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The Church and Science

We owe much to science in our daily lives. These benefits did not come cheaply. It's wasn't as simple as developing a "scientific method". Science needed rules to protect against bias and rules on how you draw conclusions from experiments. It needed systems for teaching young scientists and for communicating results of studies. And it needed the help of technology. All of these pieces seemed to come together during the Scientific Revolution. For many discussions of the history of science, its development was much more easy. It only needed 4 or 5 great thinkers to show the way. There is a lot of magical thinking in the common view of the history of the science. Nowhere is this more true than when the discussion involves the church and science.

The Scientific Revolution

This magical thinking starts with the Scientific Revolution. The Scientific Revolution was supposed to have been started by Copernicus but really caught fire with the great scientists of the seventeenth century; Kepler, Galileo and Newton. It brought the wide use of experimentation, the application of mathematics, and a belief in a natural order to the universe. These advances came after of a Dark Age for science that stretched almost 1100 years back to the fall of Rome. [_1_] . The great men of the Scientific Revolution had created our new world out of a dark void. There is much wrong with this account, other than the fact it seems to have been borrowed from the Book of Genesis.

Accounts of the Scientific Revolution conceal a contradiction. The men of the Scientific Revolution greatly influenced the men of their time and those that followed. But that must mean that they were not "ahead of their time". We know what happens to great thinkers and great ideas that are ahead of their time. They are ignored. Two examples are Gregor Mendel ( see Mendel and Darwin ) and Alfred Wegener (see Wegener and Continental Drift) but there are many more. The reasons that the Scientific Revolution occured in Europe when it did was not only due to the great men of the time but that Europe had been prepared over the centuries for these men. If this is true, the church would have had to be involved, in one way or another.

Some of the advances of the Scientific Revolution were actually advances from the middle ages. The tradition of applying of mathematics to the study of nature began in the fourteenth century with professors from Oxford and Paris. This tradition then spread through Europe. The professors from Oxford even came to be known as "The Calculators" (see The Calculatores). The Parisian professors were known as "The Doctors". Galileo's own notes as a student reference their work (see Galileo's Battle for the Heaven's). They clearly believed in a natural order to the universe. Why else would the Calculatores and Doctores propose laws that applied to all moving objects. The church rewarded these works, making several of the Doctores and Calculatores bishops. Recognition of the importance of real physical experiments was one of the real advances of the seventeenth century. Even so, there were examples of well designed and well executed experiments preceding Galileo and Newton ( see Giuseppe Moletti in Galileo's Twin).

Discoveries and proofs often depend on the available technology. We can look at what did and didn't happen during the Scientific Revolution to understand this. Most large optical telescopes built in the last 100 years are Cassegrain reflectors. Three different authors from seventeenth century published this design in the seventeenth century. None were built. Rene Descartes, talked one of the authors out of building one. Newton's and Huygens' ridicule of the design ended the scientific career of another author, Laurent Cassegrain (see Reflecting on History). The authors (Cassegrain, Mersenne and Cavalieri) were all Roman Catholic priests. The Cassegrain reflector wasn't built in the seventeenth century because the technology wasn't there. The refractors of Galileo and Kepler were built because the technology was there. The artisans around Europe had three centuries of experience producing lenses for spectacles and had developed very sophisticated machines for their production( see Fathers of the Telescope).

Science needed two more pieces of the puzzle. It needed a way to communicate discoveries. That's where the scientific journal came in. The Journal of the Royal Society established a model for sharing work between students of nature. This approach had been followed by the Mersenne Circle in a less formal way decades before. Another piece of the puzzle was an efficient way of teaching science. That system was already well established, the university. This was one of the greatest achievements of the Middle Ages ( see Medieval Universities Timeline). The medieval university was largely the creation of the church. The church wanted these institutions to be autonomous; anyone that was accepted as a master at one university could teach as a master at another. This started at the University of Toulouse in 1233. It was the start of transferable accreditation (degrees) and aided in the spreading of knowledge from one part of Europe to another.

The Galileo Affair

The Galileo Affair comes up often in discussions of the church and science. In the Galileo Affair, the Church clashed with Galileo over his cosmological beliefs. This one event assumes more importance than the invention of the modern university and the many scientific advances made by clerics (see Galileo's Contemporaries). This is not just by popular vote. It is also assumed by celebrity scientists (Jacob Bronowski, Neil deGrasse Tyson), historians, widely acclaimed documentaries (see Galileo's Battle for the Heavens), and even educational associations. This is where the discussion of church and science departs from science itself. Science is not democratic. You don't get to vote on whether something is true or not. It is also not autocratic. Theories don't become true because a famous scientist says so. Scientists also don't get to cherry-pick the data that supports their pet theory and ignore what doesn't. If the Galileo Affair is to be so important to discussions of the history of science, shouldn't it also be important to science itself. Few disciplines in science are less important than cosmology when it comes to influencing other disciplines. Modern analyses of scientific articles ( see Eigenfactor.org) bears this out. Even if we make this leap, we have the problem of cherry-picking. Why do so few discussions of the Galileo Affair mention his contemporary, Kepler. Is it because Galileo's model was competing with Kepler's? They also miss the fact that Galileo's model didn't work any better at predicting the positions of planets than any of the competing models..and never would. That is how important Kepler's elliptical orbits were. If these discussions miss these facts, what else do they miss? The answer is alot of the science involved with the Galileo Affair (see Galileo's Battle for the Heavens).

The idea that the church is in natural conflict with science needs a second look. A second look with a little more attention to science and a little less magical thinking. These pages are intended to do just that.


Copyright Joseph Sant (2014).
Cite this page (APA).

1. McIntyre,Wade, MIT Press, Dark Ages, , xvi
The Renaissance came last to the sciences, beginning with Copernicus's new theory of the universe in 1543, which spawned the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and brought us Kepler, Galileo and Newton. During this period, scientists sought and discovered many of the great laws of nature by employing a methodology using experimentation, the application of mathematics, and the belief that there was a natural order to the universe. It is the success of this viewpoint that has led to all the modern achievements in science, even to the present day. Indeed, if one is bold enough to defy historical convention for a moment to focus exclusively on the sciences, one might usefully -- albeit loosely, think of the dark ages for the natural sciences as extending from the period following the birth of scientific reasoning by the Greeks and the great technological advances of the Roman Empire (which ended in the fifth century), all the way to the scientific revolution of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, a period of almost 1,100 years.
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