Sunday, February 12, 2006

Science and the Church

Veni, vidi, vici” neatly sums up Gaius Julius Caesar’s report to Rome in 47 B.C. after conquering Farnakes at Zela in Asia Minor in just five days. As always, the victors write the histories of war to serve their own purposes. Most histories, however, are not written by centurions or generals, but by academics in universities, many with their own purposes.

The history of Church-science relations is one filled with myth and falsehood. The popular story begins with the Greeks who developed a rich scientific tradition until the fall of the Roman Empire when the “Dark Ages” fell upon Europe. During that era of superstition and intellectual stagnation, the Church fluorished but science withered on the vine. Finally, after several centuries, intellectuals rebelled against Church power and the Renaissance reopened the link to Greek learning; then the Scientific Revolution in the 16th century renewed the Greek scientific tradition. It’s a nice story!

Except that it is largely a myth, known to be one by professional historians, yet perpetuated in popular writing and many textbooks. Let’s deconstruct the myth.

Science requires both theory and experiment. Pure empiricism without explanation is not science. Pure speculation without experiment is not science. And that was the problem with Greek learning. “Greek empiricism was atheoretical and Greek theory was nonemperical.” [Stark, Block] Even Charles Darwin recognized that failing. The Greeks approached science but in the end what they achieved were non-empirical speculative philosophies (Socrates, Plato), atheoretical collections of facts (Archimedes) and isolated crafts and technologies.

Most important, the Greeks insisted on turning the cosmos into a collection of living things. Aristotle thought, for example, that celestial objects moved in circles because of their affection for that motion. The Greeks did not develop science.

And how dark were the so-called Dark Ages? Edward Gibbon’s (1737-1794) “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” was a massive indictment of religion, blaming it for barbarism and ignorance in Europe. “The Discoverers” (1983) by Daniel Boorstin also condemned Christianity: “After Christianity conquered the Roman Empire and most of Europe, we observe a Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia from AD 300 until at least 1300.” There are so many tales.

A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom” (1896) by Andrew Dixon White (the founder of Cornell) was an immense study of supposed Church-science conflict. His flat Earth story is most entertaining.

According to White, the Church tried to stop Columbus’ journey to the East on the presumption that he would fall off the flat Earth. In fact, all educated men since Venerable Bede (673-735) knew that the Earth was round. Indeed the most popular Astronomy textbook in the Dark Ages was “Sphere” by John of Sacrobosco (1200-1256). The Church officials opposed Columbus’ trip because he had badly underestimated the circumference of the Earth and the length of the journey. (Columbus claimed the trip was 2800 miles when it was actually 14,000 miles) Were it not for America, the sailors would have starved before reaching Japan. [Russell]

Modern historians have discredited these views and the term “Dark Ages” is out of favor. “In technology, at least, the Dark Ages mark a steady and uninterrupted advance over the Roman Empire.” [White] In fact, the Dark Ages were one of the great inventive eras of mankind. The Christian universities in the 12th and 13th centuries even enabled the resurrection of Greek scholarship (but not science) in Europe through a flood of translations of Greek works into Latin.

The most remarkable thing is that modern science began during the Dark Ages, and because of the Church, not opposed by the Church. [Grant] The Christian foundations of reason and science go back to Saint Augustine (354-430) who held that reason was indispensable to faith. Saint Bonaventure (1221-1274) wrote that it is the “purpose of science that God may be honored.” In his monumental Summa Theologiae, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) held that it is necessary for humans to use reason to achieve knowledge and that science arises as the “handmaiden” of theology.

Thus, Western science encompassing both theory and experiment began with the Scholastics in the medieval European Universities at Paris, Bologna, Padua,.. in the 14th century. William of Ockham (1295-1358) anticipated Newton’s first law of motion. Jean Buridan (1300-1358) at the University of Paris developed the concept of inertia and described the rotation of the Earth on its axis. Nicole d’Oresme (1325-1382) further refined the understanding of the Earth’s rotation and applied mathematics for the first time to the description. Albert of Saxony (1316-1390) taught the first approximation of Newton’s first law and wrote the physics text used by Copernicus. By the time Copernicus entered university the idea of a heliocentric solar system was already well established.

Albertus Magnus (1205-1280) corrected many of Aristotle’s empirical claims and brought the scientific method to botany. Mondino de’Luzzi (1270-1326) wrote the first textbook on dissection, contrary to the popular myth about Vesalius (1514-1564). A commitment to rigorous empiricism and experiment was vital to the rise of science in the (not so) Dark Ages.

Thus, the flourishing of science during the 16th century Scientific Revolution by Copernicus, DaVinci and Galileo, was the natural progression of the scientific advances by the Scholastics starting in the 14th century. Science arose only once, in medieval Europe, in a culture dominated by belief in a conscious, rational Creator. [Whitehead]


Block, Mark, ”The Feudal Society” (1961)

Grant, Edward, “Planets, Stars and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos” (1994);
“The Foundations of Modern Science” (1996)

Russell, Jeffrey, “Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians” (1991)

Stark, Rodney, “For the Glory of God” (2003)

White, Lynn, “Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages,” Speculum 15 (1940).

Whitehead, Alfred North, “Science and the Modern World” (1967)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, dear friend, for the heads up on history..I recently purchased"The History of the Decline and Fall.." by Edward Gibbons (abridged edition) where the heck does one go to find history unre-written?..of course, biases always come out in the telling of any story, but any suggestions on getting a more clear view of history?.. keep up the great work, friend!
Love in Jesus,

5:38 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

In his 6 volumes and 1000 pages there is much good history in Gibbon's treatise. It is just worth knowing that, like most Humanists, he was dogmatically anti-church, believing that the rise of science required the defeat of religion. He was also an apologist for Roman slavery.

My starting point is Rodney Stark: "For the Glory of God" (2003) and "The Victory of Reason." (2005)

For an alternative to Gibbon see Henri Pirenne, "A History of Europe from the End of the Roman Empire in the West to the Beginnings of the Western States." (1958)

For the Middle Ages see Marcia Cholish, "Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition." (1997)

For the foundations of science, in addition to Whitehead, see John Polkinghorne, "Belief in God in an Age of Science" (1998) and Stanley Jaki, "The Savior of Science" (2000).


5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Some good research. A week ago you didn't know when the Renaissance started, and now you've done some good basic reading on early medieval scientific thought. It's a good start , but your conclusion isn't supported by your statements.

I agree with the following:

(a) The "dark ages" were not as "dark" as they have sometimes been portrayed. The monastic communities of Europe were centers of learning for many hundreds of years.

(b) Most of the people who contributed to the resurgence of science following the 13th century were devout Christians.

However, you can't move from these statements to your vision of a benevolent Catholic Church nursing the develeopment of science. There are simply too many facts which directly contradict this. It's as though you're concluding that, because Shostakovich and Prokoviev were brilliant composers in 20th century Russia, the Soviet communist system nurtured classical music. It simply wasn't true.

The following, however, are true:

(1) The new awareness of Greek thought, which was created in the early Renaissance, resulted from its sustenance by Arabic (Islamic) thinkers rather than Christians. Greek thought was brought to light through Islamic Spain.

(2) The development of science was greatly facilitated by the use of the decimal system of numerals, also an Arabic (Islamic) invention. The Roman system is almost impossible to calculate with.

(3) You're too hard on Aristotle. Many of his thought processes survived for 2,000 years, a lot longer than Newton's (for example).

(4) The Catholic Church was on the defensive from the 14th century onwards. Like the 20th Century Soviet Communist party, it tolerated thought as long as its (sometimes untenable) positions were not threatened. When they were threatened, it fought back. In the 13th Century it banned the study of Aristotle, and excommunicated those who disobeyed.

(5)In the sixteenth century it worked hard to prevent Copernicus from publishing his heliocentric theory.

(6) In the 17th century it punished Galileo for his support of this theory and his views on atomism (which contradicted the idea of transubstantiation).

(7) Descartes, the "father" of modern philosophy was forced to withdraw Le Monde, his treatise on Physics and Cosmology, for fear of Church reprisals.

etc. etc. etc. The list goes on....

Thanks for discussing this though. It's much better than your normal Bush-loving, liberal-hating stuff.


10:11 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home