Note: this is the second of three parts of the essay. The first part was published yesterday and the third will be published tomorrow (see links at the bottom of the page).

What was the source of the originators’ faith in fundamental laws?

Einstein wrote about Kepler, who «lived in an age in which the reign of law in nature was by no means an accepted certainty. How great must his faith in a uniform law have been, to have given him the strength to devote ten years of hard and patient work to the empirical investigation of the movement of the planets and the mathematical laws of that movement, entirely on his own, supported by no one and understood by very few!» [11]

All the originators shared such a faith in fundamental laws, but what was the source of this faith? Most probably, it was the genuine religious faith which all the four greats did have as well. Connection between these two kinds of faith was discovered by a Marxist historian - and, sure, atheist - Edgar Zilsel in his seminal research “The Genesis of the Concept of Physical Law” (1942), where he showed that the expressions “Physical Law” and “Law of Nature” emerged in the 17th century within Biblical worldview by transforming an idea of the Universe governed by laws decreed by God into a basic notion of scientific discourse. [12]

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans painted in 1636. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans painted in 1636. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Galileo, who discovered the first fundamental law of modern physics – the law of free fall - never used terms like “Physical Law” and “Law of Nature” in his original Italian publications, instead he used terms like “ragione” (proportion, ratio) or “principio” (principle). But in his “theological” letters of 1613-15 to his disciple and to his patron Galileo started the transformation.[13] Here is a summary of his views:

The Scripture and Nature both derive from God, the Scripture as His dictation, the Nature as the obedient executrix of God's commands. The aim of the Scripture is to persuade humans of those propositions which are necessary for their service to God and salvation. To adapt to the understanding of unlearned people, the Scripture speaks many things which differ from the bare meaning of words, and it would be blasphemy to accept them literally by attributing to God hands, human feelings like anger, regret, and forgetfulness.

Nature, on the other hand, never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, and does not care a whit whether her abstruse reasons and modes of operation are understandable to humans. God has furnished us with senses, language, and intellect not to bypass their use and give us by other means the information we can obtain with them. Therefore, whatever sensory experience and necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural phenomena it should not be questioned on account of Scripture’s words which appear to have a different meaning. This is especially so for the phenomena about which we can read only very few words. The Scripture does not contain even the names of all the planets, and so it was not written to teach us astronomy.

This worldview in fact contains the double postulate of the fundamental science. There are unbreakable laws governing all the abstruse reasons in Nature, and humans have free abilities to understand those reasons by means of their senses, language, and intellect.

Galileo’s “laws imposed by God upon Nature” by the end of the 17th century transforms into just “laws of Nature”, and, as Zilsel found, this transformation was made mainly by deeply religious scientists like Descartes and Boyle.

It was the last publication of the 50-yrs old Zilsel in the series published after he arrived to the USA having escaped from Austria occupied by Nazis. In 1944 Zilsel committed suicide, so we don‘t know what he was thinking about the gap between his earlier Marxist explanation of the Scientific Revolution and his own hint to an anti-Marxist explanation.

The very role of Biblical worldview in the thinking of the first modern physicists is more important than the specific phrase “law of Nature”. An atheist Zilsel wrote about “the law-metaphor originated in the Bible”, but in a religious worldview most ways to talk about God are metaphorical.

There is no much sense to discuss specific denominations of the four originators. While being genuinely religious they were no less genuinely free and independent in their thinking both in science and in religion, which resulted in their being at odds with theological officialdoms. The only denomination all the four could be reasonably affiliated with was “Biblical theism”, since the only source of religious authority they did not question was the Bible while they felt free to question its interpretations including translations from the original. It is most clearly manifested by Newton’s dissertation on corruptions of Scripture. For the four originators the Bible was as original reality as the Nature was.

The connection of the two faiths in the originators’ minds made the double postulate of the fundamental science to resonate with the most general postulates the Bible teaches – acknowledgement of the supreme Creator-Lawgiver and the personal freedom of a human endowed by Himself, who has created man in His image and likeness.

Regardless of religious diversity in Europe this Biblical postulate had been instilled and dissolved in European culture, which more properly could be named the Biblical culture, since the Bible is the most common element of European sub-cultures, as different as Finnish and Italian, Russian and British. Legitimate offspring of the Biblical culture includes unaffiliated believers as well as atheists, since the freedom of conscience, or separation of state and church were introduced into Western social agenda by profoundly biblical people like the Puritans.

One should not think that in that old time there was no atheists at all. Atheism was well established back in the time of Archimedes, - in Epicureanism. An overt atheist was a colleague and friend of Newton – Edmond Halley, and there were many more covert atheists. But an historical fact is that there was no atheists among the originators of modern physics. As far as their attitude toward the Bible is concerned they would probably agree with the next great fundamental physicist Maxwell, who in the very beginning of his scientific career wrote to his close friend:

“Now, my great plan is to let nothing be willfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Title, whether positive or negative. Christianity—that is, the religion of the Bible—is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations.” [14]

In the same free spirit, a quarter century later, Maxwell declined the invitation to join a society whose stated aim was to defend "the great truths revealed in Holy Scripture ... against the opposition of Science falsely so called." He explained: “I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonize his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself, and to him only for a time, and should not receive the stamp of a society. For it is of the nature of science, especially of those branches of science which are spreading into unknown regions to be continually —”.[15] Here the draft ends, but one can guess that Maxwell was to continue something like “… to be continually asking new questions and questioning accustomed answers”.

In the next generation the fundamental double postulate was laconically formulated by Einstein: “Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not”. Having undergone deep religiosity as a child, adult Einstein was far away from any churchlike life, but presenting his "cosmic religion" he wrote that "the beginning of cosmic religious feeling already appear... in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets".[16]

While in Einstein's time one could have a faith in fundamental physical laws just because quite a few laws had been discovered, it was not so in the 16th century when there were none. Hence it seems to be the key fact that all the originators of the modern physics were Biblical theists, whose fundamental worldview was supported by their Biblical “pre-physics” (to avoid words “prejudgment” and “metaphysics”). Their creativity in fundamental science was supported by their intellectual and spiritual experience in dealing with invisible reality, by the parallel between non-evident laws in ethics and in physics.

It resulted in Galileo’s idea of the two Great Books by the same Author – the book of Scripture and the book of Nature, which are to be properly translated from their original languages into vernacular and into the language of sensual experience. Hence Galileo’s famous words about the mathematical language as the original language of the book of Nature.

Now what about the two above-mentioned books on the origin of modern science (see Part 1 of this essay, published yesterday)? H. F. Cohen’s explanation [1] not only comprehensively ignores religion as a major factor in the history of science, but also ignores a key result of “The Genesis of the Concept of Physical Law” by Edgar Zilsel.

On the other hand P. Harrison not only believes in the paramount importance of religion, he tries to demonstrate that theological discussions about the Fall of Man were of vital importance for the Rise of Modern Science. Since he presents no evidence that scientists the originators were involved in such discussions, one can be skeptical regarding such a role of theology, while theologians themselves could well be interested in the supernatural status of natural science.

As to the theistic originators they apparently were too focused on their natural philosophy to digress from it into pure theology. It does not mean, however, that the story about the Tree of Knowledge on the very first pages of their Holy Scripture was insignificant in their spiritual evolution.

A would-be physicist by the Tree of Knowledge

Let’s look at this biblical story through the eyes of not a theologian but an adolescent biblical theist endowed with a talent to seek knowledge about Nature, that is extraordinary curiosity and independent thinking. After all, or, rather, first and foremost, the story about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is the first biblical story where human being is acting as a free subject.

First, our smart reader would grasp that this story is about knowledge in general, for to do good in a specific situation one have to know the working of this situation, for example, to know what would heal the specific sickness of a suffering person.

Second, our reader would grasp that God’s words not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge lest to become mortal, was not an outright prohibition but a kind of forewarning, for God’s prohibiting commandment (“Thou shalt not …”) didn’t refer to consequences of its violation.

And, third, a potential researcher of nature could easily comprehend the main motivation of Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge because of longing for knowledge, a basic situation of fundamental scientific inquiry.

Since it was the very first action of Eva, apparently both her freedom of choice and her longing for knowledge had been provided to her by her Creator. Hence a potential fundamental scientist would feel free to be dying for a new piece of knowledge about the Universe and would accept his responsibility for this.

Even within Biblical cultural domain there is evidence of such a support from the Bible since its role is somewhat different in different Christian denominations, being most prominent in Protestantism. The idea that Protestant worldview was beneficial to the science was based on the statistical fact of the disproportionately high contribution of Protestants to science since 17th century. [17]

This fact is supported by statistics of religious background of Nobel laureates (1901-2002): those with Catholic background are 9% of Nobel laureates and 17% of the world population, while those with Protestant background are 30% of Nobel laureates and 7% of the world population.[18] Such a difference looks like a result of a few centuries of stronger development of science in the Protestant world, but in the early 17th century science in the Catholic world was no weaker than in the Protestant one. And such a developing disparity should be explained.

Despite all the differences within Biblical civilization, much greater was the difference of other civilizations in ability to adopt modern science. Instructive is comparison between Russian and Chinese Empires.

China was much more advanced with its great inventions in technology, traditions in philosophy and astronomical observations. The modern science was brought to China by Jesuit missionaries back in 17th century and was welcomed by Chinese emperor, who appointed a missionary his scientific adviser.

More than a century later, the modern science was brought to Russia due to Peter the Great. It started with bringing outstanding scientists from Europe, including Euler and Bernoulli. However very soon a powerful indigenous figure of M. Lomonosov appeared, and the first world-class results in exact sciences – N. Lobachevski’s geometry and D. Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements – emerged a century before Chinese noticeable contribution into the modern science.

So the strong disparity could be explained by the fact that Russia belonged to Biblical civilization despite all the socio-economical differences with Western Europe. As far as the tiny minority of potential scientists in Russia is concerned, they relied on the same cultural infrastructure as the minority of the same kind in the Western Europe.

In China the main hindrance was apparently the lack of a concept of “law of nature”. When a missionary tried to explain to Chinese “that God, who created the universe out of nothing, governs it by general Laws, worthy of his infinite Wisdom, and to which all creatures conform with a wonderful regularity, they say, that these are high-sounding words to which they can affix no idea, and which do not at all enlighten their understanding. As for what we call laws, answer they, we comprehend an Order established by a Legislator, who has the power to enjoin them to creatures capable of executing these laws, and consequently capable of knowing and understanding them.

If you say that God has established Laws, to be executed by Beings capable of knowing them, it follows that animals, plants, and in general all bodies which act conformable to these Universal Laws, have a knowledge of them, and consequently that they are endowed with understanding, which is absurd."[19]

Some Merton’s followers pointed out the role of “biblical worldview” in the rise of modern science by focusing on a new Protestant - active, optimistic - “Christian empiricism” as the new respect to the facts of nature rather than to old-fashioned intellectual speculations and mysticism. [20] However such empiricism was insufficient for the first major triumphs in astronomy and physics authored both by Catholics and Protestants. And this approach had nothing to explain specific intellectual contribution into the new – modern – science.

The approach suggested here starts with selecting astronomy and physics as the core of the Scientific Revolution. The “Biblical worldview” is reduced to two very basic postulates on an invisible super-intelligent Creator-Lawgiver who endowed humans with the free intelligent ability to understand His will and deeds. Those postulates were intellectual and inspirational support for a religious scientist to make fundamental science. The source of those postulates was the Bible itself whose role climaxed in the era of Reformation in both Catholic and Protestant parts of Europe.

It did climax regardless of the different roles of the Book in the Catholic tradition and the Protestant innovation, and due to the very fact of debates around its role together with its mass printing and translations into vernaculars. As far as science is concerned, the basic biblical prototype of the double postulate was much more important than theological subtleties which are too far from scientific problems.

After the debates of Reformation had been over, Protestant innovation became a new tradition, and different roles of the Bible started to work differently in Catholic and Protestant parts of Europe. The Protestant tradition promotes a much more active role of the Bible in daily life that could explain more active development of science than in Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

As to the science beyond physics, it was the very striking success of fundamental physics in demonstrating the ability of the human mind to probe and understand Nature that became a great inspiration and encouragement for scientists the non-physicists.

Since the modern physics was invented in the time when the Bible’s social role was the greatest in the European history, no wonder if contribution of the Bible into the genesis of the modern science was no less than the Bible’s contributions into European humanities. Even if a person of high European culture does not believe that he is a believer, he is familiar with biblical phrasings, characters, and stories, he is aware of basic biblical postulates and paradigms, which are in his intellectual arsenal.

The modern notion of atheism was formed in European culture, and so it is the biblical atheism which stemmed from the same source of freedom that was employed by Eve in the garden of Eden. And those Westerners who are open to Eastern wisdoms of Zen, Yoga and so on, implicitly follow the cultural genome of Biblical civilization, with its cultural genes of openness, activity, and higher personal freedom and responsibility per capita. In fact, cultural distance between biblical theist and biblical atheist is much less than the distance between representatives of different civilizations.

So, the hypothesis that the Bible inspired the Scientific Revolution is a simple answer to the Needham question since the Bible did distinguish European culture from all the others. However by the time of the Scientific Revolution the Bible was around for many centuries. Why had it been waiting for so long to launch the modern physics? It waited for the time when the Book took the most prominent cultural role in its history due to Gutenberg and Reformation.

The Scientific Revolution overlapped with a few major European phenomena: Renaissance, Reformation, Capitalism, and political fragmentation of Europe, as impossibility to create All-European Empire or even a predominant European Empire. All these phenomena mattered for the Scientific Revolution, and all of them required sufficient freedom per capita together with responsibility as respect to the rule of law, first and foremost to the rule of the supreme law - intelligible, rational, even if super-rational, but not irrational law. The most fundamental all-European base for such a cultural infrastructure was the Bible whose role started to strengthen since 12th century with the principle “Sola Scripture” (by scripture alone) triumphed in the Protestantism.

According to a Russian proverb and unregistered law of dialectics there is no bad without some good and no good without some bad. And the theistic predisposition was not absolutely beneficial. It hindered Galileo to discover universal gravity. Indeed, he discovered the first fundamental law of gravity which was not only the starting point for Newton's theory of gravity but also, three centuries later, the guiding principle (of equivalence) for Einstein’s theory of gravity-space-time. Was not Galileo able to make a next step to inverse-square law of gravity? This is the question for the next and last posting, tomorrow.


Image: Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans painted in 1636. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Wikimedia Commons.


I am grateful to Chia-Hsiung Tze for helping me to appreciate the Needham question, to Lanfranco Belloni for help in checking with the original Italian of Galileo, to Robert S. Cohen, who helped me to appreciate Edgar Zilsel, to Sergey Zelensky and the Methodological seminar at the Institute for History of Science and Technology (Moscow) for stimulating discussions, and to John Stachel for helpful critical remarks.


[11] A. Einstein. Johannes Kepler (in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of his death), 1930.

[12] Edgar Zilsel. “The Genesis of the Concept of Physical Law” // The Philosophical Review, May 1942, p. 245-279; In: Edgar Zilsel. The Social Origins of Modern Science. 2000.

[13] Galileo Galilei. Letter to Benedetto Castelli (1613) and Galileo Galilei, Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany Concerning the Use of Biblical Quotations in Matters of Science (1615)

[14] L. Campbell and W. Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1884 , p. 96.

[15] Ibid, , p. 196.

[16] Quote in M. Jammer. Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology. Princeton University Press, 2011, p. 76, 234.

[17] H. F. Cohen, The scientific revolution: a historiographical inquiry, 1994, p. 314.

[18] J. M. Rector and K. N. Rector. What is the Challenge for LDS Scholars and Artists? // Dialogue - A Journal of Mormon Thought, 2003, Vol. 36, N 2, p. 34-46.

[19] Quote in: H. F. Cohen, The scientific revolution: a historiographical inquiry, 1994, p. 467.

[20] H. F. Cohen, The scientific revolution: a historiographical inquiry, 1994, ch.5.

See all three parts of this essay:

How the Modern Physics was invented in the 17th century, part 1: The Needham Question

How the Modern Physics was invented in the 17th century, part 2: source of fundamental laws

How the Modern Physics was invented in the 17th century, part 3: Why Galileo didn’t discover universal gravitation?