In a previous comment Rombald
called our attention to the fact that science itself was powerfully influenced
by a Christian world view when it originated. The desacralization of the world promoted by Protestantism
in particular made it easy to approach it in a detached ‘objective’
fashion. Western science is
largely Protestant Christian in its origins.
He is right, but I want to
emphasize something a little different.
In doing so I necessarily simplify, but I hope not overly so. In the process I will suggest how a
Pagan outlook changes our view, and that modern science is coming into harmony
with a Pagan perspective more than with a traditional Christian one.
Science had to start somewhere
and as it happened it developed from scientists who possesed a Christian point
of view. What is most important in my opinion is not where scientists started,
but the means they developed to evaluate one another’s work: by writing up
their work they enabled others to read it, evaluate it, and build on it. What
we loosely call the “scientific method” developed not through philosophy, but
through the process of seeking to persuade their peers.
Measurement, prediction, and
experiment developed as the most persuasive means to convince others of your
findings. Reason followed closely
behind. This was an epochal
development because it freed science from having to be based on a world-view,
other than one that allowed these relatively impersonal methods to determine an
issue. It ultimately freed science
from dependence on its initially Christian assumptions about the world,
although at first it continued to be in harmony with them. This is probably why scientists were
permitted to do their work at all.
By the time scientific findings
began straining against Christian dogmas, it had proven itself too useful
militarily and economically to be suppressed. And because of this, certain vital principles entered into
Western thought. The most important
was establishing a way of learning that emphasized discovering error as its
most powerful means of assisting in the discovery of truth. While individual scientists are
motivated by their search for truth, as a social enterprise, science developed tests (its “method”) that were
good for discovering error but could never prove truth. No theory could be proven, ever, but
any scientific theory, no matter
how seemingly secure, could in principle be disproven without invalidating
Since then evidence has steadily
accumulated that a Biblical account of the physical world cannot explain what
we observe. The case is is now
overwhelming and can only be argued against by relying on faith and a degree of
arbitrary skepticism that they do not come close to applying to their own
Biblical alternative. In other
words, the Biblical account can only be supported by bad faith or a trusting
ignorance of the issues involved.
Even so, until recently science
has continued to be dominated by certain assumptions about the world with their
roots in Protestant Christianity.
I will discuss two. The
assumption that the world is essentially inert and valueless in the absence of
a valuer separate from it. Facts and values are forever separate. Another key assumption that reflects
these Christian roots is reductionism.
If God was an artificer, and the universe runs through His rules, once
we discover the most basic rules he employed, we can see how it was all put
Both these assumptions are now
pretty weak. I will start with the
second and end with the first.
We are increasingly discovering
that many phenomena cannot be understood reductionistically. Stuart Kauffman
has written the best account of this issue that I know of. What this argument means is that from a scientific perspective the universe is
more than what can be explained by basic laws. Maybe much more.
Why has it taken so long to get
First, we are all of us both
empowered and blinded by our theories about how things are. (Look at Randians like “Alano” who agree
with my criticism while thinking they are rebutting it by discussing Rand’s views
on Indians.) We easily see what fits our theories and often have a hard time
appreciating what does not, particularly when they are important to us. This is as true for scientists as for
anyone else. It’s true for me, and I try and be sensitive to it.
What helps scientists continually
enlarge the realm of new and previously unimagined knowledge is that they have
developed methods to try and minimize the power of this blindness. But, being human, they have hardly
freed themselves from it completely.
Many individual scientists are as theory blinded as anyone else. To they degree they mistake their
treasured theory as “science” they might be even more blind.
Secondly, the early successes of
reductionist methods were very impressive in physics and chemistry. These were long the most prestigious
sciences, in part because of these successes, which in turn strengthened the
prestige of the methods used. It
was a feedback loop that focused attention on successes achieved through
reductionist methods and not on phenomena reductionism could not touch, like
The most interesting evidence of
the price we have paid for this assumptions, from my perspective anyway, is in
biology. For exmple, Darwin was
interpreted to justify a nature red in tooth and claw perspective. He himself looked at the world a bit
this way, but those calling themselves his followers went much farther. In doing so they ignored his pioneering
work in how ethics could arise through evolutionary processes. Most of Darwin’s detractors were more than happy to commit
the same error because they were even more blinded by their presuppositions and
just knew that evolution led to treating
people as animals rather than, as Darwin argued, treating animals better. Fallen nature was something optimists
thought we had risen above and pessimists thought we were condemned to suffer.
This ultimately Protestant rooted
bias led to ignoring enormous evidence for symbiosis and cooperation being
widespread in nature. Peter
Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid was the first argument I know of that questioned this purely competitive model from
a scientific point of view, but hardly the last. More recently we have discovered that the very cells of our
body are the result of symbiosis, a symbiosis that continues getting more
complicated and amazing. Cooperation may well be more important
So far as I know, no one has
seriously thought of the philosophical implications in that even the pure logic
of a computer program leads to cooperation over competition as a superior
strategy for flourishing. This was
the finding that grew out of a series of experiments to find the solution to
the “Iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma” game.
Most spectacularly as a case for
theoretically induced blindness, economists marvel at competition in the market
and are almost completely blind to the fact that competition only arises
after people have formed cooperative
relations. They then discover they
are pursuing independently chosen goals not all of which can be realized. (A starts a business and sells to B –
cooperative entirely. C does the
same with D. Then E desires a
product and has to choose between A and C. Voila! Competition emerges.)
To the degree that the universe
is biased towards cooperation over competition we have a universe that has
values intrinsic to it and that emerge out of the non-reductionist relations
between entities within it. Both
key assumptions I have critiqued are challenged at their core. This different outlook
is in harmony with a Pagan perspective far more than with a typical
post-Reformation Western Christian one.
I think one important dimension of this shift in outlook by many scientists is that it offers a secular point of view an out from the nihilism that is slowly, relentlessly, devouring it. By coming to see the universe, or at least life on earth, as having certain values intrinsic to what it is, and that complex organisms are more than simple constructions fro nonliving components, science itself can play a role in re-esteablishing a moral sensibility at the heart of secular culture. A sensibility it currently has lost.
What is most wonderful about
science to my mind is that it enables beings blinded by their assumptions and
theories – us – to gradually uncover our errors by subjecting them to careful
challenge by others, and so discover ever more reliable knowledge, and do so on
the basis of peaceful persuasion.
And to do so at the level of humanity as a whole participating in this
project. This is something new and
wonderful in human life.