Gaukroger, religion, and the rise of science

I have been reading two huge and detailed books on the rise of modern science: Stephen Gaukroger’s The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1210-1685 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); and Gaukroger’s The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1680-1760 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). These are the first two volumes (the only ones so far) in an ongoing series by Gaukroger examining the advance of science.

I started on this exercise in response to an anonymous reviewer for Wiley-Blackwell, which will be publishing my co-authored book with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Great Myths About Atheism. The idea put to us by the reviewer was that Gaukroger has demonstrated the vital role of Christian theology in assisting the consolidation of science in early modern Europe. I must say that I’m not totally convinced.

As its title implies, the first volume covers European intellectual history from the rise of neo-Aristotelian natural philosophy in the 13th century, through developments in the 16th and early 17th centuries, involving Copernicus, Galileo, Hobbes, Gassendi, Kepler, Descartes, and others, to the spectacular flowering of science in the work of Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, and many others in the late 17th century.

Obviously, all these men appeared in cultures that gave them the intellectual and other resources for their work, but when you trace through the detail of what motivated them, how they influenced each other, and so on, not much of that has to do with Christianity. What most comes across is their fascination with experiments, thought experiments, and each other’s ideas, and in many cases their joy-cum-obsession with the new tools that had become available to them in the form of scientific instruments, precision crafted experimental apparatus, and increasingly powerful kinds of mathematics.

Gaukroger sees his central question as being why a large-scale, successfully legitimating consolidation of science took place in Europe in the 17th century (and thereafter) – when science tends to be fragmented and stop-start, with long periods of stagnation, whenever it has appeared in a promising form in other times, places, and cultures. He answers that the natural philosophy of the Scientific Revolution was attractive to many thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries precisely because it appeared to have promise for the renewal of natural theology.

There may be something in this, although before I go on let’s pause to note it is very different from saying that there was something about Christianity that made it inherently pro-science in the first place. Gaukroger does not appear to maintain any such thesis (and nor, as far as I know, does the anonymous reviewer that I mentioned).

Indeed, Gaukroger notes that there was a considerable tradition within ancient and medieval Christianity of opposition to natural philosophy (and hence anything resembling science), seeing it as distracting or even idolatrous. Nothing in his books seems to give late medieval scholasticism much credit for the rise of science (it appears that whatever science it produced in the 13th and 14th centuries was not fruitful, and stagnated much like in other cultures that showed promising beginnings in scientific thought, such as China and medieval Islam). Indeed, even Aristotle’s form of natural philosophy was initially resisted by the 13th-century Church, although the synthesis produced by Aquinas was later given the Church’s endorsement.

Renaissance natural theology was largely an attempt to reconcile Aristotelianism with theology, which may well have been intellectually fruitful in some ways, but the Church was harsh to anyone who drew conclusions that strayed beyond orthodoxy. If anything, Christianity seems to have acted more as a hindrance than otherwise to free inquiry into the phenomena of the natural world (though, of course, even resistance can sometimes be inspiring).

Late in The Emergence of a Scientific Culture, Gaukroger discusses the (largely British) phenomenon of physico-theology: the attempts by some theologians, scientists (as we’d now call them), and philosophers to reconcile theology with what was emerging from science, or even to use scientific findings to support or revitalise theology. He writes interestingly of thinkers, such as Ralph Cudworth, who embraced a version of the atomist view of the natural world that had become popular within science, while attempting at the same time to modify it and to include it in their metaphysical systems. Gaukroger then deals at some length with others who attempted to reconcile scientific theories of the formation of the Earth with the Genesis account of creation and the biblical chronology of history. He puts an impressive enough case that in the 1680s and 1690s, especially in the UK, there was a widespread view that natural philosophy could be used as a source of evidence for God.

But none of shows that the successful consolidation of science in the 17th and 18th centuries had much to with Christianity. On the face of it, I’d have thought that the successful consolidation of science at this point in history owed more simply to its unprecedented theoretical successes, the causes of which were contingent and complicated – perhaps having to do with some of the personalities involved, perhaps with non-religious aspects of European culture, perhaps with breakthroughs in mathematics and scientific instrumentation. And perhaps with other things. I don’t see any densely argued case for giving much credit to religion.

About the most that could be said with any confidence is that, back in, say, 1600, orthodox theology might have looked like a very formidable barrier for science to overcome. After all, as Gaukroger says in The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility, “Christianity … had traditionally laid claim to universal competence in all matters of understanding the world and our place in it, most notably in its Augustinean version”, but as he immediately adds this claim was decisively weakened during the seventeenth century. Despite the terrible execution of Giordano Bruno in 1600, for a mix of sins in the eyes of the Church, and the persecution of Galileo not long after, Christianity did not do all that much to block the rise of science in the second half of the century.

Given Christianity’s longstanding claims to universal epistemic competence, it is no wonder that it came into conflict with Aristotelian natural philosophy and later with early modern science, personified by Galileo. These stood to draw their own conclusions and to challenge theology’s authority.

Thus, Gaukroger is doubtless correct when he makes much of the issue of the relationship between the epistemic authority of Christianity and that of natural philosophy (or science). He says, I think justly, that the issue of the relationship between “the kind of understanding of the world that natural philosophy provides, and that provided by Christian revelation and natural theology” was a pressing one in Christian Europe from the beginning of the 13th century, when Aristotelian texts and doctrines were introduced into the intellectual culture.

Given the intellectual hegemony of Christianity, it can be argued that the ability of science to consolidate itself depended on its relationship with Christian thought. On this hinged the ability of science to establish itself in the late 17th and early 18th centuries “as a permanent and integral feature of Western intellectual life” (The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility).

During this period, as Gaukroger reminds us, it was widely understood as a requirement for natural philosophy that its theories be compatible with shared assumptions in Europe about morality, our place in the world, and religious thinking in general. In the upshot, science conformed – to some extent, it avoided heresy by carefully defining its field of inquiry as the natural world (while drawing a sharp boundary with the supernatural world), and to some extent it produced theories that ultimately appealed to the actions of God, as we find in the work of Newton.

All this, however, is not so much Christian theology nurturing science as simply not proving to be such a formidable barrier as first appeared. To some extent, it was a matter of science accommodating itself to Christianity. To some extent, it may, indeed, have been certain theologians welcoming the findings of science as a resource for theology. But to some extent it may simply be that Christianity had lost much of its intellectual hegemony for totally different reasons – partly, perhaps, because of the disastrous Thirty Years’ War, and partly because of extensive contact with other cultures in the New World and the Far East, which also tended to undermine absolutism and certainty.

Despite Gaukroger’s extensive scholarship, there’s still a story to research and tell here – a story about how Christianity increasingly lost its intellectual authority, and why it was, perhaps, increasingly less in a position to hinder the rise of science and competition from other epistemic rivals.

I’m glad I had my attention drawn to these books. I began reading them to see what they have to say about the interaction between early science and Christian theology. But, although that is a recurring theme, it does not dominate the discussion by any means, and much of the fascination is simply in getting a consolidated and detailed account of how science developed, hypothesis by hypothesis, contributor by contributor, step by step, in its early centuries, and how it interacted with much else, such as the broader literary and intellectual culture of Europe. Taken together, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture and The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility form an extraordinarily scholarly and exhaustive account of what was going on during a crucial period in intellectual history, as high medieval culture gave way to early modernity, and then the Enlightenment era.

[This post is based on a series of posts over on my personal blog.]

[Pssst: Check out my books at Amazon. Not least Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.]

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