First we defined “science” and then we defined a “stillbirth of science“ à la mode de Father Stanley L. Jaki, author of The Savior of Science, a Benedictine priest and leading thinker in the philosophy and history of science who authored more than two dozen books on the relation between science and Christianity, and was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1987 for furthering the understanding of science and religion. He argued that Modern Science was born of Christianity. We are exploring that question.
The first stillbirth he discusses is the stillbirth of science in Egypt, “an Egypt to be buried in the sand.” In ancient Egypt, impressive discoveries and achievements were recorded in history. They constructed grand pyramids of such prowess and awe that one can only wonder how they did it. They invented hieroglyphics, a highly developed form of phonetic writing which may have possibly been the greatest intellectual feat ever. They had medical arts. They were successful in using the Nile as an abundant resource. They adopted better weapons, such as chariots, from other countries when the opportunity arose. They had sailors who voyaged around the Eastern shores of Africa.
They had the talent and the skill to notice that everything in the material world is in motion and is, thus, observable and quantifiable. They had the talent to realize that the Scientific Method can be applied over and over to answer questions about the universe, to determine scientific laws. They had the ability to innovate. They even had the ability to communicate it. They demonstrated the ability to communicate and learn from other cultures (e.g. the chariots). Science could have been born in ancient Egypt.
But it wasn’t. All of that progress came to a standstill, a stillbirth.
If they were able to build pyramids to bury their glorified kings, why didn’t they innovate grand constructions to live in?
If they were able to develop written language, why didn’t they have a similar breakthrough with quantities, measurements, and calculations, which are more easy to represent than abstract symbols of the spoken word?
If they were able to preserve mummies, why didn’t they find more cures for diseases?
If they were able to utilize the Nile, why were they complacent about utilizing more natural resources?
If they were able to adopt better weaponry for war, why didn’t they adopt a way to share new ideas with other cultures?
If they sailed for three years along the eastern shores of Africa and returned from the direction of Libya and the sun shone on the ship differently, why didn’t they question whether the earth is not flat?
Jaki also points out that to argue that “the Egyptians of old failed to develop more science because they did not feel the need for more is an all too transparent form of begging a most serious question,” a bad, if not conceited psychology. If they had been but an animal species, as Darwinian theory would have it, they would have never even tried to innovate. They would have continued on their way with things as they were, just as all other animals do until natural selection and genetic mutation evolves them.
But there is also plenty of evidence that they longed for something better. During the reign of Akhenaton, the Pharaoh noted for abandoning traditional Egyptian polytheism and introducing worship of Aten, a monotheistic religious view, Egyptians responded in great number to throw away long established rigid artforms and seek “warmly humane representations of life and nature.” They wanted something better. Yet after his death the traditional religion was restored and Akhenaton would be archived as an enemy.
The longing is evident in the poetry they sang, the inspiration they took from the animal kingdom in their carvings of animal and human combined bodies, effigies which now are, as Jaki put it, “buried in the sand as if to symbolize that there was no future in store for the Egypt of old.” In a culture of polytheism, where innovation only went as far as to serve the rulers and gods, Modern Science could have been born, but was not — according to Jaki.
Shall we debate this claim?
About the Author
About the Author
: Mother of seven. Joyful convert to Catholicism. Ph.D. in Chemistry. M.A. in Dogmatic Theology. I write from my tiny office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge that overlooks a small spring-fed lake. More about me here
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