The Genesis of Modern Science

By David Curzon
Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton, and the other founders of modern science were all believers in the truths of the opening chapter in the Hebrew Bible.  The belief implicit in Genesis, that nature was created by a law-giving God and so must be governed by "laws of nature," played a necessary role in the emergence of modern science in 17th-century Europe.  Equally necessary was the belief that human beings are made in the image of God and, as a consequence, can understand these laws of nature.

The ancient Greeks certainly believed that nature was intelligible and that its regularities could be made explicit.  But Greek gods such as Zeus were not understood to have created the processes of nature; therefore, they could not have given the laws governing these processes.  Aristotle did not use the concept of law in relation to nature.  Neither did the Epicureans, such as Democritus and Lucretius, who instead advocated natural and causal explanations of natural phenomena.  The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy notes that "nothing closely resembling the modern . . . idea of a law of nature emerged in the ancient world.  Despite the immense variety of theories worked out during more than a millennium of philosophical speculation, no one arrived at a position at all similar to the characteristic seventeenth-century blend of . . . theology and a mechanistic . . . physics."

The idea of a divine lawgiver, central to the Hebrew Bible, entered European thought through Christianity.  But for medieval Christian theologians like Aquinas, divine law was part of divine providence, not the equivalent of a physical law of nature.  Furthermore, application of the concept of law to inanimate things was considered problematic, since they were not sentient and could not obey law.  Consequently, although the notion of divine law was preserved through the transmission of biblical texts and figured extensively in theological discussion, a radical change was required before the idea could be applied properly to nature.  A great shift was needed, from the medieval preoccupation with exceptions in nature, strange phenomena like comets, as examples of God's power, to a concern with what was normal and expressive of the unvarying rules embedded by God in all of nature. 

Historians have documented in great detail the slow emergence of the modern concept of laws of nature in 16th- and 17th-century Europe.  Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642) do not use the term "law" in expositions of their scientific discoveries, although some modern translations of their work use the word.  Kepler (1571-1630), who discovered the laws of planetary orbits and expressed them in mathematical form, never referred to them as laws, though he did use the metaphor of law in other writings.  All three were devout and linked their scientific discoveries to God.  

At the end of the 16th century, the idea that regularities in nature were ordained was familiar but still vague.  It was Descartes (1596-1650), in the first half of the 17th century, who created the modern conception of natural laws.  In Discours de la Methode (1637), Descartes declares that he has found "laws which God has put into nature," laws that are not theological but mechanistic.  Nonetheless, Descartes retained traditional ideas of God and soul.  He introduced a dualism of matter and mind, which permitted the combination of the biblical idea of God's legislation with purely physical explanations of natural processes.  Later, Spinoza (1632-1677) went further, becoming the first to argue that miracles, which apparently contradict the decrees of God in nature, were to be explained by human ignorance.

In all these developments, the idea of human beings who are "made in the image" of God and, thus, able to understand His laws, including those hidden in the operations of nature, appears to have been taken for granted.

In commentaries on Genesis, the biblical contrast between human beings and other animals is often described in terms of such capacities as compassion, self-consciousness, or free will.  In recent decades scientific inquiry has shown that behavioral equivalents of these capacities exist in non-human animal species, so that scientists find it increasingly difficult to specify the difference between humans and other animals.  Yet it is obvious that we differ from all other animals in some fundamental way.  What is this essential difference?  How can we define "made in the image" of God in a manner consistent with both scientific and religious understanding? 

To my mind, the fundamental quality distinguishing human beings from other animals—a quality of profound religious significance, which will never be found by science in other species—is the fact that we alone can conceptualize, or "image," the laws of nature in our minds and in symbolic systems like mathematics.  This, I believe, is the sense in which we are "made in the image."

Sixty years ago, in an article titled "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences," Eugene Wigner, who received a Nobel Prize for theoretical contributions to nuclear physics, remarked, "it is not at all natural that 'laws of nature' exist, much less that man is able to discover them."  Today, at the beginning of the year 5772, scientists have become aware that 95 percent of the mass-energy in the universe consists of "dark matter" and "dark energy," the existence of which can be inferred but which cannot as yet be directly detected.  Scientists working on this problem assume that dark matter and dark energy are governed by laws of nature which can be "imaged" in the type of mathematical symbolism through which human beings have successfully reflected other laws of physics.  Many, if not most, scientists now treat the implicit biblical assumptions as dead metaphors or are unaware of their religious origins and overtones.  Still, these assumptions have been and will be logically necessary for advances in scientific theory.  In this fundamental way, beliefs derived from the opening chapters of Genesis are active, if unacknowledged, religious principles underlying and operating in all the discoveries of modern science. 

David Curzon is the author of The View from Jacob's Ladder: One Hundred Midrashim and the editor of Modern Poems on the Bible.

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