Over at the Atheist blog, Cross Examined, Bob Seidensticker, posted an article that examines the debt secular society owes to Christianity. Last night, Bob and I agreed to attempt a respectful “interfaith” discussion about various topics, beginning with a look at the relationship between Christianity and the roots of science and reason. Here is the first exchange in that discussion.
Bob: (Here’s) a popular article argues that all of us—atheists, too—owe a great debt to Christianity. It grounds the stable Western society that we take for granted. (Or does it?)
Dr. Greg: Interesting. Rodney Stark, a prominent sociologist of religion (an agnostic last I saw) argues in, The Victory of Reason, that the West owes its reliance on reason, itself, to Christianity. It’s a pretty audacious claim, but his argument is that in order to engage in scientific inquiry at all, you have to believe in an orderly universe in the first place which is impossible unless you believe in a God who not only creates, but agrees to live by the rules of his own creation. If I believe in tree spirits, for example, who’s to say that tree would decide to be in the same place tomorrow? What could I possibly gain by studying it? The inquiry might even be offensive. Likewise, if I believe in a capricious god who would/could do anything at any time, it would never even occur to me to ask the kinds of questions science asks because it would never even dawn on me that such questions could be answered (hence the lack of significant, sustained, scientific inquiry in traditional and eastern cultures. History shows that science happens in these cultures, but only in fits and starts and not as a sustained enterprise). The Christian God however, not only created the universe, but wedded himself to his creation eternally (Christians believe that Jesus Christ is eternally human and divine and has “divinized” creation through the incarnation), so while God could do whatever he wants in theory, he has made a covenant with creation to play by his own rules in order that we may know him better by studying his fingerprints on creation, which is a reflection of him. Science and reason are made possible because suddenly it occurs to me that I can learn something about God by studying nature, because not only did God make the universe, but he made it in his image, unites himself eternally to it (so now I can understand something about his inner life as well (i.e., the doctrine of the trinity) by studying creation), and abides by the rules of his own creation (except in those very rare instances we call miracles–which are the exceptions that prove the rule). Stark makes an interesting case that I really can’t do justice here. It’s a good read though.
Bob: Or, you could not have any supernatural presupposition and just follow the scientific facts about the natural world where they point. Do the fundamental axioms (that is, those that we can’t derive from still-more-fundamental laws) have to be taken on faith? Of course not—we test them. If we found an exception to 1 + 1 = 2 (“Dang! We forgot to test it on avocados, and it doesn’t seem to work for them.”) then we’d incorporate that exception.
“if I believe in a capricious god who would/could do anything at any time”
Yes, a consistent god does seem to be important. But I’m not sure you have it with the Christian god. Some Christians (perhaps not you) will use human analogies to God as a teacher or parent. God is more loving, just, reliable, etc. than any human. But when it comes to difficult issues (God’s demand of genocide or his support for slavery, for example), then suddenly there are exceptions and God follows his own rules. God isn’t good by example, so he becomes good by definition.
“hence the lack of significant, sustained, scientific inquiry in traditional and eastern cultures.”
The West is at the top of the pyramid at the moment, but let’s not get too cocky. Before the Enlightenment, the Islamic Golden Age made Christian Europe look pretty primitive. And before that, you’ve got paper, gunpowder, printing, etc. from China. I’m sure you can think of other examples. I don’t see anything about Christianity particularly laudable that made Europe unique in a positive way for science.
I’d be more impressed with Christian’s support for science if we got anything of a technical or scientific nature out of the Bible.
“he has made a covenant with creation to play by his own rules in order that we may know him better by studying his fingerprints on creation, which is a reflection of him”
Is this theology or science? That is: do you have evidence of this or is this just what you believe?
“Science and reason are made possible because suddenly it occurs to me that I can learn something about God by studying nature”
How would this world look different if there *weren’t* a god behind it? That is, how can we tell that your statement is correct?
Dr. Greg: Thanks for those thoughts. We’re off to a good start. Just to clarify, I’m just paraphrasing Stark’s argument, not asserting anything original. That said, the problem that I have with your argument is that you’re presupposing a naturalistic, atheistic origin of science which is simply not supported by the history of science. It certainly could have happened the way you said, but it didn’t. Unless I’m misunderstanding you, you seem to be missing the basic question which is how does it dawn on someone to ask scientific questions–and more importantly, develop a system of sustained,scientific thought- in the first place? I agreed with you in my original post that different cultures rooted in different religious traditions besides Christianity made discrete, scientific discoveries, but the scientific method, itself–the vey process that makes sustained scientific inquiry possible–was invented by Christians (Francis Bacon and William of Occam were both Franciscan friars) and promoted by Christians (the majority of the scientific disciplines, from genetics to stratigraphy were founded by priests). Why? Because Christian epistemology believes as I described above and the naturalistic view you champion is dependent upon those presuppositions, not the other way around. History shows this to be true. On a side note, One thing you and I are going to have in common is that I don’t care much for what “some Christians say.” Lots of people say plenty of idiotic things but that doesn’t make their views representative of anything, or for that matter, accurate. As a Catholic Christian, I’ll be arguing from that dataset. I appreciated your comments. Thank you for the opportunity to kick these ideas around with you.
Bob: “the problem that I have with your argument is that you’re presupposing a naturalistic, atheistic origin of science”
Not by my understanding of the word “presuppose.” That’s certainly where the evidence points, but I’m open to contrary evidence.
“you seem to be missing the basic question which is how does it dawn on someone to ask scientific questions” Actually, I’m missing why this points to Christianity.
“Why? Because Christian epistemology believes as I described above and the naturalistic view you champion is dependent upon those presuppositions”
You need to answer the last question in my previous comment: How would this world look different if there *weren’t* a god behind it?
Dr. Greg: Bob, you’ll probably think this is ironic, but I can’t answer the question because you’re asking me to indulge in a fantasy. Answering , “How would this world look different if there *weren’t* a god behind it?” is irrelevant because the historical record does not support the idea that science evolves in an atheistic context. I’m concerned with facts here; the actual history of science. Science can certainly be done with an atheistic mindset, of course it can, but only if that atheist accepts–unwittingly–the Christian cosmological mindset that asserts that the universe is orderly in the first place. The idea that the universe is orderly is not supported merely by experience. Mere observation would lead most objective people to believe that the universe is chaotic and unknowable, and that’s exactly what pre-Christian history shows. The idea that the universe is orderly and possible to study in a systematic way is an idea rooted in Christian revelation. Not mere reason.
I’ll post more as/if it develops.