By L. Alfred James
When I was in junior high I learned about various cultures around the world. Among many other things, I learned that vast regions of Asia, Africa, and South America do not have the benefits of cutting edge medicine, chemistry, electricity, engineering, etc. My teachers never explained why Europe and North America were blessed to have these things in such abundance while other parts of the world are just now finally starting to use electricity, and some other parts of the world are actually stuck with primitive medicine, primitive technologies, and primitive understandings of the universe. Why were western cultures the first to develop modern science?
I also learned about ancient China, Greece, Egypt, and India. These cultures had many brilliant people (such as Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and Aristotle). So, why didn’t modern science begin in these cultures? Yes, they had a few occasional discoveries, but none of these cultures widely adopted experimentation as a method for understanding nature. Why? Many of my fellow students actually chalked this up to the “greatness of the white race.” But this appeared to me to be rank racism.
It wasn’t until I began studying the history of philosophy that I finally found a satisfying answer. What I learned was surprising, even shocking, as I’d never heard anything remotely like it in school. The absolute best work on the topic is called The Soul of Science by Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton. They get right to the point when they write:
Modern science arose within a culture saturated with Christian faith. That historical fact alone is suggestive. It was Christianized Europe that became the birthplace of modern science—there and nowhere else. Through sheer practical know-how and rules-of-thumb, several cultures in antiquity—from the Chinese to the Arabs—produced a higher level of learning and technology than medieval Europe did. Yet it was Christianized Europe and not these more advanced cultures that gave birth to modern science as a systematic, self-correcting discipline. The historian is bound to ask why this should be so. Why did Christianity form the matrix within which this novel approach to the natural world developed?1
Don’t misunderstand the point they are making. They are not saying, “Only Christians made scientific discoveries.” Nor are they saying, “Only Christians investigated the world scientifically.” Rather—putting it in my own words— it was only in Christian Europe that there arose a new way of thinking about the physical world and a culture that willingly embraced this new way. Those are two distinct things, and I don’t have the space to elaborate them here. Needless to say Pearcey and Thaxton’s book is worth reading, and re-reading, and then reading again. Moreover, other scholars have come to the same conclusion.2
There are many, many reasons why science arose in Europe. It is naive to suggest that there was only one cause. Major developments in history are rarely caused by one single thing. Nonetheless, historical documents from the period called “the scientific revolution” make it very clear that theology was a hugely important factor in sparking this revolution. And when I say “theology” I’m not necessarily referring to doctrines that are explicitly discussed in most books on theology. Rather, I’m referring to a collection of “background beliefs” that are part and parcel of the Christian worldview. To be honest, they are relatively boring beliefs to think about. But they are necessary for practicing science. For the sake of brevity, I will only focus on three of these beliefs. Before we look at them, though, two quick disclaimers are in order:
- This post is slightly longer than my other posts, but if you are a scientifically minded person this information can really strengthen your faith in Christianity. If you are a skeptic, evaluating this information is critical if you are going to be intellectually honest.
- In what follows I’m not saying that these beliefs were sufficient for sparking a scientific revolution; but I am saying they were necessary. These beliefs did not, by themselves, cause modern science to arise. But they did lay the required foundation for it. To put it bluntly: You simply cannot practice science if you fail to hold these beliefs, and these beliefs were given to the world by Christianity.
Christian Beliefs That Are Also Necessary For Science
1. The physical world behaves in a way that is logical and can be described mathematically.
Ancient Greeks doubted that the physical world could be described by mathematically expressed laws (such as the law of gravity, with an acceleration of 9.8 m/s2). They also doubted that the physical world submitted to the laws of logic. According to them, matter could possibly behave in a way that was self-contradictory, nonsensical, and entirely illogical. The Greeks were skeptical about the applicability of math and logic to the world because of thinkers (like Plato) who asserted that the physical world was made by the deity (a god) out of some pre-existing stuff that had been floating around forever. And this stuff, because it wasn’t the deity’s own creation—after all, he wasn’t powerful enough to make something out of nothing—this stuff had a nature of its own. It was a bit stubborn, and it still remains stubborn today. So (to a human observer today) the physical world might mostly make sense and be relatively predictable. But you can never be sure what it is going to do. Hence, there is no point in trying to find some “law” to explain its behavior. You might as well try to come up with a law for explaining the scribbles of a toddler.
This Greek thinking stands in stark contrast to the Christian beliefs of Europe in the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Christians have always believed that God made the physical world completely out of nothing. It is entirely his creation and it behaves exactly as he wants it to behave. It cannot resist his will. Moreover, since God is a logical being, and since he has a perfect understanding of all mathematics, this physical world is also completely logical and comports perfectly with the laws of math.3 Hence, early European scientists confidently tackled the mysteries of nature with the tools of science and logic.
2. You can’t figure out the physical world by mere contemplation.
In the late 1500’s (and the early 1600’s) Galileo conducted many experiments with gravity. Some of his experiments were designed to check whether or not heavier objects fall at a faster speed than lighter objects. For hundreds of years it was assumed (largely because of Aristotle) that heavier objects fall faster. But—and this is an important point—we have no record of anyone actually doing an experiment to confirm this assumption. As far as we can tell, no one bothered to check. Why?
Again, it comes back to the influence of Greek thinkers. The Greeks were convinced that we could understand the world simply by sitting back in our recliners and thinking about it. As long as we used sound logic we could figure out how the world works. This is a view called “rationalism.” And rationalism was all the rage for centuries. Thus (it was assumed) there was no reason to do experiments. All you needed to do was think.
Eventually, Christian philosophers began to question the idea that sinful human beings were capable of figuring out how God designed the world simply through contemplation. They concluded that it was presumptuous to think our puny minds can grasp the details of God’s creation since God’s thoughts are incomprehensibly higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). Thus, if we are to understand creation they concluded that we will have to get our hands dirty. Contemplation is not enough. We have to engage in experimentation.4
3. The physical world is real and has a nature of its own.
The physical world is real. This might seem ridiculously obvious. But there are millions of people whose religious beliefs say otherwise. For instance, many sects of Hinduism hold that the physical world does not really exist, it is all an illusion. In reality everything is one. There is no physical world that is separate from our minds. Indeed, we are not even separate individuals. Individuality is also part of the illusion. In Hinduism this is called the doctrine of maya. According to many Hindus, the way we find salvation is by learning how to escape this illusion. Buddhists hold to a similar view, saying the world is a “projection.”5
Let’s leave aside the manifold problems this doctrine leads to. For now, it’s pretty easy to see how a culture that believes in this doctrine would not be motivated to practice scientific experimentation to learn about the nature of the physical world. Why would you seek to learn about something that is just an illusion? If it is an illusion it does not have a nature of its own. Hence, there is nothing to investigate.
Likewise, if the physical world is just some kind of illusion or projection, it would not have to submit to the laws of logic or mathematics. Thus, even if you did try to investigate it you would have no confidence that it is logical or that it corresponds to the laws of mathematics.
These doctrines of Hinduism and Buddhism were a significant barrier that prevented scientific methods from developing in ancient China, India, or Japan.
In summary, Christianity holds that the physical world is logical, that experimentation is required to understand it, and that it is objectively real. These three beliefs are necessary for scientific thinking and practice. And these beliefs paved the way for the scientific revolution. Thus, without Christianity we would not have modern science. This is yet one more reason for believing that Christianity is true.
1. Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 21.
2. For instance, Rodney Stark writes: “It 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, the Islamic nations, 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.” Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, 127.
3. Pearcey and Thaxton explain this well in a couple of places:
“In all other religions, the creation of the world begins with some kind of pre-existing substance with its own inherent nature, as a result, the creator is not absolute and does not have the freedom to mold the world exactly as he wills.” (26)
This means if the creator takes the stubborn stuff of matter, and goes to making planets with orbits that are circular, and with gravity that is mathematically measurable, the orbits may not be perfect circles and the gravity may not be perfectly consistent. They continue,
“For example, in Greek philosophy the world consists of eternal matter structured by eternal rational universals called Ideas or Forms. In Plato’s creation myth, the creator (demiurge) is an inferior deity who did not create from nothing; he merely injected reason (Ideas) into reason-less matter. And even that he did imperfectly because matter was stubborn stuff, capable of resisting the rational structure imparted by the Ideas…As a result, the Greeks expected a level of imprecision in nature, a certain fuzziness at the edges. If some facts did not fit their theories, well, that was to be expected in an imperfect world.” (28, emphasis added)
4. Pearcey and Thaxton: “Yet because it is God’s rationality we are talking about and not our own, we cannot always anticipate how it will reveal itself in creation. As theologian John Baillie puts it, ‘While everything in nature observes a rational pattern, and is therefore in principle intelligible by us, we cannot know in advance which rational pattern it is going to follow.’ In science that means we cannot merely intuit what seems reasonable. Instead, we must observe how nature operates. We must look and see.” (34)