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Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Genesis of Science

Posted by jlwile on July 19, 2011

During the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, P.Z. Myers (my favorite atheist) said:

Science and religion are incompatible in the same sense that the serious pursuit of knowledge about reality is incompatible with [expletive]…. Religion makes smart people do stupid things, and scientists do not like stupid.

Obviously, Dr. Myers hasn’t studied much of the history of science, since it shows quite the opposite. Indeed, history shows that modern science is a product of Christianity.

Dr. James Hannam recently wrote a book entitled, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, and he makes a very strong case that modern science is specifically a product of medieval Christian thought. As I mentioned in a previous post, Dr. James Hannam is a graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge. He earned his physics degree from Oxford, and then he went to Cambridge to earn a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science. Thus, he is very qualified to write on this subject. He states his thesis in his introduction:

This book will show how much of the science and technology that we now take for granted has medieval origins. (p. xiii)

The book then goes on to give a wealth of evidence to support that thesis.

He works through the Middle Ages in roughly chronological order, discussing the science (which was called “natural philosophy” back then) that was being done at the time and highlighting the major players in Christianity and Christian thought. Along the way, he demolishes several myths, such as the idea that the church banned human dissection. Indeed, rather than banning human dissection, Pope Innocent III (who was pontiff from 1198 to 1216) is on record ordering a forensic examination of a murder victim. Hannam even shows a drawing from a fifteenth-century medical textbook that illustrates a human dissection in progress. Since that medical textbook was used in the church-backed universities, it is clear that the Medieval church did not ban dissections!

How many times have you heard that the early church believed that the earth was flat? This is another myth Hannam destroys. He quotes Boethius, a Christian who wrote a book entitled Consolation of Philosophy back in the year 524. The quote shows quite clearly that even back then, Christian philosophers knew the earth was a sphere. Hannam then says:

The myth that a flat earth was part of Christian doctrine in the Middle Ages appears to have originated with Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), who wrongly claimed that geographers had been put on trial for impiety after asserting the contrary. (p. 28)

In addition to destroying myths, Hannam spends a lot of time showing how scientific concepts that were produced in the Middle Ages were later used by the scientific greats with whom we are familiar today. For example, nearly everyone recognizes the name “Galileo.” Of course, there are very good reasons for this. He is truly one of the great luminaries in the history of science. He is best known for producing evidence for the fact that the sun is at the center of our solar system, but he did a lot of other incredible work as well. For example, he did many experiments on motion, and those experiments helped Newton to formulate his famous laws of motion.

Have you ever heard the name “William Heytesbury?” Probably not. Nevertheless, he wrote a book entitled Rules for Solving Logical Puzzles about 300 years prior to Galileo’s book on motion. Guess what? Galileo’s discussion of a body in free fall is eerily similar to Heytesbury’s discussion of a body that is undergoing uniform acceleration (which is what happens in free fall). In fact, they both use essentially the same drawing to advance their argument! So at least some of the work of Galileo was built on the work of a Christian scholar from the Middle Ages. Over and over again, Hannam masterfully shows that most of the foundations for modern science were laid down by Christian philosophers in the Middle Ages.

More importantly, however, he shows how fundamental the Medieval Christian Church was for making the work of those scientists possible. Not only did the church-backed universities, which were primarily intended to educate the clergy, play a central role in promulgating scientific thought during the Middle Ages, Hannam points out this very important fact:

The metaphysical cornerstone of modern science is often overlooked. We take it for granted and we do not worry about why people began studying nature in the first place…Medieval scholars thought that nature followed the rules that God had ordained for it. Because God was consistent and not capricious, these natural laws were constant and worth scrutinizing.

Without that metaphysical assumption, which is inherently a theistic assumption, it wouldn’t make sense to study nature to understand how it works. Scientists today don’t even think about why they expect nature to behave in a predictable fashion. They know it does, because lots of experiments show that it does. History tells us that it was Medieval Christianity that gave this important assumption to science.

In the end, I strongly recommend this book. Not only will you see a lot of the myths that you have believed about the Medieval church crumble, but you will also come to a deep appreciation of how Christianity was absolutely necessary for the development of modern science.


7 Responses to “The Genesis of Science”
  1. I love this article. Thank you for sharing. I have a lot of presuppositions in my head that tend to be squished when I level them against reality.

    Funny thing too: I thought I was the only Christian who had P. Z. Myers’ Pharyngula blog in my Google Reader.

    Thanks for what you do.

  2. jlwile says:

    Thanks so much, IC. I agree – reality can be really hard for some of our presuppositions!

  3. robin says:

    Dr. Wile,

    I have been reading your blog for about a year now, and find that a lot of the questions you pose have already been on my mind. I would really like to read further, but am at a loss as to where to start. Do you have a top five books that have challenged you to know that you know that you know? Not, necessarily to prove what ‘I’ believe, but to challenge me to know what I believe….does that make any sense? :)

    If you wouldn’t mind sharing, that would be great.

    ~Happy Summer!

  4. NoOneKnows says:

    While I disagree on many of the points you made, I would like to ask you one specific question.

    I have seen you assert here and many other posts as well that the christian belief in a single omnipotent creator allowed scientists to investigate nature as a consistent system and derive laws.

    If that is true then why didn’t islam had a similar impact on science? Muslims also believed in a single omnipotent creator but I don’t think they had any significant contribution in shaping up modern science. Correct me if I’m wrong, my understanding is that Arabs were on par or more advanced in some of the fields before the advent of islam. So what went wrong?

  5. jlwile says:

    Thanks for your question, Robin. Here are five books that I think are quite good:

    1. Myth of a Christian Nation by Gregory A. Boyd. I reviewed it here.

    2. The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day. I reviewed it here and here.

    3. Genesis and The Big Bang by Gerald Schroeder. I reviewed it here and here.

    4. Refuting Evolution 2 by Jonathan Sarfati. For some reason, I never reviewed this book.

    5. Philosophers without Gods, edited by Louise M. Anthony. I reviewed it here.

    These books span several views, which is the way I challenge myself. The last one is purely atheistic, the 4th one is young-earth creationist, the 3rd one is old-earth creationist, the 2nd one is an attack on atheism, and the 1st one challenges the myth that the US was ever a Christian nation.

    I am not sure exactly what you are looking for, but I thought that those books would give you a good flavor of what I read. You can also click on the “Interesting Books” category to see some of the other books that I have read.

  6. jlwile says:

    NoOne, it is not just me “asserting” that the Christian belief was central to the development of science. Alfred North Whitehead, Loren Eisley, Stanley Jaki, Rodney Stark, Joseph Needham, and many others (including Dr. Hannam) have come to the same conclusion. These historians and philosophers span a wide range of beliefs, but they all come to the same conclusion.

    I think there are two answers to your question. One of them is found in Robert Spencer’s book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). In chapter 7, “How Allah Killed Science,” he says:

    There is a prevailing assumption that the Qur’an is the perfect book, and no other book is needed. With the Qur’an the perfect book and Islamic society the perfect civilization, too many Muslims didn’t think they needed knowledge that came from any other source—certainly not from infidels. (p. 95)

    According to Spencer, Islam at the time was very closed-minded. You see just the opposite in Medieval Christianity. As Dr. Hannam shows in this book, Medieval theologians and philosophers spent a great deal of time studying pagan philosophers and commenting on them. This openness of thought is one of the things that makes science flourish. Unfortunately, such openness of thought is being restricted today by those who are afraid to allow competing ideas into evolutionary-related science. As a result, science is probably not flourishing as much as it could.

    The second answer to your question is institutional, and it is discussed in Dr. Hannam’s book. The Medieval church supported the building and operation of universities. While these universities were primarily formed to train the clergy, they supported all sorts of education and philosophical endeavors, including natural philosophy. You don’t see that in ancient Islamic countries.

    I am not a historian, but as far as I am aware, you are correct when you say, “Arabs were on par or more advanced in some of the fields before the advent of islam [sic].” I think that the answer to your question “So what went wrong?” is given above. While Islam had a monotheistic view, that in and of itself is not enough. You also have to have religious and institutional backing for science to flourish. The Medieval church gave us both of those things, while ancient Islam did not.

  7. robin says:

    Thanks Dr. Wile,

    Adding these books to my reading list :)

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