Science and the Shaping of Modernity: The Reciprocal Influence of Science and Culture

Article excerpt

Cultural historians necessarily deal in broad generalizations. Whatever is affirmed of a period, a people, or a nation, no matter how well-grounded by factual study and reflection, is subject to qualification. Exceptions to broad characterizations may always be found without mitigating the value of the broader insight. We grasp something when an author refers to the Greeks, to Roman civilization, to the Hellenic period, to Christendom, to the Benedictines, to the Renaissance, or to the Enlightenment. These designations, all generalizations formed by an examination of a host of particulars, indeed refer to something intelligible, something quite apart from the mind.(1) Generalization, of course, can be misleading or false as well as perceptive and true. There is always the danger of unscrupulous forces manipulating history for present purposes. Then, too, in the study of history there is always the propensity to judge the past in the light of contemporary categories of experience. It is axiomatic that one must banish from the mind the customary conceptions of one's own period before one can rightly understand the past. With that caveat in mind, this essay purports to examine with the aid of a host of distinguished twentieth-century scholars the reciprocal influence of science and culture with particular attention to the role of religion at the birth of modern science.

Detached narrative is rare, yet, for example, those acquainted with the life-long work and studied objectivity of Christopher Dawson are likely to give credence to his insight when he speaks of the great movement of thought which passed over the ancient world about the middle of the first millennium B.C. "that turned away men's minds from the world of human experience to the contemplation of absolute and unchanging Being, from Time to Eternity." (2) There are few readers who are in a position to render the same judgment unaided. Similarly, Dawson is convincing when he writes that with the advent of Christ, "the Absolute and the Finite, God and the World were no longer conceived as two exclusive and opposed orders of being standing over and against one another in mutual isolation. The two orders interpenetrated one another." (3) Dawson's judgment is an invitation to reflection. He makes a like generalization about the advent of modern science and its medieval antecedents. Scholars are nearly unanimous in recognizing that something dramatic occurred in the culture of Europe around the turn of the eleventh century. Explanations vary, with some emphasizing technological advancement, others the recovery of Greek learning, still others the practical influence of Christianity.

In 1925 the distinguished American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead delivered the prestigious Lowell Lectures at Harvard University, lectures subsequently published as Science and the Modem World. (4) Those lectures were significant because Whitehead, for a predominately American audience, challenged the Enlightenment view that only with the repudiation of a religious worldview could modern science have emerged from a dark age. Whitehead, it must be noted, was writing a generation before the in-depth studies of Marshall Clagett, A. C. Crombie, and Anneliese Maier, and before the monumental work of Pierre Duhem became available in English translation. Examining the relation between science and culture, Whitehead put to himself a fundamental question: why did modern science emerge in the West during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when all the conditions required for its birth were seemingly in place in classical antiquity? That question has entered public consciousness again with the reemergence of militant Islam. Contemporary scholars in their attempt to understand an adversarial Islam ask why the scientific revolution that we associate with Europe bypassed Islam, when for centuries Islam was in many respects at the forefront of human civilization and achievement. Bernard Lewis, the noted Middle East scholar, pointedly asks, "What went wrong? …