Why No Science?

Someone asked recently why the “civilization” portrayed in the popular video series Game of Thrones, which supposedly existed for thousands of years, developed very little science and technology.

The obvious answer is that it is fiction, and the author, George R. R. Martin, has the freedom as a writer of “fantasy” novels to create whatever world he wants.  But there have been many civilizations in the world that have gone on for a thousand years without developing advanced science or technology.  So we might still wonder, Why not?

One answer is an obsession with magic – magic and astrology.  Magic and astrology are attempts to bend the world to one’s will rather than disciplining oneself to its wisdom.  So when people believe they can control nature, or the course of history, with magic or astrology, they don’t devote themselves to the rigors of science.  A culture that wants to foster the authentic development of science must first invalidate and suppress the illusory promises of magic and astrology, which is a development the Western world owes in large part to the prohibitions of the Church.

The second thing a culture must do, however, is to free the explorations of science from the control of political ideology and governmental tyranny, both of which are less concerned with truth than they are with the power that science might provide them. Such independence is hard to obtain especially when it is assumed the State should control all aspects of the life of the Nation.

It is of first importance, therefore, that there be institutions, especially those dedicated to education and learning that, while devoted to the common good of the Nation, remain independent of the control of the State. In Western Europe, such independence was usually only achieved when an institution was created by or allied with the Church, as were cathedral schools and the original universities. The best of these enjoyed a certain autonomy from direct governmental control of their operations (and were resented for this) because of their relationship with the Church.

To get a sense of this autonomy, consider the institution of marriage.  For centuries, marriages were arranged by the paterfamilias of a family.  The “contract” of marriage was something agreed to by the parents of the potential spouses, not the children.  It was only when marriages enjoyed the protection of the Church that couples had the freedom to marry independently of the approval of rich and powerful parents.  Without the intervening authority of the Church, such marriages would never have been possible or would simply have been nullified and ignored.


Naturally, the Church’s educational institutions had their own challenges, both internal and external – fights between factions within faculties and squabbles with petty ecclesiastical bureaucrats – but the pope was usually far away and local ecclesiastical authorities usually lacked the coercive police power or power over the purse wielded by the State to do much real damage. The Church’s minor conflicts with certain scientists in history constitute barely a ripple compared to the other cultural challenges the sciences have had to face over the centuries and increasingly face today.

So consider again The Game of Thrones civilization.  What didn’t they have?  They didn’t have the Greeks with their supposedly useless metaphysical speculation on being and causality, on unity and difference, on motion and change, and the nature of number. They didn’t have the Jewish-Christian Scriptures and the Genesis creation account, with its affirmation of the order and goodness of all creation and with its refusal to view the created realm as the plaything of angry gods, but as the expression of a single loving God who has, with His creation, entered into a covenant with mankind.  Those who shared this perspective were then inspired to see the researches of natural science as “reading the Book of Nature” as one would read the Book of Scripture: to unveil the handiwork of a loving God and thus be guided by His Wisdom.

Hence, we find Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical on “Faith and Reason” (Fides et Ratio) speaking eloquently of a twofold need, increasingly unmet.  The first is “the need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth.” And the second, the need to “recover the sapiential dimension of study as a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life.”

“This sapiential dimension is all the more necessary today,” argues the pope, “because the immense expansion of humanity’s technical capability demands a renewed and sharpened sense of ultimate values. If this technology is not ordered to something greater than a merely utilitarian end, then it could soon prove inhuman and even become potential destroyer of the human race.”  “Yet this sapiential function could not be performed,” he says, “by a philosophy which was not itself a true and authentic knowledge, addressed, that is, not only to particular and subordinate aspects of reality – functional, formal or utilitarian – but to its total and definitive truth, to the very being of the object which is known.”

The unique combination of metaphysical speculation and the wisdom of Christian revelation made possible the blessings of science and technology we enjoy today.  When a culture becomes more fascinated with magic and Machiavellian political maneuvering than it is in metaphysics, logic, and the contemplation of the created order, one can expect the death of authentic scientific advance and a continual parade of charlatan “experts,” each one a magician promising greater power and control over the forces of nature and history than they can in reality deliver.

The blessings of science require institutions that eschew the trappings of wealth, power, and status to foster the educational formation of those who want to learn the wisdom that God’s creation has to teach rather than simply enslaving it to their will-to-power-and-prestige.  To this end, science has had no better friend historically than institutions of learning faithful to the Christian mission and the Church.


*Image: Saint Peter and Simon Magus by Benozzo Gozzoli, after 1460 [The MET, New York]. Simon was a magician who converted to Christianity (see Acts 8:9-24) but sought to buy Apostolic power from Peter. Gozzoli shows an apocryphal scene in which Simon, levitating before Emperor Nero, has fallen to the earth upon Peter’s command.

You may also enjoy:

St. John Paul II’s Catholicism and Science

Robert Royal’s Social “Science” at the JPII Institute

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.