Modern culture often paints the picture that science did not begin to flourish until it was freed from the chains of religion and philosophy. Among academia today, the dominant view is that “religion” is opposed to “science,” and that scientific advances exist because great scientists of the past were finally able to slip those chains and find “the truth.” Nancy Pearcey’s book, The Soul of Science, makes very plain the error of that line of thinking.
Students of history can quickly see that the first recognizably scientific thoughts and conversations began between Christians—men of faith who debated not their belief in God, but which philosophy best explained God’s world and God’s relationship to His creation. Many cultures were marked by man’s inquisitive nature and his desire to explain the natural world; however, only in Western Europe did thinking that emphasized experimentation and mathematical formulations arise. Far from stifling scientific thought, the intellectual presuppositions of Christian Europe encouraged this new field.
Certain assumptions about the natural world must be accepted for science to become possible. These assumptions are rooted in a Biblical understanding of the world, and they provided Western culture with the fundamental notions necessary to study nature in the way we have come to call “scientific.” The belief that nature is real, valuable, created, and orderly set the foundation for early scientific thought and, eventually, exploration.
The notion that the created world is real is fundamental to science; the Christian doctrine of creation asserts that the world is not full of representations of “the Infinite,” but is composed of actual, finite objects and beings. Unlike in the eastern philosophies such as Hinduism, nature is real, not merely a representation of an “absolute.” Such a belief inspires respect for, and careful attention to, the natural world. The earth and all it contains exists as touchable, testable objects that can be measured and analyzed—scientifically studied.
The belief that nature is valuable is also foundational to science. Nature must be seen as good in order for the study of nature (science) to be a worthy activity. For instance, the ancient Greeks often thought of the physical world as evil and full of disorder; consequently they did not develop an empirical science, despite their deep devotion to thinking and education. Without a high view of the material world, experimentation and practical observation of the natural world did not happen. The early church, on the other hand, had this high view, esteeming the natural world as God’s creation, and therefore inherently valuable. The material world was not to be escaped or denigrated, but respected and used for God’s glory. The natural world was intended for exploration and was worthy of study.
The belief that nature is created also proves to be pivotal for the development of science. If nature is part of God, or God is emanate in it, then certainly nature cannot be taken apart and studied. The Pagans, animists and pantheists, were unable to see nature as an object of study. You cannot dissect and study that which should be worshipped and revered. Until the early Christian doctrine pronounced that God was Creator and nature was created, scientific study could not go forward. When creation was no longer seen as something to worship, it could be seen as something to be studied.
The belief that nature is orderly is also a necessary precursor to the development of scientific thought. The Christian belief in a Creator-God who designed the world with order and coherence made the study of science possible. In order to study nature, nature must be predictable, orderly, and reliable. Science, founded on the principles of replication and dependability, needed a worldview that included a Creator who was orderly and dependable, who created a world with the same qualities.
The legacy of Christian Western Europe, often overlooked by modern science, cannot be overestimated. Without these fundamental assumptions—this Christian worldview—science as a discipline would not have flourished. If our desire for our students is to give them a full understanding of science, we must begin our study with the history of science, the influence of the church, and the impact of worldview. Join me for the Soul of Science Part 2 webinar on Monday, October 12 at 8:00 p.m. to hear more!
For Nancy Pearcey, worldview is very much related to science; in fact, in many ways worldview determines what we can believe about science. As Pearcey says in The Soul of Science, “To understand Scientific development…we must also trace the succession of worldview” (59). Next month we will trace the development of science through the succession of worldviews embraced by the men of science throughout history.