The Stillbirths of Science in Ancient Cultures

Fr. Stanley Jaki

This essay is the second in a teaching series. The first essay is “Fr. Stanley Jaki’s Definition of Science.”

Fr. Stanley L. Jaki used the phrase “stillbirths of science” in reference to the ancient cultures of Egypt, China, India, Babylon, Greece, and Arabia. The lifeless imagery was the counter-analogy to his claim that science was born of Christianity. Jaki was aware it could evoke resentment. Seven years before his death, he wrote the following in his autobiography:

It is not a pleasant task to call attention to the obvious. To make others appear to be shortsighted, let alone blind, may easily evoke resentment. But it had to be obvious and clearer than daylight that in none of those cultures, although they lacked no talent and ingenuity, did science become a self-sustaining enterprise in which every discovery generates another. In all those cultures the scientific enterprise came to a standstill. It is this phenomenon which I called the stillbirths of science. [A Mind’s Matter: An Intellectual Autobiography (2002), p.52.]

In the volume, Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe (1986), Jaki presented his historical research for these stillbirths in characteristic Jakian meticulousness. In the briefer The Savior of Science (2000), he summarized some of the stillbirths in the first chapter. Two distinctions must be clarified to understand what Jaki meant by “birth” and “stillbirth” of science.

Two Distinctions

First, Jaki used a precise definition of science because without clear definition it is impossible to define clear beginnings. The definition Jaki used was: Exact science is the quantitative study of the quantitative aspects of objects in motion. When Jaki referred to the “birth” of modern science (exact science) he was referring to the application of mathematics (quantitativeaspects) to physics (objects in motion), the change from classical Aristotelian physics to Newtonian physics, or what is known as the Scientific Revolution. The birth of science represents the emergence of exact science as a universal discipline where one discovery leads to another, and laws of physics and systems of laws were established. The stillbirths refer to the potential within other ancient cultures to achieve this emergence, but a failure to make the breakthrough.

Second, Jaki’s approach to history was revolutionary. He studied the history of science as a theological history. This is arguably the only correct approach since every major culture in the history of man searched for God. To understand how cultural psychologies affected achievements, religious mindsets must be considered.

A Common Criticism

A common criticism is that Jaki ignored the scientific contributions of other cultures, but a quick perusal of his writing shows otherwise. Jaki referred to Egyptian hieroglyphics, for example, as “possibly the greatest intellectual feat of all recorded history.” (Savior of Science, pp.22-23) He deemed the ancient Indian decimal system “the most noteworthy single contribution of ancient India to science…its importance cannot be overstated.” (Science and Creation pp.13-14) He acknowledged that the lists of planetary positions were proof that Hipparchus, a second century B.C. Greek astronomer, relied on Babylonian data to reach his conclusions about equinoxes, “one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all times.” (Science and Creation, p.38)

Egypt, China, India, Babylonia

These cultures contributed talent and ingenuity, but scientific enterprise came to a standstill. Science was not born in any of them, although it could have been. What did they have in common? The commonality was theological; they shared a pantheistic view of the universe. Some viewed the universe as god. Some viewed the universe as a god-like animal. They all viewed the cosmos as eternal and cyclical. The cause of the stillbirths of science in these cultures was neither geophysical nor socio-economical, but rather an intellectual inertia instilled by theologies that prevented a systematic investigation of the world and its lawfulness.

The Egyptians saw the circularity in the sky and in nature as evidence that the cosmos was changeless and cyclical. The religions of China viewed the cosmos as eternally cyclical, and taught that man should seek separation from the external world, which precludes a need for the scientific method. The Indian doctrine of the Atman represented an eternal unity underlying the phenomenon of nature called the Brahman. Atman is the first principle, and the individual self of man strives to lay hold of the ultimate self of the universe. For the Babylonians, the Enuma elish was a portrayal of personified forces engaged in bloody battles; the mother goddess, Tiamat, dismembered to form the sky, earth, waters, and air. The Babylonians mathematically modeled astronomical appearances, but they believed this radically different Tiamat reality existed behind the appearances. Exact science demands, however, that calculations are not abstracted from physical objects. In all these cultures, there was a pervading resignation to a “cosmic treadmill,” a cosmos with its own volition, and thus no motivation to try to escape from it. Such a mentality does not place significance on single events or processes, which the scientific method requires. This is not to say that these cultures are unworthy of admiration, only that these psychologies were not conducive to the birth of modern science.

Greece

Jaki thought the Greeks came closer to a birth of science than any other culture. There were significant contributions from the ancient Greeks: Thales of Miletus, a geometer and astronomer who founded the Ionian physics school of thought; Anaximander of Miletus who proposed the Boundless Principle of the universe; Pythagóras of Sámios after whom the theorem is named; Leucippus who founded Atomism along with Democritus; Hippocrates of Cos whose code of medical ethics still has influence today; and of course the great Aristotle of Stagira and his teacher Plato who founded the Lyceum in Athens, too many to list in a short essay. Even so, the pantheistic-animistic-cyclical world view of the Greeks was inconsistent with the realism needed for the breakthrough of science as a self-sustaining discipline.

Jaki wrote in Science and Creation (p. 104) that the “extraordinary feats of Aristotle in biology were in a sense responsible for his failure in physics.” In continuous resort to animistic simile, Aristotle taught that all things had a soul and sought a final cause. Be it celestial body, man, animal, or object, all motion, he thought, is directed toward what the soul most desires. This mindset was compatible with biology, but not with the physics of inanimate matter.

Aristotle’s On the Heavens “set the fate and fortune of science, or rather tragic misfortunes, for seventeen hundred years” because a serious error was made and went unnoticed. Consistent with his animistic outlook, he thought celestial bodies orbited in perfect circles, desiring to rest in contact with the divine ether. Likewise, he thought bodies on earth fell to the ground because they desired their resting place. This animistic view of physics led him to conclude that if two bodies were dropped from the same height on earth, the one with twice the weight of the other one would fall twice as fast because it had twice the nature and twice the desire to seek its place. (On the Heavens, Book 1, Part 6) Simple observation proves otherwise, but the hold of the pantheistic-animistic-cyclic orthodoxy on the Greek mind prevented them from seeing it.

This cycle of existence, birth-life-death-rebirth for all things, applied even to man’s intellect. For the most brilliant scholar or the least accomplished servant, Aristotle thought the same ideas recur over and over again.

The mere evidence of the senses is enough to convince us of this, at least with human certainty. For in the whole range of time past, so far as our inherited records reach, no change appears to have taken place either in the whole scheme of the outermost heaven or in any of its proper parts. The same ideas, one must believe, recur in men’s’ minds not once or twice but again and again. (On the Heavens, Book I, Part 3)

Jaki described the psychological impact of the “cosmic treadmill” as either hopelessness for those at the bottom of the cycle, or complacency for those living during a golden age, hardly a belief that inspired a confidence to learn and dominate the physical laws of nature. “Both attitudes cry out for salvation, although the second may be the less receptive to it.” (Savior of Science, p.44)

Arabia

This belief survived among the Muslims who followed Aristotle’s orthodoxy into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although theirs was a monotheistic view, it was not a Christological or Trinitarian view, which left it vulnerable to the influences of pantheism. A “beginning” in time can easily be taken for a beginning of a new cycle.

Both the Bible and the Koran teach that God created the world with an absolute beginning in time. Muslim philosophers, however, adopted the works of the Greeks without refuting pantheism, even though this view was in conflict with the Muslim theology. The Muslim scholars advanced far in the biological sciences, for the same reason Aristotle advanced in them, but they did not bring about the revolution of physical sciences characteristic of the Scientific Revolution.

This failure of Muslim science is a result of a failure to reconcile science with religion, a failure to effectively refute the pantheism of the Greeks. That reconciliation would come from Christian scholars who, in adherence to the Christian Creed, rejected the teachings of the Greek scientific corpus which contradicted Christian dogma, particularly pantheism and the eternal cosmic cycle. Indeed, the birth of science can be credited as a successful reconciliation of the Christian religion and science. “There had to come a birth, the birth of the only begotten Son of the Father as a man, to allow science to have its first viable birth.” (A Late Awakening, p.60)

The Power of Analogy

For Christians the analogy that science was “born of Christianity” but “stillborn” in other cultures evokes an image of modern science emerging from a nurturing cultural womb to become a universal enterprise born of a religion that vitally affirms, “Truth cannot contradict truth.” For non-Christians it evokes suspicion, as if to say that Christianity, and Christianity alone, created science with an “anything-your-religion-does-mine-can-do-better attitude” that “jiggers one part condescension with two parts self-congratulation.” So wrote Noah J. Efron, a Jewish senior faculty member at Bar Ilan University in Israel. His essay appeared in the book Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion published by agnostic Ronald L. Numbers. The power of analogy can be double-edged.

As unpleasant as this imagery may be to non-Christians, the impact faith had on the collective mind of the Christian Middle Ages when the Scientific Revolution occurred is a fact of history. Efron’s reaction is instructive nonetheless. When discussing this fact with non-Christians more ecumenical language can perhaps be used. To do that, as any teacher, parent, or debater knows, the claim must be understood in depth so the dialogue can be tailored to fit the audience. The purpose of this essay is to inspire the reader to such an appropriation of Jaki’s work so the communication of his important insights will continue.


This essay was published in the May/June 2014 issue of St. Austin Review. For subscription information, visit the St. Austin Review website. Image courtesy of Antonio Colombo.

A series of longer essays was published at Strange Notions:

The Stillbirth of Science in Egypt
The Stillbirth of Science in China
The Stillbirth of Science in India
The Stillbirth of Science in Babylon
The Stillbirth of Science in Greece
The Stillbirth of Science in Arabia

Next week: “The Biblical World View and Early Christianity”

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About the Author

Stacy Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She worked as a chemist for DuPont in the Lycra® and Teflon® businesses.

She teaches Chemistry and Physics for Kolbe Academy Online and Homeschool Program and serves as the Science Department Chair. She is teaching a set of summer mini-workshops titled "Science in the Light of Faith" for students, parents, other educators, or any Christian interested in the nuts and bolts of navigating science.

Similarly, she is teaching a "Reading Science in the Light of Faith" at Holy Apostles College & Seminary next Fall (2016). The course is funded by a John Templeton Foundation grant through John Carroll University for teaching science in seminaries. She is on the Board of Directors for ITEST (the Institute for the Theological Encounter with Science and Technology) where the essays from the course will be shared with the public.

Also in the Fall of 2016, she will teach a "Theological History of Science" course at Seton Hall University, where her mentor, the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki was a distinguished professor. She is the author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki.

Her new book, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science is forthcoming with Ave Maria Press...

She teaches, researches, and writes from her family's 100-year old restored mountain lodge in the Adirondack mountains, where her husband and children (and two German Shepherds) remain her favorite priorities. Here is her website.

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3 Comments

  1. “an intellectual inertia instilled by theologies that prevented a systematic investigation of the world and its lawfulness.”

    The laws of nature are taken for granted today. Only the belief in a lawgiver god would have influenced the development of the natural sciences. Today, science doesn’t presume to name the lawgiver or characterize it as personal and caring about what happens to us, how we behave or even if we believe in gods, angels, demons or an afterlife.

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