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A Celibate Life in a Libertine Age

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September 26, 2013 Tags: Lives of Faith, Morality & Ethics
A Celibate Life in a Libertine Age
Steel line engraving of Lismore Castle above the River Blackwater, County Waterford, Ireland, by Elias Benjamin, after William Henry Bartlett (1842). When Robert Boyle was born here on 25 January 1627, it did not look very much like this. Originally built by King John in the 12th century and rebuilt by his father in the 17th century, the castle was heavily damaged during the Irish Confederate Wars by forces commanded by Lord Castlehaven. During the 19th century it was substantially rebuilt yet again, giving it the more romantic appearance that it has today.

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

In previous columns we examined Boyle’s religious doubts and his serious piety. Now we turn to his family background and the influence it exerted both on his piety and on his decision to remain unmarried and chaste.

Robert Boyle’s Family and His Attitude toward Marriage

Robert Boyle’s family circumstances did not suggest that he would someday become a scientist. Born in January 1627, he was the seventh son and fourteenth child of the second wife of Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork. In his diary the Earl projected a pious, God-fearing image of himself. Young “Robyn” (or “Robin”), as his father called him, hardly knew his father in person. Owning property in diverse parts of Ireland and England, and doing business often in other places, the Earl did not often occupy the same physical space as his son, and he died before Robert returned from his long visit to the Continent (which I told you about previously). For the most part, then, Robert’s view of his own father was heavily influenced by the image Richard Boyle had fashioned himself.

Isaac Oliver’s portrait of Richard Boyle at age forty-something
(ca. 1610-1615),National Portrait Gallery, London (Source)

In fact, the Earl was an ambitious adventurer and an unscrupulous wheeler-dealer who took full advantage of English colonialism in Ireland to become one of the very wealthiest men in all of England and Ireland. Young “Robin” watched as his thirteen older brothers and sisters became pawns in the hands of a power broker, the boys given titles and lands and the girls married off to the sons of other powerful men–who often had more ardor for their houses and horses than for their wives. Robin’s sister Katherine, Viscountess Ranelagh, his favorite person, was married at fifteen to Arthur Jones, a man described by family friend Sir John Leeke as “the foulest Churle in the world; he hath only one vertu that he seldom cometh sober to bedd,” and thus couldn’t see straight enough to beat her (Memoirs of the Verney Family, vol. 1, p. 206). “Kate” lived apart from her husband for many years before his timely death made her final twenty-two years a much happier time.

Unfortunately, this was how things were usually done in the Earl of Cork’s household. Francis Boyle, all of sixteen years himself, was torn from his seventeen-year-old wife Elizabeth Killigrew, daughter of a deceased servant of Queen Henrietta Maria, just four days after their wedding in the chapel at the Royal Palace of Whitehall. His father forced him to go with Robert to Geneva for two and a half years (as it happened, Robert stayed in Geneva about twice as long, but he had no wife to be abandoned back in England). Under the circumstances, is it really surprising, that “Betty,” whose brother Thomas Killigrew employed Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwyn at his famous Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, likewise found fame as a mistress who bore Charles a daughter? Venereal disease had prevented Lewis Boyle from consummating his marriage, and Roger Boyle was said by his own fiancée to have had gonorrhea. With such examples close at hand, it is little wonder that Boyle took a very dim view of courtly mores.

Not everything at Lismore Castle was destroyed in 1645. The gatehouse is still substantially the same as in Boyle’s day and the garden—designed by his father, the Great Earl of Cork, within the outer defensive walls—is thought to be the oldest such garden in Ireland. Photographs by Kathryn A. Davis.

The youthful Robin narrowly avoided an arranged marriage himself, and later dodged the well-intended effort of his good friend, Oxford mathematician John Wallis, to match him up with an eligible woman from a wealthy family. Boyle remained not only unmarried, but celibate his entire life. To the best of our knowledge, the closest he ever came to having sexual relations was during a visit to Florence with his brother Francis and their tutor in his sixteenth year. By his own recollection a few years later, “Nor did he sometimes scruple, in his Governor’s Company, to visit the famousest Bordellos; whither resorting out of bare Curiosity, he retain’d there an unblemish’t Chastity, & still return’d thence as honest as he went thither.” On another occasion, two friars made sexual advances that were most unwelcome. In Boyle’s own words, “he prov’d the Object of unnaturall [desires]. For being at that Time in the Flower of Youth, & the Cares of the World having not yet stain’d a Complexion naturally fresh enuf; as he was once unaccompany’d diverting himselfe abroad, he was somewhat rudely storm’d by the Preposterous Courtship of 2 of those Fryers, whose Lust makes no Distinction of Sexes, but that which it’s Preference of their owne creates; & not without Difficulty, & Danger, forc’t a scape from these gown’d Sodomites” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, p. 20).

Many years later, he told Gilbert Burnet (for more information about him, see my previous column) that he had “Abstained from purposes of marriage at first out of Policy [and] afterwards more Philosophically” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, p. 27). To understand what he meant, we should read a few sentences from his first published book, Some Motives and Incentives to the Love of God (1659), which extolled “the Joyes of Seraphick Love” over merely human romance. “I am no such enemy to Matrimony, as some (for want of understanding the Raillery, I have sometimes us’d in ordinary discourse) are pleased to think me,” he claimed. Scarcely skipping a breath, he added, “yet I have observed so few Happy Matches, and so many Unfortunate ones; and have so rarely seen men love their wives at the rate they did, whilst they were their Mistresses, that I wonder not, that Legislators thought it necessary to make marriages Indissoluble, to make them Lasting.” Comparing marriage to a lottery, he noted that both offered a chance for success, “But in both Lotteries, there lye a pretty store of Blancks for every Prize” (The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 1, pp. 81-2).  Having seen many women try to make the best of bad marriages, Boyle advised the woman who wanted to be a good wife, “to deliberate much upon a Choice she can probably make but once; and not needlesly venture to embarque herself on a Sea so infamous for frequent Shipwracks, only because she is offer’d a fine Ship to make the long Voyage with” (The Matyrdom of Theodora, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 11, p. 32).

Robert and Katherine

Although she was twelve years older, the unhappily married Katherine became Robert’s closest friend. When he moved from Oxford to London in 1668, he lived in her home on Pall Mall for the rest of his life, setting up his laboratory and receiving distinguished guests on the premises. Owing to the work of Michelle DiMaio, Lynette Hunter, and Sarah Hutton, we now know far more about her than we used to. Nevertheless, Kate has long been recognized as a brilliant woman who, according to John Leeke, “hath a memory that will hear a sermon and goe home and penn itt after dinner verbatim” (Memoirs of the Verney Family, vol. 1, pp. 203-204). Among other activities, she convened a salon for important intellectuals, including the great poet John Milton, who tutored her son, Samuel Hartlib, and several members of Parliament. As Hutton says, she was “the leading woman intellectual of her generation.”

The moral influence she had on her brother was powerful. She first got to know him well immediately upon his return from Geneva, when he took up residence temporarily with Katherine, who was then living in London with a sister-in-law, whose husband Sir John Clotworthy was an important member of the Puritan Parliament. Gilbert Burnet’s description of her character strongly suggests that the teenaged Robert learned much from her:

“She imployed [her whole life] for doing good to others, in which she laid out her Time, her Interest, and her Estate, with the greatest Zeal and the most Success that I have ever known. She was indefatigable as well as dextrous in it: and as her great Understanding, and the vast Esteem she was in, made all Persons in their several turns of Greatness, desire and value her Friendship; so she gave her self a clear Title to imploy her Interest with them for the Service of others, by this that she never made any use of it to any End or Design of her own. ... When any Party was down, she had Credit and Zeal enough to serve them, and she imployed that so effectually, that in the next Turn she had a new stock of Credit, which she laid out wholly in the Labour of Love, in which she spent her Life: and though some particular Opinions might shut her up in a divided Communion, yet her Soul was never of a Party: She divided her Charities and Friendships both, her Esteem as well as her Bounty, with the truest Regard to Merit, and her own Obligations, without any Difference, made upon the Account of Opinion” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, pp. 52-3). In short, she was a true friend to those in need, and she didn’t hold someone’s political views against them.

Katherine was also deeply pious and well versed in theology, traits she shared with their sister Mary Rich, who unexpectedly became Countess of Warwick when her husband’s elder brother died without a male heir in 1659. The previously worldly Mary experienced a religious conversion in her early twenties, mainly in response to the serious illness of her four-year-old son. Some of the proverbs and meditations she compiled can only be described as profound; others were more practical but no less wise, such as her advice that, “The best shield against slanderers is, to live so that none may believe them.” In her diary, Mary noted how Robert, Katherine, and she would sometimes have “holy discourse” together, or “good and profitable discourse of things wherewith we might edify one another” (Memoir of Lady Warwick, pp. 38, 91, and 102).

Mary Rich, engraving by Robert White, after unknown artist. This was the
frontispiece to Anthony Walker, The Virtuous Woman Found (1678).
There are no publicly available images of Katherine, but three oil paintings
exist in private hands, including one at Hampton Court Palace.

Robert had Katherine’s splendid example to inspire and the ostentatiously pious diary of a father whom he had hardly known to emulate. All the same, as Steven Shapin has noted, “the serious and systematic embrace of a reflectively religious life was relatively rare for someone of Boyle’s condition and degree” (A Social History of Truth, p. 157).  His earliest writings, dating from around his twentieth birthday though not published (if at all) until many years afterward, reflect the intensity of his own intimate relationship with God. Several have already been quoted in this series, and two of them inspired compositions by great composers. A work I quoted briefly above, The Martyrdom of Theodora, became the basis for Thomas Morell’s libretto for Handel’s opera Theodora in the 18th century. A devotional work dedicated to Katherine, Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects, is usually remembered today because it was satirized by Jonathan Swift, yet it was appreciated by Puritans and remained in print for almost two hundred years. Richard Baxter told Boyle that “your pious Meditations & Reflexions, do call to me for greater Reverence in the reading of them, & make me put off my hatt, as if I were in the Church,” and “your speciall way of Occasionall Meditation, I take to be exceeding usefull!” (The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, vol. 2, pp. 473 and 476) The following passage is typical for its tone and content: “we must never venture to wander far from God, upon the Presumption that Death is far enough from us, but rather in the very height of our Jollities, we should endeavour to remember, that they who feast themselves to-day, may themselves prove Feasts for the Worms to-morrow” (Occasional Reflections, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 5, p. 153). Here Boyle expresses not a morbid interest in death, but an appropriate Christian recognition that a sense of our mortality is the foundation of morality. Thus, it’s not too surprising that Isaac Watts was attracted to another passage, in which Boyle compared the human body to an instrument with 1,000 strings, so complex yet so delicately balanced—when one is blessed with good health. Watts transformed Boyle’s mundane prose into a four-line hymn, which was later set to music by the colonial American composer William Billings as part of his anthem, Creation. If you listen to it, pay attention to the fuguing tune in the latter part of the piece: those are the words inspired by Boyle.

I’ll end this column on that note.

Looking Ahead

The next column examines how he made science his Christian vocation.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

This material is adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” Science & Christian Belief 19 (2007): 117-38. Additional information is from Davis, “Robert Boyle as the source of an Isaac Watts text set for a William Billings anthem,” The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song, 53 (2002): 46-7, and Terence O. Ranger, “Richard Boyle and the making of an Irish fortune, 1588-1614,” Irish Historical Studies 10 (1957): 257-97.

The words of John Leeke are taken from Frances Parthenope Verney and Margaret M. Verney, Memoirs of the Verney Family, 4 vols. (Longmans, 1892). Boyle’s autobiography, “An account of Philaretus during his minority,” is published in Michael Hunter, Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends (1994), the same collection that includes Gilbert Burnet’s recollections. Mary Rich’s words are from Anthony Walker, Memoir of Lady Warwick: also her diary, from A.D. 1666 to 1672, now first published: to which are added, extracts from her other writings (Religious Tract Society, 1847). Other quotations are from The Works of Robert Boyle (Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), 14 vols., ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis, and The Correspondence of Robert Boyle (Pickering & Chatto, 2001), 6 vols., ed. Michael Hunter, Antonio Clericuzio, and Lawrence M. Principe.


Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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PNG - #82694

September 26th 2013

Ted, I’m finding your posts on Boyle quite interesting. I can see why you have focused so much of your efforts on him. This is somewhat tangential, but I’ve been reading Carl Zimmer’s Soul Made Flesh, about Thomas Willis and the beginnings of neurology. Of course Boyle is one of a number of characters close to Willis at that time. Wondering if you’ve read it and have any comment on it from the perspective of someone who knows the era well.

Ted Davis - #82696

September 26th 2013

Thank you for expressing appreciation, PNG. I have not read Zimmer’s book, but you’re right that Boyle knew him. As a student at Oxford, Robert Hooke first worked as an assistant to Willis before “hooking up” with Boyle (couldn’t resist that awful pun). Boyle’s interest in anatomy was keen, but he was no expert himself even though he did participate in dissections at times.

If you are interested in 17th-century Oxford and enjoy historical fiction, you might like to read an excellent, highly accurate (in the historical material) novel about the truly spectacular case of Anne Greene (http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v5/n4/fig_tab/nrn1369_F4.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Greene), a woman who was hanged in 1650 but resucitated on the dissecting table afterwards. If that doesn’t grab readers, I don’t know what will. 

Boyle is a background figure in the novel; his friend John Wallis is a major figure, but he comes off badly. Here is the novel I’m talking about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Instance_of_the_Fingerpost.

PNG - #82709

September 27th 2013

Zimmer discusses the Anne Greene episode. It is certainly one of those cases where truth is stranger than fiction. Zimmer doesn’t venture any conjecture about how it could have happened, and I can’t think of any explanation. 

Lou Jost - #82707

September 26th 2013

Yes, these are interesting posts, even for an atheist….

Ted Davis - #82711

September 27th 2013

Thank you, Lou, I didn’t know you were reading this series, since the topic is a different cup of tea for BL and you’re not an historian. Some upcoming columns will bring us back closer to our customary brew, however, especially when we reach Boyle’s advocacy of methodological naturalism.

GJDS - #82708

September 27th 2013

Information of people such as Boyle is welcomed, and indeed science students would greatly benefit if exposed to the history of the sciences in this way. In this particular case, the life of Boyle exemplifies imo, the great contrast between the life of the Christian, with that of those who may pay lip service to the faith (especially when it is the established institution of that society), but whose life is anything but Christian. I have to comment on the ignorance often expressed by atheists (and others of similar outlooks), who seem to believe that a century or two ago, everyone and everything was Christian, until these atheist chaps came along to show us that religion is an illusion. Indeed, Christians, I believe, have always been in the minority, while manipulators, power brokers, and other unsavoury characters, in those days (though such people are not inclined to put on such theatrics nowadays), would put on a ‘Christian’ persona, while their lives were full of vice.  

Ted Davis - #82712

September 27th 2013

You’re on target about the need for science students to be exposed to more history of science, GJDS. Students studying many other fields—art, music, literature, philosophy, psychology, even medicine—usually do get some formal exposure to the history of their own field. It’s extensive in music and art, sometimes amounting to 3 or 4 semester courses. Science students rarely, if ever, get this unless they deliberately seek it out. At Messiah College, all science students have a required course that is partly (about half) devoted to some history of science. Although that doesn’t sound like very much (it’s not), our science students probably get more formal exposure to it than their peers at almost any other college or university. Shame on the scientists.

I have the impression (without looking into this seriously) that there’s more history of science in science textbooks than their used to be, but that isn’t saying much. I also think that it’s a bit more accurate than it used to be, and that’s not saying much either. It’s still often heavily sanitized, to reinforce the highly positivistic view of science that many scientists apparently want to inculcate into their students while they are still young. Nearly 40 years ago, physicist-historian Stephen Brush (http://punsterproductions.com/~sciencehistory/), who has done more than most to try to remedy this, wrote a famous and brilliant article about the situation as he found it then, an article that (I fear) is still on target: “Should the History of Science Be Rated X?” Science 183 (Mar. 22, 1974): 1164-1172 (oregonstate.edu/instruct/hsts414/doel/SB_H_S_rated_X.pdf).

As Brush notes, exposing science students to genuine HSC can be subsersive to a positivist agenda. I’d like nothing more than for science students to find their way to this series. Readers who like what I’m doing may want to put links in places where science students are likely to see them.

Ted Davis - #82716

September 27th 2013

There’s apparently something wrong with the link I gave to Brush’s article, and I can’t figure out how to fix it. Anyone who wants to read it can just use his name and the title to find a copy. I found half a dozen just now. Sorry for any inconvenince.

GJDS - #82714

September 27th 2013

Reply to #82712

Ted, I agree with you that science students (and all who are educated, but to a lesser degree) should be made aware of the history of science. It is commendable to know from you that Messiah College provides such a course. Thanks for the link to S Brush; I may add a paper from the same period by  André Coumnand, “The Code of the Scientist and Its Relationship to Ethics”, http://www.sciencemag.org on September 27, 2013. Both of these papers are worth a careful and leisurely reading, as they contain insights on the sciences and practicing scientists. I note that “objectivity’ is given high priority by such thinkers, and I wonder if scientists have pondered on what that may mean. I know from personal experience that the pressures of daily research, along with external pressures to publish, obtain grants, and for some of us, to put science into practice through commercialisation, can often obscure many fundamental aspects that underpin the integrity of the sciences. With this in mind, I think it is even more important that science students have some understanding of the history of science (and a working knowledge of the Philosophy of science).

The point that your series on Boyle make imo, is the role and character of Christians who have made such a great contribution to the sciences. I do not think that every scientist has been a practicing Christian, but when one thinks of people such as Boyle, Dalton, Newton, Descartes, among many others, it becomes obvious that something has gone wrong when we hear nowadays that the Christian faith is at war in some way with science. The agenda for the past few decades has been to (in a rather perverse manner) render science ‘the imperium’ and the way for modern man, by setting it against faith/religion as the defeated and irrelevant way to think and live. This approach will inevitably damage science – yet it seems to have gained ground in the West, especially by those who propose Darwinism as the ‘ultimate and final truth’.  

Jon Garvey - #82721

September 28th 2013

Ted - the link seems to have appended a Some Biologos stuff: this should work:





Jon Garvey - #82725

September 28th 2013


Brush’s article is a good one - and all the better for the slightly tongue-in-cheek way he warns against allowing too much real history into science. I too, of course (as a child of modernity, as well as a scientifically educated doctor), grew up with the idealised narrative of science.

And ideology is what it the portrayal of science is. It reminded me of the ideologically-biased picture of our country we received in post-war Britain: a diveinely-approved empire won entirely by selfless and virtuous heroes, and role models of equally virtuous (posthumous) VC winners in the recent conflict, all for our emulation.

A similar example would be the sanitised popular versions of Christian history in which people like Augustine or Luther (or George Mueller or David Livingstone) fit nicely into modern Christian categories and Luther’s roughness or Spurgeon’s cigar-smoking are airbrushed out. Interestingly different from the Bible, whose heroes are portrayed warts-and-all.

But two things to observe: the first is that these two examples are intended for the man-in-the-street. You wouldn’t find a serious politician who was unaware of the feet of clay of national figures, nor a serious theologian who was unaware of the need to set Christian leaders and their ideas in their historical context.

As Brush points out, it is scientists themselves who are keenest to preserve the mythology of their past and impose it on the present too, which bespeaks a degree of ideological blinkering ... and that’s something one experiences in conversation with most scientists, even here. And it was true in the more limited field of scientific medicine, too - all the great names attached to diseases were cast as Enlightenment Heroes, just as Galileo or Darwin are.

The second point is that the iconography needn’t negate the value of the actual movements behind it. An informed reading of British history seems to me to reveal a great heritage and many values to cherish, as well as causes of shame and things to change. A better knowledge of church history makes one better able to judge the cultural bias of ones own age, as well as showing that the “treasures in jars of clay” inevitable point away from themselves to Christ.

So science as true knowledge, as opposed to the ideology of a dominant culture, can only benefit from being more reflective about the actual characters of its historic proponents, and the metaphysical, philosophical, religious and even political contexts in which they worked. If we appreciated that, we’d be more humble about how much we know, and more appreciative of the truth in nature, rather than our own mastery of its secrets.

The trouble is that science taught like that becomes complicated and nuanced and ...well… human - and we weren’t taught to think that way in the lab.

Merv - #82735

September 29th 2013

Brush’s article was quite thought-provoking for me as well.  So do I want to be a science teacher who indoctrinates my high school students to aspire to the accepted ideals (as put forth by scientists themselves) of what science should be?  Or do I hike the rating up from PG and let the messier truth into the classroom?   Pragmatic considerations have already made the decision for me, of course.  While a course can be made more interesting by peppering it with juicy stories, there is substantial inertia in spending most of precious class time  delivering our charges into that performance-oriented promise land —which is really to do neither of the above very well.  Scientists might frown on rote mastery of a problem solving repertoire, but one must be able to at least trod in some the same footsteps forged by the giants if one is going to have a shot at clambering on their shoulders to develop any new visions beyond.

Jon Garvey - #82746

October 1st 2013

It’s a genuine conundrum, Merv. In one sense education is channelling learning away from every area except a limited few. Many of the most valuable insights I gained in medicine came despite, rather than because of, my training.

But part of education, surely, is to encourage kids to enquire beyond the boundaries. Even science students play football or join orchestras - so what’s wrong with recommending a suitably enthralling history-philosophy of science book for the potential real scientists to read in their down time?

I would probably have got a better feel for science if I’d read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” a few years earlier, and that was just a collection of iconoclastic humour. Do we want them to stand on the shoulders of giants, or the shoulders of sanitised statues?

PNG - #82792

October 5th 2013

There is a sort of relevant story in this weeks Nature:


Ted Davis - #82820

October 9th 2013

A very nice piece of work by the authors. Thank you for the reference, PNG.

Merv - #82751

October 1st 2013

Jon wrote:

Many of the most valuable insights I gained in medicine came despite, rather than because of, my training.

I imagine many of us who have any substantial “after school” professional life might concur with this comparison of experience vs. formal training.  However, I wouldn’t neglect the value of the formal training even if only that it provided a backdrop against which (and with which) you were able to recognize, categorize, utilize, and communicate such insights that you later gained.  Great English writers may disregard the rules of grammar class, but they are probably  aware of what rules they are breaking so that they can do so to better effect.

Mightn’t there be value in students becoming at least somewhat fluent with the ideology of sanitized science so that they may have enhanced appreciation for the nearly uniform failure of any of our forebears to live up to the part?  Scandal is only made juicy by the presumption of some unattained standard or decorum.  All this said, history’s sanitation workers seem to have more than done their job and I’m all for getting the pictures from before the warts got airbrushed out.   But some of us do well if we can learn enough to appreciate the shiny statue.

GJDS - #82754

October 1st 2013

I agree with the general sentiment re history of science and benefits to students - however, producing a formal educational program by any school or college requires goals and the right teachers to provide something of value in a crowded course. I think Ted’s suggestion regarding his college is worth discussing. From my experience, I and others were fortunate to have teachers who would occasionally digress during class and mention some details on those who made the initial discoveries and theories and how these were modified to reach the stage they were teaching. This added to the interest in the course withour adding another class (and exam). I reaslise however, that this experiecne differs and I guess in the USA all of this would be overwhelmed by the endless debate about Darwin and creationism.

Jon Garvey - #82756

October 2nd 2013

I wouldn’t neglect the value of the formal training even if only that it provided a backdrop against which (and with which) you were able to recognize, categorize, utilize, and communicate such insights that you later gained.

Quite true, Merv - I sometimes felt that medical training was like needing to learn the alphabet before one could ever do creative writing. I used it every day, but thought about it very little. And there are never enough hours in the day to teach what’s needed for daily use in science. Overspecialisation is the inevitable outcome of a complex society, it seems, but at a high cost.

But in science the “rules” (as the Feyerabends and Kuhns have shown) are often idealisations and generalisations imposed after the event, like the “white man’s burden” version of colonial history. Maybe that’s necessary, just as linguistic grammar is helpful in learning formally what was actually created instinctively just by talking. 

Part of the oversimplification is the very division you repeat between “the uniform failure of our forbears” and the glories of the present. It’s the old myth of the “dark ages” invented by the Renaissance humanists for purely ideological reasons, and is simply untrue. Mediaeval science and mathematics were astonishingly successful and sophisticated, though that is not to deny the strengths of the empirical methodology that developed later. But scientists seem to “need” the mythology of exclusively modern progress and enlightenment - why, do you suppose? If they have time to learn that ideology, why not a broader one?

The big truth behind Brush’s article is the degree to which the content of science (and hence the assurance that it, alone, is “true”) depends on philosophical assumptions of which most scientists are unaware, because they lack a broader historical and cultural education. If one is blind to ones own presuppositions, ones worldview is, in a word, bigoted.

In contrast, the mediaeval guys would have been thoroughly aware of why, for example, humanists preferred heliocentism despite the poor evidence and increased number of epicycles - it rescued the earth and so humanity from occupying the lowest place in the cosmos, as in the Ptolomeic and Mediaeval view,  and made it a celestial realm. That’s a very different version of science-history from the modern materialist myth - that Geocentrism put man at centrre-stage for religious reasons, but that the enlightened science of Copernicus grounded the principle of mediocrity in fact.

If science is to be a quest for truth, rather than a merely technical exercise of completing an existing jigsaw, then it must be important at some stage for the student to examine the foundations on which the superstructure is being built.

I do biblical theology. But I’m certain I do it better for having questioned why I should be doing that rather than Koranic or liberal theology. Every time I say, “The Bible teaches…” it’s backed by an intrinsic understanding of its authority, that could be discussed with those who don’t share the premise. Surely one should expect the same for anybody who says, “Science has established…”?

Merv - #82760

October 2nd 2013

Very profound, Jon.  The last paragraph is especially pertinent.  Moments ago, my geometry class just added a new postulate and resulting theorems to its repertoire.  It is amazing how many times even in math class we must fall back on ... “we’re just going to accept this, but then use it to ‘prove’ something else.”

Jon Garvey - #82766

October 2nd 2013


None of that is a problem while we tell ourselves we’re attempting to approach truth from various angles. But in the end all our activities are human and fallible, though useful and not worthless. It’s when science (or theology or anything else) builds a mythology of infallibility that it becomes ideology.

In the case of science that claim to infallibility would surely be all stress on sound methodology, a tradition of honestry and openness, potential reproducibility, the claim to self-correction and all ... with (often) a gaping hole at the level of metaphysical and philosophical commitments and human weaknesses.

Incidentally (and not quite tangentially) there’s a brilliant ongoing blog series on the circumstances of the “Copernican shift”, which starts here. Enlightening and wonderfully entertaining.

Merv - #82771

October 3rd 2013

Regarding the “Copernican shift” link in the post above ...

that was fun to read—it leaves us with the tantalizing “to be continued” after part 2 (both of the first parts were posted in August, apparently).  I hope we aren’t to be left on a cliff-hanger with Galileo at the height of his Catholic popularity?   

Ahhhh! -now in the morning I notice that the ‘to be continued’ is itself a link and that I have at least three more parts to digest.  Now I’ll probably be reading this today at work today when I should be doing other things.  (But then that’s the beauty of being an educator—I get to consider this part of my work.)  Thanks, Jon.

Ted Davis - #82774

October 3rd 2013

Fabulous material in that link, Jon! Thank you for telling us about it.

Jon Garvey - #82784

October 4th 2013


TOF has a way with words - must be the Irish in him. I first came across him from another extended piece on evolutionary theory, covering much the same mix in the way of science-philosophy-history-sociology. Definitely worth the read to stir any complacent brain cells.

His position (for those unclear from the blog) - Catholic, Aristotelian-Thomist. And a science-fiction writer by trade.

I didn’t let on to Merv that there are (or willl have been) 9 episodes to wade through on the heliocentrism series, but one ends up with broad insights… and as he says, it is legitimate teaching prep.

GJDS - #82785

October 4th 2013


TOF is a very interesting site - both for content and the ‘way with words’. The exchange of comments is (in many cases) worth reading as we see people who are willing to exchange views rather than talk each other down. His take on Darwin is spot on, including, ‘Darwin thinking was on its last legs’ or such wording, but Mendel came and rescued the wretched thing. Makes me wonder about some Catholics?!


Merv - #82799

October 6th 2013

I’ve waded (or perhaps “jet-skied” would be more accurate) through the first eight installments now, Jon.  If I was to hope to keep all the characters straight (much less all the amusing nicknames TOF comes up with) I’d have to carefully diagram some visual aides for myself.  That is a personality soap opera worthy of a TV miniseries that is!

Now I’m in suspense waiting for that last installment to get posted.  Will Galileo find a way to get himself in even more trouble yet?!  He was gifted in the ego department.  I can’t wait to find out.

What a contrast with his contemporary, Boyle!

PNG - #82787

October 4th 2013

“... humanists preferred heliocentism despite the poor evidence and increased number of epicycles - it rescued the earth and so humanity from occupying the lowest place in the cosmos, as in the Ptolomeic and Mediaeval view,  and made it a celestial realm.”

I wondered about this assertion from TOF (yes I’ve been reading that series, too.) He didn’t provide any quotes from humanists to support this. Do you know of any? 

It seems to me that heliocentrism wouldn’t just put the earth in a celestial realm - it’s not like people would conclude from heliocentrism that Hell is at the center of the sun or that things on Earth are perfect and immutable, is it? It seems like it would disrupt the whole earthly-celestial dichotomy that everyone had assumed since Aristotle or before. Did it raise the suspicion that the celestial realm is corrupt and mutable, too?

PNG - #82788

October 4th 2013

This was meant to reply to Jon’s #82756. Guess I hit the wrong button.

Jon Garvey - #82789

October 4th 2013


I take it you refer to humanists mentally shifting earth towards heaven rather than the number of epicycles in Copernicanism?

Can’t think of a source for the claim, but I’ll keep my eyes peeled. On the other hand I don’t think there’s any doubt that Geocentrism was generally viewed as meaning earth is the lowest, not the most important and central , realm as is often claimed for it today. That follows from Aristotelian physics, and matches the generally accepted Christian cosmology that flowed from it in Patristic times. And as a matter of principle Renaissance types weren’t keen on man as being low in the scheme of things. Maybe Ted knows, being deeply versed in the early modern science literature.

I’m sure you’re absolutely right (and so is TOF) that the perfection and immutability of the heavens was a key conceptual issue - hence the insistence on all sides (before Kepler) that everything moved in circles, and the problems with seeing comets as celestial rather than atmospheric objects, with sunspots, Joviam moons not circling the earth and so on.

Now to what extent anybody at that time wanted the heavens to be corruptible I don’t know. Many wanted Aristotle to be wrong, on principle (did he propose an earth/heaven dichotomy or a heirarchy, by the way?). I suspect that the principle of mediocrity was an Enlightenment doctrine arising from the empirical evidence that is was corruptible (in the sense that it changed, moved in non-circular orbits etc).

By that later time, maybe there was a more overt zeitgeist of showing that God was not in his heaven - a bit like the silliness of trying to disprove the Hindu sacredness of the Ganges by showing its bacteria under a microscope.

Jon Garvey - #82807

October 8th 2013


Not by any means a primary source, but from an article by Tom Bethell:

Actually, the Copernican system wasn’t jolting at all. That is a modern invention, promoted by people like Gould and Krauss. The center of the cosmos was considered an insalubrious place, the point to which impure matter fell. It was “the physical correlate of humanity’s fallen state,” wrote John Hedley Brooke, a professor of religion and science at Oxford. “To be placed on a planet was to move up.”

At least shows TOF is not alone in his view. 

Actually, the Copernican system wasn’t jolting at all. That is a modern invention, promoted by people like Gould and Krauss. The center of the cosmos was considered an insalubrious place, the point to which impure matter fell. It was “the physical correlate of humanity’s fallen state,” wrote John Hedley Brooke, a professor of religion and science at Oxford. “To be placed on a planet was to move up-market.” - See more at: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2013/10/the_anxious_sea077601.html#sthash.ncHpIjo2.dpuf
Actually, the Copernican system wasn’t jolting at all. That is a modern invention, promoted by people like Gould and Krauss. The center of the cosmos was considered an insalubrious place, the point to which impure matter fell. It was “the physical correlate of humanity’s fallen state,” wrote John Hedley Brooke, a professor of religion and science at Oxford. “To be placed on a planet was to move up-market.” - See more at: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2013/10/the_anxious_sea077601.html#sthash.ncHpIjo2.dpuf
Merv - #82809

October 8th 2013

...that the Copernican system wasn’t “jolting at all” ...

I’m not sure how this goes along with TOF’s article, Jon.  I do understand that the Copernican system was wrong in that it adhered to the perfect Platonic circles and all the attendant epicycles.  But it also did have a geomobile earth with the sun at the center ( ... yes ... only ‘geomobile’ in the mathematically convenient sense without insisting on realities).  But still to move from a stationary earth to a geomobile one, even if only in concept, surely qualifies as ‘jolting’ does it not?

Merv - #82810

October 8th 2013

Or perhaps you mean ‘not jolting’ in the sense that the church was decidedly unruffled over it all (and even encouraging to it) until Galileo managed to alienate enough powerful friends into the big brouhaha?

Jon Garvey - #82811

October 8th 2013

Yup, Merv - the article was suggesting (like TOF) that Copernicus wasn’t a shock to Christianity. But I was particularly picking up on PNG’s wish for confirmation that humanists liked heliocentrism because it promoted mankind from to the celestial, as TOF hinted.

Apologies that despite my editorial efforts the quote came twice with a built-in plug-link.

Merv - #82812

October 8th 2013

Thanks, Jon.

Another thought provoking part of the TOF article for me was the distinction between Ptolemaic cosmology and Aristotlean physics.  I had never been aware of these two things as being in competition before.  I may need to delve into that some more before I understand the nuances of that rivalry.  As a physics teacher I am aware of the old beliefs that the most natural state for any object is to be at rest and in the lowest position (towards earth), and that object seek such a state with a vigor in proportion to their mass.  But I had never thought of the Ptolemaics as having problems with any of this, other than that they weren’t concerning themselves over any mechanisms but only with celestially predictive mathematics. I guess the two don’t mesh very well if one tries to put it all together.

It’s amazing to me after reading all this that Galileo even makes lists of candidates for that dubious title:  “Father of science”.  If anything was driven home by TOF, it’s that there is no small group (much less one person) from whom current modern science sprang.  And even with a short list such as one my compose, many others (Newton?  Bacon?  Boyle? Albertus Magnus? the latter is G.K. Chesterton’s candidate)  who, unlike Galileo, may not presume such an honor for themselves would nevertheless have more worthy claim of induction at least into the hall-of-fame.

Jon Garvey - #82813

October 8th 2013


I’m no science historian, but it seems to me the concept of a “father of science” is predicated on the myth of science having been born at some single point in time with a brand new genome (presumably containing empiricism, reproducibility, methodological naturalism and so on). But if Feyerabend is right there’s not actually an identifiable creature called “science”, but just a particular stage in the ongoing pursuit of knowledge that matches (a) what our culture thinks important and (b) how it goes about things.

Maybe there’s no more a father of science than there’s a king of rock and roll - both “disciplines” are pretty protean, though they are useful labels. Both are possibly better off for a bit of demythologizing and broadening of outlook to mesh with the rest of society.

With that in mind Galileo maybe has as much importance as a populariser or a mythical archetype as those who (if what we’ve read is true) actually contributed more new knowledge, or even methodology. But getting a truer perspective on the man has to be good in the long run.

Merv - #82815

October 8th 2013

Maybe there’s no more a father of science than there’s a king of rock and roll ...

Are you implying that Elvis is not on the thone?!!!

Well, it appears that yet once again the blurred messy complexity is triumphing over any proposed, neat definitional boundaries.

Jon Garvey - #82817

October 9th 2013



“Man’s goings are of the LORD; how can a man then understand his own way?” Proverbs 20.24.

Ted Davis - #82821

October 9th 2013

Concerning Copernicus and our place in the universe, the best treatment I have seen is this: Dennis Danielson, “The Great Copernican Cliché.”American Journal of Physics, 69.10 (Oct. 2001): 1029-1035. http://www.scribd.com/doc/76333308/The-Great-Copernican-Cliche-Daniel-Son-2001

Danielson (http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/ddaniels/cv.html) is an English professor at UBC, but an expert on early modern cosmology. He was a keynote speaker at the ASA meeting many years ago. Alas I did not get to that meeting, but I’ve crossed paths with him elsewhere.

Jon Garvey - #82822

October 9th 2013

That article is the business, Ted - ticks all the boxes and specifically responds to PNG’s query.

...Which was to query TOF’s claim that humanism gravitated(!) towards heliocentrism to elevate mankind to the celestial realm - and we have it there in the words of Galileo himself, eg:

[this account militates against] “those who assert, principally on the grounds that it has neither motion nor light, that the earth must be excluded from the dance of the stars. For ... the earth does have motion, ... it surpasses the moon in brightness, and ... it is not the sump where the universe’s filth and ephemera collect.”


“As for the earth, we seek ... to ennoble and perfect it when we strive to make it like the celestial bodies, and, as it were, place it in heaven, from whence your philosophers have banished it.”

I’m struck by how Danielson astutely resolves the apparent paradox between demoting the earth and yet exalting man as the “mediocrity principle” (the flip side of the Copernican cliché) takes hold:

But the trick of this supposed dethronement is that,while purportedly rendering “Man” less cosmically and metaphysically important, it actually enthrones us modern “scientific” humans in all our enlightened superiority. It declares, in effect, “We’re truly very special because we’ve shown that we’re not so special.”

...Instead it offers — if anything at all — a specialness that is cast inexclusively existential or Promethean terms, with humankind lifting itself up by its own bootstraps and heroically, though in the end pointlessly, defying the universal silence.

This is a thoroughly Renaissance humanist idea (and you’ll be aware how closely it resonates with my work on “fallen nature”  and Prometheus).

Incidentally, there’s a nod in the article to Lou Jost’s equally mythical assertion (on this or an earlier thread) that Christian teaching has always been afraid of consideration of extraterrestrial life. I showed him Richard Baxter, but here’s Kepler, the Lutheran (and humanist), simply assuming it to be the case in Christ’s cosmos:

“Let the Jovian creatures, therefore, have something with which to console themselves [for being less important than a celestial earth]. Let them even have ... their own four planets.”

Danielson points to reasons why the Copernican cliché is harmful - (a) it falsifies history and the history of ideas, when science should be about truth, (b) it forecloses the very important consideration of our own place in the universe  and (c):

It impedes a critical evaluation of what may be the hidden “teleology” of materialist modernism.

...a hidden teleology that some of us have noted repeatedly in Darwinian evolutionary writing.

Danielson hopes to help put the record straight, but notes:

Over the past century a handful of other scholars have in their own ways drawn attention to medieval geocentrism’s non-anthropocentric character or to anthropocentric tendencies within Copernicanism, but their arguments, however robust, have apparently simply not registered in either the popular or the scholarly scientific mind.

But is the problem mere lack of information? He optimistically hopes:

My assumption in attempting these tasks is that, if professional physicists and astronomers can be made aware of the fallacy of the cliché, then its days maybe numbered.

Sadly, this assumes there’s mo metaphysical commitment to the mythical version, which is doubtful. There is indeed total ideological commitment to it, or it would hardly be the case that:

It is a claim that one hears not only in Hollywood B-movies but also from more scientifically reputable sources. Most high school science texts [my emphasis] seem to say so, as do many university-level “Astronomy 101” syllabuses.

And that raises the question why, if it is inadmissable to teach religious or metaphysical opinion in science, it is permissible to teach sheer lies as history - with a clear metaphysical agenda - in science? Science teachers like Merv have a serious challenge on hand, it seems to me.

Jon Garvey - #82824

October 9th 2013

PS Just noticed that Danielson published in 2001 to say that the Copernicus Cliché has been being debunked for 100 years. 12 years later, have you seen any change to the standard story in what’s on internet chats, TV programs, school textbooks and university science introduction courses?

That’s several more generations of students now indoctrinated with untruth to push a materialist metaphysical agenda in the name of dispassionate science. Can’t be accidental, can it?

Ted Davis - #82825

October 9th 2013

I haven’t seen any changes, Jon. If you’re a modern scientist, who are you more likely to believe—someone like Carl Sagan, a world renowned scientist who always assumed (in the absence of actual historical evidence, but never mind) that Copernicus and modern cosmology made human beings inconsequential blips who were no longer at the “center,” allegedly flying in the face of Christian beliefs; or, someone like Danielson, merely an English professor (what could he possibly know about science?), who makes a pest out of himself by citing a bunch of texts from centuries ago?

Jon Garvey - #82832

October 9th 2013


You surely can’t be suggesting that science is unduly influenced by popular personalities rather than by evidence and the quest for truth??

Ted Davis - #82826

October 9th 2013

I don’t know the comment(s) from Lou you refer to, Jon, but (assuming you’ve given a fair summary of them) let me defend Lou, at least partly. I could easily muster texts from major Christian thinkers (e.g., Melanchthon and Wesley) that oppose the “plurality of worlds” (the idea that there are other intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe) on theological grounds. The uniqueness of the Incarnation was the bottom line for Melanchthon. And, of course, I could find many current “creationists” who would swear on a pack of Bibles that there simply cannot be any other “worlds” of that kind—it would absolutely be unbiblical, in their view.

But, it’s probably even easier to muster texts by major Christian thinkers (e.g., Kepler and C. S. Lewis) that support (sometimes with unbridled rapture) the “plurality of worlds.”

In short, there’s been a division of the house on this one.

My own view is, we already know from the Bible that other intelligent beings exist: angels. (This point was made by the late Jaroslav Pelikan in a talk I heard him give at the Smithsonian many years ago.) As for ETs, God can do whatever he wants with all of that space; surely, it’s not solely for us. Whether or not they actually exist (and we will probably never really know until we meet them in another realm of existence), however, the attitude of the “creationists” is dead wrong. As Neils Bohr said to Einstein, “stop telling God what to do.”

GJDS - #82829

October 9th 2013


I think Lou’s major thesis has been that the Gospel, and indeed the Bible, have been ‘made up’, mainly to prevent science and scientists from getting to the real thing. In this he is crealy wrong. This is plainly false. On the various controversies and differences expressed throughout history by religious people, surely this emphasises the fact that Christiantiy has not suppressed opinion, and perhaps has been one of the reasons why such a range of opinion may be found (encourages us to think and exercise our intelligence).

On other beings, and what we may find in the Universe, most orthodox thinkers have simply accepted the fact that the Bible is meant for our faith, and other matters are for us human beings to understand….and exercise our intelligence. Truth is levated by the Christian faith to be the highest aspect of our existence, and we are expected to seek it out.

Jon Garvey - #82833

October 9th 2013

That’s a good angle, GJDS. Lou’s case was that ET life would be a serious embarassment to Christianity, and the uniqueness of terrestrial life a confirmation of the Bible.

Neither case is true, because (as was said in that thread) the Bible is about our (terrestrial) faith, as you say. Lou was genuinely surpised at the Baxter quote, and assumed it was atypical.

Ted is of course right that there have always been good theological grounds for considering earth’s uniqueness, the incarnation being the principle one in my view. But it is not a compelling case.

It’s also true that the less life is found “out there” the more special the earth is, in spite of its small size and insignificant position. I wish I could find the quote I once read (it might have been Paul Davies or John Polkinghorne) to the effect that what we know of cosmology shows you need a universe this big to make a world this small.

Just like you need a ton of pitchblende to get a few mg of radium - and nobody questions the relative value of the two.

GJDS - #82834

October 10th 2013

Indeed recent comments concerning planets far far away (not in star wars however) have got some cosmologists questioning the current view(s) on planet formation (amongst other things). Our current knowledge (which is very small) points to a very special earth - however I prefer to be agnostic concerning our scientific understanding of the cosmos. My ‘angle’ concerning Lou has been to point out the myths and exaggerations put forward by militant atheists who make claims on scienc that are obviously wrong. They seem to think that science will somehow show the Bible is wrong - the facts are science shows they are misusing science in their aggressive outlook towards the Bible.

GJDS - #82827

October 9th 2013

“... more generation of students now indoctronated with unthruth..”

Students, including those in the science, may not take many of these historical matters seriously - partly because they are not exposed to these facts, and partly because the overall impact of modern cluture ‘buries’ such matters under a huge modern/post modern outlook that is fed by popular medium, who push forward an attitude of ... “Religion, metaphysics, history??? what are you on man?”

There are many other factors that make ‘truth seeking’ so difficult today (in spite of the amount of information we may access). The greatest obstacle however, is the denigration of truth itself, and the elevation of ‘people can do and believe what they want’ - which means whatever people are fed by a materialistically controlled media and various proponents.

GJDS - #82828

October 9th 2013

I should have mentioned ... examples of people such as Boyle should be discussed more often, as they exemplify the way science, respect for the truth, and insights into nature, can be in harmony.

Merv - #82830

October 9th 2013

Proverbs 25:11 A word fitly spoken Is like apples of gold in settings of silver.

or if I may paraphrase:  ... a link to a source that gets to the heart qualifies in the same way.  Thank you, Ted, for that timely followup to the excellent TOF series.

Jon, I plan to take the teacher challenge seriously.  My physics syllabus is already undergoing some additive renovation in my mind.  How exciting for students in small parochial schools to know that they can be an enthusiastic part of helping dispel some of our modern materialist myths.   Now, THIS is what I would think to be a necessary focal point for engagement from sectarian quarters to help lift modern science out of its aging ideological mire. 

What astounds me, though, is the depth of time for which this misconception has been brewing.  If in the 17th and 18th centuries already there were so many who embraced this equation of geomobility with a mediocrity principle, then perhaps modern science enthusiasts could be somewhat forgiven for accepting the savory fruit so offered them past sources.  So perhaps some of the confusion now actually is innocent.  But I still agree that over all this superstition is not an accident and its ready fuel supply is not coming from quarters with a committment to truth.

Merv - #82846

October 11th 2013

...More reflections on Danielson’s “Copernican Cliche” paper…

My intellectual horizons were broadened by this work, but as my excitement settles back into the sobriety of my already existing philosophical/religious furniture (most of which still retains its place) I need to reflect further, hopefully with continued input from others here.

So the “modern” principle of mediocrity has had its unlimited historical/metaphysical license revoked, perhaps; but that doesn’t make it non-existant.   Would it be fair to say that it is mainly at the following two points that we see this principle overturned? 

1.  Our historical interpretation of Copernicus’ system and its effect of demoting the earth (both physically and metaphysically) is simply and demonstrably false.  (Allowing that the misconception itself can still lean on very early sources even back to Copernicus himself.)

2.  Our modern extension of mediocrity into the metaphysical realm (as if size or longevity = importance!)  does not follow in the least from anything science can provide.  But we already all knew that ... or should have.

So what of mediocrity is left?   We are indeed physically tiny in the cosmos, and the ancients knew that already far prior to Copernicus, but modern science has add a quite a few zeroes to the magnitude of that difference.  Should a few more notches up the logarithmic scale qualify as a ‘game-changer’ to our metaphysics?  It’s hard to see how it could be defended as such (I stand by #2 above), but it certainly does drive deeper home any humility such as we do have. 

But I think the principle of mediocrity does still shine in its other trajectories; e.g.  our sun is not physically unique (which the ancients did not know) and our galaxy is not unique ... can one see with some sympathy here the inertia towards parallel universes?  Not to mention evolutionary assertions ... that man is *merely* one of the animals, though the point is well-taken that even atheistic philosophers don’t really beleive this as evidenced by their well-fueled pride of setting themselves up (actually many of us do this, atheist or not) as the capably objective judges of all history.

Am I missing some important points from my first reading of that paper?

Jon Garvey - #82847

October 11th 2013

Sounds about right, Merv, from my reading of the piece.

When you think about it, the principle of mediocrity is a very poor guide to anything of importance. For a start, humans are about halfway up the scale of the universe in terms of size: we never knew how big galazies were, but we never knew how small atoms were. We’ve just shifted the dimensions both ways beyond the fleas and mountains known to all the ancients.

Then there are those areas of evidence that frankly disconfirm mediocrity - notably the human brain, far and away the most complex and information-rich thing we’re aware of in the universe - any idea that there are greater examples is mere speculation even when Carl Sagan does it. Ditto for life - the Fermi paradox is still a paradox, and water and amino acids no more necessarily the “building blocks of life” than finding rocks on the moon predicts cathedrals as well.

Then theologically there is absolutely no correlation between size or position and importance. For a start, even mere humans can get worked up about the importance of seeing one transient Higgs boson, or that isolated starless gas-giant they reported in a far corner of the sky this week. Any God should, surely, have a greater capacity to place importance on what is small, especially since…

God is immense, classically not meaning “huge” but “unmeasurable” - he can contain the universe, but be in the same room with us - or for that matter, hitch a ride on a Higgs boson. That, and his omniscience, omnipotence and infinity suggest rather a principle of equal importance to all things, not of insignificance. He made it - it matters. That presupposes, of course, that he made everything - a view not shared by all here.

GJDS - #82864

October 11th 2013

Just as an aside to this conversation, the ancients used the term .. the fall, or to fall... to indicate falling from a higher state, to a lower one. Thus, Dante has Satan falling to the centre, as an indication of the complete fall of Lucifer .... and pagans also equated a hight (Mt Olympus as the home of Homer’s gods) with diety and so on. Dante condensed a great deal of the thinking of those times in his Comedy, including the sea (water one of the elements) having the capability to ‘run away’ as it sees Satan falling, and the earth forming a mount (purgatory) as Satan’s fall created a ‘hole’ that made up the various levels of hell. I think we can also see how the celestial bodies were equated with saints and angellic beings, culminating in the highest place for God. It has been many years since I read Dante (I provide these comments for an interesting conversation only), but we can find a great deal of the thinking (be it philosopy or religion) in this work, and perhaps the way pagan philosophy found its way at times into the thinking of that time. The Comedy also shows us how people may have equated the evils of this life in an allegorical manner, with the impact of sin and the punishments in an after-life (I recall some sections reminding me of Homer’s shades that were placed in the underworld of pagan belief).

Merv - #82871

October 11th 2013

The Hebrews didn’t seem to have nearly so many details built up about Hell or Satan’s abode as Dante apparently did (I’ve only read bits of Dante).  But I have read the entire Old Testament through many times, and Satan’s appearances there are few and far between (and include him making appearances in Heaven to have a friendly wager or two with God over somebody named Job.)

And yet Jesus enters the scene with with quite descriptive comments about what awaits those who do not bear good fruit.    Now far be it from me to think that Jesus didn’t bring any new revelation onto the scene.  I think He could and did.  But his usual modus operendi was to link back into the law and the prophets.  So I wonder if or where Hebrew tradition began picking up these fallen-afterlife scenarios, or was Jesus really springing an entirely new teaching on his Hebrew contemporaries?

GJDS - #82873

October 11th 2013

These points are correct, although I recall mention of (shoah or shoal - correct me if I ma wrong on these terms) that was used to describe a place of death and misery in the OT. I have also wondered why so many events of demon possession in the NT, as this seemed foreigh to the Hebres (although we have Saul consulting the witch). I think that Jesus expanded our understanding to laying the groundwork for the time when the Christian faith was to be taught to the gentiles/pagans. People believe things that may not be good for them, and the faith helps us understand this and deal with them, or be rid of such things. However, I tend to think that the institutionalization of the Church by the Roman Empire probably led to much of what we find in Dante and elsewhere - Romans and Greeks would have been loath to abandon the culture and self-importance of their civilizations. The Jews were a minor, perhaps insignificant nation - so I would not think Romans would have just taken up Hebrew thinking easily.

Jon Garvey - #82874

October 12th 2013


Hebrew Sheol was a pretty shadowy concept for pretty shadowy dead folks. Less judgement than loss of the blessings of earthly life. Sheol really just means “the grave”, and in its more developed form was the area under the earth but above the surrounding waters (in those days, remember, more diskworld than globe). A concept shared partly with Greek Hades.

The concepts that Jesus majors on (and it is a big theme in his teaching) have their source largely in Intertestamental, post exilic times, and particularly in the wealth of apocalyptic literature (see 1 Enoch, for example).

Various ideas (not always obviously compatible) came about. One was the division of Sheol into a place for the blessed and for the cursed. A day of eternal judgement became pretty well agreed, with a corresponding resurrection of all the dead - with eternal punishment in a separate area designed for the fallen angels, and eternal blessing primarily conceived as a renewed earth.

The idea we have of “going to heaven when we die” really doesn’t get much traction from Scripture - it is the renewing of the whole cosmos at the coming of Christ that the New Testament teaches. Our angels on clouds thinking seems to be something of an import of that Greek cosmology to which GJDS refers.

What seems to cause much of the the confusion is that there is, in the parousia, a fusion of heaven (God’s dwelling) with earth (man’s dwelling) because the big theme is God’s dwelling with man. So you have the New Jerusalem “coming down” (permanently, it seems) from heaven, “new heavens and a new earth, the home [singular, note] of righteousness.”

I don’t think that means Jesus was merely a product of his culture - the Holy Spirit was still active in Israel between the Testaments.

GJDS - #82877

October 12th 2013


Thanks for the clarrification on Sheol; the OT and NT both speak of a new time, and even the notion of the after-life is more a statement of being with God as He is eternal life, than some sort of Heaven that good souls go to. The renewal of the entire creation is the end result.

I have not inferred that Jesus is a product of his culture, but rather He was aware of the various errors and wrong beliefs that were prevalent during His day and would continue. We need to remember that part of the world had been Hellenised by Alexander the Great and his descendants for some time and the Hellenic culture was prominant even amongst the Jews (who resisted). Thus I would expect the Gospels to be relevant to these matters, and the Holy Spirit continued with the Christians in Isreal and amongst the Greeks and Romans.

I have not investigated the prevalent view of Heaven, souls going there, hell, and the origins of such ‘folky tales’, but I think that the influx of various cultures into the Roman empire and subsequent Europen culture has something to do with that (also eggs during Easter and so on).

Merv - #82872

October 11th 2013

One glib assumption that seems to accompany the Fermi Paradox is that interstellar travel will eventually be a piece of cake.  Our Trekky enthusiasm and imaginations not-withstanding, I think that could turn out to be a higher mountain to climb than our optimistic popular press would have its fans believe.  It seems we are always hearing that transporters or replicators may be in the not-so-distant future (after all didn’t somebody recently transport a proton through a quantum jump of some kind?)  So if physicists continue to wax eloquent about realistic mathematical models for a real interstellar ‘hyper-drive’, most of us should be excused for focusing on how we can just squeeze a few extra km out of a liter of petrol in our quite-real commutes on our very here-and-now planet.

There seems to be enough space and time out there that millions of civilizations could have come and gone with very few of them actually intersecting each other across stellar (much less galactic) gaps.  I know this is a sci-fi wet blanket, and it would be really cool to be wrong and witness some form of ‘first contact’ in our life times, but realistically, if we’re going to be empirical about it and all ...   I think you’re right that it would be premature to try to dispose of that ‘special’ feeling, but also irresponsible to lean too heavily on the hope of a scientific demonstration that we are.

Jon Garvey - #82875

October 12th 2013

My conceit about this is that if we ever did meet another civilisation, so that we were “no longer alone” (what a ridiculous phrase in a world of 7 billion souls!), it would turn out to consist entirely of grey accountants who listened to light music on the radio for intellectual stimulation, were nominal Episcopalians and agreed happily that only the aristostocracy should vote.

Eat that, Carl Sagan.

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