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Review of “Science was Born of Christianity”

August 27, AD2014 44 Comments

In 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tried in vain to explain to the Washington Press Corps that the most difficult stage of risk assessment is identifying the information you don’t know you don’t know, what he called “the unknown unknowns.” In every project plan, there are impediments we can’t identify because they don’t stand out as problematic against the received view, i.e., our traditions, our customs, and our grasp of things through the lens of “common sense.” This struggle against unknown unknowns might be a useful way to think about the breakthroughs and the gaffes in the history of science.

In September, 1999, a $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter crash-landed onto the red planet because, as was later determined, the orbiter was built to transmit its trajectory data using the English measurement system (inches, feet, and pounds), while software used by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to receive data was programmed to interpret the numbers according to the European metric system (millimeters, meters, kilograms). Nowhere in the layers of quality control at JPL did it even occur to anyone to ask whether the two systems were using the same units of measurement as they ought to have. Of course it would be metric, thought the JPL. Of course it would be English, thought Lockheed Martin. How frustrating it must have been to come so close to success, only to learn that the mission was in fact doomed before it even began. The mission was stillborn.

The Mars Orbiter system’s very design was self-defeating but its Achilles heel fell on a blind spot of human cognition. Nobody was to blame, really. It has the feel of a cruel joke when you realize that from two different perspectives (that of Lockheed Martin, and that of the JPL) the logic appeared bullet proof. Every component passed rigorous testing protocols. The barrier that doomed the mission could only be seen from a higher perspective that nobody on the ground had, indeed one that nobody on the ground could have had. Secretary Rumsfeld’s point is well taken, the mind can’t know what it is that it doesn’t know, unless someone with sufficient perspective reveals the unseen impediment.

I will use this framework to state in my own words the thesis of Science was Born of Christianity: The scientific enterprise was hampered for centuries by deeply rooted cultural worldviews that in various ways were contrary to the structure of the cosmos. These worldviews, while perfectly satisfactory from an everyday point of view, introduced subtle unknown unknowns, disjunctions that made it all but certain that science would remain fruitless until Christianity reached its fullest development in the high Middle Ages, where it attained a perspective from which it was possible to critique the errant worldviews of the time.

The author of this excellent book, Dr. Stacy Trasancos, breaks down in great detail exactly how the efforts of the greatest world cultures failed to catalyze science, and why the Christian intellectual milieu alone provided the fertile soil in which the scientific revolution could be brought to birth.

No Catholic Triumphalism Here

The topic of Christianity’s role in science has been taken up in part by other accomplished authors whom I admire, including Thomas E. Woods in his majestic How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. That book is must-reading for Catholic intellectuals, yet I sometimes cringe just a little as I imagine how such books appear to an outside audience: “That’s right, the Catholic Church built Western Civilization… You’re welcome.”

Dr. Trasancos’ book is intended for both an inside and an outside audience. The reader can anticipate an elevated tone but very little by way of polemics. She is not here to run a victory lap. After all, she is an accomplished scientist and professor with a Ph.D. in Chemistry. She is speaking to you as an equal, as someone who respects your intelligence and who knows you are seeking the truth. She sets out to introduce her intellectual mentor, the late Fr. Stanley Jaki, a theoretical physicist and prolific philosopher who wore a Roman collar. She portrays his teaching exceedingly well, but the book is a highly creative, original synthesis with far reaching implications of its own.

Still, Dr. Trasancos is a Roman Catholic Christian with a devotion to the Blessed Mother. She seizes on the themes of creation, birth and stillbirth, themes thoroughly rooted in Scripture and Catholic Tradition. You can breathe the Catholic air in what she writes, especially the rarefied air of St. John Paul II. Christianity is life-giving, it is generative. It gives birth. You can tell that Dr. Trasancos is speaking from personal experience as a mother, and from the depth of her heart as she weaves the narrative. She is self-conscious of and explicit about the Marian spirit of her story. But she radiates these themes primarily in the subtext, in a way that never distracts the non-believing reader.

Her charitable voice as a writer reminds me of St. Thomas Aquinas who never let an argument possess him emotionally, but who relied solely on the strength of the argument itself, stated clearly, while giving due credit to all opponents. This image of a patient and determined writer with a systematic intellect and a love for creation is the Catholic ideal, and it is what I find in this book.

Faithful History, Faithful Theology

The table of contents alone takes you on a whirlwind tour of the history of scientific progress across the continents, augmented with a parallel narrative of salvation history, i.e., the history of the Church, culminating in the Middle Ages when the focus turns to Bishop Tempier of Paris, author of the Condemnations of 1277.

It is going to be hard for the modern mind to assimilate the importance of this. What have the Condemnations of 1277 to do with science? If you dismiss the connection based on having been inculcated with the phony separation of Church and everything else, you will pre-judge the argument to your detriment. Still, as devil’s advocate, why emphasize the Condemnations, Dr. Trasancos? The word itself makes us shiver. Doesn’t it just prove that the Church is an oppressive obstacle to science? Science is all about inclusivity and freedom, isn’t it?

Bless your heart, little skeptic, but as a matter of fact, the insights that found their expression in the Condemnations played a pivotal role in the birth of modern science. Be not afraid! She’s not here to pick a fight. Dr. Trasancos patiently walks the reader through the theses that the Church condemned in 1277, and tells us why it was important that they be isolated and called out as erroneous.

As you read the section on the Condemnations, recognize that they were about as popular in their day as Humanae Vitae (the Papal Encyclical declaring artificial contraception against Church teaching) was in the 1960s, which is to say, not very popular at all. And like Humanae Vitae, the Condemnations challenged presuppositions that the rest of the world thought were common sense. People didn’t know what they didn’t know, their blind spots prevented light from reaching the intellect. Through the Church teaching in the Middle Ages, she surgically excised obstructions that occluded vision, paving the way for the birth of science.

What were these presuppositions and obstacles to science? You would recognize many of them today. Dr. Trasancos notes with a certain foreboding that assumptions and propositions condemned in 1277 are re-emerging with a vengeance in modern culture and could threaten stagnation. The most glaring of the errors is found in widely circulated newspapers today because at least a quarter of all people believe the celestial events exert supernatural forces over our lives. That is, they consider horoscopes a valuable resource for guiding their decisions and choosing their mates. The Church condemns magic.

And more: The earth is routinely referred to as an organism or a spirit. But the earth is not your mother, and it does not have a fever. The universe is viewed by an alarming number of scientists as having been in existence forever. It has not. Reality and time are still viewed by many as lying strictly within the subjectivity of the perceiver. Wrong. What many consider God is nothing but the sum total of all empirical being. This too is false. Assumptions and organizing principles like these, and not the Catholic Church, impeded the birth of modern science for centuries.

Critical Reflection

I wonder if Christianity to some extent inculcates us with certain habits of thought and certain ways of carving up what is visible and invisible, wouldn’t this make orthodox Christians better scientists? The mindset of Christianity disposes a scientist not just toward moral virtue, but intellectual styles that are conducive to good science, like spotting good ideas and patiently pursuing them to fruition.

I would think a good case could be made. Nevertheless, I think the author was wise to minimize such an angle in the book because it was not essential to her argument and would have given fodder for critics to miss the mark even further than some already have.

Dr. Trasancos has an ambitious vision for going forward. She believes that Fr. Jaki’s work is a blessing to this divided world. The story of science must be accurately told, but how can it be with so many different religious traditions that can’t agree on basic principles? Do we shy away because we don’t want to offend anybody? Her answer is to emphasize the mission of educators who must make the truth accessible, and who must craft language and teaching styles to different audiences in a way that recognizes how they think and how they view the world, but without compromising our deposit of faith. We have to meet others where they stand.

Dr. Trasancos notes that the enterprise of science is an ideal vehicle, a universal language for a truly ecumenical pursuit of ultimate truth. We are all aiming toward the same goal, “through the glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). I find her vision inspiring. It reminds me of the spirit of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s book Truth and Tolerance. We can bridge gaps between traditions without sacrificing the Logos, the creative wisdom, the Christ, toward whom we are all drawn.

In summary, I highly recommend Science was Born of Christianity by Dr. Stacy Trasancos. It is difficult reading, to be sure, but only because it encompasses such a breadth of history. The ideas themselves are not difficult to absorb because the author is such a fine writer, and I promise you that a patient reading of this book will bring you the sense of accomplishment that comes with all genuine learning.

Filed in: Science

About the Author:

Jeff McLeod holds a Ph.D. in quantitative psychology from the University of Minnesota. He works as a research scientist, a statistician, and software developer, focusing on problems in education and psychological measurement. He is well versed in philosophy of science and Catholic theology, and is a devoted student of St. Thomas Aquinas. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Mary's University of Minnesota, and serves on the faculty at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota, where he teaches at the St. Paul Seminary in the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute. Jeff is a 53 year old cradle Catholic. He and his lovely Catholic convert wife have been married for 23 years. His goal is to help Catholics become more confident in their faith and to draw daily strength from it.

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  • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

    Well said praise for a well done effort in an understudied subject.

    • Jeff_McLeod

      Thank you Howard! It’s a great time to be a Christian.

      Personally, I think it should be easy to evangelize in this atmosphere. The popular understanding of science is so superficial. If they were to see the true depth of this thing they have been taught to use as merely a weapon to prove how smart they are, they would be humbled.

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  • james

    Here’s an apropos poem from Maryknoll missioner Joseph R Veneroso for the start of a new
    school year.
    Bless me, O Lord of the Universe,
    With intelligence, curiosity,
    understanding, reason and humor !
    Let me explore all the wonders of Creation.
    With Nature as my textbook and
    the Earth as my classroom.
    Help me accept those things I fail to comprehend
    Knowing you and you alone are the Author
    of the book of life and the Architect of the cosmos.
    Grant that I may read the signs of the times
    And discover you in each person I meet
    – my classmates in life’s lessons.
    And at length, when lessons are done
    And the time comes for me to graduate
    Let me look back on all you have taught me
    And, together with the angels and saints,
    Let me see your smile.

    • Jeff_McLeod

      Love it, james. I love the humility in the poem. It’s how I feel.

  • Bill S

    Western civilization is indebted to Christianity for what it did after the fall of Rome. The Church civilized the barbarians of Europe and brought the Abrahamic tradition to the west. 
    However, ever since Pius X condemned modernism things just haven’t been the same. It seems that science went in one direction and religion went in the other.
    When Pius X II declared the dogma of the Assumption in 1950, it showed just how wide the gap has become between religion and science. The Assumption is either a nice story or an historical fact, depending on who you talk to. If it is a nice story it should not be declared as being true in respect to what people would expect of something that is true. If it was meant to be taken as historically true, then there is a definite split between religion and science.

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      I am not sure what you mean by “gap”. Religion and science are two different things. Like Anthropology and mathematics are two different things. Some scientists as persons disregard religion, correct scientific investigation only describes what is already there – God’s creation.

    • Bill S

      Anthropology and mathematics don’t conflict with one another. Pius X and the modern world were in conflict to the point that he condemned modernism as a heresy (I think). Knowledge that we go into outer space when we leave the earth conflicts with Pius XII declaring that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven. These conflicts are what I mean by a widening gap between religion and science. It wasn’t that way before science became a separate discipline in modern times.

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      Modernism was not science. It was and, “post”, is the rejection of Christianity in favor of personal ideology.

      Outer space is part of the visible world, heaven is not. We can only try and describe heaven or God himself in ways that we can relate to. Scientists speculating can conceive of anything, correctly concluding the correctness of these speculations depends on proof. The spiritual is not provable with a telescope or scale or test tube or mathematics.

      There is no conflict with science, conflict only exists with some scientists.

    • Bill S

      It appears to me that Pius X opposed modernism because it replace dogmatic beliefs with reason and logic. And a dogma like the Assumption is a scientific impossibility. So there does not seem to be any common ground between the modern scientific world and religion. When confronted with this disparity, religious apologists suggest that religion deals with a spiritual world, the existence of which can neither be proved or disproved.

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      There was never a denial of reason and logic and that has been affirmed to this day by the Church. Read carefully P10 below. Religion has always dealt with the spiritual, I don’t think even atheists would disagree with that because that is their main complaint about religion, they don’t accept the spiritual at all.
      http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10moath.htm

      “To be sworn to by all clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophical-theological seminaries.

      I . . . . firmly embrace and accept each and every definition that has been set forth and declared by the unerring teaching authority of the Church, especially those principal truths which are directly opposed to the errors of this day. And first of all, I profess that God, the origin and end of all things, can be known with certainty by the natural light of reason from the created world (see Rom. 1:19), that is, from the visible works of creation, as a cause from its effects, and that, therefore, his existence can also be demonstrated: Secondly, I accept and acknowledge the external proofs of revelation, that is, divine acts and especially miracles and prophecies as the surest signs of the divine origin of the Christian religion and I hold that these same proofs are well adapted to the understanding of all eras and all men, even of this time. Thirdly, I believe with equally firm faith that the Church, the guardian and teacher of the revealed word, was personally instituted by the real and historical Christ when he lived among us, and that the Church was built upon Peter, the prince of the apostolic hierarchy, and his successors for the duration of time. Fourthly, I sincerely hold that the doctrine of faith was handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning and always in the same purport. Therefore, I entirely reject the heretical’ misrepresentation that dogmas evolve and change from one meaning to another different from the one which the Church held previously…”

    • Bill S

      I . . . . firmly embrace and accept each and every definition that has been set forth and declared by the unerring teaching authority of the Church, especially those principal truths which are directly opposed to the errors of this day.

      That is a very presumptuous and intolerant oath. I can’t imagine anyone agreeing to it today.

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      You are correct. It presumes that you accept Catholicism in order to teach it and it is intolerant of paganism in a collar.

    • Bill S

      So, you have to reject modernism to be ordained or accepted in a religious order. What if there are things in modernism that make sense?

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      That was written in 1910 and I don’t know if it is still in effect today exactly as written. Vat2 has changed the way we verbalize some Church teachings.

      This important thing to know about a person in a teaching position in the Church is hopefully they be Catholic and hold the doctrinal and dogmatic beliefs of the Church. All of us are faced with ideas that we my come across. Given time many of them are in conflict with each other. Our minds are intelligent and free to think. This was given to us at the infusion of our souls.

      The what-if you propose is to be answered by each one of us as we apply what be believe to our lives.

      What makes sense to me is my worldview that includes God and spirituality.

    • Bill S

      “doctrinal and dogmatic beliefs of the Church” conflict sometimes with reason, logic and the laws of nature. It’s all about a “spiritual” domain about which everything must be considered to be possible and believable. Not fair.

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      Give me an example.

    • Bill S

      Well. Since the doctrine of the Assumption was proclaimed ex cathedra by Pius XII only back in 1950, it is a perfect example because it violates the most simple law of nature, gravity. So. In 1950, the Pope stated as fact that a dead woman was lifted into the sky. That just can’t happen in reality and it casts doubt on the truthfulness of a Pope speaking ex cathedra. A law of nature has never been demonstrated to be violable. The Assumption violates the law of gravity and therefore must just be a story passed down and embellished over generations.

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      There are 2 parts to my answer and your question.

      Reason—

      The Assumpton is the perfect example of reasoning in the
      Church. If you read “MUNIFICENTISSIMUS DEUS – DEFINING THE DOGMA OF THE ASSUMPTION”

      http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_p-xii_apc_19501101_munificentissimus-deus_en.html

      Pope P12 used reason entirely to finally declare this a
      dogma. Some of his thinking in part:

      “All these arguments and considerations of the Holy Fathers
      rest on the Sacred Writings as their ultimate foundation. These place the
      revered Mother of God as it were before our eyes, as most closely joined to her
      Divine Son, and always sharing in His lot. Hence it seems practically
      impossible to think of her who conceived Christ, brought Him forth, gave Him
      milk, held Him in her hands and pressed Him to her heart as being separated
      from Him after this earthly life in body, even though not in soul.”

      We must remember especially that, since the second century,
      the Virgin Mary has been presented by the Holy Fathers as the New Eve, who,
      although subject to the New Adam, was most closely associated with Him in that struggle against the infernal enemy which, as foretold in the protoevangelium, was to result in that most complete victory over sin and death, which are always correlated in the writings of the Apostle of the Gentiles. Wherefore, just as the glorious resurrection of Christ was an essential part and final sign of this victory, so also that struggle which was common to the Blessed Virgin and her Son had to be closed by the ‘glorification’ of her virginal body.”

      Laws of Nature—-

      I like an answer given by John Lennox, the Protestant Prof. of Math at Oxford.
      Speaking to an audience in So. Africa he said (I paraphrase):

      If I go to bed tonight and put 25 Krugerrands in my top drawer then a little while later I add 10 more. I will have placed 35 Krugerrands in that drawer.

      Now I wake in the morning and open the drawer and find only
      2 Krugerrands.

      Do I conclude that the laws of mathematics have been violated
      or the laws of So. Africa?

    • Bill S

      I was hoping for an answer that would be a little more down to earth. How does the Church explain just how the laws of nature, which have and will be in effect for all eternity, were suspended so that a dead woman could be seen rising into the sky (where people of that time and place believed Heaven was located) and out of sight. I can understand people believing this in the second century but how could P12 proclaim this as factual in the twentieth century?

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      You have not understood the story of John Lennox. What you see in the drawer is a change in the count. There is no explanation for the difference that is visible. NO law of nature was broken but there it is, apparently unexplainable by observation alone.

    • Bill S

      Oh. I get it now. Seems like slight of hand or a shell game, not a miracle.

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      I’ll stay with you as long as you are serious.

      A miracle is in no way a suspension or change of any laws of nature. They are an injection into the world of an act of God. Just as there is another answer to why 25 and 10 no longer add up to 35.

    • Bill S

      A miracle is in no way a suspension or change of any laws of nature.

      The parting of the Red Sea, walking on water, ascension, and those are just the law of gravity.

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      If you drop a ball we expect it to fall to the ground as described by the law of gravity. If I catch it halfway, I have not changed the law at all, I have merely caught the ball. The question you need answered is not about laws but about the existence of a hand that can part a sea.

    • Bill S

      Sometimes a nice story is just that, a story. Exodus is a nice story. Jesus and Peter walking on water is another one. Any story that violates a law of nature is just a story. Maybe a useful and meaningful story but a story nonetheless. We should acknowledge this.

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      I’ll try one more time. Replace my hand with the invisible hand of God. The ball would seem to hover defying gravity.

      NO LAW HAS BEEN BROKEN.

      We should acknowledge truth only, not a plea to define it as a nice story. You have offered no reasoning here to support your contention.

    • Bill S

      So. You believe in the invisible hand of God. So. As I said. There is an ever widening gap between religion and science. A good scientist would not believe in any invisible hand of God. Just consistency of the laws of nature. They never fail to be in force.

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      This is where I came in. When a conversations begins to repeat itself with no progress I am done.

      God bless.

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      For those who read a lot. This story is an adaption of C.S. Lewis’ in “Miracles” and I believe given credit by Dr. Lennnox..

    • http://www.whatshappeningcatholic.com Howard Duncan

      Nowhere in MUNIFICENTISSIMUS DEUS will you find any reference to an actual person witnessing this Assumption. Where Heaven is actually located has never been dogmatically defined, it is not possible to know this.

    • Bill S

      I don’t know why we have to have any ascension or assumption if they don’t involve people flying up to a heaven in the sky. If they were traveling at the speed of light, they still would not have left the Milky Way yet. These must be metaphorical. Yeah. That’s it. Metaphorical. That’s the ticket.

    • Jeff_McLeod

      Howard, thank you for taking Bill’s challenges. I am stuck at work this week and can only visit sporadically. As always you are a formidable debater. Thank you!

    • Jeff_McLeod

      A scientific hypothesis is different from an empirical hypothesis. Modernism IS bad. It confused the two and now we have people running around treating the dogma of the Assumption as an “empirical” hypothesis which it is not.

    • Bill S

      Scientific hypothesis or empirical hypothesis. In that the Asumption is to be understood as having physically happened, it would have violated the laws of nature and cannot be accepted by qualified scientists.

  • WSquared

    Dr. McLeod, thank you so much for your review! I’m looking forward to reading this book!

    • Jeff_McLeod

      WSquared how wonderful to hear from you. I’m so glad you will read this book. Actually, I owe you this recommendation because you have recommended some to me that I treasure, such as The Unintended Reformation. Oh my gosh that book was profound. It is very similar to Dr. Trasancos’ writing, in that Gregory too walks us patiently through a development in which you follow every step to a conclusion that is unsettling in Gregory’s case, and glorious in Trasancos’ case.

      Hope you are well, I’m sure you are busy in school, but we miss your insightful comments. You have quite a following here. Your comments are works of art.

    • WSquared

      Hi Dr. McLeod, thank you for the very kind words!

      “This image of a patient and determined writer with a systematic intellect and a love for creation is the Catholic ideal, and it is what I find in this book.”

      You are right in that I am swamped with academic work– certainly with reading I must finish in order to do the further writing and research that I need to do. But your description of what Dr. Transancos has done is definitely a reason why I want to read the book. It’s what you describe here that drew me to Ratzinger, Von Balthasar, and to Schall, and it’s a model I find both daunting and encouraging when it comes to my own work.

      Regarding The Unintended Reformation, what was just as interesting were the reviews and reactions to the book. There’s another Brad Gregory essay that he wrote before Unintended Reformation on how a historian who is also Catholic should approach the study and writing of history– (if I recall correctly) Catholic history in particular. Gregory originally delivered that essay as a paper-length talk at the Erasmus Institute. He also wrote a response-type article to another historian called “The Other Confessional History.” Gregory, unlike a lot of historians, has extensive training in philosophy, and while I don’t recall if he’s also theologically trained, he at least knows the kinds of questions that theologians ask so as not reduce theology to “religious studies” (I once attended a religious history conference, and one thing I sensed right off the bat was that the elephant in the room was theology– not just sacramental, but also biblical, to say nothing of biblical exegesis and its methodology). I don’t think he set out to pick a fight with Unintended Reformation, but it’s certainly apparent that he’s not afraid of one.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Great review of a fine book!

    Another tremendous book on faith and modern science is The Mind of the Universe by a Catholic priest who is also a philosopher of science.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Mind-Universe-Understanding-Religion/dp/1890151548

    • Jeff_McLeod

      The Mind of the Universe by Artigas is a masterpiece!!

      Another must-have for the Catholic Intellectual bookshelf.

      Artigas is saying that scientific experiments explicitly test their hypotheses, but implicitly test the auxiliary proposition that the universe is ordered and determinate, and the very success of the enterprise confirms that the world is indeed an ordered and trustworthy dwelling place. I am thrilled to know someone else knows about this book. I agree with you, strongly recommend.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Jeff, I’ve read my copy of so many times it is in tatters.

  • Shaun McAfee

    I read the book when it first came out self-pulished and since read it once more in print. A *very* good read for the academic and the lay person alike.

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