The Christian roots of science

Roots by Elena Nazarro

Last week I attended the European Leadership Forum in Hungary where I heard a lecture on ‘The Idea of Law in Science and Religion’ by Lydia Jaeger, a philosopher and theologian from the Institut Biblique de Nogent-sur-Marne near Paris. (A similar talk is available here.)

Until the seventeenth century it was thought that objects were ruled by their own intrinsic natures (substances and qualities– this was Aristotelian philosophy), but during the scientific revolution scientists such as Isaac Newton and Descartes began to reject the idea of natures and use the language of law, for several reasons.

The idea of laws that govern the movement of objects, chemical processes, and so on, came initially from the Bible. The Old Testament in particular has a strong emphasis on God sustaining the world in regular ways: day and night, cycles of the moon, birth and death, winter and summer.

Universal laws of ‘nature’* make the most sense if only one God created and reigns over the universe. If multiple gods existed, you would most likely have beings who could change and control the world in whatever way they pleased.

Finally, belief in a God who created the universe from scratch without being constrained by any external forces drove the early scientists to get their hands dirty in the lab. Prior to the seventeenth century it was thought that experiments were dirty and unnecessary. But the early scientists believed that if God was truly omnipotent he could create in any way he liked, and it was left to us to discover how he did that by going out and investigating for ourselves. Without monotheism would science have flourished in quite the same way?

(*I dislike using the word nature because it harks back to the Greek philosophical idea of the separation between the natural and supernatural – the natural being somehow out of God’s reach – but it’s hard to avoid using it completely…)

4 thoughts on “The Christian roots of science

  1. Richard Hosking June 10, 2011 / 8:53 am

    Great post linking monotheism, scientific laws and an ordered universe.

    Jeremiah 31:35 and 33:25 are good examples of OT verses which illustrates this:
    31:35 “This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD Almighty is his name:” and 33:25 “This is what the LORD says: ‘If I have NOT established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth …”

    (Interestingly – in both cases – the next verse directly links these physical laws to God’s ongoing covenant with the (presumably) physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel) – something which is consistent with post-Biblical Jewish history and recent genetic studies).

    In a broader context, it’s worth emphasising the Christian roots of Western civilisation as a whole. A recent Times newspaper article by Lord Sacks (reproduced at link below) gives a fascinating perspective on China’s analysis of the contribution of Christian faith to European culture. http://www.chiefrabbi.org/ReadArtical.aspx?id=1764

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  2. Huw Clayton June 10, 2011 / 9:57 am

    Newton was, of course, a theologian as well as a scientist, and saw no conflict between the two. In fact, he believed that science without theology was meaningless, because it narrowed the vision artificially.

    If you’re interested in this subject, there was a very important 19th century work by a French historian, scientist and philosopher, Pierre Duhem, who wrote a series called ‘Le Systéme du Monde’ (The History of Science) showing how mathematical sciences were pioneered and promoted by the medieval beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church and their preservation of the archives of the classical world. It was so controversial in the anti-clericalist Third Republic that the last volumes were not published for 50 years after his death.

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