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 observations or 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. All that was needed was 4 or 5 great thinkers to show the way and the job was done. 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 magical thinking starts right where modern science was supposed to have started, the Scientific Revolution. A common view of the Scientific Revolution is that it was started by Copernicus but really caught fire with the great scientists of the seventeenth century; Kepler, Galileo and Newton. The big changes were the wide use of experimentation, the application of mathematics, and a belief in a natural order to the universe. These advances came out 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 effectively 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.

Common accounts of the Scientific Revolution have always had a hidden contradiction. It is true that that the great men mentioned above had an immediate and lasting effect on students of nature. But that is the problem. That means that these men were not "ahead of their time". We know what happens when scientists and great thinkers who are ahead of their time first present their ideas. The answer is "not much". 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 through the Middle Ages for these men. If this is true, the church would have had to be involved, in one way or another.

Some of the achievements credited to the Scientific Revolution were already well established by the time it arrived. The application of mathematics to the study of nature was not new to the Europe of the seventeenth century. This tradition had begun in Europe three centuries earlier with the Oxford Calculators (see The Calculatores) but had spread to the Parisian Doctors, and from there to the rest of Europe. Galileo's own notes as a student reference their work (see Galileo's Battle for the Heaven's). The "Oxford Calculators" were called calculators for a reason. And there was belief that there was a natural order to the universe. Why else would the Calculatores and Doctores be proposing laws that were obeyed by all moving objects undergoing different types of motion ( e.g. constant speed, constant acceleration etc.). The church did not discourage the work of the Calculators or the Doctores. In fact, they were all Roman Catholic priests, brothers or bishops. Recognition of the importance of real physical experiments and more standardized approaches to experimentation 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).

The importance of technology to science is often underplayed. The story of the modern astronomical research telescope highlights this. Most of the large optical telescopes for the last 100 years have been Cassegrain reflectors. The technology to build these telescopes was not reliable until the late nineteenth century. The design for the Cassegrain reflector was published three times during the seventeenth century by three different authors, Bonaventura Cavalieri, Marin Mersenne and Laurent Cassegrain. None were built. Marin Mersenne was going to build one but his friend, Rene Descartes, convinced him not to. He saved Mersenne from a great disappointment. The story of Laurent Cassegrain is even more interesting and more sad. The reaction to Laurent Cassegrain's publication of the design was so negative that it was the end of his career as a scientist. Both Newton and Huygens considered the design hopeless and said so publicly (see Reflecting on History). Cassegrain, like Mersenne and Cavalieri, was a Roman Catholic priest. 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 lenses needed for telescopes had to be ground and polished with great precision. Lens-making for eyeglasses had been a major industry in Europe for centuries. The industry was aided by the invention of sophisticated lathes needed for precision grinding ( see Fathers of the Telescope).

Science needed two more pieces of the puzzle. One was a way to efficiently communicate new work through the community. That's where the scientific journal comes 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. One important innovation that is ignored is the church's desire that they be autonomous, anyone that was accepted as a master at one university could teach as a master at another. This all 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 church may have been responsible for developing some of the institutions necessary for science and hundreds of clerics were involved in important scientific advances (see Galileo's Contemporaries) but it is widely accepted that the Galileo Affair trumps all the church's contributions to science. In the Galileo Affair, the Church clashed with Galileo over his cosmological beliefs. The importance given the Galileo Affair is not just by popular acclaim, it is also supported by famous historians, widely acclaimed documentaries (see Galileo's Battle for the Heavens), and even educational associations. This is where the discussion of church and science diverges from science itself. Science is not very 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 or organization of scientists say so. Scientists also don't have the privilege of cherry-picking the data that supports their pet theory (that is why there is "sampling theory"). One has to suspect that the assumed importance of the Galileo Affair is wishful thinking. It would be difficult to find a discipline in science that has less of an influence on other disciplines of science than cosmology . This is born out by modern statistical analysis of sometimes millions of scientific articles ( see Even if cosmology was an influential discipline, discussions of the Galileo Affair are prone to cherry-picking. It is rare to find any mention that Galileo was proposing the Copernican theory against several models including the one we are taught in school, Kepler's model. Or that Galileo had decided to ignore Kepler over the last decades of his life (see Galileo's Battle for the Heavens). Or that his Copernican Model did not work any better at predicting the positions of planets than any of the competing models..and never would (it needed Kepler's elliptical orbits). There are many unimportant 'details' like this that are left out in discussions of the Galileo Affair. But the church did censor and punish Galileo for his ideas, regardless if they were right or wrong. When all is said and done, the Galileo Affair is just one event that involved the church and science. An event that happened near the end of his life. Up to that point he had enjoyed the favour of the church and had lived a very comfortable life. Through the Galileo's 69 years before the Galileo Affair, the church had supported his research, much as it had done with two other of the great scientists of the Scientific Revolution, Copernicus and Kepler (see Galileo's Battle for the Heavens). .

The assumptions and arguments surrounding the idea that the church is in natural conflict with science need a second look. The pages on this site are intended to present some of the 'missing data' for that second look.

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 year.