Morris on the great divergence

From Why the West Rules — For Now, ch. 9, on the scientific revolution starting in 17th century Europe:

…contrary to what most of the ancients said, nature was not a living, breathing organism, with desires and intentions. It was actually mechanical. In fact, it was very like a clock. God was a clockmaker, switching on the interlocking gears that made nature run and then stepping back. And if that was so, then humans should be able to disentangle nature’s workings as easily as those of any other mechanism…

…This clockwork model of nature—plus some fiendishly clever experimenting and reasoning—had extraordinary payoffs. Secrets hidden since the dawn of time were abruptly, startlingly, revealed. Air, it turned out, was a substance, not an absence; the heart pumped blood around the body, like a water bellows; and, most bewilderingly, Earth was not the center of the universe.

Simultaneously, in 17th century China:

[A man named Gu Yanwu] turned his back on the metaphysical nitpicking that had dominated intellectual life since the twelfth century and, like Francis Bacon in England, tried instead to understand the world by observing the physical things that real people actually did.

For nearly forty years Gu traveled, filling notebooks with detailed descriptions of farming, mining, and banking. He became famous and others copied him, particularly doctors who had been horrified by their impotence in the face of the epidemics of the 1640s. Collecting case histories of actual sick people, they insisted on testing theories against real results. By the 1690s even the emperor was proclaiming the advantages of “studying the root of a problem, discussing it with ordinary people, and then having it solved.”

Eighteenth-century intellectuals called this approach kaozheng, “evidential research.” It emphasized facts over speculation, bringing methodical, rigorous approaches to fields as diverse as mathematics, astronomy, geography, linguistics, and history, and consistently developing rules for assessing evidence. Kaozheng paralleled western Europe’s scientific revolution in every way—except one: it did not develop a mechanical model of nature.

Like Westerners, Eastern scholars were often disappointed in the learning they had inherited from the last time social development approached the hard ceiling around forty-three points on the index (in their case under the Song dynasty in the eleventh and twelfth centuries). But instead of rejecting its basic premise of a universe motivated by spirit (qi) and imagining instead one running like a machine, Easterners mostly chose to look back to still more venerable authorities, the texts of the ancient Han dynasty.

Why? Morris speculates:

Western Europeans, with their new frontier across the oceans, needed precise measurements of standardized space, money, and time, and by the point that two-handed clocks had become the norm Europeans would have to have been positively obtuse not to wonder whether nature itself was a mechanism. Likewise, the West’s ruling classes would have needed to be still more obtuse not to see enough advantages in scientific thinking to take a chance on cutting its eccentric, unpredictable thinkers a little slack. Like the first and second waves of Axial thought and the Renaissance, the scientific revolution and Enlightenment were initially consequences, rather than causes, of the West’s rising social development.

The East also had its own new frontier on the steppes, of course, but this was a more traditional kind of frontier than the Atlantic, and the need for new thought was correspondingly less pressing. Natural and social philosophers did ask some of the same questions as western Europeans, but the need to recast thought in terms of mechanical models of the universe remained less obvious; and to the Qing rulers, who badly needed to win China’s intellectuals over to their new regime, the dangers of indulging radical thought massively outweighed any possible advantages.

Morris illustrates the difference in thinking with some stories about Jesuit missionaries in China:

When the Manchus seized Beijing in 1644 the Jesuits proposed—and won—a public tournament of solar eclipse prediction. Their prestige had never been higher, and for a few heady months in 1656 it even looked as if the emperor might convert to Christianity. Victory seemed at hand, until the teenage monarch grasped that Christians could not keep concubines. He turned Buddhist instead. Traditionalists then struck back, denouncing the Jesuits’ leader as a spy.

In 1664 another trial by telescope was ordered, with the Jesuits, the Bureau of Astronomy, and a Muslim astronomer each predicting the time of an upcoming solar eclipse. Two fifteen, said the Bureau; two thirty, said the Muslim; three o’clock, said the Jesuits. Lenses were set up to project the sun’s image into a darkened room. Two fifteen came and went with no eclipse. Two thirty: still nothing. But at almost exactly three a shadow began creeping across the fiery disk.

Not good enough, the judges decided, and banned Christianity.

That, it seemed, was that—except for the niggling fact that the Chinese calendar was still wrong. So, as soon as he took the throne in 1668, the emperor Kangxi arranged a rematch. Again the Jesuits won.

Convinced of the Jesuits’ superiority, Kangxi threw himself into their teaching, sitting for hours with priests, learning their arithmetic, geometry, and mechanics. He even took up the harpsichord. “I realized that Western mathematics has its uses,” the emperor wrote. “On inspection tours later I used these Western methods to show my officials how to make more accurate calculations when planning their river works.”

Kangxi recognized that “the‘new methods’ of calculating make basic errors impossible” and that “the general principles of Western calendrical science are without error,” but still resisted the Jesuits’ larger claims for their science and their God. “Even though some of the Western methods are different from our own, and may even be an improvement, there is little about them that is new,” Kangxi concluded. “The principles of mathematics all derive from the Book of Changes, and the Western methods are Chinese in origin … After all,” he added, “they know only a fraction of what I know.”

In 1704 the pope, worried that the Jesuits were promoting astronomy more vigorously than Christianity, sent an emissary to Beijing to keep a closer eye on them, and Kangxi, worried that this amounted to sedition, sidelined the missionaries. He set up new scientific academies (loosely modeled on the Academy of Sciences in Paris) where Chinese scientists could pursue astronomy and mathematics free from Jesuit influence. The mathematics the Jesuits were teaching, with little algebra and less calculus, was already decades behind northern Europe’s, but as soon as Kangxi cut this link with Western science the East-West scholarly gap widened into a chasm.

…[But] even if Kangxi had foreseen where Western science would go and had promoted it, could he have kept Eastern social development ahead of Western in the eighteenth century?

The answer is almost certainly no. China did face some of the same problems as northwest Europe, and some of its thinkers did move in similar directions. In the 1750s, for instance, Dai Zhen (like Gu Yanwu, a low-level functionary who never won the highest degree) propounded something like the Western vision of a mechanical nature functioning without intentions or goals and open to empirical analysis. But Dai, an excellent philologist, always grounded his arguments in ancient texts; at the end of the day, preserving the glories of the past seemed more important in China than addressing the kind of questions that global expansion was forcing onto Westerners’ attention.

The challenges of the Atlantic frontier produced Westerners who clamored for answers to new kinds of questions. The Newtons and Leibnizes who responded won fame and fortune beyond anything earlier scientists could have imagined, and new kinds of theorists, the likes of Locke and Voltaire, traced out the implications of these advances for the social order. China’s new steppe frontier, by contrast, produced much milder challenges. The well-paid scholars in Kangxi’s scientific institutes felt no need to invent calculus for themselves or figure out that the earth went around the sun. There seemed to be much more profit in turning mathematics—like medicine—into a branch of classical studies.

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