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Homage to Galileo Galilei 1564-2014

A Galilean Answer to the Needham Question

Gennady Gorelik
p. 93-110


To make the Needham question answerable it is extended thus—What hindered Greco-Roman and Medieval science from making the next major step after Archimedes, and what hindered Eastern scientists from contributing to modern physics for centuries after Galileo? To answer this question the key distinction between modern physics and pre-Galilean science is suggested: the right to invent “illogical” fundamental concepts which can be verified by experiments. This right is based on the belief that the Universe is governed by hidden fundamental laws which Man is capable of knowing about. The source of this belief was the biblical worldview which became the basis for European cultures by the time of the Scientific Revolution thanks to book printing and the Reformation.

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1 Introduction
2 An extended Needham question
3 Modern physics as a fundamental science
4 The source of fundamental cognitive optimism
5 Modern science in the biblical civilization
6 Scientific thinking and religious feeling
7 Secular fruits of religious culture
8 Conclusion

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1 Introduction

The strongest question on Galileo’s role in history was put by the British biochemist and sinologist Joseph Needham:

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 [which in the previous centuries] was much more efficient than occidental in applying human natural knowledge to practical human needs? [Needham 1969, 16, 190]

Evidently he had in mind physics, since in his view

[...] the birth of the experimental-mathematical method, which appeared in almost perfect form in Galileo, [...] led to all the developments of modern science and technology. [Needham 1959, 156]

So, Needham’s “Grand Question” is to be coupled with the question: What was the actual innovation of Galileo, that had changed science so much, accelerated its progress a hundredfold, though only in the West? He...

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Electronic reference

Gennady Gorelik, « A Galilean Answer to the Needham Question », Philosophia Scientiæ [Online], 21-1 | 2017, Online since 15 February 2019, connection on 26 May 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/philosophiascientiae.1244

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About the author

Gennady Gorelik

Boston University (USA)

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Tous droits réservés

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