The relationship between science and religion

Shotgun provided a link, on another post, to an article written by Dr. Greg Bahnsen, entitled “Revelation, Speculation and Science”.
He open with the bold statement that:
“It is one of those embarrassing historical ironies that modern science could not have arisen except in the atmosphere of a Christian world-and-life view.”
That would be fine and well, except that science actually originated in the pagan world. The writings of democritus, a pagan- not a Christian- influenced modern atomic theory. Mathematicians like Pythagoras were not Christian either. The height of cultural and scientific advance in antiquity occur in pagan societies, from Egypt to Greece. For all that we owe the jews, we do not owe them for scientific innovation.
After the rise of Christianity, in fact, the world suffers what some called a “closure of the human mind”, others call it “The Dark Ages”, so modern science did not develop because of Christianity, but in spite of it.

The article tries to make a case that without the Christian faith science is impossible. (For, a certain state of affairs is needed for the scientific endeavor to be meaningful or fruitful). That science is predicated on revelation (If science (so-called) could actually refute the truths of Scripture, then there would be no actual basis for science at all. The desire of the scientific community to pit its enterprise and conclusions against Christian revelation is ultimately suicidal.). This is to put the chariot before the horse. Religion is a sister of science, not it’s mother. It depends, as science does as well, on our willingness to believe. You do not need Christian scripture or Christian revelation in order to develop science, and in absence of these, the alternate solipcism is not inevitable either. The standard used by the author does not support Christian theism, but is supportive of just about any theism, from Plato’s to Muhammed. Can’t have your cake and eat it too.

He says that the predicament of science is that: “In other words, the consistent naturalistic scientist seems to hold to an irrational set of beliefs about the state of affairs simply in order that his “rational” scientific endeavor may get off the ground. It is rather obvious that prior to any scientific endeavor we must begin either from speculation (about “chance” hypotheses) or from revelation.”
The theologian is just as prone to this critique- religion is not free from speculation or there would be no need or meaning to the Christian “faith”. Revelation is ITSELF a hypothesis. For example, say you come across a deserted strech of road, at night, and suddenly see a light in the sky, out of nowhere and a loud voice begins talking to you etc, etc. This experience might be just a product of your defective mind (Hallucination), an alien encounter, or, if you allow, Satan himself. As Kiekegaard showed there is NOTHING rational in setting out to kill your only son on the orders of a voice from the sky. There is no certainty or RATIONAL basis (the opposite of which or denial of, to be impossible) to the belief in revelation. Revelation, like science, needs an irrational basis to get off the ground.

That assumes that the pagan works count as science. Which is problematic, since then science originated everywhere. The Indians and Chinese had “science”. It becomes a meaningless word.

The general thrust is that science arose in a Christian context because it posited a fundamentally knowable universe whereas other traditions (lacking a human-like creator god) didn’t share that assumption. Lu Qinshun offered a critique of this in the East in his letters to Yangming, where he criticized Yangming of being like the Buddhists and Daoists because he looks too far inside at the expense of the outside world. I do agree with that.

But the claim of Medieval Christianity being anti-science is simply false. By-and-large, the Church was the organ of scientific progress until very recently. It wasn’t until the science that the church created outgrew the church itself and began to contradict it that the modern anti-scientific strains of Christianity began. Since the East didn’t give rise to these things, it didn’t have that problem. Especially because of how the ideas of Social Darwinism played out in Asia at the time of modernization, leading to a de-emphasis on the traditional philosophies and a huge emphasis on the post-Christian science. This also worked out well because dogma doesn’t play a role in Eastern religiophilosophies the same way it does in Western religions. There was no literal seven day creation to contradict, so of course scientific conclusions could more easily be accepted as valid. But it is that same ambivalence towards the truth that also prevents a proper science from being developed. Daoist alchemy, for example, could have been a hotbed for chemistry. And it was to a degree, but it failed to advance as far as the western version in no small part because of the difference in world-view. Plenty of technological developments in both, but that is distinct from proper science.

I’d question how “knowable” in a scientific sense fundamentally empty things are. Natural law theory played a huge role in the development of science and natural laws don’t work very well when applied to empty things/things constantly in a state of change. In the Challenge of Epistemology thread I linked earlier I talk about the idiopathic nature of the truth. Now, I do think that this idea is fundamentally correct and when applied to a developed science, good things happen. But I don’t think such a concept can lead to the development of science. As for curiosity being demeaned as hubris, I’d ask you for examples outside of the modern context. Once modernity was established and friction between the Church and science began, sure, there was an anti-intellectual backlash.

Sure, in the Christian worldview we are fallen, but the world is still knowable because it was created by a God fundamentally like us. Aside from the monopoly on education, monks and theologians were the pioneers of science in the West because they wanted to understand their god through his creation. This isn’t my rationale, but the one that the earliest scientists used.

Think about it, we have a very nice control for historical development since we can look at human societies where science did not arise:

  1. The Dark Ages. For our purposes, the whole of Eastern history has been a “dark ages” with respect to science. Not a mere 1000 years.

  2. Earlier advances in Science and the role of the Greeks. Greek science is notoriously speculative, it lacks any experimental aspect to it what-so-ever. That is the major problem with it. For example, he cites Galen as a great scientist, Galen whose anatomy was that people are giant bags of blood. This was known to be incorrect even in his time due to Egyptian embalming work, but he had his idea and he was running with it! Furthermore, intellectual developments made by the Greeks can be paralleled and are even occasionally surpassed by other cultures at the same time. So there can’t be anything special about that knowledge, still leaving us with the question: why Europe and nowhere else?

  3. Lack of distinction between theoretical knowledge and techniques. This is important, and he doesn’t address it. It actually pertains to a conversation I was having with Jakob in the Frozen Filosophy thread, so I’ll use the same example: statics. All buildings that do not collapse can be modeled by statics, those that can’t can too – it just says that they fall But statics is a relatively new field, and it certainly predates a lot of major building projects like castles/palaces of all shapes and sizes from all countries. So statics is unnecessary for the technique of building, even incredibly complicated structures like Gothic Cathedrals. But once statics has been discovered, a whole lot of new territory can be covered incredibly quickly. Skyscrapers are pretty much impossible without statics. Techniques were developed the world over, but the underlying principles, the theories behind them were rarely investigated and when they were, they were investigated in a purely speculative fashion. He dismissed Bacon and Aquinas because they didn’t develop many techniques, but so what?

  4. Which brings me to natural philosophy. Natural philosophy attempted to derive theoretical knowledge from techniques. As he rightly said in that blog, many of these attempts were downright silly. This is undeniably true. But it began the exercise of doing just, of interrelating the two in an organized fashion that ultimately lead to empirical studies. And natural philosophy, while a departure from, was an outgrowth of the methods established by Scholasticism. Look at Pagan philosophy, there are a lot of big names but trying to make a coherent picture is damned hard because it was perpetrated by an elite class with a lack of humility. Basically, everybody had their own ideas. Sure, there were schools, but look at how Plato handled Socrates and he was by all accounts a very faithful student! Instead using the rigor of what has been previously established to understand God’s creation (what natural philosophy was trying to do) only instead of relying on textual sources (scholasticism) it relied on the world itself. This is especially important because Scholasticism was about applying rigorous logic and logical systems to one’s belief.


Think about emptiness and natural law. It is easy to look back through the lens of history and retrofit modern knowledge, but if we try to situate ourselves in the past behind a veil of ignorance the path towards science using emptiness is damned hard. In a non-constant world, how does one go about positing constant theories to describe anything? In a world devoid of teleology, how does one describe objects in a pre-modern, yet proto-scientific manner?

It isn’t that I value Christianity more than Buddhism (I don’t) but rather that the very things that cause Christianity and Science to conflict at the moment are also by-and-large the same forces that gave rise to science. That is good news for modern NARPs because we lack that conflict. I see no reason not to tip the hat to Christianity for its contributions and recognize that they not only beat us to it but we wouldn’t be here without that. A sort of “good game, let’s move on” sort of thing as opposed to reinventing history.

Mr. Omar,

If you want to demonstrate that:

modern science did not develop because of Christianity, but in spite of it.

Then you’ll have to demonstrate how non-Christian philosophy has organically (without the influence of Christianity) produced systems, paradigms, or philosophies that make sense out of inductive inferences, motion, the unity and particularity of human experience, causation, identity through change, and various other necessary preconditions of science (like inductive reasoning.)

Dr. Bahnsen is saying that pagan systems, in principle, cannot provide adequate metaphysical constructs in which the above preconditions are intelligible. Therefore, pagan societies did not advance science in the same way Christendom was able to.

To Xun,

I appreciate your willingness to give credit where credit is due.

Mr. Shotgun,

— If you want to demonstrate that:
modern science did not develop because of Christianity, but in spite of it.
Then you’ll have to demonstrate how non-Christian philosophy has organically (without the influence of Christianity) produced systems, paradigms, or philosophies that make sense out of inductive inferences, motion, the unity and particularity of human experience, causation, identity through change, and various other necessary preconditions of science (like inductive reasoning.)
O- They never did. Else Hume would have had little to write about. My point is that the christian religion does not help to change these conditions, or flaws, if you will, within the pursuit of knowledge. Even with Christianity on tow we cannot escape our finiteness. How does the believer in God produce systems, paradigms, or philosophies that make sense out of inductive inferences, motion, the unity and particularity of human experience, causation, identity through change, and various other necessary preconditions of science (like inductive reasoning.), without first making a leap of faith? The premises that it admits allows it to develop certain systems of knowledge but the truth of the premises remain unfounded, or doubtable.

Modern science developed not because but in spite because the scientist does not rely on revelation. This is what little by little eroded the link between the two. When Copernicus discovered the helio-centric model he was opposed by the Church. When Galileo supported those ideas with research that I deem scientific, he was persecuted by the Church. Do you dispute history? Therefore, for me it is clear that the Church has not been the necessary foundation but the obstacle which scientific reasearch has to account for.

I must be clear that my argument is not that theism is an obstacle to scientific research, for deism drove notable scientists, but that Christianity was an obstacle.

— Dr. Bahnsen is saying that pagan systems, in principle, cannot provide adequate metaphysical constructs in which the above preconditions are intelligible. Therefore, pagan societies did not advance science in the same way Christendom was able to.
O- All that is needed is belief. Science is being done in non-christian countries by non-christians and atheists. How can that be? Because 2+2=4 whether you irrationally assume God or not.

I’m not saying I agree with the central premise, but some Greek stroking his beard and saying, “Hey, you know what, I bet everything is made out of indivisible particles” isn’t science. Neither is Math. Neither, in a lot of cases, is inventing stuff.

Omar, you seem to be interpreting ‘science’ to mean ‘anything smart people do that isn’t philosophy’.

A history of the origins of the scientific method should be pretty straightforward, right?

I’d say I’m skeptical that science needs any grounding philosophy to be done. While logically, it makes sense that people conducting repeatable experiments would have to believe in a law-governed static universe, I don’t think people are always that logical. I could easily see a group of ancient Hindus who, if you asked them, would say that all material reality is illusion and lies, nevertheless trying to grow crops in various soils with various fertilizers, recording the results, and making predictions because, well, they’re hungry. But, then again, maybe I’m so enmeshed in a scientific culture that what seems natural to me may not be to them.

It might make more sense to say that a Christian worldview best grounds science for those of us to whom it occurs science needs some rational grounding beyond the usefulness of it’s results.

Beyond the usefulness of its results. Well said. But what about those who think that the usefulness of the results serves as sufficient justification? First principles it ain’t, but it, errrr, does get better results.

I guess I’d ask what they mean by ‘sufficiency’.

Well, we’re pragmatists. That which works is sufficient.

Not very satisfying, I know.

So, that which has useful results is that which works? Yeah, guess I can’t argue with that.

Tautologies are fucking wonderful, aren’t they?

Yes and No.

You mean, yes and yes as well as no and no.

Otherwise your whole groundwork falls into pieces.

A is A, mutherfucker!

NEXT QUESTION!

Will you marry me?

I don’t think I’m technically empowered, but…sure. Who’s the groom?

Last I checked, I was more likely to go both ways, so I guess that makes you the proud groom and me the blushing bride.

See in in Mass in a month-or-so? I need some time to inform my parents, they have to pay for it after all.

Hell no. I ain’t gonna be kin to no masshole. You’ll have to become an adopted Mainer. And shave your legs.

I know when I’m outmatched.

Hats off to you, my superior.

Hello Ucci,

— I’m not saying I agree with the central premise, but some Greek stroking his beard and saying, “Hey, you know what, I bet everything is made out of indivisible particles” isn’t science. Neither is Math. Neither, in a lot of cases, is inventing stuff.
O- Science is not about “inventing stuff”, but about discovering rules that reduce the possibility of variety in results to a prediction concerning reality. Such predictions, whether about a godless Reality or a God-sustained Reality remain, unfortunately for the rationalist, irrational inferences.
Just take this problem of a godless science: How do you know that the sun will rise tomorrow? How can you be sure? The Christian applies Hume to support his thesis that without the Christian God’s revelation, you simply cannot know if the sun will rise or not.
The problem is that God as narrated in the Christian tradition, possesses a will that is unfettered, that miracles do happen, and so there is no basis on which to assert that the sun will undoubtedly rise tomorrow anymore than from the godless perspective.

— Omar, you seem to be interpreting ‘science’ to mean ‘anything smart people do that isn’t philosophy’.
O- Not at all Ucc. Science after all evolved from what was once called “natural philosophy”, so it was a part of the philosophical tradition, and thus I trace it back to those bearded greeks.

— A history of the origins of the scientific method should be pretty straightforward, right?
O- But science did not begin from the scientific method. The scientific method originated in a world that already possess science, or, up to that point, “natural philosophy”.

— I’d say I’m skeptical that science needs any grounding philosophy to be done.
O- I am skeptical that science needs any grounding in christian theology to be done.

— It might make more sense to say that a Christian worldview best grounds science for those of us to whom it occurs science needs some rational grounding beyond the usefulness of it’s results.
O- To conduct a scientific research I do need belief, faith, in order to make certain reasonable guesses. I would say that rather than science needing any support, that science has the support it needs already built into human nature, which I think was Hume’s point. You don’t need support because we are predisposed, in order to reason, to sustain certain irrational assumptions.
If God was a fixed value then I could see Him supporting a fixed set of laws. But the fact of the matter is that the Christian God perform miracles that defy the formulations of a scientific theory. For example in a godless science we can formulate that water is chemically different from wine. The christian scietist cannot even say this for sure of that. It is only so because God wills it so and stops being so the moment God wills it so again. But the will of God is entirely mysterious. So I ask how can God enhance a scientific research?
Light is believed to travel at a constant and uniform 187,000 etc, etc…Of course this can be doubted due to the fact that the past has no imposition upon the future. Now suppose I add God: The same variability remains, for the past recorded speed of light was simply arbitrated by God’s freewill and so it could change in the future, depending on God’s good pleasure. So how is science supported by Christianity?

Hello Xun:
Let me start by saying that my argument does not deny the problems contained within science, but doubts that such problems are erased with the inclusion of a CHRISTIAN outlook. I do not deny that for certain notable scientist, like Newton, what they were doing was pretty much discovering God’s Laws- that is, that these were eternal rules set by God. But Newton’s God is not necessarly the Christian God nor can we conclude that Galileo or Copernicus agree with the Christian faith.
I don’t deny that science took root in monasteries, but argue that science was found outside them and before their very existence, and that science has an equal or a greater debt to the greeks than to Moses. To read Genesis as a scientific text is absurd. It (Christianity, which affirms Revelation from God) negates the scientific method rather than affirm it.

— That assumes that the pagan works count as science. Which is problematic, since then science originated everywhere. The Indians and Chinese had “science”. It becomes a meaningless word.
O- No it does not. Why would we say that the indians had it as well as the chinese, the greek, the mayans, aztecs, etc, etc? Because science is a HUMAN enterprise, not a merely CHRISTIAN exercise, therefore it makes perfect sense to find science everywhere without reducing the term to a meaningless state. How do we define science? As a Christian phenomenon? Then, it does make sense to make Christianity a pre-condition to it’s development. “the term science refers to the organized body of knowledge concerning the physical world, both animate and inanimate” (online encyclopedia)…was knowledge unorganize prior to the Christian revelation? Based on that meaning for the term science, the author of the piece states that: “Science as it is known today is of relatively modern origin, but the traditions out of which it has emerged reach back beyond recorded history. The roots of science lie in the technology of early toolmaking and other crafts, while scientific theory was once a part of philosophy and religion.” The history of science, as this person conceives it, is intertwined with technology, not with Christianity. I don’t disagree that religion played a part, just as in Newton and further back in the calculations of planetary movements which were tied to religious significance (like in Stonehenge). But I do not think that supports the idea that CHRISTIANITY could support it. If it does, then I say that it is not the best religious support available because of the primacy given to Revelation over observation and research. Think about their criteria for truth and compare with other available criteria. How do you know that Jesus was resurrected? How do you know that you could be resurrected? There is no rational underpinning to such answers and in fact “faith” in revelation, not observation and research, is what is encouraged. How do you know that God came to John the Revelator but not to Muhammed? Without the use of an irrational, thus faith, underpinnings there is no way to solve the problem. It is for this reason that Christian theology eventually was advanced through irrational means.

— The general thrust is that science arose in a Christian context because it posited a fundamentally knowable universe whereas other traditions (lacking a human-like creator god) didn’t share that assumption.
O- You do not need to suppose a human-like god to posit a fundamentally knowable universe- that supposition is already there. The person-like god is simply a rationalization, post-dating the necessary condition for reasoning in the first place. For in order to support a knowable universe, I would have to suppose a fundamentally knowable god-- now if I needed support from a god to posit a knowable universe, then I would also need some support to posit a knowable god. If there is no support for such position, then why should I need support to the first position (that the universe is knowable)?

— But the claim of Medieval Christianity being anti-science is simply false.
O- Copernicus, like many, was careful not to publish his work- why, if he lived in a pro-science society?
Science like his and Darwins challenged the received revelation, so he was correct in being weary. Galileo was condemned by the Church as suspicious of heresy, his works baned. How could that happen in a pro-science society?

— By-and-large, the Church was the organ of scientific progress until very recently.
O- Only where received revelation was not an issue. Wherever science collided with antiquity, it’s novelty was condemned. Science was not meant to discover truth- that was already given-, but to clarify revelation/truth. Because not everything in revelation was scientifically true, these discoveries arouse the wrath of the Church. Of course, Galilei did not believe that his system was in opposition to revelation, but against a certain interpretation of revelation. That interpretation is the interpretation that takes revelation as a revelation of scientific Laws. Only…the Bible is not mathematical.

— It wasn’t until the science that the church created outgrew the church itself and began to contradict it that the modern anti-scientific strains of Christianity began.
O- Modern science–not to be mistaken with science itself-- is traced to the seminal event of that challenge.

— Plenty of technological developments in both, but that is distinct from proper science.
O- Science, as shown above, could have been spurred by technology, and technology by science.

— Sure, in the Christian worldview we are fallen, but the world is still knowable because it was created by a God fundamentally like us.
O- That doesn’t support science at all.

— Aside from the monopoly on education, monks and theologians were the pioneers of science in the West because they wanted to understand their god through his creation.
O- An attitude that was not solely Christian.

— Greek science is notoriously speculative, it lacks any experimental aspect to it what-so-ever. That is the major problem with it. For example, he cites Galen as a great scientist, Galen whose anatomy was that people are giant bags of blood. This was known to be incorrect even in his time due to Egyptian embalming work, but he had his idea and he was running with it!
O- Then we can say that advances in medicine were poor, but the type of science they could apply such approach best was astronomy, for which there was little chance to run experiments.

— Furthermore, intellectual developments made by the Greeks can be paralleled and are even occasionally surpassed by other cultures at the same time.
O- Sure, but they were recorded better in Greece.

— So there can’t be anything special about that knowledge, still leaving us with the question: why Europe and nowhere else?
O- Oh but there is. The greeks gave us the beginnings of unfettered research (theoretical research). If science advanced in any way through Christianity it was in whichever way Christianity still emulated the greeks. Such science was independent, if still subordinate to revelation, and as such co-existed, NOT “supported” science.