Saturday, May 12, 2012

How did Christianity shape the development of science?

I really enjoyed the lecture yesterday by Peter Harrison on "Religion and the origins of science". He mentioned six significant ways in which historically Christianity influenced the development of science. These influences (not all necessarily positive) were enumerated by John Hedley Brooke. They were (in my words):

1. Presuppositions.
Notions that the material world was intelligible and that there were "laws of nature" stemmed from a Biblical world view.

2. Sanctions.
The perceived intrinsic value of the world (created by God) and understanding it led to broader and sustained support (both moral and financial) for science in societies with Christian, particularly Protestant, values. It was not just a matter of brilliant individuals (Kepler, Galileo, Newton, ...) making scientific breakthroughs but also the new knowledge being appreciated, disseminated, consolidated, and expanded upon. This idea has been particularly emphasized and developed by Stephen Gaukroger in The Emergence of a Scientific Culture.
[For me, this was a new and helpful idea].

3. Individual motivations.
The majority of the founders of the Royal Society were Puritan, somewhat unrepresentative of the broader society. Their scientific endeavours were driven by their personal Christian convictions.

4. Criteria for theory choice.
Scientists and society did not accept or reject new theories based solely on the quality of agreement with experimental data (which was often ambiguous). Theological criteria sometimes came into play. For example, many scientists rejected Galileo's claims because of their commitment to Thomas Aquinas' anointing of Aristotle.
Aside: Secular scientists today are not any better. For example, initial scientific attitudes to the Big Bang and views on the multiverse were influenced by philosophical commitments of scientists.

5. A constitutive role.
By the eighteenth century biology (natural history) became almost identical with natural theology. The motivation for studying the biological world was to discover evidence for design in nature and thus provide evidence that the world was created.

6. Underpinning specific investigations.
I missed the details of this one...

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