Why did scientific development flourish in Europe but not in China? Guy Crouchback takes on Bertrand Russell.
By Guy Crouchback
There are relatively few laughs in the pages of Bertrand Russell. One may, however, raise a smile at his puzzlement about what he called the problem of China. Russell was a militant atheist who believed religion was the enemy of science and reason.
Why then, he asked, when China did not have an established religion comparable to Christianity in Europe to hinder and oppose progress and enlightenment, had it not advanced further in the sciences?
Russell spelt his puzzlement out plaintively:
“Although Chinese civilisation has hitherto been deficient in science, it never contained anything hostile to science, and therefore to the spread of scientific knowledge, as the Church put in its way in Europe.”
Of course, Lord Russell might have expended the question: why had science not flourished in all – indeed in any – of the ancient civilisations which had not suffered the terrible disadvantage of Christianity?
Why had science and a scientific civilisation arisen only in Christian Europe?
Whatever his achievements in other areas, Lord Russell seems to have been deficient as an historian.
This passage must rank as one of the most blatantly obtuse ever written.
Was he really unaware that Church in Europe, far from being the enemy of science, had been its protecter – more, it had been in a sense its creator.
Only the Christian Church had exalted reason, preserved learning in the monasteries after the fall of Rome, and founded the first Universities devoted to expanding and accumulating knowledge as well as to transmitting it.
Nowhere else had there been a religion oriented to reason as Christianity was, and nowhere else had scientific and technological civilisation ever got off the ground – not in the gentlemen’s debating clubs of ancient Greece, not in Alexandria with its great community of philosophers, geometers and astronomers, not in well-organised Rome (none of which took their gods or religion with oppressive seriousness), and not, in fact, anywhere.
Russell’s reputation rests mainly on his earlier philosophical work Principa Mathematica (1910-13), written in collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead.
In 1925, three years after Russell expressed his bafflement, Whitehead stated in Science and the Modern World: “The greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement [was] the inexpugnable belief that… there is a secret. A secret which can be unveiled.
“How has this conviction been so vividly implanted in the European mind?
“It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and the rationality of a Greek philosopher.
“Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality.”
In China on the other hand, according to the leading expert on the subject, Joseph Needham, an Oxford historian who devoted many volumes to the history of Chinese technology (and, incidentally, a Marxist, not a religious propagandist), the failure of China to develop science was due to the inability of Chinese intellectuals to believe in laws of nature which could be explained and discovered because: “The concept of a divine celestial lawgiver imposing ordinances on non-human nature never developed.
“It was not that there was no order in nature, but rather that it was not an order ordained by a rational personal being …”
Thus, it appears, it did not occur to Chinese intellectuals that science was possible, since it was presumed that the universe was not understandable.
Bertrand Russell appears to have got hold of the wrong end of the stick in the most spectacular fashion: science and technology developed in Europe alone not in spite of Christianity but because of it.