The Grand Narrative of Scientism
The history of science, on one very common understanding, has three distinct stages. Science is said to have had its origins in Greek antiquity when philosophers first broke away from the myths of their forebears and sought rational explanations for natural phenomena. Science subsequently suffered a setback with the advent of Christianity, going into significant decline in the Middle Ages. But it then emerged triumphant with the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century when it finally broke away from religion and set out on its progressive path to the present.
I see this grand narrative of scientism reflected practically every day in the secular press. If you don’t believe me, Harrison gives a prominent example:
In one of his last essays, the influential philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902–94) asserted that “the scientific tradition” was inaugurated by Thales and his immediate successors, and that it died in the West when it was suppressed by “a victorious and intolerant Christianity.” While science was “missed and mourned during the Middle Ages,” it was eventually revived during the Renaissance and “found fulfilment in Newton.”
But Harrison doesn’t buy this story:
The notion of distinct and successive mentalities—mythopoeic and rationalist—is…difficult to sustain. It is striking, for example, that the beginnings of (scientific) Hippocratic medicine coincide exactly with the rise of the (religious) cult of Asclepius, and that these apparently incompatible approaches to healing coexist happily in the same geographical regions. Practitioners of these distinct therapies also shared many of the same methods, to say nothing of the fact that the Hippocratic oath invokes Apollo, Asclepius, and “all the gods and goddesses.” To dismiss this as pious window dressing is to fail to understand how the religious perspective then pervaded every area of life. The narrative of an opposition between “science” and myth also betrays too crude an understanding of the role of myth and its relation to reason. Myths were not thought to offer alternative explanatory accounts to “science.” Not only were they regarded as compatible with rational, philosophical accounts of the natural world, but they were also considered to be important vehicles for the transmission of profound philosophical truths. It is a mistake, then, to regard myths as incompatible with rational explanations, or to imagine that a mythical phase of Western history gave way to a proto-scientific age.