment of nature represents the beginning of Greek scientific thought. The contribution he made under the influence and impact of the alphabet was classification or systemization. As anyone who has used the dictionary or a filing system knows, the alphabet is a natural classification scheme for words. What distinguishes science from knowledge is the organization of that knowledge.

In addition to serving as a paradigm of abstraction and classification, the alphabet serves as a model for division and fragmentation. With the alphabet, every word is fragmented into its constituent sounds and letters. The Greeks' idea of atomicity, that all matter can be divided up into individual distinct tiny atoms, is related to their alphabet. The abstraction and systemization that the use of the alphabet encouraged were two of the characteristics that distinguished Greek science from that of its predecessors. The Greeks borrowed a great deal from the primitive science of the Egyptians and the Babylonians, but they totally transformed this material in line with their new standards of scientific and logical thought.

With writing, what is recorded or remembered becomes separate from the writer. It stands alone and independent of the context of the person who originated the ideas or the information. Knowledge begins to take on an identity separate from that of the knower. Through writing, the Greeks developed a notion of objectivity—the separation of the knower from the object of his study. This is the beginning of the scientific method and the source of the dichotomy the Greeks created between subjective thinking (such as poetry and art) and objective thinking (such as philosophy and science).

The use of the alphabet also promoted the skills of analysis. To render a spoken word alphabetically, one must first analyze the sound or phonic structure of the word and hence break down the word into its basic sounds or phonemic elements. Then the letters of the alphabet are matched with the phonemic elements to render a spelling of the word. The constant repetition of the process of phonemic analysis of a spoken word, every time it is written in an alphabetic form, subliminally promotes the skills of analysis and matching that are critical for scientific and logical thinking.

With the phonetic alphabet a new style of writing, prose, developed that made it possible to create analytic statements. Abstract science without prose and analytic statements would be impossible. The Chinese never developed prose style. Their lack of alphabetic writing and a prose style, I believe, handicapped their development of abstract science despite their impressive technological achievements.

Although movable type was invented in China, its use there never reached the stage of development it eventually did in the West because of the large number of characters or type fonts required.

The printing press enhanced the effects of the alphabet. Written material became even more abstract because of the ease and speed with which it could be read. The printed medium became transparent and hence its effects more abstract. Because of the neat and uniform way in which information could be organized on the printed page, typography also increased the trend toward uniformity, classification and analysis. The rapid dissemination of information and knowledge to a mass audience was one of the essential elements in modern science.

The printed book also provided a way to preserve scientific data through the rapid creation of multiple copies. Printing had a role to play in the revival of ancient learning, and the resurrection of an ancient scientific text would often provide the medical student or practitioner with new information and insights. Print promoted self-learning and provided would-be scientists with an independent point of view for evaluating hypotheses and the validity of empirical data. The printing press broke the universities' monopoly of knowledge and allowed the reading public to participate in the exchange of scientific ideas. The search for larger markets resulted in scientific and technical publications in the vernacular tongues, which radically increased the number of those who had access to technical ideas.

Abstract theoretical science is thus a peculiar outgrowth of Western culture and is little more than 300 years old. Nonabstract practical science as it occurs in China and the remainder of the world is a universal activity that has been pursued by all cultures as part of their strategy for survival.

Logan is professor of physics at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Ont., Canada M5S 1A1.

From The Alphabet Effect by Robert K. Logan. Copyright © 1986 by Robert K. Logan. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow & Co., Inc.
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