23 January 2015

Is modern science a by-product of Reformation?

There is a strong connection between Reformation and the birth of modern science, not only in time but also with respect to the number of notable Protestant scientists1. Several explanations were proposed:

  • Challenging the authority of the Catholic Church opened a space of personal freedom where new ideas were more easily expressed.
  • The emphasis on personal responsibility encouraged men to search for the truth (and for God) within themselves rather than in the tradition.
These scenarios would only imply a weak or moderately strong correlation between the two events, and are based on a positive influence of Reformation, which purportedly allowed the humanistic ideals of the Renaissance to develop into their logical conclusion, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

In Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Ioan P. Culianu claimed a very strong effect based on a radically different reading of history and on a negative influence: Reformation (as well as Counter-Reformation!) censored the imaginary of the Renaissance which, far from being a precursor of rationality, was in fact fantastic and magical2.

This censorship, and not an increased freedom of expression, would have cleared the intellectual scene of all competitors and allowed the more quantitative –and arid– modern scientific approach to thrive, although it was not necessarily more sucessful at the time than alternatives such as alchemy and astrology. Culianu's memorable image is that of a mutant wingless fly, which is disadvantaged with respect to normal individuals in most circumstances, but not in a very windy environment. In the same way, the scientific spirit would be a psychological mutation that allows survival in the strong winds of Reformation.

Such an extreme position is clearly untenable, but I do wonder how European science would have evolved in other religious (or political) circumstances.

1. Mason, S. F. (1953). The scientific revolution and the Protestant Reformation. Annals of Science, 9(1), 64–87.
2. As in the case of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake not for his scientific spirit but as (in Culianu's words) "an unrepentant magician".

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