Victor Reppert on Christianity and Science

Victor Reppert posted the following remarks on his Dangerous Idea blog relating to the topic of Christianity and the development of science:
“A couple of things off the top of my head. First, the major advances of modern science, when it became clear that science could really make a difference not only in the way we view the world, but also the way in which we live our lives, happened in Christian Europe, not Hindu India, or Buddhist Japan, or Islamic Arabia. To say that it would have arisen in Ancient Greece if things had been different strikes me as sheer speculation.

Second, it seems to me that a polytheistic view would have made it impossible to formulate, say, a law of universal gravitation. If Zeus is in control of the sky, but Poseidon is in control of the sea, then to me it just wouldn’t make sense to say that the same law of gravity operates in both realms. I suppose if someone accepted modern naturalism, then you could just affirm that the laws of physics are just there and that’s all, but even here I wonder if should expect stable laws of nature on naturalistic assumptions. It’s always been my view that there is no reason to believe that the laws of nature will remain stable unless there’s a God.”

Now it might be a bit unfair to take Victor to task for remarks just off the top of his head, but these claims are so often seen in discussions of these issues that I think they need to be addressed.
The biggest revolution in science was not the “scientific revolution” that occurred circa 1600 C.E. but the one that happened over 2000 years previously, around 500 B.C.E. THE major revolution in human thought was the one achieved by the Greek philosopher/scientists of Asia Minor who broke with the ancient mythological traditions and offered accounts of the archē (origin, underlying principle) in terms of a material cause. Even the apeiron of Anaximander was a material principle. These first steps were naturally only partial, and retained many ideas that sound strange today, yet it was a decisive break as historians of ideas since Aristotle have recognized. What made it decisive was that these theories were offered not on the basis of authority or as stories hallowed by tradition but as the most reasonable accounts to be judged in the light of reason and evidence. The practice of proposing hypotheses of material causes and holding those hypotheses up to critical and rational scrutiny is the beginning of the tradition of natural science in the Western world.
Further, it is not necessary to speculate about what the Greeks might have accomplished. We may look at what they did. The Greeks used to be twitted for supposedly producing only speculative systems and no technology except for Hero’s toy steam engine. The Antikythera device (an analog computer for determining the positions of celestial bodies) from the first century should disabuse people of the silly notion that the Greeks were technologically incompetent. Or consider Greek astronomy. There would have been no Copernicus had there been no Claudius Ptolemy, and Ptolemy’s work (circa 150 C.E.) was a synthesis and synopsis of the work of his great predecessors, especially Hipparchus. The founders of modern astronomy, Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, all referred respectfully to the ancient astronomers and drew on their findings. Among the accomplishments of Greek astronomy were these: Heracleides and Aristarchus prefigured Copernicus by 1800 years by explaining how the apparent movements of the celestial bodies could be explained in terms of a heliocentric model. Hipparchus, developing methods employed by Aristarchus and employing his own method of determining lunar parallax, discovered the size and distance of the moon. He also discovered the precession of the equinoxes. Eratosthenes, an astronomer and geographer, using a few simple observations and geometry, accurately calculated the circumference of the earth. Ptolemy’s geocentric astronomy, though physically inaccurate, was an astonishingly sophisticated set of models that succeeded admirably in saving the appearances.
In short, natural science of considerable sophistication was done by pagan Greeks with no help needed from a Theistic god. Is it a mystery, as Victor indicates, how polytheists could have come to believe in universal law? Wouldn’t Poseidon come up with his own rules and laws just to irritate his brother Zeus? Victor seems to think that the Homeric picture of capricious, squabbling Olympians always scheming against one another was the religion of sophisticated and highly educated scientists 500 years after Homer’s time. Not so. Scholars and scientists of the third and fourth centuries B.C.E. regarded the Homeric tales much as today’s scientists look upon the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah’s ark.
Obviously, then, a theistic culture is not necessary for the development and practice of natural science since pagan Greece had thriving scientific communities. Equally obviously, a theistic culture is not sufficient for the development of science either. Byzantium was devoutly, even fanatically Christian, but over a thousand year period made no scientific progress (except maybe for the discovery of Greek fire, a kind of primitive napalm). Western Europe also had been Christian for a thousand years before Copernicus. If historical, cultural, political, and intellectual factors must be adduced to explain why Europe was Christian for thousand years before it produced the scientific revolution, then it will have to be shown why those other factors themselves, rather than belief in a theistic God, were not the important ones for the development of modern science.
But why should we expect stable laws of nature if there is no God? Like most theistic rhetorical “why” questions (e.g. “Why is there something instead of nothing?”) the appropriate answer is: “Why not?” Why assume that instability would be the normal, natural state of affairs whereas stability needs explanation? Why not do a “Newton shift” here? Aristotle assumed that motion needed to be explained. Newton, on the other hand, took uniform, rectilinear motion as the natural state and said that only changes in such motion needed to be explained. Why not take it for granted that there are stable laws of nature and regard changes in such laws, if any are ever discovered, to require explanation instead? The basic technique of theistic apologetics never changes: You try to create a mystery where there is none and call in God to fill the non-existent gap.
Finally, what is the basis for the theological assurance underlying Victor’s comments? Why assume that God will keep the laws of nature stable? How do we know that? Is it revealed in scripture? Theists think that God has good reasons for doing all sorts of strange and hard-to-understand things. For instance, he has good reason for permitting all sorts of bizarre and apparently pointless evils. He has good reasons for demanding that people believe in him while coyly declining to make his existence obvious. How, then, can we have any confidence that he will not have good reasons for (maybe subtly) shifting the laws of nature? If physicists do discover that some natural laws are unstable, will theists take this as refuting the existence of God? (Something makes me think that they will manage an accommodation.)

In short, I see no basis for anything that Victor has said in his above comments. Again, maybe it is unfair to hold casual remarks up to such scrutiny, but such remarks are common currency in much recent apologetic and they are groundless.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    In the Book of Job, the god character mocks humanity for its ignorance of the physical world and humanity's inability to find things out.

    This is not a religion where the god wants people to find things out using science.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    Of course, Victor , being a Christian, never dreams of saying that Judaism was responsible for modern science, although rumour has it that Jews and Christians worship the same god who allegedly made these universal laws.

    And Victor, being as dumb as a box of rocks, can look at Pythagoras Theorem, and declare that Greeks were unable to come up with ideas of universal laws.

    I guess polytheists thought Euclid was all very well in Greece, but triangles in other countries would have 8 sides…..

    Victor is a nice guy though, and would never dream of saying blacks could not think of universal laws…

    He can degrade and insult polytheists as incapable of scientific advance, but not blacks.

    He would probably claim Jews could also do science, if somebody reminded him that Christians borrowed their Old Book from another religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    Why does Victor believe that Poseidon might change the laws of nature in the sea, but that Satan won't?

    Which bit of Victor's Old Book claims that there are universal laws of nature?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    VICTOR
    My expectation that God would keep things regular is a direct inference from the immediate knowledge I have of my own mind (about the only thing, perhaps, that I have immediate knowledge about)….Hence there is something incoherent about the idea of a disordered and chaotic universe that was made by a mind…

    CARR
    So Victor thinks his god keeps the Mandelbrot set 'regular'?

    Has Victor ever heard of chaos theory?

    Doesn't he know that quantum mechanics is inherently random?

    God, the man is dumb. How does he keep his job?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Steven,

    Thanks for your comments, but please spare us the invective directed towards my friend Victor Reppert. We non-theists are supposed to be the rational ones, right? Let's leave the vituperation for people like that Fezer guy. Victor Reppert is a gentleman and a scholar. He is also a very committed and articulate political progressive. If there were more Christians like him we would have a lot less to criticize.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00176754512128249839 Nathaniel

    When it comes to the stability of natural laws, it might not have always been the case that they were stable. However, a universe with unstable laws will never produce anything coherent, let alone life to ponder how stable it is. In fact, it is more likely that a universe produced with unstable laws would immediately collapse, and perhaps start all over again.

    This is how it works in fairly simple terms. Anything which exist and thus persist is able to do so because there are states of affairs which contribute to that persistence. It's a truism to be sure, but the universe is stable because it is stable. It is entirely likely that it just happened to fall upon stability. There may have even been countless incarnations of the universe which were so unstable that they lasted fractions of a second, or perhaps never even developed time. The possibilities would bubble and boil until the right conditions were met, and boom, a stable universe started on its way.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Nathaniel,

    I think the theistic argument is basically an attempt to address the Humean problem: Sure things have fallen down up to now in a dependable way, indeed in accordance with the Newtonian inverse square law. But how do you know they won't start falling up tomorrow? Answer: God. God can be depended upon to keep the laws of nature stable. George Schlesinger develops this argument at length and I criticize it in my doctoral dissertation from Queen's University (available on the Secular Web). Like many theistic arguments, this one doesn't solve the problem but merely moves it. Just because God has maintained stable laws up to now, how do we know he will continue to do so? We need a principle of the Uniformity of God like the principle of the Uniformity of Nature that Hume despaired of. I fail to see what such a principle of theistic uniformity could be based upon. Does God promise such uniformity? Well, maybe he has kept his promises up to now…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    Nietzsche realized this over a century ago. He basically felt that, with the Greeks, all the essentials for a naturalistic understanding of the world were in place – but destroyed or at least waylaid by the advent of Christianity in the 1st Century.

    It makes me wonder if theists read Nietzsche; I understand their aversion to opening a book titled, "The Antichrist", and what's more, reading it with an open mind. But I think it would save us all a lot of back and forth if they did.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05799095055208759535 cl

    "Why assume that God will keep the laws of nature stable?"

    Why not? Lest one open themselves to charges of special pleading, isn't that the "appropriate" answer, as you said?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    It is, of course, very easy to find top Christian apologists who claim that theism means that the laws of nature are violated on a regular basis.

    As Keith Parsons writes 'I had a professor of chemistry in college who was a terrific chemist by day and a fundamentalist zealot the rest of the time. In the lab or classroom, he was the perfectly serious scientist. If you had suggested that your equation did not balance because of a miraculous suspension of the laws of conservation, he would have laughed heartily while marking you wrong. Once he took off the lab coat, however, he entered a magical, mythical, miraculous realm where snakes could talk, seas would part on command, and 5000 could be fed with a few loaves and fishes (so much for conservation laws!). I once asked him whether he actually believed in evil spirits and he affirmed that Satan and his imps hovered about all the time, seeking to tempt and ensnare us, and that, if we could see them, we would be terrified by their presence.'

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05799095055208759535 cl

    …a magical, mythical, miraculous realm where snakes could talk, seas would part on command, and 5000 could be fed with a few loaves and fishes (so much for conservation laws!).

    Yeah, well… all that pales in comparison with the magical, mythical, miraculous realm where nothing can become everything, and inorganic "molecules" eventually coalesce into self-conscious organisms, all for no good reason at all, "just 'cuz," as they say.

    Either way you cut the cake, we're all forced to believe in some kind of craziness.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    "Yeah, well… all that pales in comparison with the magical, mythical, miraculous realm where nothing can become everything, and inorganic "molecules" eventually coalesce into self-conscious organisms, all for no good reason at all, "just 'cuz," as they say."

    Gee, I have never heard of anybody that believes any of that.


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