Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Foundations for Science

A few days ago (in a post called "The Antikythera Device") I made the statement that all of the founders of modern science were devout Christians or at least operated within a Judeo-Christian view of reality. This assertion enjoys virtually unanimous support today among historians of science. But I received a fair question in an anonymous comment. I had further asserted that, "The very philosophical presuppositions that allowed the scientific revolution come from a biblical understanding of the world." With regard to this statement, the commentor asked whether it committed the fallacy of association, and specifically the fallacy known as "honor by association." He asked,
Did they actually come from it or is it possible that most of these great minds of the scientific revolution culturally happened to be Christians?
This thoughtful question warrants a response. My point was that the relationship between the Christian worldview and the scientific revolution was clearly not one of mere happenstance, coincidence, or even correlation. Rather, the biblical portrayal of reality uniquely provided (and provides) the philosophical justification for scientific endeavor. Here's how historian Rodney Stark has it,
The rise of science was not an extension of classical learning. It was a natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: Nature exists because it was created by God. To love and honor God, one must fully appreciate the wonders of his handiwork. Moreover, because God is perfect, his handiwork functions in accord with immutable principles.
We could discuss a number of philosophical presuppositions upon which modern science is founded (and I likely will at a later date in these peregrinations). But for now let's just take two, mentioned in the Stark quote above but also picked up by a number of other historians and philosophers of science. These are 1) that the universe reflects the rational nature of its Creator, and is orderly and uniform, and 2) that humans are uniquely created in God's image, and are thus capable of reasoning and discovering the order in creation.

The (modern) modern scientist operating within the artificial constraints of naturalism can only consider the presence of order and of physical laws in the universe as a fortuitous happenstance. His paradigm offers no way of explaining it. Likewise, if human senses and ability to reason are themselves the product of purposeless, undirected evolutionary processes, there is no defensible foundation for trusting them to provide us with truth about distant galaxies or biochemistry. According to physicist Paul Davies,
People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature--the laws of physics--are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they came from; at least not in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as law-like order in nature that is at least partly comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.
In a similar vein, philosopher Alvin Plantinga writes,
Modern science was conceived, and born, and flourished in the matrix of Christian theism. Only liberal doses of self-deception and double-think, I believe, will permit it to flourish in the context of Darwinian naturalism.
I trust I've clarified just what it is that I'm asserting. For further support of that assertion, I recommend,

(on the history of science) Reality and Scientific Theology by Thomas S. Torrance, and For the Glory of God by Rodney Stark.
(on philosophy of science) Christianity and the Nature of Science by J.P. Moreland, and Reason in the Balance by Phillip Johnson.

2 comments:

Jack Niewold said...

The theistic worldview provides the best vehicle for understanding, exploiting (in a good sense), sustaining, and maintaining the created order. The arguments in Stark, Jaki, Woods, et. al. make this clear. You are right, Rick: it is not mere correlation that explains the relationship between a Christian worldview with the rise of modernity, but something more like causation.

A personal anecdote helps illustrate this. I was in the horticultural field (no pun intended) for many years. I had a business that designed, installed and maintained urban gardens.

One of the great frustrations of many of our customers was the fact that they had for a time turned over their properties to "alternative" gardeners, which in the Bay Area meant gay, lesbian and New Age people. These people, many with highly developed artistic gifts, were to a great extent incapable of making the hard decisions that attend commercial gardening. Their worldview determined that at some level they so identified with the flora and fauna that they refused to recognize anything as a pest.

We called these people (and there were, of course, exceptions) "plant-petters" because even the act of pruning made them uncomfortable. They had the sense that they were causing pain to "mother earth" by the mere act of cultivation. They avoided the use of power equipment and pesticides for similar reasons.

Incidentally, was it C. S. Lewis or G. K. Chesterton who advised us to view creation as our sister rather than our mother, the better thereby to avoid the dangers of deifying her?

Anyway, the New Age gardeners would allow properties to deteriorate to the point that we, and other companies like mine, would be hired to come in and bring them under control again. It was amusing that even customers who might have shared the worldview of the alternative gardeners could not live with the consequences dictated by that paradigm.

That seems to be the great lesson of the naturalistic worldviews, that they lead in many instances to chaos, on the one hand, or to tyrannies, on the other, but seldom to rational methods tempered by methodical stewardship.

Anonymous said...

I didn't write the other anonymous question, but I shared it. Your response, however, has more than adequately answered my skeptical thoughts about the correlation between Christianity and the rise of science. Thank you for the in depth response...