Monday, May 01, 2023

The history of modern science and the revisionist view of the history of modern science

Since the awe-inspiring rise of modern technological science based on the so-called hard sciences, including physics, chemistry, and biology, many other academic disciplines have aspired to be regarded as objective sciences. One way they have sought to do so is by imitating the methods of the empirical sciences in what Andrew Louth (following George Steiner) referred to as “the fallacy of imitative form.” So historians have tried to model their methods as far as possible on those of physics, which has led to historians adopting a modern, neopagan set of metaphysical beliefs (Epicurean naturalism), whose prestige depends on its association with modern technological science, even though that association is merely accidental. Modern science did not grow out of. Epicureanism. It grew out of a medieval Christian worldview in which the doctrine of creation made it plausible to think two things about the world: (1) that events in nature are not random, purposeless, or temporary but rather reliable, purposeful, and permanent; and (2) that the human mind is capable of grasping the laws of nature that govern events in the world because the same Logos by which the universe was created is part of our minds insofar as we have been created in the image of God. Epicurean metaphysics undercuts both of these assumptions. The identification of philosophical naturalism with the success of technological science is therefore unwarranted and the result of Enlightenment propaganda rather than clear thinking. (Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, 218)

Unfortunately, in the early stages of modern science, the goal of technological control of nature was seen as being hindered by the existence of teleology in nature. Teleology is a bedrock assumption of Christian Platonism. But if things have inbuilt natures, and if they flourish only when those natures are fulfilled, then there are definite limits to how far we should go in manipulating nature (including human nature). The problem was that such limits were seen by early modern science and philosophy as undesirable constraints to be shaken off by the triumphant and sovereign will of the autonomous individual. So teleology was out, and so was the Christian Platonism of the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy. Scientists sawed off the branch on which science was perched, although the full implications of this move did not become visible right away. (Ibid., 219)

The history of the world, and the history of ideas, is often messy. There is always a tendency to simplify and over-simplify narratives, and we can see such narrative construction at work in Criag Carter's retelling of the history of the Western world:

A long time ago, the Christian faith conquered the Roman Empire. With the rise of Emperor Constantine and his heirs (with the exception of Julian the Apostate), Christianity became the favored, and eventually, the only tolerated religion. In the 2nd century, the Alexandrian school had figured out the natural affinity of the Christian faith with Platonism. Now, with the legalization of Christianity in the 4th century, Christian theologians have more time to consider philosophical issues, and they discovered that Platonism showed the natural revelation of God in nature. The subsequent centuries saw the widespread adoption, adaptation, and synthesis of Christian Platonism with the Christian faith, resulting in the formation of the Great Tradition, manifesting a glorious time of Christian civilization.

Sadly, all this would fade away. Late medieval nominalism had assaulted the metaphysical foundations of the Great Tradition, but thankfully they were not successful in destroying it. However, the successor movement of the Enlightenment came onto the scene. Beginning in the 18th century, the Enlightenment was a time of great abandonment of the Great Tradition and of Christian Platonism, resulting in the devastating collapse of the Christian faith, most clearly seen in the rise of theological liberalism (Carter, 85-9). The churches have been a veritable desert of feeble pietistic platitudes from the advent of the Enlightenment until the early 21st century. Now, at long last, post tenebrax lux! Thanks to the actions of scholars like Craig Carter, we have sought theological retrieval and have recovered the Great Tradition which we have lost. Now, we can finally Make the Church Great Again!

Alongside Carter's simplistic history of Christendom is his reframing of the rise of modern science. According to Carter, modern science has its origin in Christian Platonism (the "medieval Christian worldview"). However, in "the early stages of modern science," Christian Platonism was rejected and science was placed onto a "neopagan" route, where the branch of modern science was "sawed off" from its foundation. Modern science has therefore lost its way, and must be re-oriented towards "Christian Platonism" in order to be truly science.

As with his simplistic retelling of the history of Christendom, this history of science is an exercise in fiction. The whole idea that scientists came around and malevolently cut off science from its true Platonic roots because they wish to be fully autonomous with a will triumphant over nature is ludicrous. There was indeed a shift away from teleology, and thus a rejection of the medieval view of science, but that is where the actual history of science diverges from Carter's imaginative retelling of its history.

Now, Carter is right to state that modern science has its roots in medieval natural philosophy [See James Hamman, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2011)]. However, modern science has its roots not in Platonism but in Aristotelianism, and the focus of science was discovery, not any specific fidelity to any one philosophy. We note that what allowed modern science to progress: the regularity of nature, and the fact that nature is not divine and thus open to investigation, are specficially Christian premises, not Platonic or Aristotelian premises. Carter is therefore in error to state that the foundation of modern science is Christian Platonism, for the medieval worldview is broader than "Christian Platonism."

In the history of science, what is known as the "Scientific Revolution" coincides with a shift from the deductive method of science to the inductive method of science, as pioneered by Francis Bacon. This shift basically sounded the death knell for any Platonic or Aristotelian view of science, because the issue of "final causes" or teleology cannot be discerned with the inductive method. Thus, "Platonism" or "Aristotelianism" was "sawed off," not because of some malevolent actors at work but purely because of a shift in how science is done.

If science is the discovery of the workings of the world, then deductivism is limited to things which we can deduce from prior knowledge. Inductivism however expanded the range of things available for investigation, and allows for scientific experimentation to be done alongside much hypothesizing of scientific theories. Teleology is dropped because teleology cannot be discovered inductively. Furthermore, since deductivism is done from a larger metaphysical system, the question is asked why any one system should be adopted to make sense of the natural world.

Carter's last attack on modern science is to call it "neopagan" and based on "Epicurean naturalism." Given that no scientist in their role as scientists are explicitly calling for a return to the gods, and given that no scientists is trying to resurrect "Epicureanism" as a true philosophy, this attack by Carter is mere guilt by association. First, any similarity to Epicureanism is found in the radical "New Atheists" and "Scientific materialist" camps, not "modern science," which in itself takes no position on metaphysical entities. Therefore, besides the radical materialists, it is false to claim that "modern science" is "Epicurean naturalism." Speaking of which, Epicureanism is not the only materialistic philosophy around, so it is false to claim that scientific materialists are necessarily "Epicurean" just because both scientific materialism and Epicureanism are materialistic in nature.

Carter's history of the modern sciences therefore is revisionist in nature. It is false that modern science stems from Christian Platonism. It is false that modern science explicitly cut itself from its own roots, although he would be correct if he applied that to naturalistic modern science. It is false that modern science, even scientific materialism, is "Epicurean naturalism." And lastly, Carter is false to assert that there is a malevolent rejection of "Christian Platonism" in the history of science, which causes its "fall." In short, Carter shows ignorance of the actual history and development of science, in service of his grand project of promoting what he holds to be "Christian Platonism."

1 comment:

Daniel C said...

Robert, thanks for sharing.