Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christmas holiday reading

There are two books touching on the history of scientific development that are out now which you may find interesting, and which bear on the Christian-atheist dialogue ... so far as a "dialogue" can be said to exist on any controversy on the Internet. (Most of what occurs out here on the misinformation superhighway consists of competing monologues, strawman-bashing and argument by sneer and meme.) The first book I haven't read yet, but which is going on my Amazon wish list on the recommendation of an atheist.

Yes, you read that right.

Tim O'Neill's "About the Author" blurb tells us that he "holds a Master of Arts in Medieval Literature from the University of Tasmania and is a subscribing member of the Australian Atheist Foundation and the Australian Skeptics. He is also the author of the History versus The Da Vinci Code website and is currently working on a book with the working title History for Atheists: How Not to Use History in Debates About Religion." The "About the Author" blurb is found on his review of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, by James Hannah (London: Icon Books, 2010). 

O'Neill's recommendation comes almost as an aside to his real topic, which is the "staggering level of historical illiteracy" he encounters on atheist discussion boards. "I like to console myself that many of the people on such boards have come to their atheism via the study of science and so, even if they are quite learned in things like geology and biology, usually have a grasp of history stunted at about high school level. I generally do this because the alternative is to admit that the average person's grasp of history and how history is studied is so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing."

The myth goes that the Greeks and Romans were wise and rational types who loved science and were on the brink of doing all kinds of marvelous things (inventing full-scale steam engines is one example that is usually, rather fancifully, invoked) until Christianity came along. Christianity then banned all learning and rational thought and ushered in the Dark Ages. Then an iron-fisted theocracy, backed by a Gestapo-style Inquisition, prevented any science or questioning inquiry from happening until Leonardo da Vinci invented intelligence and the wondrous Renaissance saved us all from Medieval darkness.


The review is worth reading for itself because it's rippingly written; O'Neill obviously feels about logical-positivist retailers of "the Dark Ages myth" the way Catholic apologists feel about Jack Chick cartoons and Westboro Baptist. At the same time, the material is in his ballpark, and he fully appreciates the way in which Hannah brings the intellectual ferment of the period to life. I haven't read it yet, as I said, but O'Neill makes me want to read it.

This period of what we might call "the proto-scientists" covered in God's Philosophers brings up a common related question: Given that other cultures had plenty of technological innovations and advances, why did the scientific revolution occur in the relative backwater of Christian Europe rather than, say, China or Babylonia? This question was the one the late physicist and theologian Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, OSB (1924 – 2009) attempted to answer; that answer, spread over several works, is recapitulated in Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, by Stacy Trasancos (Amazon Digital Services, 2013).

Stacy Trasancos, a convert to Catholicism from atheism, earned a doctorate in chemistry and worked in the field for several years before quitting to become a full-time mother and sometime blogger. Besides editing Ignitum Today and Catholic Stand (to which — full disclosure — Your Humble Blogger contributes) and raising five children, Dr. Trasancos has also been pursuing a master's degree in theology. Science Was Born of Christianity is based on the thesis she successfully defended recently.

The title is explained early on: There's a distinction to be made between technological innovation born of necessity and the rigorous study of natural phenomena for its own sake. Other cultures, despite having at times surpassed the West in developing interesting techniques and doodads, didn't make the transition from innovation to methodological study; using the obvious metaphor, Jaki said that science was stillborn in these cultures (though some might argue that, in Islamic culture, the pregnancy was terminated forcefully).

The title also serves as a model for the construction of Dr. Trasancos' book, which is tripartite. In "Science", she discusses Fr. Jaki's strict definition of science, which he held as distinct from the more generalized category of "sound reasoning" — the difference, simply put, is the rigor of mathematics. "Was Born" is the largest section of the book, and gives us not only an overview of all the major religious systems but also Jaki's thoughts on why science was stillborn in each of them. Here is where Hannah's work complements Stacy's: Of necessity, due to the abundance of material to shrink down, Stacy doesn't spend much time on the individual Scholastic philosophers; she gives us just enough to illustrate their growing dissatisfaction with Aristotle's and Plato's cyclical universe. (Here is irony indeed — Science began not when humanists took up the classics but rather when the proto-scientists broke with them.) The final section, "Of Christianity", tells us what was specific to the Christian vision that gave rise to Science.

Although Stacy honed her writing skills as a blogger and apologist, Science Was Born of Christianity is not a work of apologetics per se: it doesn't exist to refute the "Whig history" of science favored by New Atheists. (Indeed, it doesn't even get mentioned.) Rather, it's a valedictory and appreciation of a gift given to us by one of the brightest intellects produced by the Catholic Church in the 20th century. And taken in tandem with God's Philosophers, the reader should get a new appreciation for a period of history which is often badly taught and rarely understood.

(For another take on how misunderstood the medieval period is, read Those Terrible Middle Ages!: Debunking the Myths, by French historian RĂ©gine Pernoud [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000]).