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The Bible Made Me Do It: Christianity, Science, and the Environment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


The blame for the environmental disaster that threatens to overtake us unless something is done to avert it is often laid at the door of the Bible and the tradition that comes out of it. Typical of this trend is Lynn White's landmark essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” (1967), which traces the West's ruthless exploitation of nature to the biblical injunction that human beings are to “subdue” the earth and exercise “dominion” over all other living things. Ironically, White's indictment all but coincided with the triumph of an older theory the object of which was to demonstrate against the Enlightenment that, far from being hostile to modern science, the glory of our civilization and the instrument of its conquest of nature, the Christian tradition was the principal agent of its emergence. Christianity would thus be simultaneously and for the same reason responsible for what is best and what is worst in the modern world. The article challenges the premise that these two theories share, namely, that modern science is a child of premodern Christian thought. It begins with a restatement of what was once the commonly accepted view of our relationship to nonhuman nature and ends with a brief account of the essential limitations of modern natural science.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1995

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1. Santa Fe: Bear & Co., 1984.

2. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

3. Cf. Cassuto, U., A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part I: From Adam to Noah, trans. Abrahams, I. (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1978), p. 34.Google Scholar

4. On the Being and Conception of Phusis in Aristotle's Physics B, l,” Man and World 9 (08 1976): 224.Google Scholar

5. Theologico-Political Treatise, chap. 4, init. Cf. Descartres, Discourse on Method, Part 5, init.: “…. I have also discovered certain laws, which God has so established in nature, and the notion of which he has so fixed in our minds, that after sufficient reflection we cannot doubt that they are exactly observed in all which exists or which happens in the world” (trans. L. J. Lafleur [Indianapolis, 1960], p. 31).

6. Cf. Politics 1.1256b15f. Aristotle's notion of extraspecific finality is proper to the Politics. It is not mentioned in the Physics, which deals only with things that are common to all of nature, both animate and inanimate.

7. Politics 1. 1256b28f.

8. Hardie, R. P. and Gaye, R. K., transl., in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Mckeon, R. (New York, 1941), pp. 656–57.Google Scholar

9. The article appears in White's book, Machina ex Deo: Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968), pp. 7594.Google Scholar See also O'connor, D. and Oakley, F., eds., Creation: The Impact of an Idea (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969)Google Scholar; Bell, Garrett De, ed., The Environmental Handbook (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970).Google Scholar

10. Machina ex Deo, p. 86.

11. Ibid., p. 85.

12. Ibid., p. 89.

13. For a lively account of this strange story, cf. Jaki, S., “Science and Censorship: Hélène Duhem and the Publication of the Système du monde,” The Intercollegiate Review 21 (Winter 19851986): 4149.Google Scholar See also the recent biographies of Duhem by Jaki, S., Uneasy Genius: The Life and Work of Pierre Duhem (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1984)Google Scholar, and Martin, R. N. D., Pierre Duhem: Philosophy and History in the Work of a Believing Physicist (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1991).Google Scholar

14. Le système du monde: Histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernicus, Vol. 6 (Paris, 1954), p. 66Google Scholar. See on this point the remarks by Jaki, S., Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe (Edinburgh/London: Scottish Academy Press, 1974), pp. 229-30.Google Scholar The sections of Tempier's decree that are relevant to the history of medieval science are analyzed by Grant, E., ed., A Source Book in Medieval Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), pp. 4550.Google Scholar Vol. 3 of Duhem's Etudes sur Leonard de Vinci is dedicated “To the glory of the Faculty of Arts of Paris, the true mother of our experimental science.” Buridan had taught at the University of Paris and Oresme spent some time there as a younger man.

15. Ibid., vol. 2 (reprinted, 1954), p. 390. For a brief analysis of various classical texts pertaining to the Great Year, cf. Coleman-norton, P. R., “Cicero's Doctrine of the Great Year,” Laval Théologique et Philosophique 3 (1947): 293302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16. Cf. Physics 4. 223b24–34. As for Plato, it is hard to draw any definite conclusion from the discussion of the “perfect year” in the Timaeus (38b–39e) and the parallel discussions in Statesman (269c–273e) and Epinomis (991c). Nor do we find any agreement among ancient writers concerning the length of the Great Year.

17. On the highest philosophic level, that thesis can be traced back to Hegel, for whom “modernity originated in an historical development out of Christianity,” as is rightly noted by Faulkner, R., Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993), p. 12.Google Scholar

18. Whitehead, A. N., Science in the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1931), p. 18.Google Scholar

19. Ibid., p. 19.

20. Nietzsche, , Genealogy of Morals, III. 2324Google Scholar. Also, along the same lines, The Gay Science, Aph. 344.

21. Foster, M. B., “The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Natural Science,” Mind 43 (1934): 446–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Christian Theology and Modern Science of Nature,” Part I, Mind 44 (1935): 439–66Google Scholar; Part II, Mind 45 (1936): 127Google Scholar. The three articles are reprinted in Creation, Nature, and Political Order in the Philosophy of Michael Foster (1903–1959): The Classic Mind Articles and Others, with Modern Critical Essays, ed. C. Wybrow (Lewiston, NY, 1992).

22. There is some question as to whether on its own terms Foster's argument is entirely consistent. It holds that the modern scientific view of nature is “more truly Christian” than the Aristotelian view and, almost in the same breath, that modern natural science was designed as an instrument for the domination of nature and hence destructive of the respect owed to nature as the work of God. See Foster's later article, “Some Remarks on the Relations of Science and Religion,” The Christian Newsletter, Supplement to No. 299, 26 November 1947, pp. 5–16; reprinted in Wybrow, , Creation, Nature, and Political Order, pp. 149–60.Google Scholar

23. By 1934, Lynn Thorndike was ready to concede Duhem's point about some of the medieval antecedents of modern science, although he was careful to dissociate himself from any of the larger conclusions that one might be tempted to draw from that fact; cf. A History of Magic and Experimental Science, Vol. 4: Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (New York: Columbia University Press), p. 615Google Scholar: “Then presently seeds that had lain dormant since the fourteenth century were, as Duhem has shown, to sprout and fructify in modern philosophy and science. Frankly, it is not for this contribution towards modernity that we most prize these writings of two remote centuries which we have been at some pains to decipher and to set forth. We have taken them as we have found them and we esteem them for what they are in their totality, their fourteenth and fifteenth century complexio—a chapter in the history of human thought. Read it and smile or read it and weep, as you please. We would not credit it with the least particle of modern science that does not belong to it, nor would we deprive it of any of that magic which constitutes in no small measure its peculiar charm.”

24. On Duhem's treatment at the hands of George Sarton and other historians of science, cf. Jaki, S., The Origin of Science and the Science of Its Origins (South Bend, IN: Regnery, 1978), pp. 7479Google Scholar; The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 1214.Google Scholar According to Sarton, Duhem was “carried away by his enthusiasm and by his desire to magnify the Schoolmen and belittle Galileo,” Introduction to the History of Science, III, Part 1, p. 146n.Google Scholar

25. Duhem was not the only one to fall into the trap. To mention only one other name, the same thing seems to have happened to the well-known Protestant theologian Langdon Gilkey. See, for example, Maker of Heaven and Earth: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of Creation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959).Google Scholar

26. For a survey of the abundant literature spawned by White's thesis, cf. Gray, R. A., “Theological Responses to Environmental Decline: An Annotated Bibliography,” Reference Services Review 22 (11 1994): 6994.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Also, on this general subject, Passmore, J., Man's Responsibility for Nature: Ecological Problems and Western Traditions, 2nd ed. (New York, 1980)Google Scholar; and, for a balanced, penetrating, and up-to-date assessment of the ecological movement as a whole, Ch. Rubin, T., The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism (New York: The Free Press, 1994).Google Scholar

27. On Galileo's relations with the theologians of the Roman College, cf. Wallace, Wm., Galileo and His Sources: The Heritage of the Collegio Romano in Galileo's Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Wallace's book, like so many others, stresses the kinship rather than the break between Galileo and premodern science.

28. “On Values in the Age of Science,” Aspen Institute Readings, ed. Krasney, M. (New York: Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, 1978), p. 86.Google Scholar

29. The charge of animism leveled at Plato by Foster in the abovementioned articles is based on just such a fundamentalist interpretation of the Platonicmyth.

30. On this score, one does well to remember that the Bible attributes the discovery of the arts and sciences, according to White the instruments of man's callous treatment of nature, to the progeny of the reprobate Cain; cf. Gen. 4:17–22.

31. See, for example, Bacon, , New Organon, I. 129Google Scholar, where inventors are ranked above statesmen as humanity's greatest benefactors.

32. Cf. New Organon, II. 52, end.

33. Cf. Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part VI, init. To glimpse the antibiblical thrust of Cartesian philosophy, one has only to look at Descartes's reworking of Genesis 1 in Part 5 of the Discourse on Method. The main elements of the original story are clearly present: the chaos with which it begins, followed by the creation of the sky, light, the sun and the stars, and the earth. At that moment, the story is interrupted by a lyrical account of the miraculous properties of fire and how it can be used to turn ashes into glass, for Descartes a phenomenon as admirable as any that occurs in nature and which he confesses to have taken untold pleasure in describing. Inserting a purple patch such as this one just prior to the creation of animals and the human being is Descartes's way of insinuating that science can do a better job of explaining the origin of the human soul than does the Bible, which has God breathe the breath of life into the nostrils of the man He had formed from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7).

34. Cf. F. Bacon, “Plan of the Great Instauration,” toward the middle. The difference between the two forms of induction is stressed by Bacon himself, who writes: “But the greatest change I introduce is in the form itself of induction and the judgment made thereby. For the induction of which the logicians speak, which proceeds by simple enumeration, is a puerile thing, concludes at hazard, is always liable to be upset by a contradictory instance, takes into account only what is known and ordinary, and leads to no result” (ibid., beginning). My interpretation of Bacon's relationship to Christianity accords in the main with that of Faulkner, R., Bacon, pp. 6165et passim.Google Scholar For a more “pious” interpretation within the context of the contemporary ecological debate, see.Leiss, Wm., The Domination of Nature (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972).Google Scholar

35. Meyerson, E., Explanation in the Sciences, trans. M.-a., and Siple, D. A. (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991), pp. 357–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36. See esp. the Introduction to Husserl's, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1970).Google Scholar

37. A similar distinction can be made among man's spiritual activities. In the Ethics, Aristotle refers to moral habit as something that does not change easily “because it is like nature” (7. 1152b31), a “second nature,” as was later said, thereby implying that moral virtue is more natural than intellectual virtue.

38. Cf. Physics 2.199a34f.

39. Paleontologists calculate that, of the billions of species that have populated the earth at one time or another over the past three or four billion years, fully 99.9% have disappeared, sometimes as a result of the mass extinctions that have occurred at periodic intervals. See on this subject the recent books by Eldredge, N., The Miner's Canary: Unraveling the Mysteries of Extinction (New York, 1992)Google Scholar, and Raup, D. M., Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? (New York, 1992).Google Scholar

40. This much is suggested by Aristotle De Anima 2. 421b16–25, which stresses the greater perfection of the sense of touch in human beings and its peculiar relation to the life of the mind. Also Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theol., I. 76. 5Google Scholar, entitled: “Whether The Intellectual Soul Is Conveniently United to This Kind of Body.”

41. Unlike Kant, Aristotle and his followers did not think it possible to draw in advance a firm line between what the human intellect can or cannot do. All virtue, including intellectual virtue, is demonstrated in its employment. One discovers what reason can do when it does it.

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