The Grand Narrative of Scientism

by May 20, 2015Culture, Worldview1 comment


From Oxford historian of science Peter Harrison‘s (so-far excellent and fascinating) The Territories of Science and Religion:

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.

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  1. Brian Collins

    Edward Grant’s book is also helpful in this regard. He writes:

    After some three centuries, the overwhelming consensus is that modern science began with the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton and has no connection with the preceding centuries of scholastic natural philosophy. Indeed, it is widely believed that the new science triumphed in spite of the obstacles posed by reactionary Aristotelians. Yet this interpretation is misleading, largely because it is woefully incomplete. Its very incompleteness constitutes a powerful obstacle to a better understanding of the development of early modern science. The assault on scholasticism by the new breed of natural philosophers and scientists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was quite appropriate, By the sixteenth century, traditional scholasticism needed criticism, even though scholastic natural philosophers had made noteworthy contributions to physical thought, a number of which have been mentioned in this volume. Their contributions on various aspects of motion, both kinematic and dynamic, were striking; Galileo himself could not actually enhance them. Sophisticated discussions about the earth’s possible axial rotation were also impressive, and Copernicus could not improve upon them, Medieval ideas about other worlds, and especially about infinite void space, played an unacknowledged role in shaping the cosmos that was being constructed by the new science.

    Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 169.

    He notes in another place that even though many cultures practiced science, only Western Europe had a scientific revolution. He argues that the middle ages laid a significant foundation for that revolution, noting that such a revolution could not have occurred in the early middle ages. Three “pre-conditions” needed to be in place before the scientific revolution could take place. “(1) the translation of Greco-Arabic works on science and natural philosophy into Latin, (2) the formation of the medieval university, and (3) the emergence of the theologian-natural philosophers.” Ibid., 171.


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