From Dogma to Axiom

Any system of knowledge or inquiry starts with assumptions. In science, they are called axioms. Euclidean Geometry starts with five axioms including the parallel axiom (Parallel lines never meet.). All the proofs of Euclidean geometry assume the validity of the axioms. When an enclosed universe was proposed, the parallel axiom was brought into question and a non-Euclidean geometry was needed.

Formal religious inquiry starts with dogmatic statements about the nature of God and humanity. In the classic Catholic Baltimore Catechism, children were taught:

  • God is the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things.
  • Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to      the image and likeness of God.
  • God made me to know Him,      to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever      in heaven.

This view of God’s nature and ours dominated European thought in the middle Ages. James Hannam is one of the historians, mostly British, reconsidering the relationship of the faith, the Catholic Church and the development of science in that era. The subtitle of his book – The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution makes his position clear.

The universities of the middle Ages and early Renaissance were institutions of the church. The church served the role of modern governments in funding training and research. Many of the leading scientists were members of the clergy and Latin was the shared language of the educated people of the day.

But the most essential underpinning was a belief in a rational god who wanted to be known directly and through his works. This helps explain why science developed in Christian Europe and not elsewhere.

Historian Daniel J. Boorstin argues that the creativity of Muslims was limited precisely because of their understanding of God. In The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination he quotes from the Koran (Surah 51:56): “And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.” Boorstin writes, “For a believing Muslim, to create is a rash and dangerous act.”

It is an axiom of modern science, even if not explicitly stated, that the universe is rational and can be understood. This historically derives from the Christian dogma that the creator of the universe is rational and wants His works to be understood. What happens to science if the general belief in the rationality of God or the Universe starts to be questioned?

An increasingly popular argument is being made that societies progress independently of their beliefs. This view seeks not only to debunk the “great man” theory of history but downplays virtually all aspects of a society’s beliefs and habits. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is an example. Is the development of a scientific mindset really independent of the beliefs in the society?

There was a time when the delight of science was in what we didn’t know or in what was suddenly brought into question. Science is becoming increasingly politicized. Now, for many, the prevailing view is that science has somehow become a democracy.

In  the “global warming” debates, we are constantly told that “a consensus of the scientists” has formed. Nobel Prize winners resign from organizations using words like “incontrovertible”.  But the layman who doubts the consensus is considered unenlightened and ineligible to participate in a conversation with his self-described betters.

The popular understanding of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity may have led many to believe that relativism is a good thing and good for science. On the contrary, science rests on a method of inquiry and the underlying belief there is a truth to be found.

Marcello Pera, an atheist Italian philosopher and former Italian Senate President, joined Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) as co-author of   Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam. They argue that Western civilization is losing the anchor of truth. As Pera puts it, “belief in the true no longer exists: the mission of the true is considered Fundamentalism, and the very affirmation of the true creates or raises fears” (Italics in the original).

Those who are concerned with what we see as a moral decline in the West are often frustrated by our inability to persuade others of the importance of the existence of truth. While we see a need for a stable platform for morality in society many of our fellow citizens are seemingly not that concerned.

Perhaps our focus has been too narrow. The loss of a belief in truth may be felt first when it comes to morality and the willingness of a society to stand up for its beliefs. But if there is no truth, is there any basis for science?

What happens to science in a world without truth? Can relativism’s impact be limited to the moral sphere? Is a society capable of continued scientific, or even technological, breakthroughs when the potential scientists no longer believe in possibility of searching for truth?

Science fiction is replete with stories of societies living off the knowledge of the past. A crisis occurs when they get to the point where they cannot maintain or repair the machines they depend on. Do we face that risk if we become a society with no coherent view of the creation, the creator and the nature and purpose of humanity?

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