Aristotle said that all men by nature desire to know – and I think it’s safe to say that this desire, this urge to know, understand, come to grips with the world around us is what drives science. There’s the practical side of science – things like microwaves, televisons, iPods, e-readers, the internet are all products of scientific research experimentation, study, debate and a little bit of luck. There’s the more fundamental, but perhaps less immediately practical, side of science – for example, quantum mechanics and a lot of modern cosmology and physics. Less “practical” but perhaps no less necessary.
Now, before you get to science, there’s a bit of groundwork to be laid. Some basic things need to be at the foundation of science for it to proceed or even be conceivable. Things like something to study – and even before that, the intelligibility of whatever is under scrutiny. This is a pretty basic thing – for science to be possible, its object of study (broadly, nature) has to be intelligible. That’s kind of a ‘duh’ thing.
Now before we get to the intelligibility of nature, there’s a bit more groundwork to be laid. not only does nature have to be intelligible, people (like scientists) have to believe that it is, in fact, intelligible. If one didn’t believe that it was, one would probably not be too driven to try to understand it. If I don’t believe that Detroit is the capital of Michigan, I probably won’t be too driven to plan a trip to explore Detroit. This isn’t a perfect metaphor but it conveys the point.
As obvious as this may seem, there have been people who denied that nature constituted an intelligible object for study, in spirit if not in fact. Heraclitus comes to mind – all is flux is not something germane to scientific study. The same (but opposite) goes for Parmenides.
So nature has to be intelligible, and people have to believe that it is intelligible, for science to proceed. An epistemology germane to such a belief was provided by the theism of the Judeo-Christian tradition – according to which God was a rational creator whose creation reflected that rationality by virtue of its order and regularity – ‘but thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight.’ (Wisdom 11:21)
This belief in the natural intelligibility of the created order was developed in the middle ages, along with the idea of the fit of the intellect to reality – the mind is predisposed to the rational created order. These beliefs laid the groundwork for the enterprise of modern science – indeed, the medieval era was one of scientific, mathematical and philosophical discovery and development. Fr. Stanley Jaki has developed this argument with great detail, and a quick search of his name on this blog will show several sections of his writings in which he does so.
Now, what I am not saying is this: that every practicing scientist has to believe in God. Clearly they don’t (even if most of the great creative scientists in history either were devout Christians or held to some form of theistic belief). What I am saying is that the epistemology which makes science possible, the belief in an intelligible external reality open to investigation, is a product of Christian theism and the epistemology contained therein, i.e., belief in a rational Creator whose creation reflects His rationality by its own rationality.