Sunday, June 26, 2005

A combination of having to hand in a substantial piece for work for my PhD and feeling a bit under the weather with a throat bug has meant my entries here have become rather thin on the ground. I hope normal service will be resumed shortly.

I've finished Hooykaas's Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. It is a very interesting read but one that does not quite have the detail required to prove its central thesis - that Christianity helped the development of modern science. Certainly, it is clear that it has not had the widespread influence that might have been expected for such a ground breaking book. Published in 1972, it is based on a series of lectures delivered by Hooykaas at Edinburgh in 1969. The first four chapters deal with a specific metaphysical aspect of science that was affected by religion and the fifth covers the question of puritanism and science. The first four chapters all contrast the Christian attitude to that of other religions and suggest that it was the Christian view that was most conducive to science.

Chapter one covers the relationship between God and nature. It suggests how the Greek view of nature as organic and autonomous meant that its study was handicapped. The mechanistic model, so fruitful in the early modern period, depended on being able to point to a mechanic who had built the thing. Thus Christianity, believing that nature was a created artifact, provided a suitable metaphysical background.

Chapter two contrasts empiricism with rationalism. The Greeks, especially Aristotle, indulged in the later. They were determined that nature had to act in the rational way that made sense to them, without thinking that they also needed to look at the real world to determine what was really going on. Aristotle engaged in plenty of observation but nothing that could be called experiment. In contrast, Christians accepted that the God who created nature had the freedom to do what he liked. He was not restricted by what men thought was sensible. Thus, they realized that they had to study the real world and this led to real experiment.

Chapter three is entitled Nature and Art. Hooykaas shows how the ancients thought art should only imitate nature and man could not fundamentally change anything. In contrast, Christians like Sir Francis Bacon, said that man was not tied down by nature and could go further. Despite the Fall, man still has a spark of the divine in him that allows him to create art that overhauled nature and improved on it.

In chapter four, Hooykaas argues that ancient antipathy towards manual work prevented an experimental philosophy from taking root. Because the Bible had a much more positive attitude towards manual labour, Christians were more willing to use their hands and thus philosophers did experiments themselves.

Chapter five is intended as a support to the Merton hypothesis on puritanism and science. Robert Merton had argued in 1938 that puritans had specific attitudes towards science and against authority that meant that the new philosophy was particularly well regarded among them. The thesis has been much criticised, not least due to the difficulty to defining a puritan. Hooykaas runs to Merton's defence with a host of examples. He also explains the problems of using seventeenth century polemic as the basis for undermining Merton, which is ironic because that was one of the central criticisms of Merton's own work.

In all, this is a very worthwhile and fruitful book that more sets the framework for future research than actually proves the case itself. Unfortunately, no one has seen fit to pick up the gauntlet.

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