Language, the structure of thought, the printed word, and the electronic word

by John MacBeath Watkins

Jim Al-Khalili, in his wonderful BBC program (okay, it's British, so I suppose it should be 'programme') on science and Islam, suggests that Islamic culture stopped dominating science in part because science tends to follow wealth, and the New World colonies made Europe wealthier, and in part because printing was slow to catch on in Muslim countries.  I'm guessing there are many more causes.

I'd not heard that second argument.  He said that Arabic is so much more complex typographically, it was challenging to typeset the language.  Of course, movable type was invented in China, where they have a different word for everything -- not just verbally, but typographically.  When you have a different character for every word in the language, moveable type becomes a major industrial operation, capital intensive and easy for the state to control.  When you have 26 characters, the printer's box is pretty small, and the whole operation doesn't cost that much to start.

The more minds you can bring in contact with each other, the more complex a structure of thought they can construct.  In my essay Thoughts on Structuralism and the death of 'Ghosts,' I mentioned that evidence of symbolic thought shows up 90,000 years ago and possibly as long ago as 160,000 years, but disappeared and reappeared until the Upper Paleolithic culture finally 'took' about 45,000 years ago.  This apparently is because of events that caused population to fall to the point where there were not enough minds in contact with each other to maintain such a complex structure.  Something similar happened to Tasmanian culture when the land bridge to Australia was cut off, and I suspect something like this may have played a hand in the Neanderthal extinction, as I argued here.

Photolithography and offset printing made it easier to typeset these languages, making printing books inexpensive and spreading knowledge more widely.  With the electronic word, any language that can be represented through a keyboard can be cheaply and easily transmitted; the remaining barriers are economic and governmental.  There remains, of course, the barrier of language itself.  A scientific paper published in Serbian will have less immediate impact on science in general than one published in English, because until it is translated only Serbian speakers can read it.

There are other effects of how we write.  The Western alphabet has an established order in which the letters appear, which makes it easy to organize a phone book.  Chinese has no such order.  You can organize a phone book based on the number of strokes in a character, but more than one character has a given number of strokes.  Of course, with an electronic database, you can search for a specific name, so this advantage disappears.

Will growing wealth and easier transmission of knowledge allow Islamic countries to again be central to the development of science?  That depends on those 'many more causes' I referred to earlier.

It depends on what kind of learning these cultures value, on what kind of communication their governments allow, and on how much ideas are able to mix.  I'm sure we'll see contributions from Islamic countries, but the scope of those contributions will depend on how free their peoples' minds are to think and communicate.  Technology can change cultures, and book helped do that in Europe, but the effects are not at all predictable.  Socrates worried about the written word, which might keep a teacher from transmitting knowledge to a soul of the right sort; Hell, just anybody could read stuff once it was written down!  The Catholic Church, at first backed by Henry VIII, tried to keep the English people from reading the Bible in English.  They supposed, perhaps rightly,  that reading what the Bible actually said would cause people to question how the clergy used it.

In both cases, the fear was of a diminution of control.  In both cases, they failed to see the wider benefit of a wider spread of knowledge.  Quicker and less expensive transmission of knowledge has got to have some good effects, the most obvious one being an increased pace of innovation.  Of course, to those who resist change (as a wooden boat guy, I have to admit some resistance to change myself) an increased pace of change is a threat.

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