Monday, November 06, 2006

Richard Carrier on Christianity and Science

Richard Carrier, the resident scholar at Internet Infidels has started his own blog. One of his first posts is an article on Science and Medieval Christianity. Sadly, it isn't very good.

I don't use this blog for lengthy articles and won't launch an in-depth rebuttal to Carrier's thinking here. Instead, I want to point out two egregious historiographical errors that he makes, which must throw the rest of his article into doubt. Both these errors are extremely obvious and I am certainly not the only person to spot them.

Firstly, Carrier seems very confused about ancient science. He consistently uses terms like 'scientist' and 'methodology' in an ancient context without the slightest indication of what these words are supposed to mean. This suggests that he thinks their modern meanings can be applied to the ancient world. Clearly, they cannot. There was no 'scientific method' in classical Greece and no scientists either. There were a good few philosophers but natural philosophy was rarely their primary concern. Physics, even for Aristotle, was only expected to play second fiddle to ethical matters. This was even more true of the Stoics and Epicureans whom Carrier seems to think were prototype scientists. When early Christians attacked the metaphysics and ethical content of these philosophies they showed a much clearer understanding of what they were about than Carrier demonstrates.

Carrier's second error is more subtle because he only makes it selectively. He appreciates that Christianity is not a uniform pattern of belief. What he does not see is that its theology has developed constantly over the last two thousand years. Early Christianity had very little to say about natural philosophy, it is true. The Early Middle Ages in western Europe were a chaotic battle for survival and Christian theology at the time was geared towards aiding that struggle. Late medieval Christian theology was a very different beast and did have a profound effect on the development of science. One of the commentators on Carrier's article, J.D. Walters, has grasped this. So, for all his faults, has Rodney Stark. Thus, while it is wrong to say that Christianity has encouraged science consistently and at all times, it is quite correct to say that the encourage it did provide, both practical and metaphysical, during critical periods was an important element in the rise of modern science.

My friend Joe Hinman has written a useful article on the positive impact of theology on science.

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