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LIFE AFTER DEATHChristianity's Hope & Challenge.
Christian foundations of modern science
Modern science has grown out of Christian soil. This has been documented by many people, not necessarily Christians themselves. It was stressed by such writers as Alfred North Whitehead, the widely respected mathematician and philosopher, and J. Oppenheimer, who wrote on a wide range of subjects related to science after becoming director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1947. More importantly, it has been amply substantiated within the new discipline of the history of science by scholars such as Duhem, Crombie, Jaki, Nebelsick and Kaiser.
However, in order to understand more clearly the influence of Christian thought in the development of modern science, it is necessary to give some space to understanding the weaknesses of earlier systems of thinking.
Early technology and worldviews
In primitive religions there was no rationality, regularity and consistency in the natural world that we would express in the term "laws of nature". When the world was permeated by a host of uncoordinated gods and spirits of uncertain behaviour, there was no room for science.
Around the 6th century BC, a remarkable development in religious thinking began to take place. This was led by a number of independent leaders who instigated revolts against the traditional tribal faiths. It might even be claimed that seven of the new universal or major religions arose in different parts of the world within fifty years of one another! In varying degrees these great faiths all moved towards a more moral, universal and unified idea of divinity. For the purpose of science, the most important developments were those that happened in Greece.
While other peoples were still hearing in nature the angry and discordant roar of the gods, Pythagoras (who lived in the 6th century BC) and other Greek philosophers began to look at the world more objectively - attempting to understand natural phenomena by rational speculation. The answers they came up with may have been mistaken (Pythagoras himself decided that everything in the universe was built up on a pattern of numbers), but this was a start.
In this and following centuries, the Greeks made some amazing achievements. In mathematics, Hipparchus' development of trigonometry and Euclid's geometry have lasted into our own times. There was Archimedes' measurement of the surfaces and volumes of curved figures, and much more. In astronomy, there was the sphericity of the earth, the true explanation of lunar and solar eclipses, and Hipparchus' discovery of the precession of the equinoxes. Aristarchus of Samos founded theoretical mechanics and proposed a heliocentric view of the earth and the sun, measuring their distance apart and their relative sizes fairly accurately. Aristotle set out to organize and systematize the whole field of knowledge and made profound contributions to biology. In anatomy and physiology, Galen's complete physiological scheme lasted until three centuries ago. In the field of technology there were the achievements of architecture, and even the harnessing of steam power to open temple doors. The theory and practice of the five basic machines of mechanics were well understood - the lever, the wedge, the wheel, the pulley and the screw. Archimedes' water screw is still used to raise water in the Middle East.
Why did all these achievements not lead to the development of science? The answer lies basically in the flawed theology behind them - wrong ideas about the nature of God and reality. Plato taught that we must try to focus on purely theoretical notions that revealed themselves only to the mind. The failure of early scientists such as Anaximander, Anaximines, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus and Democritus to come to any agreement about the nature of the physical world convinced him that their fundamental approach was in error. This world was an inferior version, only an unreal shadow, of the higher, eternal and perfect world. Truth about the natural world could not be discovered by observation and experiment via the senses but only through reason and mental processes. Thus observation and experimentation had little value.
A striking example of this deductive way of reasoning comes from Aristotle who believed women were inferior to men. He argued from this premise that they would therefore have fewer teeth than men. Although married twice, he never thought to count the teeth of either of his wives! People like Anaxagoras could examine a meteorite and conclude that the heavenly bodies could not be divine or animated beings, but made of stone just like the earth. But these potentially fruitful early Greek ideas were overridden by the triumph of the more deductive philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.
This faulty thinking is illustrated in the great astronomical system of Ptolemy. His system was supported by massive observations of the heavens by the instruments he invented, and by his mathematical skills. It worked for over fifteen centuries, predicted eclipses, and enabled the 15th and 16th century explorers to circumnavigate the globe. But its premises were wrong. In his view the heavenly bodies were animated, intelligent, perfect and eternal divine beings, and therefore had to move in a perfect, circular fashion. And the observations were all interpreted to fit the theory. There was no way of marrying this to the systems of Copernicus and Kepler. These had to start from quite different premises. Ptolemaic astronomy was not science. It was, in a sense, applied theology and the theology was wrong.
A further disadvantage arose from Aristotle's distinction between the "form" of the higher world and the "matter" of this one. The latter was always inferior. As the least experimental of the sciences, activities such as astronomy and mathematics were fit for gentlemen. Involvement in the physical world was only fit for slaves. Even Archimedes, who was famous for experimenting and inventing all sorts of clever mechanical devices, regarded these technical things as beneath the dignity of pure science and declined to leave any written record of them, apart from his treatise on sphere-making and his planetary model. This contrasts strongly with the later Christian monastic principle that "to labour is to pray"; with the requirement of St. Benedict, one of the founders of Christian monasticism, for six hours of manual labour daily from his monks; and with the great development in the practical arts that marked the monasteries, and their contributions to technology - their invention of labour-saving machinery, especially the harnessing of water-power, and the mechanical clock.
Another disadvantage lay in the Greek view of time. Aristotle said, "We do not say that we have learned [anything] or that anything is made new or beautiful, by the mere lapse of time, for we regard time itself as destroying rather than producing..." History runs downhill and there is little room for progress. The Greeks, in common with other great religions that emphasise reincarnation, failed to escape from the cyclic view of time. So it was that Socrates could envisage repeating the same debates in future cycles, and drinking the hemlock all over again...and again.
India and China both developed clever technologies which prepared the way for the development of science. Both the mathematical concept of zero and the system of place value for numerals and decimals seem to have been known in India. There was much reasoning and observation in astronomy, and various detailed medical treatment systems. But there was no experimentation, except in psychology and associated psychosomatic techniques, as in yoga, for mastery over mind and body. The most striking technological achievement was represented by the pillar of pure iron at Delhi and the rustless iron pillars of the emperor Asoka.
China had a notable technological record, especially in engineering - water-power for industry, iron and steel technology, suspension bridges, hydraulic engineering in general, and mechanical clockwork. The careful observation and recording that are essential to science are common in Chinese records. There was early discussion of the hexagonal nature of snowflake crystals. Their discovery of zero, of negative numbers and decimal place values was earlier than in India, as were optics, acoustics and magnetism, with knowledge of magnetic compasses. All this, however, did not develop into true science. No doubt the Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang was one of the main barriers to this. The Yin and the Yang controlled everything else in opposite pairs. The Yang embraced everything round, dry and weightless, which might be seen as physical qualities for scientific examination. But this vanishes when the Yang correlates them with its other non-physical principles of peace, eating, wealth, cheerfulness, celebrity and profit! Likewise Yin embraces everything square, wet and heavy - again physical qualities. But what have these to do with sorrow, drinking, poverty, ignominy and decapitation? No intelligible order or empirical relationships are discernible in this arbitrary jumble of concepts.
Another negative factor which held back the development of science in Asia generally was the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism. The emphasis in these religions on the unreality of the physical world (maya) was not conducive to an objective study of nature. A further factor in this regard was the Buddhist perspective of seeing the cosmos as intrinsically evil, the source of suffering. For Buddha, enlightenment required the closing of our eyes to the world outside and the withdrawal from the physical senses. Islam, which arose in the seventh century AD, made certain positive contributions, especially in astronomy and mathematics. It supplied the Hindu-Arabic system of numerals without which neither science nor mathematics could proceed. However, orthodox Islam so stressed the free will of Allah as to make it absolute, unqualified by the constraints of a rationality shared by both God and humans. It was impossible to hold the notion of natural laws that might impose constraints on the infinite power of Allah. And since everything is fatalistically determined by the will of Allah, there is no point in trying to manipulate the natural world to change things.
There was one religion, however, which stood out in clear contrast to these. In the second millennium BC, the Hebrews had begun to develop a view of one supreme God who was the creator of the universe and everything in it. Though eternal and distinct from all he has created, he is intensely personal. He communicates with humans but he never loses his authority, dignity, sovereignty, lordship, wisdom or goodness and moral perfection. He is never seen as arbitrary or inconsistent. As the world is made by this kind, good, rational and consistent creator, it therefore reflects its maker and so is itself good, rational and consistently ordered. This was in contrast to other views that depreciated the world as of low value, unreal and meaningless; or worse still, as disorderly, hostile, or positively evil. As we are created in the likeness of God, with minds that can work rationally and consistently, then we can begin to understand a universe structured in the same way.
With such a view, why was it that the Hebrews did not advance beyond elementary technology to science? The answer probably lies in the fact that they remained basically a pastoral people, in a poor land with few natural resources and limited economic development. They lacked commercial products for trading exchanges that would bring stimulating interaction with other societies. They remained a semi-tribal, small-scale society without great cities or a leisure class; a people who spent most of their history at the mercy, or under the sovereignty, of the great civilizations that rose and fell around them. However, as we shall see, it was their religious beliefs, revealed even more clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (the God of the Old Testament is also the God of the New Testament!), that ultimately provided the worldview in which modern science could develop.
This is obviously a simple analysis, but it gives us some background for looking at the question of why modern science developed in Europe and not elsewhere. One can suggest many factors that led to the rise of modern science. Things such as economic pressure, competition and trade, the development of industrial and military technology, the rise of nationalism and natural human curiosity - all had their part to play. However, it took Christianity to provide the philosophical worldview that resulted in the climate necessary for science to develop in the manner in which it did in the sixteenth century. Professor Hooykaas argued in Religion and the Rise of Modern Science:
Metaphorically speaking, whereas the bodily ingredients of science may have been Greek, its vitamins and hormones were biblical.
Christian foundations of modern science