Thursday, September 09, 2010

Was Christianity Responsible for Modern Science: Carrier's Counter Argument

Following on from last week’s post, I want to examine Richard Carrier’s counter-arguments to the Holy Science thesis that only Christianity could have given rise to modern science. His arguments appear in chapter 15 of The Christian Delusion (Prometheus Books, 2010). As I noted before, I think he is right to attack the thesis which, incidentally, is advanced by popular writers rather than today’s academic historians of science.

Richard’s first rebuttal is to note that Christianity controlled the West from the fourth to the twelfth century, without very much sign of scientific advance. If it is true that Christianity was both a necessary and sufficient cause for science to arise, we would expect that it should have done so in this period. In fact, from the reign of Charlemagne, western scholars successfully worked to master the Latin scientific inheritance but this was meagre compared to what was available in Greek. They did however learn what they were missing and had the necessary background to master the Greek material once they got their hands on it.

Of course, Richard’s rebuttal fails if Christianity was not a sufficient cause for science (even if it was a necessary one). Most people would accept that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was a disaster for learning and culture. It took centuries for population and civilisation to return to the levels they had enjoyed in 300AD. This was not the fault of Christianity, but a direct result of barbarian invasions that continued to the Viking raids in the ninth century. Indeed, historians recognise the important role that Christianity played in preserving literacy and culture, as well as tempering some of the behaviour of the barbarian princes.

Nonetheless, the example of the Byzantine Empire prevents the chaos of the western early middle ages from saving the Holy Science thesis. Byzantium was Christian, lasted a thousand years and preserved much of the civil society of the ancient world. So if the Holy Science thesis is true, modern science would have arisen in Constantinople. It didn’t. That said, the precise status of science under the Byzantines remains something of a mystery. Hints of technological prowess that matched the Antikythera Mechanism and Hero of Alexandria’s finest contrivances can be detected in the sources. Still, modern science did not arise and that is all Richard needs to note to rebut the Holy Science thesis.

Some credible historians, such as Lynn White and Edward Grant, have asked why Byzantium failed where subsequently the West succeeded. This is a valid question which Richard treats with less respect, perhaps, than it deserves. I would have thought that the suggestions by White and Grant that Greek Orthodox Christianity, which was based on ritual and mysticism to a higher degree than Catholicism, was part of the problem, would not be unwelcome to an atheist like Richard.

Although he has disposed of the Holy Science thesis inside two pages, Richard devotes most of his chapter to a second argument. It goes as follows: pagan Greeks were not Christians but they did develop advanced science. Furthermore, they would have achieved a “scientific revolution” if only they had been given a little more time.

The first part of this argument is unanswerable. Of course ancient Greek science is highly impressive, even though it is not “modern science” in the sense we understand it today. But the second claim, that the Greeks were about to make just such a leap to modern science, is much more controversial and consequently much more interesting. I’ll leave it until the next post.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


sparrish said...

James: If the "Holy Science" thesis is that only Christianity could give rise to modern science, how does the fact that the Byzantines failed to create modern science falsify this? The thesis is not, I take it, that Christianity will inevitably give rise to modern science. Just because if p then q, it does not follow that if q then p.

Tim O'Neill said...

Of course ancient Greek science is highly impressive, even though it is not “modern science” in the sense we understand it today.

I think we're back to the question of how we are defining "science", both ancient and medieval, and "science in the modern sense".

... to make just such a leap to modern science, is much more controversial and consequently much more interesting. I’ll leave it until the next post.

This post series has more cliffhangers than a Dan Brown novel.

Michael Fugate said...

I agree with Tim; it depends on how one defines science. We would have a very different picture of modern science if all we had was the written record in books and journals and couldn't observe actual scientists. The transition from indigenous science practiced by those who domesticated plants and animals and made tools is not a gigantic leap.

TheOFloinn said...

Some of the things that have been confused with science include:
a) Engineering/inventions/tinkering
b) Accumulation of facts about nature
c) Development of rules of thumb regarding nature
d) Mathematics, including geometric and arithmetic astronomy and geometric optics.

Toby Huff contends that an important factor for Western science was its embedding in the larger culture. This contrasts with the occasional talented individual like Shen Kua or ibn Sinna. Dodds, in The Greeks and the Irrational, contends that ancient Greek society was far less rational than modern imagination supposes. Our heroes - Aristotle, Archimedes, and the like - were thinner on the ground and not "institutional" in the societal sense.

Modern science did not blossom in the Latin West until the 17th century, when the population finally recovered to the levels achieved in the 14th century, prior to the Black Death. There might have been a scientific revolution in the 14th century, but it was delayed for a while because if the number of natural philosophers is pN, then when N crashes there will be fewer natural philisophers (along with fewer anyone else.)

Byzantium was on the defensive and shrinking for most her history; and the study of her science has yet to be carried out. Whatever Byzantium did achieve was lost when the Empire was shattered in the 13th century. Between then and its final extinction in the 15th century, there was little chance for a take-off or revolution.

Bookworm said...

Those who refer to Dodds should be aware that the main body of his book deals with the period before the fourth century BC. In his final 'lecture' , Dodds specifically notes that the EARLIER irrationalism (the main subject of the book) is transformed, from the third century, into a system of methodical disciplines that reached a level that was not to be achieved again until the sixteenth century. As was common in his time (1949) , he sees the Middle Ages as essentially dark in comparison and states that it was only 'in very modern times' that one finds a society as open as that of the third century BC. It is a pity he did not write a follow-up volume expanding his ideas.

Weekend Fisher said...

If the "scientific revolution" was a matter of momentum of scholarship and study, then I think the timing is very interesting in what was lacking in the earlier Christian ages, as far as sufficient conditions to start the change. The momentum came right after some Christian nations made "breaking with previous orthodoxy" an acceptable thing to do, with "independent scholarship" relatively more celebrated, and widespread reading (e.g. literacy and education of the masses) became a priority on a large scale in certain Christian nations.

Nations that dropped the "orthodox mandate" on results/findings tended to excel in science. Once independent thought was prized and a wider arrange of results were permissible, that does seem to be about when the scientific revolution gained traction.

Then again, the discovery of the New World probably played a part in making people realize that The Establishment did not, after all, know everything that needed to be known about the world and that there was, in fact, a whole new world they'd had no idea about. That will both inspire the imagination and make it more difficult to maintain the credibility of people who are tempted to claim that they already knew everything that was important to know.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Andrew Brew said...


I suppose you are referring in your first paragraph to the Reformation, and suggesting in your second that Protestant nations enjoyed a scientific advantage as a result.

I don't think that either of those suggestions really fits with the evidence.

"Once independent thought was prized and a wider arrange of results were permissible..." I could argue that as fitting most centuries from the seventh to the fifteenth, but not so eagerly for the couple of centuries thereafter.

If anything the pressure to conform was greater from the sixteenth century on, as Europe was divided into credal camps. The Romans in particular adopted something of a fortess mentality for a while.

Despite this handicap, Catholic philosophers continued to make contribututions to "science" at a considerable rate after the reformation, as did Protestants.
Throughout the middle ages there had been no problem with "breaking with orthodoxy", as long as you are talking about orthodoxy in natural philosophy. Unorthodox theology, especially if proposed by non-theologians, was another matter.

I do wonder, rather, what you mean by "The Establishment" claiming to know everything... about geography? physics? What?

Weekend Fisher said...

I mean the answers to all the important questions about life, the universe, and everything. People who are the go-to sources for information tend to get big heads; just a human trait. There's a real temptation to ... lack humility and a sense of proportion ... in knowledge claims.

The "no problem with new claims in natural science" part was not entirely true; Galileo had to tip-toe around the establishment (then came in like a bull in a china shop) with memorably bad results all around.

Once a certain group no longer had a monopoly on being the go-to group, both sides were bound to benefit from the healthy competition.

The rise of science, research, and investigation certainly accelerated in the post-Reformation years.

And that's what Carrier said couldn't be explained by Christianity, wasn't it? That all these centuries pass without the "revolution" being started, therefor Christianity wasn't involved?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

TheOFloinn said...

The "no problem with new claims in natural science" part was not entirely true; Galileo had to tip-toe around the establishment (then came in like a bull in a china shop) with memorably bad results all around.

And if he had only been able to show clear empirical proof of his thesis. But as it was, here was this layman in the midst of the Protestant Revolution insisting that scriptures be reinterpreted on no more than a math model. Layman weren't supposed to do that. If he had only come along pre-Reformation, he'd have had little problem.

It also helps if in Renaissance/Early Modern Italy you don't personally insult the Prince.

Remember, while there were churchmen on both sides of the debate, the settled science of his day was all against him.

There's a reason why he is the =only= example that people ever seem to come up with.

Andrew Brew said...


You write of "tendencies" and "temptations". I thought you might have some actual examples in mind...

In quoting "no problem with new claims in natural science", were you referring to me? 'Cause I didn't say that. To the extent that I said something like it, I was referring explicitly to the period before the sixteenth century. But Mike has said enough on Galileo - I won't add to it.

Certainly "science, research, and investigation" accelerated after the Reformation, as they had before it. If you could plot such a thing on a graph (which I think you can't), I think you would see a pretty flat spot from the 3rd century to the sixth (as the western empire devoured itself with help from the neighbours), then another from the mid-fourteenth to the early fifteenth (following the black death) but otherwise a fairly smoothly ascending curve throughout. I don't think you would see a sharp inflection point in 1517.

May He bless you too, and lead you to discernment ; )

TheOFloinn said...

If we assume that people with an interest in natural philosophy comprise a constant percentage of the population, then the number of scientists or proto-scientists would depend on the size of the population. Given that, we note that it was only in the generations around Galileo that Europe recovered to the population levels it had had in the generations around Jean Buridan and Thomas Bradwardine.

Anyone reading the papers of Nicole d'Oresme and Galileo Galilei would suppose the latter had been a student of the former. Yet the entire Renaissance went by without much happening.

R van Tol said...

The difference between Greek Orthodox Christianity
and Catholicism is the 'filioque' In the Creed.