[Answer] Why wasn’t science invented in China?

Credit for the ques­tion to Eli Tyre.

Pre­face + Epistemic Status

I spent roughly two days at­tempt­ing to learn the an­swer this ques­tion plus sev­eral more writ­ing it up. What is pre­sented is more ac­cu­rately de­scribed as a par­tial an­swer or con­tri­bu­tion to­wards an­swer­ing the ques­tion—this re­port isn’t ac­tu­ally a con­fi­dent, solid an­swer. The ques­tion is too large for that.

I need to provide a cou­ple of epistemic caveats:

  • I am not ex­pe­rienced at this kind of re­search, I don’t know what kind of rookie mis­takes I might be mak­ing.

  • I have not at­tempted to as­sess the re­li­a­bil­ity of the his­to­ri­ans who I quote, though my prior is to be less than com­pletely con­fi­dent. It might to be too easy to start with a con­clu­sion, a nice nar­ra­tive, and just find ev­i­dence for that. Though I quote what they say, I urge skep­ti­cism.

    • I have rel­a­tively more trust in state­ments like “Ibn al-Haytham lived in Cairo in the around the year 1000 and wrote the Book of Op­tics” more than broad state­ments like “[there was a] vir­tual ab­sence in an­cient Chi­nese philos­o­phy of any­thing re­sem­bling the so­cratic method.”

  • Writ­ing a re­search re­port like this one turned out to be re­mark­ably effort­ful, more so than the pure re­search and ob­tain­ing an­swers for my­self. To keep it from be­ing even longer and more time-con­sum­ing, I found my­self hav­ing to sim­plify heav­ily and then of­ten fear­ing that the re­sult is too sim­ple and leaves too much out (and pos­si­bly im­por­tant stuff out).

Clar­ify­ing and Refin­ing the Question

If you don’t know why you’re do­ing some­thing, you’re likely to in­stan­ti­ate a ver­sion of it which doesn’t help your up­stream goal, as­sum­ing it’s the right gen­eral thing at all. This ap­plies to re­search too: al­most all ques­tions are sub-ques­tions.

In this case, I didn’t have an ex­pan­sion of the ques­tion from its au­thor, but I did have their other ques­tions and was aware of their gen­eral in­ter­ests. Other ques­tions they had were: Are there pat­terns in what makes great sci­en­tists? Were there other in­tel­lec­tual sub­cul­tures any­thing like the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity any time in the past few hun­dred years? What was it that made the in­tel­lec­tual high points of hu­man his­tory high? What made the re­nais­sance, the en­light­en­ment, etc., work?

The real agenda is clearly about un­der­stand­ing the fac­tors which cause in­tel­lec­tual progress. The ex­panded ques­tion is more like What were the fac­tors which were pre­sent in Europe but ab­sent in China which led to sci­ence be­ing in­vented in the former? In par­tic­u­larly, were there fac­tors which caused Euro­peans to be more in­tel­lec­tu­ally gen­er­a­tive on this front than the Chi­nese?

Clar­ify­ing terms: Science, Scien­tific Method, etc.

A few terms worth dis­en­tan­gling: em­piri­cism is the no­tion that you should look at the world to learn about it, and that’s a very old idea even when not widely adopted. I wouldn’t equate sci­ence with em­piri­cism for this ques­tion. Science can ei­ther re­fer to a body of knowl­edge or the method used by which that knowl­edge is gen­er­ated. Though they’re tightly con­nected, I’ve in­ter­preted this ques­tion is pri­mar­ily about “why wasn’t the sci­en­tific method in­vented in China?”

Also in this space is the Scien­tific Revolu­tion and, some­what more weakly, the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion. The re­search here has some rele­vance to those, but I wasn’t try­ing to an­swer ques­tions about why they didn’t oc­cur in China which I ex­pect to pos­si­bly in­volve differ­ent eco­nomic and so­cial fac­tors then the pure in­tel­lec­tual de­vel­op­ment of sci­en­tific meth­ods by some in­di­vi­d­u­als. I’m look­ing at in­ven­tion, not adop­tion.

Abridged His­tory of the Scien­tific Method

What fol­lows here is a slightly short­ened and heav­ily sim­plified sum­mary of Wikipe­dia en­tries, pri­mar­ily from His­tory of the Scien­tific Method with em­bel­lish­ment from other pages.

Differ­ent Scien­tific Meth­ods over Time

First, it’s im­por­tant to note that there hasn’t been just a sin­gle the sci­en­tific method which we can point to hav­ing been in­vented at a sin­gle time and space. There have been suc­ces­sively re­fined meth­ods of gen­er­at­ing sci­en­tific knowl­edge de­vel­oped over time. Scien­tific meth­ods were pos­sessed by:

  • at least one per­son who wrote an Egyp­tian med­i­cal text­book, (c. 1600 BCE)

  • the Baby­lo­ni­ans with their math­e­mat­i­cal astronomy

  • the Greeks (who were foun­da­tional)

  • the Arabs

  • the Chi­nese Mo­hists (more on them later)

  • the In­dian Char­vaka school.

This is im­por­tant be­cause it means in an­swer­ing the ques­tion I’m not look­ing for fac­tors which caused some­thing to hap­pen at a very par­tic­u­lar time and place, e.g. not what made Fran­cis Ba­con very spe­cial or the like. In­stead, I’m look­ing for fac­tors which held over Europe (and the Mid­dle East) for over a thou­sand years.

To bet­ter un­der­stand what the rele­vant fac­tors might be and to have a more pre­cise of idea of the thing we care about hav­ing been in­vented, I read through the his­tory of sci­en­tific meth­ods as de­vel­oped in Europe.

An on­go­ing de­bate in the philos­o­phy of sci­ence is the rel­a­tive role of ob­ser­va­tion vs rea­son­ing in the sci­en­tific method, e.g. ra­tio­nal­ism vs em­piri­cism, and by ex­ten­sion the role and na­ture of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Another differ­ence is whether a the­ory starts with gen­eral the­o­ries which leads to ex­per­i­men­tal work or the re­verse. The differ­ent sci­en­tific meth­ods from differ­ent thinkers were largely play­ing with the same el­e­ments. Still, they are united by all in­volv­ing some de­gree of em­piri­cism, some de­gree on rea­son, and are for the pur­pose of pro­duc­ing nat­u­ral­is­tic ex­pla­na­tions of phys­i­cal re­al­ity.

In his work on logic, The Organon (Greek: Ὄργανον, mean­ing “in­stru­ment, tool, or­gan”) Aris­to­tle (384 BCE to 322 BCE) lays out his in­duc­tive-de­duc­tive method of gen­er­at­ing sci­en­tific knowl­edge. Short ver­sion: a) via in­duc­tions one can dis­cover uni­ver­sals by gen­er­al­iza­tion, b) us­ing de­duc­tive rea­son­ing in the form of syl­l­o­gisms, one can in­fer new uni­ver­sal truths from those already es­tab­lished. How­ever, Aris­to­tle did not con­sider the in­duc­tive step to be sci­en­tific rea­son­ing it­self—merely pre­limi­nary to real the busi­ness which was the de­duc­tive rea­son­ing. It’s also worth not­ing that Aris­to­tle performed no mod­ern-style ex­per­i­ments.

Sev­eral sci­en­tists from the Mid­dle East pushed much closer to what we rec­og­nize as mod­ern sci­ence. Arab physi­cist Ibn al-Haytham (~965 to ~1040) com­bined ob­ser­va­tion, ex­per­i­ments, and rea­soned ar­gu­ment to his study of op­tics prov­ing the mod­els held by Ptolemy, Eu­clid, and Aris­to­tle to be wrong. He crit­i­cized Aris­to­tle’s han­dling of in­duc­tion. Per­sian sci­en­tist Al-Biruni (973 to ~1050) used re­peated ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in his work and was con­cerned with sys­tem­atic er­rors and ob­ser­va­tional bi­ases. He held that “uni­ver­sals came out of ex­per­i­men­tal work” and “the­o­ries are for­mu­lated af­ter dis­cov­er­ies.” Ibn Sina (Avi­cenna, 980 to 1037) com­bined in­duc­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, crit­i­ciz­ing Aris­to­tle’s in­duc­tion with the claim “it does not lead to the ab­solute, uni­ver­sal, and cer­tain premises that it pur­ports to provide.” Ibn Sina might also have been the first to de­scribe sev­eral of the meth­ods of in­duc­tion listed by John Stu­art Mill in 1843. Avi­cenna’s sci­en­tific method is one in which “gen­eral and uni­ver­sal ques­tions came first and led to ex­per­i­men­tal work.” [Note these guys all seemed very im­pres­sive to me.]

Dur­ing the Re­nais­sance of the 12th cen­tury, ideas on sci­en­tific method­ol­ogy, in­clud­ing Aris­to­tle’s em­piri­cism and the ex­per­i­men­tal ap­proaches of Ibn al-Haythem and Ibn Sina were in­tro­duced to me­dieval Europe via Latin trans­la­tions of Ara­bic and Greek texts to­gether with com­men­taries.

Robert Gros­seteste (~1175 to 1253) was prob­a­bly one of the first Euro­pean thinkers in Europe to un­der­stand Aris­to­tle’s vi­sion of the dual na­ture of sci­en­tific rea­son­ing. His con­cep­tion was of go­ing from par­tic­u­lar ob­ser­va­tions to uni­ver­sal laws back to pre­dic­tion of par­tic­u­lar ob­ser­va­tions. “Re­s­olu­tion and com­po­si­tion.” He’s been called the real founder of the tra­di­tion of sci­en­tific thought in me­dieval Oxford.

Roger Ba­con (~1219 to 1292) was in­spired by the writ­ings of Gros­seteste. He de­scribes a re­peat­ing cy­cle of ob­ser­va­tion, hy­poth­e­sis, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion plus the need for in­de­pen­dent ver­ifi­ca­tion. With spe­cial per­mis­sion from the Pope (nec­es­sary since he was a friar) he pub­lished three large trea­tises.

At this point in the his­tory it is noted that in 1562 “Out­lines of Pyrrhon­ism” by Sex­tus Em­piri­cus (c. 160) were printed in Latin and cir­cu­lated in Europe, plac­ing the ar­gu­ments of clas­si­cal skep­ti­cism in the Euro­pean main­stream.

In 1620, Fran­cis Ba­con (1561 to 1626) pub­lished his Novum Or­ganum, the ti­tle a refer­ence to Aris­to­tle’s Organon. Coun­ter­ing Aris­to­tle, he said that in­duc­tion must be used “for prov­ing and dis­cov­er­ing not first prin­ci­ples only, but also lesser ax­ioms, the mid­dle, and in­deed all.” Un­like Aris­to­tle, Ba­con in­sists on in­duc­tion through­out the en­tire pro­cess, not just at the be­gin­ning to de­rive uni­ver­sals. He was very com­mit­ted to ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, in­clud­ing “cru­cial ex­per­i­ments” to differ­en­ti­ate be­tween com­pet­ing hy­pothe­ses. How­ever, un­like in mod­ern sci­en­tific pro­cess, hy­poth­e­siz­ing forms only a small part of Ba­con’s method. In his method hy­pothe­ses were sup­posed to arise in the pro­cess of in­ves­ti­ga­tion (con­trast this with Avi­cenna who was happy to start with gen­eral the­o­ries and then ex­per­i­ment).

Isaac New­ton (1642 to ~1726) em­braced Ba­con’s em­piri­cism and out­lined four rules on rea­son­ing in the Prin­cipia. Some of his meth­ods were sys­tem­atized by John Stu­art Mill.

The “hy­po­thetico-de­duc­tive” method with its fo­cus on the for­mu­la­tion and test­ing of hy­pothe­ses which can be falsified arose in the 18th cen­tury. Ma­jor con­trib­u­tors to­wards this re­fine­ment of the method were Charles San­ders Pierce (1839 to 1914) and Karl Pop­per (1902 to 1994). Pierce made in­duc­tion and de­duc­tion com­ple­men­tary and put forth the ba­sic schema for hy­poth­e­sis test­ing we have un­til this day. Pop­per is the famed cham­pion of falsifi­ca­tion.

In the 20th cen­tury, Bayes’ the­o­rem was brought to bear on the sci­en­tific method, though it is a lens not yet uni­ver­sally adopted.

So when was “sci­ence in­vented”?

When start­ing this pro­ject, my vague con­cep­tion was some­thing like “the sci­en­tific method was in­vented in the 17th cen­tury by Fran­cis Ba­con.” After read­ing this his­tory, I re­al­ize what an ex­treme, per­haps laugh­able, sim­plifi­ca­tion—the things you be­lieve when you haven’t thought about them for even five min­utes.

The mod­ern sci­en­tific method as we know it is the re­sult of over a thou­sand years of in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion. It was built piece by piece, em­i­nent schol­ars each pro­vid­ing their own con­tri­bu­tion. Con­trary to my start­ing con­cep­tion, it’s not that mean­ingful to say that it was “in­vented” speci­fi­cally in the 17th cen­tury.

How­ever, it does still seem that some­thing sig­nifi­cant hap­pened in the 17th cen­tury or then abouts. I didn’t go into this in any depth, but the fol­low­ing pieces might be in­volved:

  • The im­prove­ments in the meth­ods Fran­cis Ba­con and New­ton caused a dra­matic differ­ence in the power of the sci­en­tific method lead­ing to sig­nifi­cant break­throughs.

  • Ma­jor sci­en­tific break­throughs, caused by im­proved method or other causes, oc­curred around this time caus­ing wide­spread in­ter­est and en­thu­si­asm for sci­ence, lead­ing to so­cial change. The so­cial change cause these de­vel­op­ments to be es­pe­cially note­wor­thy.

  • So­cial change hap­pen­ing for mul­ti­ple rea­sons at this time caused the im­proved sci­en­tific method to gain a lot of trac­tion at this time.

  • New­ton and Gal­ileo (though not Ba­con) had im­pres­sive sci­en­tific break­throughs which caused their meth­ods to get a lot of at­ten­tion.

I’ll quote the en­try on Scien­tific Revolu­tion:

In the 19th cen­tury, William Whewell de­scribed the rev­olu­tion in sci­ence it­self—the sci­en­tific method—that had taken place in the 15th–16th cen­tury. “Among the most con­spicu­ous of the rev­olu­tions which opinions on this sub­ject have un­der­gone, is the tran­si­tion from an im­plicit trust in the in­ter­nal pow­ers of man’s mind to a pro­fessed de­pen­dence upon ex­ter­nal ob­ser­va­tion; and from an un­bounded rev­er­ence for the wis­dom of the past, to a fervid ex­pec­ta­tion of change and im­prove­ment.”[12] This gave rise to the com­mon view of the Scien­tific Revolu­tion to­day:
A new view of na­ture emerged, re­plac­ing the Greek view that had dom­i­nated sci­ence for al­most 2,000 years. Science be­came an au­tonomous dis­ci­pline, dis­tinct from both philos­o­phy and tech­nol­ogy and came to be re­garded as hav­ing util­i­tar­ian goals.[13]

. . .

In 1984, Joseph Ben-David wrote:
Rapid ac­cu­mu­la­tion of knowl­edge, which has char­ac­ter­ized the de­vel­op­ment of sci­ence since the 17th cen­tury, had never oc­curred be­fore that time. The new kind of sci­en­tific ac­tivity emerged only in a few coun­tries of Western Europe, and it was re­stricted to that small area for about two hun­dred years.

This last quote raises an in­ter­ested re­lated ques­tion to the main one be­ing an­swered here: if true, what fac­tors caused the rapid ac­cu­mu­la­tion of knowl­edge in speci­fi­cally only a few coun­tries and for only those two hun­dred years?

Per­haps the is­sue was that China wasn’t in­cluded in the in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion?

Read­ing the his­tory of the sci­en­tific method and not­ing that there was this long in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion and it de­pended on trans­la­tions and ideas spread­ing from one place to an­other, I won­dered whether the lack of (sup­posed) sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ment in China was that China wasn’t ex­posed to this tra­di­tion. Per­haps they didn’t get the trans­la­tions. Later read­ing sug­gested this wasn’t true—China had suffi­cient ex­po­sure but for some rea­son didn’t latch on and didn’t de­velop its own sci­ence or sci­en­tific method in the same way.

Toby Huff writes in The Rise of Early Modern Science: Is­lam, China, and the West, 2nd Edi­tion:

By the end of the four­teenth cen­tury in the ar­eas of math­e­mat­ics, as­tron­omy, and op­tics, there was a con­sid­er­able debit on the Chi­nese side, de­spite the fact that there had been many chances for the Chi­nese to benefit from Arab as­tronomers and to bor­row or as­similate the Greek philo­soph­i­cal her­i­tage through con­stant in­ter­changes be­tween the Arabs and the Chi­nese. Dur­ing Yuan times (ca. 1264-1368) Need­ham tells us, the Arabs or, more prob­a­bly, the Per­si­ans played a sig­nifi­cant role in bring­ing new math­e­mat­i­cal ideas to Chi­nese sci­ence, and this role par­alleled that played by In­di­ans in T’ang times. (p. 242)

Ap­par­ently the Chi­nese ended up em­ploy­ing Mus­lim as­tronomers in their as­tron­omy bu­reau be­cause they hadn’t mas­tered their su­pe­rior meth­ods yet.

Their defi­cien­cies in this area, more­over, led the Chi­nese to em­ploy Mus­lim as­tronomers in the Chi­nese Bureau of Astron­omy con­tin­u­ously from the thir­teenth cen­tury on­ward. In­deed, in 1368 a spe­cial Mus­lim Bureau of Astron­omy was es­tab­lished in China that was still func­tion­ing at the time of the ar­rival of the Je­suits in the six­teenth cen­tury.16 Upon the ar­rival of the Je­suits, there were four com­pet­ing as­tro­nom­i­cal sys­tems: the tra­di­tional Chi­nese sys­tem; that of the Mus­lims (based on the lu­nar cal­en­dar); the new Euro­pean; and that of the so-called new Eastern Bureau.17 For these rea­sons Need­ham notes that “there can be no doubt but that there was ev­ery op­por­tu­nity for Ara­bic and Per­sian math­e­mat­i­cal in­fluences (as from the ob­ser­va­tions of Maragha and Sa­mar­qand) to en­ter Chi­nese tra­di­tions.”18 Even more tan­ta­l­iz­ing are the re­ports that a Mon­gol ruler in China, Mangu (d. 1257; the brother of Hu­lagu who or­dered the con­struc­tion of the Maragha ob­ser­va­tory), is said to “have mas­tered difficult pas­sages of Eu­clid by him­self.”19 In what lan­guage was this ver­sion of Eu­clid, and why is it that Mangu’s suc­ces­sor—Khu­bilai Khan—did not sug­gest the learn­ing of Eu­clid to the court offi­cials sur­round­ing him ?20 Th­ese facts make it all the more puz­zling why it was that the Je­suits are cred­ited with hav­ing in­tro­duced Western as­tron­omy to the Chi­nese (albeit in­com­pletely be­cause of the Gal­ilean con­tro­versy just then un­fold­ing) as well as ge­om­e­try, when the Maragha mod­els clearly as­sumed all the fun­da­men­tals of Western as­tron­omy at that time ex­cept the he­lio­cen­tric ori­en­ta­tion. In other words, given the di­rect con­tact in the cap­i­tal city be­tween some of the best Mus­lim as­tronomers of the time and the Chi­nese as­tronomers in the offi­cial Bureau of Astron­omy, the Chi­nese ought to have had nearly two cen­turies to trans­late Eu­clid’s Ele­ments and to as­similate the Ptole­maic mod­els (as perfected by al-Tusi, al-’Urdi, aI-Shirazi, and Ibn al-Shatir) be­fore they were trans­formed into the Coper­ni­can mod­els by Euro­peans in the six­teenth and sev­en­teenth cen­turies. (p. 244)

It looks like the Chi­nese had many op­por­tu­ni­ties to ab­sorb and build upon for­eign knowl­edge. For some rea­son they didn’t, in­stead em­ploy­ing for­eign­ers for cen­turies. This is ev­i­dence against my hy­poth­e­sis that China wasn’t as in­tel­lec­tual gen­er­a­tive be­cause they didn’t get to be part of the same in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion. They could have been, but some­thing got in the way.

Per­haps China didn’t have net­works of schol­ars the same way?

Re­lated to the idea of an in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion which built upon it­self, I be­lieve I hit upon the topic of var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties of thinkers which ex­changed ideas in Europe.

In­visi­ble Col­lege is the term used for a small com­mu­nity of in­ter­act­ing schol­ars who of­ten met face-to-face, ex­changed ideas, and en­couraged each other. One is ex­am­ples is Robert Boyle’s net­work of nat­u­ral philoso­phers who had a fo­cus on ac­quiring knowl­edge through ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. They were sup­pos­edly a pre­cur­sor to the Royal So­ciety. The Hartlib Cir­cle, a net­work of cor­re­spon­dence across Western and Cen­tral Europe, was an­other in­stance of an in­visi­ble col­lege.

Re­lat­edly, the Repub­lic of Let­ters was a long-dis­tance in­tel­lec­tual com­mu­nity in the late 17th and 18th cen­turies in Europe and the Amer­i­cas. I didn’t look into this or any of the oth­ers, but the Repub­lic of Let­ters was bound up with the Royal So­ciety, famed in­sti­tute and net­work of Science.

It’s been as­serted [source] that hav­ing Latin as a lin­gua franca was im­por­tant for Europe in­te­grated mar­ket for ideas. Makes sense if schol­ars who oth­er­wise speak differ­ent lan­guages are go­ing to be able to com­mu­ni­cate.

Th­ese com­mu­ni­ties and net­works of thinkers maybe a fac­tor which con­tributed to­wards the de­vel­op­ment of the sci­en­tific, its spread, and as­so­ci­ated so­cial change. A ques­tion I had, yet didn’t fully get into, is the ex­tent to which China has similar com­mu­ni­ties and net­works of thinkers. I do have some early in­di­ca­tion that travel was more difficult in China and that China had a pow­er­ful cen­sor­ing sys­tem, though it is un­clear to me the effect that cen­sor would have had on schol­ars ex­chang­ing let­ters given that its pri­mary tar­get were offi­cials in the bu­reau­cracy.

Science and Scien­tific Meth­ods in China

Main ar­ti­cle: His­tory of Science and Tech­nol­ogy in China

An Ex­ist­ing Literature

Work­ing on this pro­ject, I found that there is an ex­ist­ing body of work on the re­lated ques­tions “why wasn’t sci­ence in­vented in China?”, “why didn’t China have a sci­en­tific rev­olu­tion?”, “why didn’t China have an in­dus­trial rev­olu­tion?” and “why did China fall be­hind Europe?”

A launch­ing for this liter­a­ture is the Scien­tific and tech­nolog­i­cal stag­na­tion sec­tion of the His­tory of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy in China Wikipe­dia en­try. And re­lat­edly, The Great Divergence

Key his­to­ri­ans on this topic in­clude Joseph Need­ham, Toby E. Huff, Nathan Sivin, Derek Bodde and Justin Lin. Most of the early Western work in the his­tory of sci­ence in China was done by Need­ham. He wrote a se­ries of books/​en­cy­clo­pe­dia called Science and Civil­i­sa­tion in China. In 1969 he asked:

“Why did mod­ern sci­ence, the math­ema­ti­za­tion of hy­pothe­ses about Na­ture, with all its im­pli­ca­tions for ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy, take its me­te­oric rise only in the West at the time of Gal­ileo?” “Why mod­ern sci­ence had not de­vel­oped in Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion … ?” He adds a sec­ond ques­tion that makes the larger prob­lem more in­ter­est­ing: “why, be­tween the first cen­tury B.C. and the fif­teenth cen­tury A.D., Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion was much more effi­cient than oc­ci­den­tal in ap­ply­ing hu­man nat­u­ral knowl­edge to prac­ti­cal hu­man needs.” (Need­ham cited by Sivin in Why the Scien­tific Revolu­tion Did Not Take Place in China—or Didn’t It? P. 2 )

Is it a rea­son­able ques­tion?

At least some ques­tion that ask­ing why sci­ence/​the sci­en­tific rev­olu­tion didn’t hap­pen in China is a good ques­tion. Maybe it’s like ask­ing why your neigh­bor’s house didn’t burn down. But there are some good rea­sons.

First, China had a long his­tory of be­ing quite tech­nolog­i­cally ad­vanced.

“Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion was much more effi­cient than oc­ci­den­tal [civ­i­liza­tion] in ap­ply­ing hu­man nat­u­ral knowl­edge to prac­ti­cal hu­man needs.” (Need­ham cited by Huff, p. 241)

They in­vented the aba­cus, the cross­bow and the Four Great In­ven­tions of the com­pass, gun­pow­der, pa­per­mak­ing, and print­ing which Fran­cis Ba­con con­sid­ered the most im­por­tant in­ven­tions fa­cil­i­tat­ing the West’s trans­for­ma­tion from Dark Ages to the Modern world [Lin]. They pos­sessed these a thou­sand years be­fore Europe did. Early China had matches, dry docks, pis­ton pumps, cast iron, the wheelbar­row, parachute, nat­u­ral gas as fuel, and the sus­pen­sion bridge. They had tech­nol­ogy and they had a wide range of sci­ences. They had many sci­ences even if they didn’t have a unified sci­ence [source].

Se­cond, China had a pop­u­lar large than Con­ti­nen­tal Europe [source].

Given tech­nolog­i­cal prowess and pop­u­la­tion size, it doesn’t seem un­rea­son­able to me to ask why China didn’t gen­er­ate the mod­ern sci­en­tific method or un­dergo a sci­en­tific rev­olu­tion.

So why not in China?

I col­lect here rea­sons from Toby E. Huff’s book The Rise of Early Modern Science (over­whelm­ingly), Wikipe­dia, and a few other pa­pers I glanced at. Huff’s book it­self is some­thing of a sum­mary which is in­cor­po­rat­ing views from Need­ham, Sivin, Bodde, and oth­ers. What is pre­sented here is pri­mar­ily taken from Chap­ters 6 and 7 from Huff’s book, about 75 pages. It is a very in­ter­est­ing and worth­while read which I’ve done a so-so job of sum­ma­riz­ing. Pos­si­bly this an­swer could have been framed as a book re­view.

Some of rea­sons taken from the Wikipe­dia en­try on The Great Diver­gence [be­tween China and the West]. Th­ese are less di­rectly about the de­vel­op­ment of sci­ence speci­fi­cally than over­all eco­nomic di­ver­gence, but I’ve in­cluded the few which might also ap­ply in the spe­cific case here.

Huff writes:

If one takes the point of view that sci­ence is above all a sys­tem of er­ror de­tec­tion, not a set of skills for build­ing ma­chines, me­chan­i­cal or elec­tronic, then at­ten­tion must be di­rected to­ward those ab­stract sys­tems of thought and ex­pla­na­tion that give higher or­der to our think­ing about the nat­u­ral realm. Science at its heart is sys­tem­atic and the­o­ret­i­cal knowl­edge about how the world is and how it works. It is episteme as op­posed to techne. It is spec­u­la­tive in that it is always con­jec­tur­ing the ex­is­tence of new en­tities, pro­cesses, and mechanisms, not to men­tion pos­si­ble new wor­lds. Its task is to de­ter­mine which of these ideas and en­tities have a real ex­is­tence in the world. Karl Pop­per’s de­scrip­tion of this pro­cess as “con­jec­tures and re­fu­ta­tions” aptly cap­tures this dy­namic.4 From such a point of view, sci­ence is about how to de­scribe, ex­plain, and think about the world and is not con­cerned with how to make la­bor eas­ier or how to con­trol na­ture. (p. 241)

We are differ­en­tially look­ing for fac­tors which fa­cil­i­tate the de­velop of sci­ence and sci­en­tific think­ing, not tech­nolog­i­cal progress more broadly. Build­ing tech­nol­ogy is a safer en­deavor, poli­ti­cally and meta­phys­i­cally, with less op­por­tu­nity to challenge the pre­vailing wor­ld­view.

Overview of Huff

Huff’s over­all the­sis is that China was un­able to pro­duce mod­ern sci­ence pri­mar­ily be­cause a lack of the req­ui­site in­tel­lec­tual free­dom. Un­like Europe, China’s poli­ti­cal, re­li­gious, le­gal, and ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems did not af­ford the neu­tral spaces where novel ideas could be ad­vanced and old ideas ques­tions. Cul­turally, it may have lacked the prac­tice of de­bate and dis­pute, in­clud­ing any­thing re­sem­bling the So­cratic di­a­log. Fur­ther, philo­soph­i­cally and con­cep­tu­ally, China’s neo-Con­fu­cian wor­ld­view which viewed the world through cor­re­la­tions and bi­nary pairs may not have lent it it­self to the causal think­ing nec­es­sary for sci­ence.

. . . it did not en­courage or tol­er­ate thinkers who were es­sen­tially dis­pu­ta­tious and crit­i­cal of the in­tel­lec­tual sta­tus quo . . There was no Chi­nese equiv­a­lent to the Scholas­tic method of dis­pu­ta­tion, no canons of logic a la Aris­to­tle, and no math­e­mat­i­cal meth­ods of proof such as one finds in Eu­clid’s ge­om­e­try. Derk Bodde points out, “Through­out its his­tory Con­fu­ci­anism has de­p­re­cated the use of de­bate as a means of ad­vanc­ing knowl­edge.” (p. 279)

I ex­pand on these points in the fol­low­ing sec­tions. Un­less oth­er­wise stated, state­ments are com­ing sourced from Huff.

More De­tailed Sum­mary of Huff

In the 12th cen­tury, Europe had a le­gal rev­olu­tion which re­defined the na­ture of so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion with sig­nifi­cant poli­ti­cal, so­cial, and eco­nomic, and re­li­gious effects. In par­tic­u­lar, legally au­tonomous col­lec­tives emerged in­clud­ing cities, towns, uni­ver­si­ties, in­ter­est groups, and pro­fes­sional groups. While over­all sub­ject to an over­all law, these groups could still op­er­ate fairly au­tonomously, and could set their own rules and reg­u­la­tions, could owe land, could sue, could have le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion be­fore the king’s court, and gen­er­ally op­er­ate with­out too much in­terfer­ence from the au­thor­i­ties.

I didn’t prop­erly read or think about Huff’s chap­ters on the le­gal rev­olu­tion and its sig­nifi­cance, and there­fore can’t do it jus­tice, how­ever other rele­vant points: a) this be­ing the be­gin­ning of sep­a­ra­tion of state and re­li­gion, b) this le­gal rev­olu­tion rep­re­sented an adap­ta­tion of Ro­man civil to the Euro­pean’s needs.

[Huff makes the broad as­ser­tion that mod­ern sci­ence arose in Europe due to the unique com­bi­na­tion of Greek philos­o­phy, Ro­man law, and Chris­tian the­ol­ogy. I didn’t read enough to fully un­der­stand this model, how­ever.]

Le­gally au­tonomous col­lec­tives of spe­cial in­ter­est to the de­vel­op­ment of sci­ence are the Euro­pean uni­ver­si­ties which arose in 12th cen­tury around the time of the le­gal rev­olu­tion. Though many grew out of cathe­dral schools and re­li­gious or­ders, that wasn’t always the case, and the uni­ver­si­ties “sprang into ex­is­tence . . . with­out ex­press au­tho­riza­tion of king, pope, prince, or prelate.” Cru­cially, they were able to set their own cur­ricula. Prac­ti­cally, they taught a lot of Greek philos­o­phy in­clud­ing its nat­u­ral­is­tic and sci­en­tific parts.

In the Byzan­tine Em­pire, the “pa­gan cur­ricu­lum” of the Greeks, based on the seven liberal arts (gram­mar, rhetoric, logic, fol­lowed by ar­ith­metic, ge­om­e­try, har­mon­ics, and as­tron­omy [the quadriv­ium]), was taught from the “fifth to the fif­teenth cen­tury.”3 Nat­u­rally, the cur­ricu­lum was in­fused with the Greek philo­soph­i­cal out­look, and that doubtless was the rub. (p. 140)

In con­trast to the le­gal au­ton­omy de­vel­op­ing in Europe, from the 12th cen­tury (and ear­lier) China was (with only a few ex­cep­tions) a unified, top-down and bu­reau­crat­i­cally run em­pire where there was no sep­a­ra­tion of state and re­li­gion and all power flowed down from the em­peror upon whom there were no le­gal checks or bal­ances.

Le­gally and bu­reau­crat­i­cally, there was a hi­er­ar­chy of offi­cials which even­tu­ally rol­led up into the em­peror. Lower-level offi­cials had al­most no au­thor­ity or in­de­pen­dence from higher ups. Any col­lec­tives which might be cre­ated were not au­tonomous from the larger em­pire. There was nowhere safe to ven­ture any re­volt against au­thor­ity.

The Chi­nese also did not have a sys­tem of law as we would rec­og­nize in the west (a sys­tem with uni­ver­sally ap­pli­ca­ble rules, rights, due pro­cess, in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the law) and in­stead some­thing more sim­ply a pe­nal code with no clear rules, vari­able en­force­ment, and many ex­cep­tions to be made at the dis­cre­tion of whichever au­thor­ity is ap­ply­ing pun­ish­ment.

The le­gal sys­tem is rele­vant is both to lack of au­tonomous spaces and also the pos­si­bil­ity that due to lack of a con­cep­tion of a uni­ver­sal law which was bind­ing to all cit­i­zens, the Chi­nese lacked the metaphor to laws which were bind­ing to na­ture, and there­fore did not seek them out.

Sig­nifi­cantly, the vast Chi­nese im­pe­rial bu­reau­cracy was staffed semi-mer­i­to­crat­i­cally based on the im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tion. This sys­tem stood in­tact from 1400 to 1905. The effect of the ex­am­i­na­tion was stan­dard­ize Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion. How­ever, it was rigidly con­trol­led and fo­cused on liter­ary and moral learn­ing—not math­e­mat­ics or the sci­ences—and largely con­sisted of rote mem­o­riza­tion of hun­dreds of thou­sands of words of Chi­nese clas­sic. There are nu­ances to these states as at var­i­ous pe­ri­ods there were ques­tions about math­e­mat­ica, mu­sic, and as­tron­omy on the exam, how­ever they were never a fo­cus. In con­trast, Euro­pean uni­ver­si­ties were free to set their own cur­ricula.

Philo­soph­i­cally, in place of Western atom­ism/​re­duc­tion­ism gov­erned by me­chan­i­cal and im­per­sonal laws of na­ture, China viewed the world as made of pri­mary forces (yin and yang) and the five phases (metal, wood, wa­ter, fire, and earth) con­stantly shift­ing in re­cur­rent cy­cles. Things are not to be un­der­stood through laws gov­ern­ing parts, but through the unity of the whole. The pat­terns of the nat­u­ral world were stud­ied to find cor­rel­a­tive cor­re­spon­dences be­tween the con­duct of the em­peror and the pat­terns of the heav­ens. In this vein, there was a strong fo­cus on bi­nary pairs like light vs dark, hot vs cold, heaven vs earth—but all un­der­stand as nat­u­ral com­ple­ments which fol­low an in­scrutable pat­terned pro­gres­sion. To trans­late into more typ­i­cal LessWrong lan­guage, the Chi­nese didn’t look for gears-lev­els mod­els, be­cause they didn’t have a con­cep­tion of gears—just pat­terns in the or­ganic unity of the whole. Or some­thing.

Even if we grant Aris­to­tle was a lit­tle con­fused, we can see he was try­ing to ex­plain things in terms of uni­ver­sal laws which ex­plained things with a causal struc­ture. From that point, you can progress to find­ing bet­ter uni­ver­sal ex­pla­na­tions. I can imag­ine if you’re not think­ing causally, you can’t em­bark on a pro­cess of sci­ence. Though I must con­fess, hav­ing very lit­tle grasp of Chi­nese philos­o­phy, I can­not ap­praise the claims about his­tor­i­cal Chi­nese philos­o­phy and wor­ld­view.

An ex­cep­tion of the above point on philos­o­phy is that the Chi­nese Mo­hist school of thought might have been on track to de­velop a solid sci­en­tific method, but un­for­tu­nately they and their think­ing died out.

Although it seems doubt­ful that early Chi­nese method­olog­i­cal dis­cus­sions were equiv­a­lent to those of Aris­to­tle and Plato, it must be said that in the work of Mo-tzu (fourth cen­tury B.C.) there are keen method­olog­i­cal in­sights that, in Need­ham’s words, “could have be­come the fun­da­men­tal ba­sic con­cep­tions of nat­u­ral sci­ence in Asia. “38 Per­haps one could even agree with Need­ham that the Mo­hists “sketched out what amounts to a com­plete the­ory of sci­en­tific method. “39 The prob­lem is that the Mo­hists and their thought faded into Chi­nese his­tory and ap­par­ently had lit­tle in­fluence on Chi­nese nat­u­ral thinkers and none at all on Western thought. De­spite the promis­ing be­gin­nings one sees in Mo­hist philo­soph­i­cal thought, it never gained much in­fluence in the Chi­nese thought world. (p. 247)

Other Factors

There are at least a cou­ple more fac­tors not cov­ered in Huff’s work which con­tributed to the rise of mod­ern sci­ence Europe. rather than China.

Poli­ti­cal fragmentation

It may be macro-poli­ti­cally rele­vant that be­cause China was a unified em­pire, there was nowhere that thinkers seek­ing more in­tel­lec­tual free­dom could mi­grate too. In Europe, if a na­tion’s poli­cies ham­pered sci­en­tific or tech­nolog­i­cal progress they would be soon be out­com­peted by oth­ers who didn’t. Jared Di­a­mond, au­thor of Guns, Germs, and Steel that the Euro­pean balkaniza­tion into smaller states was the re­sult of ge­og­ra­phy with China’s ge­og­ra­phy be­ing more con­ducive to a large, mono­lithic, iso­lated em­pire. [Wikipe­dia]

Eco­nomic freedom

Re­lated to in­tel­lec­tual free­dom, eco­nomic free­dom may have been quite rele­vant. David S. Lan­des writes in Why Europe and the West? Why not China?:

China had two chances: first, to gen­er­ate a con­tin­u­ing, self-sus­tain­ing pro­cess of sci­en­tific and tech­nolog­i­cal ad­vance on the ba­sis of its in­dige­nous tra­di­tions and achieve­ments; and sec­ond, to learn from Euro­pean sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy once the for­eign “bar­bar­ians” en­tered the Chi­nese do­main in the six­teenth cen­tury. China failed both times. What ex­plains the first failure? I stress the role of the mar­ket: the fact that en­ter­prise was free in Europe while China lacked a free mar­ket and in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized prop­erty rights; that in Europe in­no­va­tion worked and paid, while the Chi­nese state was always step­ping in to in­terfere with pri­vate en­ter­prise. As for the sec­ond failure, China’s cul­tural triumphal­ism com­bined with petty down­ward tyranny made it a sin­gu­larly bad learner.

I did not ex­plore this fac­tor. The nat­u­ral ques­tion to me here is how much the po­ten­tial for profit or other gain in­cen­tivized the de­vel­op­ment of sci­ence. For ex­am­ple, as­tron­omy was ar­guably the foun­da­tional sci­en­tific field and had im­por­tant ap­pli­ca­tions. How did these in­cen­tives af­fect aca­demics, schol­ars, and the men of means who already had enough wealth they could en­gage in sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery?

Europe’s es­cape from the Malthu­sian trap

My col­league, jim­ran­domh, brought this to my at­ten­tion. The the­sis is that due to plague, war, and ur­ban­iza­tion, early Modern Europe es­caped the Malthu­sian trap which kept ev­ery­one at sub­sis­tence with no re­sources left for ad­vanc­ing sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. One source for this is here.

The High-level equil­ibrium trap

A similar eco­nomic point has been made by Mark Elvin to ex­plain why China didn’t de­velop its own rev­olu­tion. From the Wikipe­dia en­try:

Essen­tially, he [Mark Elvin] claims that the Chi­nese pre-in­dus­trial econ­omy had reached an equil­ibrium point where sup­ply and de­mand were well-bal­anced. Late im­pe­rial pro­duc­tion meth­ods and trade net­works were so effi­cient and la­bor was so cheap that in­vest­ment in cap­i­tal to im­prove effi­ciency would not be prof­itable.

The rele­vance to the de­vel­op­ment, as above, would de­pend on how strongly the de­mand for profit-in­creas­ing tech­nol­ogy im­pacted the de­vel­op­ment of sci­ence.

See The Great Diver­gence for more fac­tors and more de­tail.


This pro­ject si­mul­ta­neously took far more time than ex­pected and yet also still feels very shal­low, heav­ily sim­plified, and bluntly pre­sented. I do find Huff’s ac­count, which I have cited ex­ten­sively quite com­pel­ling, but I have made no at­tempt to ver­ify his re­li­a­bil­ity or the re­li­a­bil­ity of his sources.

Though it is already in­tu­itive to say that in­tel­lec­tual free­dom was cru­cial for the de­vel­op­ment of sci­ence, I think Huff’s work is an im­pres­sively de­tailed case that Europe had this free­dom in a way China did not. I did not cover it here, but Huff’s book also ex­plores the situ­a­tion in the Is­lamic world adding an­other point of com­par­i­son to his anal­y­sis.

My LessWrong as­so­ci­a­tions are bi­as­ing me here, but it does seem im­por­tant that Europe had a sus­tained in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion reach­ing back through the Arab schol­ars to the Greeks. The mod­ern sci­en­tific method wasn’t de­vel­oped de novo, but rather it was built up by piece by piece from an­tiquity. I think that’s an ar­gu­ment for tech­nolo­gies that bet­ter col­lect, cu­rate, and trans­mit knowl­edge.

I didn’t ex­plore eco­nomic ex­pla­na­tions more, and there might be some­thing to them, but I imag­ine that the poli­ti­cal, re­li­gious, and cul­tural struc­tures up­stream of in­tel­lec­tual free­dom were also up­stream of eco­nomic fac­tors. A fully com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture would prob­a­bly in­clude all three.

Over­all, I do con­clude a firm con­clu­sion that even I’m not sure of the de­tails, there were al­most cer­tainly con­crete sys­tem­atic fac­tors which caused Europe to de­velop mod­ern sci­ence and the sci­en­tific method even when China and the Is­lamic world didn’t. And that study­ing these fac­tors prob­a­bly does help us iden­tify which fac­tors are core to fur­ther in­tel­lec­tual progress in the pre­sent.

Re­lated Questions

  • What made the an­cient Greeks so gen­er­a­tive? It seems they founded the Western philo­soph­i­cal and sci­en­tific tra­di­tions, but what led to their in­no­va­tive­ness?

  • What is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the de­vel­op­ment of sci­ence and eco­nomic in­cen­tives to do so?

  • Q. What kind of things where the peo­ple who in­no­vated on sci­ence re­search­ing? E.g. those from his­tory of sci­ence. How much im­me­di­ate prac­ti­cal value did those things have?

  • What is a de­tailed ac­count of how Ba­con’s sci­en­tific method differ­ent from Aris­to­tle’s in­duc­tive-de­duc­tive method?

  • How much was the sci­en­tific rev­olu­tion caused by the in­no­va­tions in the sci­en­tific meth­ods at the time vs more gen­eral cir­cum­stan­tial fac­tors?

  • How much was sci­ence/​the sci­en­tific method re­spon­si­ble for the Great Diver­gence?

  • Q. What did China have which was similar to the Repub­lic of Let­ters, Royal So­ciety, In­visi­ble Col­lege?

  • Q. Why ex­actly was as­tron­omy so im­por­tant? Time-keep­ing, set­ting cal­en­dars, nav­i­ga­tion . . . I’m in­ter­ested in a more de­tailed un­der­stand­ing of how as­tro­nom­i­cal knowl­edge was used and how much it mat­tered.

  • Is Joseph Ben David’s claim that there was a rapid ac­cu­mu­la­tion of sci­en­tific knowl­edge in only a few coun­tries of Western Europe and only for about 200 years ac­cu­rate? If so, why?

Reflec­tions on the Re­search Experience

My back­ground mo­ti­va­tion for this work was to re­search the re­search ex­pe­rience as part of the val­i­da­tion and de­sign of LessWrong’s efforts to build an Open Ques­tions re­search plat­form. I col­lect here a few ob­ser­va­tions/​notes:

  • I did this work with rel­a­tively lit­tle eval­u­a­tion of the ideas pre­sented. It seems it would be an ad­di­tional skill to learn how to eval­u­ate his­to­ri­ans and their his­tor­i­cal work. Ideally I’d have been think­ing quan­ti­ta­tively and as­sign­ing cre­dences to the points I re­ported.

  • I do feel some­what sus­pi­cious of Wikipe­dia, it paints very neat nar­ra­tives and I’m doubt­ful that re­al­ity is that neat.

  • In our early think­ing, the LessWrong team was ap­proach­ing re­search with some­thing roughly like ask­ing a ques­tion, ask­ing sub-ques­tion, ask­ing sub-sub-ques­tions and so on. There are el­e­ments of this, but over­all it didn’t feel like that. A lot of it felt like re­al­iz­ing I needed knowl­edge of a topic and then just try­ing be­come a mini-ex­pert in that topic. For ex­am­ple, hav­ing de­cided I need to un­der­stand the de­vel­op­ment of the sci­en­tific method, I was just read­ing a bunch of Wiki ar­ti­cles not hold­ing ex­plicit ques­tions in my mind, in­stead let­ting my in­tu­ition guide me.

  • Writ­ing is time-con­sum­ing and con­sti­tuted the bulk of time spent on this pro­ject.

    • When read­ing just for my­self, it was okay if not ev­ery idea was crys­tal­lized, how­ever to write things for oth­ers I re­ally had to first get them clear in my own head.

    • I’m not sure how the writ­ing effort scales with the amount of re­search done, but I’m pretty sure it’s sub-lin­ear. More re­search might ac­tu­ally re­sult in a much clearer pic­ture mak­ing it eas­ier to write.

      • Dur­ing the writ­ing stage, I was pro­gres­sively read­ing more and more of Huff’s book which ac­tu­ally made it eas­ier to write and I more prop­erly ab­sorbed the pic­ture he was paint­ing.

  • I won­der about the al­ter­na­tive ap­proaches to con­duct­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing this re­search. Pos­si­bly I went into too much depth (as shal­low as it felt) and would have been bet­ter to write much more con­densed, lossy sum­maries. And ei­ther sep­a­rately or ad­di­tion­ally, per­haps provide an an­no­tated set of refer­ences, i.e. col­lect­ing all the sources I read, ex­plain­ing what one should read to ar­rive that the same pic­ture I de­vel­oped.

  • I won­der how much this re­search could have been split into parts. Was it nec­es­sary that same per­son re­searched both the his­tory of the sci­en­tific method and also the his­tory of sci­ence in China? It feels like I had a bet­ter per­spec­tive for hav­ing done so, but maybe it wasn’t nec­es­sary and this could have been two smaller pro­jects.