Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Contemplating the Savior of Science

Have you ever stopped to think about why modern science first arrived on the scene in Europe around the middle of the last millennium with scientists like Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes and Pascal? Why not from other great cultures of the past? This question is explored with piercing detail in a book called “The Savior of Science” by Fr. Stanley Jaki. It was recommended to me by writer and scientist, Stacy Trasancos. It’s not the easiest read in the world if one is not familiar with certain scientists throughout history and their theories, but some parts of the book are easy to follow.

It’s very understandable as to why some cultures would not be so concerned with the great “whys” of the physical universe if they were constantly struggling for food, water and shelter or continually fending off attacks from their neighbors. Who cares how the sun goes up and down every day if I’m just trying to stay alive every day, but what about the peoples of cultures like ancient China, Japan, India, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome? They all lived in organized societies with infrastructure; they had long periods of peace and talented citizens. They were also not greatly influenced by one another, as if we could say the superstitions about nature spread from one culture to all the rest like a virus. Of course, they had their achievements, like gun powder, papermaking and fixed-type engraved printing coming from China. How about the great architectural achievements of ancient Egypt, or the logic of the Greeks, but modern science never took root in any of these places. Why?

 Like any good problem solving, one should compare the place of interest (like Europe) and the characteristic of interest (like the birth of modern science) to other places that lack that characteristic. From here we can look for distinctions. By their fruits you shall know them, provided that scientific fruit or fruitlessness is looked for.

 The great non-Judeo-Christian cultures of the past had their premises about nature, existence and the universe. Perhaps it was the belief in eternal cycles that left a hopeless feeling when at the bottom, or a sense of complacency when on top (learn about Fortuna). How about the view of the universe as a kind of huge wild animal whose dangerous irrationalities needed to be appeased by some kind of human ritual? Others kept a wall of division between celestial and terrestrial matter that could never be penetrated. Given these kinds of worldviews, it’s easy to see why modern science could never take root. There also was no confidence in the abilities of a limited human mind to grasp the laws of nature, because nature was not subject to any rational mind or lawgiver that transcended it. King Brihadratha, the last ruler of the Mauryan dynasty, sums it up well for his culture as well as many others when he said “In the cycle of existence, I’m like a frog in a waterless well.” These kinds of mind sets seem to cry out for salvation.

So what was different about Europe? Fr. Jaki suggests that it was Christ that saved science from yet another “stillbirth” in Europe. The culture which grew out of Christendom was the distinction that provided the premises by which man could finally have a rational worldview, and the premises came from Catholic doctrine.
Now this is a hard teaching; who could accept it? Didn’t S.J. Gould get it right when he said, “Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview - nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.”  Isn’t the scientific progress that we still build onto today the result of the European enlightenment? Isn’t this when men shook-off their pious little fairy tales about god or gods? This finally freed men to use logic & reason for the very first time to explain the world around them, right?

Well, the Greeks and other cultures were known for their logic, but science was stillborn in those places. Additionally, the famous forefathers of modern science like Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes and Pascal were all Christian. So if atheism or just raw logic does not explain the birth of modern science, what might explain it?

Fr. Jaki argues that salvation finally came for science because Christ and His Church built a Christian worldview with the following types of convictions….
  • God is a rational being that is orderly and reliable; therefore, his creation is also rational, orderly and reliable.
  • All matter, celestial & terrestrial, can be placed on the same basic level, since it was all created out of nothing (ex nilhilo). A pebble is no different than the earth, the sun, the moon, or a cow in terms of being a created thing that can be studied and dissected.
  • Man is made in the image and likeness of God, therefore we can have confidence in human rationality to understand creation because our intellect was fashioned by God in his own image.
  • Man can have full trust in a rational creator. This fosters the intellectual courage that can drive us to learn more about creation.

Regrettably, this intellectual courage also leads men to the sin of pride. In the book, Fr. Jaki cleverly compares the sin of Eve in the book of Genesis to the sin of atheistic scientists today who view the world as only material. After being tempted by the serpent, Eve became “scientific”, looking at the tree of life in a materialistic way. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it…” (Gen 3:6). The illicitness of the fruit and the tree was forgotten along with the Creator.

Many of today’s scientists seem to have flipped one of the Catholic based premises on its head. The science of the past may have said “We know the creator is intelligent, so we can go forward assuming the universe is intelligible.” Today it’s more like “We know the universe is intelligible, so we can go forward assuming there is no intelligence behind it.” It’s like saying we can see sunlight, but we should assume that there is no sun. This kind of dimming down of the intellect was expressed well using a paradox, “we are smarter than we are”.

“We are smarter than we are” is meant to express the notion that our minds have evolved much faster than our bodies. The human brain appeared on the scene in a geological instant and it seems to be evolutionary “overkill” in terms of only needing to survive and reproduce. S.J Gould was also quoted in the book as saying, “It does reinforce an ego that we do well to deflate.”

The statement is not about the Christian virtue of humility; it’s more about convincing you not to look any deeper than the material surface; we should forcibly deflate that natural part us that looks for spiritual truth. Paradoxes are normally meant to awaken the mind; in this case it is meant to suppress the mind. The mind’s eye is meant to see further and deeper than the physical eye, but we are told to deflate the part of us that cries out “There must be more!”  Should we deflate ourselves or should we continue to search for that which is more than we are?
Which will you choose?


  1. I've heard it pointed out before that it could only be a Christian culture that produced modern science - you gentlemen do a good job of summarizing here. I intend to check out the book.
    God Bless!

    1. Thanks James. There's also good stuff in the book about Darwinists vs. Evolutionists. There's a difference.

  2. Nicely done. The book is available in Kindle form and I believe will be out in hard copy shortly. It is the best thing I have ever read on the subject. I am also a Ph.D. Physical Chemist and convert to Catholicism as is Mrs. Transancos so I relate very well to her writings and those of Fr. Jaki. She has spoken the truth very clearly. The evidence is conclusive in my view for Science being Born from Catholicism.

  3. Wow. This isn't the first time I've seen a discussion of the Judeo-Christian worldview, or something very much like it, being necessary for science to exist: but they're few and far between.

    For what it's worth, I agree: without an underlying belief that the universe makes sense, and is designed along rational lines; there would be no point in starting a search for rational physical principles.

    Well-said, and thanks!

    1. I wonder too how many science teachers, even in Catholic schools, know about the savior of science. Thanks for your comment.