The Reformation as the mother of modern science


Steve Fuller (Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology, University of Warwick, UK) in his foreword to a new book, describes the way in which the Reformation in Europe 500 years ago opened the way for and may even be said to have birthed modern science. But he goes further to describe how, just as the church in the middle ages drifted from the God of grace and hardened into a top-down, unquestionable, clerical establishment, in the same way the scientific endeavour, as it has increasingly taken atheism as its base presupposition rather than the Creator God, is in danger of turning into a tyranny of experts in need of its own reformation and return to roots.

While it is generally accepted that the Protestant Reformation overlapped with the Scientific Revolution, this is often treated as a mere historical accident, when in fact something closer to a causal connection obtains between the two events. The first movement in human history to trust the ordinary person’s ability to judge the weight of evidence for themselves was the drive to get people to read the Bible for themselves. Until the sixteenth century, Christianity found itself in the peculiar position of being a faith founded on a sacred book through which God communicated with humans, yet relatively few of the faithful could read, let alone affirm its contents. The Protestant Reformation reversed that. The Scientific Revolution then extended that “judge for
yourself” attitude to all of physical reality by explicitly treating nature as a second sacred book. Thus, it is not surprising that Francis Bacon, with whom the “scientific method” is normally associated, was also instrumental in the production of the King James Version of the Bible.

Today science enjoys an unprecedented authority because of both the number of people who believe in it and the number of subjects to which their belief applies. In this respect, our world resembles the one faced by the Protestant Reformers in that people today are often discouraged, because of the authority of science, from testing their faith in its claims by considering the evidence for themselves. Instead they are meant to defer to the authority of academic experts, who function as a secular clergy. …while it has become part of secular folklore to say that the Catholic Church “repressed” the advancement of science, if “repression” implies the thwarting of an already evident desire and capacity to seek knowledge, then today’s scientific establishment seriously outperforms the early modern Church…

How did the precise form of modern science – experimentation – come about?

…what was it about the Bible that led such a wide variety of inquirers, all wrestling with
their Christian faith, to come up with the form of science that we continue to practice today? This is an important question to ask because there is no good historical reason to think that science as we know it would have arisen in any other culture—including China, generally acknowledged to have been the world’s main economic power prior to
the nineteenth century—had it not arisen in Christian Europe.

A distillation of research in the history and philosophy of science suggests two biblical ideas as having been crucial to the rise of science, both of which can be attributed to the reading of Genesis provided by Augustine, an early church father, whose work became increasingly studied in the late Middle Ages and especially the Reformation. Augustine
captured the two ideas in two Latin coinages, which [on the face of it] cut against each other: imago dei [image of God] and peccatum originis [original sin]. The former says that humans are unique as a species in our having been created in the image and likeness of God, while the latter says that all humans are born having inherited the legacy of Adam’s error, “original sin.”

Once Christians began to read the Bible for themselves, they too picked out those ideas as salient in how they defined their relationship to God, which extended to how they did science. And this sensibility carried into the modern secular age, as perhaps best illustrated in our own day by Karl Popper’s slogan for the scientific attitude as the method of “conjectures and refutations,” the stronger the better in both cases. We should aspire to understand all of nature by proposing bold hypotheses (something of which we are capable because of the imago dei) but to expect and admit error (something to which we are inclined because of the peccatum originis) whenever we fall short in light of the evidence. The experimental method developed by Francis Bacon was designed to encourage just that frame of mind… Unfortunately we live in a time in which only those who have themselves conducted science in some authorized manner are allowed to say anything about what science is and where it should go.

I commend… an unprecedented opportunity for educated non-scientists to revisit the spirit of the Reformation by judging for themselves what they make of the evidence…

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