Another Scientist Who Gives Credit Where It Is Due

It’s popular these days to claim that science and Christianity are incompatible. Of course, no one who spends any amount of time learning the history of science can be fooled by such a claim, because the history of science makes it very clear that modern science is a product of Christianity. Specifically, because early Christians understood that the world was created by a single God who is a Lawgiver, it made sense to them that the universe should run according to specific laws, and those laws should be the same everywhere in the universe. In addition, because they believed they had been given the image of God, they thought it was possible to understand those laws. That’s what prompted the revolution that produced science as we know it today.

For example, Morris Kline discusses Sir Isaac Newton in his book, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty. He explains why Newton believed that the same laws which govern motion on the surface of the earth should also govern motion in the heavens:1

The thought that all the phenomena of motion should follow from one set of principles might seem grandiose and inordinate, but it occurred very naturally to the religious mathematicians of the 17th century. God had designed the universe, and it was to be expected that all phenomena of nature would follow one master plan. One mind designing a universe would almost surely have employed one set of basic principles to govern related phenomena.

Morris Kline was a mathematician, but I recently ran across a scientist who says essentially the same thing.

His name is Dr. Melvin Calvin. I already knew of him, because he was the first to explain the Calvin Cycle, which is the process by which most plants take in carbon dioxide and incorporate it into a larger organic molecule that forms the basis of the photosynthetic process. While photosynthesis depends on light, the reactions that make up the Calvin cycle do not require light. As a result, they are sometimes called the “dark reactions” of photosynthesis. In 1961, Dr. Calvin won a Nobel Prize for his explanation of these “dark reactions.”

In his book, Chemical Evolution, Calvin talks about the first and strongest tenet of science:2

The fundamental conviction that the universe is ordered is the first and strongest tenet. As I try to discern the origin of that conviction, I seem to find it in a basic notion discovered 2000 or 3000 years ago, and enunciated first in the Western world by the ancient Hebrews: namely that the universe is governed by a single God, and is not the product of the whims of many gods, each governing his own province according to his own laws. This monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation of modern science.

Now why would Dr. Calvin say something like that? Was he promoting his own religion? That’s doubtful. In an interview about his upbringing, he said this about his parents:3

They were Jews, both of them. Russian Jews. They didn’t keep any religious practices. When I grew up I was without religion; a-religious, not anti-religious.

I cannot find any writings by him or any references about him that indicate he ever changed from the way he was brought up. Thus, Dr. Calvin was most likely a-religious. However, he knew enough about the history of science to give credit where credit is due.


1. Morris Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty, Oxford University Press 1980, p. 52.
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2. Melvin Calvin, Chemical evolution:Molecular Evolution Towards the Origin of Living Systems on the Earth and Elsewhere, Oxford University Press 1969, p. 258.
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3. David W. Swift, SETI Pioneers: Scientists Talk about Their Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, University of Arizona Press 1990, p. 123.
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  1. Jason August 31, 2012 12:04 pm

    Ironic then isn’t it Dr Wile? Science trying to do away with religion?

    • jlwile August 31, 2012 2:09 pm

      Well, Jason, I wouldn’t say science is trying to do away with religion. Instead, I would say that some who call themselves scientists are trying to do away with religion.

  2. mimivirus August 31, 2012 3:26 pm

    typo last sentence :)

  3. Mia September 6, 2012 11:38 pm

    The idea that Hebrew monotheism is the historical foundation of modern science is hogwash. Thales and others who first saw the world as ordered and understandable through rational inquiry were Greek-speaking Gentiles who didn’t believe in Homeric gods or any other god for that matter. They likely had never even heard of Yahweh and the claims of Hebrew monotheists. Does Calvin offer any examples of early scientists being influenced by the ancient Israelites? Can you offer any?

    • jlwile September 7, 2012 6:21 am

      Mia, you might think such a view is “hogwash,” but that’s probably because you haven’t studied the issue much. The fact is that many who have studied the history of science have come to the same conclusion. Many of those who have come to this conclusion are not even religious, but they recognize the fact that a proper God concept is absolutely critical to the development of science. If you read the link I give you, you will see the difference between the science done by people like Thales and modern science. Modern science rests on the assumption that the world operates by autonomous laws, and a monotheistic view (such as that held by the Jews) was absolutely essential to the development of that view. As Dr. Loren Eisley (not religious) tells us:

      [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.

      Indeed, most of the early scientists were inspired by the ancient Israelites, as most of the early scientists were Christians. For example, the men who are generally thought of as the ones who developed the scientific method (Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon) were devout Christians. As a result, they were heavily influenced by the ancient Israelites. If you look at the link that contains the Eisley quote, you will find that the major branches of modern science were all founded by devout Christians.

  4. Mia September 12, 2012 1:30 pm

    The other fact is that many who have studied the history of science have disagreed. Many of those who have come to this conclusion are religious, but they recognize the fact that a proper God concept was not necessary to the development of science. In fact, during the Middle Ages, the Church hindered the development of science.

    It just so happens that the founding of modern scientific movement occurred at a time and place when most people were Christians. But was being Christian causal for the founding of modern science? No. Almost everyone in Europe was Christian for a thousand years before the scientific revolution began.

    And to say that admiration of Israelites, who killed Jesus according to standard Christian thinking of the time, influenced the founders of modern science is ludicrous. Just who were these ancient Israelite thinkers that the Christian founders of modern science looked up to?

    • jlwile September 13, 2012 12:51 am

      Mia, there are most certainly people who have studied the history of science and disagree with the fact that modern science is a product of Christianity. However, the historical facts do not support their case. For example, the first link you give tries to claim that it was the ancient Greeks who really revolutionized science. Of course, that is quite false. While the ancient Greeks did produce some great technology and were able to draw some very solid conclusions about the natural world, they had no concept of natural laws. It was the realization that the universe worked by a common set of laws that revolutionized science, and that was a direct result of the monotheistic worldview. The second link you give is also about the ancient Greeks. Once again, they were not responsible for modern science.

      I understand that it is common among those who do not know modern scholarship to suggest that the Church hindered the development of science in the Middle Ages. However, anyone who knows modern historical scholarship knows that such a notion is false. As Dr. Michael H. Shank, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells us:

      The crude concept of the Middle Ages as a millennium of stagnation brought on by Christianity has largely disappeared among scholars familiar with the period, but it remains vigorous among popularizers of the history of science – perhaps because, instead of consulting scholarship on the subject, the more recent popularizers have relied upon their predecessors uncritically. [Galileo Goes To Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, Harvard University Press 2009, p. 20]

      It is true that the scientific revolution began long after Christianity was established. This, of course, flatly contradicts your first two links, which claim the scientific revolution began with the ancient Greeks, who lived long before Christianity. However, there were lots of other cultures that all had the same amount of time, and they didn’t produce the scientific revolution. The Europeans revolutionized science, and it was because they had the proper God concept. Dr. Joseph Needham, for example, explains why China did not produce a scientific revolution:

      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.

      The problem with your statement about Christians not being inspired by the ones who killed Christ is obvious. Dr. Calvin’s statement to which you object has nothing to do with the Jews who were alive at the time of Christ. It is discussing the ancient Jews who promoted monotheism. Of course all Christians, including the ones who produced the scientific revolution, are inspired by those ancient Jews, as they not only gave us the Old Testament, but they also gave us monotheism, which was absolutely necessary in the development of science.

      By the way, my latest post tries to educate Emil Karlsson about evolution and creationism. You might want to read it so that you will also learn.

  5. Mia September 14, 2012 10:11 am

    You made the distinction that Christians founded most modern sciences, and I agreed and used this category in my response. The Greeks sparked the scientific revolution, which I separate from the founding of modern science. However, it was the rediscovery of their works, and not an appreciation of ancient Israelites, that inspired the founding of modern science in the 1600′s. Monotheism is a correlated factor, but not causal factor in the founding of modern science.

    • jlwile September 14, 2012 9:24 pm

      Actually, Mia, the Greek works were not “rediscovered.” For example, Boethius had most of Aristotle’s works in the early AD 500′s. He even translated all of Aristotle’s works on logic into Latin. If you read the writings of any early Christian natural philosopher, you will see there was a steady stream of commentary on the works of Greek philosophy. Thus, there was no time that the works of the Greeks was “rediscovered.” They were well known throughout the history of Christian thought.

      Another problem with your ahistorical idea that the Greeks inspired modern science is that other cultures had extensive knowledge of Greek natural philosophy, and they didn’t come up with the scientific revolution. Hunayn ibn Ishaq (AD 809–873) translated into Arabic and Syriac many Greek works on philosophy, including Plato and Aristotle. Al-Hakam II (AD 961 to 976) translated many more works. However, none of this led to the scientific revolution.

      Monotheism is not a correlated factor when it comes to science. It is a causal factor. As Walker Percy tells us:

      “…it is no coincidence that science sprang, not from Ionian metaphysics, not from the Brahmin-Buddhist-Taoist East, not from the Egyptian-Mayan astrological South, but from the heart of the Christian West, that although Galileo fell out with the Church, he would hardly have taken so much trouble studying Jupiter and dropping objects from towers if the reality and value and order of things had not first been conferred by belief in the Incarnation.”

  6. Mia September 15, 2012 10:56 pm

    Speaking of Muslims, they are monotheists (and not complicated by the trinity either) and they had far superior scientific knowledge in 1000 AD than Christians. Why didn’t they found modern sciences?

    • jlwile September 16, 2012 7:12 pm

      There are at least two answers to your question, Mia. 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 his book, The Genesis of Science, 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 made 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 also 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.

  7. Mia September 20, 2012 12:36 am

    You’re quoting Robert Spencer approvingly? Do you know anything about him? Close minded? Not like those Medieval Popes, eh?

    Google House of Wisdom Baghdad. Or read an introduction to Islamic science. It flourished for centuries when people in Europe didn’t know bathing was a good idea. The pagan texts late Middle Age Christians read were preserved due to Islamic scholarship. By the way, can you name some of those learned theologians and philosophers (note, not scientists).

    The Mongols overran Baghdad in the 13th century and set back scientific learning in the Islamic world just like after the barbarians destroyed Rome. Europe was lucky to emerge from the plagues at the right time to inherit and improve on pagan and Islamic learning.

    As for institutional factors, and much more foundational than universities, Europe benefitted from competition among the patchwork of small political divisions at the time. If a lord or bishop didn’t like a particular idea or project, the scholar or inventor just moved down the road to try somebody else. Once universities appeared, scholarship really took off, but nothing about Christianity per se helped it along.

    • jlwile September 20, 2012 8:16 am

      Yes, Mia, I am quoting Robert Spencer approvingly. You see, I don’t engage in logical fallacies like the Genetic Fallacy. I evaluate arguments based on their merits, and Robert Spencer’s arguments when it comes to Islam squelching science are very well defended.

      I have no idea whether or not the Medieval Popes were closed-minded. I don’t know any of them, and there are few primary sources that specifically evaluate their level of open-mindedness. However, the issue is not the closed-mindedness of individuals. It is the closed-mindedness of a culture or institution. The Medieval Church as a whole was not closed-minded, as evidenced by their respect for pagan sources of knowledge. Once again, read Dr. Hannam’s book. You will learn a great deal about something you seem to know very little about.

      I agree that there was a time that the Islamic world was ahead of the European world in both technology and math. Once again, however, the European world ended up producing the modern scientific revolution because they had the proper God concept, the proper level of open-mindedness, and the proper institutional support. The Islamic world’s inability to spawn the modern scientific revolution had nothing to do with the Mongol invasion. It had everything to do with closed-mindedness and a lack of institutional support.

      I understand why you don’t want to accept the historical fact that the institutional support of the Church helped to foster the scientific revolution, but you need to actually produce some evidence to back up your claim. You say that “nothing about Christianity per se helped it along.” However, as I have already shown, that is demonstrably false. The Christian concept of God was absolutely necessary for the belief that the universe operated according to uniform laws. The universities that the Church built fostered not only training in philosophy, but also debate among natural philosophers. You are correct that before universities, natural philosophers often had to find the region that was willing to accommodate their ideas. However, those ideas were generally developed in the isolation of that region and did little to influence the works of other natural philosophers until they could be transmitted in book or parchment form. Once the Church built universities, debate between different natural philosophers became the norm, and that’s when the scientific revolution took off. As we see, then, it was the institutional support of the Church that helped to foster the modern scientific revolution.

      Once again, then, we see that the Christian concept of God, which was brought to them by the Jewish religion, along with the open-mindedness fostered by the Medieval Church and the institutional support given by the Church caused the modern scientific revolution. That’s what the facts of history teach us, and it’s why most serious historians understand that modern science is a product of Christianity, which is a product of Judaism. Another source you can read to learn the historical facts that demonstrate this is Dr. Peter Harrison of Oxford University. In one of his major works:

      Peter Harrison provides an account of the religious foundations of scientific knowledge. He shows how the approaches to the study of nature that emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were directly informed by theological discussions about the Fall of Man and the extent to which the mind and the senses had been damaged by that primeval event. Scientific methods, he suggests, were originally devised as techniques for ameliorating the cognitive damage wrought by human sin. At its inception, modern science was conceptualized as a means of recapturing the knowledge of nature that Adam had once possessed. Contrary to a widespread view that sees science emerging in conflict with religion, Harrison argues that theological considerations were of vital importance in the framing of the scientific method.

      Your attempts to deny the facts aren’t very convincing, especially because you bring no evidence to support them.

  8. Mia September 20, 2012 3:06 pm

    Robert Spencer’s arguments are indefensible. It is not the genetic fallacy to dismiss something he says about Islam after he has provided example after example after example after example of peddling ignorant bigotry. He is paid to spread hate.

    I will give you a fallacy that is still worth stating, guilt by association: Anders Bering Breivik cited Robert Spencer 162 times in his manifesto. But I won’t commit your favorite fallacy: providing a link and stating your opinion, then declaring the matter settled. I’d suggest your readers read the links above. And I’ll require you to produce some of the defenses of the Spencer statement who quote. Just saying it is well defended does not make it so.

    You have not produced any evidence that Christianity- specifically the belief in uniform laws, open-mindedness, and institutional support were necessary and sufficient causes of the scientific revolution. Scholars in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad from the 9th to 13th centuries had all of these characteristics. But they didn’t develop modern science. Why not?

    And doesn’t the Holy Spirit complicate matters on the uniformity of nature? And how do you reconcile belief in miracles, including the resurrection, and belief in uniform natural laws?

    • jlwile September 20, 2012 3:41 pm

      Mia, I understand your frustration. When you are backed into a corner and cannot offer rational arguments, it is natural to start lashing out. However, you can’t just claim that Robert Spencer is a bad source because certain groups like the Muslim Public Affairs Council don’t like him. You have to actually address his arguments, which you haven’t. Guilt by association doesn’t work, either. If it did, I could say that evolution is evil because the eugenicists used it. Once again, however, I don’t engage in logical fallacies. I engage the data. It would be nice if you did the same. If you don’t think Spencer is a good source, please address the argument that I have already given you – that Muslims generally did not value pagan views because they thought the Qur’an the perfect book and Islamic society the perfect civilization. Please show me examples of Muslims who demonstrated otherwise and were widely respected in the Muslim community over a long period of time.

      I have produced a lot of evidence that the Christian concept of God, its open-mindedness, and its institutional support were the main causes of the modern scientific revolution. Unfortunately, you are unwilling to discuss that evidence.

      You ask, “Scholars in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad from the 9th to 13th centuries had all of these characteristics. But they didn’t develop modern science. Why not?” The answer is simple. The House of Wisdom had a very short tenure as a real institution of support for philosophy. It flourished under caliph al-Ma’mun, starting in the early 800s. It continued to flourish under a couple of al-Ma’mun’s successors, but then came al-Mutawakkil in the mid 800s. He was not of the Mu’tazili sect, as were al-Ma’mun and those who helped the House of Wisdom to flourish. Instead, he was an orthodox Muslim, and he actively discouraged the transmission and study of Greek philosophy. After al-Mutawakkil, there was no significantly long reign of rulers that actively encouraged the spread of pagan ideas. That’s the closed-mindedness that Spencer was talking about, and it really destroyed the Islamic world’s chance at producing modern science.

      I am not sure why you think that the Holy Spirit would complicate matters on the uniformity of nature. He is a part of God. As a result, he has God’s characteristics, which makes Him a Lawgiver as well.

      It is rather easy to understand how miracles fit in with the natural laws. They are rare exceptions that do not affect the day-to-day workings of nature. In other words, they are outliers. Nearly every experiment I have ever done has outliers. If you can demonstrate that the outliers do not represent the norm, they do not affect your conclusions regarding what the experiment means. Think of a medical doctor. I can’t tell you how many news stories I have read in which doctors claim that a person’s recovery was a “miracle.” Does that make the doctor less confident in the science that produced modern medicine? Of course not. It just means that the person’s recovery was an outlier and has no bearing on the general laws of nature.

  9. Mia September 21, 2012 12:25 pm

    Dr. Wile, please do not impute any sense of frustration to me. You do not know how I feel. Stick to my words, please.

    I am not relying on what the SPLC, MPAC, CAP and others say about Spencer. I am reading his direct quotes included or linked to in these sources. You are committing the genetic fallacy yourself if you think I am relying on the source alone. You asked me to read a book I do not have. I’ve asked you to read links that are freely available to all. Please do not try to impeach a source because it from Muslims. If that were valid, I could impeach your book because it was written by a Christian. And the SPLC and CAP sources aren’t Muslim in any case.

    You have not offered an argument, but an unsupported conclusion. You have not offered examples of your supposed Christian theologians and philosophers who read and commented on pagan sources that were extant in Europe hundreds of years on either side of 1,000 AD. You have not offered examples of any pagan text that Medieval Christians read and learned from – the sign of open-mindedness.

    On the other hand, I have offered the example of the House of Wisdom, which completely refutes Spencer’s conclusion. Your unsupported paragraph about it is pathetic. Where is the source that said it only lasted from the early to mid 800’s? One minute googling produces dozens of sources that say Baghdad was the intellectual capital of the world from the 9th through the 13th century. Here, here, here, here and here. If you would like to read a book, try this.

    • jlwile September 21, 2012 3:40 pm

      Mia, I am very sorry that I misjudged your state of mind. When people start slinging mud as you did, I assume they are getting frustrated. I did read your links, Mia, and they are nothing but mud-slinging. Sure, there are quotes from him, but without context, those quotes mean very little. Once again, if you want to refute him, address his arguments. Don’t just link a bunch of mud-slinging websites.

      Yes I have offered arguments. I have given lots of evidence, including quotes from a wide variety of historians, some of them not religious in any way. If you are unwilling to look up the references I gave you, I can most certainly give you the names of Christian philosophers and theologians who read and commented on pagan sources. Calcidius (4th century), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), John Philoponus (c. 490-570), Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 480-524), venerable Bede (c. 672-735), Gerbert d’Aurillac (c. 946-1003), Walcher of Malvern (late 11th/early 12th century), Adelard of Bath (c. 1080-1152), Hugh of St Victor (c. 1096-1141), Peter Abelard (1079-1142), Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175-1253), etc., etc. If you read anything about any of these Christian theologians and philosophers, you will find that they all commented on various Greek philosophers.

      You have offered the example of the House of Wisdom, and I have shown you how it was negatively affected by the closed-mindedness that Spencer points out. I appreciate you trying to produce links to back up your arguments, but you really ought to read those links before you post them, as they support my position! Let me just give you a couple sample quotes from your own links:

      “The House of Wisdom flourished under al-Ma’mun’s successors al-Mu’tasim (reign 833–842) and al-Wathiq (reign 842 – 847), but declined under the reign of al-Mutawakkil (reign 847–861), mainly because Ma’mun, Mu’tasim, and Wathiq followed the sect of Mu’tazili, while al-Mutawakkil followed orthodox Islam. He wanted to stop the spread of Greek philosophy which was one of the main tools in Mu’tazili theology.”

      “Islamic science had its heyday in the ninth century, thanks to Abū Ja’far al-Ma’mūn’s House of Wisdom ” (emphasis mine)

      As you see, then, your own sources back up Spencer’s statement. I appreciate you providing the sources that demonstrate you are wrong about Spencer.

      Also, I have actually read The House of Wisdom. I expect that you have not, or you would realize that once again, it supports my case. All you really have to do is read the prologue to see that. If you ever read it, you will find that it does credit Islamic thinkers prior to the twelfth century with inspiring the European thinkers of the time. Why? Because Adelard of Bath, one of the Christian theologians I mentioned above, translated Arabic works and brought them to Europe. That’s the open-mindedness that I was talking about. Despite the fact that he considered the Muslims to be pagans, he still valued their thoughts on philosophy, and so did the Christian philosophers and theologians who read those works. That kind of open-mindedness didn’t exist in the Islamic world after al-Mutawakkil, as your own sources admit. So while the Islamic world was trying to suppress the writings of other cultures, the Christian world was actively translating the works of other cultures.

      I suggest you actually read the links that you provided as well as the book you recommended. If you do, you will understand that Spencer was quite correct in his statement, and that modern science is, indeed, a product of Christianity.