Guest Post on Science and Christendom

Part of an ongoing conversation. A reader with the ghostly name of Apparition objected, at first reasonably, to my startling statement that a Christian civilization alone could create and sustain a scientific community.

The statement is startling because the default assumption of the Victorians was a fatuous egalitarianism which held that all races and nations could adopt Western forms, institutions, and habits of mind without adopting Western values or religion or habits of mind. To imply that science rests on a nonscientific cultural basis is particularly suspect. To say that differing cultures have different mindsets and skill sets is regarded as rude, if not anathema.

And the modern Left, forever trapped in the intellectual clime of the Victorians, cannot adjust themselves to the pessimistic lessons of the world after the Great War. Since the modern Left dominate the modern schools and intellectual class, even non-Leftists often pick up this assumption of cost-free egalitarianism unchallenged.

I made this remark in the belief that pragmatic reasons are always insufficient to sustain an institution; either it rests on a philosophical ground, or it becomes the servant of the secular powers that be, and loses its original mission. In this case, a scientific community requires a metaphysical belief in the potency of reason and the objectivity of reality, and this metaphysical belief, in turn, rests on a theological belief in a transcendent yet rational Supreme Being.

Andrew Brew pens a clearer answer than my own to defend the proposition. The words below are his:

A Reply to Apparatition

I would like to provide some answer to Apparation. It was I who imposed the restriction, to which he apparently mildly objects, on what counts as science.

Specifically, I excluded engineering (and by extension technological achievements). I did so for two reasons. One was pre-emptive, since late moderns often confuse science and technology, and (for reasons I will get to below) when asked for examples of the success of he former, usually give examples of the latter. The other is simply that these things are not science, as intended by John’s original comment and by my support of it.

Science (what used to be called Natural Philosophy) is the disciplined intellectual process of gaining understanding of the physical universe and how it works. It does not include its own consequents (a science must exist as a science before it can be applied as an art – art aims at outcomes, science at understanding). So, no engineering, no matter how clever, or how dependent on pre-existing science, is itself science. Likewise, it excludes its antecendents – metaphysics, logic and mathematics. These are likewise not science in the sense used, although they can all be considered sciences in an older and broader sense.

In short, I do claim that “all science is Christian science”.

Historically, science emerged nowhere but in Christendom, for reasons that can be given. For science to occur it must be regarded both aspossible and as worthwhile Christian metaphysics and anthropology provides these prerequisites:
– A universe rationally ordered by God who is Himself both rational and truthful
– Human intellect that is to some degree reliable and capable (because it is made in the image of God) of grasping the physical, as well as the moral, laws of God’s creation
– A moral duty to perfect, as far as possible, our selves in conformity with God’s creation, including perfecting our understanding.

All of the other societies in which science might possibly have been born lacked one or more of these pre-requisites, with the possible exception of Jewry and the Dar-al-Islam. In the case of the Jews I suspect that the cause is that they were never a large enough people to generate the necessary intellectual critical mass for science to take off (they also had more pressing matters taking up their attention for most of their history). I note, though, that since it took off elsewhere they have joined in with enthusiasm, although the correlation between religions Jews and scientific Jews is not strong. The Islamic world, on the basis of its majority Christian subject population, made a start from the ninth to twelfth centuries, but then made a collective decision to stop, and from that time proto-science was actively suppressed. They had come to the conclusion that natural philosophy was not a means to the service of God, but at best a distraction from it. Even in that golden age, the subjects chiefly studied were abstract mathematics, astronomy (which at the time was regarded as a branch of applied mathematics) and medicine, all disciplines in which the Syriac Christians already had a distinguished centuries-old tradition of scholarship.

So, can pagans do science? No, or yes only to the extent that they abandon pagan thinking and adopt Christian thinking, as the ancient Latin and Greek worlds did. What about heretics? Certainly they can, to the extent that they retain Christian thinking. A heretic is by definition a Christian of a sort, although the particular bent of a particular heresy might preclude it.

What about a post-Christian society, such as ours, or a never-Christian society such as Japan? It remains to be seen, I think, but the signs are not good so far. A critical step from medieval to modern science was a change in its objective. Pre-modern science sought knowledge in the cause of perfecting our humanity. Not knowledge of how to change humanity, but knowledge as a perfection in itself. Modern science (see Francis Bacon for particularly clear statements) sought knowledge as a means to power. This undermines the third pre-requisite I listed above, but as long as most scientists remained, in fact, Christians (up to, say, 1800) it continued to rub along rather well. Even when they were mostly Christians, of some sort, in theory (for another century or so), it continued to seek truth and so serve genuinely scientific ends. Nearly all of the major discoveries of modern science, mind you, have been made by active Christians – heliocentrism, evolution, genetics, big-bang cosmology. The exception is relativity, made by a non-observant Jew. In the twentieth century we have taken, or are in the process of taking, a further major step. The culture of the scientific community is no longer explicitly, or even implicitly, Christian, and what we still call “science” is very often not directed toward truth for is own sake, or even for the sake of power of nature, but for the sake of power over people – political ends. We saw the first major outbreaks in the great left-wing totalitarianisms that troubled the middle of the last century – Lysenkoism in Russia and Rassenwissenschaft in Germany. Dwight D. Eisenhower may have had those partly in mind when he warned against the danger not only of the military-industrial complex of which we hear so much but of the scientific-industrial complex – an unholy alliance of industry and centralised government subordinating science to their ends (read Michael Crighton’s speech “Aliens Cause Global Warming”, if you have not already seen it). I call this “post-modern science”. What appears to outsiders as “science” (search for knowledge) is in fact at best a search for power of nature (which may be innocent), at second best a search for power over people (which cannot), or last and worst a sort of theatre in support of power over people.

I hope that makes clearer the context from which I, at least, am making my claims and posing my challenges to you.