Thursday, May 13, 2004

Science & Christianity

Someone wrote to complain about the religious content she finds in the Apologia General Science program by Dr. Jay Wile. To illustrate the kind of materials that bothered her, she happened to mention the following:

[I]n the first module, [Dr. Wile] makes a point of saying that all the great scientists of the Dark Ages were devout Christians and that the Christian worldview . . . is "a perfect fit with science, and the establishment of that worldview was essential for starting scientific progress again."
My correspondent thought Dr. Wile is overstating his case.

I found it rather interesting that she happened to use this particular illustration, because I "just" happen to have read recently a book that addresses this very point.

Dr. Rodney Stark, Professor of Sociology and Comparative Religion at the University of Washington, addresses the issue of the religious roots of modern science in chapter 2 of his book,
FOR THE GLORY OF GOD: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton University Press, 2003). Stark argues, 1) that "science arose only once in history--in medieval Europe"; and, 2) that "science could only arise in a culture dominated by belief in a conscious, rational, all-powerful Creator." (See p. 197 in his book.)

I should note his definition of "science":

Science is a method utilized in organized efforts to formulate explanations of nature, always subject to modifications and corrections through systematic observations.

Put another way, science consists of two components: theory and research. Theorizing is the explanatory part of science. Scientific theories are abstract statements about why and how some portion of nature (including human social life) fits together and works. However, not all abstract statements, not even all of those offering explanations, qualify as scientific theories; otherwise, theology would be a science. Rather, abstract statements are scientific only if it is possible to deduce from them some definite predictions and prohibitions about what will be observed.

And that’s where research comes in. It consists of making those observations that are relevant to the empirical predictions and prohibitions. Clearly, then, science is limited to statements about natural and material reality--about things that are at least in principle observable. . . . (124-125)

Consistent with the views of most contemporary historians as well as philosophers of science, this definition of science excludes all efforts through most of human history to explain and control the material world, even those not involving supernatural means. Most of these efforts can be excluded from the category of science because until recent times "technical progress--sometimes considerable--was mere empiricism," as Marc Bloch put it. That is, progress was the product of observation and of trial and error, but was lacking in explanations--in theorizing. This objection even applies to Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), since his heliocentric conception of the solar system was merely a descriptive claim (almost all of it wrong). He had nothing useful to say about why planets remain in their orbits around the sun, or moons about the planets. Until Newton there was no scientific theory of the solar system. . . .

[T]he earlier technical innovations of Greco-Roman times, of Islam, of imperial China, let along those achieved in prehistoric times, do not constitute science and are better described as lore, skills, wisdom, techniques, crafts, technologies, engineering, learning, or simply knowledge.

Thus, for example, even without telescopes the ancients excelled in astronomical observations. But until they were linked to testable theories, these observations remained merely "facts." . . . (125)

As for the intellectual achievements of Greek or Eastern philosophers, their empiricism was quite atheoretical, and their theorizing was nonempirical. (126)
And so, Stark concludes,

[I]t is the consensus among contemporary historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science that real science arose only once: in Europe. In this regard it is instructive that China, Islam, India, and ancient Greece and Rome had a highly developed alchemy. But only in Europe did alchemy develop into chemistry. By the same token, many societies developed elaborate systems of astrology, but only in Europe did astrology lead to astronomy. (126-127)
I'm sorry (actually, I'm not sorry: it's a great book!), you'll have to read Stark's book to find the sociological reasons he believes "science could only arise in a culture dominated by belief in a conscious, rational, all-powerful Creator."

[NOTE: Stark's sociological arguments won't go so far as to prove that only evangelical Christianity could give rise to science. But his arguments are quite interesting when it comes to demonstrating the inescapably real influence of religious worldviews on the advance of science. It is possible, sociologically speaking, that modern science could have arisen from the midst of one of the other religious groups that believes in a conscious, rational, all-powerful Creator, Stark argues. It is sociologically inconceivable that such a way of dealing with the physical world would have arisen from the midst of a different religious milieu.]

I encourage you to
get a copy of Dr. Stark's book to learn more not only about his unique sociological perspective on science, but concerning witch-hunts, slavery, and religious reformations as well. (By the way, when he speaks of religious reformations, he is not talking solely--or even primarily--about the so-called Protestant Reformation!). The historical data he brings and the sociological perspectives he provides are both quite eye-opening.
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