Sunday, August 28, 2011

Should we credit the Enlightenment for Science?

I often hear we should, even from bright, educated, and good-hearted atheists.  An Irish poster who seems to fit that description, and calls himself "Elite European Liberal" (just to tweak the other side; Brian is his nom de vie), has in my presence often rhapsodized about how the Enlightenment is responsible for everything good in the world, science of course heading the list.  I'd like to flatter myself that I've talked a little sense into him on this subject, but "when the cat's away, the mice will play," as they say -- it is hard to really convince people whose identity is tied to the Enlightenment Myth, to admit that their household god does not actually set the sun in motion across the sky. 

Yesterday, I heard it from someone else:

"The Enlightenment was the beginning of the progress we all enjoy and it was the secular institutionalizing of criticism that did it."

I called this "junk history," and recommended James Hannam's The Genesis of Science to the poster. John Croft, a kindly Australian skeptic, then replied:

"David this is not correct.

"Although the Copernican Revolution was pre-Enlightenment, the Newtonian Revolution was a product and a stimulus of it. As a secular term (rather than as used in Buddhism for example), the concept of the Enlightenment refers mainly to the European intellectual movement known as the Age of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason, referring to philosophical developments related to scientific rationality in the 17th and 18th centuries."

Of course I had not questioned that modern science "stimulated" the so-called Enlightenment, rather the other way around.
One must ask two questions about any claim of historical causation.  The first is often overlooked: "Is it possible?"  Did (this really helps) the alleged cause even occur before the supposed effect?  The second necessary question, assuming the answer to the first is "yes," then becomes, "So what evidence can you cite to show that A really did cause B?"

The big problem with crediting the Enlightenment for the birth of modern science, is that it is simply not possible.  That's because science was up and running full steam, long before the "Enlightenment." 

When did the "Age of Enlightenment" occur?  Three definitions.  First, Wikipedia defines it as:

"An elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in Church and state. Originating about 1650–1700, it was sparked by philosophers Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), John Locke (1632–1704), and Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) and by mathematician Isaac Newton (1643–1727)." (My emphasis.) 

Funk and Wagnall's agrees:

"The Enlightenment: A philosophical movement of the 18th Century characterized by rationalistic methods and skepticism about established dogmas."

Or if you prefer Oxford:

"(The Enlightenment) a European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced by 17th -century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent figures included Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith."

Descartes, Locke and Newton (all Christians, BTW) are thus "influences," not "prominent figures."

Sir Isaac Newton, whom John also mentioned, published his  Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687.

Newton, or at least their idea of Newton, certainly left his "stamp" on later "Enlightenment" thinkers.  But few of them could have influenced him, since he lived before them.  Newton was also one of the biggest Bible-thumpers in Cambridge, and wrote more on the Bible than he did on science. 

Newton spoke of himself, with atypical modesty, as a "dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants."  But the "giants" on whose shoulders he stood, were not Enlightenment philosophers, they were (mostly) Christian scientists who had already been developing the astronomy to which he contributed.

Great scientists emerged in Oxford and Paris in the 13th Century. In the 14th Century, Jean Buridan and Nicolas Oresme suggested that the Earth rotated. After the flowering of Medieval science in the 13th and early 14th Century (itself building on earlier discoveries), scientific development slipped a bit, due perhaps to Black Death and Humanism, which encouraged scholars to ignore recent achievements in science AND in literature.  (See C. S. Lewis' Oxford History of English Literature in the 16th Century, along with Hannam's book.)  Copernicus published before the middle of the 16th Century, followed by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton -- all well before anything that can be described as the "Enlightenment," no matter how much you stretch the term. (And some skeptics give it a pretty good workout.)  Kepler published on optics in 1604, and figured out the elliptical nature of orbits the following year. Robert Boyle's inventions, and the beginnings of the Royal Society, came in the mid-17th Century. These people had all been reading their Bibles, and all gained from earlier Medieval science (and magic!), but it is hard to see how they could have read and been influenced by Spinoza or Locke, still less Kant, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, of Jefferson.

In fact, Locke was Boyle's student, not the other way around!  And Boyle, like others who were close to Locke, was a zealous Christian, who stipulated in his will that money be set aside to fund lectures refuting atheism and other non-Christian beliefs!  So the influence clearly ran in the other direction. 

Unless, that it, the Fathers of the Enlightenment invented time machines, which might be a good premise for a skeptical science fiction movie.  In fact, Dr. Brown in Back to the Future does seem to spout a few Enlightenment slogans.  Mark Twain is (as I recall, it's been a while) even more "liberal" with Enlightenment cliches, in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

But both are works of historical fantasy, the genre to which all "Enlightenment caused science" arguments must be consigned.  In really, even after the thing had gotten going, not all key Enlightenment figures were that into science. 

The one possible exception was Baruch Spinoza, a quiet, thoughtful Jewish philosopher and scientist with many Christian friends, who could have been one of many thinkers within the broad stream of late Medieval civilization to have some influence on Newton. But it is anachronistic to identify him as representing the Enlightenment, and he seems to have been only one of many important scientific and philosophical influences.

God and Science: Two Great Tastes, that Taste Great Together? 

Confucius, in case you're

At least four periods in history have seen revolutionary changes in how people see the world, from which humanity continues to benefit in tremendous ways.  The first three are part of the so-called Axial Age: ancient Greece, China during the late Zhou (Warring States) period, and ancient Israel (from the prophetic period to early Christianity).  The final such period was late Medieval Europe, which gave birth to science, among other brilliant innovations.  

At least three qualities typify all four periods: (a) cultural unity, (b) political pluralism within that unity (tribes, city-states, small nation-states), and (c) the strong intellectual influence of theistic thinking.  (To prove these points, I may need to return to this issue in another blog.)

A strong thread of skepticism and atheism arose in at least three of these four cultural circles -- Epicurus and Lucretius among the Greeks, Xun Zi in China, and of course the "Enlightenment" in Europe.   

So what is the true relationship between belief in God, skepticism, and the greatest intellectual revolutions in human history? 

It seems likely that atheism is what Marx would call a "superstructure" built upon a civilization's more basic successes, in these three cases.  The great reforms and inventions mostly come first, arising out of a culture permeated with theistic beliefs.  Skepticism is a fruit that grows on that tree, not apparently its root, unless we discover an atomic-powered De Lorean parked next to David Hume's tomb. 

Did theism in any sense "cause" or contribute to these great periods of reform, revival, and world-enriching innovations? 

This is, at least, chronologically possible.  Whether or not it is likely, I'll leave as a puzzle for the aforementioned later post.   


Patrick said...

Very informative concerning the question about the role of Christianity for scientific progress is the following article, written by Bjørn Are Davidsen:

A good example of technological innovation is the watch industry in Switzerland, which is outlined in the following link:

David B Marshall said...

Thanks for the references, Patrick. The first seems an objective and informative article. I think Bjorn has posted here before; it's good to see something by him in English.

Calvin's role in creating the watch industry is proof that Murphy aside, unintended consequences are often happy ones.

Brian Barrington said...

Hi David, “I'd like to flatter myself that I've talked a little sense into him on this subject”
This is accurate and needs no correction – I don’t doubt for a second that you would like to flatter yourself that you have talked a littled sense into me on this subject :-)

Btw, I have written a short piece on “Religion in the Modern World” that you might find of some interest – – I think that there are parts of it you will agree with, and parts you will disagree with.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: A very interesting post, and set of proposals. Honestly, I think that is unusually sane, from an atheist' POV. (Apart from the dancing naked bit, which I do not wish to see.)

I may take a closer look later, and say a bit more.

Anonymous said...

***Yawn*** Didn't Richard Carrier tear this nonsense to shreds in one of his recent books? I think so...!!!

The spirit of scientific investigation - empiricism - was developed with the Enlightenment. Your argument fails.

David B Marshall said...

Anon: You should know that a smart debater doesn't ask questions that he doesn't know the answer to.

No, he didn't, and couldn't. Or if he did, do explain how and where -- it wasn't in The Christian Delusion.

Also, has no one every told you that it's rude to yawn in peoples' faces? Is that just an expression of your personal insolence, or do you need more sleep?

If you answer, please do give your name.

Hans said...

I think I read in The Renaissance Mathematicus that the "I stand on the shoulders of giants" quote didn't actually come from Newton.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks for the correction. I don't think it originated from Newton, but apparently he wrote it in a letter to Robert Hooke. (Whose glory I believe he later tried to hog, BTW.)