In a recent critical essay, Richard Carrier, a world-renowned author and speaker, professional historian with a Ph.D. from Columbia University in ancient history, and prominent defender of the American freethought movement, has taken issue with my use of the phrase “stillbirth of science” in ancient Greece. Several years ago, I wrote a series of essays on the stillbirths in an effort to pass on the teaching of the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, who coined the phrase.
“Stillbirth” describes ancient cultures that came close to a birth of science but failed to produce science as a universal, systematic, and self-sustaining discipline of physical laws. Carrier says the stillbirth of science in ancient Greece is a myth and that the complementary claim that science was born of Christianity in the Middle Ages is a delusion.
He calls my reliance on Jaki’s work a “huge red flag” because he says he already demonstrated that “everything Jaki said about ancient science is false…” in a chapter of The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (Prometheus Books, 2010). Then Carrier accuses Jaki of dishonesty, “…in some cases so obviously false I strongly suspect him of outright lying.” Carrier says I am just another Christian fundamentalist infected with the disease of gullibility. His entire essay is spackled with insults towards Christians, a tactic common among atheists out to entertain their followers. Unfortunately, Carrier only demonstrates one thing about Jaki’s work: he did not read it.
Carrier’s main contention in his essay is that Jaki (and I) thought Greek science ended with Aristotle, but that is not remotely true. In The Christian Delusion, where Carrier says he refuted all things Jaki, he references Jaki’s 1986 book, Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe, the most comprehensive volume the priest, theologian, physicist, and historian wrote about the birth of science. What is baffling about Carrier’s accusation is that the chapter in that book about ancient Greece opens with a litany of praise for Hellenistic scientific accomplishments (“The Labyrinths of the Lonely Logos”). The Hellenistic era, as Carrier undoubtedly knows, began after Aristotle’s death.
Jaki begins in Alexandria, a great center of Hellenistic culture, going as far as to say that the various branches of science today are in debt to the Museum and Library there. Alexandrian scholars were supported by royal stipends and amassed books, scientific instruments, and specimens. They built lecture halls and devoted themselves to research and writing. Jaki calls this all “truly spectacular.”
In the second paragraph, Jaki goes on to discuss specific contributions: Euclid, whose Elements Jaki calls one of the greatest books written in history; Eratosthenes, the custodian of the Library and father of mathematical geometry who measured the circumference of the earth; and Hipparchus, who discovered the procession of the equinoxes. Jaki’s second paragraph also mentions Apollonius of Perga, Sosigenes, Ptolemy, Diophantus, Pappus, and Theon. In the third and fourth paragraphs, he mentions Herophilus, Erasistratus, Ctesibius, Straton, Heron, Galen, and Archimedes.
Yet, Carrier spends most of his nearly 4,000-word essay criticizing Jaki for being ignorant of Hellenistic scientists. Carrier even lists Greek scholars that he thinks Jaki neglected, but almost all of them are found on the very first page of Jaki’s chapter on Greek science! Suffice it to say that Carrier either did not read the source he claims to have thoroughly refuted, or he knows he is not telling the truth—disappointing for a man who says he is a defender of free thought.
Carrier also does not seem to realize that his list of Greek scientific advances is entirely consistent with Jaki’s claim. In his chapter on the stillbirth of science in ancient Greece, Jaki covers much ground. He draws connections between the Hellenistic era and its indebtedness to its Hellenic predecessors, and then follows the chronology through Stoicism to the end of the Roman era with Simplicius, “the last great figure of ancient Greek philosophical tradition” in the sixth century. Ultimately however, who came before whom in the history is irrelevant to the question about the stillbirth of science. The larger point is this: If the Greeks were capable of so many individual scientific advances over so long a time with such strong support in academic institutions, how come modern science was not born in ancient Greece?
Defining “stillbirth” and “modern science”
Jaki’s thesis hinges on the term “stillbirth,” which needs to be clearly defined in this context. A stillbirth does not mean that a thing never existed. It means that the entity was conceived and grew but remained isolated and dependent such that it never became viable on its own, and therefore it died. The analogy is poignant. The people of the ancient cultures longed for truth, and at times came close to a quantitative science of physical laws but did not make the cognitive breakthrough. Pantheism is the culprit. More on that shortly.
“Modern science” also needs to be defined. It refers to physical science, exact science, the change from qualitative descriptions of nature, common among the Greeks, to quantitative descriptions of physical systems where, as Jaki often put it, “numbers alone decide.” Such was the impact of the discoveries of Galileo and Newton.
If Carrier is going to call the stillbirth of science in ancient Greece a myth, then he must argue that the scientific revolution happened there instead of in the Christian West. But it didn’t, and he knows it.
Had he read Jaki’s work, he would have also realized that to claim science was born of Christianity is not to claim that no other culture contributed to the scientific revolution. Quite the contrary. I am a mother, and I can attest that a newborn child does not magically appear out of nowhere. Likewise, the scientific revolution occurred after the Greek scientific corpus found its way, via the Muslim world, to the Christian world whose doctrines nurtured and purified the ideas to independence. To say science was born of Christianity is to acknowledge that Christians did not bring about modern science alone in a vacuum or an instant. Yet, it is also to acknowledge that Christians did make the singular intellectual breakthrough no other culture made.
Carrier’s solution to that uncomfortable fact is to assert there is no causation to the correlation, that the scientific revolution was an “irrelevant happenstance” of place and time. Unable to stick to his own logic, he then claims that the Greeks and Romans had a cause for failing to produce the scientific revolution. He says they had “everything” it took to do so (which was also Jaki’s point), but the Roman empire collapsed “before anyone listened” and set up a state sponsored program for science. He says that “only when … Christian fascism and arrogance were beaten down enough to allow a new pagan bud to grow again” did science return. He references no evidence in his essay to support this speculation.
In contrast, Jaki offers plenty of evidence in Science and Creation to show why science was stillborn in certain cultures and born of Christianity. In the other stillbirth chapters, he marshals numerous texts and authors from India, China, pre-Colombian America, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Arabia to demonstrate the effect of various forms of pantheism on scientific worldviews. Then he cites authors from the Hebrew prophets who saw nature as the creation of God, the early Christians who refuted paganism and the errors of pantheism, and the Christian scholars of the first and second millennia up to the scientific revolution who purified Greek science in the light of the revelation of Christ. Fundamentally, the story is simple: Christians tenets allow no room whatsoever for an eternally cycling or deified cosmos. Nature is kept in its place, created.
Pantheism, and its treadmill universe on par with God, inflicts a mental block that inhibits a naturalistic, quantitative science. Pantheism runs in circles instead of going forward, a resignation that whatever happens will happen again, endlessly. This worldview ultimately destroys the concept of free will and intelligibility, and as Jaki shows, the dilemma was not lost on the pagan philosophers or the Christian apologists. Carrier says there is no evidence for the effect of pantheism on the Greek mind, but if he reads Jaki’s work he’ll find plenty of it cited from original sources.
In his Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1974–76 titled The Road of Science and the Ways to God, Jaki also discusses the unfortunate effects of pantheism on scientific progress whenever that worldview seeps back into modern thought. Jaki’s work is important today, which is why I promote it. Christians must get back to their heritage. They are needed as leaders of scientific progress because they have the correct vision of creation. (Please repeat that line and share it with as many young people as possible.)
Catholicism, truth, and science
I’d like to end on personal note because I think I have earned it. Carrier dismisses me as a “hyper-religious Catholic chemist with no history credentials” who mindlessly repeats what Jaki taught without checking my sources. He compares me to a flat-earther. I get it: I have been on both sides of the religious fence. He is running the atheist program. When I was not religious, however, I considered myself a real freethinker in that I refused to tag any-theistic label to myself at all, not even a-theist.
I saw right through their condescension and intolerance of opposing views, and I found it revolting. To me, atheism seemed like the needy boyfriend who breaks up with the girl but cannot let her go, so he follows her around reminding her how much he does not need her. Such behavior is not the hallmark of confidence.
If I am hyperactive about anything, it is finding the truth for myself. When I read the works of Catholicism—the magisterial documents, the writings of Church Fathers and Doctors, books from theologians—I found substance, logic as rigorous as that in a chemistry textbook, and more. I found purpose. Jaki’s writing had a profound impact on me. I slowly started to realize that my love for science had been a search for God all along.
In my studies, I had a special patron who gave me no limit on funds for research and imposed no conclusions. This friend was my husband. Thus, while I was home raising small children after leaving what I once thought was the scientific career of my dreams (at DuPont), I had the luxury of daily immersing myself in an unfettered pursuit of truth, except that I could not travel to libraries. So, I built one in our home and spent a small fortune verifying Jaki’s sources. I do not give him my support lightly. I also know that his thesis is not nearly as superficial as Carrier makes it out to be.Carrier, like other critics, underestimates Jaki.
If Carrier wants a debate, he will need to do his homework and bring more to the table than speculation about what might have happened if only X, Y, and Z had been different. Anybody can argue that. I will bring Fr. Jaki and the facts of his research. Few things would make me happier than to be given the chance to further elaborate on the intimate unity between Christ and science.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!