discovered at the right time, and some things were not discovered at all.
Indeed, Chinese thinking about useful knowledge has had a different interpretation of the idea of “laws of nature,” as Needham pointed out. All the same, the statement that they completely replaced Western laws of nature by “an organic world of two primary forces and five phases ... the explanation of the patterns of existence is not to be sought in a set of laws of mechanical processes , but in the structure of the organic unity of the whole” seems perhaps too strong.61 The idea that there are regularities in nature that are predictable and exploitable is too obvious to be completely cast aside by any culture and no production is possible without it.62 Translation becomes a key here, as the Chinese employ words like thien fa (laws of heaven), yet, as Needham insisted, these are laws without a lawgiver. In that sense, of course, the Chinese may have been closer to a twentieth century way of thinking about nature than to the thinking of Kepler and Newton. For the ancient Chinese, the world looked more like a “vast organism, with all parts cooperating in a mutual service which is perfect freedom.”63 Needham compares this to an endocrine system in which causality is hard to pin down and notes that modern science cannot do without it. Others have found different ways in which Western and Oriental knowledge diverged. Sivin has stressed the lack of a unity and a coherence in Chinese science caused by the absence of an overarching philosophical view of nature. In his words, China had sciences but no Science.64
In any event, given that the useful knowledge that had emerged in China was profoundly different from the West, technological history would have taken a very different course without Western useful knowledge. There is thus no reason to believe that a world without the West would have come upon the internal combustion engine, the microprocessor, electron microscopy or stereotaxic surgery. The Chinese might have stumbled on smallpox vaccination, semaphore telegraph, hot air ballooning, Bessemer steel, aspirin or other inventions requiring narrow epistemic bases. But the mutually reinforcing interaction between science and industry that created modern metallurgy, chemical
61Id., p. 251.
62Needham, Grand Titration, p. 322 cites Wang Pi, a Chinese writer from 240 AD as “We do not see Heaven command the four seasons and yet they do not swerve from their course, so we also do not see the sage ordering the people about, and yet they obey and spontaneously serve him.” The thought, he adds, is extremely Chinese. Yet the regularity of the seasons can be interpreted as a “law” even if it is unclear who legislated it. Other texts confirm the recognition of such regularities (Ch’ang) such as the one cited in Bodde (Chinese Thought, pp. 332-343). Bodde, however, stresses that such texts do not invalidate Needham’s belief in the absence of a Chinese equivalent of natural laws, because such views remained a minority view and could not have survived the rise of neo- Confucian thinking from the eleventh century on.
63Ronan and Needham, The Shorter Vol. I, p. 167.
64Sivin, “Why the Scientific”, p. 533.