Skip to content

Divine Incomprehensibility and the Birth of Modern Science

Readability

Divine Incomprehensibility and the Birth of Modern Science

Alex Abecina

In my article ‘Gregory of Nyssa: Scientific Theologian’ (Issue 5) I suggested that “a belief in the incomprehensibility of God actually helps to free up science to be science so that science may attend to the world as the world.” Benj Petroelje, never one to let a brother get away with such hand-waving twaddle, offered a stunning (blistering) response (critique) to my article in last week’s Etcetera (Issue 7). In the spirit of a Sarah Williams history lecture I now wish to “push back” on that response with the hope of driving our discussion forward.

First, though, a point of clarification. I did not say that science should be “divorced from the confining bounds of religion” (Benj’s words). In fact my earlier statement was motivated by a theological principle of relatively ‘good pedigree’ in the church east and west; namely, divine incomprehensibility. In this way I was actually suggesting that our stance toward science be undergirded by an attitude of faith. Rather than calling for a divorce of theology and science my article pictured the two united in holy matrimony, in a manner that adequately respected each partner’s distinct mode and object of enquiry.

Now, the connection I drew between science and divine incomprehensibility was faulted for being historically befuddled. Citing Michael Foster, an Oxford philosopher of the early 20th century, Benj claims it was the Christian affirmation of matter, rather than the notion of divine incomprehensibility, that led to the rejection of speculative ‘Greek’ science and the birth of the more ‘hands-on’ approach of today’s science. Benj raises a crucial point here to be sure; however his retelling of Foster’s thesis omits some important details. Building upon Benj’s initial insight I will now attempt to fill in some of these missing details in order to show that, according to Foster’s thesis, the positive appreciation of matter that led to the rise of modern empirical science was directly dependent upon the Christian notion of divine incomprehensibility.

Foster argues that ‘Greek science’ was built upon two principles:

(1) That essences can be rationally defined and; (2) That the essence of a thing is its ‘intellectual’ form (rather than its ‘sensible’ matter). According to ‘the Greeks’, form was the real aspect of a thing, which existed by necessity, while matter was a defect of reality, which existed only contingently. ‘Greek science’ was confident that it could define intellectual forms in nature by using reason alone. Further, it was believed that a science that made use of the five senses would only result in a flawed view of reality. Thus, as Benj rightly noted, ‘Greek science’ had every reason to avoid the stuff of matter.

How, then, did the two principles of ‘Greek science’ come to be overturned? Foster’s answer is simple: by means of the Christian doctrine of creation! Specifically, a medieval doctrine of creation that understood God’s will to exceed determination by God’s reason. It is this ‘voluntarist’ doctrine of creation, according to which God’s will is literally incomprehensible to reason, that Foster believes overturns points (2) and (1) by insisting: (2*) That matter is created by God and is therefore not a defect of reality but a vital part of a thing’s essence (Benj’s insight) and; (1*) That the essence of a created thing therefore cannot be rationally defined because its material aspect is radically contingent (vis-à-vis God’s incomprehensible will). Thus, according to this Christian doctrine of creation, science could only come to an adequate understanding of nature if both matter and the senses were treated with (at least) equal worth as form and reason. A true science of nature, therefore, had no other option than to become empirical.

Foster’s thesis therefore identifies two things arising from the Christian doctrine of creation which led to the rejection of ‘Greek science’ and the birth of modern empirical science; namely, the belief in the incomprehensibility of God and the concomitant belief in the incomprehensibility of the creation - the very things already deeply embedded in Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of creation by the late 4th century (although without the voluntarism).

Now, Foster’s thesis has recently been challenged by Peter Harrison, a leading historian of science at Oxford. While Harrison rejects Foster’s suggestion that modern science was catalysed by theological voluntarism he nevertheless affirms the crucial influence that the notion of divine incomprehensibility exerted upon the thought of several notable early modern empiricists, such as Isaac Barrow, Robert Boyle and Pierre Gassendi. Thus, whichever way we might come to account for the historic ‘cause(s)’ of modern science it seems to me that the notion of divine incomprehensibility is one factor that has to be taken into serious consideration.

Thanks then to Gregory, Foster, Harrison and Benj, I can restate my earlier claim with a little more caution and confidence than at first: a belief in the incomprehensibility of God helps to free up science to be science so that science may attend to the world as the world.

Alex Abecina

In my article ‘Gregory of Nyssa: Scientific Theologian’ (Issue 5) I suggested that “a belief in the incomprehensibility of God actually helps to free up science to be science so that science may attend to the world as the world.” Benj Petroelje, never one to let a brother get away with such hand-waving twaddle, offered a stunning (blistering) response (critique) to my article in last week’s Etcetera (Issue 7). In the spirit of a Sarah Williams history lecture I now wish to “push back” on that response with the hope of driving our discussion forward.

First, though, a point of clarification. I did not say that science should be “divorced from the confining bounds of religion” (Benj’s words). In fact my earlier statement was motivated by a theological principle of relatively ‘good pedigree’ in the church east and west; namely, divine incomprehensibility. In this way I was actually suggesting that our stance toward science be undergirded by an attitude of faith. Rather than calling for a divorce of theology and science my article pictured the two united in holy matrimony, in a manner that adequately respected each partner’s distinct mode and object of enquiry.

Now, the connection I drew between science and divine incomprehensibility was faulted for being historically befuddled. Citing Michael Foster, an Oxford philosopher of the early 20th century, Benj claims it was the Christian affirmation of matter, rather than the notion of divine incomprehensibility, that led to the rejection of speculative ‘Greek’ science and the birth of the more ‘hands-on’ approach of today’s science. Benj raises a crucial point here to be sure; however his retelling of Foster’s thesis omits some important details. Building upon Benj’s initial insight I will now attempt to fill in some of these missing details in order to show that, according to Foster’s thesis, the positive appreciation of matter that led to the rise of modern empirical science was directly dependent upon the Christian notion of divine incomprehensibility.

Foster argues that ‘Greek science’ was built upon two principles:

(1) That essences can be rationally defined and; (2) That the essence of a thing is its ‘intellectual’ form (rather than its ‘sensible’ matter). According to ‘the Greeks’, form was the real aspect of a thing, which existed by necessity, while matter was a defect of reality, which existed only contingently. ‘Greek science’ was confident that it could define intellectual forms in nature by using reason alone. Further, it was believed that a science that made use of the five senses would only result in a flawed view of reality. Thus, as Benj rightly noted, ‘Greek science’ had every reason to avoid the stuff of matter.

How, then, did the two principles of ‘Greek science’ come to be overturned? Foster’s answer is simple: by means of the Christian doctrine of creation! Specifically, a medieval doctrine of creation that understood God’s will to exceed determination by God’s reason. It is this ‘voluntarist’ doctrine of creation, according to which God’s will is literally incomprehensible to reason, that Foster believes overturns points (2) and (1) by insisting: (2*) That matter is created by God and is therefore not a defect of reality but a vital part of a thing’s essence (Benj’s insight) and; (1*) That the essence of a created thing therefore cannot be rationally defined because its material aspect is radically contingent (vis-à-vis God’s incomprehensible will). Thus, according to this Christian doctrine of creation, science could only come to an adequate understanding of nature if both matter and the senses were treated with (at least) equal worth as form and reason. A true science of nature, therefore, had no other option than to become empirical.

Foster’s thesis therefore identifies two things arising from the Christian doctrine of creation which led to the rejection of ‘Greek science’ and the birth of modern empirical science; namely, the belief in the incomprehensibility of God and the concomitant belief in the incomprehensibility of the creation – the very things already deeply embedded in Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of creation by the late 4th century (although without the voluntarism).

Now, Foster’s thesis has recently been challenged by Peter Harrison, a leading historian of science at Oxford. While Harrison rejects Foster’s suggestion that modern science was catalysed by theological voluntarism he nevertheless affirms the crucial influence that the notion of divine incomprehensibility exerted upon the thought of several notable early modern empiricists, such as Isaac Barrow, Robert Boyle and Pierre Gassendi. Thus, whichever way we might come to account for the historic ‘cause(s)’ of modern science it seems to me that the notion of divine incomprehensibility is one factor that has to be taken into serious consideration.

Thanks then to Gregory, Foster, Harrison and Benj, I can restate my earlier claim with a little more caution and confidence than at first: a belief in the incomprehensibility of God helps to free up science to be science so that science may attend to the world as the world.