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The Judeo-Christian Cosmology
and the Origins of Science.

Paul Gosselin 1987

If we refer to the history of science, modern science originated in Europe in a context (the 16th and 17th centuries) where Christianity was the dominant world-view, permeating all aspects of life[1]. Not only was the proverbial antagonism between 'science' and religion non-existent[2], but during this period scientific research itself was conceived (by scientists) as a religious task, a means of understanding the wisdom of God manifest in Creation and as a way to worship Him. Discussing this attitude among the Puritans, R.K. Merton remarks:

This attitude towards science was not, however, particular to Protestantism but was common (with a few variations) among other scientists and mathematicians of the time such as Galileo, Descartes and Father Mersennes. Merton points out that many renowned Seventeenth century scientists and mathematicians were also members of the clergy. Merton also notes that lay scientists such as Boyle, Nehemiah Grew and Isaac Newton all had a keen interest in matters religious. Michael Ruse, the Canadian philosopher of science notes

Taking these facts into consideration, one must not be surprised then at science's present ideologically incomplete state, because at its birth science was thoroughly integrated in the period's dominant religious system: Christianity. There are good reasons to believe that during this period science operated as a sub-cosmology[4], that is, a sub-cosmology specifically oriented towards the systematic study of the physical world and equipped with a basic methodological technology. In this context Christianity provided the 'remainder' of meaning, a larger, overarching cosmology, which is required by people of all times. The 'remainder' of meaning provided by Christianity would include, among other things, insights into areas of morality, sexuality, general cosmology, eschatology, etc. Setting these considerations aside for a moment, it must be pointed out that the awakening to the fact of science's metaphysical[5] or cosmological aspects has had repercussions far beyond the field of the philosophy of science. This new awareness of science's metaphysical aspects has had an important impact on the debate on rationality presently taking place in Anglo-Saxon anthropology, where, among other things, a fair amount of attention has been paid to the following question: "Does the distinction between scientific and non- (or pre-) scientific thought have any basis? Is it meaningful?" As we will see later, the various views taken with regard to the origins of science play an important role in the formation of attitudes and determining positions adopted in the debate on rationality, specifically on the question of accepting or rejecting the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought.

Karl R. PopperDue to the debt owed by a number of prominent participants in the debate on rationality to the works of Karl R. Popper, we will briefly discuss his contribution. In an article entitled Back to the Presocratics[6] (pp.136-165) Popper has postulated, as have most philosophers and historians of science, that the West owes it's scientific heritage to the philosophers of ancient Greece. According to Popper, the Greek's greatest contribution was that of establishing a tradition of critical discussions which made possible the review of contemporary religious beliefs and opened up opportunities for innovation in matters cosmological[7]. In a fascinating article by Robin Horton[8] we find one of the first discussions bearing on the parallels and discontinuities between scientific and non-scientific thought (specifically, African traditional thought). Horton underlines the fact that African cosmologies propose (or presuppose), quite in the same manner as modern scientific theories, a certain number of beliefs with which it is possible to explore and classify the world around us and also that both systems rely on the use of metaphors. Horton is of the opinion that the difference between scientific and non-scientific thought is due to social circumstances, what he calls 'open' and 'closed' predicaments (concepts borrowed from Popper). Horton remarks that societies characterized (at least to some extent) by scientific thought involve an 'open' situation, that is, the population in general is aware of more than one cosmology or world-view. Traditional (or 'closed') societies involve situations where there is no developed awareness of cosmological alternatives and are usually characterized by one cosmology or world-view. Horton believes that the presence of cosmological alternatives is a crucial factor for the birth of science permitting, in the long run, the development of critical attitudes towards current (religious) conceptions. In a 'closed' situation people will tend to accept the dominant world-view simply because there are no alternate world-views available with which they could develop a critique. The scientist, however, is capable of going beyond common sense perceptions due to the fact that he has access to more than one cosmology. A number of critiques have been leveled at Horton's approach to the origins of science and the science\ non-science distinction. Ernst Gellner (1973), for example, remarks that the 'poor savage' living in a monolithic society with no access to alternate cosmologies, that is without contact with other societies having different cosmologies, is practically non-existent. Furthermore, access to cosmological alternatives will not automatically result in the development of a western form of science. Gellner notes[9] that many traditional societies transcend their common conceptions of the world simply by the syncretistic addition of beliefs from other cosmologies. Nothing is eliminated. Thus, a situation where cosmological pluralism is an established fact cannot, then, be held to be 'modern' or 'scientific' and will not necessarily bring about the development of a critical tradition as required by Popper and Horton. Looking at another point, Paul K. Feyerabend expresses doubts about the 'essential scepticism' that Horton holds to be characteristic of science. The average scientist, as far as Feyerabend is concerned[10], has a much more 'closed' attitude than is commonly believed. Quite like the 'primitive', the average scientist keeps scepticism to a minimum as...

Pursuing this further, the average over-specialized scientist, doing normal research (à la Kuhn), works within one single paradigm (often without any idea of alternate theories), yet we will all admit this still amounts to science! In a recent essay; The domestication of the savage mind, Jack Goody has brought his attention to bear on problems initially discussed by Horton. Goody, agreeing with Gellner, notes that the presence of alternative cosmologies in a society is not a sufficient condition for the development of science, much less a constraining condition. Goody, as does Horton, holds to the critical tradition view of the origin of science, but taking into account the weaknesses of cosmological pluralism hypothesis, Goody proposes the hypothesis that it is the introduction of writing which will be crucial for the accumulation of critical thoughts and alternative cosmologies. Writing, then, in Goody's view, provides the conditions necessary for the establishment of the critical tradition, which in its turn is a prerequisite for the birth of science. One might ask "Why pay so much attention to writing?" Goody answers:

Goody understands, however, the difficulty of establishing a radical dichotomy between societies with or without writing, a single dichotomy supposedly accounting for the development of science[13], but remains convinced that to a large extent western science owes its development to writing. Ironically, there are a number of ethnographic facts not only known to Goody but published by him which contradict the idea that writing constitutes a causal factor determining the development of science. In Literacy in Traditional Societies, Goody (pp.11-16) and others cite many cases of societies where writing exists, but where nothing resembling western science has developed. The Tibetan case[14] is particularly striking. There, writing has been restricted to religious uses and printing often associated with the accumulation of spiritual merit. As I understand it, then, writing inevitably constitutes one of the conditions necessary for the development of science, but, and in agreement with Kathleen Gough[15], I must insist on the fact that a number of ethnographic facts contradict the idea that writing might be considered, by itself, a causal or constraining factor. I would then advise that if we are to attain a proper understanding of the development of science we must look elsewhere taking into account the inhibiting and stimulating effects that cosmological presuppositions can have on the comprehension and the exploration of the physical world around us. In anthropology, to a large extent, there has been little interest in the origin of science and in the effects that cosmological presuppositions may have on its development. Nonetheless it must be pointed out that some authors have at least touched on the issue.

Alfred North WhiteheadPreviously we have pointed out the intimate relationship existing between science (at the time of its birth) and Christianity. Might this simply be one among many trivial details in the history of science or, rather, might it be evidence of a deeper relationship ? Data now turning up from various directions indicate that the relationship is anything but trivial. In an essay published initially in 1925 Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician, has made the following remarks on the origins of science.

Strange though it may seem, the 'deeper relationship' discussed earlier between the origins of science and Christianity is related to the borrowing of Judeo-Christian metaphysical components which, with time, came to serve as science's "hard core", its implicit ideo-logic to some extent. More specifically, these components constitute a set of beliefs now designated by the term scientific realism. As Leatherdale points out here, realism is related to a number of metaphysical components central to Judeo-Christian cosmology.

The French philosopher of science Pierre Thuiller also points out that Newton's scientific works were based on Judeo-Christian presuppositions[19]. Discussing the works of Galileo, Stanley Jaki underscores the fact that, historically, the explicit postulation of certain Judeo-Christian presuppositions made the development of scientific realism possible:

A historian by the name of Lynn White, better known perhaps for his research incriminating the Christian world-view regarding environmental issues, points out certain aspects of Judeo-Christian cosmology that had a positive effect on the rapid development of technology in the West.

Joseph NeedhamAnother scholar bringing somewhat unexpected support to the idea of a causal relationship between Judeo-Christian cosmology and scientific realism is Joseph Needham, who as a marxist historian has spent many years studying the development of Chinese civilisation and technology (ancient and contemporary). Needham, who for the most part considers that environmental and socio-economic factors have played a predominant role in the non-development of a theoretical science in China, seems to have been forced by simple facts out of the orthodox (marxist) theoretical framework to pay attention to the effects that certain metaphysical presuppositions may have had on the birth of science. He notes:

Needham, in the following discussion on the God concept in Chinese cosmology, exposes at least one obstacle to the development of scientific realism among the Chinese:

Stanley L. JakiOne cannot hope, for obvious reasons, to produce in one short article all the proofs necessary to establish irrefutably the hypothesis of the Judeo Christian origin of scientific realism, but I believe the evidence cited above demonstrates at least that such an explanation is plausible and should be taken seriously. The best research touching on this subject that I have come across so far is a volume by Stanley L. Jaki: Creation and Science (1974). In this essay, the author explores a number of major ancient civilizations among which we find the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Indians, the Chinese and the three major civilizations of the New World (plus a look at modern Western science) assessing the various effects that their respective cosmologies had on the development (or non-development) of science in these societies. Jaki observes that only in the West, where the concept of a transcendent (that is not limited to the physical world) and omniscient creator God had become an essential and central component of the cultural ideo-logic, that a theoretical and experimental science did appear:

Seeing it would be inappropriate here to bury the reader under a flood of quotations from the works of Jaki, I can only suggest that the curious or the sceptics interested by the issues surrounding the origins of science take a look for themselves. The amount of historical research that has gone into Jaki's essays is rather astounding.

I am of the opinion that the fundamental issue taken up by Jaki touches on a crucial (and 'sticky') point; are the various ideologico-religious systems of the world of indifferent epistemological value or are some better suited as a basis for the development of an empirical science? Though it may be conceded that a large variety of ideologico-religious systems can give rise to reasonably harmonious societies (as far as is possible in this fallen world), but the data presented above indicate that they cannot all serve as a basis for a vigorous science. Feyerabend complains that we in the West are too quick to proclaim the superiority of our science, that we should let many traditions (or cosmologies) develop side by side in order to see if some other tradition might not do 'much better'[25]. 'Unfortunately' the experiment that Feyerabend demands has, in historical and anthropological terms, already taken place. Of the numerous ideologico-religious systems of the world that have had, in some cases, thousands of years to develop, only one has given birth to a theoretical and experimental science capable of a prolonged autonomous development.

The preceding data cast some doubt on the 'standard' version of the origin of Western science, presupposed by most historians of science, attributing the origin of this institution to certain components of Greek natural philosophy. It must be pointed out, moreover, that a number of historical facts contradict the 'standard' view. Jaki notes that the 'standard' version of the origin of science generally fails to underline the fact that the Greeks themselves only took their science to a certain point, from whence it then went into stagnation and decline[26] and that the Greeks never paid much attention to experimentation. The 'experimental tendency' was born and was popularized on a large scale only in 17th century Europe. Jaki remarks that outside of the West, for example in the Byzantine Empire, in India, among the medieval Arabs and the Chinese[27], the arrival of Greek science did not provoke the birth of an independent social institution whose accomplishments rapidly eclipsed those of the Greeks as was the case in 17th century Europe. It would seem quite clear then that the Greek origins hypothesis is a dead-end.

Curiously, if one does allow for the Judeo-Christian origins of our Western scientific cosmology, this casts new light on the fact that Popper has attributed scientific realism not to the Greek 'critical tradition' but to 'common sense'[28]. What Popper fails to emphasize is that the 'common sense' in question here is Western 'common sense', a body of beliefs and presuppositions that has, over the centuries, become saturated with Judeo-Christian metaphysics. Outside the West the attitudes vis-à-vis the world (and the ideo-logics underlying them) were unable to sustain the confidence that we live in a rational and ordered world.

It is quite possible that some will object to the preceding explanation of the origins of Western science in that it will be likely to give strength to Western prejudices about 'other' people's inferiority, encouraging paternalism, perhaps (let's be optimistic) even racism. Who knows? Maybe it might. In any case narrowmindedness will always find fuel for fire. However, looking at this question a little open-mindedly, one may draw rather different conclusions. For example, thinking back to my first impressions of the works of J. Needham I remember being particularly impressed by the level of Chinese medieval technology, on many points surpassing that found in Europe at that time. I was also struck by the contrast drawn by Needham between the semi-retarded[29], barbarian and non-innovative Europeans (during the Middle Ages) and those ingenious medieval Chinese. The contrast is such that one is tempted to ask: Why is it that the ingenious Chinese did not invent science whereas 'those'... Europeans did (at least it was born there) ?!

It seems to me quite evident that such an event was not due to some intrinsic superiority of the Western 'races', but rather to a happy 'coincidence' which made them heirs to a cosmology encouraging a confident attitude towards the rational exploration and study of the world. This cosmology, it must also be pointed out, was not native to Europe but had been imported from the Middle East.


[1]- During this period Christianity had successfully permeated most of its host cultures, but as regards Biblical standards of behavior the 'success' was most often only skin-deep. One has only to think of the wars between 'Christians' and the persecution of the Jews and other minorities to see this.

[2]- In Scepticism, Theology and the Scientific Revolution in the Seventeenth Century. Richard Popkin provides evidence that this antagonism belongs more to positivist mythology than to real history (pp. 1-28 in Problems in the Philosophy of Science. Lakatos and Musgrave (eds.) North-Holland Amsterdam 1968 448p.).

[3]- Merton, Robert K. The Sociology of Science. U. of Chicago Press Chicago 1973 p. 232

[3a]- p. 671 in Ruse, Michael Introduction to Part X (Creationism) in The philosophy of biology edited by David L. Hull and Michael Ruse. 1998

[4]- Popper, at least, would hardly be put off by such an affirmation. Some time ago he himself wrote:

in Popper, Karl R. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. U. of Toronto Press Toronto 1959 480p.

[5]- See Popper, Karl R. Objective Knowledge. Clarendon Press London 1973 p.40, Gilkey, Langdon Religion and the Scientific Future. Harper and Row New York 1970 p.53-54, and Bunge, Mario Les Présupposés et les Produits métaphysiques de la science et de la technologie contemporaine. pp.193-206 in Science et Métaphysique Dockx, Settle, et al. Ed. Beauchesne Paris 1976 254 p.

[6]- In Popper, Karl R. Conjectures and Refutations. Routledge and Kegan Paul London 1965 pp.148-151.

[7]- Ibid. pp.148-151

[8]- Horton, Robin African Traditional Thought and Western Science. in Africa Vol.37 no.1 pp.50-77 1967 Vol.37 no.2 pp.155-187 1967

[9]- See Gellner, Ernst The Savage and Modern Mind. pp.162-181 in Horton and Finnegan (eds.) 1973 (p.166-167)

[10]- Feyerabend, Paul K. Against Method. Verso London 1975\79 339p. (see pp.294-300)

[11]- Ibid. p.298

[12]- Goody, Jack The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge U. Press London 1977 p. 44

[13]- Ibid. pp.50-51.

[14]- Goody, Jack (ed.) Literacy in Traditional Societies. 1968 (see pp.15-16)

[15]- Gough remarks:

in Gough, Kathleen Literacy in Kerala 1968 pp.130-160 in Goody, J. op. cit. On this subject one might also consult an interesting article by Ruth Finnegan; Literacy versus Non-Literacy: The Great Divide. (in Horton, Robin and Finnegan, R. eds. Modes of Thought Faber and Faber London 1973 399p.)

[16]- Beals, Beals and Hoijer (eds.) An Introduction to Anthropology. 1977 p.492

[17]- Quoted from Whitehead, Alfred N. Science and the Modern World. Free Press New York 1967 pp.12-13 Immediately after this sentance Whitehead weakens these affirmations by casting doubt on the idea that the logic of Judeo-Christian cosmology could justify such faith in rational and ordered world. It is somewhat difficult to assess just what Whitehead means by this as his own pronouncements (in the quote) explain quite readily how the order in nature can be understood in relation to the rationality of the Creator... unless one refuses to accept the concept of a omniscient and omnipotent God as central to Judeo-Christian cosmology!! I would tend to suspect that Whitehead's doubts on this point are largely concessions to the positivistic era in which he wrote. Incidently, Whitehead never persued the point any further, at least in the essay under consideration.

[18]- Leatherdale, W. H. The Role of Analogy, Model and Metaphor in Science. North-Holland Amsterdam 1974 p.231-232

[19]- Thuiller, Pierre Jeux et enjeux de la science: Essai d'épistémologie critique. 1972 pp. 46-47

[20]- Quoted from Jaki, Stanley L. Science and Creation. Academic Press New York 1974 p. 278

[21]- White, Lynn Medieval Religion and Technology. U. of California Press Berkeley 1978 p. 237

[22]- Needham, Joseph The Grande Titration. U. of Toronto Press Toronto 1969 p. 35-36

[23]- Ibid. p.327. Also see Jaki, Stanley L. op. cit. p. 41

[24]- Jaki, Stanley L. op. cit. p. VIII

[25]- Feyerabend, Paul K. Science in a Free Society. NLB London 1978 p. 106-107. It's hard to tell what Feyerabend means here by "do much better". Should we take this in speculative\theoretical, technological or moral terms? Feyerabend doesn't say.

[26]- For more information on this question see Jaki The Role of Faith in Physics. in Zygon Vol.2 no.2 1967 p.195, Jaki op. cit. p.102-137, id. The Road of Science and the Ways to God. U. of Chicago Press Chicago 1978 p.19-33 and Hooykaas, R. Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Scottish Academic Press Edinburgh 1972 p.29-30.

[27]- See also Needham op. cit. p.21

[28]- Popper, Karl R. op. cit. 1973 p. 32-44

[29]- At least this is the picture Needham draws. He really seems to enjoy telling stories about 'bright' medieval Europeans hauling into court of law roosters suspected of having laid eggs and other animals suspected of having broken the 'laws of nature' (see Needham op. cit. p.328-330).

Other ressources

Out of the Garden, Into the Laboratory. (Jeremy Kessler - The New Atlantis Number 29, Fall 2010, pp. 111-117)