Limited Beginnings with Greek Science
Western science owes its origins to early Greek civilization. It was the Greek belief that nature is undergirded by a rational order (Logos) and is therefore inherently intelligible which laid the germinal seeds that led eventually to the development of modern science. As H.D.F. Kitto writes, “Here we meet a permanent feature of Greek thought: the universe, both the physical and the moral universe, must be not only rational, and therefore knowable, but also simple.” /1/ Hence, it is to the ancient Greeks that we owe the beginnings of mathematics, astronomy, physics and biology.
On the other hand, it was common place for the Greeks to regard nature as deified. Thales famously remarked after observing how magnets move iron, “All things are full of gods.” Naturally, the Greeks refrained from interfering with the process of nature in their scientific pursuits as they tried to explain observed changes in nature in terms of movements of divine indwelling forces. In any case, there was no need for the Greeks to rely on observation, measurements and experimentation since the rational mind is capable of unlocking the essential characteristics of substance underlying nature. It seems that the Greek philosophers were trying to explain nature while shutting their eyes.
The goal of Greek science was to understand the teleology (final purpose) of natural processes rather than to discover scientific laws that accurately describe patterns of natural interaction. In effect, science is turned into philosophy which bypasses empirical research. S. Sambursky elaborates, ‘The ancient Greeks believed fundamentally that the world should be understood, but that there was no need to change it… This passive attitude to the practical use of the forces of nature was reinforced by the complete ossification of the natural sciences in the Middle Ages in the condition to which Aristotle had brought them.” /2/ Not surprisingly, given their faulty methodology, Greek science ended up in stagnation for centuries.
Science in the other early civilizations suffered a similar fate. For example, the technological prowess of Chinese civilization is notable with the invention of paper and printing, gunpowder and the compass. But as Joseph Needham the great historian of science and civilization in China observes, the Chinese failed to make similar advance in scientific knowledge. The consequence of their lack of belief in a rational Lawgiver or Creator of the world meant they could not bring themselves to believe that man was able to trace out at least some of the laws of the physical universe. /3/
Credit should be given to Islamic civilization for innovation in engineering works like water pumps, mills, geared astronomical instruments and mechanical clocks. However, early Islamic science was caught in a bind. On the one side, the Mutazilites philosophers were subject to the same restrictions in their investigation of nature when they adopted Aristotelian science. On the other side, the majority of Muslim theologians rejected Greek natural philosophy because its teaching of secondary causation is seen to contradict the Quranic teaching of God’s direct causation of everything. Hence, the teaching of natural philosophy as a foundation for systematic investigation of nature was not institutionalized in Islamic society. /4/ As a consequence, Islamic science suffered the same stagnation as Greek science.
It should be noted that the engineering achievements of both the Chinese and Islamic civilizations do not provide an adequate measure of scientific advancement since the mechanical products are the results pragmatic enterprise rather than careful investigation into the organization of nature. In particular, their scientific endeavors lack the essence of modern scientific method which systematically collects and classifies empirical data for experimentation (empiricism), followed by analysis based on reason (both induction and deduction) with the goal of discovering the underlying mechanism and laws of nature that could be applied to predict future outcomes. Stanley Jaki’s observation of the shortcomings of science in these early civilizations remains pertinent,
This historiography of science has still to face up honestly to the problem of why three great ancient cultures (China, India, and Egypt) display, independently of one another, a similar pattern vis-a-vis science. The pattern is the stillbirth of science in each of them in spite of the availability of talents, social organization, and peace—the standard explanatory devices furnished by all-knowing sociologies of science on which that historiography relies ever more heavily. /5/
Christian Origins of Modern Empirical Science
Modern empirical science as we know today emerged only when Greek rationality and mathematics was complemented by the method of empirical testing. What were the historical and intellectual circumstances leading to this new development?
Alfred Whitehead argues that the rise of modern empirical science was premised on the Christian belief that the universe has an orderly structure because it is the handiwork of a rational creator and lawmaker. Whitehead suggests that the motive power of research rests on the
inexpungable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles…It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality.
In contrast, Whitehead explains why empirical science failed to emerge elsewhere,
In Asia, the conceptions of God were of a being who was either too arbitrary or too impersonal for such ideas to have much effect on instinctive habits of mind. Any definite occurrence might be due- to the fat of an irrational despot, or might .issue from some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things… My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology. /6/
Historically, the restrictions of Aristotelian science were set aside with the ascendancy of Christian belief in a personal God who is a lawgiver and the contingency of creation (in contrast to Aristotelian eternal cosmos) which points to its transcendent source and the openness of creation to rational and empirical investigation. The atheist-evolutionist Loren Eiseley concurs with Whitehead in emphasizing the crucial role played by Christian faith in the emergence of empirical science.
The philosophy of experimental science … began its discoveries and made use of its methods in the faith, not the knowledge, that it was dealing with a rational universe controlled by a creator who did not act upon whim nor interfere with the forces He had set in operation… It is surely one of the curious paradoxes of history that science, which professionally has little to do with faith, owes its origins to an act of faith that the universe can be rationally interpreted, and that science today is sustained by that assumption. /7/
From Deductive to Experimental Science
It is a truism that scientific inquiry must be sustained by diligence and discipline since research bears fruits only after much effort in trial and error. What then was the source of motivation for sustained scientific research in the early modern period from the 16th -17th century? The majority of scientists during this period were Christians who pursued research with two overriding motives: for the glory of God and for the benefit of man. In the words of Francis Bacon, knowledge should be “for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.”
Francis Bacon, one of the founders the empirical tradition of science, argued that the doctrine of creation suggests that nature is not merely ‘logical’ or ‘rational’, but ‘given’. Hence, Bacon’s approach to science may be summarized with the slogan, “Out with Aristotle and in with the Bible.” After all, Aristotelian inquiry into final causes (teleology) “is sterile, and like a virgin consecrated to God, produces nothing.” According to Bacon, “We copied the sin of our first parents…They wish to be like God…we have forfeited our dominion over nature by wanting to make her conform to our rationalistic prejudices rather than adapting our conceptions to the data of observation and experiment, We clearly impress the stamp of our own image on the creatures and the works of God, instead of examining and recognizing in them the stamp of the creator himself.” /8/
Bacon criticized the Greeks for indulging in premature construction of theories without adequate experimental data. “For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit.” (Advancement of Learning, Book 1.5). What is required is soberness and modesty in submitting to the facts of reality. That is to say, scientific inquiry must begin with the collection of facts or so-called natural history. Only then may one then begin scientific analysis and theorizing.
Isaac Newton was confident that the two-prong approach of science via empiricism and rationalism (mathematics) will eventually bear fruit, based on his belief that the existence of a God of unlimited coherence and consistency explains the world’s coherence and contingency. Staley Jaki aptly captures the spirit of the early Christian scientists when he writes that while real science is the science of a contingent universe, true inspiration for the advancement of science “can only come unreserved commitment to the very same inner logic which gives life to theism as well as to science…we hope by our example, will keep in mind about scientific history a fundamental fact: the tie binding the road of science to the ways of God. /9/
R. Hooykaas applauds early modern science for its balance between theorizing and experimentation,
Science works upwards from phenomena to a rational system of relations, explanations and predictions, and ends again in testing these by experiments made in the world of phenomena from which it started. When the rational element gets more than its due, it becomes rationalism, which considers rationality to be the criterion for reality and allots a secondary role to observation and experimentation. A rational empiricism, on the other hand, recognizes that reason is indispensable for the creation of order, but that it has to submit to what has been given in the world; it has an open eye for the contingency of the existence and the way of being of things. /10/
Empirical Investigation and Human Dignity
Equally crucial for the development of experimental science is the necessity of overcoming the Greek disdain for manual work. For ancient Greeks, the philosophers should be left to pursue their intellectual and spiritual development while manual work is left to the slaves, whom Aristotle likened to ‘animated’ tools of mechanics. Hence, it would be improper for a Greek philosopher to resort to experimentation as this would require working with methods of mechanics.
In contrast, the Biblical tradition rejects the Greek prejudice against labor which has hampered the development of experimental science. Indeed, the craftsman and manual work is honored in the Bible. Adam was to “dress and to keep” the Garden of Eden. The punishment of the Fall is not labor itself so much as the fatigue of labor. More importantly, God himself created the world without any delegation of the work to intermediary angels.
J.B Stump explains why the Christian teaching of the contingency of creation invites empirical investigation of the world,
The Christian view of creation gives a dignity to human beings that was absent from other cultures. In the non-Christian cultures of the past in which science was “stillborn,” there was a belief in the cyclic view of the universe or the pattern of eternal recurrence. Such a view of the universe encouraged a view of humans as nothing more than a “bubble on the inexorable sea of events whose ebb and flow followed one another with fateful regularity. (Jaki 1974, 130). Another concept was the contingent nature of the world which resulted from God’s free decision to create rather than creating out of necessity. Belief in this contingency invites empirical investigation of the world, rather than the more strictly rationalist approach. Jaki even credits Christian theology with promoting the quantitative methods which were so crucial to the development of science. /11/
To conclude, Christian faith provides the crucial impetus for the development of modern experimental science by liberating man from the limits of inquiry that resulted from the Greek religious outlook of a deified nature. Christian stewardship of creation also encouraged the development of science and technology in order to utilize natural resources for the betterment of life. Rodney Stark is surely justified when he affirms: “Science was not the work of western secularists or even deists; it was entirely the work of devout believers in an active, conscious, creator God…In these ways, at least, Western civilization really was God-given.” /12/
/1/ H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks, (Penguin, 1957), p. 179
/2/ S. Sambursky, The Physical World of the Greeks 2ed. (Routledge KP, 1959), p. 230.
/3/ Quoted in Stanley Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Uni. Chicago Press, 1978), p.14. See also Joseph Needham, “It was not that there was no order in Nature for the Chinese, but rather it was not an order ordained by a rational being, and hence there was no conviction that rational personal beings would be able to spell out in their lesser earthly languages the divine code of laws which he had decreed aforetime.” Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China (Cambridge Uni. Press, 1956), vol.2, p. 581.
/4/ Edward Grant, The Foundations of Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge Uni. Press, 1996), pp. 174-186. Edward Grant writes, “Because of a fear that natural philosophy was potentially dangerous to the Muslim faith, and perhaps for other reasons as well, Islam never institutionalized natural philosophy, never made it a regular part of the educational process. Thus natural philosophy did not become part of an overall approach to nature, not even for use in determining the structure and operations of nature for the greater glory of God. It is unlikely that most Islamic thinkers thought that God’s handiwork was fathomable, although, occasionally, someone like Averroes would argue that the Koran mandated that a good Muslim study nature… The absence of an institutional base for science and natural philosophy is perhaps the most important reason why these disciplines did not become permanently rooted in Islamic society. The open hostility, or in many cases simply the lack of enthusiasm, of Islamic theologians and religious authorities provides at least one major reason why an institutional base comparable to the universities in the West failed to develop” (pp. 184, 185).
/5/ Stanley Jaki, The Savior of Science (Eerdmans, 2000), p. 36-37.
/6/ Alfred Whitehead, Science in the Modern World (McMillan, 1925), p. 19.
/7/ Loren Eiseley, Darwin’s Century (Victor Gollacz,1959), p. 62. See also M.B. Foster, “Creation, Doctrine and Modern Science” Mind (1934), p. 465. Indeed, the seeds of modern empirical science has already begun much earlier under of auspices of monastic learning. James Hanaam in his ground-breaking book in the history of science point out that “Popular opinion, journalistic cliché and misinformed historians notwithstanding, recent research has shown that the Middle Ages were a period of enormous advances in science, technology and culture. The compass, paper, printing, stirrups and gunpowder all appeared in Western Europe between AD 500 and AD 1500.” We may add the mechanical clock, the windmill, blast furnace and lenses to the list. See, James Hannam, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Icon Books, 2009), p. 5.
/8/ Quoted in Paolo Rossi, Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science (Routledge, 2008), p. 129.
/9/ Stanley Jaki, Road of Science, pp. 88-89, 331.
/10/ R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 29-30.
/11/ J.B. Stump, Science and Christianity (Blackwell, 2017), pp. 23-24.
/12/ Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts and the end of slavery, (Princeton UP, 2003), p. 376.
Subsequent developments of modern science alert us to the danger of reductionism when scientists not only abandon teleology (final causality) but reject God the creator as the foundation of our knowledge of the physical world – Formal mathematical descriptions of space and time acquire the ultimate status of metaphysical reality (note the frenzied discussions of multiverse which is based purely on some mathematical equations rather than on a particular discovery of the world). God’s nature and presence is subsumed to the greater order of mathematical harmony of the universe. The final result is ultimate skepticism. As Edwin Burtt wrote with prophetic insight, “It was by no means an accident, that Hume and Kant, the first pair who really banished God from metaphysical philosophy, likewise destroyed by a sceptical critique the current overweening faith in the metaphysical competence of reason. They perceived that the Newtonian world without God must be a world in which the reach and certainty of knowledge is decidedly and closely limited, if indeed the very existence of knowledge at all is possible.” [E.A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Dover 1932/2003), p. 301] This kind of reductio ad absurdum of science and physical reality to nothing but mathematics and motion must surely be the ultimate skepticism and human hubris. Perhaps, we will address this topic in due time. Meanwhile, Stanley Jaki has given us a most profound analysis of the protean journey of modern science in his Gifford Lectures which is published as The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Uni. Chicago Press, 1978).
Richard Dewitt, Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science. Blackwell, 2004.
J.B. Stump, Science and Christianity: An Introduction to Issues. Blackwell, 2017.
Books on the Christian contribution to the rise of modern empirical science:
R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Eerdmans, 1972.
Stanley Jaki. The Road of Science and the Ways to God. Uni. Chicago, 1978.
Noah Efron, “Myth 9: That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science” in Ronald Numbers ed., Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion. Harvard Uni. Press 2009.
Toby Huff. The Rise of Early Modern Science. Uni. Cambridge, 2003.
Stephen Gaukroger. The Emergence of a Scientific Culture. Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210-1685. Oxford Uni. Press, 2006.
Related Posts on Science and Christianity. 6 Parts.
Part 1: Is there a War between Science and Religion?
Part 3: The Scope and Limits of Science.
Part 4: Book Review: John Horgan, The End of Science. Basic Books, 2015.
Part 5: Models of Integrating Science & Christianity.
Part 6: Science and Theology as Analogous Research Programmes.