Why religion can be rational, but is doing it wrong

For part of the book I’m writing, I’m investigating the claim—one made by theologians and religious apologists—that science in fact was an outgrowth of Christianity, explaining the rise of science in Europe and nowhere else. (Yes, yes, I know about China and the Middle East, but their science fizzled out.) One of the most vociferous exponents of this claim is Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion who describes himself as “an independent Christian.” His book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom Capitalism, and Western Success, is often cited as the airtight proof of how science came from Christianity.

Of course there are lots of arguments against this, foremost among them that Christianity held sway for over a millennium in Europe during the Dark Ages, and there was simply no science on tap during that period.  Although one can point to some promotion by the Catholic Church of learning (monks copying ancient manuscripts, the church supporting universities, and so on), at the same time there was a pervasive promotion of dogma and denigration of reason, and an active suppression and persecution of heresy.  While we don’t know why modern science was a specifically European product, a more viable hypothesis is that Europe is where the Enlightenment arose—a movement that encouraged reason, observation, and questioning. (It’s another question why the Enlightenment occurred in Europe, but Steve Pinker has explanations in Better Angels, including the rise of the printing press.)

Stark’s arguments are maddening, but I’ve just read a devastating review of his book (and his thesis) by Andrew Bernstein, “The tragedy of theology: How religion caused and extended the Dark Ages“. The reference is below, the text is free, and it’s a good read.  Some might object that Bernstein is a proponent of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, and he is, but don’t let that put you off, for he does a deft dissection of Stark’s arguments and levels a devastating attack on theology.

I want to leave aside the science-came-from-religion issue for the nonce, and just reproduce something Bernstein said about religion’s use of reason.  His point is that religion does employ reason, but in a completely different way than science uses it. I won’t comment further except that I agree with Bernstein completely. The following segment will be good for you (bolding is mine). His passion and arguments here remind me of Robert G. Ingersoll:

Theologians, and religionists in general, start with a fantasy premise and then proceed to apply rigorous formal logic to tease out its implications. Stark himself points out that “theology consists of formal reasoning about God.” This is admirably exact. Theologians, beginning with a wished-for creation of their own minds, analyze that creation’s characteristics by rigorous application of the principles of formal—that is, deductive—logic.

. . .In the history of philosophy, the term “rationalism” has two distinct meanings. In one sense, it signifies an unbreached commitment to reasoned thought in contrast to any irrationalist rejection of the mind. In this sense, Aristotle and Ayn Rand are preeminent rationalists, opposed to any form of unreason, including faith. In a narrower sense, however, rationalism contrasts with empiricism as regards the false dichotomy between commitment to so-called “pure” reason (i.e., reason detached from perceptual reality) and an exclusive reliance on sense experience (i.e., observation without inference therefrom). Rationalism, in this sense, is a commitment to reason construed as logical deduction from non-observational starting points, and a distrust of sense experience (e.g., the method of Descartes). Empiricism, according to this mistaken dichotomy, is a belief that sense experience provides factual knowledge, but any inference beyond observation is a mere manipulation of words or verbal symbols (e.g., the approach of Hume). Both Aristotle and Ayn Rand reject such a false dichotomy between reason and sense experience; neither are rationalists in this narrow sense.

Theology is the purest expression of rationalism in the sense of proceeding by logical deduction from premises ungrounded in observable fact—deduction without reference to reality. The so-called “thinking” involved here is purely formal, observationally baseless, devoid of facts, cut off from reality. Thomas Aquinas, for example, was history’s foremost expert regarding the field of “angelology.” No one could match his “knowledge” of angels, and he devoted far more of his massive Summa Theologica to them than to physics.

Here is the tragedy of theology in its distilled essence: The employment of high-powered human intellect, of genius, of profoundly rigorous logical deduction—studying nothing. In the Middle Ages, the great minds capable of transforming the world did not study the world; and so, for most of a millennium, as human beings screamed in agony—decaying from starvation, eaten by leprosy and plague, dying in droves in their twenties—the men of the mind, who could have provided their earthly salvation, abandoned them for otherworldly fantasies. Again, these fundamental philosophical points bear heavily against Stark’s argument, yet he simply ignores them.

Religion as a field, at its best, is rationalism—deduction from fantasy premises—not genuine rationality. (At its worst, it repudiates even this attenuated connection to logic in favor of adherence to unadulterated faith.). . .


Bernstein, A. A. 2006. The tragedy of theology:How religion caused and extended the Dark Ages. The Objective Standard 1:11-37.


  1. Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    This theologians’ claim is a clear example of “correlation is not the same as causation”, in fact the connection christianity-science is a spurious relation.

  2. gbjames
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I do like that second bolded paragraph.

  3. francis
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink


    • Diane G.
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:35 pm | Permalink


  4. Greg Esres
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    In the Middle Ages, the great minds capable of transforming the world did not study the world; …these fundamental philosophical points bear heavily against Stark’s argument, yet he simply ignores them.

    Those are actually empirical claims, not philosophical ones. Is he suggesting that the dark ages (we don’t call them that anymore) were caused by theology? I’m highly skeptical of that claim, even though I would love to believe it.

    • jrdonohue
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Augustine (354-430) infected Christianity with the notion of original sin and denounced placing “this world” above the supernatural, since God showed him how “foul I was, and how crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous.’ God told him to focus only on the next life and renounce the earth. Augustine leveraged this hyper neo-Platonism into a credo, highly influential.

      Then Constantine put Christianity into political power. The next 1000 years were the Dark Ages.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        That merely repeats the evidence-free claim.

        • Kevin Alexander
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

          Greg, the Dark Ages is the evidence.
          Read your Gibbon. Once the Christians took control the reasoning(?) was that we don’t need no roads, we don’t need no bridges, we don’t need no aqueducts for clean water, we don’t need no sewers to prevent disease, we don’t need nuffin for this useless material world.
          JESUS IS COMING!!! Tomorrow!!!
          And look at Republican politics, history is repeating itself.

          • Greg Esres
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

            “Greg, the Dark Ages is the evidence.”

            Ah, no, it isn’t. You’re postulating a cause, and you can’t use the result as evidence. That’s circular.

            There has been a great deal of research and theorizing as to what happened to Europe after the fall of Rome, and saying it’s all due to theology is a bit simplistic and doesn’t acknowledge the other well-argued theories.

            • JT
              Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

              There is a book on this subject. It’s called “The Closing of the Western Mind” by Charles Freeman. His thesis is that Christianity did cause the so-called Dark Ages. He offers plenty of evidence to support his case.

              • Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Permalink


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

                Ooo looks interesting. I’ve added it to my to-read list.

            • Posted February 15, 2014 at 4:34 am | Permalink

              OK, Christianity didn’t cause the Dark Ages. What did it do to enlighten humanity for the next 1000 years?


            • Kevin Alexander
              Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

              Ah, no, it isn’t. You’re postulating a cause, and you can’t use the result as evidence. That’s circular.

              Ah, no Greg, it isn’t. Circular is when you use the result as the cause.
              What I did was make a prediction. If you abandon material ends to use your resources instead for imaginary immaterial gains,say by building madressas instead of engineering schools, then the material will fall apart. I predict that the dark ages is the result. Not so much the last dark ages as the next ones. History does repeat, that much is circular.

          • Notagod
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

            That is exactly what republican politics looks like – If they can just make the situation on earth worse their jeebus will come.

        • Notagod
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

          It contains more evidence of implication than your completely evidence-free refutation.

      • Katkinkate
        Posted February 15, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

        I’ve been watching old Time Team programs for the last year or more (BBC archeological program) and I got the impression by how the archeologists spoke that the ‘dark ages’, in Britain, was the time between the withdrawal of Rome and the Norman conquest. It was described as ‘dark’ because, after the memory of Rome faded and the northern Europeans invaded, the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture that developed left very little evidence behind, because they were unskilled with stone and used mostly wood and other organics (horn, leather, bone for example) which mostly decayed away over the centuries leaving the archeologists ‘in the dark’ regarding their culture. It is only fairly recently that archeological techniques have been developed to detect, excavate and analyse the water-soaked wood, burnt detritus from from fire pits and slots and holes left by wooden beams that formed the frame of their houses. It was not particularly a harder life for the people as any other low technology culture, it was just unseeble by the modern investigators and so was ‘dark’, like the physicists dark matter and energy.

        • jrdonohue
          Posted February 15, 2014 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

          Katkinkate that is interesting, but the meme “Dark Ages” refers to the extinguishing of the light of reason. Not in some later-day researcher, but in humankind of the time, for 1000 years. The end of the Greek/Hellenistic age (did they have the calculus?), the burning of the Library of Alexandria, the anti-reality mind-set of Augustine (Bernstein: ‘St. Augustine believed that demons were responsible for diseases, a tragic regression from Hippocrates.’), the lethal cartel of political and religious power from Constantine on, et damn cetera.
          Reading Bernstein’s entire essay makes one weep for humanity during the Dark Ages.

        • Aldo Matteucci
          Posted February 15, 2014 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

          And do not forget material conditions…

          To amuse you: BULLIET: The camel and wheel shows that the wheel was about dis-invented because the domestication of the camel (200 kg load, and no need for rutting roads) made the carriage redundant.

          We have wheeled toys from bthe Aztec times, but the Aztec did not “invent” the wheel because they had no draft animals to put in front of the chariot (DIAMOND)

  5. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Surely, a better term for today’s reader would “rationalization” not “rationalism”.

    In the older sense “rationalism” was also committed to the belief that folks are born with some abstract ideas innately wired into their consciousness. This idea is indeed generally employed by Immanuel Kant in his “transcendental arguments” and he deduces the existence of God from “the starry heavens above and the moral law within”.

    IMO, in the long run the conflict between “rationalism” and “empiricism” in early modern European thought is a different variant on the conflict between Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece.

    A fairly decent back and forth on the relation of Christianity to modern science is at Wikipedia here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_Method#Scientific_Method_and_Religion
    (Disclosure: it’s mostly written by me)
    IMO, there is a modest contribution of rather unorthodox forms of Christian thinking to the rise of modern science, but since then science has abandoned the limited/partially Christian roots that it once had.

  6. Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm… Just one observation: The Antikythera Mechanism. It calculated the position of the Sun, Moon etc. The Greeks KNEW the earth orbited around the sun. Christianity sought to eradicate the knowledge that had been amassed and substitute it for jibber-jabber. That’s not what I would call rational, personally.

    • ridelo
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      “The Greeks KNEW the earth orbited around the sun.”
      Really? I think that for constructing the Antikythera Mechanism that knowledge was unnecessary. It was a pure mechanical computing device for calculating eclipses etc.

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

        It calculated the positions of the sun and the moon… That speaks for itself.

        • aspidoscelis
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

          Well, no. You can predict the relative positions of the sun, moon, and earth (and the various other planets) pretty accurately under both geocentric and heliocentric models of the solar system. The Ptolemaic geocentric model (with innumerable tweaks and gizmos) actually worked quite well at prediction. It was just a whole lot more complicated and ad hoc than Copernican heliocentric model. The argument in favor of heliocentrism in this context basically boils down to Occam’s Razor.

          More generally, successful prediction does not entail that a model of how a phenomenon works is accurate. There may always be a better model that produces the same predictions.

          • Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

            Now that we know how the Antikythera mechanism worked (and can recreate it – in Lego, yet), could we use it to determine exactly what the maker’/s’ model of the solar system was? Is there anything about its gearing that points unambiguously towards a Ptolomeic or Copernican system?

            I was in the presence of the Antikythera Mechanism in the National Archeological Museum in Athens last year, and being near the work of such superb ancient thinkers and builders was a quasi-religious experience, comparable to climbing the Acropolis or exploring the ruins of Delphi.

            • Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

              It does amuse me that Bernstein throws Ayn Rand in every so often as one of the great thinkers of history – and slavishly imitates her quirkily sexist way of saying “man” for “humanity”. (I know it was the style of the day, but she does it a lot, more than anyone needed to, even then.)

              Did Rand make any original contributions to human thought? Seems to me that her mode of casting down Olympian thunderbolts of never-to-be-questioned “Objectivist” (ha!) dogma was far more religious than scientific.

              • Reginald Selkirk
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

                I thought the same things about George H. Smith’s Atheism: the case against God. The occasional reference to Rand is going to throw some people off and detract from his message.

              • Bruce Gorton
                Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:23 am | Permalink

                In a way she did actually contribute something, sort of along the same lines as Gordon Gecko.

                Rand’s defense of self-interest may have been deeply problematic, but it also provided a much needed criticism of communal interest based ethics at the time.

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      It was, perhaps, held by some. The Pythogoreans held it, but perhaps for irrational reasons about fire. Aristarchus, sometime later, seems to have *perhaps* been a rational Copernican before Copernicus, but we don’t have his text, so we can’t be sure what his argument was.

  7. Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink


    And, even more to the point: how do we know that reason is useful? Because we have empirical evidence supporting that proposition.

    It is quite possible to re-create all of logic from empirical observations using an evolutionarily recursive approach. Make up any wild-assed guess you like. Check to see if the guess holds up. If it doesn’t, make up any other wild-assed guess you like; if it does, hold on to it. Whenever something stops working, keep trying whatever you like until you find something new that works better.

    Even that process itself can quite naturally arise in an evolutionary manner. Make up something and don’t bother testing it. Make up something else and don’t bother testing that. Sooner or later, something you stumble on will work better than something else. And maybe you’ll switch to the something else or you won’t. But, if you do, and you survive long enough, eventually the more efficient methods will tend to predominate. Before you know it, you’ll have discovered the utility of reason as a way of making lots of very useful shortcuts in these sorts of processes.

    The thing is, there’s no way to get from pure reason unencumbered by empiricism to anything remotely resembling reality; instead, you wind up with theology…and philosophy.

    But, again, with either, if you eventually close the empirical loop, even a little bit, you can once again ground yourself and start making progress, with a very short path leading right back to science.



    • Greg Esres
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      “And, even more to the point: how do we know that reason is useful? Because we have empirical evidence supporting that proposition.”

      Interpreting empirical evidence requires reason, so this is a circular argument.

      The utility of reason can only be an assumption, because we have no other tool.

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        But that’s just it. Interpret the evidence rationally, irrationally, or not at all. If there’s any sort of competition of interpretations, Darwin showed us that the superior interpretation will (eventually) win out. We’ve already been through that cognitive evolutionary gauntlet — indeed, it’s a gauntlet that’s been run ever since the first organism which had two neurons to rub together. And we’ve attached the label, “reason,” to that which has survived.

        Also, increasingly, it seems to me that the philosophical objection circularity against science and empiricism is a close cousin to the common theological that the Second Law of Thermodynamics invalidates biological evolution. We know that the Sun is an incredible energy pump powering life on Earth. Similarly, fundamentally, we know that all that cognition ultimately is is an exercise in creating mental models of the real universe and possible future universes. Should it at all be any surprise that bringing our internal mental models of the universe into closer alignment with the actual universe results in more effective cognition?

        Ultimately, both biological evolution and empiricism are the water in the pond settling into the shape of the floor of the pond. Philosophical objections to the nature of this reality can and should be discarded as irrelevant.



        • Greg Esres
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

          “Darwin showed us that the superior interpretation will (eventually) win out. ”

          Only if you define superior as having more children. 🙂

          • Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

            Well, sure, if you stay strictly within the topics he covered in his seminal book.

            But his real contribution to science was showing the way that sophistication in general grows. It’s especially obvious in biological systems, particularly now that we can use DNA to plot everything so precisely. But the basic idea of a recursive process ramping up effectiveness has demonstrated applicable to basically everything — including the scientific method.

            It’s also how you get from banging rocks to colliding hadrons.

            Note that, when you’re at the earliest stages, you don’t have reason. You can’t bootstrap yourself with reason because you’re not aware of it yet; it hasn’t been invented.

            But reality is there, and, by banging your head against reality, reason will eventually reveal itself.



          • Marella
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

            Read Dan Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” for an explanation of the wider ramifications of evolutionary theory.

            • Greg Esres
              Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

              Read it.

          • gbjames
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

            “But his real contribution to science was showing the way that sophistication in general grows.”

            Especially (indirectly demonstrated) in Theology!

            • Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

              Yes — the quantity of SopHistIcated Theology does seem to tend towards a maximum….


              • HaggisForBrains
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 2:49 am | Permalink

                Wow! Respect for careful use of html tags without a preview or edit.

              • js
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:23 am | Permalink

                Yeah, Ben knows his SHIT.

  8. Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m currently reading “The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason” by Charles Freeman, Pimlico, 2002. A great read, even with 470 pages.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      That’s on my Amazon list, but at that length, I’ll probably keep bumping it down. Few books really need to be that long. I’m pretty sure I could cliff-note it down to less than 100.

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        Another book I like is “Science and Politics in the Ancient World” by Benjamin Farrington, first published in 1939, 243 pages. It focuses on the birth and development of science in ancient Greece, and how this immediately provoked a reactionary response by local authorities and religious bodies. History repeats itself…

  9. Steve
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I also enjoyed the second bolded paragraph, which resonates with the sentiment of Thomas Paine in Age of Reason, Part II:

    “The study of theology as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and admits of no conclusion.”

    Bernstein’s comments also relate to a previous item on this website:


  10. Frank Bartell
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    There seems to be a basic human need to feel that one understands what’s going on in the world. With limited knowledge, religion arises to fill this need. The St. Thomas Aquinas “how-many-angels-can…” and academic training in logic led to dissatisfaction among those who were concerned with the physical world. There really was as there is in Talmudic scholarship a focus and concentration on the application of logic in academic training. When this is applied to reality you get science. What about Talmudic and Islamic scholars in the middle ages? Seems like the old randomness of selection at work.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      It’s what the neurologists call confabulation.
      I read in Antonio Damasio I think that confusion is for the brain costly in terms of energy so the brain has evolved mechanisms to return to a state of equilibrium as quickly as possible. Usually this is done by falling back on the most familiar understanding or else simply making shit up to explain it.
      ‘I don’t know’ is a painful thing to think so we avoid it.

      • js
        Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:27 am | Permalink

        Yep, but Carl Sagan had it right.
        I think the story is that he was asked by an interviewer whether aliens existed and Mr Sagan said he didn’t know but the interviewer persisted and so he ended up by saying ‘It’s ok to say you don’t know’.

        • Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          And then I say it would be astonishing to me if there weren’t extraterrestrial intelligence, but of course there is as yet no compelling evidence for it. And then I’m asked, “Yeah, but what do you really think?” I say, “I just told you what I really think.” “Yeah, but what’s your gut feeling?” But I try not to think with my gut. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.
          Carl Sagan, “The Burden of Skepticism”, Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 12, Fall 1987

          /@ / Paris

  11. Moarscienceplz
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m not so sure that theology per se was the enemy of science. After all, both the Romans and the Greeks were well steeped in religious belief, and much of their best art and architecture was developed for decorating their temples.
    I think monotheism is the central culprit. If you think the universe is controlled by a single mind, then trying to understand that mind might be the best way to understand the Universe, rather than experimentation with physical objects.

    • Occam
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      A rigorous study of these points would require the length of Bernstein’s paper, so I must constrain myself to the sketch of a skeletal reply.

      1. The practice of religious rituals was pervasive within the fabric of Classical cultures and societies. The ideology was less encompassing; philosophical schools could not have emerged and blossomed otherwise.

      2. The problem is not monotheism per se, but the monistic nature of monotheistic religions. In political terms: their totalitarian character. Religious monism is circular.

      3. Monism can work as a heuristic principle in scientific enquiry, as long as the answer is not implied ab initio and taken for granted — which, in monotheistic theology, it is. Your point about “the universe” controlled by a single mind” is excellent.

      4. There was no lack of practical experimentation between the Late Roman Empire and the onset of the Renaissance. What was absent and unwanted was the systematically curious mindset. The hatred and denigration of Democritus at the hands of Early Christian Neoplatonists and their medieval followers is a prime example of this.

      5. One facinating aspect of Classical art and architecture is precisely the intertwinement of the sacred and the profane. The distinction is functional, not qualitative, and there is no opprobrium associated with the one versus the unreserved sanctification of the other.

      6. This, like other more pragmatic aspects of Classical cultures, may be partly due to a much higher degree of belief in immanence as opposed to the transcendence essential in monotheism. (Simplifying to the point of caricature, I know.)

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        I think I said what you said, just differently and in a less organized fashion. 🙂

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      I think Christian theology certainly was the enemy of science. The Greeks and Romans may have been steeped in Religion but for the Romans with their state religion it mostly centered on politics (the emperor was pontifex maximus for instance) and certain (OCD-like) observances made you appear honourable (like observance to the house hold gods). Their odd superstitiousness didn’t seem to hold back their ability to engineer and I doubt it would have held back their abilities to figure out more science if they didn’t off themselves as a culture. Romans tended to absorb new religions and there wasn’t much conflict between religions – you could collect them like hockey cars. They frowned on Mithraism at one point because the men were castrating themselves and Romans – you know how they like family. It’s notable that the religions that they came into conflict were the Abrahamic ones because their god demanded that they only worship him (he’s so fussy).

      The Greeks fostered the growth of atheistic like minds (Epicurus), philosophical minds that had scientific results (the pre-socratics) and philosophy that encouraged rational thinking – Socrates. All this going on in a rather superstitious culture.

      In contrast, although monks preserved some Roman and Greek artifacts, the Church of the middle ages also destroyed countless historical sites if they seemed to be idolatrous (we’ve lost a lot of Greek and Roman artifacts this way) or let fall to ruin things they didn’t think mattered (the Flavian Amphitheatre also renamed to The Colosseum in the Middle Ages – they couldn’t even get the name right). If things seemed to have value to the Church, they were preserved – like the Pantheon where they jammed their saints & various basilica (ones used by Romans as legal buildings). I wouldn’t be surprised if works of literature were likewise thrown away.

      Indeed, as Bernstein suggests, the Church of the Middle Ages let the people languish without science and let rot all the science that had been done by the ancients.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        hockey cars = hockey cards.
        various basilica (ones used by Romans as legal buildings) = various basilica (once used by Romans as legal buildings)
        I also don’t know why I capitalized the “R” in religion at the beginning.

        • Notagod
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

          I was all exited about ‘hockey cars’ and I searched to find out what they would be, figuring you would know much more about hockey than I would. Which brought me to the realization that the cars were likely cards. The hockey cars were then gone in a puff much like the christian gods.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

            Haha yeah hockey cars – the Canadian government gives you one when you retire.

          • pacopicopiedra
            Posted February 16, 2014 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

            I, too, wondered about “hockey cars.” I thought maybe they were like Hess Trucks, and made good Christmas presents. Oh well.

        • Lars
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

          I wish there were such things as hockey cars. A fella could really feel like a somebody as he drove off in his Horton Hummer.
          Diana, Richard Carriere (referred to elsewhere in these comments) has a long blog post supporting your ideas (http://richardcarrier.blogspot.ca/2010/01/flynns-pile-of-boners.html). Worth a look – the comments get exceedingly contentious but are worth reading just to see how an atheist historian who knows his stuff disposes of a fideist who doesn’t.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted February 15, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

            Thanks, Lars. I took a look and it’s a good post. I’m glad Carrier & I agree. 🙂

      • Sastra
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        One of the most important distinctions between the classical Greeks and the medieval Church was the emphasis the first one placed on the idea of rational debate — and the opprobrium it was viewed with in the latter. The Greeks loved the idea of the contest between minds, the art of persuasion, and the chance to form a consensus by swaying the conclusions of the skeptical. This was wisdom.

        Now contrast that with the “wisdom” which came from the mystical Mid-East. Almost nobody ever attempts to convince anyone of anything through debate, demonstration, discussion. Jesus just tells people. Believe me. Believe in me. The great Truths of Christianity rely on assertion, assertion, assertion. You’ve been told. Paul apparently got his ass handed to him when he went to Greece so he warned against man’s philosophy and reason.

        The Catholic Church tried to incorporate Greek thinking into a mystical foundation of Special Revelation and it ended up with Theology and scholasticism. Let’s try to reason out how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. We can debate that, among ourselves, with no outsiders.

        Internal debate — a mockery of the real thing.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

          Yes and Romans encouraged debate as well – it was actually a requirement (oratory anyway) for gentlemen of high birth.

        • Aldo Matteucci
          Posted February 15, 2014 at 1:24 am | Permalink

          Mmmm… “mystical Middle-East” has a whiff of Orientalism to it.

          Byzantium might have influenced the Roman Catholic West less than you think. The actual chain is likely to have been Nestorianism => Central Asia => Spain => West. Read STARR: Lost Enlightenment. Central Asia’s golden Age. Read BECKWITH: Warriors of the Cloisters, for the origins of Thomas’ “recursive model” of disputation, coming from Indian Bhuddism

          • Sastra
            Posted February 15, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

            Thanks. These sound like good resources.

            My reference to the “mystical Middle East” however was meant to refer specifically to the Bible and the basic mindset of those who wrote it. It is an inspired sacred text which reveals the workings of God throughout the history of a tribe in the Middle East. The Bible would not be used as an example of rational debate in action.

            • Aldo Matteucci
              Posted February 15, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

              Be my guest, Sastra.

              As I’ve tried to point out in another comment, the best approach to the whole discussion Jerry has raised, is to choose one’s ground, rather than fight on the enemy’s terms.

              Ideas are not “begat” and transmitted like babies from cloister to cloister, ideas emerge from changes in mentality in the people who experience reality. See Conner: A people’s history of science.

              By doing so you kill two birds – the Christians as well as Andy Rand – with one stone.

              If ideas are emergent properties, you need not ascribe them to anyone.

              On the other hand, irrespective of what a few monks may have argued among themselves, the Christian mentality in the Middle Ages was dark, until the cities started ignoring it, giving space to the commerce mentality.

              Changes in mentality are unconscious – silent transformations.

              • Davey
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

                I’ve been thinking something while reading through the comments, and when you say, “If ideas are emergent properties, you need not ascribe them to anyone.”, it felt like I could add it without it seeming like too much of a non-sequitur.
                Going right back to the Sumerians, there was the idea that the gods had made man to serve them. The makers and the made. Jehovah makes Adam from the Earth. There is the Demiurge of Platonic philosophy. Contrasted with that you can have a metaphor of everything arising, manifesting in form and then dissolving back into the source, as in Taoism, or the Upanishadic Brahman.
                The maker/made metaphor is a more machine-like one, the assembly of parts, where the Taoistic or Upanishadic is more organic.
                A culture where the minds of the people frame reality in a more dualistic manner would seem one from which the scientific method would be more likely to emerge (I’m not trying to claim that cultures were purely one or the other, but could have both in parallel to degrees.)

                I suppose what I’m trying to get at is, if there is something to this line of thought, then the rise of the scientific method might owe more to a dominant metaphor that can be traced at least back to Sumeria, which metaphor itself is an emergent idea from minds that have started to shape the world, creating large scale civilisation. They are acting on and remaking the world.
                Perhaps in monism there is too much of a tendency to see the world as a problem that needs to be escaped, rather than improved.

              • Aldo Matteucci
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

                Thanks Davey,

                the make/made metaphor might have emerged from rent contracts, where the landlord gave the peasant land to work on – against a consideration. The Bible’s “covenant” is quite close to covenants of this kind that have been unearthed in the region.

                Central Asia was a merchant civilization, where goods from mainly India, then the Middle East and China were gathered, compared, reworked, and sent on. It was a civilization where products – and later ideas – were compared. That begets the scientific mind-set.

                Central Asia also was an oasis civilization, where irrigation – unlike in Mesopotamia – was underground. One had to imagine, rather than see it. It favored abstract thinking.

                Whatever the underlying mechanism was – it was shrouded in a mentality, hence silent culture.

                To amuse you: I’d trace the emergence of modern Catholicism after the year 1000 to the banking mentality. People around that time started to understand that one could pay here, and move the money there, expecting payment. Enter the Church and propose a deal, where you have auricular confession (around 1215 – Lateran IV) and make good works payments to the Church. In turn the institution will issue a letter of credit in the beyond. In so doing, subtly God is downgraded to agent of the principal Church. In order to secure the position as principal, the Church stipulated that “the last shot counts” and one forfeits all credit, unless he is in good standing on the last day of his life. This mentality was what drove the Church’s oppression.

                To sum up – we go fundamentally wrong if we assume the preponderance of explicit culture. Most culture is shaped and transmitted implicitly and silently- and transformed silently by experience. This is why Dawkins’ metaphor of the “meme” is fundamentally wrong.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

                I think origin myths where the world and people get “made” is pretty much universal. Which would translate to something like “scientific method can be traced back to human thought about the world”. But that isn’t really much of a breakthrough.

              • Aldo Matteucci
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 8:13 pm | Permalink


                an italian ambassador was asked by his government in 1937 to prove he was Arian. He answered that he could not vouch for his grandmothers’ morals.

                If one sticks to the make/made analogy, one gets bogged down in proving paternity. Hopeless.Jesus also had the problem: his descent is traced pratri-lineally, except that Joseph was not involved in His birth. And remember: Queen Victoria was not her father’s daughter, and she knew it. Her first act as queen was to send her mother and her lover packing.

                Much better to argue radically that the make/made analogy is wrong, and that ideas emerge from mentalities, which are implicit and emergent. then one has a clean field of fire.

              • Davey
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

                @gbjames, Actually the maker metaphor is not universal. From Vedic India, one creation story was of the god Brahma, driven by lust to chase his daughter, and she becomes a cow, he becomes a bull and mounts her, and she gives birth to offspring like the parents. This continued until all the creatures of the Earth had come about. This is an organic metaphor, and not a maker one. That’s not the only one.

                My point was meant to be, that I didn’t see that Christianity could make a special claim on science as humans would have naturally thought about gods as makers once they themselves started to remake the world. Once humans are makers, and naturally start anthropomorhising nature as the work of a greater maker, it seems inevitable that the scientific method would emerge from minds like that. It just needed time.

              • Aldo Matteucci
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

                Sure Davey,

                if you read Flannery – Marcus: The creation of inequality, you’ll see the slow emergence of the maker/made analogy in connection with agriculture and the control of surplus. The book – comparative paleo-anthropology, is a delight.

                The authors read the archeology to document changes in mentality, here from ancesotr-worship to the worship of the boss’ ancestor.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

                IMO you expect a subtle difference in story line to bear too heavy a load.

                Are you suggesting that had events not interfered, we would “just naturally” have seen scientific method arise in the Mayan lowlands because in their origin myths gods create humanity instead of just raping each other into our existence?

              • Davey
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

                Just because I say I don’t see anything necessary about Christianity for the emergence of the scientific method, that doesn’t mean I think it was just as likely to have arisen in the Mayan lowlands.

                I was just trying to flesh out an idea about whether a strong current of monistic philosophy, as is found in India, China and the Far East, and where they were, in many ways just as technologically advanced as Europe, could have been a positive hindrance to the discovery of the scientific method or is it just happen-stance.
                I don’t pretend to have the answers. Aldo Matteucci brought up ideas as emergent properties, I was wondering about metaphorical frameworks of cultures and how they might be important, and I tried to express it, however malformed it still is.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 16, 2014 at 6:58 am | Permalink

                I think the issue comes down to a very old one where one tries to suss out whether ideas (in particular myths/religion/cosmologies) are cultural responses to material conditions or vice versa.

                @Aldo: When I was in grad school (Archaeology/Anthropology) Flannery’s The Early Mesoamerican Village was one of my “favs”. I still have the book, one of the few Archaeology volumes I held on to. I left the discipline before he and Marcus began publishing and haven’t read any of their books, but I imagine that are, like you say, a delight to read.

              • Davey
                Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

                Aldo, Where you say,”To sum up – we go fundamentally wrong if we assume the preponderance of explicit culture. Most culture is shaped and transmitted implicitly and silently- and transformed silently by experience.”, this makes sense to me.

                Metaphor isn’t only conscious, there are deeper unconscious metaphors that shape how we apprehend reality, and the conscious perceptions/experience that arise from this.
                So for someone brought up in the West which has been shaped very strongly by a dualistic/pluralistic metaphor, it can be a really alien perspective to understand evolution, for example. The apparent design without a designer. The struggle to define a god who was a causeless first cause. Even the difficulty to accept that we aren’t free conscious agents driving our bodies like vehicles.
                But if you were raised a Taoist the theory of evolution wouldn’t feel so alien; on the contrary, it seems natural. Exactly the same with emergence.

                The dominant unconscious metaphor that shapes your whole world view, that is the unconscious axiom everything is based on, determines the conscious mode of thought.

                Monism doesn’t posit a beginning, it is an endless samsara of forms arising and disappearing back.
                Dualism always looks for a beginning, there is always a necessary end, a completion of the work.
                No culture need be purely one or the other; They can be ends of a spectrum of possible ways of being in the world.

              • Aldo Matteucci
                Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

                Fully agree – but you have to follow your line of argument to the end. If culture is significantly (I’d say mainly) silent and implicit, all history of ideas based on the “begat” principle is pointless. So is the modern version based on “memes”, incidentally.

                Specifically, it is pointless to argue that Middle Age Christianity led to scientific discoveries, because we can never “read” all the silent culture that went into the outcome. I much recommend CROSBY: The measure of reality, for a splendid take on that period and the change of mentality that went on.

                Please note: it is far easier to argue destruction (Freeman’s “closing of the Western mind) because one can see a network of ideas being destroyed (damn that awful Augustine), but one can’t see a network being patiently woven.

                In biology: poison can destroy a reef, but one can’t sort out how a complex reef is built.

                Read Johnson: Where good ideas come from – to get a feeling of how networks and platforms influence the emergence of ideas.

              • Aldo Matteucci
                Posted February 16, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

                Davey – for your amusemet: on how strong our dualist worldview is.

                Everyone speaks of yen/yang (duality) but never of its resultant chi

              • Davey
                Posted February 16, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

                “If culture is significantly (I’d say mainly) silent and implicit, all history of ideas based on the “begat” principle is pointless. So is the modern version based on “memes”, incidentally.”
                That would seem to be the same problem people have when you talk of selfish genes, or any use of metaphorical intentional language to try to illustrate evolution.

                It would be interesting if someone did a study on whether there even exists something like a meme, which would be universally grasped. Perhaps it will turn out that it will be just as in those psychological tests that were supposed to show innate ways humans look at the world.
                All the original tests were done on American university students who all seemed to perceive the same way, as if a default, and when the same tests were done on Africans it turned out not to be.
                One particular that comes to mind was the line length illusion, where a line terminated with a fork; one lines fork facing away from the line, the others towards the middle. Though the lines were the same size, the American students perceived one shorter than the other. When it was finally done in Africa, they saw the lines as the same length. But they didn’t live in squared off architecture with lots of right-angles and perspectives that go with it, and the consequent change in your expectations/perceptions.

              • Aldo Matteucci
                Posted February 16, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

                At one point, there was even a discipline of “memology” – forget it.

                Let’s be practical. You have an experience. You linearize it into a string of symbolic sounds for communication. 95% of it is lost. The person at the other end unbundles these symbolic sounds, and attaches its own experience to it. Totally transformed – Chinese whispers. “good enough” to live by, but no more.

                Once in your brain, ongoing experience changes everything relentlessly. You cannot step into the same water twice, nor can you have the same thought.

                I could go on, and introduce the shift from individual to collective thought, and empowerment.

                All this makes “meme” a more than dubious proposition.

                I find it ironic: Darwin thought inheritance was blending – it turned out to be particulate. Dawkins proposed particulate memes, they are blending.

      • moarscienceplz
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        “I think Christian theology certainly was the enemy of science.”

        Diana, I was not trying to let the Christians off the hook. If you look at my comment again, I said, “I’m not so sure that theology per se was the enemy of science.” Not “Christian theology”, just “theology”. What I was trying to say was that Europe might possibly have avoided the Dark Ages if it hadn’t been in the grip of a universal monotheism. In other words, if Constantine had never become Emperor and the Romans had just kept their various polytheistic ways, then maybe we would have colonies on Mars now.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

          Yes I know. I wasn’t trying to contradict you more support you. Unfortunately, you can’t emphasize your words well sometimes in text. I should have bolded “Christian” as I was distinguishing between theology in general and Christianity in particular.

          • moarscienceplz
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

            Ah, got it.

  12. Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Robert G. Ingersoll, p’raps?

    • Sastra
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      No. William G. Ingersoll was the younger brother who never quite lived up to his more famous sibling. Mostly he’d get drunk, stand up in bars, and give grand orations which sounded lovely but made no sense when you thought about it. He did, however, give one passionate argument on the topic of — as it happens — “The Tragedy of Theology As An Expression of Pure Rationalism.”

      Of course, Jerry might have meant Robert G. Ingersoll, in which case you’re probably right because I’m lying.

    • Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      Yes, an error; I’ve fixed it, thanks.

  13. Sastra
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I think that one of the best debunkings of the claim that ‘science was an outgrowth of Christianity’ is the chapter titled “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science” in historian Richard Carrier’s The Christian Delusion. A recommendation.

    Now a caution. If you quote any philosopher who uses Ayn Rand as a positive model, be prepared for people to ignore anything reasonable which has been said and to focus instead intently on the failures of Ayn Rand. And that will be the atheists. The theists will likely make it the primary theme of their rebuttal.

    It’s too hot a wire for your book. As you probably already suspect.

    • Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      Yep, I’ve got the Carrier piece covered as well, and other stuff too.

    • Occam
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      I’d like to second Sastra’s cautionary note.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      “The theists will likely make it the primary theme of their rebuttal. ”

      Rand is the love-child of many Christians these days, given her hatred of the welfare state.

      • gbjames
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

        Yeah. Talk about strange bedfellows.

      • Sastra
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

        I was going to say that the argument that science came out of Christianity is mostly made by Catholic theologians and many of these claim credit for humanism and are politically liberal (or at least not Tea Party Republicans) — but then I remembered seeing some fundamentalist and/or conservative Christians dragging this out, too.

        Years ago discovering a Christian Randroid online was sometimes used as an example of the bizarre reality of the internet, where anything is possible.

  14. Earle Kapchuk
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Unlike a lot of historical claims, Stark’s idea can be tested. There were four Christian civilizations that developed. Three outside Europe (More if we count the eastern areas of Mesopotamia Armenia and India): Byzantine/Russia, Coptic Egypt and Ethiopia. If Christianity was the source of science then there should be several traditions but there are not. The cultural area of science was always highly localized and based on the classical tradition and on the breakdown of religious monopoly in the 15th and 16th centuries.

  15. Sastra
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    By the way, there is another very popular apologetic version of “why religion can be rational.” It’s the one which views reason and truth as “what works the best.”

    And then they subtly shift the question from whether or not a belief is objectively true to whether or not it is subjectively true because it “works.” Thus we are led into Therapist Mode … or Anthropologist Mode.

    Is it rational for someone to believe something which gives them meaning, helps them cope with problems, brings them into a community, and makes them happy? If the goal is to achieve a meaningful or authentic life and sense of identity, then wouldn’t religion be a reasonable choice if it works for that individual?

    And … if everyone else believes and the average member of a society encounters no good reason not to, then a reasonable person can and will be religious. Consider the culture.

    Flip from being a Therapist interested in people finding their own happy path and whatever works for THEM … to being an Anthropologist or Sociologist discussing why people inside systems which are conducive to belief will adopt the belief which fits into a coherent world view.

    Just don’t flip into Scientist Mode and ask “Is it true?”

    True for who? True in what way? Who are you to try to take away someone’s identity or comfort? The question is so DEEP. Isn’t it just like an atheist to think only one way works for everyone. Blah, blah, blah.

  16. Bhagwan
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Dear Jerry, love your blog. A question/feedback. Is there a way to navigate old posts by date? Is there a way other than clicking ‘Older Posts’? I read a lot of old posts now I have to start over to see what you wrote in, say, 2010.

    • NAY
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Ouch! Is NOT bl*g! Is WEBSITE! (You will see this material again) Try the Search field in upper left at top of page.

      • Posted February 15, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        Nay – this sure is odd; I posted my response yesterday and it showed up immediately; the time stamp says that you posted earlier, but it did not show up in my box until this morning. Regardless, great minds….. 🙂

    • Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      Bhagwan – before someone smacks your knuckles, WEIT is not a blog! 🙂 The only way that I see to get quickly to older posts is to put the year in the search box. Put in 2009 and it will take you to numerous and you can start from there.

  17. Robert Seidel
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    My theory, which is mine, is that it was the unique european feature of capitalism which gave rise to modern science:

    If the supposedly god-given order of feudal states is crumbling all around you, people start to concentrate on material gain in this world instead of looking forward to the afterlife, and there suddenly is a world stiff competition you’re thrust into – you might start to wonder how this world works.

    It would explain why the Renaissance, with people like Galilei, Da Vinci and Machiavelli, started in Italy, because so did capitalism.

    And of course, capitalism works by the employment of new technique to outcompete your rivals. What do you need for new technology? Scientists. So once science had gained some momentum (even if my first assumption is wrong and it still remains unsolved were it came from in the first place) this would keep it going and even accelarate its pace.

    Note that I’m not a proponent of Ayn Rand’s objectivism – if anything, I come from the opposite shore.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Capitalism is often brought up as one of the preconditions for the development of science. Iirc Pinker mentions it, partly for science and partly as explanation for lowering levels of violence.

      The significant factor is supposed to be how trade opens up the world: travel, doing business, and forging mutually beneficial relationships with Infidel Others. This can’t be done if you’ve got some sort of phobia about Tribe or Purity or Evil. And it will lessen concerns about those concerns, too, once you’re doing it.

      Good ideas spread. Trade and trade relationships provide one means. The fewer boundaries and divisions there are, the more people borrow and buy and adapt and improve and then sell to others who do the same. Science requires an open community and new idea competing against old. Capitalism tends to widen borders and turn competition and improvement into common values.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        Sagan in his Cosmos puts science arising down to mercantilism, and its failures to dysfunctional societies (such as slavery). The latter would predict the failure of Medieval religious society.

        Jared Diamond seems to predict the success of Europe (and its success of colonization and capitalism) on geography and biology. To wit, its many plants and animals that a) could be cultured and b) fits the Eurasian latitudes. [I’m getting his theory from a short review of ”Guns, Germs and Steel”.]

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      Note that I’m not a proponent of Ayn Rand’s objectivism – if anything, I come from the opposite shore.

      At the risk of risk of revealing my ignorance in philosophical matters, I had to google it.

      Now I’m a bit perplexed. Maybe this is where L. Ron Hubbard got his inspiration from.

  18. Greg Esres
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Maybe this is a good thread to hang this off of:

    Does anyone know of a good book that describes the development of scientific methodology? In the west, Roger Bacon is often the first name that comes up, but surely he had his influences too.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

      Not explicitly what you are asking for, but close enough for all practical purposes, is John Gribbin’s “The Scientists,” a chronological history of science as seen in the lives of its principle practitioners. Great read.

      • Aldo Matteucci
        Posted February 15, 2014 at 1:07 am | Permalink

        There essentially two ways of approaching the history of ideas.

        The canonical one uses the biblical “begat” metaphor: Plato begat Aristotle and down the great chain of geniuses all the way to the present. Beware: Queen Victoria’s was not her father’s daughter, so even with in this view mongrelization would be possible (though despised). More fundamentally, this view is predicated on a “granular” view of ideas (like DNA).

        The alternative, and emerging one is that what is important is the change in mentality, which is mostly unconscious, based on experience and social empowerment (collective intentionality). The best book to enter this domain is CROSBY. The measure of reality, which precisely deals with science in the Middle Ages. This view is predicated on the idea that ideas are “blending”.

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      The history of methodology (and philosophy of science writ large) is yet to be written as a whole.

      I’d start with the standard “KRS” book on the presocratics, then move to Aristotle (and something like the Cambridge companion, if you need a secondary source). Matters get tricky then, because there’s just so much starting with Copernicus (or a bit after). _Science since 1500_ is a good *reference* for findings; for methodology some of the stuff in P. Kitcher _THe Advancement of Science_ is good. Individual entries in the Cambridge companions might help too, e.g., on Descartes, Leibniz, Galileo, Newton, …

  19. Kevin
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Religion does not develop into science. If it has, it is because that part of what once was religion is now science. If Christianity ever pushed science along it came with mutual opposition within Christianity.

    It would be like girl scouts got organized to sell cookies and then this somehow led to a scientific discovery. Possible? Yes. But it is definitely not their intention, just as it is not the intention of religion to promote science.

  20. Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Take a look at “Aristotle’s Children,” by R. Rubinstein. He’s often called, you know, the father of biology. In his science (including physics, astronomy, math . . .) he got lots of things wrong, and he’s usually dismissed because his conclusions were often wrong; but this overlooks his methodology that emphasized logic, reason, and careful empirical observation. He didn’t have the observational tools and opportunities that were developed later, so it’s not surprising that his conclusions had many flaws, as do those of many capable scientists today – but his methods(rather than Christian dogma), applied often without recognition, were crucial for the scientific revolution!

    • madscientist
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      Aristotle was just plain wrong – to the degree that he intentionally ignored reality. His methodology was all bunk and his assumptions were all bunk (well, maybe there were some accidentally not-quite-wrong ones). Aristotle was no good at all at empirical observation, otherwise he would have realized (as archers and spear-throwers of the day realized) that the trajectory of a ballistic object is a curve and not a triangle. But nooo… it had so be a triangle because to Aristotle that was the “perfect” case. So much for Aristotle and his bogus schoolyard logic.

      • Posted February 17, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

        Where does Aristotle claim such a thing? There’s a lot of fault to be leveled at his physics, but *triangle*? Not that I remember.

  21. Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    This view of rationalism (in the narrow sense) is kind of weird.

    First, I wonder why he thinks it’s a mistaken dichotomy between rationalism and empiricism. Philosophers have very precise definitions: rationalists believe there are synthetic propositions justified a priori; empiricists do not. So to collapse the rationalism-empiricism distinction you’d have to collapse the a priori-empirical distinction, something a few philosophers (e.g. Quine) have tried to do, but failed abjectly.

    And second, the view that it’s divorced from reality is also odd. How do we know that necessarily, 1+1=2? Not through observation alone. All we ever observe is that so far, 1+1 has equaled 2.

    It might be that people like Aquinas misused a priori reasoning or let it lead them astray, but that certainly doesn’t through into doubt the (in my view obvious) fact that some things we know, we know for reasons other than pure sensory observation.

    • Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      And second, the view that its divorced from reality is also odd. How do we know that necessarily, 1+1=2? Not through observation alone. All we everobserve is that so far, 1+1 has equaled 2.

      First, how were we supposed to get the notion that 1 + 1 = 2 in the first place, save by observation?

      And, more to the point, 1 + 1 is frequently observed to not = 2, and in a great many very important and significant situations. It doesn’t hold up in any logarithmic system, which includes much of human perception; increase the number of photons hitting your retina by a linear amount and you don’t necessarily perceive a corresponding linear increase in brightness. It emphatically doesn’t apply in harmonic systems; add a second loudspeaker next to the first, both playing the exact same sine wave at the exact same power level, and the result can be anything from silence to no change to a doubling of volume. At relativistic scales, you can increase your velocity by however many meters per second squared you like and still never go faster than 299,792,458 m/s.

      Once again: you can bootstrap yourself to reason by way of an evolutionary ratcheting of empiricism, but trying to get from reason to reality without empiricism is a completely unhelpful skyhook. The same species of skyhook, in fact, as Jesus — but generally without all the obnoxious intestine-fondling bullshit.



      • rickflick
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

        “intestine fondling” ? Best metaphor yet!

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

          It’s a Ben Goren original; perhaps his best-known, although with some stiff competition from his description of how the bible opens, with “an angry wizard in a magic garden with a talking snake.”

          • Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

            Actually I usually phrase it as an enchanted garden with talking animals and and angry wizard — followed shortly thereafter by the talking plant (on fire!) that gives magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero….


        • Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

          Not actually a metaphor. That is a reference to “Doubting” Thomas.

          • rickflick
            Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:08 am | Permalink

            Yes, I guessed it was a ref to Thomas. I should have said it was beautiful imagery. Priceless.
            Angry wizard as well. Ben needs to write a book…or has he?

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted February 15, 2014 at 6:26 am | Permalink

              I asked him to rewrite the whole Jesus story as a book before. I think it would be pretty good, esp if there were pictures. Maybe a pop up book!

              • rickflick
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 7:03 am | Permalink

                The jesus story sounds fabulous. I’d buy it, with or without pop ups. But, I can visualize where you turn the page and the cross and its passenger pop up in the middle. It could even have music – when you’re chewin’ on life’s grissle, give a whistle…always look on the bright side of life…
                It’d be a best seller in 15 minutes!

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

        Modern-day rationalists say that we acquire concepts empirically, but once we possess those concepts, we don’t need any observation (fortunately) to know that necessarily, 1+1=2.

        ‘Necessarily, 1+1=2’ does not entail ‘if you increase the number of photons hitting the retina, you perceive a corresponding increase in brightness,’ nor ‘adding another speaker doubles volume,’ nor ‘it is possible to go faster than the speed of light,’ so none of those are counterexamples.

        If you think that people who accept that necessarily, 1+1=2 should be rationalists and people who reject that should be empiricists, that’s fine with me. Or, even more straightforwardly, the same applies to ‘necessarily, 1=1.’ That’s known a priori, since no one has ever observed the number one, and no one has ever observed a necessary truth.

        • gbjames
          Posted February 15, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

          “no one has ever observed the number one”

          Funny. I thought I saw one on the page just a moment ago.

          • Mark Joseph
            Posted February 15, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

            Who are you going to believe? A godly creationist man of the cloth? Or your own lying eyes?

          • Stephen Krogh
            Posted February 15, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

            I think Tom’s point is that the content represented by “1” or “one” or “3-2” is in principle unobservable. Obviously we use symbols to represent the content, but unlike “dog” and “canis” which each represent the same content, namely an animal of a certain type, despite being different symbols for the content, “1” in principle cannot be observed in this way. Thus, what you saw on the page is a representation of something, not the thing itself, just as you wouldn’t claim that “dog” and the two animals currently chasing each other in the yard are identical. The former represent the latter.

            • gbjames
              Posted February 15, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

              My pedant trap works! 😉

        • Posted February 15, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

          Modern-day rationalists say that we acquire concepts empirically, but once we possess those concepts, we don’t need any observation (fortunately) to know that necessarily, 1+1=2.

          I’d go along with that. Once we’re confident that 1 + 1 = 2, the whole point of the exercise is to build upon that knowledge to figure out what else we can learn.

          I’m not trying to suggest that math and logic aren’t useful; indeed, you’d be very hard pressed to find more useful tools ever invented by humans.

          I’m just trying to point out that they’re not some sort of ethereal magic oracle which reveals truths to knowledgeable acolytes. If it’s truth you’re looking for, that only comes from observations — and don’t forget the error bars! Also, don’t forget that we know that math and logic are useful because we’ve observed them to be useful; if they didn’t actually work, we’d use something else (if anything).


      • Stephen Krogh
        Posted February 15, 2014 at 10:04 am | Permalink

        We should remember that the distinction between a priori cognition and a posteriori cognition is a distinction between *justification* of belief, and not the manner in which the belief was come about. In other words, to use the hackneyed example, the a priori claim that Hesperus is Phosphorus, obviously needs to be seen in order to be learned—it took empirical observation to see the morning star and evening star, and a very subtle astronomer to realize that they are the same entity, Venus—but the justification for the claim, i.e., the underlying substrata for its veracity, is a matter of, among other things, logical implications that precede any empirical investigation at all, viz., A=A. Thus, pointing out that one must learn something empirically doesn’t do much in terms of dispatching the fact that some things are the substrata for the veracity of empirical claims, even if those substrata are noticed through induction from empirical observation.

        Indeed, I think the math example illustrates this well. For, if we take the rule of arithmetic (the obvious context in which Tom UA intended 1+1=2 to be taken), though we learn this through observation in some ways, e.g., I have one apple, take another in my hand, and now I have two, most of us, I think, would readily admit that the truth of the equation is independent of the means any of us came to learn it, even if the truth of the equation is contingent upon the grammar and syntax of mathematics, i.e., numbers, equations, and the truths arising from them don’t exist in a mind independent world, but are rather only mental constructs used to model the data we get from the world in order to make it coherent. Whether the truth is mind dependent, and whether someone learns it through experience, has precious little to do with the nature of the justification of the claim, and the role the claim plays as a truth condition for the empirical observations that were necessary to even come to recognize the claim at all. Here I think Kant was right. Kripke and Quine misunderstood him here, and thereby misunderstood the nature of a priori cognition.

        Finally, we might not want to be so fast and loose with the term “observation” here. I can’t remember how I came to learn that 1+1=2, but I don’t think it was through observation in the strict sense; rather, I most likely was told it is the case, and then someone, either a parent or teacher, illustrated it with various objects, apples, toys, or the like. But, surely we wouldn’t say that I learned it through observation. If so, then you’d have to say that Christians have learned many of the things they believe through observation, because their pastors tell them something, and then illustrate it in any number of ways, sometimes even using math(!). Further, I doubt most of us have actually undertaken the rigor of attempting to prove the majority of beliefs we hold regarding mathematics, or at least the majority of people I know haven’t, and yet I don’t think we’d want to suggest that they’ve somehow gone about recklessly believing what they do about math simply because their beliefs are merely the result of having been told something, and then being asked to run through several permutations or illustrations in order to ensure the proper mechanics are understood. Theologians, after all, do precisely the same thing. Obviously, observation is necessary for truth; I’m just not sure it is sufficient, and I think mathematics bears this out.

        • Posted February 15, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

          I cant remember how I came to learn that 1+1=2, but I dont think it was through observation in the strict sense; rather, I most likely was told it is the case, and then someone, either a parent or teacher, illustrated it with various objects, apples, toys, or the like. But, surely we wouldnt say that I learned it through observation.

          You individually? Almost certainly not.

          “We” means humanity, collectively.

          And we wouldn’t have learned it unless we observed it to be the case.



          • Stephen Krogh
            Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

            Right. I don’t disagree at all. The question is whether the knowledge is justified a priori or a posteriori. Consider, for example, that someone has just learned that 1+1=2, and then is asked, having been allowed some time think out the implications of the equation, what 1+2 is. In principle, simply from learning the answer to the first with some explanation that makes no further recourse to any other addition, the student could work it out, though, admittedly, she’d have to be pretty bright.

            Consider, by contrast, that you and I learn the name of the panda cub at the national zoo by seeing the plaque with her name on it. No matter how much time we’d be given, there is very little we’d be able to say about the animals in the adjacent exhibits on the evidence justifying the panda cub’s name. The reason is that the sort of knowledge in this latter example is a posteriori in principle, and could only ever be derived by seeking out evidence every step of the way. Mathematics and logic are not like this, even if our initial foray whether individual or collective requires some observation. That is what makes math and logic a priori, not because the event of acquiring any given part of mathematical or logical knowledge is done apart form observation, but because the system is coherent and justified prior to any such observation, and could in principle be derived from starting points and very little observation.

          • Stephen Krogh
            Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

            Sorry to write so quickly back to back, but perhaps Euclidean geometry is the best example of this. Someone alone on an island having never made contact with any geometry at all could in principle simply assume the first five Euclidean postulates (even without being told them, just by chance start with them) and, given enough time and an *incredibly* subtle mind, work out the whole of Euclidean geometry without ever having been taught anything. She could never justify her knowledge about exhibits in the national zoo in the same way, even if she guessed correctly. In the latter case she would have been improbably lucky (though, surely no less improbable than that she is bright enough to have worked out the whole of Euclidean geometry on her own), and we wouldn’t say that she *knows* anything about the zoo, only that she she has guessed the right answer. In the geometry case, however, we would say that she knows geometry, because she could demonstrate any given proof working all the way back to the starting points if required. And what’s more, this is even all in principle possible without having to draw anything in the sand, i.e., work out the problems visually. It is even possible in principle to work it all out simply by working out the implications of each step in the mind.

            Whether this is likely has no bearing on the fact that the sort of knowledge in the geometry case, whether come upon in the unlikely scenario above, or in the far more common case of being taught by teachers through observation, is different than the sort of knowledge you and I would have upon learning the panda cub’s name. The difference is a matter of justification, a priori and a posteriori.

            • Posted February 15, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

              Sorry to write so quickly back to back, but perhaps Euclidean geometry is the best example of this.

              Yes it is.

              But not the way you think it is.

              How do we know that the Pythagorean Theorem is true?

              Because, if you draw a right triangle and draw squares on each of the sides, the big one covers as much ground as the other two combined.

              And if you don’t think that that’s the original derivation of the Theorem, I’ve got some prime Arizona oceanfront property to sell you….

              Again, after you’ve empirically confirmed enough algebra and geometry and what-not to be able to reasonably trust it, there’s less and less need to empirically check the results in order to reasonably have confidence in them. But, if you actually want to know, you’e still gotta go out and have a look-see for yourself.



              • Stephen Krogh
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

                One way to secure the Pythagorean theorem would be to draw it out, but there isn’t anything in principle to suggest that it couldn’t be worked out entirely mentally, which I’d hoped the loner geometry thought experiment might show. I’d be happy to be shown an argument that suggests otherwise, but again, I’m not sure that pointing out that drawing things out is one way of understanding the theorem is sufficient evidence against the claim that it is *in principle* possible to work it out without any recourse to anything other than first principles, which can be established entirely theoretically, and what those principles entail. Because I acknowledge that already, I think we’ll have to establish more in order to suggest that math is justified in ways different from other sorts of knowledge, such as the case with the panda cub at the zoo.

              • Posted February 15, 2014 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

                Oh, sure — you could certainly work it out in all sorts of ways.

                But you wouldn’t know that it actually applied to actual triangles that you actually drew until you actually drew an actual triangle and actually measured it all out.

                Indeed, we actually know that it’s not actually true — at least, not if you make it big enough. A number of geometers figured out that it wouldn’t be true on the surface of a sphere or other types of shapes; Albert Einstein had a very, very powerful hunch that it might not be true in the real world; and Arthur Eddington finally showed that, no, it actually isn’t true.

                And, while Einstein was a theoretical physicist who rarely got his hands dirty, I rather doubt he would have come up with the idea had it not been for an amazing amount of empirical groundwork that had been laid down by others since long before Newton — or even Pythagoras, for that matter.



              • Stephen Krogh
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

                I’m responding here because I can’t see a “reply” under your most recent post, Ben. Sorry about that!

                You’re right that Euclidean geometry isn’t the only form of geometry, and that, therefore, the geometric knowledge derived from it isn’t exhaustive. The fifth postulate was long debated, and finally determined false in hyperbolic geometry. Fine. The first principles were changed for hyperbolic geometry. That doesn’t seem to change the fact that Euclidean geometry falls out from the first principles it assumes, and that, if the first principles are assumed true, so too would whatever falls out from them.

                I’m not sure, however, that the geometer need to see *this* triangle in order to know whether it conforms to any geometric laws. A geometer only needs to say “For any triangle on a Euclidean plane” in order to know that the particularities of any given triangle on a Euclidean plane follow. If the theorems work, they work for any triangle in the right conditions, whether that triangle is observable. Indeed, this is why we teach high school students in geometry not to trust what they see, e.g., that a particular triangle looks like it has a right angle in one corner, but rather to trust the symbols provided for them, such as the symbol denoting that an angle actually is a right angle. “Any given triangle” does not point to any particular triangle, despite the fact that any particular triangle must necessarily follow the dicta Euclidean geometry says of it.

                The point of geometry or math more generally, it seems, is that we don’t need to know whether the theorems apply to *this* or *that* triangle precisely because we know a priori that the principles fall out *from the accepted first principles* which in principle do not depend upon observation. Sure, changing the first principles, such as the fifth postulate in Euclid, changes what falls out from the initial assumptions. But that doesn’t change the a priori justification of the endeavor as a whole.

                I’m worried, Ben, that we are speaking past one another here, which benefits neither of us (nor anyone who has the misfortune of thinking I might have anything interesting to say!). Thus, if you’d be willing, I’d like to hear precisely where you disagree with the primary arguments I’ve made, taking into account the positions we agree upon before either makes an argument, e.g., most of use learn basic a priori truths through some sort of observation. That might help our conversation a bit.

              • Posted February 15, 2014 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

                Stephen, my basic point is that the only way that we actually know that it can be so very useful to make a priori assumptions is because we have evidence that they actually do work out.

                In math and logic you can make up any rules you like, or even no rules at all; Calvinball is as valid as any other system.

                Some of the rules, however, do a better job at describing reality than others. You could use Calvinball to design an airliner, but you’re rather unlikely to ever actually see it take flight.

                How do we know that Euclidean geometry is very useful, and a quite reasonable approximation of the everyday world? Because we see that it works. How do we know that it makes more sense to use addition to count groups of goats as opposed to some other random operation? Because, when you use addition to count groups of goats, everybody goes away much happier.

                Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning in a world that very superficially resembles this one, but in which some everyday aspect of math or logic, inexplicably, worked completely different from what we’re used to. Imagine, in other words, you stepped through Alice’s looking-glass. Would you continue to attempt to insist that math and logic as we know it really is valid, or would you attempt to comprehend the new world you found yourself in?

                If the former, you’re a philosopher (or perhaps a theologian), and every bit as useless as any other of that variety. If the latter, you’re a scientist, and we need more people like you.



    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      You prove that 1+1=2.

      However, there’s also a tradition that _a priori_ refers to the *reference* of the concepts, which is blurred with their justification sometimes. So 1+1=2 is a priori since it does not *refer* to experience. (Which is almost indisputable: even Hume and other empiricists had to make exceptions for mathematics with good reason.)

  22. Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Ayn Rand a preeminent rationalists, opposed to any form of unreason? Whose entire worldview is built on a completely unrealistic view of human nature? That Ayn Rand?


    Good one, made my day.

    But I think what he was going for when discussing the religious use of reason was called scholasticism, right?

  23. madscientist
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Oh no, my eyes rolled out of their sockets.

    That ‘chritianity created science’ nonsense just won’t die. Science has progressed *despite* christianity (and other religions), and never *because* of it. In fact, throughout history church leaders frequently fought against progress. In fact, just look at the catlick pope and his ridiculous attempts to co-opt science while poo-pooing it at the same time. As for other religions: polio comes back with a vengeance in Sudan, Niger, Pakistan, etc… thanks to religion.

    Religion’s contribution to science: near 0%. What scientific facts have ever been revealed via prayer or the bible? There are a few cases where a religious institution has made contributions (for example, the Vatican Observatory), but such examples are as rare as hens’ teeth.

    Religious people’s historical contribution to science: pretty high despite frequent threats from the churches at various points in time.

    Once again, some religious people demonstrate that they can’t distinguish coincidence from cause.

  24. grasshopper
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Jerry said

    We may be able to recreate life under primitive-earth conditions in the lab, but we will never know for sure that that is how it happened.

    But when successful, the creation of life will be seen as the result of intelligent design. And therefore, jesus

  25. jrdonohue
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    To supply an amplification: Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, holds that Reason requires both facts and logic.

    “Rationalism” is the conviction that truth can be established even if existents in the argument have not, in fact, been proven to exist.

    Metaphysically, Rand held the primacy of existence, meaning that first things exist, then humans identify them as existing. This is in concert with Aristotle and is the contrary of the position that existence is contingent on consciousness, human or divine.

    Frankly, siding with this metaphysics is all that is required to defeat theism.

  26. Derek Freyberg
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Slightly OT but …
    Reading the last couple of paragraphs of the quote reminded me of an article entitled “More Tooth Fairy science studying acupuncture” on on Dr. David Gorski’s “Respectful Insolence” blog this morning. He was referring to an article in “Acupuncture in Medicine” (explain that if you can) in which some scientists examined acupuncture needles with scanning electron microscopy and speculated on how they needed to be better made, with no consideration of whether better manufacture would in any way make them more therapeutically useful. Scientific “angelology”.

  27. Ken Elliott
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Of all the great and wonderful things stated, shared, deduced, and revealed on this site, most of which are from Dr. Coyne who time and again quite brilliantly sweeps away the detritus of religiosity to reveal the truth of a matter, today’s excerpt from Andrew Bernstein’s review of a book by Rodney Stark is quite simply the most succinct gem of truthful clarity involving the way of religion from a big picture viewpoint I have experienced since undertaking my own personal journey away from the shackles of fear and dogma. Like a fine joke or a well written plot, it took me by surprise, which makes the feel of it that much sweeter. It’s the truth, and it’s devastating.

  28. Aldo Matteucci
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:53 pm | Permalink


    one way to go about it, is to query the premise that a few monks UPSTAIRS had any impact of the DOWNSTAIRS of material reality in Medieval society. There is this deeply ingrained fiction that ideas drive people. Experience drives people, and then they rationalize after it. Two good books to read here are CROSBY The measure of reality (covering the Middle Ages) and BREEM American insurgents, American patriots for how the American Revolution came about.

  29. Aldo Matteucci
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:01 pm | Permalink


    way to go about debunking the claim is to query the argument that a few monks living UPSTAIRS had any impact on the world DOWNSTAIRS. If you go to the Miramondo Abbey, close to Milan, you’ll how the two worlds lived apart.

    I’d recommend CROSBY: The measure of reality (for the Middle Ages( and BREEM American insurgents, American patriots, for the Revolutionary period. Johnson: How good ideas come from also debunks the idea of the lonely scientist influencing the world.

    This way you also kill the Rand stone…

  30. gophergold
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    Gregor Mendel was a monk when he studied genetics.

    And check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Roman_Catholic_cleric–scientists

    Dave Lerner


    • Mark Joseph
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

      No one has ever denied that religious people, even creationists, have made scientific discoveries and technical innovations. What we are denying is that these discoveries and innovations are in any way based on religious principles or creationist ideas.

      The inventor of the MRI may have been a christian to warm the cockles of Ken Ham’s heart, but I can absolutely guarantee that the principles by which the machine works are strictly naturalistic and, furthermore, would have been exactly, identically the same had the machine been invented by a muslim, a jew, a hindu, a pastafarian, or an atheist.

      • Aldo Matteucci
        Posted February 15, 2014 at 1:40 am | Permalink

        Mendel is the perfect counterexample – he remained in his cloister, and nobody paid attention to him.

        Darwin actually MIGHT have owned his paper, but never read it.

        Forget the idea that “individuals” invent – it is a social process, and it originates in a practical mentality, which is not forthcoming, if you are focused on the beyond.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:23 am | Permalink

        I suspect that inventions and discoveries made in the 18th and 19th century by clergymen in Great Britain (such as Rev Alexander Forsyth, inventor of percussion ignition)were largely down to too much free time plus a personal interest in a specific subject. Many of them were only clergymen because they were not due to inherit the family estate, and didn’t want to join/were not accepted by the military. In other words, religion had nothing to do with it.

    • steve oberski
      Posted February 15, 2014 at 5:15 am | Permalink

      John Geoghan, John Hanlon, Paul Shanley, Robert V. Gale and James Talbot where all catholic priests when they raped children under their control.

      Bernard Francis Law was a bishop in the catholic church when he covered up the crimes of those men and moved them from diocese to diocese allowing them to continue their atrocities.

      Law is currently hiding out in the Vatican.

      I suspect that the behaviour of these men is more highly correlated to their membership in the catholic church than that of Gregor Mendels.

  31. Phil
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Science,infact,is the outgrowrth of the Greeks. the pre-socratics, Democritus on the atoms and the void. Aristarcos on the stationary sun and Eudoxos and Archimedes on the quadrature of the lune and intimations of the calculus

  32. Mark Joseph
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Theology is the purest expression of rationalism in the sense of proceeding by logical deduction from premises ungrounded in observable fact—deduction without reference to reality. The so-called “thinking” involved here is purely formal, observationally baseless, devoid of facts, cut off from reality.

    “Aillas replied that while King Audry cited several points of technical interest, and used the resources of abstract logic in an adroit manner, he had actually made no connection with reality.” (Jack Vance, The Green Pearl)

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      We tell begining logic students that logic doesn’t tell you much about your premisses (only that they are [in]consistent, perhaps).

      Epistemology is needed to evaluate premisses, and that is where religious problems arise. You can be a “non-naturalistic empiricist”, for example – Aquinas comes close.

  33. Posted February 15, 2014 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I’ve burned those bolded paragraphs into my brain (and made a mental note to read more of Bernstein).

    His remarks offer a good, concise reconciliation of two apparently contradictory facts: 1) theology is the study of nothing 2) for many centuries, bright people have spent their lives devoted to it.

    It makes sense to me that an intelligent individual would fall into this trap in the middle ages. But it makes less sense that a highly intelligent, motivated person would willingly study nothing in the 21st century.

  34. Stephen Krogh
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Though it is obvious that “there was no science on tap” during the dark ages, I’m not sure we are in a position to claim that this is the result of Christian intellectual dominance in the west throughout the period. There wasn’t much science anywhere in the world then, at least if we take the endeavor to be the sort we started seeing nascently with the like of Albert the Great, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Rene Descartes (all whose work was largely framed by earlier Muslim thinkers, Al-Kindi, Ibn Sahl, Avicenna, and so on) and ,more maturely, in guys like Newton and so on. Maybe Christianity kept those sorts of endeavors from coming about sooner, but that would have to be demonstrated in some way, e.g., historical accounts of proto-scientific inquiry that were put down by Christians—obviously Galileo comes to mind here, but regardless of whether that affair concerned political matters as much as the findings Galileo had published, it is clear that his *method* wasn’t the cause of his prosecution, so I don’t think that would count of the sort of evidence necessary to establish the claim that Christianity kept scientific endeavor as a method down (after all, though Galileo’s treatment was deplorable, and no one in her right mind should defend the church on this account, it is simply disingenuous to claim that Bellarmine held blindly to the established tradition; rather, Bellarmine thought that the evidence lay in favor of geocentrism, and acknowledged that Biblical interpretation would have to be changed should the evidence turn towards heliocentrism (a concession I am sure Jerry sees as anything but virtuous!)

    If anyone is to blame, it would have to be those in the Platonic tradition, a tradition I think includes Aristotle and his commentators, as it was their writings more than anything that framed scientific debate and inquiry throughout the middle ages. The role intuition (a technical term from Aristotle’s “Posterior Analytics” describing a non discursive apprehension of first principles, which Aristotle, worried over an infinite regress of any purported first principle in an inquiry being necessarily dependent upon further first principles and derived at through argument, took to be necessary for thought at all) played in inquiry, and the method employing deduction, and induction to establish claims from those first principles for scientific explanation, which in this context I simply take to mean an inquiry of the natural world, and attempt to explain the phenomena in it, was prized, given the certainty Aristotle and those he influenced believed the method delivered.

    Though perhaps helpful in some intellectual pursuits, it should be clear to nearly everyone today that this method isn’t the best, nor even a particularly good, way to study the natural world and explain its goings-on. But, again, it isn’t clear that the Christians who took this method seriously did so *on Christian grounds*, i.e., that they considered the method and Christianity biconditional. Rather, it seems clear enough through historical analysis that where other cultures, e.g., Muslim Spain and the Middle East, and the Byzantine Empire, were flourishing (intellectually and otherwise) relative to the Christian west, the intellectual flourishing was largely due, at least according to the Muslim and Byzantine intellectuals, to the writings from the Platonic tradition available to those cultures, but not to the west.

    Of course, inquiry, scientific or otherwise, is certainly hampered in a culture where propositions considered unorthodox might wind someone up on the business end of the stakes, and here, obviously, I don’t think we can so easily exculpate Christians who regularly engaged in this activity. It’s abhorrent, anti-intellectual, and certainly held progress back at least to some degree. But—and I want to be clear that this “but” in no way seeks to justify the evil of the acts—I’m not sure such rampant persecution is biconditional with Christianity, nor with theism or religious belief and practice more generally. One need only look to Leon Trotsky’s persecution and assassination to see that thought police exist in most, if not every, culture, and that some are willing to go to great and evil extents to police others’ thought. That such evil is common in no way exculpates Christianity in the middle ages, and might even damn it, given the claims that so many Christians then and now make regarding the nature of love and the role it plays in their religion, and the obvious fact that such shenanigans show the extent to which many weren’t following the purported teaching of their faith when they held virtually universal political sway over about 1/3 of the known world. And, in this way it is clear that Christians stunted thought and halted progress in the middle ages, but we want to make sure that we’re saying something more than a tautology, e.g., Christians were the people who stunted thought and halted progress in the middle ages, so Christians were the people who stunted thought and halted progress in the middle ages, and try to more closely establish that it was Christians qua Christian, or perhaps qua theists, who stunted thought and halted progress.

    And this, folks, is why I lie in bed every Sunday night wondering how I managed to accomplish so little over the weekend. (^:

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      I would wonder if Christianity was needed, why almost all the great founders of modern science were heterodox.

      Descartes and Galileo were (despite their environment) almost certainly not catholic; Newton was an Arian; Leibniz tried to reconcile catholics and protestants; Boyle was terrified that science would be regarded as heretical (and ungentlemanly), etc.

  35. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    My usual tactic is to grant, ad arguendo, that Christianity did invent science ~500 years ago. So what? How does that prove that science and religion are compatible _today_? Science couldn’t have shifted into something less compatible with religion as it piled naturalistic observation on naturalistic observation for half a millenium?
    By the same token, Christianity began as a sect of Judaism, and therefore there cannot be any conflict between Christianity and Judaism.

    • Stephen Krogh
      Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      This seems right. For the same reasons we shouldn’t think there is something inherent to Christianity or theism that halted scientific progress simply because progress was slow when Christianity was king, neither should we think that there is something inherent to it to force a perpetual debt upon science as an inquiry, nor to those who practice it. If historical accident plays so much a role in the former case, then so too does it play a role in the latter, and for precisely the same reasons.

  36. Sastra
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    True. Even if we were to concede that yes indeed, science was created by Christianity, we can still say with wicked grin:

    “How do you do … Dr. Frankenstein?”

  37. johzek
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Professor Coyne, you are mistaken if you think that Stark says, quoting you, ” …religion does employ reason, but in a completely different way than science uses it.” Objectivism sees reason as a faculty of the mind which identifies and integrates the raw material of its conscious perceptions. According to Stark, “But the method of reason, properly understood, is emphatically not the employment of formal logic to explicate the consequences entailed by arbitrary premises. Reasoning consists, first and foremost, in observation and induction therefrom. Deductive logic provides knowledge only when applied to premises rooted ultimately in observational fact.” Also “By the very nature of its metaphysics, religion is incapable of upholding reason.” What religion does can more properly be called rationalizing in everyday language.

  38. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    “deduction without reference to reality.”

    Slightly OT, but I think I finally found out why science works! Yay!

    WEIT readers may remember my problem, which has been in evidence here for years:

    – Why do science work, despite that we have finite resources?

    Specifically, testing is using deduction with reference to reality in its rejection of null hypotheses, whether it is applied to constrained observations or such observations testing predictions.

    *** But assuming the elimination process works, why does it converge? Why wouldn’t “variation with selection” on theories produce an indefinite number of theories? ***

    So here is my theory, which is mine:

    1. Making physics

    I will assume that the observations are quantum. This means that classical theories are seen as possible (in practice often impractical to extract directly) approximations of quantum mechanics; more on that in step 2.

    Then the observations live in an infinitely large infinite dimensional Hilbert space. What is important here is that it has a measure stick and that it is “without holes” in the sense that we can tell where limit points go and if necessary fill with them. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complete_metric_space ]

    Then we can work the quantum gears. Specifically, the Hilbert projection theorem tells us that a closed convex subset has a global minimum. And we can see by the construction that it is the requirement for a minimum. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilbert_projection_theorem ]

    As we will see in step 2, this is what gives us physics.

    2. Making laws

    Particles are ripples in quantum particle fields. Feynman path integrals show that classical particle paths emerges as likely paths from quantum path interference. Photons that travels to hit Earth may take a detour around Mars, but very few will do so.

    The particles don’t know how to travel though. They are constrained by spacetime and the field, expressed by an entity called action. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Path_integral_formulation ]

    Now we will obtain classical laws as symmetries (or their breaking) from Noether’s theorems. It tells us that the rate of change of a conserved quantity can be minimized to zero. That minima is what through the action tells the particle how to move (conserving mass and momentum et cetera). [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noether%27s_theorem ]

    And that is why we need to have a minimum to have physics. If energy (say) couldn’t be minimized, a system would live forever chasing it to yet lower values.

    On the other hand, if we see one law (conserved quantity), we see many.

    3. Making science work

    Here is the thing though: there is a finite number of symmetries. Convex optimization tells us (I think, ripping this off Wikipedia unstudied), that a convex set that has a global minimum must have a finite number of dimensions, it is a necessary and sufficient condition. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convex_optimization ]

    The infinite dimensional Hilbert space we started with has secretly a finite number of global laws.

    A putative model of the elimination process can hence be seen as sets of theories that span a different number of “law” dimensions placed in the space. Some “laws” will be mistaken, some proposed combinations of laws will be conflicting by mistake, but testing will eventually weed them out.

    Such theories will express combinations of laws by their conserved quantities, say mass and momentum, as parameters. But here the infinite is known to be tamed by optimization.

    A finite number of laws can only be combined a finite number of times. Continued testing will hence find the theory that fits observations without fail.

    In theory, of course.


    1. It is quantum physics that “wants laws” by interference.

    2. It is enough to observe a law to know that the universe acts as closed and gives us physics. But it seems to me we can predict it too, _from only having quantum physics and cosmology_.

    When the local universe emerged inflation (or today’s late dark energy dominating expansion) puts it imprint on it in the form of a deSitter cosmology during exponentially expansion. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inflation_(cosmology) ]

    Such a de Sitter topology is simply connected when dimensions are n ≥ 3 , meaning that there are no holes (yet again). [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Sitter_space ] Hence each of its dimensions can be mapped (by the Riemann mapping theorem) to an open disk. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simply-connected ]

    By adding the limit points we can make that a closed convex set, fulfilling the requirements for the Hilbert projection theorem. That makes sense, since deSitter space is usually depicted as a sphere. One can simply let the radius go to infinity, the topology will remain. In principle it doesn’t matter whether we add the limit points as the closure of the observable universe, the local
    universe out of inflation, or the whole multiverse. Its physics is closed and finite*, and magical action has no gap.

    Speaking of topology, the universe isn’t always clearly deSitter. It is only when we choose convenient eras to observe it that we can extract universal topology easily. Luckily, the laws stays with us.

    * But it is only with finite volumes that we have a finite number of systems, a finite number of particle combinations, to research. However in practice our large observable universe will keep us busy as long as we do science.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Oy. “exponentially expansion”.


      – Testing. Well, I don’t see much new prediction as of yet. (But I have to study convex optimization first, obviously, it may fail there.)

      If quantum physics (and standard cosmology) fails, if science stops working or if science racks up an infinite number of theories and/or laws, the theory fails. A very weak theory in the math sense. :-/

      – Hawking’s inflationary multiverse.

      I happen to know about it because I made a series of cosmology seminars. It is different, and likable, because he uses quantum physics sum over histories to extract “fuzzy” regions of inflation. (It is perhaps testable since it predicts large scale variations.)

      Mainly here it would imply that in his multiverse it is bare bones quantum physics that gives us inflation as the first particle field, and then the rest of local physics by the very existence of inflation rather than having some preexisting physics to choose symmetry breakings from.

      Besides being a nice progression, in the context of the thread its ad hoc progression would kick out deist theology explicitly.

  39. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    I’ve now read the original article not just the excerpts that Jerry Coyne posted and Stark is worse than I thought.

    To make an even semi-credible (though IMO mistaken) case that Christian theology contributed to the rise of science, one would have to acknowledge two conflicting strains in Catholic theology, one that affirms the importance of reason and inquiry exemplified (as Bernstein observes following his mentor Ayn Rand) by Thomas Aquinas, and a much more virulently hostile–to-secular-learning strain exemplified by St. Augustine.

    But Bernstein tell us that “Stark claims that Western commitment to reason and science was a function of medieval Christianity and of Augustine­—and that Aristotle and the Greeks were a hindering influence.”
    “Instead, he makes such claims as: “The antiscientific elements of Greek thought were withstood by Augustine . . .” and “It was in explicit opposition to Aristotle and other classical writers that the Scholastics advanced toward science.”
    “Overall, Stark’s view that science rests on a theoretical framework of Augustine and Christian theology, and that its development was hindered by Aristotle and the Greeks, represents a fantastic jumble of errors”

    My own undergrad major was late medieval and early modern history. To anyone at all familiar with the history of medieval thought, if any strand of Christian thinking helped advance science (even if just a bit on the side) it was the Aristotle-affirming Scholastics and figures like Roger Bacon. Augustine was virulently anti-science.

    Black is white and white is black. This is LITERALLY like saying the Discovery Institute has done more to advance acceptance of evolution than BioLogos!!!!!! This is the most damning part of the review, uncited in Jerry Coyne’s excerpts.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] For part of the book I’m writing, I’m investigating the claim—one made by theologians and religious apologists—that science in fact was an outgrowth of Christianity, explaining the rise of science in Europe and nowhere else. (Yes, yes, I know about China and the Middle East, but their science fizzled out.) One of the most vociferous exponents of this claim is Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion who describes himself as “an independent Christian.” His book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom Capitalism, and Western Success, is often cited as the airtight proof of how science came from Christianity. [Read more] […]

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