origins of ironic science

Paul Arveson (
Tue, 9 Dec 1997 18:39:36 -0400

On 12/7 Bob DeHaan wrote:

>Does anyone know of a secular scholar of the history of science who gives
>credit to Christianity for its role in the founding of science? Years ago I
>read an article in *Science* about the origination of science in Western
>society. There was nary a word about the part played by Christianity.

There are actually quite a few historial accounts that give some credit to
Christian theology. They may have been mentioned before, but I could add
the classic by E. A. Burtt, 'The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern
Science'. Also the work of Herbert Butterfield, a widely-respected
historian, should be mentioned. And of course there is Whitehead's
statement about Medieval Christianity being the key ingredient in the rise
of science.

I'm certainly no historian, but sometimes I think the claims about
Christian influence are exaggerated; to moderate them I think it is more
fair to say that there was a CONFLUENCE of intellectual forces that
resulted in modern science, including economic changes such as the guilds
and banks, political changes such as the Magna Carta, the rediscovery of
Aristotle via the Moorish scholars, and even things like the Black Death,
that played a role (remember, the fundamental basis of civilization is:
Good Plumbing).

I think that postmodern historians might even be more willing than these
earlier authors to give due credit for the origins of science. In this
respect they may be more forthright, but of course now they would see
science itself as merely a Eurocentric belief system, and not something
sacred to be defended as the positivists of 50 years ago felt.
(Incidentally, not just science is at stake here. Lots of other areas of
cultural values, such as Western art and music, are also being criticized,
with the same motive).

We too should stop and think about this claim. If we are going to use the
statement 'science emerged only in a Christian philosophical setting' as an
apologetic, then on what grounds can we claim that science is now

I think Cark Sagan was right about one thing: science is being attacked
from the 'right' and the 'left'. The 'right' consists of the Christians
who are motivated to revise science into 'creation science' or 'origin
science' to make it conform to (their view of) dogma. The 'left' consists
of those who see science as nothing more than a passing ethnocentric
fashion, and now we should get over it and look at all those neglected
so-called 'pagan' cosmologies.

The 'gravedigger thesis' -- that science, having emerged in the Christian
West, is now burying its parent, Christian theology -- bothered me when I
first heard about it; but now I seem to be seeing an even greater irony:
that science, albeit a true child of the Faith, is now being buried -- by
well-meaning Christians who find themselves at odds with its cosmological

In other words, instead of the child burying its parent, the parent is
burying the child. Or at least trying to -- while the child is still alive.

And in an even greater irony, the 'rightist' agenda happens to coincide
with that of the 'left': both are saying that knowledge is culturally
bound. 'Rightists' from Morris to Johnson insist that science is a
religion based on certain presuppositions and should be treated as such in
the classroom, with equal time given to creation and evolution. Perhaps
the postmoderns would agree with this -- except that in order to 'balance'
the teaching of Eurocentric science, we should also add astrology, the
Gilgamesh epic, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao, the I Ching, and the Tibetan
Book of the Dead.

Paul Arveson, Code 724, Research Physicist, Signatures Directorate
Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division
9500 MacArthur Blvd., West Bethesda, MD 20817-5700
(301) 227-3831 (301) 227-4511 (FAX)