PHIL: Religion, Science, and Philosophy [Was:MORE ON THE FIGHT

Max More (
Sun, 1 Dec 1996 13:41:43 -0700 (MST)

At 04:43 PM 11/30/96 -0500, Lyle Burkhead wrote:
>One of the cliches that permeates modern culture is the idea that
>Christianity is inherently anti-scientific. Nothing could be more
>absurd. Out of all the cultures that have existed on this planet, only one
>created modern science. Science appeared in Europe, at a time when
>virtually all Europeans were Christian. Pascal, Newton, Leibniz, Euler,
>Cauchy, and Riemann were all Christians -- and not just nominal
>Christians. They took it seriously. Show me six atheists with
>comparable mathematical achievement. Show me an atheistic culture
>that has produced any non-trivial scientific ideas. Even Galileo,
>who was arrested by the Inquisition, remained a Christian all his life;
>his quarrel was with the ecclesiastical bureaucracy, not with the church
>per se.

Lyle raises an interesting and important issue: the relationship between
religions, especially Christianity, and science. While I think Lyle is
partially right, I think he also goes too far.

Saying that "Science appeared in Europe, at a time when virtually all
Europeans were Christian" is suggestive but sounds like the fallacy of post
hoc ergo propter hoc (after it, therefore because of it). Of course science
arose in a religious culture. How many *non-religious* cultures have there
been to compare? Even the officially atheistic (and short-lived) Soviet
culture was never atheistic. Most of the population continued their
religious believes quietly. The major visible resurgence of religion after
the fall of communism showed that religion had never been extirpated. So
it's hard to find non-religious cultures to compare. Britain, while in the
most secular period of the Enlightenment, made enormous advances. However,
clearly, Christianity was still strong. Ancient Greece, where scientific and
technical advances were relatively impressive, was religious, though

Certainly non-scientific beliefs and attitudes have powerfully inspired
scientific advance. To the extent that this is Lyle's point, I think it
should be granted. The question is then whether this inspiration and
motivation is specifically religious. I say no. It *can* be: Kepler saw
astronomers as "priests of the most high God with respect to the book of
nature," and saw his own role as "the honor of guarding, with my discovery,
the door of God's temple, in which Copernicus serves before the high altar."

However, inspiration has been provided as much by philosophy as by religion.
Complicating the issue is the point that philosophy and religion are not
strictly separated realms of thought. (Here I'm talking about philosophy in
it's grandest sense of a search for a deep understanding of the universe and
our place in it, rather than the dry, narrow, technical questions that
concern most modern philosophers.) I locate the distinction between the two
in their attitude towards reason. Philosophers at least attempt to use
reason to move toward truth. Religious thinkers look towards inspiration,
revelation, and faith as the ultimate sources of knowledge. However, some
religious thinkers (notably Aquina and Occam) use reason in the service of
religious goals. Also, philosophers can cross the line, letting their
investigations be driven by preconceptions, rationalizations, and feelings.

Certainly Christianity has, for some people, motivated their scientific
inquiry. (Scientific advance was, for a time, strong in the Orient, but I
don't know much about the interplay of eastern religion and science to
comment.) For others, Christianity has been nothing but a block to science.
I think that the *core* of Christianity is inimical to science. The Garden
of Eden story teaches that individual thinking is bad, that obedience is
good. The New Testament teaches that simplicity and becoming as a little
child is good, which hardly seems conducive to scientific thinking. Luther,
the founder of Protestantism, taught that reason was "the Devil's Whore".
Ironically, Luther's rebellion led ultimately to a breakdown of confidence
in religious authorities. The unintended consequences of Luther's life were
a strengthening of a pro-science culture.

All forms of religious fundamentalism are antithetical towards science. This
is true of Christian fundamentalists who stick to Creationism because they
have to validate the Bible. It is true of Marxist fundamentalists who forced
Lysenkoism on science in the Soviet Union.

The connection between science and technology and material goods has also
meant a conflict between some interpretations of Christianity and science.
Those forms of the religion that stress other-worldliness will frown upon
attempts to understand, manipulate, and improve the physical world.
Fortunately, under the influence of other philosophical ideas, many
Christians have been more friendly to science. Those influenced by the Old
Testament's injunction to take dominion of the Earth (just leave the rest of
the universe to non-Christians please!) might be more open to materialistic

Early and Medieval Christianity stopped scientific progress and reversed
Hellenistic advances. Science only took off when Hellenistic ideas from
Plato and Aristotle were taken into Christianity. Primarily this was the
Neoplatonist belief in mathematical order. (Copernicus and Kepler were
Neoplatonists, believing that the observable universe embodied universal
mathematical laws.) Neoplatonism inspired mathematicians, astronomers, and
physicists. However, even then, Christianity clung to Aristotle for a
thousand years in its characteristically dogmatic way, stopped further progress.

Newton made incredible advances. Unfortunately he spent as much time
absorbed in theology and biblical prophecy as with physics. What might he
have achieved without that time-wasting? (Or did he need it as a form of
recreation?) In Ancient Greece, the brilliant mathematician Pythagoras, ran
a bean-worshipping cult. It seems unlikely to me that this *helped* his
math. His strange and brilliant mind found expression in both ways, but I
see no reason to believe that his cultist beliefs improved his math.

>What we call the "singularity" (for lack of a better term) will not
>happen by accident. It will be brought about by someone who intends
>to bring it about, and that person will be fully aware that the very idea
>of the "singularity" has its roots in the Bible.

Perhaps. It may also be brought about by those inspired by a vision of the
Singularity that has nothing to do with the Bible. I agree with what I take
to be Lyle's underlying point, that scientific progress often is driven by
an inspiring vision. As I've tried to say above, I grant this may be
religious. But it can be a non-religious philosophical vision. (Or it may be
a mixture of the two). More often that not, I think the specifically
religious parts of a person's thinking detract from scientific advance. It
is the philosophical aspects that value reason that help that person's
scientific thinking. Where I do basically agree with Lyle is in saying that
an inspiring vision or enthusiasm is important to much scientific progress.


Max More, Ph.D.
President, Extropy Institute, Editor, Extropy,
(310) 398-0375