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Monday, September 1, 2014

Modern Science Is a Product of Christianity

Posted by jlwile on April 15, 2011

I received an E-MAIL from a student a few days ago. He had just finished Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s book, The Grand Design, in which the authors claim that God is not necessary in order to explain the universe. While I have not read the book yet, reviews (even from non-Christian sources) are far from flattering.

The student informed me that Hawking and Mlodinow credit the Ionian Greeks with the discovery of natural laws. This confused him, because in my book, Exploring Creation with General Science, I make it very clear that modern science was born out of Christianity. This is because the concept that nature operates according to strict laws is a natural consequence of the fact that it was created by a Supreme Lawgiver. Without the concept of a law-giving Creator, there would have been no reason to search for natural laws. Indeed, as Dr. Stanley Jaki tells us:1

…the Christian belief in the Creator allowed a breakthrough in thinking about nature. Only a truly transcendental Creator could be thought of as being powerful enough to create a nature with autonomous laws

The search for the laws that govern nature was inspired by Christianity, and as a result, modern science is a product of Christianity.

So what of the Ionian Greeks? Did they do something related to natural laws? Not really. They did do something related to science, however, and their contribution should not be downplayed. Nevertheless, it needs to be put in the proper context.

Dr. Charles Singer, a British historian of science, has probably done the best job of stating the contribution that the Ionian Greeks made to science:2

It was with the Ionian Greeks that the scientific idea was born, and it can be traced back among them with some clearness to the sixth century BC…It was thus not the practice of science which the Greeks invented, but the scientific idea, the conception that the world was knowable inasmuch and in so far as it could be investigated.

So the Ionian Greeks got science started. They believed you could understand the world by investigating it. However, the idea that everything in the world operated by fixed laws was not a Greek idea. It was a Christian idea.

A good way to see how important the Christian worldview was for the development of science is to examine the differences between how technology and science developed in Europe and how they developed in China. A science historian by the name of Joseph Needham asked a question many years ago. This question, sometimes called “The Needham Question,” essentially asked why Europe was able to overtake China in terms of science and technology, despite the fact that ancient China was technologically advanced compared to ancient Europe. After investing several years in the study of the development of science and technology in China, he reluctantly came to the conclusion that there were three main reasons. The first two reasons dealt with Chinese jurisprudence and bureaucracy, and:3

Third, the autochthonous idea of a supreme being, though certainly present from the earliest times, soon lost the qualities of personality and creativity. The development of the concept of precisely formulated abstract laws capable, because of the rationality of the Author of Nature, of being deciphered and re-stated, did not therefore occur.

In the end, then, without the idea of an Author of Nature who was creative and a law-giver, science could not develop properly.

Modern science is a product of Christianity, and anyone who says that Christianity and science are incompatible is really just revealing his or her ignorance of the history of science.

REFERENCES

1. Stanley Jaki, Christ and Science (Real View Books: Royal Oak, Michigan), 2003, p. 23
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2. Charles Singer, “Historical Relations of Religion and Science,” in Science Religion and Reality (Kessinger Publishing, LLC, Joseph Needham, ed.), 2000, p. 92
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3. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China: History of Scientific Thought, Vol. 2 (Cambridge University Press), 1991, p. 582
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Comments

13 Responses to “Modern Science Is a Product of Christianity”
  1. Josiah says:

    This smells suspiciously like a post hoc ergo propter hoc.

  2. jlwile says:

    Definitely not, Josiah. Jaki and I are not saying that modern science comes from Christianity because it came after Christianity. We are saying that the view of a law-giving Creator was necessary to inspire scientists to start looking for laws that governed nature. Needham supports this idea by showing that in the absence of a such a view, science could not flourish.

    This isn’t some odd idea that you have to search through the history of science to find. Indeed, many science historians and writers come to the same conclusion. For example, Loren Eisley, an evolutionary anthropologist, admits it, calling it a “curious paradox”:

    [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. The experimental method succeeded beyond man’s wildest dreams, but the faith that brought it into being owes something to the Christian conception of the nature of God. 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.

    [Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men who Discovered It, (Anchor Books: Garden City, NY, 1961), p. 62]

  3. Josiah says:

    I agree that science needs to start with some level faith in consistency of natural law. However given that Aristotle performed original research into science hundreds of years BC and that there have been advances made by Muslims in the middle east while Europe was sinking into the dark ages, it is clear that faith in the Christian god is not prerequisite to such faith in consistency.

    In fact the evolutionist would probably posit that far from being the drive to find the natural laws, religion itself is an attempt to find consistency in life, drought, lightning, and other things that apparently cannot be explained with observation and science. Even if it did help to drive such research, that doesn’t make it true as per your post about Dr. Pantigna’s lectures.

  4. Judi says:

    Dr. Wile,
    You mention regularly about the importance of our children learning critical thinking skills. I was never taught this by my parents or public school. Could you recommend a few books to educate my children and myself in this area? thank you

  5. jlwile says:

    Josiah, I think you have modern science confused with the science of Aristotle, and they are two radically different things. Aristotle did not have any concept of experimental science. He thought that you could understand nature completely through mathematics and logic. Also, he didn’t think about autonomous laws at all. Indeed, much of his science centered around the “desires” of the inanimate world. For example, he thought objects came to rest after moving for a while because a state of rest was the “preferred” state for matter. The idea that the universe operated according to autonomous laws that can be tested was, indeed, a Christian idea.

    Another problem the Greeks had with science was the idea that nature contained many divine bodies. As Dr. Jaki says in the same book from which I quoted in the post:

    The Christian idea of creation made still another crucially important contribution to the future of science. It consisted in putting all material beings on the same level…Unlike in the pagan Greek cosmos, there could be no divine bodies in the Christian cosmos

    This is another thing that separates the science of Aristotle from modern science.

    You are most certainly correct that just because Christianity produced modern science, that doesn’t make Christianity true. However, it does mean that Christianity and science are far from incompatible.

  6. jlwile says:

    Thanks for your comment, Judi. Even though it sounds self-serving, I do think that that my science texts are good for teaching critical thinking! However, there are some others I highly recommend. I really like the “Building Thinking Skills” series at Critical Thinking Books and Software:

    http://www.criticalthinking.com/series/052/index_p.jsp

    The books span multiple levels. In addition, I really like the “Developing Critical Thinking Through Science” books from the same group:

    http://www.criticalthinking.com/series/087/index_p.jsp

    I think that Kathryn Stout’s book on reading comprehension is actually an excellent book for critical thinking:

    http://www.designastudy.com/products/1891975021.html

    Finally, I think “The Fallacy Detective” is an excellent book:

    http://www.christianlogic.com/products/item/the-fallacy-detective/

    I hope that helps!

  7. josiah says:

    By definition, I cannot pick a scientist who predates Jesus and falls under the category of “modern”! I agree that there are things that have been debunked in Aristotle’s science which were the product of his culture, and things that were the product of his time. Given the number of giant’s shoulders between Newton and Aristotle it is no surprise that Newton got closer to the truth.

    However the fact remains that he was sure there was consistency in the universe, such as your example of everything coming to a halt in the absence of a force, or the fact that the difference between a pinhole and screen affects the size of the virtual image. Though he would not have used the word “law” to describe such facts, this was because he felt that laws themselves are excessively whimsical things. Considering when he lived that was probably quite accurate.

    I see what you mean about Christianity defining the sun as a natural object rather than the chariot of the god Helios. But that just shows that it is a more conductive religion than the Greek polytheism by virtue of removing gods. If you take Dawkins position however and “go one god further” it would seem by induction that removing Christianity would be an improvement. Any natural phenomenon that is explained as being a persistent “act of God” rather than investigated will hold back science, and that doesn’t have to be Zeus’s lightning.

  8. josiah says:

    PS. I’ll also say that the Fallacy detective is a very good book. I’ve never seen the others so I can’t comment on them.

  9. jlwile says:

    Josiah, you still seem to be confused regarding what modern science means. It has nothing to do with time. It has to do with preconceptions. Modern science began with the preconception of autonomous laws that could be understood by developing hypotheses and testing them. This is much more than semantics, and it is why most historians of science see that modern science is a product of Christianity. It is not that Aristotle didn’t use the term “law.” It is that Aristotle did not have the concept that autonomous laws existed. It is also not that Aristotle was further from the truth than Newton. Aristotle could have never gotten anywhere close to the truth with his approach, once again, because he didn’t have the concept that nature was guided by autonomous laws. Consider what Alfred North Whitehead (a co-author and Phd advisor of Bertrand Russell – certainly no friend of Christianity) wrote:

    I do not think, however, that I have even yet brought out the greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement. I mean the inexpungable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles (causality). Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research: — that there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled. How has this conviction been so vividly implanted on the European mind?

    When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. 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. Remember that I am not talking of the explicit beliefs of a few individuals. What I mean is the impress on the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries. By this I mean the instinctive tone of thought and not a mere creed of words.

    [Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, (New York:The Free Press, 1925) p. 12

    Dawkins’s view of going “one god further” doesn’t work, because He has left tons of evidence behind demonstrating that He created what we are studying. Just as a person following the evidence will discover the autonomous laws God laid down in order for His creation to operate well, a person following the evidence will discover that those laws and the Creation that they govern are the product of design.

  10. Josiah says:

    It stands to reason that if people will fail to investigate a given physical phenomenon because they all say it is the result of Thor, Zeus, or some other deity then they will also fail to investigate it because they say it is the work of God. For example you can already find plenty of people who won’t investigate AIDS or help AIDS sufferers because they believe it to be God’s punishment. Therefore it stands to reason that “going one god further” would increase scientific progress by removing more off limit fields of study. I know that there is plenty of evidence that for God’s existence and activity that Dawkins ignores, but that isn’t relevant to whether belief in the Christian God improves or suppresses science.

    The concept of an autonomous law would have been used by Aristotle and others, without which they couldn’t have made any generalizations at all. I agree that they wouldn’t have used the experimental method to derive these laws, but I don’t see how Christianity causes people to do such experiments.

  11. jlwile says:

    Josiah, you are quite wrong about Aristotle. He made generalizations without the vaguest concept of autonomous laws. That’s the entire point, and it’s what all these philosophers and historians I am quoting are saying.

    I would suggest that you don’t see how Christianity causes people to test their hypotheses regarding autonomous laws because you don’t understand the difference between the science of Aristotle and modern science. Specifically because Aristotle did not think that nature was governed by laws that ran independently, he would never have thought to test his ideas regarding nature. To him, nature was too infused with the divine to be able to test it. Indeed, this is why he thought mathematics and logic were what you needed to understand nature – they were (in his mind) elements of the divine, and only elements of the divine could help you understand nature. When Christian thought introduced the idea of autonomous laws, the concept of testing nature made complete sense.

    You are also wrong when you say that people will fail to investigate things that they see as the work of God. Indeed, the science we study today was built on the idea that nature is the work of God. That didn’t stop anyone from studying it. For example, Newton thought that God had to continually intervene to keep the planets in their orderly motion, but that didn’t stop him from telling us more about planetary motion than any other scientist of his day. Furthermore, the reason he studied the motion of the planets was because he thought that God forced them to work. As a result, studying the planets was akin to studying God. If anything, that made him take the motion of the planets more seriously. The idea that “God did it” is a science-stopper is just as silly as the idea that Christianity and science are incompatible.

    I think what you are missing is the reason that Christianity’s desire to get the divine out of nature spurred modern science. It wasn’t that it got rid of the “God did it” mentality. Instead, it promoted that idea, which produced serious science! In addition, it got rid of what many saw as the capriciousness of nature. To the Greeks, there were things in nature that were unknowable because the gods were capricious. As a result, the divine elements in nature were capricious as well. Christianity got rid of that idea with the concept of a law-giving Creator who did not put divine elements into His creation. There was no longer any capriciousness in nature, so it could be understood and tested.

    I strongly suggest you actually read up on this subject. There is a reason philosophers and scientists who span ideologies credit Christianity for producing modern science. It’s what a study of the history of science clearly shows.

  12. Josiah says:

    I do not think that anyone knows quite how Aristotle thought due both to the time for the evidence to disappear and the fact that he’d have had to hide anything bordering on skepticism of the Gods for fear of sharing Socrates’ fate. I certainly don’t know the Reason for his doing what he did, but it was not his Christian faith. Nor do I know the reason for Darwin doing his studies, or Einstein, or any other scientist. Newton is only one example, and at that a possibly dubious one given his unorthodoxy.

    I do know that Aristotle managed to work out how a pinhole camera worked (every time), he managed to classify fish including placing both aquatic mammals and sharks/rays in their own distinct categories, he worked out that things always come to a halt (which is true on earth at any rate) and so on. You claim that a scientist can only follow the data, if that is true then it cannot be stated that he thought nature was too study. But all that predates Jesus, and by extension Christianity.

    I might do a bit of reading on it later, but for now I’ve got a programming task that’s keeping my cerebrum quite busy enough.

  13. jlwile says:

    Josiah, you actually can learn a lot about what Aristotle thought by just reading his works. Lots of science historians and philosophers have done so, which is why they come to the conclusion that modern science is a product of Christianity.

    If you read his works, you will find that while he worked out how a pinhole camera worked, he made no conclusion that it would do so every time. Indeed, that wasn’t even a consideration for him. He also worked out that things come to a halt, but he did so assuming that inanimate objects had desires. That is very far from the concepts of modern science! He did do a lot of classification, too, but once again, he did not try to use that classification to elucidate any autonomous laws of nature, because he didn’t have the concept that such laws exist.

    You are correct that Newton is only one example. There are many, many other examples of people who did not stop investigating things just because they thought God made them. Many of those other people can be found here:

    http://www.creationsafaris.com/wgcs_0.htm

    If you go there, you might want to visit the links that are listed as “Christianity and the Birth of Science” and “Christianity, the Cause of Modern Science?” Those sites show even more evidence that modern science is the product of Christianity.

    Yes, a scientist has to follow the data, and the data are quite clear that without Christianity, we would not have modern science.

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