Novak (novak) wrote,

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Theological Notebook: Talking with Nimoloth on Religion and the Origin of the Modern Sciences

Before going to bed, I saw that nimoloth, my solar physicist friend in Scotland, had tossed out an invitation for me to comment on a question of the history of the development of science/technology and religion. While I work hard to keep up with her entries in physics, I could see where the discussion she was referencing hit a lot of the stereotypes you pick up in the culture and that you end up having to unlearn if, like me, you run off and join the circus guild of historians.

My response ended up developed enough to take me 'til dawn (and past!) and now I'm headin' for my beddin'. But since it was a longer response, I figured it earned the right to be an entry in my own journal on its own merits. I hope I think I made sense when I wake up....

Anyone else have some thoughts? I tried to remain clear on what seems to be just plain simple historical fact and where I'm being speculative.

nimoloth writes:
I have heard it said that without the development of monotheistic religion (such as Christianity and Islam), modern society with all it's technology and ethics would not have developed, implying that we would not be technologically advanced or ethical (if we could even be considered ethical as it is) with a dominant polytheistic religion (e.g Hinduism, paganism).

Now, I'm inclined to think that this view is inaccurate. Consider the technological advances made by polytheistic civilisations such as the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, Chinese and many others. Some of their technological feats even now defy understanding. It could even be argued that monotheistic religions set technology and cultural development back, for example in the Dark Ages in Europe when Christianity taught that some of the earlier developments put forth by, for example, the Greeks, was wrong and indeed heretical. The early Church often put it's own, non-scientific, views forward as the only truth (creation in seven days, the Earth being the centre of the universe, etc.). On the other hand, early scholars following and during the dark ages were generally monks, supported by the Church, and they did make some progress, even if some of it was wrong.

I also see no reason why ethics would not have developed in a more or less similar way under a polytheistic religion.

Thoughts, anyone? I expect novak at least has some thoughts on the matter!

These thoughts were brought to you by this post, the letter "r" and the number "1".

Yes, I read through the earlier post and it is full of problems on an historical level. The difference is between history as its understood by historians and history as "everyone knows it" on a popular level: like 1066 And All That – the history "as people actually remember it." The general picture of the early middle ages in those comments is one mostly from 19th Century Protestant historiography, more driven by an anti-Catholic agenda concerned about the abolishing of the Papal States than a pure concern with examining Europe's past in a disinterested way. You wouldn't know it as a solar physicist, but to refer to early medieval Europe as "the Dark Ages" is simply a slur: despite it being such a common idea with regular people, among historians today it has the intellectual and moral respectability of calling someone a "nigger!" But it has so ingrained itself in the popular imagination and memory now that that sort of view of the past is accepted as entirely natural. Medieval Studies in the academy has to spend a great deal of effort at breaking people from the stereotypes they've learned from movies or pop historical documentaries on the History Channel that perpetuate this 19th century stuff. That 19th Century agenda has morphed into the purely Secularist philosophy of today, with its strong antagonism to Christianity past and present, and so in light of that, I'm going to try to avoid any speculation and just stick to what is pretty much taken for granted today by real historians. (The 19th century being the real root of much of popular historical consciousness because that was the real birth of the professional historical guild. The whole idea of an innate conflict between science and religion is one of the key inventions of that century's ideological conflicts, and which also still holds sway in the popular mind.) The common attitude of disdain for medievals for believing the sun went around the Earth – as all cultures believed, it being a matter of pretty clear, dare I say "scientific" observation – is an example of this. European medievals are sneered at as criminally ignorant for something that everyone today would still believe if they weren't told (as a matter of faith) by authority figures that we have a heliocentric system. Hardly anyone today knows how to do the observations or the math to follow Copernicus, but nevertheless the popular attitude is one of smug superiority to the medieval past: a very interesting historical phenomenon in its own right, and one understood by studying the origins and use of the earlier historiography I mentioned above. In fact, Ptolemy's textbook was the standard astronomy text of the medieval period and it's quite respectible, if not possessed of some of the modern breakthroughs.

So while everyone commenting on this material may certainly be educated, I didn't see anyone who seemed to have any experience in the history of ideas beyond the popular level. And the basic historical narrative people were holding to there regarding this period – because it had been so victimized by being an ideological target in the C19 – is on the level of believing the sun circles the earth: a fine, popular idea that's easy to accept, but it doesn't hold water.

The question of the connection of monotheism and the rise of modern (to use the word to refer to the actual period of modernity, not as a synonym for "contemporary") technology is pretty well known in the history of ideas or the history of science. I think I first read it in a text on the subject written by a Hindu, as a matter of fact. The specific question is why did "modern" science rise in Europe and not elsewhere. You rightly point out that all sorts of civilizations had their engineering marvels; the Babylonians were plotting comet orbits (without a heliocentric model); the Chinese invented gunpowder and paper; and the list goes on. But none of these civilizations ever developed the system of science as we understand it. And it's the system that's the key point: the Chinese had some chemical innovations, but never true chemistry; Aristotle wrote a book of physics, but it wasn't a real system: more a set of observations. Something distinct happened in Europe. It would be naive to say it was just coincidence. It would be innane racism to say that Europeans were simply more able, intellectually. And it was a process well underway long before the Enlightenment, when those philosophical playwrights swooped in and claimed science as solely supporting their newly-minted agenda.

The breakthrough happened in 13th century scholastic theology: Albert the Great/Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas and the early university generation (another historian's point: the "university" as an educational system is a distinct innovation from those other great schools of the past, which are not rightly labeled with the European term). The first part of the breakthrough is Jewish and goes right back to the story of creation in Genesis 1. One of the key ideas in that poem is that God is responsible for the universe. (Another point: the 19th Century American biblical literalists who are at the root of today's seven-day creationism also ought not to be read back onto the past. Augustine's book on The Six Days of Creation is quite frank in instructing people not to take that literally and that the world is far, far more ancient than one would get by adding up all the years indicated in Genesis and the rest of the Bible: a simple study of the rocks shows you that, he said. And he would go on to be the key teacher of medieval Europe.) So. God is responsible for the origin of the universe. The second part of the breakthrough was the one contributed by the Scholastics: God is logical. That is, God is able to be analysed by logic, even if, as an object, God is the only thing humans study that transcends humanity (we being more complicated than stars in having personalities, etc.) and God is bound by the rules of logic, rightly understood, as reason and logic are extensions of the reality of God manifested in the order of the universe. God can no more do the logically impossible – make a square circle – than I can. This idea had been brewing in Christianity since its inception, with Jesus being understood as the Logos – the rational principle underlying all reality, an aspect of God – entered into history in human form. But the 13th century, with its particularly strong engagement in the newly-aquired philosophical texts of Aristotle, took to a new level the task of reflection on the nature of reason and its use in studying God and God's creation.

Now the two key ideas are now in place for a simple syllogism: 1) God created the universe; and 2) God is logical. Therefore the universe is logical.

Now, we might say "Well, duh." But we have to realize what a leap of faith this supposition is. It's hard for people to grasp the depth of the biggest leaps in human ideas because once you've crossed that gap, the entire consciousness of humanity is irrevocably changed. The Italian Renaissance's recovery of perspective is nothing, for example, to the leap of the first caveman who thought to paint his idea on a wall. That's the hard gap to imagine: to put your mind back on the other side of that divide. The "philosophy of nature" (what we call today the hard sciences) had existed up to this point more on that Aristotelian level of observation. The supposition that it would be possible to "cut open the universe" and find its workings as a logical or mathematical system goes way beyond the available and observable evidence. And if you know the history of science at all, you know the years it took of building and nurturing this logic and its results to allow a major breakthrough like that of Newton's to come to pass. Now for the first time, we have a "real" science, in the sense of a physics that works with mathematical accuracy. And it will be the work built on this that will lead to our ability to create our kind of technology.

But it wasn't possible without the medieval Christian theology that would project its vision of universal rationality onto the mere observable existence of the universe. Ancient paganism was overtly hostile to the natural order. There was a strong anti-materialism that ran throughout antique religion except for Judaism and Christianity. Because of that doctrine of Creation – that God made the universe and the universe was good – the Jewish-Christian intellectual arc is the only one in ancient religion that didn't see matter as an evil but as a good. Matter, bodies, sexuality: all of this was not a defect in the Jewish-Christian worldview (no matter what nonsense people say about Christianity and sexuality today: medieval Christian mysticism, for example, saw human sexuality as the best metaphor for the love of God for humanity) and this appreciation for and defence of matter is also critical in the ability of Christianity to create the intellectual conditions for the modern sciences to arise. A more spiritualized religion – say, one that believed in recycled, reincarnated souls like Greeks or Hindus – rather than one that believed identity was intrinsic to the material nature of the body (hence the Jewish/Christian idea of the resurrection of the body, and not the immortality of the soul) likely could not provide the context for a centuries-long investment of intellectual resources into the development of the basic sciences that would be necessary for our technology to come to pass. You go centuries between the start of this breakthrough until you get to Newton's physics and centuries after that to Edison and Tesla. Particularly in the beginning tangible payoff was comparatively scarce when you think of what we expect today. Likewise, contemporary neo-paganism seems to have no need to try to reconcile itself with the sciences, existing perhaps more on a poetic level than with any kind of truth-claims like those of Christianity. Since Christianity is so utterly bound to rationality, it will always be engaged with the sciences, whether in debate over its own claims (which it holds to be as objectively factual as physical phenomena) or as natual allies (say, against relativist or some forms of post-modern thought) in that they both defend the idea of a real, objective order to the universe to which we are accountable. If neo-paganism doesn't have to integrate itself into the natural sciences or have to defend its existence against any critique by science of its claimed deities or phenomena, then I doubt whether it could have ever mustered the resources to conjure up modern science, although of course it's a moot point, being a post-Christian religious movement.

That's a sketch of where historians of thought make those connections between religion and technology. And you still are seeing the same intrinsic connections playing out today, even in the news. The uproar in Germany the other month was over Pope Benedict XVI in a lecture saying that the Church's commitment to the Greek philosophical heritage (and thus, by implication, to the natural sciences) was absolute. (I'm not sure what you were alluding to as Greek ideas the Church thought heretical, by the way: did you have anything specific in mind?) Again, that idea of God as the basis of the rational universe demands it. His ethical aside, that Reason was also the only legitimate basis for the spread of religion – through persuasion and not the sword – was what set off the Muslim world, which would not agree with a theology that saw God as bound by anything, including a universal Reason.


The bit about ethics I'll leave for some other time, as the night is far gone, other than to say that the question might not be as clear or legitimate a one as the science question. The Catholic Church assumes that all cultures and religions draw this general ethical orientation that everyone shares from that same rational and universal nature of God. Whether you call it the Forms or the Ideas with Socrates and Plato, whether you call it the Tao with the East, or whether you call it the Moral Law or the Natural Law with the Scholastics, the fact that all humanity shares a certain basic moral apprehension (at least it's universal to the point where those who don't share it are thought disfunctional) is taken as the starting point for Catholic ethics, moreso than the use of the Bible, for example, as the ethical starting point. In this regard, Catholicism is comfortable in talking about all religions having a certain measure of truth in them. But since Christianity or Catholicism would see a universal moral nature to humanity as the result of "being created in the image of God" (or in other words, human evolution having taken us to the point where humanity emerges as a personal and spiritual creature able to apprehend the divine) "ethics" would not be seen as "a development of monothesitic religion" in the same way that the rise of the modern sciences is so easily traced back to Scholasticism. Rather, "ethics" is a function of a universal human nature reflective of the moral character of God, which is pure Goodness, Life, Love, etc.

It's definitely true that there is a distinct ethical heritage in monotheism, but that might be a different question. One could definitely talk about things like the rise of the Western human rights tradition coming out of Europe's Christian heritage. For example, you could talk about the early development of concepts of international law as friars in Spanish universities tried to defend Native Americans against Spanish and Portuguese conquest by the innovative claim that the Natives had something called "rights." But that's another book, and much more speculative about how modern society would have evolved....
Tags: biblical studies, cultural, education, ethical, europe, faith and reason, historical, mysticism/spirituality, patristics, philosophical, scientific, secularism/modernity, theological notebook
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