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Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective, Part 3

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May 6, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective, Part 3

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This series is taken from Ted Davis' paper "Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective" for the Test of Faith project. You can download the full paper in PDF format at their website, www.testoffaith.com, as well as find many other wonderful resources about science and faith. In part two, Davis addressed how the rise of modern science changed how the relationship between science and Christianity was viewed. In today's final part, Davis offers some concluding thoughts on how science and Christianity are viewed today.

Another central feature of the Scientific Revolution was the mechanical philosophy, according to which the world is an impersonal machine rather than an organism that acts semi-consciously for purposes of its own. This is nothing other than the modern scientific worldview. Mechanical philosophers challenged prevailing Aristotelian and Galenic notions, according to which ‘Nature’ is a wise and benevolent being that does nothing in vain, abhors a vacuum, and functions as the wisest physician. Boyle was the most influential advocate of the new view, and he assumed this role substantially for theological reasons. The mechanical philosophy was so attractive to him precisely because it gave clearer, more coherent explanations of nature, enabling genuine progress in practical knowledge in accord with the Genesis mandate. It also did away with the idea of a semi-divine ‘Nature’ as an intermediary between God and the world, thus underscoring divine sovereignty: nature is a created object, and its created properties and powers are the proper subject of our study. Finally, by focusing attention on the astonishing complexity and intricacy of the created order, the mechanical philosophy underscored the wisdom, power, and goodness of the Creator himself.

Throughout the Scientific Revolution, it was taken for granted that religion and science were closely intertwined; both were needed for a complete understanding of the world. Indeed, the modern scientific method is to a significant degree a product of theological reflection on God, nature, and the human mind. (It is quite ironic that New Atheists claim that theology has never done anything for science.) During the Middle Ages, a common topic of discussion by Christian scholars was the relationship between the divine will and the divine reason. They all agreed that God has both will and reason, but a lively debate ensued about which ought to receive more emphasis: are the activities of the divine will wholly determined by reason, or are they sometimes inscrutable? As surprising as it may seem, this abstract question from medieval theology had a profound influence on debates about scientific knowledge during the Scientific Revolution. What kind of knowledge is science – is it completely certain or is it provisional? What method is best for understanding the created order – reason alone (including mathematics) or some combination of reason and experience? Leading figures took part on both sides of the argument; while Galileo and René Descartes stressed the power of human reason made in the image of God, Boyle and Newton believed that our created minds were not capable of limiting the freely exercised power of God. Ultimately, the modern scientific method of rational empiricism (a combination of reason and observation) matches the fact that nature is a contingent order, created by a free and rational God. As creatures made in God’s image, we can understand many of the patterns that God placed in the world, but those patterns must be discovered by observation, not dictated by human reason. God is free to create in ways that cannot be predicted, so we should not be astonished that nature sometimes does astonishing things.

Many Christian scientists today continue to place science in a larger theological context, while still keeping both ways of understanding reality in focus. In my view no one has done this more effectively than John Polkinghorne, a former mathematical physicist at Cambridge who is now an Anglican theologian. Polkinghorne sees science and Christianity as ‘cousinly’ enterprises that are both trying to establish ‘motivated belief’. His recent book Theology in the Context of Science stresses the crucial point that larger questions of meaning and purpose go well beyond science – in other words, science cannot make sense of itself: why is science possible at all? The universe ‘is not only rationally transparent’, he argues, but also ‘rationally beautiful, rewarding scientists with the experience of wonder at the marvelous order which is revealed through the labours of their research’. The laws of nature ‘have a character that seems to point the enquirer beyond what science itself is capable of telling, making a materialist acceptance of them as unexplained brute facts an intellectually unsatisfying stance to take’ (pp. 90-91). The fact that science is possible at all ‘is not a mere happy accident, but it is a sign that the mind of the Creator lies behind the wonderful order that scientists are privileged to explore’ (p. 37). In short, ‘the activity of science is recognised to be an aspect of the imago dei’ (p. 13). This is a robust theism, and Polkinghorne gives it an explicitly Christian content. Recognizing that the Resurrection is ‘the pivot on which the claim of a unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn’ (p. 135), he searches for motivated belief in such an event, sifting carefully through the evidence to conclude (with N.T. Wright) that a genuine miracle is the best explanation for the stories of the empty tomb and the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus.

Here is the crucial link between someone like Polkinghorne and the founders of modern science: like his predecessors, Polkinghorne understands that nature is a ‘contingent order’ – and that both words in that phrase are important. Our knowledge of nature and its laws is possible because of our status as creatures bearing the divine image, but it is also limited by our status as creatures – and by the freedom of God to act in both wonderful and mysterious ways. As Boyle put it in a posthumously published Appendix to The Christian Virtuoso (1744), ‘it is extremely difficult for us dim-sighted mortals, to discern the utmost extent of the divine power and knowledge’. The Christian encounter with science comes down to this: confidence in the reliability of the book of nature as an authentic divine revelation, tempered by genuine humility and augmented by reverence for the One who wrote the book.

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #60844

May 7th 2011


One important aspect you seem to overlook at your peril is the reaction against the “mechanistic” view of life and reality in today’s world.  Ecology is a part of this reaction.  So is the interest in “holistic” medicine.  Dr. Oz?  So is the Einstein’s Theory and postmodernism.

Please do not put Christianity on the side of the mechanistic view of life.  Jesus came to break the mechanistic cycle of sin and death.  Jesus made it possible through the Holy Spirit for humans to have a personal relationship with God the Father.  Jesus the Logos is at the center of Creation and the universe, so the nature of reality is not a dead machine, but better seen as a Person encouraging life and love and cooperation.  

Ted Davis - #60955

May 10th 2011


Your point about an excess zeal for “the mechanistic view of life” is quite well taken. In a universe that is entirely and completely mechanistic, IMO, neither God nor humanity is really free. Boyle realized that also, so he (like Descartes and many other advocates of the mechanical philosophy) specifically exempted the soul and other spiritual agents from the mechanistic picture he endorsed. I had no room to go into that.

A lot of people (whether religious, anti-religious, or neither) simply dismiss the way in which those mechanical philosophers did this; they simply reject the idea of a separate “soul,” not subject to the necessities of mechanical explanations. This is esp true of neuroscientists (including most Christian neuroscientists) and secular philosophers. Among Christian philosophers (of whom there are now a rather large number, relative to 30 years ago), esp among Christian philosophers of mind (that is, those who specialize in this type of question) there is considerable diversity of opinion—a lot more diversity than most people probably realize; indeed, my impression is that even many Christian neuroscientists probably don’t realize that they may be assuming too much, philosophically, by dismissing entirely any type of “soul” concept.

It used to be true, as far as I could tell, that among “evangelical” scientists and scholars who accepted evolution (that is, the type of folks attracted to a site like BioLogos), it was generally assumed that the “soul” was a dead letter, that some sort of emergentism was the only scientifically viable view. Many still would agree with this, but more than a few very smart philosophers would dispute this. Here is a pertinent example: http://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2010/12/30/new-collection-of-essays-published-to-defend-mind-body-dualism/ . My colleague Robin Collins, a terrific philosopher with internationally recognized expertise in several fields, including philosophy of mind, is one of the contributors. (It would be lovely if BioLogos got someone to review this book.)

I used to think the “soul” was a dead letter, too, but now I’m not so sure. At this point, I haven’t yet been persuaded by any specific concept of cognition, but I am persuaded that it’s not a settled issue.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #61045

May 12th 2011


I appreciate your position and your contribution, but please Western dualism, while it is better than monism, is not the answer to the problems that confront us and is in part the cause.  As long as we think in dualistic, either/or terms we are going to have conflict between science and theology.  The problem is that philosophy is the missing middle in this process and that is because we are conditioned to think either/or and because philosophy has run into a dead end.  I know that this is a hard pill to swallow for those who are schooled in philosophy.

I do not expect you or BioLogos to have all the answers, but I expect you and BioLogos to recognize that the evolution, science and theology issue is a deep and serious problem, not something that can be papered over with a sound bite or a Two Book slogan.  

BioLogos whether it knows it or not, whether it wants it or not has a tiger by the tail.  I understand that its stated goals are rather limited, teaching conservative Christians the science of evolution, but life is ever simple.  As long as we have a faulty dualistic view of nature and reality we will not make progress.  As long as we continue the false dichotomies between dualism and monism, mechanical and divine, between natural and supernatural, between mind and body, we are spinning our wheels.

Let us stop trying to rearrange the chairs on the Titanic and address the root issues that face us all today. 


Ted Davis - #60956

May 10th 2011


Let me say more about mechanisms, and let me return to an historian’s role, since I’ve commented already on the current scene. As far as human and divine freedom are concerned, no one really knows how to explicate either concept in a fully satisfactory way. (Many atheists would say that this is b/c God and human freedom are both illusions, but let’s be honest—leaving aside the part about God, it’s not exactly a demonstrable, objective conclusion of science that humans lack freedom and responsibility or something like it. Rather, it’s a contested matter, regardless of one’s religious views. In short, being an atheist doesn’t give anyone a pass on this.) However, a number of people have used aspects of modern physics to deny the traditional view (traditional, that is, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and still widely held in some circles) that the determinism we find at the level of physics means that there must be a similar determinism at the level of the “mind” or “soul.” Those who deny a rigid determinism, based on an appeal to modern physics, can hardly be said to have persuaded everyone of their case; but, there is a case to be considered.

One who made this very point was Arthur Compton, a Nobel laureate for physics who also believed deep down in human freedom. I wrote a 3-part article about him a couple of years ago. The relevant part is available at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2009/PSCF9-09Davis2.pdf

Incidentally, if you are reading this, and you are a Christian in a scientific field, then I hope you will consider joining the American Scientific Affiliation, the organization that publishes this particular journal. Their annual meeting and their publications are devoted to fostering conversations about issues of just this sort. Check out their web site: http://www.asa3.org/

Ted Davis - #60958

May 10th 2011

Finally, Roger, you are also right about the ecological critique of the mechanistic view of life. Both Christian theologians and secular scientists have worried (properly) about this. Since the discovery of DNA in the 1950s, biology has basically split into two very different avenues of work: the field biologists and ecologists, who focus on whole organisms in their “natural” environments; and, the molecular biologists and geneticists, who focus on tiny pieces of organisms and how those pieces affect the organism as a whole. This can produce quite a bit of heat; recall how the late Ernst Mayr, one of the great field biologists of his generation, used to feel about what had happened to biology.

Mayr was of course an atheist; his complaints were unrelated to theology. But, many theologians have proposed models for thinking about God and nature that are not mechanistic. My sole concern about such models is that they not lose track of one of the fundamental teachings of monotheism—indeed, *the* fundamental teaching of monotheism, namely, that nature is not divine. (On this, see the splendid essay by Conrad Hyers at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1984/JASA9-84Hyers.html .) There are influential voices who want to “re-enchant” nature, in the name of ecology, and I do wonder sometimes whether they are losing sight of the fact that monotheism is about the de-deification of nature: that’s what it’s about, not what it deals with incidentally. The heart of Christian doctrine is the claim that the Maker of heaven and earth, who is neither of those created things, took on human form and suffered unto death for our sake.

Quite a few contemporary theologians (Bishop Spong would be a prominent example) want to dismiss all of that—they want to go “beyond theism,” as he puts it, and explicitly (at least in part) in the name of science. It’s that type of thing that Boyle was concerned about—elevating “Nature” into a “semi-deity” with a mind and purposes of its own. I share Boyle’s concern, while also sharing your concern about de-valuing nature through too great an emphasis on mechanisms. Show me a good middle road, and I’ll take it.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #60962

May 10th 2011


Thank you for your response.  A big part of this issue of both freedom and mechanism as well as others seems to me to be based on Western dualism, which of course is not Christian and needs reforming. 

Must nature be either mechanistic or divine?  Life which is a part of nature is organic and so is the biosphere.  Human being are not clearly completely free, but they are able to freely make decisions based on the options available.

The Greek concept of soul is basically foreign to the NT.  The phrase “immortal soul” so often used does not exist in the NT.  As you must know the Greek word psyche can be translated as soul or mind.  The closest term that Paul has for the soul is the human spirit, which does not fit into traditional and modern concept of the person.  

In any case we need to recognize that a human is composed of a body, mind, and spirit and this gives persons te ability to be free.  All three need to be understood relationally to return us to a real cohesive foundation for intellectual thought.

See anyone of my three books for more.

PS IU is my alma mater.       

Ted Davis - #60963

May 10th 2011


I generally agree that the biblical concept(s) of “soul” don’t translate readily into Plato’s dualistic conception. In my understanding of the Resurrection, e.g., it involves the actual re-creation of our"selves” as embodied individuals, although between the “now” of death and the “then” of Resurrection (assuming for the sake of argument that this is a valid way to put it), there would have to be a “form” of some sort that God would “remember.” There are of course other understandings of the Resurrection; N.T. Wright would probably say what I just said.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #60971

May 10th 2011


I do not think that this is a very goodf medium to discuss complex philosophical, theological views like this.  However,

In Romans 8 Paul says clearly that even death cannot separate Christians “from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Savior.”  If God loves us, even though we are dead, then we must have some existence, because God does not love a zero.  God loves our whole self, body, mind, and spirit, so we must exist as body, mind, and spirit, even though we no longer have a physical body according to Paul. 

That might be rather simple logic, but it follows.  It also means that eternal life with God does not begin after we die, but when we are saved and born again of the Spirit and united with God the Father though the death and resurrection of God the Son and through the Love of God the Holy Spirit.     

Steve Ruble - #60886

May 8th 2011

Ultimately, the modern scientific method of rational empiricism (a combination of reason and observation) matches the fact that nature is a contingent order, created by a free and rational God.

I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “matches the fact”, but surely the more important point in favor of rational empiricism is that it is a pragmatically successful method for predicting new discoveries about the world. Significantly, this isn’t a point that relies on any medieval theologians - or any other theologians - because it has nothing to do with gods or their disputants: it’s a fact that can be observed by anyone. That is, anyone rational enough to examine the empirical evidence.

More fundamentally, why is that you think theology - and apparently, Christian theology in particular - had any notable role in the formation of modern scientific thought? I mean, obviously Christianity was part of the culture in which science as we understanding it arose, but Christianity was just as obviously a more dominant part of the culture for the 1500-odd previous years in which science didn’t arise… so doesn’t it seem more likely that something other than Christian theology was the motivating factor behind the rise of the scientific method as a way for finding out things about the world? Something like, say, the fact that it worked?

Steve Ruble - #60887

May 8th 2011

I should amend that last sentence: what I’d like to suggest is not that the scientific method started working in the Enlightenment - presumably it’s always worked - but that it worked and the forces which had rejected, suppressed, co-opted, or distracted scientifically-minded people (namely, the church and the feudal state) were beginning to lose their power.

Ted Davis - #60952

May 10th 2011


Several of the publications that grew out of my dissertation are listed at http://home.messiah.edu/~tdavis/scientificrevolution.html The o.ne dealing most directly with my claim about the relevance of Christian theological debates for the modern scientific attitude of rational empiricism is this: http://home.messiah.edu/~tdavis/Foster.html Those. ideas are digested, along with others, in one of the chapters I wrote for this: http://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/ecom/MasterServlet/GetItemDetailsHandler?iN=9780801870385&qty=1&viewMode=3&loggedIN=false&JavaScript=y Anyon.e who wants to read any of my essays and cannot find them in a library (if you are near a major university that should be no problem), is invited to contact me privately.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to explain those ideas substantively, in detail with supporting evidence, in this venue. The best I can do is to refer readers to some of my publications.

Let me add this: someone without much background in the history of science might think that I’m an outlier on this, that “reputable” historians who aren’t Christians wouldn’t find any merit in such a claim. That would be wrong. Of the many top notch historians who have made either similar or related claims about the significance of Christian theology for the construction of modern science (and some of those folks provided me with much encouragement while I was a student, for which I am very grateful), let me provide a “short list” of names (a list that could easily be much longer): the late Margaret Osler, John Henry (who has recently published an essay in one of the best journals defending ideas that are identical to mine, and who consulted me about them while writing it; go to http://edinburgh.academia.edu/JohnHenry/Papers/169874/Voluntarism_at_the_Origins_of_Modern_Science ), Eugene Klaaren, J. E. McGuire, Francis Oakley (former president of Williams College), the late Amos Funkenstein, John Brooke, the late Reijer Hooykaas, and James Force. To the best of my knowledge, Steve, a majority of those people are not (or were not) Christian believers; indeed, the group includes agnostics, at least one atheist, and at least two Jews—none of whom are (or were) interested in engaging in Christian apologetics or making outrageous historical claims that might sound like Christian apologetics.

If you do some investigating, esp in a good academic library (a lot of the literature by these folks is probably not available electronically), you should be able to verify this information.

Ted Davis - #60948

May 10th 2011


The short answer to your question (why do I think that Christian theology had any notable role in the formation of modern science?) is this: the evidence for this is very, very strong. Several of my earlier publications, including my dissertation, were directly about this theme. The faculty who supervised the dissertation included the greatest Newton scholar of his generation (the late Richard S. Westfall), one of the leading historians of medieval natural philosophy (Edward Grant), and a top historian of the Reformation (Gerald Strauss). And, my dissertation was awarded the prize given annually by the graduate school at Indiana for the best dissertation that year. My point in saying these things is to emphasize that I am not constructing my claim out of whole cloth; rather, I argued it convincingly from hard evidence that can hardly be reproduced here.

I’ll say a bit more about this shortly, but first let me point to an irony: simultaneously with the conversation here on this blog, in which I am having to defend the claim that Christian theology was substantially involved in the construction of modern science, I am involved in another conversation over on the pro-ID blog, “Uncommon Descent,” in which I am having to defend my objections to an over-the-top claim made by Rodney Stark (who is mentioned below by Roger), namely that Christianity caused modern science (Stark doesn’t use the word “caused,” but that’s what he means, and that’s what he’s taken to mean by those defending him in that conversation). In other words, Steve, IMO the evidence does not support *either* of the following two claims:

(1) Christianity, which has always opposed reason and science, had nothing to do with the construction of modern science during the “Scientific Revolution.”

(2) Christianity brought about “real science” (Stark’s term), which never existed prior to Christian Europe.

Both claims are false. (1) IMO is even more wrong than (2), but both are wrong. If you want to see my thoughts on (2), which I won’t discuss here, then please go to http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/steve-fuller-asks-why-shouldnt-religious-commitments-influence-ones-science/

Ted Davis - #60954

May 10th 2011

Now, Steve, let me comment on this point of yours: “

I’m not entirely sure what you
mean by “matches the fact”, but surely the more important point in favor
of rational empiricism is that it is a pragmatically successful method
for predicting new discoveries about the world. Significantly, this
isn’t a point that relies on any medieval theologians - or any other
theologians - because it has nothing to do with gods or their
disputants: it’s a fact that can be observed by anyone. That is, anyone
rational enough to examine the empirical evidence.”

You’re obviously right, that one doesn’t need to make any theological assumptions—at least not explicitly—in order to engage in modern science very successfully. I’ll bracket the question I just raised about implicit questions and address only the historical point you allude to about medieval theologians. As an historian, Steve, I’m in no position to tell you that you need to accept certain Christian theological beliefs in order to be a good scientist; you don’t have to believe in God at all. What I am in a position to tell you, Steve, is this: some elements of Christian theology were inextricably intertwined with the conversations about scientific knowledge and how we ought to acquire it during the early modern period (i.e., the period when modern science was constructed). What you do with that information is not for me to say.

You seem more than surprised by this information, Steve, and (if so) I can understand why. There aren’t very many people who specialize in the history of religion and science (although there are a lot more than there were 30 years ago, when I got started on it), and none of us is nearly as well known as someone like Dawkins or Ken Ham. Frankly, those guys (Dawkins and Ham) aren’t experts on this topic; the names I cited above are (or were) experts on this topic. I’ll let you decide whom you want to believe, on a topic like this.

For more on this aspect, see my comments at http://blog.beliefnet.com/scienceandthesacred/2009/08/an-obituary-for-the-warfare-view-of-science-and-religion.html

Steve Ruble - #60973

May 10th 2011

...some elements of Christian theology were inextricably intertwined with the conversations about scientific knowledge and how we ought to acquire it during the early modern period…

Of course! Elements of Christian theology will be inextricably intertwined with any conversations in which thoughtful Christians are participants. I hope I haven’t given the impression that I think no Christians were involved in the development of modern science.  What I am arguing against - and I’m glad to see that you seem to agree with me - is the idea that because Christianity was the dominant ideology at the time when the scientific method was coming into its own, Christian theology is intrinsically a part of the foundation of the scientific method. This is an argument I’m perhaps overly sensitive to, and I suspect I over-reacted to what you actually wrote about the origins of science. 

Nevertheless, I must note that the resolution of the theological side of the argument was, in fact, driven not by some theological insight, but by the fact that science does actually work. In other words, the theological conclusion about how the world must be (at least, the one you accept) was constrained by the way that the world in fact has turned out to be, and not the other way around. Of course, there are still many people who reject science in favor of their theology, which leads me to believe that what influenced the early development of science was not Christian theology, but a branch of Christian theology - a branch that was comfortable with rational empiricism. But, as you of course know, you can find people who describe themselves as Christians on every side of every issue, so the claim that Christian theology qua Christian theology influenced something in a particular direction will always remain problematic.
Ted Davis - #60996

May 11th 2011


I’m glad that you understand more clearly what I’m claiming. The conversation among natural philosophers at that time, concerning conceptions of scientific knowledge and how we obtain it, was indeed a conversation *among* Christians (for the most part); it was indeed Christians who emphasized divine reason (with our reason an “image” of the divine mind) vs Christians who emphasized divine will (that is sometimes inscrutable, not completely encompassed by our minds).

What you might still be missing is a bit subtle, but I’ll use your words to raise the point. You asked, “

doesn’t it seem more likely
that something other than Christian theology was the motivating
factor behind the rise of the scientific method as a way for finding out
things about the world?” The body of work I refer to above (citing several of the relevant people) shows that a specific type of Christian theology *was* a motivating factor behind the rise of the scientific method; it might indeed have been *the* motivating factor, for someone like Boyle, but that splits more hairs than I want to split here. What we’re saying is this: there was a vigorous debate about which conception(s) of scientific knowledge were correct, and the participants made explicit (not implicit) theological claims about God, nature, and the human mind to justify one conception over another. The eventual acceptance of one of those conceptions over another is what we usually mean by “the rise of the scientific method,” and thus I say that theology *was* a motivating factor in this.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #60899

May 9th 2011

Steve Ruble,

There are two books that I find heve been very helpful in understanding the historical process by which modern science came into being and the role that Christianity played in this process.  The first is by Toby Huff, The Rise af Early Modern Science and the other by Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason.

You are right, history takes time.  The first 500 years or so could be called the formative period of Christianity, where by it grew from a handful of followers to the dominant faith in the West, even though Arianism was still a challenger.  Then came the end of the Roman Empire in the West.  This meant that civilization and culture in the West needed to be rebuilt and formulated.  This was done primarily by integrating classical philosophy with Christian theology and Germanic custome which encouraged democracy.

Out of this synthesis came modern life and modern science.  It appears to me that it was the Greek side of Western culture that went against modern science.  Greeks were bent on speculation, not experimentation.  The Greeks were focused on ideas, and distained the physical.  

I see St. Francis of Assisi as the pivotal figure.  He brought Christianity back to the basics of loving others.  Paintings of his life by Franciscans marked the beginning of the Renaissance.  Also the Franciscan John Duns Scotus helped lay the intellectual framework for modern science.  Christianity has always been about faith and works, thinking and doing, which is the basis of modern science.   

Christianity is not a cut and dried faith.  It has taken many forms, just as science has.      

Ted Davis - #60961

May 10th 2011


You said, “Greeks were bent on speculation, not experimentation.  The Greeks were
focused on ideas, and distained the physical.”

To keep this short, let me say only this. Some of the Greeks did a great deal of observing nature, in systematic ways (esp Aristotle in marine biology and the astronomers), and some of them also did experiments (the physicist Strato and some of the Hippocratic treatises). Astronomers can’t do experiments—and still can’t today—but they can check hypotheses against observations, and as far as we can tell some of the Greek astronomers did exactly that, discarding certain models b/c they failed to “save the appearances” adequately.

The “disdain for the physical” that you mention would be a reference to the attitude of Plato, not Aristotle.  Both were hugely important influences on subsequent ideas, including ideas during the Sci Rev (many of the early modern scientists were Platonists, insofar as they believed that God had imposed on nature ideal forms that could be discovered by us).

What is new during the Sci Rev is the notion that scientific knowledge is contingent, not necessary, and that a combination of reason and experience is required to obtain that knowledge. The Greeks regarded “science” as “true knowledge” that could be shown with certainty and was not mere “opinion,” and that had to be true.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #60972

May 10th 2011


Thank you for your comments.

It must be remembered that 1) we are speaking in broad generalities, which nonetheless do have meaning, 2) Most historians seem to think that Greek thought/spirit deteriorated during the late Anceint period, and 3) much of my impression of Greek thought of this time is based on Gnosticism.  Gnosticism certainly was based on the Greek spirit/thought however maybe I need to remind myself that many Greeks did accept Christianity despite alternatives such as Gnosticism.

Thus I am basing my view of Greek thought on the way it was in the 1st century, not as people rediscovered it later

Roger A. Sawtelle - #60968

May 10th 2011

What is new during the Sci Rev is the notion that scientific knowledge is contingent, not necessary, and that a combination of reason and experience is required to obtain that knowledge.

I am glad that we are in agreement with that.  It seems also true that Plato and Aristotle and Eastern Christianity were available in Constaninople, but modern science did not develop there.  Plato and Aristotle were available in the Islamic world, but modern science did not develop there.  Plato, Aristotle, and Augustinian Christianity were available in the West and modern science developed there.  Was that a coincidence or something more like the history of thought working itself out?  

When Jesus said that a tree is judged by its fruit, and not by anything else, He is laying the groundwork for modern science.  This of course something that non-believers do not seem to understand.  God judges rightly because God judges by the heart, not superficially by appearances.  This in a true sense is the basis of modern science, the desire to go beyond superficial description to find the real causes of events.     

Ted Davis - #60997

May 11th 2011

I will also comment on this statement of Steve’s: “what I’d like to suggest is not that the scientific method started
working in the Enlightenment - presumably it’s always worked - but that
it worked and the forces which had rejected, suppressed,
co-opted, or distracted scientifically-minded people (namely, the church
and the feudal state) were beginning to lose their power.”

The comments above are all about specific “trees” in the history of Christianity and science, not about the “forest” as a whole. This one is about the forest. What Steve alludes to here—the idea that progressive science eventually emerged triumphant over dogmatic, obscurantist theology—is what historians mean by the “warfare” or “conflict” view of the history of science. That particular grand narrative is what most historians of science and religion (including individuals such as those named here, but many, many more) have utterly discarded as both useless and woefully wrong. For some of the reasons, go here http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1987/PSCF9-87Lindberg.html (The .authors are both former presidents of the history of science society and authors or editors of many of the best works debunking the “warfare” view.)

The view I’ve articulated, Steve, (namely that theology *was* instrumental in the rise of modern science, even though Christianity did not “cause” modern science), would have been entirely unacceptable to those who created the “warfare” view—or to their modern disciples (Dawkins would be one example, Sagan another). That’s one reason why the view I’ve put forth could not be more widely accepted until the demise of the warfare view itself was more widely accepted—which has happened in the past 25 years or so.

Ted Davis - #61000

May 11th 2011

Let me follow my own comment with an illustration. A lot of folks have probably heard about the pioneering work of the great American sociologist Robert K. Merton (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_K._Merton), who advanced the so-called “Merton thesis” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merton_Thesis) that is still probably the most famous claim yet made about the history of Christianity and science.  Namely, that a “Puritan ethos” (as he called it) was responsible for the advancement of science in England.

I won’t discuss the relative merits of that claim here; whatever one thinks of it, it inspired a veritable mountain of subsequent research. What I do want to call attention to is what Merton himself said about his own work, when a new edition of his monograph was published in 1970.  Originally he had done his work in the 1930s, as part of a larger project that was called “Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth-Century England.” Nothing about “religion,” let alone “Christianity” or “Puritanism,” in that title. Yet, it was his claim about Puritanism that drew most of the attention. In his later reflection, Merton said, “Had educated and articulate Puritans ... been social scientists, they would have found this focus of interest passing strange,” since for them it was almost “self-evident that science made not for the dethronement of God but rather provided a means of celebrating His wisdom…”

Why then were scholars in the 1930s so puzzled by Merton’s claim? Because, he believed, it argued for “what then seemed to many an improbable, not to say, absurd relation between religion and science. At least among those who had been reared on such positivistic works as [Draper and White, the two authors discussed in the Lindberg article cited above], it was widely believed, as some still believe, that the prime historical relation between religion and science is bound to be one of conflict.” And, that is not what Merton found in his research; yet, it shook things up, owing to strongly entrenched biases that lacked a basis in historical fact.

I could be mishearing you on this, Steve, and I don’t want to do that. My concern, however, is that you might be resisting the stronger claim I make in my work (namely, that a type of Christian theology *does* underlie the modern conception of scientific method) owing to a bias you might be bringing to this, resulting from the widespread misconception in our culture that science arose by escaping from the grips of theology; that, in turn, results from the influence of White and Draper, whose work has been so thoroughly discredited by current scholarship.

As I say, Steve, I could be reading too much into your comments, in which case please set me straight.

Steve Ruble - #61018

May 11th 2011

...you might be resisting the stronger claim I make in my work (namely, that a type of Christian theology *does* underlie the modern conception of scientific method)...

Hold on, what do you mean by “underlie”? If you mean “was a part of the formative process”  then yes, of course it was, just as it was part of the formative processes behind almost all modern thought. But if you mean, “is a part of the current conception” then, with all due respect, you’re writing nonsense.

...a bias you might be bringing to this, resulting from the widespread misconception in our culture that science arose by escaping from the grips of theology;
Well, I can’t be bringing that bias to this, because I don’t think that science has escaped from the grips of theology.  We are, after all, having this conversation on a website dedicated both  to claiming that theology still has a grip (of some kind) on science and to combating the efforts of people who want to ensure that theology has an even stronger grip on science.  

Of course, I do rejoice that there are millions of scientists who can do their daily research without caring a whit for the possible theological implications, and without ever having needed to undergo any theological education. I think that’s an “escape from the grips of theology” compared to the state of affairs 200 or 300 years ago - and I don’t think that’s a misconception.

Ted Davis - #61036

May 12th 2011

I’m not writing nonsense, Steve. I agree with you, that most modern scientists don’t see a theological component somewhere beneath the scientific method. It’s not part of the current conception in any generally acknowledged way. When I said, “underlie”, I meant that the thought processes resulting in the modern scientific method included big theological component, a component that was pretty important—without it, things might have turned out differently at that time.

However, I chose the verb “underlie” also to indicate that there *are* in any given period, rock bottom assumptions about the nature of nature that can have consequences for what people say about how we should construct a science of nature. This is still true, Steve, though it’s not usually discussed outside of philosophical literature. (A nice example of an old monograph about this is R.G. Collingwood’s “The Idea of Nature.”) Those assumptions might or might not have an implicit (or, for some, an explicit) theological component—including an atheological component, if applicable. For example, when Carl Sagan said that “nature is all there is, all there ever was, and all that ever will be,” (or something close to that), he was not only stating his rock bottom assumptions, but he was doing a kind of theology. So was Gould, so is E.O. Wilson, so is Dawkins, so are ... lots of other modern scientists who write about what science means. As soon as you start to do that, you’re doing a form of religion—whether consciously or not. On that point, I recommend “Oracles of Science,” by Karl Giberson and the late Mariano Artigas. An excellent book about various forms of “the religion of science.”

Steve Ruble - #61051

May 12th 2011

You can describe the statement of implicit or explicit metaphysical assumptions as “doing a kind of theology” if you like, but when you equivocate that into “doing a form of religion” I think you go too far. There’s a too-often quoted quip on the subject that’s actually appropriate here: “If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.”

Ted Davis - #61087

May 12th 2011

We appear to disagree on our definitions of religion, Steve—a fair difference of opinion. The definition I am using here (following Giberson & Artigas) is based on Gordon Kaufman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_D._Kaufman), a leading scholar of religion. What a religion does, according to Kaufman, is to provide a creation story (where we came from), tell us where we’re going (the ultimate end of things), tell us how to behave (E.O. Wilson is strong on this one), and give us a sense of awe and mystery (Sagan was big on that one).

Perhaps atheism is not a religion—although I think some forms of it are (secular humanism is a good example), I’ll pass over that without comment. But, science can certainly be transformed into form(s) of religion, and by atheists as well as others. If you doubt this, have a look at this: http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/ReligionTheology/PhilosophyofReligion/?view=usa&ci=9780195310726 . Whether or not you agree with the authors, you’ll probably learn quite a bit about the views of the six people they studied.

Steve Ruble - #61015

May 11th 2011

I think you’re missing a rather fundamental point here, Ted.  You (along with Lindberg and Numbers, and others who criticize the “warfare” view) seem to think that because some Christians were and are on the side of science, it’s no longer a fact that some Christians have and continue to oppose science in the name of their religion.  But it is a fact. I don’t see why you think it makes sense to say, “Look, many Christians were on the side of reason and evidence and the scientific method, so obviously there was not and is not a ‘war’ between science and Christian thought.” All that shows is that there is not a war between science and your preferred flavor of Christian thought. But between science and many other (popular) flavors of Christianity, there was and continues to be an intense conflict - one that it is not totally absurd to characterize as “warfare”. You might be thinking that if the “war” is between Christian sects, it’s wrong to describe it as a conflict between “science” and “religion”, but to an outsider it’s pretty obvious that at least one side of the conflict sees “science” as the enemy. 

Ted Davis - #61035

May 12th 2011


I’m not missing your point at all—you are completely right, that for many Christians the relationship between their faith and modern science fits the conflict model very well. This is esp true for “creationists,” but also for some others. And, it’s equally true for some atheists, such as Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins. That’s what I call the “hard core” warfare model, and it’s in play all around us.

However, you are missing my point about the “soft core” warfare model of Draper and White. Theirs was an *historical* claim—to wit, that science is always progressive and religion is always obscurantist; that this state of affairs was and is necessary; that religion never had a productive conversation with science; and, that religion can “fix” this by discarding what White liked to call “dogmatic” theology. The article by Lindberg & Numbers is about this grand narrative & why it’s no longer taken seriously by scholars who study the history of science & religion. I am guessing that you didn’t read it; if you did, you probably wouldn’t be saying what you just said here. Please read it before replying—if you want to keep this going.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #61057

May 12th 2011


There is also “warfare” within science between different schools of thought.  Ptolemy was not a Christian and Aristotle believed that the earth was the center of the universe.

Why make Christianity THE cause of resistance to change when there are many other causes and Christianity is an agent of change?

Steve Ruble - #61044

May 12th 2011

I did read the Lindberg & Numbers paper.  I’m not particularly interested in defending Draper & White’s particular historical “conflict model” - it seems obvious that they overreached and have been discredited - rather, I am trying to keep in the foreground the fact that whether or not some Christians have historically supported science, throughout history some Christians have opposed it. When you refer to historians who have rejected the “conflict model”, you’re taking a conversation which is occurring between historians - in which “conflict model” is probably automatically taken to mean “D&W’s specific history of Christianity and science” - and projecting it into a different realm where that expansion is not going to be automatic. Saying that the “conflict model” “is no longer taken seriously” can very easily give the impression that historians have concluded that there never was any conflict between Christianity (in any form) and science - an impression that is obviously false. 

Ted Davis - #61086

May 12th 2011

You’re quite right, again, Steve. Part of the argument that L&N make is suggested by their title: “beyond war and peace.” They make no effort to deny the presence of genuine conflicts in the history of science & religion; and, Numbers has written the definitive history of creationism, in which it’s quite clear that he sees creationism as being in conflict with large parts of modern science.

Their point is that conflicts do not equate to the CONFLICT thesis, according to which science becomes scientific by escaping from theology, which is always obscurantist. In fact, *most* historical interactions between science & faith don’t match this pattern very well; if one assumes that they do, then one must either distort them badly or ignore them when writing such an account.

What we need is a new history of science & religion that is more accurate; ipso facto, that history is going to be much friendlier to people of faith—since the older model (which was dominant for more than a century) was simply so profoundly inaccurate and so hostile to Christian beliefs. I see it as my principal task as an historian of science to help provide a few pieces of that more accurate history.

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