Creation, contingency, and early modern science

Ted Davis (
Fri, 05 Dec 1997 16:09:21 -0500

Joel Cannon wrote:

"The things I have read argue the Greeks ambivalent attitude toward the
physical world and some Aristotelian attitudes of logical necessity
prevented them from
developing modern-type science, and that in contrast to that the
Judeo-Christian tradition has the convictions that 1) Creation was
good, 2) that it was orderly and a unity (no mythological battles,
etc.) 3) that it was contingent (since God was free to choose, it is
not strictly determined by logical necessity 4) that humans created in
the image of God are capable of comprehending this universe. (the
world is comprehensible).

Maybe Ted Davis, who is actually trained in this field [sic], can help

Yes, I think he can help...

The title of this post is taken from my doctoral dissertation, now many
years old and published as isolated articles rather than a monograph. (One
such article, the one most closely related to Joel's post, was published in
vol. 3 of Jitse van der Meer, ed., Facets of Faith and Science (Univ Press
of America, 1996), pp. 135-54.) It's an awfully long and complicated story,
this claim that voluntarist theology from the Bible either "caused" modern
science, "caused" all science (assumption: Greek science wasn't "science"),
or profoundly influenced modern science in ways that are still important
today. I'll spare the details and cut to the chase.

In my opinion, the final claim comes fairly close to the truth, the others
are not supported by the evidence. Specifically, voluntarism was one of
several factors, perhaps the most important one (though this is not
established) that led natural philosophers in the 17th century to view an
"empirical" science of nature as superior to a more purely "rational"
science of nature. It greatly overstates the case -- and borders on
apologetics -- to state that Christian theology "caused" modern science.
The view that Greek science wasn't genuine science, or that it was
"stillborn" (as Jaki thinks) for theological rather than cultural/economic
reasons relies on inadequate definitions of science or too narrow a view of
historical causation. On the other hand, the claim that theology did not,
even could not, influence science in crucial, positive, ways is just as
wrong: it did, and did so often.

Ted Davis