Christianity and the Birth of Science
Christianity and the Birth of Science (and the 'Warfare myth') by Michael J. Bumbulis, Ph.D.
The author holds an M.S. degree in Zoology from Ohio State University and a Ph.D in Genetics from Case Western Reserve University.
Summary: In an attempt to account for the origin of modern science, I will argue that the Judeo-Christian world view played a crucial role in this birth. I will cite four lines of evidence to support this hypothesis and respond to objections at the appropriate places.
Acknowledgment: Several points in the following essays are indebted to Stanley Jaki's, "Science and Creation: From eternal cycles to an oscillating universe."
Points of clarification:
a. Clue #1: Science was born in a Christian culture
Whenever one is educated about history, some paradigm is usually assumed to interpret all the facts in the context of a coherent pattern. As a student of the public schools and public universities, I was taught about the history of science in the light of the notion that there has always been warfare between science and Christianity. The warfare myth is very popular and very powerful. It is popular because it seems to be substantiated today. We often hear certain scientists making metaphysical claims such as "the Universe is all that exists." We also hear religious leaders making scientific claims such as "evolution is not true." It's as if the religious leaders think they have the authority to make scientific judgments and scientific leaders think they have the authority to make religious/metaphysical judgments. The warfare myth is clearly supported by these dynamics, as if there are two opposing camps firing back at each other.
The myth is also very powerful. As one who is both a Christian and a scientist, I can see this from both sides. As a Christian, there are many fellow Christians who look upon my science with suspicion. How can I be a Christian yet believe in evolution? How can I be a Christian yet focus so much attention on something that doesn't seem directly related to the faith? As a scientist, there are many fellow scientists who look upon my Christianity with suspicion. How can I be a scientist yet believe Jesus bodily rose from the dead? How can I be a scientist yet focus too much attention on things that depend on faith? As many Christians who are scientists will tell you, they are often caught between a rock and a hard place.
So what is a Christian scientist (not to be confused with the religion of Christian Science) to do? Unfortunately, many opt for a perspective that tacitly reinforces the warfare myth. They buy into the warfare myth in the sense that science and Christianity are two camps that have little to say to each other. That is, they may not take part in the warfare, but they buy peace simply by cutting off meaningful dialog between the two camps. It's a mindset that basically says, "Look, since we can't talk to each other without fighting, let's not talk to each other." Thus, the Christian scientist often leads two lives -- as a scientist, she is little more than a moral Naturalist and as a Christian, she keeps her science to herself.
Of course, some Christian scientists can't live such a schizoid life. Unfortunately, they also fail to achieve balance. For example, the Christian who becomes an authority in the lab finds himself thinking this expertise naturally extrapolates to authoritative judgments on matters of Christian belief. Many of these folks become closet naturalists or closet pantheists. They may attend church and use Christian language, but their theology and faith has long ago ceased being "mere Christian."
What is needed is a balance, a recognition that we are talking about two different camps, but these are camps that can talk to each other and contribute to each other. The Christian scientist needs to integrate their Christianity and science in a way that doesn't turn their science into non-science and their Christianity into some religion that is not Christian. If this can be done, then these scientists can serve as a light to both the Christian and scientific communities. To the scientific community, they can show that Christianity is not an anti-science, anti-thinking, emotional based system of blind faith that would punish scientists for daring to say something perceived contrary to the faith. To the Christian community, they could show that science is not an anti- Christian, man-centered, reason-worshiping belief system that would reduce Christianity to nothing more than a fuzzy, happy form of humanism.
How can we hope to make such an integration? After all, it can't be easy, otherwise, it would be more commonly done. In my opinion, the reason why this integration has been so hard is that we have been conditioned as students to buy into the warfare myth. That is, we've been told, explicitly and implicitly, that warfare is the natural state between religion and science. To make matters worse, atheists and other non-christians have gotten plenty of apologetic mileage out of perpetuating this myth. And Christian scientists help perpetuate this myth either by engaging in the warfare or by admitting that nothing can be said between the two camps. But what we have is something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we continue to believe in the reality of such warfare, we will act in ways that bring about the warfare. So maybe the first step of integration is to call into question the necessity of the warfare myth. How can this be done?
I propose that we must first understand the origin of modern science. That is, to truly understand where we are, we must understand how we got here. Once we understand history, we can then call upon philosophy. And when history is understood, we shall see that science was not born as an enemy of the faith. On the contrary, we shall see that Christianity played the crucial role in giving birth to modern science.
The Christian world view's importance in the birth of science has other relevant implications. As noted, often times we are told that Christianity was/is an enemy of science. Such an analysis shows that this need not be true. Furthermore, in today's multicultural environment, where all cultures are deemed equally important, we fail to realize just how special Christianity has been in the history of civilization. Finally, as I will briefly explain at the end of these conclusions, the greatest threat to science stems from the same mindset that is an enemy of Christian faith. That is, in today's increasingly pagan environment, Christians have the unique opportunity to rally to science's defense, and thus show once again just how important Christian assumptions are to the practice of modern science.
The primary observation that led me to suspect that Christianity was crucial to the birth of science was the localized nature of the origin of science. That is, modern science was born in Christianized Europe. Of course, this observation alone is not a proof. As one skeptic has noted:
But neither of these labels capture the essence of my argument. As I have said countless times in the past, I approach reality as a sleuth, not a mathematician. And when I approach reality, I encounter the practice of science. Being a Christian, I am *fully* aware of the contingency of our being. Things need not be as they are. So why are they as they are? Thus, I ask myself, "How did science come into being?" Has it always existed? If not, was its existence inevitable?
When I look to history, I find that science, has not always existed. So how did it come to be? Most historians of science and philosophers of science recognize that a new type of science, what we call 'modern science,' was born only a few centuries ago in Europe. I also recognize that Europe was thoroughly influenced by the Christian world view. So as a Christian, I cannot help but ask, "Is this coincidence or is there something deeper involved?" Obviously, I think something deeper is involved. My hypothesis is that the Christian world view was crucial, perhaps even necessary, for the birth of modern science. I realize I cannot prove this, but since I set out not as a mathematician, interested in certainties and proofs, this is irrelevant. Instead, I set out as a sleuth, and I find many clues that converge to support my belief.
So again, at the very least, I think the Christian world view played an important role in the birth of modern science. This is not to say that Christianity "caused" science or that Christianity was the sufficient cause for the birth of science. Instead, I have come to believe that the Christian religion was important, maybe even necessary, for the birth of science. The clues that support my belief are fourfold.
Clue #1. The founders/fathers of modern science were shaped by a culture that was predominantly Christian.
The founders of modern science were all bunched into a particular geographical location dominated by a Judeo-Christian world view. I'm thinking of men like:
If an appreciation for math and the cause-and-effect workings of nature were sufficient to generate modern science, how does one explain the historical fact that the founders of modern science were all found in a *particular* culture that just happened to be shaped by a Judeo-Christian world view? Instead of measuring energy in joules, why don't we measure it in platos or al-Asharis? Of course, the cynics would claim these men were not *really* Christians. That is, they really didn't *believe* in Christianity, but they professed such beliefs because they did not want to be persecuted. This is the "closet-atheist" hypothesis. But it doesn't square with the facts.
Many of the founders of modern science were also very interested in theology. If you read Pascal, this is obvious. Mendel was a monk. Newton often said his interest in theology surpassed his interest in science. Newton did end his Principles with:
As Charles Hummel notes,
Boyle set up Christian apologetics lectures. Babbage and Prout contributed to an apologetics series called the Bridgewater Treatises. Aggasiz, Cuvier, Fleming, Kelvin, and Linnaeus were what we now call 'creationists.' When I speak about Biblical beliefs that paved the way for science, I will use both Kepler and Pasteur to highlight two specific examples. Furthermore, many of these founders of science lived at a time when others publicly expressed views quite contrary to Christianity -- Hume, Hobbes, Darwin, etc. When Boyle argues against Hobbe's materialism or Kelvin argues against Darwin's assumptions, you don't have a case of "closet atheists."
Clue #2: Science was not born in any non-christian culture.
Yet it's not just the bunching of these founders in a Christian culture alone that is significant. Perhaps even more significant is the complete lack of analogs for these men from other cultures. Where is the Greek version of Newton? Where is the Muslim version of Kepler? Where is the Hindu version of Boyle? Where is the Buddhist version of Mendel? Such questions are all the more powerful when you pause to consider that science studies truths that are universally true. How is it that so many other cultures, some existing for thousands of years, failed to discover, or even anticipate, Newton's first law of motion of Kepler's laws of planetary motion? So it's not just that the Christian religion is associated with the birth of modern science, it's also the fact that modern science was not birthed in cultures which lacked the Christian religion.
Of course, the skeptic could reply as follows:
I do not deny that other cultures contributed important ingredients, for I would never argue that the Christian world view alone was sufficient for the birth of modern science. But the fact remains that advances in mathematics and engineering do not count as modern science (as I am thinking of), for the Muslims and "other infidels" did not discover the laws of motion, the laws of gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, the laws of chemistry, the laws of heredity, the law of biogenesis, etc. If you take any introductory undergraduate textbook in physics, chemistry, biology, genetics, physiology, paleontology, etc., it is not hard to point to the knowledge that is indebted to the work of these Christian scientists from Europe. But you would find very little that is indebted to Greek, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist philosophers (aside from tools like mathematics and Arabic numerals).
In fact, if you survey other non-christian cultures, their inability to generate modern science renders this clue all the more powerful. For these cultures not only lacked the Christian world view's perception of Nature *and* God, they held to a view that prevented the birth of science. In this view, the Universe was eternal, necessary, cyclical, and organismic. One could argue that this view of the Universe followed from reason and observation (like Geocentrism). But Christianity gave men a larger reason to deny this type of cosmology, and in doing so, it paved the way for the birth of science.
I don't think it can be overemphasized as to how detrimental cyclical thinking was to the birth of science. And what made the cyclic views even worse was their close tie to the animistic/organismic view of the Universe. This feature was shared by the Hindus, the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Chinese. A detailed analysis of all these cultures, in this light, would make my case all the more obvious.
Consider the Chinese. The Chinese make an excellent case study in the stillbirths of science. For the Chinese culture experienced long centuries of relative peace, material prosperity, active social interplay, creativity of mind, and contact with other cultures.
The French sinologist, M. Granet, noted that "the conviction that the All and everything composing it, having a cyclic nature" was what stymied the Chinese awareness of causal links between events. Thus, there was nothing odd, as far as the Chinese were concerned, in attributing the political failure of a prince to the fact that human sacrifices took place at his burial. As Granet noted, the Chinese were not interested in causes and effects, rather "manifestations, whose order mattered little, conceived as they were separate, but grafted nevertheless on the same root. Equally expressive, they appeared interchangeable." Thus, as historian of science, Stanley Jaki points out, "if at a particular time, a mountain collapsed, a river ran dry, a man allegedly changed into a woman, and a dynasty came to an end, the Chinese sage took all these as equally significant indications of a "change of order" both in the cosmos and in history, without feeling any urge to search into a causal relationship among them."
It's hard for us to appreciate this mentality given that we have been shaped to think in linear terms. But if you can begin to grasp it, you will see how awful it is for the development of science. Yes, the Chinese and many other cultures would keep records about the position of the stars. Yes, they would invent calendars and be able to make predictions. But none of this had anything to do with trying to understand how nature works. It had nothing to do with science. And for thousands of years, it never anticipated science. It was simple record-keeping so that they could recognize the "signs of the time" and situate themselves in the rhythmic breathing of the eternally cycling Universe. And boy, did these cultures get carried away with their cycles. They'd break cosmic history into large repeating epochs, that spun like a wheel, and within each epoch were smaller cycles, and within each smaller cycle were smaller cycles yet. And on and on went the wheel. Thus, phenomena were not something to understand. They were merely signs that gave you an address. Or as today's neo-pagans would say (as yesterday's Stoics said), we need to live in *harmony* with nature.
This is why historian of science Stanley Jaki would remark:
It's no wonder that Yu-Lan Fung, a Chinese scholar in the early 20th century, wrote the following in The International Journal of Ethics:
But it isn't just cyclical thinking that prevents the birth of science. Organismic thinking is also just as detrimental and is almost always associated with cyclical thinking. The Confucian method of finding cosmic order was premised on intuitive reflections of social life. Confucius himself wrote that "Custom is whereby Heaven and Earth unite, whereby the sun and moon are brilliant, whereby the four seasons are ordered.." Confucians believed this not only because they saw the cycles of history as reflections of cosmic cycling, but because they saw humanity as a reflection of the cosmos. In fact, their organismic views got carried away, where Tung Chung-Shu (who succeeded in making Confucianism the official state doctrine in 136 BC) would claim that the number of lesser joints in the body was the same as the number of days in a year. He would then add that there were twelve large joints in the body, because this figure and the four limbs matched the twelve months and four seasons. Opening and closing of one's eyes was explained as a reflection of the succession of day and night. Winter and summer were reflected in man's strength and weakness. This thinking is alien to science. This is thinking held captive by a cyclical, organismic world view where the focus was on finding one's *place* in the spinning wheel.
What matters is that cyclical thinking was a great hindrance to the birth of science. It was very powerful and channeled much thinking and creativity away from a scientific pursuit. This is one reason why Greek science, which started with such promise, died. This is why astrology eventually overshadowed astronomy, so much so that even Ptolemy would consider his Tetrabiblios to be of far greater importance than his Almagest.
In fact, it is most interesting to view China through the eyes of some Europeans. Specifically, I'm thinking of the letters of Father Matteo Ricci. Ricci settled in the mainland of China in 1584. At first he was impressed, as he found that they were able to predict two eclipses of the moon without any knowledge of Ptolemaic astronomy. But as the years went by, Ricci began to realize that even with his own modest level of understanding, he was more knowledgeable about matters of nature than his hosts' best minds. He would write in 1595:
Y'see, a few more years of eclipses showed Ricci that his Ptolemaic astronomy was superior to Chinese astronomy. In 1597, he would write:
In 1605, he would explain the following concerning those who predicted eclipses:
Ricci also discovered that the Chinese were preoccupied with astrology and he blamed this, more than anything else, for the backwardness of their science. He noted that while they were very interested in predicting when eclipses would occur, they had no idea of the physical cause of the moon's eclipse. Put simply, cause and effect thinking was not used to understand nature. In fact, those who did try to explain the cause of eclipses simply used their philosophy shaped by cyclical, organismic thinking. For example, in AD 80, Wang-Chhung explained eclipses as periodic changes in the "life-strength" of the moon and sun and to the consequent rhythmic variation in their intrinsic brightness.
The Chinese were also very resistant to views that did not line up with their organismic, cycling universe. They could co-opt other cultures that shared these basic views, but they turned their back on ideas that stemmed from a different view. This is clearly seen when the European missionaries visited China over a span of several centuries and tried to teach them science. In 1645, Father Schall von Bell was forced to change in the title of his great astronomical encyclopedia the expression "according to Western methods" to "according to new methods." And the Chinese were not really interested in these "new methods." For example, Juan Yuan praised Chinese thinkers for not falling prey to the lure of Western methods:
The perception of "where we are" was indeed an overwhelming obsession of many cultures that held to an organismic, cyclical world view. This type of thinking was poison to science. It smothered a spirit of progress and replaced it with fatalism. It turned phenomena into omens and made astrology far more important than astronomy. And it even led to severe closed-mindedness, as once you figured out where you are, you had no use for views that would disturb this harmony. A great example comes again from Father Ricci. Ricci's map implied the sphericity and true dimensions of the earth that really bothered the Chinese. Wei Chun would write:
While it is true that many cultures mapped and described the heavens, and they did seek to describe relationships between things, this had nothing to do with understanding how nature works. And it certainly had nothing to do with trying to understand why nature is as it is. The ancients were interested in finding correlations. Just because someone figures out that the cock crows when the sun comes up doesn't mean they were interested in how nature works. No one would ask how is it that the cock crows when the sun rises. No one would ask why the cock crows when the sun rises. In fact, their organismic thinking often might lead them to think the cock might be causing the sun to rise! For example, in China, it was believed that misconduct on the part of the Emperor, or his officials, would have a disturbing effect on celestial motions which would have a further disturbing effect on terrestrial affairs.
Concerning the Babylonian astrologers and magi, Jaki says:
Magic was also *very* common in all cultures and it was almost always tied to a cyclical, organismic view of the cosmos. If human affairs could could effect celestial motions, and celestial motions could effect human affairs, then of course the magicians would look for incantations and formulas to tap into this vibrating, rhythmic world. And the number of these incantations and formulas would simply grow and grow over time. Why? Because magic is not science. If an incantation didn't work, the magician would not abandon it. He would simply figure that the timing was not right, and then move on to the next incantation.
Nothing better shows the non-scientific nature of magic than the growing laundry lists of incantations. In magic, nothing is discarded, because failed magic simply meant the right button wasn't pushed for the right occasion. Or perhaps the right omen wasn't recognized. So more and more "buttons" were created until one had a large list to choose and a better chance of getting the right one. Thus, if the use of pig entrails was correlated with the recovery of one person, it would be added to the list. If pig entrails didn't help the second person with the same symptoms, well, that was because the the second person was not in harmony with the same cycle as the first. But the magician wouldn't discard the pig entrails formula because another person in the future might find himself in the same cycle as the first.
And more and more omens were were also added. In Babylonia, a dog in a specific part of one's house was believed to entail its destruction by fire. So you go see a magician, and wouldn't y'know, his incantations kept the house from burning down. In that world of magic, the right formula could restore harmony in the cycling, organismic cosmos which reflected itself in human affairs. Of course, then you had to worry about the future of the land, which could be ascertained from the shape of the ears of lambskins.
It is interesting that some pagans try to claim that magic was the thing that put humanity on the road to science. But a scientific viewpoint that is part of a linear, mechanistic view is *very* different from a magical viewpoint that is part of a cyclical, organismic view. They are two very different ways of looking at the same data. And however you view it, magic failed to give birth to science in non-christian cultures, and in fact, almost derailed the birth of science in Europe.
Clue #3. Since most of the founders of science were Christians, it is reasonable to suppose their perspectives were shaped by their Christian world view. And this world view was in turn shaped by Christian theology. And there are several aspects of Christian theology that can easily be seen as contributing factors to the birth of science?
First, let's note that Christianity is a "religion of the book" (properly interpreted, of course). This is significant. The Catholic Church claimed early on, "Hey, we wrote that book, thus we're its primary interpretive authorities." That's why the Church persecuted other Christians who later dared to get the Good Book in the hands of the common man. For the Good Book couldn't be properly interpreted in the hands of those who were not the primary authority. But, of course, Luther came along and said, "You guys have it upside down, the book is the real authority and any authority you think you have can only be imparted from it." What this meant is that the authority of the Bible itself imparted a certain freedom and a courage to dissent . And some of these early scientists (like Galileo) relied on this. If their scientific views were questioned on religious grounds, they could simply consult the Bible and question the *interpretations* of the religious authorities. Of course, they knew they were treading on someone else's turf, so they had to be careful about it all.
But what it meant was that although a priest or bishop or churchman might condemn or ridicule a scientist's beliefs, in his own mind and heart, that scientist could consult the Bible and other works of theology and blunt the criticism TO HIS OWN SATISFACTION. It might not have been complete "freedom to inquire" in the modern sense of the term, as the Church remained very powerful, but there was enough freedom to at least personally question without having to resort to simple dismissal (and *this* is what is important). This also meant that early Christian scientists didn't have to throw the baby out with the bath water. They didn't have to reject Christianity to reject some individual's view. Instead, they could merge their religious beliefs with the scientific pursuits.
The Book is also important from the other direction, for it imparts *some* sense of authority, thus consensus. That is, a religion that places special authority on written texts also diminishes the authority of private belief. Someone once asked, "what type of Christianity are we talking about, after all, there are thousands of types." To me, that type of response misses the boat. It's like saying since there are so many types of dogs, it makes no sense to say "a dog is a man's best friend." Just as those many dogs share features, so too do many Christian variants share features. And it was the shared features, consensus beliefs, that played the role in the birth of modern science. For example, I would not claim that belief in baptism was important for the birth of science, but belief in Creation was important. Let's consider these consensus beliefs in more detail.
If a Christian is curious about Creation and God's reasons for creating what He created, the obvious place to start is by studying Genesis. Whether or not one interprets Genesis as metaphor, myth, or history, one big truth arises from this account -- ALL is creation. That is, the earth and the bird are every bit creation as the stars and the sun. It's this type of insight which enabled folks like Buridan (see below) to describe heavenly motions in terms of terrestial motions. It's hard for us modern folks to appreciate how radical it was to describe the movement of the heavens as being like a man jumping or a smith's wheel turning. But this was a crucial step. And it was a crucial step that helped to get around Aristotle's philosophy.
This distinction between Creation and God was essential to science. For it is this very distinction that is behind what we now call the "natural" and the "spiritual" (anyone who can see this relationship will clearly see how science is indebted to Christianity). That is, if you simply remove God from the picture, Creation becomes the Natural. And God is over there in the "Spiritual." But this distinction was not commonly found among the world's religions. Their views were inherently monistic and pantheistic. As Francis Bacon would write:
To see the importance of linear thinking, consider how cyclical thinking stunted the birth of science in Greece. Let's consider one of the greatest Greek philosophers, Aristotle. Aristotle attempted to explain the world in typical Greek fashion. Aristotle postulated a law (in "On the Heavens") which stated that the rate of at which falling bodies speed toward the center of the earth, or its surface for that matter, was determined by their weight. Aristotle said that if two bodies were dropped from the same height, the one with twice the weight as the other would reach the ground twice as fast as the lighter one. This law was simply accepted. And how odd this is! Any construction worker would have observed that this was not true. Anyone could have tested Aristotle's claim with a very simple experiment -climb a house and drop two objects of differing weight. But no Greek ever seemed curious enough to simply test this claim! Why was this? Why were they so blind to such basic science?
Well, we have to understand Greek cosmology. For them, the universe existed as an eternal cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth. This cyclical view of nature prevented the birth of science. For one thing, the notion of an eternal universe went hand-in-hand with the notion of a necessary universe. Aristotelian physics was simply taken to be necessarily true and known through introspection. It seems intuitively obvious that heavier objects would fall faster than lighter objects. But the Greek mind never thought to test it. And what a simple test it is! Furthermore, the cyclical view of nature eliminates the perspective of progress. And without the belief in progress, there is no need to look further once you think you have it all figured out. Aristotle endorsed, in a manner-of-fact way, the idea of eternal cycles. One way he did this was to make reference to cultural history. He explicitly stated that inventions familiar to his contemporaries had been invented in innumerable times before. But he did add that the comfort provided by the technical brand of those inventions available in his time represented the highest level they are capable of providing. This attitude also hindered science. If reality exists as a series of eternal cycles, the tendency is to think either one is at the bottom, and a hopeless, inward perspective develops, or one is at the top (as Aristotle thought), and complacency develops. Greek success with mathematics, coupled to their cosmogony, led them to think they could deduce reality and questioning those deductions by silly experiments was unthought of.
Unfortunately for Christendom, Greek philosophy was merged with Christian theology. And this, more than anything else, is what caused the birth of modern science to be delayed. The break with Aristotle stemmed from Christian theologians who questioned Aristotle's self- evident truth of the eternal universe. Their theology taught otherwise, that the universe was created ex nihilo. This teaching was formally and solemnly declared in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council (although it was debated a long time prior). The declaration essentially stated the truth of our finite creation, but said we could only know this from revelation. This declaration freed Christian thinkers as they began to reinterpret the world simply by assuming as fact the temporality and contingency of the universe.
[I often think Christians fail to realize that Big Bang cosmology represents a very powerful confirmation of their Christian faith. Every world view (including atheism) other than that shaped by Judaism and Christianity has proclaimed the Universe is eternal. In the thirteenth and fourteenth century, Christian philosophers took the bold step in denying that matter and time was eternal, something taught by all the great Pagan and Muslim philosophers. Yet they acknowledged that their denial could not be proven true, that it stemmed solely from their faith. And modern science has now corroborated their position!]
In addition to all these consensus assumptions, there is one more relevant point. Not only did the Bible provide a consensus on some basic assumptions about the world, assumptions important for the birth of science, but the very perspective about the book was important. God was viewed as the Author of the Book and the Book spoke of Truth. But for these Christians, God was also the Author of Nature. Yet, Nature was simply another book written by God in another code. The early scientists often used the metaphor about the *book* of nature. Seeing Nature as a *book* meant there were intelligible truths that could be uncovered with study. This whole attitude was already placed inside these men by their Christian religion's attitude toward the Bible. For them, Nature wasn't an illusion, Nature wasn't evil, Nature wasn't the playground of a myriad of gods or fairies, Nature wasn't simply "matter and space." Nature was a Book! And it was a book with containing new material from the Author of the Good Book. So uncovering new truths, uncovering God's thoughts, was actually a religious endeavor!
Many of the founders of modern science were in fact amateur theologians. And their theology constituted important background belief for their endeavors. Let us consider two examples, Kepler and Pasteur.
Arno Penzias (1978 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics and co-discoverer of the cosmic background radiation) makes a very interesting point concerning Johannes Kepler. Speaking about the scientific goal to find the simplest answer possible (a philosophical principle which of course stems from a Christian theologian -see below), Penzias says:
The other example concerns Louis Pasteur, a devout Christian who nailed down the germ theory. In this case, we can see the clear contribution of his Christian theology. Pasteur lived in a time when belief in spontaneous generation still persisted. Many biologists in his day believed microbes could spontaneously appear from chemicals and this was thought to be the cause of illness. This disagreed with Pasteur's religious beliefs and theological beliefs involving Creation, so he set out to prove it false. And he succeeded with some clever experiments that are still taught in modern biology texts. Since Pasteur proved that microbes didn't spontaneously appear from previous chemical states, he argued that illness must be caused by the transfer of microbes from one person the the next. Pasteur's views and work influenced another Christian scientist/physician at the time, Joseph Lister, who then developed antiseptic surgery. So like it or not, the germ theory and modern surgery owe a great deal to the theological motivations that led to the rejection of spontaneous generation.
Clue #4. The third clue comes from the Christian theologians/philosophers of the thirteenth and fourteenth century, who uniquely paved the way for the birth of science.
The founders of modern science did not develop their outlook in a vacuum. Instead, they inherited and built upon an intellectual landscape that was previously established by various medieval philosophers/theologians. Many of these philosophers had a distinct anti-Aristotelian bent. I won't go through all the details, but I will mention five of the men who were important to the birth of science. But before doing this, let's set the stage.
According to "Medieval Philosophy" (H. Shapiro, ed.):
Nevertheless, the works of these non-christian philosophers began to become entrenched in the universities. So much so that by the thirteenth century, Aristotle had come to be regarded as 'The Philosopher.' In F.C. Copleston's "Medieval Philosophy," Copleston writes:
Let's now consider some of these Christian philosophers/theologians (remember, this list is not exhaustive)..
Grosseteste was important to the birth of science for at least two reasons. First, as F.C. Copleston writes (in his text on Medieval Philosophy), "Grosseteste had insisted on the need for observation and experiment in the study of nature." Secondly, Grosseteste was the mentor of Roger Bacon.
Bacon came out hard against those who placed more authority on the teachings of philosophers rather than experience. For example, he writes:
Copleston says this about Bacon:
Copleston also adds:
But there is one more thing to add about Bacon, something that is not often spoken of by those who study the medieval philosophers. Make no mistake, Bacon was thoroughly Christian. And after formulating his new science, Bacon offered it as a apologetic and *evangelistic* tool for the Church! Consider some of the things he wrote after explaining his new science:
Bacon then lists a series of observations about nature where the common theme is apologetic. That is, the more we find out about Nature, the more we find truths that are ultimately hard to understand. Yet they remain true. Thus, like Nature, Christianity is true although it may be hard to ultimately understand. This apologetic move is questionable (to say the least), but it shows how Bacon was already explaining how science could be used by the Church. But he says much more:
I hope you read that carefully, because that's pretty "modern" thinking from a monk in thirteenth century. So not only did Roger Bacon lay the ground work for the development of the scientific method, he also gave science a purpose - the purpose of apologetics and evangelism. No wonder many of the founders of modern science (listed above) used their science in an apologetic framework. For example, Robert Boyle set up the Boyle lectures, which were apologetic lectures designed to reach unbelievers.
Ockham was not the first Christian philosopher to attack Greek philosophy. Around 1270, Giles of Rome composed his "Errors of the Philosophers," where he set out to highlight the faulty beliefs of Aristotle, Averroes, Avicenna, etc. And among these errors were the belief that motion never began, time never began, the world never began, the heavens are not created, etc. But Ockham was the first to offer a serious, methodical attack. And this would influence those who would follow.
As a philosopher, Buridan wrote on the projectile motion, falling bodies, and the rotation of the earth. His writings, in many ways, anticipate the science of Galileo and Newton. For example, consider projectile motion. Buridan was a Christian philosopher who took for granted the temporality of the universe (thanks to his theology). In attempting to describe celestial motion, Buridan did something Aristotle (or any Greek) would dare to do -- he explained the heavens by appealing to the terrestial. Y'see, Aristotle split reality into the celestial and the terrestial. These two were completely different not only as a matter of basic tenet, but also as a matter of religious dogma. But Buridan explained celestial motion by an analysis of the manner in which two earthly motions begin and continue -- the rotation of a smith's heavy wheel and the manner in which the length of a jump could be increased. From these humble descriptions, Buridan dared to explain the movement in the heavens!
Aristotle had explained projectile motion by saying that the projectile experiences a push from the air closing in behind it. Buridan didn't buy it (by the way, Ockham also rejected Aristotle on this matter). He wrote:
After ridding himself of Aristotle's views and replacing them with his impetus theory, Buridan then immediately invokes his theology to extrapolate this to the heavens:
I don't know how anyone could read this and not be struck by its importance in the birth of science (I should point out that Buridan's work was very popular among Christian scholars in the 1400s). Buridan gets rid of Aristotle's views with some simple observations. His views of Creation then allow him to contemplate the celestial in terms of the terrestial. In doing so, he extrapolates his impetus theory to the heavens. Furthermore, by ridding himself of the eternal universe, Buridan had a place for his impetus. The impetus was imparted by the Creator in the beginning. Since He is God, there is no other impetus and since He is perfect, nothing could resist that impetus. The result? Buridan anticipates Newton's First Law of Motion!
Oresme contributed much more. According to Copleston:
Oresme also questioned the Ptolemaic hypothesis by showing that things might not be as they appear. He then said that Scriptures which seem to support Geocentrism were simply written according to the common mode of speech and should not be regarded as scientific treatises. In the end, Oresme did not abandon Ptolemism simply because one could not yet *prove* that is was false.
Much more can be said about these men (and others), but I hope the reader can see the importance of these men and their works. None of them were true scientists. Instead, they were philosophers who birthed and nurtured science. Eventually, men who were not philosophers would study the world. The empirical spirit birthed by Bacon and Ockham could stand on its own. The scientist would be born. Take Galileo. Galileo was clearly indebted to these works. When he argued with the Aristotelian professors at Pisa, he must have known of the works of Ockham, Buridan and Oresme. His anti-Aristotelian spirit owed much to Ockham, Giles of Rome, Buridan, Oresme, and many others. His spirit of investigation and experiment owe much to Bacon and Ockham. His telescope would not exist had it not been for Bacon! His replies to the clergy owe much to Oresme. Galileo was more than Galileo.
Let me quote a lengthy passage from Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." Kuhn is recognized as one of the greatest modern historians of science. So what did Kuhn have to say?
Note two things. Galileo dealt with something that was not cultural-specific. All cultures must have known about the fact of swinging bodies. Yet only Galileo used this fact to help bring about modern science. Why? That brings us to the second point -- Galileo *saw* the swinging body in a different light. His perception *was* culture-specific. Why is this? Kuhn continues:
Kuhn's observation shows us that science was not born as the result of better measurements and new observations. The same ol' thing was seen, but it was seen in a different light. In fact, Kuhn adds:
Not only did Galileo see regularity where the Aristotelian saw none, he saw more regularity than measurement would provide. Now pay careful attention to what Kuhn says:
Bingo. And what do you think was behind this paradigm shift?
It's right there, looking ya in the eyes. Y'see, the pagan mind never came up with anything like the impetus theory. The Christian mind not only came up with it, it *explored* this theory as an alternative to Aristotelian thinking. The link is obvious, as the impetus theory is quite at home among the theological belief in a transcendent God who created nature out of nothing. But it is not at home among the beliefs of an organismic, pantheistic universe that cycles from eternity. Kuhn continues:
I have already touched on the relevance of Buridan and Oresme. You'll find that in the same breath, Buridan could speak of the impetus theory concerning a jumping man and God creating the Universe. How much more clear could it be? When you talk about a projector who initiates motion and implants internal power to an object, that's simply another way of saying, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."
Once again, we must ask if vibrating strings were not found in non-christian cultures. Of course they were found in non-christian cultures. They are universally found. Yet Buridan saw something in a vibrating string that other non-christian thinkers failed to see. Is it because the trade was so great in France that they obtained strings that better vibrated? Er, no. And even if they did, why didn't the folks they traded with notice the vibrating strings? Buridan saw something because his Christian world view enabled him to see things that could not be seen by those who held to views that nature was organismic, pantheistic, irrational, and cyclical.
Galileo's indebtedness to Oresme is obvious not only here, but when it came to his interpretation of biblical teachings about nature.
Finally, Kuhn says:
I am satisfied in noting that Kuhn is saying basically what I have said throughout these essays. The only difference is that Kuhn is not identifying the cause of the paradigm shift. But the cause is obvious -- Christianity.
So in conclusion, we either attribute the localized aspect of the birth of science, where modern science was born in Christianized Europe, to a coincidence or to something resulting from a dependence on Christianity. I favor the later interpretation. It has the overall simplicity where it doesn't depend on a series of ad hoc explanations to account for the lack of science in so many other cultures. There are also several basic elements of Christian theology that certainly seem to provide a fertile ground for the birth of science, elements that are not found in other religious world views. In fact, many of these elements are found on the lips of the founders of science. And finally, even a brief synopsis of Christian medieval philosophy documents many elements that clearly paved the way for, and even anticipated, modern science.
Of course, there are two more objections to my hypothesis: When the time is ripe for a discovery, the discovery is made by someone. Consider calculus, invented almost simultaneously by Liebnitz and Newton. What makes the time ripe? Usually external fertilization, from other areas. In my opinion, what made time ripe was the thinking through of the implications of the Christian world view. Christianity had to cut itself away, once and for all, from the hindrance of pagan philosophy. This is easier said than done, as Greek metaphysics had a very high reputation among thinking people, and science would of course be born among thinking people.
But if you think there is a better ripening factor, be specific. What was it? And in choosing this alternative factor, keep in mind that you must find candidates that are particular to Europe, as modern science was birthed only there. I must confess that I really can't see any other truly viable alternative. After all, science is a "way of thinking," a "way of seeing the world." As such, you need to find a "way of thinking" that gave rise to the scientific "way of thinking," and do so in a way that is particular to Europe. Given that the Christian "way of thinking" predominated in Europe, and the theology and philosophy of the Christian world view can be seen to easily and simply explain the rise of science, I don't know how you could come up with a better explanation. But if you have one, I'm all ears.
Finally: If Christianity had been the cause, many discoveries would have been made when Christianity became the dominant religion. Yet, as soon as Christianity became the religion, the entire civilization collapsed.
It's not as simple as this. Even when Christianity became the most popular religion, the intellectual arena was still dominated by those beholden to pagan philosophy. So much so that Christian thinkers looked for ways to fuse their theology with Greek thinking. Neo- Platonism was the obvious system of choice. It took a long time for Christian thinkers to finally decide to throw out all the Greek metaphysics.
More importantly is the simple fact that Christianity inherited a decaying civilization. Don't confuse cause with correlation. Just because the rise of Christianity is often correlated with the fall of Rome does not mean Christianity caused the fall. In fact, I would argue that the fall of Rome was more important in the rise of Christianity. Rome would fall whether or not Christianity came into existence, and in fact, Christianity may have actually prolonged the Empire. But eventually it fell, and total chaos followed. Simply consider the chaos that has followed the fall of the Soviet Union. This is gentle when compared what followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Countless wars and battles, fought along tribalistic lines, occurred. The only unifying factor in all of Europe was Christianity and it was busy trying to work out its relationship with the little states and kingdoms. We can go into all the historical details in another article, but suffice it to say that Christianity inherited the ashes of a burnt out and savaged civilization. From this dust, new systems and new thoughts would have to emerge. And in an environment of confusion and chaos, you need time. Time for things to become more structured and more ordered.
Finally, couldn't the skeptic claim that I am engaged in revisionism, where I am simply using my Christian bias to rewrite history to show the importance of Christianity?
Y'see, what happens is historians look at history through the filters of their world view. Their world views then determine what facts are significant and what facts are irrelevant. A Freudian historian might think Galileo's momma was important in the birth of science, while a Marxist historian might focus on economic conditions. A Pragmatist might think pragmatism sufficient for the birth of science. Now, I realize that my interpretation of history is no less colored than others. But, nevertheless, not all interpretations of history can be equally true. And I am encouraged in my interpretation for several reasons:
Let's consider point 1 on more detail:
Many non-christian scholars have acknowledged the role of Christianity in the birth of modern science. I suppose it began with Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967). While neither were Christians, both stressed that modern science was born out of the Christian world view (after all, it was born in Europe). Whitehead was a widely respected mathematician and philosopher and Oppenheimer was director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and wrote on a wide range of topics, ranging from subjects related to science to the atom and atomic energy.
In 1962, Oppenheimer wrote an article on "Science and Culture" for the journal "Encounter" and Whitehead gave a presentation at the Harvard University Lowell Lectures entitled "Science and the Modern World." Whitehead said that Christianity is the mother of science because "of the medieval insistence on the rationality of God." He noted that because of this belief, the founders of science had an "inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner. exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labors of scientists would be without hope." As Whitehead noted, the Christian thought form of the early scientists gave them "the faith in the possibility of science."
Nowadays, Christianity seems irrelevant to science because science can point to its successes. But before there was success, there was only faith that science would succeed. And that faith stemmed from the Christian world view. From our perspective, it is hard to appreciate the boldness of the founders of modern science. They lived in a time when Aristotle's philosophy was considered dogma in the university. Yet before science had proved itself with a series of successes, they dared to do things such as explain how the heavens worked by appealing to how things worked on the earth. In fact, it was a theologian who anticipated Newton's First Law!
Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist who is also not a Christian. But he too has spoken about the essential role of Christianity. Davies notes that modern science was born as the result of a symbiosis between Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian thinking. Davies notes that it was from the merging of these two thought streams that modern science emerged. Greek thinking contributed the emphasis on mathematical principles and Judeo-Christian thinking contributed an emphasis on the contingent, linear, and rational nature of creation. Davies said,
If you read Davies carefully, he is saying science was born as a quasi-religious expression! We often don't appreciate just how religious many of these men were. After revolutionizing physics, Newton spent most of his later years studying and writing about the Bible (although most of this wasn't published). Robert Boyle is considered the chief founder of modern chemistry. He also set up the "Boyle lectures," which were *apologetic* lectures about Christianity that tried to reach skeptical unbelievers.
Of course, it wasn't just any ol' religion that helped to birth modern science. In spite of the fact that the laws of science are universal, modern science was born in a Judeo-Christian context. For where is the Muslim version of Newton -- the Muslim who also independently discovered Newton's laws? Where is the Buddhist version of Mendel? Where is the Hindu version of Kepler?
Davies also adds something that should cause some eyebrows to rise here:
I agree. The thinking of the atheistic French existentialists would never have given rise to science. But I would add something else to Davies' claim. It's not just any ol' theological world view. The theology of paganism or the various Eastern religions would likewise not have given rise to modern science. And in fact, they didn't.
Of course, I realize that it would cause too much cognitive dissonance for some atheists and skeptics to believe that Christianity was important in the birth of modern science. To help them, let me offer another type of argument -- one that seeks to blame Christianity for an evil. Since many skeptics and atheists are always open to this approach, perhaps it might be more fruitful.
Y'see, Christianity has been blamed for our ecological crisis. How? It is noted that Christianity desacralized nature and gave us science and technology. These in turn gave us the ecological crisis. This claim was first popularized in an article which appeared in the scientific journal "Science." Lynn White, Jr. wrote 'The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis' and this work has been repeatedly circulated in ecological circles.
According to White, Christianity was crucial in the birth of modern science. White wrote:
As I noted, White argues that Christianity was crucial in the birth of science and technology. He then blames Christianity for our ecological crisis because of this. So, for those skeptics who can only believe something about Christianity if it is bad for Christianity, here is your out. You can acknowledge the facts that show Christianity to be crucial in the birth of science, but like White, you can move on from here and blame Christianity for yet another evil!
While science was born in a Christian environment, and the founders of modern science viewed it as something that complemented their faith, today's scientist no longer feels obligated to recognize the role of Christianity. The reason is obvious -- science proceeds nicely on its own. Like a child who no longer needs his mother, science continues to advance simply due to its own success. But will science continue like this far into the future, or might it be forced to return to its mother like a prodigal son? I suspect that most think science will continue to exist as science because of its pragmatic value. And there is certainly some truth to this. But I think it naive to think science will continue to exist as it exists today. Consider my reasoning.
We live in an age when more and more people are adopting a "neo-pagan" outlook -- where everything is ultimately relative and subjective. Can science continue to exist protected from such an outlook? I'm not so sure.
The common person seems to live in a love/hate relationship with science. They love the pragmatic benefits of science -- cures to disease, better standards of living, new technology, etc. But they do hate the "coldness" of science. They don't like to think of themselves as meaningless, accidental accumulations of genes and chemicals. In fact, many think science is hostile. Why? Like it or not, humans are religious beings. We have always been so. And since science if often popularized by naturalists (folks who adopt the world view of naturalism), scientific findings are often interpreted in ways that threaten our religious sense of humanity and meaning. This need not be the case, but by taking Christianity out of the mix, you have the cold, rational materialistic interpretations of the scientist in conflict with the subjective, irrational religious views of the neo-pagan. And just as ancient paganism hindered the birth of science, modern neo-paganism can work to starve and ultimately kill science as we know it. How so? Consider just two phenomena -- the rise of postmodernism and the rising influence of the animal-rights movement.
An excellent editorial appeared in the Wall Street Journal (7/10/95) entitled "The Flight From Science and Reason." It was written by Christina Hoff Sommers, a professor of philosophy at Clark University. Sommers notes that New Jersey has just sponsored the "New Jersey Project".
Sommers notes, "The document is striking because it emanates from an official government agency."
In my opinion, it is more than "striking." It is scandalous. While skeptics are quick to identify and oppose some local school board which is trying to include creationism in its curricula, look what is happening on the larger scale -- feminist ideologues are using the state government to "transform" higher education with the notion that science = rape.
This is not an isolated event. Sommers notes:
What is really troublesome is that a good portion of these antirational, anti-science agendas are funded by the government. The Department of Education is one source of funds for these efforts. Its Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education backs "Women's Way of Knowing." Sommers describes this as:
Sommers also notes that even the NSF funds a faculty development project that runs seminars and workshops on doctrines "of prominent anti-science feminist epistemologists." Sommers has a great summary of this current fad of irrationalism:
When you have government agencies coupled with university administrations working to promote anti-science and antirational ideologies, our culture is distinctly threatened.
Sommers writes: "Martin Lewis, a geographer and environmentalist at Duke University, informed the conference (more on this below) that "hostility to science, coupled with misgivings about reason, is the norm among a sizable and influential group of academics devoted to the study of....environmental philosophy." Western philosophy and science are seen as "irredeemably flawed," says Mr. Lewis, "while the rest of the world is pictured as having existed in a state of near ecological bliss." He reports a particular hostility to the founders of modern science -- Galileo, Bacon, Newton, Descartes -- who are seen as "eco-villains."
For some time now, the deconstructionists have ravaged the humanity departments of their respective schools. It appears that they are now setting their sights on the practice of science. But it goes beyond the university environment. Sommers brings up another example:
As it was with the Enola Gay exhibit, the Smithsonian is defending its exhibit while the scientists now have to resort to calls for balance. Yes, this is the America we are handing to our children and grandchildren: an America where you can take your kids to the museum to see the horrors of science and then send them to college to learn that science is rape. Of course, this will not happen overnight. It's happening one small step at a time.
But there is a reason for some hope. Scientists are beginning to wake up. Under the auspices of the New York Academy of Sciences, University biologist Paul Gross and Rutgers mathematician Norman Levitt helped organize "The Flight from Science and Reason," a high-level conference of more than 200 scientists, physicians, and humanists who met to "consider the flight from reason and its associated anti-science." At least the scientific community is beginning to become aware of the distant thunder over the horizon.
The July 10, 1995 edition of TheScientist also has an article addressing the same thing Sommers discussed in her editorial in the WSJ. The article describes the recent conference addressing the rising tide of irrationalism and anti-science beliefs. In this conference, several threats were identified - the rise in "alternative medicine,"cuts to scientific funding, and creationism/fundamentalism.
Now, there is probably some truth to this "central notion," but postmodernists take this position as an absolute and push it too extremes. Of course, when they do this, they end up refuting their own position, because their "central notion" itself stems from perceptions which "must pass through such filters as language and culture." So why think this notion is TRULY "central?"
The articles cites some of the speakers. From Mario Bunge, professor of philosophy and head of the Foundations and Philosophy of Science Unit at McGill University in Montreal:
David Goodstein, a physicist from Caltech, states:
Notice that while Goodstein decides to draw the line at this point, his line seems arbitrary and based on blind faith. The Christian world view, on the other hand, gives reasons for drawing the line at this point. And since the postmodernists are enemies of Christianity (they are expressions of a sophisticated form of paganism), they don't acknowledge the line. Thus, the importance of Christian faith in science is clearly seen.
Now, let me add a couple of my own observations. We all know about the anti-science tendencies of certain fundamentalists. The prime example is creationism. But creationism is not the threat that postmodernism is. For one thing, creationism actually respects science. How? Creationists actually appeal to science to support their views. They may not succeed, but in trying to USE science to establish their viewpoint, they show a deep respect for the place of science. Postmodernists, on the other hand, are not interested in using science to support their views. They are engaged in a total attack on science _itself_. Another reason creationism is not nearly the threat that postmodernism is can be found in the influence of the two. Creationists are not commonly found in the University; they are simply outsiders whose influence reaches into a handful of local communities. Postmodernists, on the other hand, walk the halls of the University, receive government grants to fund their propaganda, and teach thousands of impressionable college students each year. That is, postmodernists are on the INSIDE and they have the ear of the state. Thirdly, it's easier to spot a creationist, tie his beliefs to religion, and then use the First Amendment and Court rulings to keep his views out of the schools. NONE of this applies to the postmodernists.
Or look at it this way. Postmodernists decry the influence of "Eurocentric, white, male, heterosexist" assumptions behind science. Now what religion is viewed as representing the "Eurocentric, white, male, heterosexist" viewpoint?
Postmodernism is not the only threat to science. Another threat can be seen in another expression of the pagan mindset -- the notion that a boy is a dog is a rat. This pantheistic expression is found in the animal rights movement which would sacrifice scientific advancement to emotional and often pantheistic notions of animal essence.
The animal rights movement, and especially the postmodernist movement, represent a serious threat for two reasons -- science no longer acknowledges its indebtedness to the Christian world view and abandonment of the Christian world view among people is becoming more and more common. The mindset that hindered the birth of science is being resurrected, and the continued existence of science-as-we-know-it is therefore threatened. The polarity between a scientific world view and a religious world view was only able to be bridged by Christianity.
For Christianity, like science, acknowledges an objective reality that is intelligible, but unlike atheistic interpretations of science, it also acknowledges the reality of the non-material realm. As science comes under attack, the Mother of Science ought to step-up to defend her offspring from the attacks of the neo-pagan. For only the Christian world view can defend against the attacks of the postmodernists. Only the Christian world view can justify animal research. The atheists and the naturalists have only their blind faith and sentiments, and these are easily steam-rolled by the irrational faith and sentiments of the neo-pagan mind. The same philosophical and theological assumptions that paved the way for the birth of science are needed to defend the life of science. Christians have another unique opportunity to demonstrate the importance of Christian views in the practice of science. Will they take this opportunity? Or will they join sides with the neo-pagans?
Thus ends my little series of essays highlighting the crucial role Christianity has played in the existence of science. It is my hope that more Christians would stop buying into the 'warfare' myth, stop seeing science as an enemy of their faith, learn to tease apart philosophical naturalism from science, and learn to appreciate that science is part of the cultural heritage of their Christian world view.
Copyright © 1996 by Michael J. Bumbulis (edited by P).
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