Monthly Archives: September 2014

Early science and Christianity

Sociologist Rodney Stark, in How the West Won (2014), compiles a list of high-profile scientists from the crucial time period that was the blossoming of the modern scientific period. The list comprises active scientists working from 1543 (the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus) to those born before 1680 – the scientific stars of this period based on rosters in specialized encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries, including Isaac Asimov’s Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (1982).

The set is of 52 scientists, including Boyle, Brahe, Cassini, Copernicus, Descartes, Fallopius, Fermat, Galilei, Gassendi, Graaf, Halley, Hooke, Huygens, Kepler, Leeuwenhoek, Leibniz, Napier, Newton, Pascal, Ray, Torricelli, and so on. Of these 52, their primary fields were physics 29%, astronomy 25%, biology or physiology 25%, and mathematics 21%.

Based on available writings, Stark then classifies these scientists based on personal piety, with three categories – devout, conventional, and skeptic.

The results are 60% devout (31), 38% conventional (20), 2% skeptic (1).

Stark’s summary is

“Clearly, the superb scientific achievements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the work not of skeptics but of Christian men – at least 60 percent of whom were devout. The era of the “Enlightenment” is as imaginary as the era of the “Dark Ages,” both myths perpetrated by the same people for the same reasons.” (p. 310)

When I started researching biographical details of individual historical scientists, to better understand why the output:input ratio of scientific achievement in contemporary times seems to have decreased significantly, I was surprised to find out a significant portion were not just nominal Christians but active – apparently devout (a few examples from the limited number I was looking at were Faraday, Clerk Maxwell, and Herschel – all from later than the period Stark analyzes). This was surprising to me because I had taken on the narrative that science emerged despite Christianity, but what I observed in the lives of the small sampling of these individual scientists could be characterized rather as a motivation for aspects of their scientific work because of their Christian beliefs – contra the popular secular motif.

Stark’s work here confirms what seemed like a trend given my sampling of historical scientists, and gives it a more robust quantitative framework while locating it in a key period in the development of modern science. Of course, these numbers have changed – contemporary scientists are probably mostly what Stark refers to as ‘skeptics’ – yet the most difficult phase of science was plausibly getting it off the ground, and that was done by and large by devout Christians, as far as we can tell. It is also contemporary scientists who are getting a much worse output:input ratio – I wonder if this is a mere coincidence, or if the motivation for truth for the sake of truth (typically put as better understanding the mind of the Christian God) was stronger amongst these earlier scientists than among many contemporary scientists (where careerism, grants, politics, and bureaucracy probably tend to play a significantly increased role nowadays).

What are the best theoretical arguments for Christianity?

David Marshall writes

One of the interesting points DW makes is that his solution attempts to solve two outstanding mysteries that coincide in time and place — the admittedly unsolved mystery of Jesus’ resurrection, and the equally unsolved mystery of the Shroud. His hypothesis in no way solves either problem, but in fact shows how difficult they are to solve. (He is refreshingly candid on this point.) But even if he could solve those two problems, there are others lining up, that his hypothesis would not solve: (1) The mystery of Jesus’ uniquely powerful, life-changing, and truthful words; (2) the mystery of prophecies that Jesus fulfills, not only in Jewish tradition, but even (I have argued) in Chinese tradition; (3) the mystery of Jesus’ influence on the world, uniquely fulfilling God’s promise to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed; and others. One still seeks a solution that covers all the data, and the Christian solution still does this best, whatever other difficulties it may introduce.

A good summary of some of the most important theoretical arguments* for Christianity (this is not to say theism, which is a different and logically ‘prior’ issue), where Christianity is understood as having a significant historical aspect.

(* I am speaking here of issues pertaining to the plausibility of accounts of some kind of resurrection (see N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God) and 1.-3., not of the Shroud, although as far as I can tell it is one of the most interesting Christian artifacts. I had dismissed it as a medieval forgery, thinking it had been shown so by carbon dating analysis. The situation seems more interesting than this, and no convincing demonstration of how the shroud was made – whenever that might have been – has yet been done, as far as I can tell. Whatever the case, it is an interesting historical puzzle, and if authentic – a big if – might add support to claims of some kind of resurrection.)

One important thing here is that we now have further evidence in one respect than those at the beginning of Christianity (such as St. Peter or St. Paul). For whatever reasons (probably related to the resurrection and 1.-2. above, such as St. Paul’s belief that he had seen the resurrected Christ), these people were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Although the testimonial (or first-person) evidence is different now, we have about 2,000 years of history with which to look back on, which gives another line of evidence (3. above) for the idea that Jesus was in some important sense the Messiah.

(Of course, much of contemporary debate isn’t about what is unique to Christianity, rather it’s (logically, at least) prior questions involved with (typically a Christian kind of) theism (is there a God with such-and-such kinds of attributes, acting in the world in certain kinds of ways, a loving spiritual Father, and so on?).)

(My guess is that theoretical arguments in this case are usually secondary – primary are experiences in some sense of Jesus as Christ, which many people claim to have. This in turn becomes another theoretical argument for people who haven’t had such an experience themselves (perhaps they could be called ‘signs’), but it doesn’t seem compelling to many people when theoretical as such. Rather, the theoretical arguments are at most a beginning point – a prompt. At least so it seems to me.)

Rodney Stark, theology, and science

Given the linkage between theory and research, science is limited to statements about natural and material reality – about things that are at least in principle observable. Hence, there are entire realms of discourse that science is unable even to address, including such matters as the existence of God.

(p.305, How the West Won, Rodney Stark)

Few things are directly observable. Rather, what we observe are the effects that things have on other things. For example, we don’t observe gravity directly, but rather observe gravity’s effects on various objects.

So, is God observable? If he has effects on other things that in turn we can observe, then yes. Most Christians believe God does have such effects, and in an on-going way. Therefore, the investigation known as science is applicable to at least certain effects of God. Since evidence for God’s effects is evidence for His existence, the matter of the existence of God is – at least to some extent – something that science can address.

Social reform and divine guidance

Robert Barron says, in a review of the movie The Giver,

And now we see that what makes the society in The Giver most like contemporary Europe is precisely the forgetfulness of Christianity. What the story suggests, quite rightly, is that suppression of the good news of the Incarnation is in fact what conduces to dysfunctional and dangerous totalitarianism. The source of the greatest suffering throughout human history is the attempt to deal with original sin on our own, through our political, economic, military, or cultural efforts. When we try to eliminate conflict and sin through social reform, we inevitably make matters worse. As Pascal said long ago, “He who would turn himself into an angel, turns himself into a beast.” The key to joy at the personal level and justice at the societal level is in fact the conviction that God has dealt with original sin, by taking it on himself and suffering with us and for us. This belief allows us to embrace the world in both its beauty and its tragedy, for we see salvation as God’s project, not our own. It is the Incarnation—the event celebrated by the singing of “Silent Night”—that frees us from our self-importance and gives the lie to our programs of perfectibility. 

(emphasis added)

It seems a better way to say this – according to Christianity – is that we ought to embark on these sorts of efforts while attempting to get as good of guidance from God (as well as all other sorts of sources!) as possible, and mindful of how often the best of intentions can lead to poor outcomes – i.e., epistemic humility. Indeed, the strength of the Christian sensibility here is a suspicion of how good we are at reasoning to intended outcomes, when dealing with complex systems like societies. Consider that the Christian vision is centrally about bringing about a highly-functioning society through our efforts combined with God’s guidance – not of accepting sub-optimal outcomes and externalizing the way in which things will change, as Barron seems to suggest. If humans aren’t supposed to do anything, what’s the point of being a human, of having a body, and so on. Salvation (i.e., making things better) is God’s project, but it seems human actions are an important part of that project – at least according to standard Christian beliefs.

Why was the idea of the virgin birth seen as important at that time?

Why was the idea of the virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth seen as important at that time? Two reasons are

1. It was seen as a fulfillment of a prophecy concerning the Messiah (Isaiah 7:14), and so was seen as evidence strengthening the claim that Jesus was the Messiah. This was important historically because the major initial audience of potential converts were people of Jewish backgrounds. So, far from disconfirming belief in Jesus as Messiah (because a virgin birth might have sounded implausible), it was supposed to be evidence in favour of a Jesus-Messiah link.

2. The idea of half-gods who were born from a god and a human woman seemed commonplace in that time and area. Many Jews were Hellenized, meaning they had adopted large parts of Greek culture. The Greeks, in turn, had many such stories (and the Romans had also adopted large parts of Greek culture, including their gods and goddesses). The idea of a virgin birth, therefore, would suggest divine origin and, therefore, that Jesus was in some important sense divine. So, again, this would tend to be seen as evidence that strengthened claims of Jesus as Messiah.

Nowadays, the situation is different. Probably, most people in secular society view the claim of a virgin birth as tending to weaken the claims in the Gospels, instead of strengthening them. Yet, what’s primary in Christianity are the things the virgin birth is supposed to support – Jesus is the Messiah, he is in some unique sense divine, that Mary was open to God’s will – and not the idea of a virgin birth itself.

Indeed, secularists do not think of themselves as theists, and so there is a prior conceptual movement, at least logically, before one gets to debating issues like whether Jesus is the Messiah.

So, if the idea of a virgin birth is acting as an obstacle to those things, then it’s doing the opposite of what it was intended to do. I.e., it was intended to be evidence in favour of those things instead of an obstacle to them. Indeed, you can believe all the important things listed above while not giving credence to the story of the virgin birth.

If this is so, why do some people hold that it’s very important to believe it? I think this largely comes from an idea often held in Christianity about the texts which have come to be known as The Bible being in some sense infallible or inerrant. The next question, then, is why people hold these texts to be inerrant (in whatever sense they hold them to be so).

Here, too, as a methodological issue it seems the idea of the inerrancy of The Bible (of whatever sort) can be an obstacle to people exploring Christianity (even if that idea is attractive to other people), because it is against the investigative spirit (as seen in what has come to be known as science – which is really just investigation). Yet, again, inerrancy-of-scripture is not required to be a Christian, and if it is acting as inimical to what is primary in Christianity, it is probably best to not worry about it!

Since the evidential situation regarding issues like the virgin birth leaves at best probabilistic arguments, where the matters are difficult to investigate, probably the best way to proceed – assuming there is something like a Christian God – is by personal revelation. So, once a relationship with God has been developed, asking for clarity on the issue. This can come later – it doesn’t need to happen at the beginning (or indeed at anytime!).

Again, for those who are seeking to build a better way, and think Christianity might have some of the answers, but find ideas like the virgin birth (or inerrancy ideas) an obstacle, don’t worry about them – set them to the side, or perhaps to be understood as useful in mythical or illustrative senses, and so on. Focus on what’s important.