Review of “Science was Born of Christianity”

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.