Two Quotes for the Christians.

I have on a couple of occasions blogged on the subject of the supposed Christian origin of modern science. Now this theory, which does in fact have a certain credence amongst some historians and philosophers of science, usually goes something like this. During the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance European Christians believed in a rational mathematical designer God who had created a rational mathematical world and that it was their duty to discover and expose the underlying rationality of this world to the greater glory of their God. This circumstance, which really did exist, is believed by some to be the driving force that led this culture to develop the modern mathematical scientific view of the world. Now this theory does indeed contain a modicum of truth and this world-view was in fact a contributing factor (but probably not ‘the’ decisive one) to the evolution of the new science in the period between roughly 1400CE and 1750CE. However the theory suffers from a small flaw, the belief in a rational designer God was not Christian but in this context has its roots in heathen Platonic philosophy, a fact of which I was reminded in the following quote that I stumbled across in one of the books that I am currently reading. The book is Aspects of the Astrolabe: ‘architectonica ratio’ in tenth- and eleventh-century Europe by Arianna Borrelli, in a discussion of the ‘historical and cultural context’ she writes;

In late ancient neoplatonism, the study of the mathematical arts was regarded as a necessary premise to gain understanding of the divine ‘ratio’ governing the cosmos, which could not be perceived by the senses. Neoplatonism had a distinctive influence on Christian authorities such as Augustinus of Hippo (354 – 430) and Boethius and, through them, on Latin medieval philosophy.

As all good academics Ms. Borrelli gives a list of references in a footnote for those readers who wish to follow further the claim made here. One of them is to Steve McCluskey’s Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. Fetching Mr McCluskey’s volume from its place on my bookshelf I quickly found the following;

Plato’s Timaeus was the most “physical” of Plato’s books, focusing on the mathematical basis of the universe and the creation of the cosmos by a divine craftsman. This notion of a divine creator was one of the elements in Plato’s thought that had appealed to early Christian writers, making Plato their philosopher of choice.

(Bold emphasis in the quotes mine.)

That the world/universe is rational and mathematical and can as such be encrypted was a concept held by many Christian scholars in the European High Middle Ages and Renaissance but it was not a ‘Christian concept’ but rather a Platonic one.


Filed under Mediaeval Science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

12 responses to “Two Quotes for the Christians.

  1. Excellent post. To paraphrase a famous critical bon mot: what was interesting about Christianity in regard to the foundations of science was not new; what was new about Christianity was not interesting to the foundations of science.

  2. Since Christianity permeated the culture of Europe during the emergence of modern science, the question isn’t whether it played a role in the advent of science but what that role was. If you look at everything polemically, of course, you may cavil at this rather obvious observation, which is offered in defense of objective historical understanding and not in praise (or criticism) of religion.

  3. John Wilkins

    I think you can even trace it back much further, to the Milesians. Thales held that the world was rational and had one principle: water. It’s not a great schema, but it does assume the world has a logos.

    • John, you are certainly correct that the concept of a rational and thus understandable world neither starts with nor is exclusive to Plato or the neo-Platonists but if one is looking at the source of these concepts within Renaissance Christian philosophy and therefore within the emerging modern science then it is definitely to be found in neo-Platonism.

  4. Mobius

    I just discovered your blog, thanks to Evolving Thought.

    I find the history and philosophy of mathematics interesting, though I don’t know nearly as much as I wish I did. I look forward to learning here.

    BTW…I do topology, hence the moniker.

  5. Excellent post (as always). His name escapes me at the moment, but I read a while back a lecture by a Thomist arguing re: ID that the whole design argument itself had classical, not Christian roots. In its origin, however, he said it was the atomists vs. the Platonists (if I recall correctly), but it was the Platonists, as you point out, that were arguing for the world being rationally decipherable. All this long before the advent of Christianity.

  6. Ah. It was Philip R. Sloan. ‘Getting the Questions Right: Catholics and Evolutionary Theory.’ Lecture to the Lumen Christi Institute from 2001. I don’t think it’s online anywhere.

    He writes, “The common formulation of creation by design–from Ray to Dembski and Behe–is not, in my view, an intrinsically Christian argument at all, but is rather an argument that was borrowed in the early modern period from the Stoics philosophers of antiquity to deal with the claims of the new mechanical philosophy and its assumptions of matter and motion under the action of natural laws.” He has in mind here, Seneca, Cicero, etc etc.


    • I’m anything but an expert on Stoic natural philosophy, although Sambûrsquî’s Physics of the Stoicsis on my infinitely long list of books to read as I’m very interested in Stoic cometary theory. However I think that Mr Sloan is talking through his arse as the Stoic God was very pantheist and infinte without a beginning or end, facts that were contradictory to Christian dogma!

  7. Permit me to name the elephant in the room: the trivia/quadrivia. You’ve just made horrendous leaps from at the latest the start of the Mediaeval period to the end, without considering the academic norm in the middle.
    Boyle and Hooke fed Newton analogies which worked in astronomy from musical ideas they found in Kircher’s work with Vincenzo Galileo on musical theory. The quadrivium was an unholy mess of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music which were seen in some manner as being inter-related thematically, and we would do well to improve our understanding of it.

  8. Mark

    Would you please read the very well-worked “Soul of Science” by Thaxton and Pearcy? The research is impeccable and the conclusions are well-founded. Rhetorically rolling eyes at yet unanswered questions and connections do not equate with an objective position.

  9. Stewart Shipley

    Aren’t you covering only half of the equation here? It wasn’t just Platonism that led to modern science, it was combining Platonism with the teachings of Aristotle. And it was the Catholic Church that brought these two systems of thought under one roof, so to speak. The only institution to do so, as far as I know of, by the 1400’s. (Ref. the painting, by Raphael, of the Academy, in the Pope’s quarters, with Plato and Aristotle striding along as partners, side-by-side, and equal in height)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s