Alright, look, I have to come clean. Although I have spent a great deal of time reading scientific, and now theological, literature, I am slow on the uptake, as they say in the gracious vernacular. It takes a while for ideas to settle in my mind since I need to flip them around for a while and make sure they settle the right way. I read to learn, so I read slowly.
When I first read Father Stanley L. Jaki, as I described in the last post, Would There Be Science Without Christianity, it seemed like a curtain to a grand stage was pulled back. I kept returning to the book. I read Jaki’s other writings; I read summaries of his thesis; I read other accounts of the history of science; I read original sources when I could. But — I kept returning to this book, The Savior of Science by this Benedictine priest and leading thinker in the philosophy and history of science.
Anyone who has read his writing knows, it is not easy. On one hand if you stay with it, the overall picture emerges. On the other hand, to get the full picture you have to dig into the sources he provides amply. You have to get up on that stage and pick up the objects. For a while now I’ve gone around touting what I saw on that new stage, that science was born of Christianity, but it fell flat each time (and I’m told it caused spewed coffee to ruin a few computer screens belonging to some atheists). So I’m exploring the objects on the stage now, but I have to go slowly. I promised to explore Egypt next, but one more thing flipping around needs to be settled first.
Fr. Jaki begins his explanation of the birth of science by reviewing the “stillbirths” of science. It is important to first understand what he means by this curious phrase. History itself requires a scientific approach, a commitment to honesty and not a filtration of facts that tell the story the teacher wants to tell. This seems obvious enough, but that is what happened in the telling of the history of science. The history of science has been presented to modern students (if the history is taught at all) as a linear climb out of darkness, an inevitable development of mankind that heightened us to where we are today. Consider the introduction in this 1973 college physics textbook used at Berkeley:
“Through experimental science we have been able to learn all these facts about the natural world, triumphing over darkness and ignorance to classify the stars and to estimate their masses, composition, distances, and velocities; to classify living species and to unravel their genetic relations. [. . .] These great accomplishments of experimental science were achieved by men of many types. [. . .] Most of these men had in common only a few things: they were honest and actually made the observations they recorded, and they published the results of their work in a form permitting others to duplicate the experiment or observation.” (Source here and here)
Is that how you think of it? Probably. This is how the history was more exhaustively set forth in the 1904 five volume account, A History of Science, by Henry Smith Williams and Edward Huntington. For all the history of mankind science has been developing neatly in a linear fashion, one step necessarily leading to the next, communicated across around the globe from one culture to the next, culminating to the present day.
“We shall best understand our story of the growth of science if we think of each new principle as a stepping-stone which must fit into its own particular niche; and if we reflect that the entire structure of modern civilization would be different from what it is, and less perfect than it is, had not that particular stepping-stone been found and shaped and placed in position. Taken as a whole, our stepping-stones lead us up and up towards the alluring heights of an acropolis of knowledge, on which stands the Temple of Modern Science. The story of the building of this wonderful structure is in itself fascinating and beautiful.” (Entire set free on Kindle)
But ask yourself a question. Even in your lifetime has science developed like that? Has science really made modern civilization perfect? Was 1904 really the alluring height of an acropolis of knowledge? Has not science developed since then? And did it develop linearly, or in growth spurts that were a function of the culture?
Other historians have called this all too tidy story into question. In a 1972 editorial in Science journal (ahem, I hear they take slow readers) titled Should the History of Science Be Rated X?, Stephen G. Brush, who is now a Distinguished University Professor of the History of Science at the Institute for Physical Science & Technology in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, questioned whether it was even appropriate to teach this to students. He argued that teaching this “fictionalized history” to young and impressionable future scientists harms the profession. Why? Because if a new scientist believes that the field he is entering is really a series of successive stepping stones from one achievement to the next by the men and women who unabashedly bucked the norms and broke through to new heights, then they will imagine they have no place in science unless they are “an Einstein or a Dirac or a dozen others.”
He says it leads to the idea that there are two kinds of scientists: “the average scientist, who must obey the rules, and the genius, who will know when to break them.” It encourages an unhealthy psychology. Who wants to be average and meaningless? But, do we really need scientists thinking their measure of genius is dependent on their ability to break the rules? I can attest to this mindset even from the 1990′s, a “publish or perish” mentality. It is the same mindset that led the luminary at Harvard, Henry Rosovsky, one of Harvard’s most eminent scientists who became the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, to say in 1987 without hesitation that his scientific inspiration was “money and flattery.” (See page 10) Even though historians have called this linear story and its dangers into question, it persists. That’s why Jaki’s argument resonated with me.
To understand Jaki’s argument, then, it has to be understood that he rejects this faulty stepping-stone model. Instead he describes the history of science more naturally, as an evolutionary tree that had many dead branches before it flourished into a vital and self-sustaining living discipline as we hope it is today, a discipline that is an ever-continual revolution of the scientific method in many areas, asking many questions, searching for the truth of nature. The history of science to Jaki is thus a work of mankind that must take into account different cultures and cultural mindsets. Since every culture in the history of man has sought God, the evolution of science must take into account the religions of those cultures too, and ask some searching questions.
Jaki takes the analogy another step further in arguing that empirical science as described in the last post was born of Christianity, since Christianity itself was born of a woman. He refers to the dead branches, as it were, on the evolutionary tree as stillbirths, as living entities that formed for a while in a womb (a certain culture) but died before becoming viable on their own as a universal discipline recognized for its own methods.
He begins with Egypt, which will be the subject of the next post. I promise. I’m way over the 1,000 word limit for now.