The second factor that has led to unprecedented prosperity according to William J. Bernstein is reason, and more specifically science. (1) While I agree with Bernstein about the centrality of reason to the expansion of prosperity, I differ with him on his analysis of the origins of scientific rationalism.
Bernstein subscribes to a widely held view that places Greek science at the height of ancient science. When Rome collapsed in the fifth century, scientific knowledge was lost to the West for nearly a thousand years until the rediscovery of classical studies during the Renaissance. Only then did science recover and become what it is today.
Rodney Stark has a different take. Stark points out that Greek science, despite its notable achievements, was fatally flawed.
There are three reasons for this. First, Greek conceptions of the gods were inadequate to allow them to serve as conscious creators. Second, the Greeks conceived of the universe as not only eternal but as locked into endless cycles of progress and decay. Third, prompted by defining various heavenly bodies as actual gods, the Greeks transformed inanimate objects into living creatures capable of aims, emotions, and desires – thus short-circuiting the search for physical theories. …
Moreover, for Plato the universe had been created in accord with firm operating principles but in accord with ideals. (2)
Ultimately, Greek learning stagnated of its own inner logic. (3)
By contrast Stark writes that:
The Christian image of God is that of a rational being who believes in human progress, more fully revealing himself as humans gain the capacity to better understand. (4)
Only in Judaism and Christianity is there the idea of a rational personal God who has created the universe according to rational principles and is bringing history toward some great end. Judaism tends to see procession through history where Christianity tends to see progression through history. Only within the Christian milieu do we find the appropriate intellectual orientations that gave modern science its birth.
Most religions are backward looking. They seek to live according to a regimen that was laid down in the past. The goal of many religions is to honor the cycles of nature and conform to them. In contrast, Stark points to the way the Christian faith is communicated and how it gives birth to rational inquiry:
Things might have been different had Jesus left a written scripture. But unlike Muhammad or Moses, whose texts were accepted as divine transmissions and therefore have encouraged literalism, Jesus wrote nothing, and from the very start the church fathers were forced to reason as to the implications of a collection of his remembered sayings – the New Testament is not a unified scripture but an anthology. Consequently, the precedent for a theology of deduction and inference and for the idea of theological progress began with Paul: “Four our knowledge is imperfect and our prophesy is imperfect.” Contrast this with the second verse of the Qur’an which proclaims itself to be “the scripture whereof there is not doubt.” (5)
For over a thousand years, Western man’s approach to understanding the natural could be summed up in two words: Don’t try. (6)
But where did this attitude come from? It was not grounded in essential Christian thinking but in Christian thinking that had become captive to Greek philosophy. It was the abandonment of Greek philosophy that spawned the rise of modern science.
Stark makes the case that the designation of “the Dark Ages” for the historical period in Europe from the fall Rome to the Renaissance is a hold over from Enlightenment propagandists who sought (successfully) to distance themselves from Christian influence. The reality is a very mixed picture wherein the Church was both the greatest catalyst and the greatest obstacle to the rise of the modern world. Stark writes:
The decline of Rome did not interrupt the expansion of human knowledge any more than the “recovery” of Greek learning enabled this process to resume. Greek learning was a barrier to the rise of science! It did not lead to science among the Greeks or the Romans, and it stifled intellectual progress in Islam, where it was carefully preserved and studied. (7)
Alfred W. Crosby’s fascinating book The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600 shows that the activity of breaking reality down into measurable quanta preceded the rediscovery of Greek scholarship. This development would ultimately lead to modern science. The intellectual achievement that finally established modern science and took it beyond Greek accomplishments was the development of the scientific method as developed by such Enlightenment thinkers as Francis Bacon (1561-1623), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Renee Des Carte (1596-1650). The simultaneous decline of the Church’s hold on the intellectual life of Europe and the rise of science grounded in the scientific method let loose a revolution that reverberates down to this day.
We could trace the various developments of science over the centuries but that is beyond our scope. What is important to realize is that the rise of science enabled the West to have an ever expanding, and ever more accurate and precise, comprehension of the natural world. It has given humanity the capability of manipulating and transforming the material world in ways utterly unimaginable not long ago. We will have more to say about this when we turn to technology and infrastructure.
(1) William J. Bernstein, The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
(2) Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, New York: Random House, 2005. 18.
(3) Ibid, 20.
(4) Ibid, 11-12.
(5) Ibid, 9.
(6) Berstein, 103.
(7) Stark, 20.