Monday, January 10, 2011

Thoughts on the history of science

James Hannam, author of God's Philosophers has responded to the claims of certain atheists that Christianity was not responsible for the rise of science in the West. The point James has always made is that while Christianity was not solely responsible, it was a contributing factor. A necessary factor, but not the only one.

James is critical of the rise of "Holy Science" views popularised by writers like Dinesh D'Souza and Rodney Stark, which is the position that science could only rise in a Christian world.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘conflict hypothesis’ that Christianity had held back and opposed scientific endeavour, was widely accepted in academia and by the public at large. The first serious assault on this idea was mounted by the French physicist and historian, Pierre Duhem. Duhem suggested that the flowering of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a direct consequence of developments in medieval Europe. He also showed that the Church had not opposed science, but steered and encouraged it. For a long time, Duhem’s work was ignored and derided. Even in the 1970s, historians felt the need to distance themselves from him. No longer. Duhem is now recognised as a titanic figure in the history of science and the founder of the entire subject of medieval science. Of course, he made plenty of mistakes, but as the pioneer this was hardly surprising. Alfred North Whitehead said that western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. 
 In a second post James notes in effecting his criticism.
Richard’s rebuttal fails if Christianity was not a sufficient cause for science (even if it was a necessary one). Most people would accept that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was a disaster for learning and culture. It took centuries for population and civilisation to return to the levels they had enjoyed in 300AD. This was not the fault of Christianity, but a direct result of barbarian invasions that continued to the Viking raids in the ninth century. Indeed, historians recognise the important role that Christianity played in preserving literacy and culture, as well as tempering some of the behaviour of the barbarian princes.

Nonetheless, the example of the Byzantine Empire prevents the chaos of the western early middle ages from saving the Holy Science thesis. Byzantium was Christian, lasted a thousand years and preserved much of the civil society of the ancient world. So if the Holy Science thesis is true, modern science would have arisen in Constantinople. It didn’t. That said, the precise status of science under the Byzantines remains something of a mystery. Hints of technological prowess that matched the Antikythera Mechanism and Hero of Alexandria’s finest contrivances can be detected in the sources. Still, modern science did not arise and that is all Richard needs to note to rebut the Holy Science thesis.
That said, as a commentator noted. If Christianity does allow science to arise, it does not follow that Christianity must allow science to arise. There are other contributing factors, and I think James agrees with this.
Whilst James is critical, perhaps even disdainful, of the Holy Science position, he is also critical of people who try to impute to the ancient Greeks more than can honestly be credited to them.
The scholar who comes closest to supporting Richard’s position is probably Lucio Russo in The Forgotten Revolution (Springer, 2003). Russo argues from a deep knowledge of the ancient sources that Greek science reached its peak in about 300BC. He suggests that this was the forgotten scientific revolution when the inverse square law of gravitation was discovered and that Aristarchus of Samos’s heliocentricism was more widespread than currently appreciated. For Russo, the early Roman Empire, the era of Ptolemy and Hero, was one of decadence and stagnation in Greek science. 
 James looks at those proposed exemplars of Greek progress and is unimpressed.
Richard notes that “Strato of Lampsacus extended… experimental method to machines and physics, by which time many of Aristotle’s physical theories had been altered or abandoned.” Strato was the second head of Aristotle’s Lyceum after the master himself. Little of his work survives, but in antiquity he had such a reputation for science that he was known as The Naturalist. His major achievement that we know of today was to show that air can be compressed from which he correctly deduced that it is made up of tiny particles floating in a vacuum. He also showed that a true vacuum can be created artificially. That’s impressive. But here is the rub. The passage of his work that states this is widely believed to have been incorporated into the introduction to Hero of Alexandria’s Pneumatics written in the first century AD, or three hundred years later. Richard says that “Hero had experimentally refuted Aristotle’s claim that a vacuum was impossible.” But if Hero has done these experiments himself, as Richard claims, why is he using a source that is three centuries old to prove it? OK, Strato was right. But this means that the theory Hero so successfully harnessed for his automata had been around for hundreds of years and had not been enhanced at all in the meantime.
 James Hannam has a PhD in the history of science. If he is convinced that Christianity was important to the rise of science, although not to the extent popular writers claim, and unconvinced that the ancient Greeks were on the cusp of a scientific breakthrough that was stifled by the Christians, then that's probably the way to lay your bets.


dream puppy said...

I don't buy the theory of the dark ages. New Rome flourished under the Byzantine Empire. For some reason we are taught Christianity ended the Roman empire but that is not the case. The Roman Empire continued in many forms up until the end of The Great War. We can even see glimmers of the old pagan religion in Catholicism. What are the saints, if lesser gods?

I think there is an agenda behind blaming Christianity for the fall of a great civilization- probably to undermine our religion and our accomplishments. Under Christianity we had many great advances in the arts, sciences, and civilization- Advances I must say that other foreign regions never even came close to- despite being pagan or monotheistic.

Duke of Earl said...

As has been noted elsewhere, the only way in which Christianity contributed to the "dark ages" was to actually come up with the term and apply it to the world before the coming of the "light of Christ."

Christianity was an integral part of the rise of Western civilization. People who deny that are bonkers.