Reformation, Science, and Modernity

I recently spoke at an excellent conference held at Hong Kong Baptist University, on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. One paper at this event, by the distinguished Australian scholar Peter Harrison, raised many questions for me, and specifically made me think about the often-discussed issue of the relationship between the Reformation and Early Protestantism on the one hand, and on the other, the rise of science and modernity. Let me stress here that this blogpost is in no sense a challenge or refutation to Harrison’s arguments, but rather a series of questions that he provoked in my mind. So it should be taken as a compliment to the richness and sophistication of his work!

A Theology of Scientific Inquiry

In several major books, Harrison has explored that relationship between science and religion. See for instance his The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998) or The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007). In this particular paper, he was addressing the familiar question of why Europe and the West became the birthplace of modern science. Now, plenty of other societies had developed far-reaching scientific ideas – Arabs, Indians, Persians, and Chinese all come to mind, not to mention the Maya. Europe, however, turned such individual insights into a sustained and self-sustaining enterprise that became a central social and cultural ideology. If there is a single turning point in this process, a Creation moment, it would be the foundation of the English Royal Society in 1660. We live with the consequences.

To oversimplify a complex and deeply researched argument, Harrison found the origins of the Western scientific approach in the ideas of the Reformation, and of Protestantism. To take one example of many, he noted the Protestant and Calvinist idea of the fallen state of Nature. Yes, humanity could find wisdom in Nature, as Christians had always believed, and even to rediscover the universal knowledge held by Adam. But that fallenness meant that flawed Nature must never be taken at face value. Human beings had to interrogate it constantly, to investigate and experiment, to find and test provable truths. Truth was determined by probability. That idea of experiment and induction dominates the thought of Francis Bacon. More generally, we can trace the familiar Max Weber theory about Protestantism and the rise of capitalism, and the significant role of Puritans and Dissenters in making English economic enterprise.

In large measure, this is a Protestant story, but it also includes Catholic currents, as manifested for instance in the work of Galileo or Pascal. (Jansenism shared many commonalities with Calvinism). Ultimately, though, modernity emerged most spectacularly in such Protestant nations as England and the Netherlands, not to mention such Calvinist heartlands as Switzerland and Scotland, and later New England.

Intuitively, it makes wonderful sense. Europe experienced its Reformation in the sixteenth century, and its Scientific Revolution from the end of that era. In The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (2015), David Wootton dates the revolution quite precisely, as running from 1572 through 1704. The chronology fits well. Surely there must be some linkage?

The key theme of the argument, then, is that Western science finds its foundation in the ideas and theologies of the Reformation. Obviously, Harrison is anything but a maverick or outlier in these views. Many scholars accept them, and debate the precise change of cause and consequence.

Here is where I differ. Any or all of these genealogies of ideas and theologies might be correct, and I challenge none of Harrison’s arguments. But as I look at Western science, the Western difference, I tend to look far less to ideas, religion, or intellectual history, and rather to social and economic realities, and especially to matters of law and custom.

Science and Technology: Chain Reactions

Looking at the period between (say) 1550 and 1800, my first main point is that the scientific enterprise is not just a matter of pure intellectual endeavor, but rather it is deeply rooted in practical and even profitable needs. Nor is it really possible to draw any significant lines between the components of what we today think of as STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

If we look at the main fronts of advance in this era, so many of them either have a direct application to economic enterprise, or were widely believed to do so. That might mean improving techniques of navigation and transportation, mining or manufacture, agriculture and horticulture. Any of those areas might be assisted or even revolutionized by research and investigation in (in no particular order) chemistry, astronomy, metallurgy, botany, optics, hydraulics, and geology – with mathematics pervading all of those fields. Math was the foundation for such key practical skills as ballistics and cartography, both vital weapons in a European world dependent on military and naval supremacy.

Developments in one field had consequences in others, with few obvious divisions between technology and science. As a matter of practical necessity, an England that was running low on its forests after 1660 absolutely had to find new mineral means of obtaining power, and processing iron. That meant digging coal, which demanded techniques of pumping and drainage, which further demanded new sources of power, which implied improvements in metal-working and metallurgy. Moving people and goods to and from the industrial sites forced the invention of whole new means of transportation – of vehicles, roads, canals, and infrastructure. Record-keeping demands the massive expansion of literacy and arithmetic, and thus of rudimentary education. The invention of precise land surveying in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a minor but vital revolution in its own right. The more people work outside agriculture, the more they need to be fed, and that means improving agricultural productivity. As elites recognize the value of innovation, so they are tempted to sponsor societies, institutions, or colleges to undertake what we would call research. Publishers respond to these practical needs by turning out countless books to meet popular demand for information – for manuals and how-to books as well as theoretical works.

As to the scientific consequences of all this, see for instance Simon Winchester’s excellent 2001 book on The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. In an age of massive coal-mining and canal-digging, landowners needed to predict where further mineral deposits might be found. This was a matter of strict practical necessity. In 1815, surveyor William Smith drew up the first ever national-scale geological map, highly detailed and accurate, which laid the foundation for all future geological investigation, not to mention studying the stratification of fossils, and all that implied for evolutionary theory.  (When you are digging mines and canals, you will turn up lots of fossils, and the next step is to make sense of them). These discoveries demanded new theories about the origins of the earth and of life itself, and raised questions about planetary formation.

The key point is not just that some new technology or scientific insight emerges in isolation, but that it is sustained over generations or centuries in order to allow this kind of snowball effect, this cumulative proliferation of offshoots and consequences. The longer that process endures, the more people come to accept the new world as natural and inevitable. Does endurance matter as much as innovation?

In that sequence of chain reactions, where can we find any sharp or obvious divisions between practical technology and pure science? Surely the one feeds inexorably into the other, and is in turn influenced by its pupils. Technology drives science drives technology ….

Metal and Glass

You can make all the wonderful speculations you want about the heavens above or the invisible worlds beneath. But you can only subject them to real scientific investigation when you have the highly practical skills to make sophisticated devices like telescopes and microscopes, and when your culture has long experience of precision work in metal-working and glass-making. That glass-making also lets you make the prisms that were so crucial for Newton’s discoveries. Such technological skills are usually honed in very practical and workaday industrial and commercial processes. Artisanship really matters.

Metallurgy is critical here, and the West was very good indeed at these techniques at a very early stage. Yes, East Asian societies pioneered gunpowder, but the Chinese were still astonished by their encounters with Portuguese cannon in the early sixteenth century – round about Luther’s time, in fact. It was the Western ability to make advanced artillery that first gave Catholic missionaries easy entrée into Japan after 1550. Every warlord wanted to learn these amazing skills, to deploy them against his neighbor. Western facility with metals was critical when the time came to make pumps and, later, steam engines. Much of that skill depended on the ability to maintain very high temperatures in furnaces, a skill vital to many scientific experiments.

Likewise, how did the West get so good with glass? Some unknown Italian around 1300 invented eyeglasses, which then show up sporadically (and hilariously) in portraits over the next two centuries. Once printing was invented, people needed more and better eyeglasses to read, and an industry was born. Nobody thought of it in terms of a scientific research program, it was a commercial enterprise serving very practical consumer needs. But the long term consequence was that Western abilities in these areas made it possible to make telescopes and microscopes.

The father of microscopy was Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), who began life as a draper. He developed his skills in lens-making because he needed ever better magnifying glasses to examine the quality of the thread he was selling. Then, he started looking at many other forms of plant and animal life, and his research went on to make him the founding father of microbiology. A Dutch Calvinist, van Leeuwenhoek certainly applied a religious interpretation to his work, as he explored and glorified God’s creation. But that theological outlook would have meant little without the pre-existing Dutch expertise in lens-making.

No proficiency in glass-blowing, no experiments with air-pressure. No practical skills in metal and glass, no Royal Society.

Technology, then, laid the essential foundation for scientific progress and inquiry. And as the van Leeuwenhoek story suggests, never forget the role of private capitalist enterprise in driving scientific innovation.

Making Progress Profitable

Many societies through history have faced economic challenges, without experiencing the radical transformation that occurred in Western Europe during the seventeenth century, and which created modernity. But the West was also characterized by other features that supported and incited progress in science and technology, and which had little or nothing to do with theology. These other factors might not provide a total explanation of the Western Difference, but no account of that revolutionary change can fail to take account of them.

Through history, countless people have made important discoveries in science, or developed new techniques with commercial or industrial implications. In the West, though – especially in England and the Netherlands – new developments in the seventeenth century gave people the ability to profit from their discoveries in a way that had never been true in earlier societies. People could accumulate wealth, transmit it to their descendants, and invest in future progress.

England in this era (to take the most important example) was characterized by multiple legal and cultural assumptions that mightily aided economic growth. To put it crudely, English law was massively and systematically prejudiced in favor of the accumulation and transmission of property.

This was for instance a primogeniture society, which meant that the bulk of property went to an eldest heir. This allowed the progressive accumulation of large estates and properties, while also producing legions of younger sons who had the education and aspirations to find other means of gaining wealth. Inheritance customs matter immensely in determining economic growth and change.

Look at that mining enterprise I mentioned earlier as such an economic driver. That absolutely depended on the English Common Law principle that a property owner held the rights to what was found under his land, giving an enormous incentive to seek out and develop mineral resources. Elsewhere, and especially in Roman law societies, landowners held what was above ground, but some other coercive power – the king or feudal lord – owned everything beneath. So why bother to dig under your property in the first place?

Seventeenth century England was incredibly fertile in legal devices that today seem too obvious to be mentioned, but which did much to make the modern world. The most significant was the limited joint stock company, whereby a partner in an enterprise was only liable to the extent of his investment. If the company went belly up, a partner was not liable for every penny of his wealth. Seventeenth century courts also perfected the device of the mortgage, a wonderful means of transforming the advantages of property into liquid money.

Beyond any specific innovation was the underlying idea of the courts and judiciary as the enforcers and defenders of property rights, above and against any pretensions by kings or lords, and certainly by church leaders. Obviously, attitudes to such property changed over time, as witnessed by the growing hostility to slavery from the mid-eighteenth century. Generally, though, everyone knew that the courts treated property as sacrosanct.

Socially too, those Western societies were magnificent at absorbing new wealth into their hierarchies, usually by offering upstarts multiple means of inventing and displaying aristocratic pretensions.

To understand the importance of all this, look at other societies with quite different legal and political traditions, such as (for instance) the Islamic world. Of course, Islamic tradition was deeply and systematically legalistic, but with a strong bias towards communal and family arrangements, and a suspicion of individualism and property, social mobility or wealth accumulation. Also, traditions of absolutism meant that property never could be treated with any security or confidence, and only an idiot would assume that his lands or established commercial enterprises could be protected from official interference or outright theft. If you somehow held on to your wealth, the next sultan in line would assuredly steal it as needed, to donate it to courtiers or friends. Absolutist rule, of its nature, becomes kleptocracy.

In such a society, prudence demands investment in goods that are easily transportable when a fast escape is needed. Historically, Jews in Christendom wisely put their wealth in money, gold and jewels, rather than founding landed estates that could be grabbed whenever the local count or bishop felt a surge of avaricious piety. Moveable wealth was not just good in itself, it was essential. That situation would not change unless and until societies came to trust the courts and the legal system to defend property.

Certainly, the European Reformation was not irrelevant to these processes. The movement created stronger state mechanisms, while removing the rival power of church courts and jurisdictions. But that story is quite far removed from the specific theological debates.

Property, Inheritance and Law

When I teach this material, I sometimes summarize the Western Difference as a matter of Property, Inheritance, and Law – the PIL. To varying degrees, European societies discovered the correct “pill” in a way that their non-European counterparts did not, and often, still have not done. Innovation could be cultivated because it was profitable. Profit could then be accumulated and passed on to descendants, who built up the capital necessary to stimulate the production of more knowledge – or, where appropriate, for the patronage of great works of painting and sculpture, or the building of colleges. And profits were defended by courts, so they were not (generally) subject to the larcenous whims of the local sheikh or rajah. Taken together, these factors go far towards explaining global Western supremacy. Legal pioneers and systematizers like Henry Bracton and Sir William Blackstone should be seen as leading the “Triumph of the West” at least as convincingly as religious thinkers like Luther and Calvin.

No law or property rights, no sustained progress in technology and science, and no modernity.

So in making the West, and Western science, mortgages and mineral rights matter at least as much as theology, Calvinist or otherwise.


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