Understanding Culture through Science

Culture – the way we are raised, the people who surround us – influences everything about us. It influences the way we act, the way we speak, and the way we think. Not one aspect of our lives can remain untouched by it.

Modern science has, in a sense, become a culture of its own that unites the individual cultures of those within. But despite this, each individual remains influenced by the culture around him. So a scientist in France is a part of the same scientific culture as a scientist in England, but the Frenchman is still influenced by French culture and the Englishman by English culture. As a result, the scientific culture can be somewhat turbulent when national cultures are at odds.

The purpose of science is to discover how (experimentally) and why (theoretically) the world works. There is very little disagreement between scientists about the proven facts of nature. Gravity exists (well, kind of) and makes stuff fall. Friction exists and makes stuff stop moving. The list goes on. But when scientists begin creating theories about how they believe the world should work, national cultures begin to be at odds. A good example of this is Greece versus Italy, Aristotle versus Galileo. Each scientist came to his conclusions based on his cultural preconceptions. Aristotle would have believed that the gods controlled every aspect of life based on whether or not they were happy with humans, so every natural phenomenon was a direct result of human actions. He would also have believed that astrologers could tell the future based on the stars. With these preconceptions, he could not possibly believe that the earth was not the center of the universe. But Galileo’s Christian worldview did not hold these preconceptions, so he was not restricted by them. Furthermore, Galileo would have believed that the world was imperfect and full of sin, so he could come to the conclusion that a perfect universe could not possibly revolve around such an imperfect object as the earth.

It is no coincidence that the sun-centered model came from the western, Christian world. Such a model disagreed with the fundamental beliefs of the eastern world. And this makes an interesting point about the relationship between science and the fundamental beliefs of different cultures. Science serves as a way to discover what fundamental beliefs truly agree with reality, but discoveries can never be made unless there is a diversity of beliefs. Therefore, it is essential to encourage cultural diversity in science because you never know which culture might be able to reveal something about reality that others were blind to. It is also important to realize that sometimes the correct idea seems the most absurd, so you must be careful when determining what is really true.

Ultimately, you must be able to understand the culture from which ideas come before you can truly understand the ideas in themselves. If you understand why someone believes something, you will be more likely to understand what they believe, whether you agree with it or not. And if you do disagree, you will be able to better articulate your reasoning because you will know what core idea it is that you disagree with. At this point, you will not likely be able to have a particularly scientific argument about the disagreement because the issue is not scientific in nature. Science in its purest form cannot be argued against, but its interpretation can. And that is the issue behind almost every “scientific” argument. These interpretations can eventually be proven to be true or false, just as it was between Aristotle and Galileo, but only indirectly through the science they imply. So instead of looking down on different cultures because they interpret science differently than you, look deeper into the culture so you can understand why they interpreted it the way they did. Then, through further scientific investigation, you can determine whether or not the interpretation is valid. And who knows. You might just be surprised to find that they were right all along.