Monday, 26 December 2011

Did Jesus Christ enable the scientific revolution?

In 1450 the printing press, invented in Europe by the German manufacturer Gutenberg, was operating. It was blue-sky stuff. By the second decade of the 16th century - 70 years, or three generations, later - when Martin Luther started his campaign against the sale of Church indulgences, the printing press was in wide use in Europe. The combination of technology and protest was dramatic and pamphlets took Luther's message from country to country. And the Reformation didn't stop with Luther's gripe about indulgences. All forms of scholasticism were up for disputation because thanks to the printing press more people than ever before had access to original texts, including new Bible translations drawn from the original biblical languages: Hebrew, Aramiac, Greek. Then there were the classical texts, now rediscovered via Spain, where they had come in from North Africa. This combination of ready access - basically more eyeballs - with a discredited Church hastened the development of the scientific method.

People such as Francis Bacon, who was born in 1561, were ready at the right time to exploit this new way of seeing the world. Another was William Harvey, who in 1626 began demonstrating publicly his theories about the circulation of blood (see pic). Things started to pick up, but it was still an elite concern, science. The Royal Society was founded in 1660, a century after Bacon's birth and 200 years after the printing press first appeared. It wasn't until the popular magazines of the early 18th century began to disseminate all sorts of knowledge at low cost and in an accessible format that science appeared in everyday living rooms.

At this time these people writing and reading about all the new discoveries encompassing the human body, plants, the behaviour of light, the solar system, animals, geology and everything else, were all practicing Christians. They believed that is was seemly and right to gaze with discerning eyes on Creation. It was a form of worship. By this time the rancour of the early Reformation, which had led to the discovery of science, was gone. Not only that, but the most common type of book available at this time, and even later in the mid- to late-18th century, was the religious tome. Books about religion were everywhere, although few have lasted down to our age so we naturally discount their importance. But it's an illusion of historical perspective. Religious books - about the gospels, martyrology, about the Reformation, about personal conduct - were read by most people who could read. In England, where Reformation policy had instituted almost-universal schooling for boys 200 years earlier, the middle class read a lot and books were cheap, or available through lending libraries which gave access to novels and other printed publications in exchange for a subscription fee.

With the American Revolution in 1776 and, even more importantly, the French Revolution in 1789, a new curiosity about roots took hold in England. Novelists like Walter Scott (born 1771) would make fun of the amateur historian in such novels as The Antiquary (1818), but Scott was a more than a bit obsessive about ancient wares and how they related to his family history. His home was a museum. By the 19th century the study of history had become important within popular culture in England, which led the way again as it had done for centuries. It was within this cultural milieu that Charles Darwin was born, in 1809.

Freethinking had begun to take hold in Europe in the previous century in opposition to the Church but it was an elite preoccupation. In 2011 it's easy to imagine a world without a guiding hand that directs the behaviour of whatever happens on Earth. We've had 200 years of polemic to help us get used to a more democratic way of seeing the world. By now those who class themselves as areligious are in the majority in most Western countries. I have always been like this, although I went to an Anglican school from the age of five. University helped me to gain access to more texts in a more systematic way, but it wasn't until I had lived in Japan for several years that I began to think about the role of Christianity in innovation. It happened one day as I was sitting at my desk in the office in Shibuya, a retail and commercial district located on Tokyo's western border. My way of viewing the world had come up against an immoveable object: the Japanese way of doing business.

I began to think about what it was that made the West different from Asia. In Japan there was plenty of technology and there were gadzillions of people involved in manufacturing. In fact, Japanese businesses had completely overtaken their Western counterparts in the manufacturing and quality stakes. They could make better things, more cheaply, and with fewer defects. But when I tried to think of things the Japanese had actually invented from scratch, I scratched my head. There was almost nothing. This led me back to the problems I was having working in a Japanese company. It was personal, so I thought about it a lot. My Anglican schooling came to my aid. I regressed, at times, when confronted with difficult problems. I thought about the Lord's Prayer and one line in particular. I had it off-by-heart, naturally, and it gave me comfort at a difficult time:

... Hallowed be thy name / Thy kingdom come / Thy will be done /  On earth as it is in heaven / Give us this day our daily bread / And forgive us our trespasses ...

It hit me. The Japanese way of learning is by rote. In an artisan's studio the student who can most accurately replicate the form of his master gains the highest praise. It is then the journeyman's labour to make a specific type of object over and over again for the rest of his life. This is the beauty of Japanese craft, and it bleeds into the manufacturing system. The Japanese are the best in the world at making things but they do not innovate because they do not have the license to make mistakes. Making a mistake is severely punished. But in the West we are told from an early age that we can make mistakes and that they will be forgiven. After all, it's in the basic book of worship, the Book of Common Prayer, which was first published, in English, in 1549. Right at the start of the scientific revolution. Twelve years before Bacon was born. Was this a coincidence? I thought. What do you think?

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