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Is the TV Show 'Cosmos' Guilty of 'Hellenophilia'?


Thales  illustration (c.1847) -- Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Thales illustration (c.1847) -- Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

In Fox Network's Cosmos, (episode 6, "Deeper Deeper Deeper Still") viewers are taught the same thing many college students learn during their undergraduate -- that the ancient Greeks were the first people to think scientifically about the world, because they were the first civilization to jettison religious explanations of nature.

From Thales (pictured above) to Democritus, the Greeks sought explanations void of appeals to the gods. There were concrete benefits to this Greek new way of thinking, no doubt. It's good that we don't still attribute lightning to the finicky moods of Zeus. However, the more I've studied the history and philosophy of science, the more I've come to doubt the popular belief that the Greeks were the first to think scientifically.

The late historian of science David Pingree was particularly annoyed by the popular bias in academia toward the ancient Greeks. In fact, he made up his own word for it -- "Hellenophilia." In an article in the history of science journal, Isis, he explains what he means by this:

...[A] Hellenophile suffers from a form of madness that blinds him or her to historical truth and creates in the imagination the idea that one of several false propositions are true. The first of these is that the Greeks invented science; the second is that they discovered a way to truth, the scientific method, that we are now successfully following; the third is that the only real sciences are those that began in Greece; and the that the true definition of science is just that which scientists happen to be doing now, following a method or methods adumbrated by the Greeks...[1]

In my experience, the reasoning employed by the typical "Hellenophile" goes something like this: "Science can only offer natural explanations. No theories involving gods, spirits, or any other kinds of metaphysical superstition are allowed in what we call 'science.' If a theory does involve one of these prohibited explanans, then it is not science; it is religion. And since the ancient Greeks were the first people to stop explaining nature in religious ways, and to start offering natural explanations, then they were the first people to do real science." As I see it, however, this view is wrong for two primary reasons:

First, it is philosophically prejudiced. No one's view of the world is completely free of religious (i.e. metaphysical) commitments. Everyone has metaphysical assumptions about what ultimate reality is like (yes, even atheists). And these assumptions will inevitably have some influence on how we interpret the world.[2] The ancient Greeks were no different.

For instance, their metaphysical assumptions about the nature of the heavenly (divine) realm led them to incorporate "a strong prejudice in favor of circles or spheres rotating with uniform motion" into their astronomy.[3] This is because they essentially believed outer space was heaven, and assumed heaven must be geometrically perfect and smooth. In other words, their religious assumptions influenced the kinds of theories they allowed into their science.

Unfortunately for the Greeks their assumptions were wrong, and their science suffered because of it. Hellenistic astronomy had flaws which led to inaccurate predictions. It was not until later -- when Greek astronomers began to compromise their metaphysical commitment to circular and uniform motion -- that their science was able to improve in its level of accuracy.[4] Thus, the Greeks did not completely jettison "religious" explanations from their science, as the Hellenophiles say. They simply exchanged one kind of religious assumption for another. To say that the Greeks were the first people to think "scientifically" is merely to express a philosophical preference for the particular kind of religious assumptions that the ancient Greeks held.

Secondly, it is historically false to say that the Greeks invented science. Ancient Babylonian astronomers carried out the longest scientific research program in human history, and achieved a level of quantitative prediction that surpassed the ancient Greeks. Moreover, they did this nearly 400 years prior to Hellenistic astronomy.[5]

From approximately 740 BC to 60 BC, Babylonian scribes observed the daily motions of the celestial bodies, and recorded their observations in the Astronomical Diaries. Within this huge set of observed data, Babylonian astronomers discovered mathematical patterns that allowed them to successfully predict future astronomical events, to a great degree of accuracy.[6] If this is not science, then I don't know what is. There's one problem though: Babylonian astronomy was highly superstitious and largely motivated by astrology. Can we still call it science? According to the popular Hellenophilic view we cannot, even though it was more quantitative and had greater predictive power than Greek astronomy.

Must a theory be completely void of "religious" or superstitious assumptions in order to be considered "scientific"? Was Greek astronomy completely void of religious assumptions? Is any science completely void of religious assumptions for that matter? These questions are more difficult to answer than many people realize. Oversimplifications like those made the TV show Cosmos aren't helpful in answering them.

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1. David Pingree, "Hellenophilia versus the History of Science," Isis, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Dec., 1992), p. 555.

2. See Roy Clouser (2005), The Myth of Religious Neutrality.

3. David Pingree, "Hellenophilia versus the History of Science," Isis, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Dec., 1992), p. 557.

4.  Apollonius (c. 220 BC) and Hipparchus (c. 140 BC) introduced "eccentric models" of orbital motion in an attempt to correct the inaccuracies of Greek astronomy. This was an aesthetic compromise however -- a step away from the metaphysical commitment to geometric beauty held by their predecessors.

5. The Hellenistic period of astronomy seems to begin around the time of Eudoxus, Plato, and Aristotle -- all of which lived c. 370 BC.

6. For an in-depth treatment on this, see N.M. Swerdlow (1998), The Babylonian Theory of the Planets.