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.
Moreover, for Plato the universe had been created in accord with firm operating principles but in accord with ideals. (2)
Science is not merely the development of technology. Science at a minimum consists of theorizing and then conducting systematic experiments to observe the veracity of the theory. Ultimately, Greek learning stagnated of its own inner logic. (3) Aristotle taught that two objects of different weight will fall to the earth at different speeds. All he had to do was conduct simple experiments and he would have seen his teaching was in error. Plato was constrained to the ideas about ideal shapes. Greek philosophers talked about rocks falling to the earth because they had an affinity for the earth, as if they were persons with wills and desires.
In contrast, Stark writes:
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:
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. Centuries before the “rediscovery” of Greek classics in the fifteenth century, Christian scholars had already rejected Greek thinking and were well on their way to the establishment 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:
Alfred W. Crosby’s fascinating book The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600 (8) 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 in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rodney Stark offers of a list of the top 52 scientists from this era. He identifies 32 of them as devout Christians, 18 as conventional Christians and two as skeptics. (Edmund Halley, 1656-1742, and Paracelsus 1493-1541). (9) 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), 52.
(2) Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, (New York: Random House, 2005), 18.
(3) Stark, 20.
(4) Stark, 11-12.
(5) Stark, 9.
(6) Bernstein, 103.
(7) Stark, 20.
(8) Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
(9) Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to the Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003) 198-199.