Monday, July 16, 2007

Christianity and the Rise of Science

As I said in Why I Am a Christian, certain men and women of faith have exercised an extraordinary influence on me. They made me understand what Christianity is, and why it is a world-view to be reckoned with. The single most influential of all those many voices is Peter van Inwagen, now professor at Notre Dame University. I think him the best of his generation of metaphysicians.

In a lengthy footnote to his essay "Non Est Hick", he explains why he holds that the Church gave rise to modern science. (The essay is found in his book God, Knowledge and Mystery.) His argument takes the form of a set of fundamental Christian posits about God, man, the world, and their relation, posits that he thinks explain the emergence of modern science.

I find his argument persuasive. In this post, I will give and then comment on his argument. (Everything italicized is van Inwagen.) I hope that, by the end, I will have put to rest the oft-made claim that Christianity has served only to impede the progress of science. There are of course instances where this is true, but all are overshadowed - greatly overshadowed, we should say - by the contribution that Christianity has made to the rise of science.

1. The Church taught that the material world is not an illusion. Hence it taught, in effect, that there was something for science to investigate.

Not all religions, not all philosophies, teach that the material world is non-illusory. Strains of both Buddhism and Hinduism teach that the material world is illusory and that one ought to escape it. Platonism teaches the same.

One who is enjoined to escape the material world, to find salvation outside it, will likely pay little attention to its behavior. They are likely to live as ascetics, not as scientists.

2. The Church taught that the material world was not evil, and hence that it could be investigated without moral contamination.

In its early days, the Church has to contend first with the Gnostics and then with their spiritual successors, the Manichees. Both taught that the matter of the physical world was shot through with evil, and that the task of the initiate was to escape that evil by mortification of the body. This doctrine was branded as heresy by the Church, and its influence on the Western mind became negligible. But if it had not, the scientific enterprise would have never got off the ground. The idea that there are laws of nature that provide a intelligible structure to the physical world is fundamentally anti-Gnostic.

3. The Church taught that no part of the material world was a divine being (as many of the ancients had thought the stars and planets to be) and thus that it could be investigated without impiety.

Any form of pantheism, i.e. any religion that invests nature itself with deity, would say that the scientific study was nature was impious. But more than this, it would likely say that it couldn't possibly yield fruit. The behavior of the gods is impossible to predict, and it seems to us fickle and without pattern. We might attempt to influence their behavior through prayer or ritual, but the gods choose what to do in response. The gods' freedom, when they are thought to be part of nature, makes prediction and control (the hallmarks of science) impossible.

4. The Church taught that the material world was the creation of a single perfectly rational mind, and thus that it was not simply a jumble of things that has no significant relation to one another; it thus taught that the material world made sense, and that croquet balls would not turn into hedgehogs.

Would anyone undertake a project if there was no hope of success? Would anyone undertake a project is there was not at least some reason to suppose that it might end in success? The Church provided that hope and that reason. A material world that is the creation of a perfectly rational mind is one that is intelligible. Moreover, it is likely one that, though it contains a rich variety of phenomena, generates that variety out of a small number of physical laws. For it is likely that a perfectly rational mind will operate in accordance with Occam's Razor. It will act in the most economical way possible consistent with its desire to bring about the sorts of phenomena that we see about us. Thus theism not only gives hope of success. It gives good reason to think that success is likely.

One sometimes hears the objection that God's miraculous intervention in the affairs of the material world render its behavior unpredictable and thus unintelligible. This might be true if God intervened continually or more often than not. But He does not. The miracles reported by Christianity are a tiny percentage of the total number of physical events.

5. The Church taught that the material world was a contingent object, and hence that the nature of the world could not be discovered by a priori reason alone.

The point here is made with a bit of philosophical jargon. A contingent object is one whose existence is not necessary. It is an object that might not have existed, an object that might cease to exist. A priori reason is reason that makes us of no premise drawn from any sort of empirical inquiry (construed broadly so that, for instance, a glance into the closet to discover whether my boots are there is an empirical inquiry). For a very long time now, philosophers (at least those in the West) have thought that reason is able to discover truths a priori. Examples adduced by one or another philosopher in the past: mathematical truths, moral truths and metaphysical truths. (One sees the point, at least with mathematical truth. Mathematicians don't run experiments. They don't make observations. On the contrary, they simply prove theorems by a purely rational, non-empirical process.)

Why say that, if the material world is contingent, its nature cannot be discovered a priori? Think again of the example of mathematical truths. They are proven a priori, i.e. by reason unaided by empirical inquiry. Those proofs, then, don't in any way depend upon observation one or another contingent feature of the material world. Rather they proceed in complete independence of the particular contingent features of the material world. This is true of all a priori reason. It takes no account of the contingent.

6. The Church taught that humanity was made in the image and likeness of God, and thus encouraged the belief that the human mind, being a copy of the mind of the Creator, might be able to discover the nature of the Creation.

Of course we have no guarantee here. We live in a post-Fall world, and in the Fall not only the moral but the cognitive faculties of humanity were degraded. But we still retain some measure of our original cognitive powers, and there is no a priori reason to assume that they are not equal to the task that science sets them.

7. The Church taught that not only humanity but the whole physical universe was redeemed in Christ ("For God so loved the kosmos . . ."), and thus that the investigation of that universe could be a Christian vocation, a way to glorify its Creator and Redeemer.

With this, we reach the end of the explanation. It shows that, in the Christianity promulgated by the Church, there exist certain fundamental attitudes, certain fundamental habits of thought, that made the rise of science a very real possibility. Indeed, given the Christianity evinced by many of the first scientists, we should conclude, I think, that Christianity was the fertile soil from which science sprang. The pre-scientific Christian mind-set was in no way hostile to the rise of science. On the contrary, it included much that was necessary to make its early practitioners hope for, and expect, success.


Anonymous said...

I would tend to say that the modern versions of pantheism (and other somewhat overlapping worldviews that might include New Age and paganism/neopaganism) doesn't always fit your #3 any more. I don't think they think it's impious to investigate the universe even if it is divine, and I think they also expect it to be predictable.

But of course we might say that that is a consequence of the scientific worldview so many are now raised with which, according to your argument, would be a consequence of Christianity in the first place. :)

Dr. M said...

You're mostly right I both counts, I think. Modern day pantheists don't often raise any objections to scientific practice. But perhaps they should, and as a matter of fact some do. They object to science's treatment of the world as if it were a mere object, a great machine to be studied and controlled. (The defenders of the Gaia hypothesis come to mind.) They demand that we begin to treat it with the reverence it demands. It might well be that, if we were to do this, science would be pulled up short.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Frankin.

Anonymous said...

Oops. I meant Franklin