The Christian roots of modern science

The most comprehensive and detailed treatment of the history of science was given to posterity by a distinguished physicist and mathematician, Pierre Duhem, (1861-1916) in his 10-volume magnum opus, Le Système du monde: les doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernicus. The first five volumes—each more than 500 pages in length—were published in consecutive years, from 1913-1917. Although another five volumes were ready for publication when Duhem passed away in 1916, they were not published until four decades later (1954-59) thanks, in great part, to the courage and determination of his daughter Hélène.

The reason for the long delay in publishing the last five volumes of this masterpiece, which is without parallel in its field, was the strong opposition by influential academics who did not want to consider the demonstrable fact that modern science cannot be divorced from its religious foundations.

In the intervening years between the publication of the first and second group of 5 volumes, many studies of medieval science were conducted — by Anneliese Maier, Marshall Clagett, E. Grant, Alistair Crombie and others. These studies served to extend and confirm Duhem’s work and add credibility to his central thesis concerning the continuity between medieval and modern science. As a result of Duhem’s pioneering research and the contribution by other historians of science, the value of studying medieval science is now well established, and can no longer be dismissed by honest scholars.

Science historian A. C. Crombie, for example, comes to the conclusion that

“The natural philosophers of Latin Christendom in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries created the experimental science characteristic of modern times.”

Dr. Peter E. Hodgson, who is University Lecturer in Nuclear Physics at Oxford University, has this to say about Duhem’s scholarly accomplishment:

“The work of Duhem is of great relevance today, for it shows clearly the Christian roots of modern science, thus decisively refuting the alleged incompatibility of science and Christianity still propagated by the secularist establishment. Science is an integral part of Christian culture, a lesson to be learned even within the Christian Church.”

Duhem’s study and documentation of the Christian origin of modern science has been deliberately neglected because it is unwelcome both to the disciples of the French Enlightenment and those of the Reformation. For different reasons, they would like to paint the Middle Ages as darkly as possible.

Alfred North Whitehead, co-author with Bertrand Russell of Mathematica Principia, offers timely approbation of Duhem’s research when he states, in Science and the Modern World, that

“the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivation from medieval theology.”

And so does Norbert Wiener, the “Father of Cybernetics,” when he urges his fellow scientists to adopt an “Augustinian approach” to their enterprise

“Science is a way of life,” he states, “which can only flourish when men are free to have faith. . When we do not know whether a particular phenomenon we observe is the work of God or the work of Satan, the very roots of our faith are shaken.”

The faith factor that science presupposes is multifold and includes faith that similar causes will be followed by similar results, faith in the validity of extrapolation from conceptual models to the “real” world, and faith in the very existence of such a real world. For such reasons, Wade Rowland, author of Galileo’s Mistake (2001) can say:

“To the extent that a foundation in faith defines religion, science is every bit as much a religion as Christianity.”

The names of Jordanus Nemorarius, Jean Buridan, John Philoponus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Nicholas of Oresme, and Leon Battista Alberti may not be known to many, even to many contemporary scientists. Yet they are Christian pioneers of science and provided an indispensable bridge that connected the Medieval world of science to that of modernity. It is estimated that there are between 30,000 and 35,000 medieval Western scientific manuscripts scattered throughout the world. Jordanus, An International Catalogue of Medieval Scientific Manuscripts has now been made available by the Institute for the History of Science at the University of Munich and by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. The database is accessible on the Internet for any current browser. It provides information about medieval manuscripts written in Western Europe between 500 and 1500 A. D.

Source: “The Christian roots of modern science” by Dr. Donald DeMarco (Adjunct Professor, Holy Apostles College & Seminary, Cromwell,CT.) catholicinsight.com 2008

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