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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Atheist's Lament

While searching for information about Theirry of Chartres, I ran across the blog of an apparently well-known atheist, Richard Carrier, who has done a fair bit of research in one of my old disciplines, the history of science. Carrier is obviously well-versed in the accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans, and delights in taking apart Christian hagiography of history.

Now, given his philosophical background, Carrier obviously has a reason to take delight in the technological bent of the pagan Romans while he does his best to belittle the accomplishments of Christians. Still, he does try to be fair, insofar as an atheist can be fair, and that is laudable.

Christianity and Science: The Early Years
For instance, he points out that the loss of technological knowledge during the Christian era was not due to any overt animus Christians had towards the accomplishments of the Greeks or Romans, but rather due to their sheer disinterest in such accomplishments. Although I haven't read more than a few of his blog posts, it's obvious that he sees the Renaissance and the increasing power of experimental science as something that happened despite Christianity rather than because of it. For instance, he lays out quite a lot of evidence that the Christian fathers insisted the study of nature was of secondary importance.

Indeed, he argues that science only began to flourish in Christian cultures because Christianity in the post-"Dark Age" period was substantially different than it was in its infancy. That is, he says the Christianity of the Fathers is not the Christianity that we honor (or excoriate) today.

In short, he is making the technological equivalent of the Protestant argument that Constantine destroyed the Church Christ established. But, instead of arguing that Peter was not head of the Church or that Scripture was really always the sole source of authority, he argues that only pagans really understood technology and science, that Christianity was just some mystery cult that suborned real civilization for several centuries, beginning in the third century or so before people recovered their senses, and began to put human society back on its correct course again. Carrier apparently feels that if it wasn't for this lamentable thousand year hiatus, we would have had the Renaissance in the fifth century.

Now, you have to hand it to him for consistency. All critics of the Church use the same dates, whether they be Reformation Protestants or technological atheists - society went to hell in the 3rd century, and it only recovered with the Renaissance and the printing press/Reformation. Yawn.

But, as I say, his evidence is impressive. He lays out all the technological accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans, which were many and varied, and compares them to the technological accomplishments of the Christians for the next thousand years, which were admittedly few in comparison.

A Second Look
Unfortunately, as he laid out his case, he failed to recognize an alternate interpretation of the facts, and it revolves around the failure to recognize the existence of formal science.

The failure is not entirely his fault. For reasons having quite a lot to do with Christians, the machinery of the Romans and the Greeks survived the intervening millennium better than their books did. As Carrier points out, the Christians didn't purposely destroy Greek or Roman science books, they simply didn't preserve them. They spent zero energy in copying those texts.

When Christian Greeks and Romans needed vellum or parchment for the creation of Christian treatises, they grabbed whatever was at hand, scraped off the inconvenient ink that might currently be on it, and covered the scraped material with fresh ink describing the glories of God and His interactions with His creatures. Often-times, this discarded treatise described some glory of Greek or Roman thought/technology. But no one cared about that kind of content, so it wasn't preserved.

As a result, we actually have more examples of Greek and Roman machinery than we have of the books in which they recorded the theory behind how they built that machinery. An historian will naturally study what is available, and an historian of ancient science will therefore be more an historian of technology and applied science than he will be of formal science, if only because almost none of the formal science the Greco-Roman tradition produced has come down to us. We didn't preserve it because we didn't think it as important as the Gospels.

As I point out in my book, Synergy: Science Reasons With Atheists, formal sciences are quite distinct from experimental science, but no less fully science for all that. Math and logic, for instance, perform no experiments, yet no one would dispute that these are sciences. Theology is a formal science in the same mold as math and logic - indeed, theology uses the stringent rules of logic in order to accomplish its work.

So, when we say that Christians for the first thousand years were not interested in science or were completely indifferent to it, we aren't being entirely accurate. They were, in fact, deeply interested in science. They just weren't deeply interested in experimental science. Instead, they put their energies into formal science.

This is important.

Let's Try This Again
If Carrier is correct, and I'm willing to grant that he probably is, then I can reach a conclusion he fails to reach. The Romans and Greeks chose to drop the pursuit of technology and experimental science in order to become Christians and pursue theological science. In fact, they not only dropped technology and experiment, they lost all interest in it.

The Greco-Romans knew what Carrier does not.
They could not produce a Renaissance because they didn't understand who they were.

Only with the flourishing growth of Christianity did the Greco-Romans begin to plumb the depths of personhood. Indeed, the very first technical theological definition of "person" came into existence with Tertullian at precisely the moment the Greco-Roman civilization went to hell in a handbasket.

The highly technical, incredibly scientific Greco-Roman culture had an absolutely childish understanding of the divine. Their pantheons of gods, to which they added with frenetic urgency with every nation they conquered, were always completely inadequate to the task of divining what it means to be human.

Indeed, one could argue that the whole thing fell apart precisely because the cultural center was too weak to hold. As the comforts of Greco-Roman civilization increased, its ability to feed its population grew far beyond its ability to actually produce a population to feed. Rome fell in no small part because Roman citizens loved to recreate but refused to procreate. Barbarians were essentially paid to have children, rewarded with government posts, they eventually staffed the armies of Empire and even became emperors themselves. The culture could offer nothing in return but creature comforts and pleasant baubles. There was no deeply human culture to which barbarians had to mold themselves.

That's why Christian theology was so appealing. It held an answer to the questions the Greeks and Romans had asked for a thousand years, but had been woefully unable to answer. Christianity told them who they were.

Is it any wonder the early Christians denounced interest in the natural world as an endeavor of secondary importance? The Greeks and Romans had tried that and it hadn't worked - that's why they became Christians, after all. For a thousand years, they threw their heart and soul into discovering God and themselves.

Remember, the very same early Christians who denounced interest in the natural world were a product of centuries of technological and scientific progress. You might call early Christians prototypical Luddites or slow-witted fools, but whatever you call them, you can't avoid calling them Greeks and Romans because that is what they were. The fact is, the Christian philosophy (if you're an atheist) or theology (if you're a theist) turned out to be tremendously appealing to the Greco-Roman world.

Only after these same Greco-Romans had advanced in theological science were they willing to return to the study of nature. But this time, they came back with something they never had before - a real understanding of their own place in the universe, their relationship to God above and the world below. Once they really understood how reality worked, they were able to break through the wall that no other culture had ever breached.

The Renaissance was a real re-birth, just as baptism is a real re-birth, and neither could have happened, indeed, neither has ever happened, without Christian light leading the way.

The Take-Away
For five hundred years, experimental science has been imbued, endowed and suffused with Christian perspective. Today, people want to again see if we can go it alone, drop the theology, and return to a study of nature without the "baggage" of Christianity "interfering" in our work.

The answer is, sure, we can do it.

And when we do it, we will return to the days of the Greco-Roman empire, where 10% of the population could read, most people were slaves, and human prisoners were vivisected so that the ruling elite could accomplish their scientific experiments.

We can do it.
We can do exactly what they did.
But remember what ultimately happened to that empire.

And remember where they had to turn, what they had to throw away, in order to regain their sanity.


TH2 said...

Good post, Steve - you have written about one of my favourite subjects: the history of science.

As for the "stillbirths" of science in every culture, save the Christian, a classic work (as you likely know already) is Fr. Stanley Jaki's Science and Creation - showing that science really developed/flourished only within the Catholic cultural matrix, the Medievals, i.e. Oresme, Buridan etc.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Jaki, of course, is gold in this area - he just passed away this year, so prayers for his soul are certainly appropriate.

Richard Carrier specifically mentions Jaki if only to condemn the history he wrote as hagiography. But as I point out in the essay, Carrier is mostly doing a history of technology and applied science, while Jaki did much more of a history of the philosophy of science - quite a different animal.

Also, of course, Jaki writes favorably about the Church while Carrier, the atheist, is unable to stomach kind words in that regard.