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Fr. Jaki and the Stillbirths of Science

May 7, AD 2014 27 Comments

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASt. Austin Review | May/June 2014

Fr. Stanley L. Jaki used the phrase “stillbirths of science” in reference to the ancient cultures of Egypt, China, India, Babylon, Greece, and Arabia. The lifeless imagery was the counter-analogy to his claim that science was born of Christianity. Jaki was aware it could evoke resentment. Seven years before his death, he wrote the following in his autobiography:

It is not a pleasant task to call attention to the obvious. To make others appear to be shortsighted, let alone blind, may easily evoke resentment. But it had to be obvious and clearer than daylight that in none of those cultures, although they lacked no talent and ingenuity, did science become a self-sustaining enterprise in which every discovery generates another. In all those cultures the scientific enterprise came to a standstill. It is this phenomenon which I called the stillbirths of science. [A Mind’s Matter: An Intellectual Autobiography (2002), p.52.]

In the volume, Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe (1986), Jaki presented his historical research for these stillbirths in characteristic Jakian meticulousness. In the briefer The Savior of Science (2000), he summarized some of the stillbirths in the first chapter. Two distinctions must be clarified to understand what Jaki meant by “birth” and “stillbirth” of science.

Two Distinctions

First, Jaki used a precise definition of science because without clear definition it is impossible to define clear beginnings. The definition Jaki used was: Exact science is the quantitative study of the quantitative aspects of objects in motion. When Jaki referred to the “birth” of modern science (exact science) he was referring to the application of mathematics (quantitative aspects) to physics (objects in motion), the change from classical Aristotelian physics to Newtonian physics, or what is known as the Scientific Revolution. The birth of science represents the emergence of exact science as a universal discipline where one discovery leads to another, and laws of physics and systems of laws were established. The stillbirths refer to the potential within other ancient cultures to achieve this emergence, but a failure to make the breakthrough.

Second, Jaki’s approach to history was revolutionary. He studied the history of science as a theological history. This is arguably the only correct approach since every major culture in the history of man searched for God. To understand how cultural psychologies affected achievements, religious mindsets must be considered.

A Common Criticism

A common criticism is that Jaki ignored the scientific contributions of other cultures, but a quick perusal of his writing shows otherwise. Jaki referred to Egyptian hieroglyphics, for example, as “possibly the greatest intellectual feat of all recorded history.” (Savior of Science, pp.22-23) He deemed the ancient Indian decimal system “the most noteworthy single contribution of ancient India to science…its importance cannot be overstated.” (Science and Creation pp.13-14) He acknowledged that the lists of planetary positions were proof that Hipparchus, a second century B.C. Greek astronomer, relied on Babylonian data to reach his conclusions about equinoxes, “one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all times.” (Science and Creation, p.38)

Egypt, China, India, Babylonia

These cultures contributed talent and ingenuity, but scientific enterprise came to a standstill. Science was not born in any of them, although it could have been. What did they have in common? The commonality was theological; they shared a pantheistic view of the universe. Some viewed the universe as god. Some viewed the universe as a god-like animal. They all viewed the cosmos as eternal and cyclical. The cause of the stillbirths of science in these cultures was neither geophysical nor socio-economical, but rather an intellectual inertia instilled by theologies that prevented a systematic investigation of the world and its lawfulness.

The Egyptians saw the circularity in the sky and in nature as evidence that the cosmos was changeless and cyclical. The religions of China viewed the cosmos as eternally cyclical, and taught that man should seek separation from the external world, which precludes a need for the scientific method. The Indian doctrine of the Atman represented an eternal unity underlying the phenomenon of nature called the Brahman. Atman is the first principle, and the individual self of man strives to lay hold of the ultimate self of the universe. For the Babylonians, the Enuma elish was a portrayal of personified forces engaged in bloody battles; the mother goddess, Tiamat, dismembered to form the sky, earth, waters, and air. The Babylonians mathematically modeled astronomical appearances, but they believed this radically different Tiamat reality existed behind the appearances. Exact science demands, however, that calculations are not abstracted from physical objects. In all these cultures, there was a pervading resignation to a “cosmic treadmill,” a cosmos with its own volition, and thus no motivation to try to escape from it. Such a mentality does not place significance on single events or processes, which the scientific method requires. This is not to say that these cultures are unworthy of admiration, only that these psychologies were not conducive to the birth of modern science.


Jaki thought the Greeks came closer to a birth of science than any other culture. There were significant contributions from the ancient Greeks: Thales of Miletus, a geometer and astronomer who founded the Ionian physics school of thought; Anaximander of Miletus who proposed the Boundless Principle of the universe; Pythagóras of Sámios after whom the theorem is named; Leucippus who founded Atomism along with Democritus; Hippocrates of Cos whose code of medical ethics still has influence today; and of course the great Aristotle of Stagira and his teacher Plato who founded the Lyceum in Athens, too many to list in a short essay. Even so, the pantheistic-animistic-cyclical world view of the Greeks was inconsistent with the realism needed for the breakthrough of science as a self-sustaining discipline.

Jaki wrote in Science and Creation (p. 104) that the “extraordinary feats of Aristotle in biology were in a sense responsible for his failure in physics.” In continuous resort to animistic simile, Aristotle taught that all things had a soul and sought a final cause. Be it celestial body, man, animal, or object, all motion, he thought, is directed toward what the soul most desires. This mindset was compatible with biology, but not with the physics of inanimate matter.

Aristotle’s On the Heavens “set the fate and fortune of science, or rather tragic misfortunes, for seventeen hundred years” because a serious error was made and went unnoticed. Consistent with his animistic outlook, he thought celestial bodies orbited in perfect circles, desiring to rest in contact with the divine ether. Likewise, he thought bodies on earth fell to the ground because they desired their resting place. This animistic view of physics led him to conclude that if two bodies were dropped from the same height on earth, the one with twice the weight of the other one would fall twice as fast because it had twice the nature and twice the desire to seek its place. (On the Heavens, Book 1, Part 6) Simple observation proves otherwise, but the hold of the pantheistic-animistic-cyclic orthodoxy on the Greek mind prevented them from seeing it.

This cycle of existence, birth-life-death-rebirth for all things, applied even to man’s intellect. For the most brilliant scholar or the least accomplished servant, Aristotle thought the same ideas recur over and over again.

The mere evidence of the senses is enough to convince us of this, at least with human certainty. For in the whole range of time past, so far as our inherited records reach, no change appears to have taken place either in the whole scheme of the outermost heaven or in any of its proper parts. The same ideas, one must believe, recur in men’s’ minds not once or twice but again and again. (On the Heavens, Book I, Part 3)

Jaki described the psychological impact of the “cosmic treadmill” as either hopelessness for those at the bottom of the cycle, or complacency for those living during a golden age, hardly a belief that inspired a confidence to learn and dominate the physical laws of nature. “Both attitudes cry out for salvation, although the second may be the less receptive to it.” (Savior of Science, p.44)


This belief survived among the Muslims who followed Aristotle’s orthodoxy into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although theirs was a monotheistic view, it was not a Christological or Trinitarian view, which left it vulnerable to the influences of pantheism. A “beginning” in time can easily be taken for a beginning of a new cycle.

Both the Bible and the Koran teach that God created the world with an absolute beginning in time. Muslim philosophers, however, adopted the works of the Greeks without refuting pantheism, even though this view was in conflict with the Muslim theology. The Muslim scholars advanced far in the biological sciences, for the same reason Aristotle advanced in them, but they did not bring about the revolution of physical sciences characteristic of the Scientific Revolution.

This failure of Muslim science is a result of a failure to reconcile science with religion, a failure to effectively refute the pantheism of the Greeks. That reconciliation would come from Christian scholars who, in adherence to the Christian Creed, rejected the teachings of the Greek scientific corpus which contradicted Christian dogma, particularly pantheism and the eternal cosmic cycle. Indeed, the birth of science can be credited as a successful reconciliation of the Christian religion and science. “There had to come a birth, the birth of the only begotten Son of the Father as a man, to allow science to have its first viable birth.” (A Late Awakening, p.60)

The Power of Analogy

For Christians the analogy that science was “born of Christianity” but “stillborn” in other cultures evokes an image of modern science emerging from a nurturing cultural womb to become a universal enterprise born of a religion that vitally affirms, “Truth cannot contradict truth.” For non-Christians it evokes suspicion, as if to say that Christianity, and Christianity alone, created science with an “anything-your-religion-does-mine-can-do-better attitude” that “jiggers one part condescension with two parts self-congratulation.” So wrote Noah J. Efron, a Jewish senior faculty member at Bar Ilan University in Israel. His essay appeared in the book Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion published by agnostic Ronald L. Numbers. The power of analogy can be double-edged.

As unpleasant as this imagery may be to non-Christians, the impact faith had on the collective mind of the Christian Middle Ages when the Scientific Revolution occurred is a fact of history. Efron’s reaction is instructive nonetheless. When discussing this fact with non-Christians more ecumenical language can perhaps be used. To do that, as any teacher, parent, or debater knows, the claim must be understood in depth so the dialogue can be tailored to fit the audience. The purpose of this essay is to inspire the reader to such an appropriation of Jaki’s work so the communication of his important insights will continue.

This essay was published in the May/June 2014 issue of St. Austin Review. For subscription information, visit the St. Austin Review website. Image courtesy of Antonio Colombo.

Hello, and thank you for reading. I am a wife, mother of seven, and joyful convert to Catholicism. I write from my office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge. Read more about me here, with pictures. Find me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. "Like" my Facebook page Science Was Born of Christianity to follow updates about my book. God bless you!

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  • Dominic de Souza

    Absolutely loved it, Stacy! Such a refresher. I hope someone reprints his material sometime, or makes it more accessible.

  • Bill S

    “There had to come a birth, the birth of the only begotten Son of the Father as a man, to allow science to have its first viable birth.”


  • Ben @ 2CM

    The view that things 2x as heavy fall 2x as fast, despite clear observation to the contrary, shows the power of a premise. One will accept any number assumptions to make the bad premise seem valid, like saying there must be some additional force acting on the objects. It happens with analytical problem solving a lot. Here is one I’ll never forget from G.K Chesterton. Imagine someone suffering from paranoia says to you, “Everyone wants to kill me.” You respond, “I don’t want to kill you.” The person answers, “Of course you would say that to keep your evil plan a secret.” There is logic there, but the premise is…well, insane.

    Also, what about ancient Japan? Similar still birth as China? Maybe influence from Buddhism?

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Good point, Ben, about insane premises. Japan’s ancient religion is Shinto, but it is really more of a practice than a theology. What theology is has is similar to Buddhism, a pantheistic/animistic view of the universe.

    • Nostromo

      Beware of the specialist?

    • VelikaBuna

      It does seem interesting that something which is twice as massive does not accelerate twice as fast by the gravity. I remember doing this experiment way back in High School. Yet the gravitational acceleration is dependent on the mass of the body. For example moon has roughly 1/6 earth mass and 1/6 the gravitational acceleration, yet feather and hammer dropped on the moon fell at the same rate of acceleration. This is something interesting to ponder.

  • X Contra

    Stanley Jaki IS THE MAN. I describe the scientific enterprise with his description. Something else I always like to bring up is that science rose in the great universities of the West. Universities are another great invention of the Church!

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  • Howard

    How could you leave Archimedes off the list! He was one of the all-time geniuses, with contributions in physics, math, and engineering.

    I think part of the problem with the Greeks was that they could not abide imperfection. They could prove with their minds that the square root of 2 is an irrational number, something that could never have been determined empirically by a measurement. This made them a bit disdainful of measurements. At the same time, they would have thought ignoring friction (which is universally observed, at least in terrestrial physics) to be as ill-advised as ignoring mortality in the nature of man. Not all their problems related to their theology.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      And yet Archimedes possessed such a lofty spirit, so profound a soul, and such a wealth of scientific theory, that although his inventions had won for him a name and fame for superhuman sagacity, he would not consent to leave behind him any treatise on this subject, but regarding the work of an engineer and every art that ministers to the needs of life as ignoble and vulgar, he devoted his earnest efforts only to those studies the subtlety and charm of which are not affected by the claims of necessity.
      – Plutarch, “The Life of Marcellus” ch. 17

      • Howard

        That was a weakness of the Greeks — a weakness shared by many proponents of the liberal arts today. A Christian has no business despising carpenters, fishermen, or shepherds as “ignoble and vulgar”.

  • Zachaeus

    Wonderful article! I will store it for further reference and discussion with my students. I noticed an avoidance of the undesired consequence of “truth cannot contradict truth” in the birth of modernism where science “flew too close to the sun” and melted the wings of wax of religion setting the union of science and religion asunder. The truths of science now violates and opposes the truths of religion…the heresy of modernism.

  • Nostromo

    Good article. Just one thought. There is no mention of the medieval Book of Nature that was produced in the Latin middle ages that was most influential in the propelling of western science.

    It provided a philosophical/theological framework for the pursuit of knowledge. Francis Bacon in his great work, the Novum Organum highly recommeded that all those in pursuit of knowledge understand the Book of Nature. It was the belief of many from the middle ages up until about Liebniz’s time, that man had lost full knowledge of nature that he had prior to the fall, and that the grammarians of science, would pursue to reclaim that long lost language. Francis Bacon was a grammarian in this sense. It’s interesting that some in the quantum field today believe the universe=mathematics (a language game of sorts).

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Thank you Nostromo! In Science and Creation, he mostly discusses Bacon’s Opus Majus. I’ll look into it more. I appreciate it.

      • Nostromo

        Hi Stacy.

        I’m not sure if you’re old enough to remember him, but I came across the importance of the Book of Nature by reading quite a bit of Marshall McLuhan’s work, which I wouldn’t recommend to everyone because he requires a fair bit of background in literature, history, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and technological impacts on man to gain a hint of understanding, and even after about 20 years I still come across something that triggers a memory of something McLuhan was on to that I never thought of at the time. He can be quite puzzling with his almost medieval mosaic and aphoristic style of communication that produced his fair share of detractors.

        I came across this blog that McLuhan’s son created, that briefly discusses the idea more succintly than reading all of his works.

        Just as a little background, one of McLuhan’s more simplistic theories about the history of communciation centered on the altering of our senses reflected in something he wrote a post graduate paper on, the trivium or Artes Sermocinales (logic, grammar, rhetoric). Artes Sermocinales was foundational at medieval universities before pursuing other fields of knowledge. McLuhan theorized that as we have progressed through time one of these three parts of the trivium had become communication dominant. McLuhan describes “Senecan Francis Bacon .. as a schoolman” (Scholastic) “….his own method in science was straight out of medieval grammatica.”

        To quote Bacon’s pondering of grammar:

        “Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken, do invite men to inquire further, whereas “Methods”, carrying the show of a total do secure men as if they were at farthest.”

        Incidently another reason science was propelled in western culture was the incorporation of independent universities in medieval times. One more gift that Christian Europe gave the world to be copied everywhere.

  • Michael B Rooke

    Superb article. Thank you very much.

    It might be noted that there is an article on Physics, the History of, in the 1907-1912 Catholic Encyclopaedia by Pierre Duhem.

    Duhem wrote that if we must assign a date for the birth of modern science, we would, without doubt, choose the year 1277 when the bishop of Paris solemnly proclaimed that several worlds could exist, and that the whole of heavens could, without contradiction, be moved with a rectilinear motion as the universe would then leave a vacuum behind it.–1277

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Thank you! That encyclopedia article by Duhem is excellent, one of the first things I read when I started reading Jaki. It’s a good summary.

      Yes, for Duhem the Condemnations of 1277 marked the birth of modern science. Jaki revised this particular conclusion somewhat.

      He credited the Condemnations of 1277 for shaping the mindset and conceptual framework for a revolutionary new approach to understanding celestial and terrestrial bodies and motion. He saw the Condemnations as the beginning of a new era in scientific thinking, but didn’t call them the birth “date” because they reflected the thought of the time rather than marked a sudden change. Maybe “emerge” is a better word than “birth.”

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  • Tom Jacobson

    Outstanding article. I am not a scientist, although I have always had a fondness for the relationship between God and science in our minds. I found this compelling for several reasons. That folks like yourself that have the talent and knowledge to write on such a subject is one more example of God’s grace and movement through the world. That the world of universities is so opposed to the actual evidence of God’s movement through the sciences. And, that not benefiting from college myself, I have instilled the expectation of higher learning in my children as a nature step following high school. All four are in the various stages of college in its free-for-all state. While as a parent I can only pray that the Christian moral foundation set at home was built on rock. Because they are heavily influenced by the secular animosity of college. My son, who is pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering, is vacillating with his belief in God. The logical apologetics of our faith that I share with them seems to fall on deaf ears. I am always kind and loving in sharing the faith, but maybe because it’s just dad talking. In any respect I will share this article with each of them and pray they are intellectually honest enough to read it with an open soul. Thank you for sharing your talent. Jesus’ peace to you.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Thank you Tom. My priest has told me on more than one occasion to stop worrying about my older kids and entrust them to Christ in prayer. I’ve yet to master this skill.

  • Richard

    Hi Stacy, Nice piece indeed. It’s not at all easy to summarize Jaki. I’m currently reading your Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley Jaki. I ordered a copy of Science and Creation back in 1974. At that time it was only available from the publishers in Scotland! I have read most of Jaki’s books and many of his articles. All great stuff. You are amazing. Married with seven kids and you just happen to like reading Jaki; as if he were writing for the general public! All of his material is serious and his style can stager any reader (until you become familiar with him). Anyway, I’m enjoying your book; a very convenient way to reveiw the heart of his monumental work. May the Risen Lord greatly bless you and your family and strengthen you in your apostolate. P.S. For VelikaBuna. The key to understanding why all bodies accelerate under gravity at the same rate regardless of their weight is that they all have inertia (resistance to a change in movement) which is proportinate to each one’s mass. More mass equals more resistance to being moved, while more mass also means more weight (weight is simply a measure of the force of gravity between two bodies). So the more mass a body has the more it resists the force of gravity even though because of that mass it has more weight; likewise for a body with very little mass, it has very little weight and ver little inertia. The relationship between mass and inertia, and the same for mass and weight (force of gravity) means that inertia and weight cancel each other out. The acceleration of a body equals the force applied (gravity) divided by the mass of the body. Hope that helps.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Richard, thank you! No, it’s not easy at all to summarize Jaki. I literally read some pages 10 times. You could write entire essays on some of his single sentences. He was a genius, full of grace no doubt. Wish I’d met him in person.

      Thought you might like this. This is STILL the only copy of Science and Creation I could find, a collector’s item now, from Scottish Academic Press. I had to glue to binding back together. It’s a dream of mine to find someone to reprint this book.

      Thank you for your comment!

  • james

    ” … Science was not born in any of them, although it could have been. What did they have in common?
    The commonality was theological; they shared a pantheistic view of the universe.”

    pantheism n 1. A doctrine that equates god with the forces and laws of the universe.

    Eastern deism does not consist solely of Buddhism, an inferior theology when compared to Hinduism’s God
    consciousness movement. The former is impersonal and reflects Mayavadi theory. In the Bahagavad-gita
    text 8 of the Most Confidential Knowledge it states “ this material world is the manifestation of the inferior
    energy of God. In text 19 it purports “ Since God is both matter and spirit, the gigantic universal form that
    comprises all material manifestations is also God” What more can science discover ?

  • Hegesippus

    The difference that Christianity offers is that it is rooted in the Incarnation. Therefore the material world was blessed in its joining with the spiritual world in the hypostasis of Christ as God and Man, with the height, breadth and fullness of the spiritual and material joined together.

    With the Catholic Church teaching a full and systematic Incarnational theology, including the Eucharist as Christ Himself, the fruits of Catholic science have been, albeit not straight-forward, of a blessed and moral character. At least some of the protestant reformers were exceedingly against the scientific discoveries of the post-reformation centuries, suggesting a lack of fullness of systematic theology. This, of course, lead to the Enlightenment (read: secular) scientific direction, which is often immoral or, at least, amoral. The irony is that the Catholic Church is often painted as anti-science today, with history adapted to suit the agenda.

    However, that God came into this world and redeemed it, Christianity in its Incarnational fullness most certainly was the foundation of scientific thinking in its ever-developing fullness.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      If you haven’t read it yet, you would greatly enjoy Jaki’s The Savior of Science. From what you wrote, it sounds like you may have already though. But, yes!

      • Hegesippus

        I have not read it but I would like to. I am coming from Irenaeus’ angle of the Incarnation being the key historical event that proves that the material world is not evil.

        Slightly OT, I have been reading a very good and detailed explanation of the Galileo case at I’m not finished all yet but it is very useful!

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