Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective, Part 2

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April 25, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective, Part 2

This series is taken from Ted Davis' paper "Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective" for the Test of Faith project. You can download the full paper in PDF format at their website, www.testoffaith.com, as well as find many other wonderful resources about science and faith. In part one, Davis looked at the relationship between science and faith before Copernicus. Today, we look at how this view changed.

Christianity & the Rise of Modern Science

All of this changed with the advent of the new astronomy of Nicolaus Copernicus, an administrative officer at the cathedral in Frombork, a small coastal town in northern Poland. At the time, Roman Catholic officials recognized that the calendar that had been in use since the time of Julius Caesar was increasingly out of step with the stars. Copernicus was known to be working on a new theory of celestial motion, according to which the earth revolves around a stationary sun, and the church wanted him to participate in conversations about fixing the calendar. Copernicus, however, preferred to work quietly on his own. For many years he ignored the pleas of at least one cardinal and two bishops to publish his ideas, until finally a young Lutheran astronomer from the University of Wittenberg, Georg Joachim Rheticus, came for an extended visit and was able to persuade Copernicus to allow his book to be printed back in Germany. Contrary to what is often said or implied, Copernicus had full freedom to pursue his ideas while working for the church and was even encouraged to publish them.

It is true that Copernicus’ ideas were controversial, but scientific objections (rather than religious objections) constituted the lion’s share of this criticism. Most astronomers prior to Galileo considered heliocentrism to be a highly speculative hypothesis, entirely lacking in observational support and contrary to common sense. As Galileo himself said, his admiration for the Copernicans was so great precisely because they had ‘done such violence to their own senses as to prefer what reason told them over that which sensible experience plainly showed them to the contrary’. The inability (at the time) to observe the annual parallax of the stars counted heavily against the idea of a moving earth, and Aristotelian physics made no sense if the earth were not at rest in the center of the heavens. Such considerations led Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), the greatest astronomer of his generation and an outspoken opponent of Aristotelian cosmology, to reject the Copernican view decisively. He advocated an alternative geocentric model that later proved adequate to account for everything Galileo observed with his telescope.

In short, it made perfect sense for theologians to reject the new theory – and to stick with a literal interpretation of the Bible. A handful of biblical texts appear to speak of the earth as immobile, or of the sun as in motion. Why should anyone seek to alter interpretations that only agreed with the best science of the day? Although Martin Luther had dismissed heliocentrism as a foolish idea that contradicted the account of Joshua’s long day in the Bible, his disciple Philip Melanchthon revered mathematical astronomy: in his view, neither the perfection of the heavens nor the certainty of mathematics had been adversely affected by the Fall. Melanchthon also considered the earth’s motion unbiblical, but he encouraged the teaching of Copernican theory as a false but useful hypothesis at Lutheran universities. Thus, a young Johannes Kepler learned about it from astronomer Michael Maestlin at Tübingen, where he was preparing to be a theologian. Kepler liked the Copernican view partly because he believed that the three parts of the heliocentric universe constituted an image of the Trinity – the central sun with its emanating light representing God the Father, the starry sphere God the Son, and the intermediate space God the Holy Spirit. As he realized, the opponents of heliocentrism had to be persuaded that it did not contradict the Bible. In the preface to his most important book, Astronomia nova (1609), Kepler argued that, in order to be widely understood, the Bible is written in the ordinary language of the common person and not in the technical language of the astronomer. Therefore, the Bible should not be read as a scientifically accurate text or used to refute an astronomical theory. Galileo made an identical argument a few years later, in an open letter about biblical interpretation and astronomy written for Christina of Lorraine, the Dowager Duchess of Tuscany and the mother of his patron, Cosimo II de’ Medici.

The Roman Catholic Church’s response to Galileo is often misunderstood. It is true that Galileo’s views on biblical interpretation ultimately led to formal charges of heresy – but this was hardly the only factor. Galileo actually agreed with his principal Vatican critic, Roberto, Cardinal Bellarmine, that solid proof of the Copernican view would be required before the church should consider alternative interpretations. Although Galileo believed he had met the burden of proof, he pushed his conclusions more forcefully than the available evidence warranted, and when he appeared to portray the pope as a boorish ignoramus in the final paragraphs of his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632), he brought the Inquisition down on his own head.

Kepler also figured prominently in another type of interaction between science and religion. For some early modern scientists, science became a form of religious worship, supplementing or even supplanting the offices of the church. Denied the Eucharist by his minister because he did not accept the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ, Kepler poured out his deeply spiritual soul repeatedly in rapturous praises to the Creator in the pages of his dizzyingly difficult astronomical treatises. Robert Boyle (1627 – 91), whose remarkable piety did not go unnoticed by his friends, considered himself a ‘priest’ in the ‘temple of nature’ and decided to become a chemist partly because he thought it would lead to advances in medicine. He publicized recipes for various pharmaceuticals in order to benefit everyone, especially the poor, and he believed that science was crucial for the biblically-mandated dominion of humanity over the creation. Above all, Boyle believed that the actual practice of laboratory science – and he was one of the creators of the scientific method – was highly conducive to leading the Christian life. The virtues of the scientist (honesty, humility, and devotion to one’s calling) are also those of the Christian. And, Boyle claimed, the more we know about nature and the more deeply we understand the details, the more we will be led not only to glorify God, but also to admire and thank God – in short, science could help make us more pious. Isaac Newton (1643 –1727) went even further than Boyle in his endorsement of natural theology, the use of science to draw inferences about God. In a query added to the Latin edition of his book, Optics (1706), he said that ‘The main business of natural philosophy is … to deduce causes from effects, till we come to the very first cause, which certainly is not mechanical.’


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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liberale - #58612

April 25th 2011

Could you kindly provide evidence for your two claims:
(1) “Galileo…pushed his conclusions more forcefully than the available evidence warranted,” and
(2) “when he appeared to portray the pope as a boorish ignoramus in the final paragraphs of his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632), he brought the Inquisition down on his own head” (any evidence for the claimed weight of the pope portrait on the initiation of the Inquisition?)

In addition, I quite concern the ethical problem of the last clause “he brought the Inquisition down on his own head.”  This clause can be understood as endorsing the use of violence and blaming the victim.  On June 4, 1989, Beijing used military tanks to crack down on peacefully protesting students.  How cold-blooded if a historian said, “By challenging Beijing, the students brought the tanks on their own bodies.”  Sorry, I am a Chinese and that piece of historical trauma is still cutting into my heart.  I am saddened to see another historian treat, if not twist, history with such attitude.


Ted Davis - #58616

April 25th 2011

As for (1), see my comments to various people under the first part of this essay. Galileo could not prove that the earth moves, and he could not prove that the Tychonic system (in which the earth does not move) was not a viable alternative to the Copernican system, for explaining everything he saw.  He chose instead to ignore it as an alternative, even though many astronomers perferred it.

(2) He put an important point, requested by the Pope, into the mouth of the character “Simplicio,” who comes off as an idiot.  The pope was not amused—nor would have been amused, if you had been insulted in that way.  The metaphor about bringing the Inquisition down on his own head was meant simply to suggest that Galileo was in part responsible for his own plight.  This is not blaming the victim; it’s assessing the available evidence.  I reject any analogy to Beijing.  There is no comparison between what happened to Galileo (being sentence to house arrest, and never spending even one night in jail) and what happend at Tianamen Square.  None.

Galileo didn’t need to insult the Pope; he didn’t need to make his “Dialogue” so one-sided, and he should have been more forthcoming about what he had been told in 1616. The combination of those facts brought the Inquisition down on his head.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #59208

April 26th 2011

On the other hand I hope that we have learned that it is wrong to punish people because of their ideas.  I hope that the Chinese government will learn that the Chinese people need the freedom to express their ideas freely and to chose those who govern them.


Steve Ruble - #59245

April 26th 2011

In short, it made perfect sense for theologians to reject the new theory

It certainly seems to have made sense, given the lack of evidence…

 – and to stick with a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Which makes no sense at all, given the lack of evidence.  In fact, I don’t know how you could seriously write “it made perfect sense ... to stick with a literal interpretation of the bible” - no matter

what

you put in the ellipses. Why would it ever make perfect sense to give more authority to claims about the universe from a time when we were far more ignorant about everything than claims from any time after that? It’s not as if the ancients had - or have - a very good track record in claims about the world.


I see that liberale has pointed out the moral issues with the phrasing “he brought the Inquisition down on his own head.”  My own thought on reading that was not of Beijing, but of the all-too-common account of “the woman who was asking for it”.  Ted, your response totally misses the point: it doesn’t matter whether the Pope felt insulted, or even whether he was justified in feeling insulted - as you seem to imply - the point is that the Pope, a sectarian authority, had the power to imprison a man in his house (if you think that’s not a big deal, why don’t you just go ahead and stay in your house for the rest of your life) because he was “not amused” by the presentation of his argument. That kind of reaction is totally morally indefensible, and I really don’t know why you are defending it.

Finally,
The virtues of the scientist (honesty, humility, and devotion to one’s calling) are also those of the Christian. 
You’re leaving out at least one virtue - and it’s the virtue I see as defining the role of a scientist, as opposed to a moral person: respect for evidence and reason, over any authority. A virtue that is not only lacking in many Christians, but arguably one regarded as a vice by many of the founders of the Christian religion.


Ted Davis - #59981

April 28th 2011

I think the main problem here is one of assumptions—my assumptions as an historian and your assumptions as readers—Steve, liberale, and Roger. And, I should add, the directives of editors (my essay was written under specific guidelines and word limits that made it rather difficult to say everything that should be said about any given topic I touched on).

In saying that Galileo brought the Inquisition down on himself, here is exactly what I mean: had he acted differently—had he chosen to present his arguments for Copernicus more diplomatically and in a more balanced fashion (which would have more accurately conveyed the state of knowledge at the time), and had he obeyed what he had been told by Robert Bellarmine in 1616 (not to treat Copernicanism as if it were a proven matter of fact)—then there would have been no trial in 1633.  Period.  As I’ve said, this isn’t “blaming the victim,” it’s simply assessing the evidence.  I certainly agree it isn’t the whole story, but it’s accurate as far as it goes.

Now, all of these things could also be said, if I’d been allowed to have significantly more space to say them. (1) The Pope could have been more forgiving, and could have acted more redemptively—which is to say, the Pope could have been a much better Christian. (One could say the same thing of Galileo, who frankly behaved like an arrogant, pushy jerk in his dealings with a lot of people throughout his life.) Many of the Renaissance Popes were pretty poor examples of Christian character—at least, once they assumed papal authority. (2) There were a lot of things going on in the Vatican in the early 1630s; a lot of people competing for the Pope’s ear, a lot of political minefields to step through very carefully. The Pope was pretty stressed when he learned that his very good friend for many years, Galileo, had stabbed him in the back, going against what the Pope thought was their mutual understanding to write a one-sided book and to put the Pope’s most important point (as well as the rest of the Pope’s views on cosmology) into the mouth of the character who loses all the arguments and is lampooned in the best jokes. From that point on, the Pope had nothing more to do with his old friend—whom he had genuinely admired and encouraged for many years. Should the Pope have taken a chill pill?  Absolutely.  Should Galileo have acted with less arrogance?  Absolutely. (3) I think we all agree, to be frank, that several of the Renaissance popes were not very much different than the secular rulers of their day—and that they should have been. They served the cause of Christianity quite poorly. The Reformation happened in part because of just this problem, although many other factors were also at work (such as nationalism, local politics in various areas of Europe, etc.). I see why people think I’m giving a one-sided account of Galileo’s difficulties, but I was asked to cover a lot of ground in a little space and so I chose to stress the parts of the story that are much less well known to non-historians. Everyone (or so it seems) “knows” that the church persecuted the poor, innocent scientist, but that’s hardly the whole story either.

More coming…


Ted Davis - #59990

April 28th 2011

“Now, about those assumptions.  I think many readers will bring to this topic (Galileo) the expectation that an historian (me) should be imposing on the Renaissance church our modern, more “enlightened” ideas about intellectual, political, and religious freedom.  I am seeing that in the comments above, esp in Steve’s comment here: “it doesn’t matter whether the Pope felt insulted, or even whether he was justified in
feeling insulted - as you seem to imply - the point is that the Pope, a
sectarian authority, had the power to imprison a man in his house (if
you think that’s not a big deal, why don’t you just go ahead and stay
in your house for the rest of your life) because he was “not
amused” by the presentation of his argument. That kind of reaction is
totally morally indefensible, and I really don’t know why you are
defending it.”

Well, Steve, what can I say? You are asking me not to be an historian, but to be a moralist.  Galileo knew how this game worked; he knew how to play the game of patronage that was played by the artists, writers, and musicians.  He had played that game himself many times, and usually quite successfully.  He had gotten himself a great job in Florence by naming the moons of Jupiter after the Medici brothers, he had gotten himself life tenure at Padua by impressing the Venetian Senate with his improved telescope (which he never invented, but receive a patent for anyway), and he had gotten permission to write his Dialogue by convincing the Pope that it would be ... well, a rather different book than it turned out to be. If I appear to be defending the Pope, Steve, it’s because my role as an historian is to tell the story as accurately and fairly as possible.

The past is like a foreign country—they do things differently there.  Like you, Steve, I’m really bothered by some of those differences; I agree that we do some things better than they did, just as I agree that we (in the US today) do somethings better than they do in China. (None of this means that we do all things better; we don’t; we do some things worse, IMO.) But it’s unhistorical for us to expect Urban VIII to act like he wasn’t a 17th-century pontiff, and this is an historical essay.  Thank you for the opportunity to explain all of this.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #59539

April 27th 2011

Steve,

I really wish that more scientists would respect the evidence and reason to see that Darwinian natural selection is a myth.  

However I think that you confuse authority with history.  Christians believe that the Bible is basically true based on the historic evidence and reinforced with rational theology.  

I will ask you again, What is the scientific and rational basis for saying that all persons are created equal?  


Ted Davis - #59998

April 28th 2011

Finally, Steve, let me explain why it made sense to stick with the literal interpretation (in the absence of proof for the Copernican theory).  Again, Steve, the past is a foreign country. As you probably know, hardly anyone believed that Copernicus was right, prior to Galileo’s telescopic observations.  We know of only about a dozen people in the world who were convinced Copernicans before 1610.  Even then, it was a hard sell; note the quotation I borrowed from Galileo’s “Dialogue” about this: his admiration for the Copernicans was so great precisely because they
had ‘done such violence to their own senses as to prefer what reason
told them over that which sensible experience plainly showed them to
the contrary’.  The Bible certainly appeared to talk about a stationary earth and a mobile sun; Aristotle, Ptolemy, and almost everyone else (including Tycho Brahe, the greatest astronomer of his day) knew the earth wasn’t moving and the sun is; and common sense tells us that it makes no sense to say the earth is moving at *hundreds of miles an hour* on its axis *and* at *tens of thousands of miles an hour* (though at the time, before they knew how large the earth’s orbit really is, it was simply many thousands of miles an hour) around the sun.  So—if the words of the Bible seem to agree with everything else you know, why doesn’t it make perfect sense to stick with the literal interpretation?

I think (again) you are underestimating the difficulty of accepting the earth’s motion.  We accept it today, mostly, b/c we’re taught to accept it from an early age.  But, it’s mighty hard to convince a skeptic even today—modern geocentrists can win “debates”—and it was even more difficult then.  Give them a break.  And, give me a break for saying that it made perfect sense.


Now—does anyone want to talk about any of the other topics I addressed?
  I thought they might actually be more interesting.  I guess I was wrong. 


Ted Davis - #60053

April 28th 2011

Steve,

I see you did raise a point about something other than
Galileo; let me respond now to that.  Here is your point: “

You’re leaving out at least
one virtue - and it’s the virtue I see as defining the role of a scientist,
as opposed to a moral person: respect for evidence and reason,
over any authority. A virtue that is not only lacking in many
Christians, but arguably one regarded as a vice by many of the founders
of the Christian religion.”

I really see two points here,
actually.  One is that I left out a virtue essential to science.  That’s
b/c in the context in which I was talking about that—namely, what
Boyle says in “The Christian Virtuoso,” it wasn’t there, in that place. 
However, Boyle and a lot of the “virtuosi” believed they were in fact
doing what you suggest—respecting evidence and reason over any (other)
authority.  As you probably know, references to “the book of nature” are
absolutely commonplace at that time.  In many instances, what they said
specifically is that there is no “book” of any greater authority.  They
rarely spell out that the Author of that book is God, but almost all of
them believed that unquestioningly and took it for granted (Galileo did
spell it out in his Letter to Christina), and it’s fair to read between
the lines when they don’t.  What they were saying in effect is that b/c
God wrote that book, it’s more reliable than other books.

Let me
quote just a few of them on this, since I have limited time and space. I
think you’ll see what I mean. William

Gilbert
dedicated
his book on magnetism to “true philosophers, ingenuous minds, who not
only inn
books but in things themselves look for knowledge.”
  William
Harvey said that “the
works of nature bow to
no antiquity; for indeed there is nothing either more ancient or of
higher
authority than nature.” Robert Boyle said, “The

book of nature, is a fine and large piece of tapestry rolled up, which
we are
not able to see all at once, but must be content to wait for the
discovery of
its beauty, and symmetry, little by little, as it gradually comes to be
more
and more unfolded, or displayed.” All of these basically say or are
fully consistent with your point about that missing virtue, but all of
them were said within a strongly theistic context: they saw the book of
nature as needing to be read for its own sake, since it was older and of
greater authority—but of course they also knew that its Author was
God, which didn’t hurt that metaphor one bit.



Galileo was quite explicit about it, however: “
For the Holy Scripture and nature both equally derive from the divine
Word, the former as the dictation of the Holy Spirit, the latter as the
most obedient executrix of God’s commands; moreover, in order to adapt
itself to the understanding of all people, it was appropriate for the
Scripture to say many things which are different from absolute truth, in
appearance and in regard to the meaning of the words; on the other
hand, nature is inexorable and immutable, and she does not care at all
whether or not her recondite reasons and modes of operations are
revealed to human understanding, and so she never transgresses the terms
of the laws imposed on her…”

Let me continue with a second point of yours in another reply.


Ted Davis - #60055

April 28th 2011

Your second point is on target, Steve: that a lot of Christians don’t seem to have an appropriate respect for reason and (empirical) evidence. This is of course an ongoing source of frustration for scientists, incl. Christians in the sciences, and I don’t think it’s likely to change very much despite the presence of organizations like BioLogos.  One reason is simply this: one of the ways in which religion is not like science is that religion is really (or should be) for “everyone,” whereas science is not really for just anyone.  Science is a form of highly abstract and specialized knowledge, whereas if religion isn’t ultimately pretty simple it won’t have very much practical value or influence.  Another way to put this: most people can’t do science (I don’t agree with those educators who apparently think that anyone can learn differential calculus or thermodynamics), but a whole lot of people can do religion, or else what’s the point?

Theology is another matter; the cognitive component of monotheism (theology) is abstract,  just as philosophy is abstract. But, most ordinary believers don’t really know very much theology or very much *about* theology, when it comes right down to it.  They may think they do, but they usually don’t.

As for empiricism, I will be saying something about theology and the modern scientific method/attitude at the end of this essay—part 3? 


Merv - #60620

April 29th 2011

Ted, you wrote in a comment above:  “Galileo didn’t need to insult the Pope; he didn’t need to make his
“Dialogue” so one-sided, and he should have been more forthcoming about
what he had been told in 1616. The combination of those facts brought
the Inquisition down on his head.”

I did read you article (and re-skimmed it) but can’t remember what you might be referring to here.  What was Galileo told in 1616?

What you said of Kepler comparing a heliocentric universe to the trinity is interesting.  On the view of the sun representing “God the Father” (a rather Biblical analogy is that not?), we would have at least one glimpse of “strangeness” that could have intruded on their otherwise rock-solid geocentric views.  & that would be the notion that the earth is “center” while God does all the moving.  I guess that can (did) make sense in its own way, but it would seem to make at least equal sense theologically for God to be the “center” while we all move around Him.  But be all that as it may—your point stands well, that geocentricity was already a foregone scientific conclusion for them despite any input theology may have had in the matter beyond mere confirmation.

—Merv


Ted Davis - #60704

May 2nd 2011

Merv,

The documents are at http://www1.umn.edu/ships/galileo/library/1616docs.htm. Everyone agrees that Galileo was given the Cardinal Bellarmine’s Certificate (26 May 1616); the status of Special Injunction (26 February 1616) is not entirely clear, and there is no consensus about what to make of it. Even on a conservative reading that gives Galileo the benefit of all the doubt, he seems to have violated the ruling that heliocentrism ”is contrary to Holy Scripture and therefore cannot be defended or held.”

The sense of that ruling, in the context of received views of the status of astronomical theories at that time, is that it could not be held as a matter of proven fact; he was certainly under the impression later on that he could discuss its merits as a hypthesis or useful fiction, but he did not really present it that way in his “Dialogue.”


sy - #60714

May 3rd 2011

Ted

Thank you for this illuminating piece. In many discussions related to science and religion and indeed all of philosophy, a missing ingredient is often a historical perspective, which I believe trumps whatever we might happen to think today. Although scientists and theologians spend years searching for truth, it is the historians who can tell us what really happened, and this kind of truth, the truth of past events, has a purity and certainty (when done well, that is) that is often out of reach of the rest of us.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #60822

May 6th 2011

I would in a sense repoen this topic.

It has occured to me from the excellent essay that Galileo’s offense was not so much his ideas as how he taught or presented them.  He taught them as unequivocally true, while the Pope representing the consensus of the scientific community said it was not proven to be true. Since BioLogos has taken on the task of teaching evolution to conservative Christians, this is an interesting issue.

I see two very troubling difficulties in teaching the Theory of Evolution.  One study indicated that many science teachers do not teach evolution in their classrooms or do so very cautiously.  

The first is that there is no clear consensus as to what the Theory is and how it works.  How does one teach something that no one can really explain, except in general terms.  I see that many authorities differ from the traditional neoDarwinian view, so how can one teach that any one is right.  Science has embarassed itself by putting forth the concept of Malthusian natural selection, which it has not proven.

The second is that our system does not allow for minority views.  My answer to this is to have a discussion of the Philosophy of Science in regards to Darwinism, ID, and Creationism.  While this probably would not satisfy either side, it should help the teachers and students come to grips with the real problems involved without feeling that someone is forcing something on them.

ID and Creationism are not science as we know it, but they raise philosophical questions about what science is and how we best understand our universe.  Darwinism does too.  Thus it makes sense to discuss these issues before one discusses modern ideas about evolution        
  
   


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