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 came 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 this common view of history. 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. We are taught about the Scientific Revolution through the works Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton and a small supporting cast. This revolution brought about 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. This account would not be out of place in the Book of Genesis.

The heroes of the Scientific Revolution were not "ahead of their time". Great thinkers and great ideas that are ahead of their time are typically ignored. Gregor Mendel ( see Mendel and Darwin ) and Alfred Wegener (see Wegener and Continental Drift) are only two of many examples of men who were ignored because they were ahead of their time. 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 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. Galileo's own notes as a student reference their work (see Galileo's Battle for the Heaven's). This tradition had spread through Europe by the time Galileo was born. The professors from Oxford even came to be known as "The Calculators" (see The Calculatores). They clearly believed in a natural order to the universe. Why else would the professors from Oxford, Paris and other parts of Europe propose laws that applied to all moving objects. The church rewarded these works, making several of the Oxford and Parisian professors 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).

So much of science depends on technology. The history of astronomy demonstrates this. The refractors of seventeenth century were built because the technology was there. The artisans of Europe had been refining techniques for grinding and polishing of lenses since at least 1289 (see Fathers of the Telescope). Reflectors would have to wait because the technology wasn't there. 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 author out of building a prototype and Newton's ridicule of the design ended the scientific career of another author (see Reflecting on History). The authors (Cassegrain, Mersenne and Cavalieri) were all Roman Catholic priests.

There were two more pieces to the puzzle. Science 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 (see Galileo's Contemporaries) in a less formal way decades before. Another piece of the puzzle was an efficient way for 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. Many of the characteristics and structures of the modern university can be traced back to twelfth and thirteenth century Europe. Universities are a tremendous tool for spreading new knowledge today, and were so in the Middle Ages.

The Galileo Affair

The story of Galileo and his clash with the Church over his cosmological beliefs is a staple of church and science discussions. The Galileo Affair, facts and myths included, has become part of our culture. That is why millions of tourists visit Pisa to see the Tower that Galileo didn't drop iron balls from (see Galileo's Battle for the Heavens). Quotes attributed to Galileo ("Eppur si muove") were never attributed to him during his lifetime. And the cell that Galileo was confined to in the Palace of the Inquisition turns out to be a five room suite that was bigger than the average size of a home in the U.S. It looked out on the Vatican Gardens and had a room for his personal valet. The floor plan is shown below. More troubling, however, is that so much of the science behind the story is ignored. Why is Galileo's contemporary, Kepler, so rarely mentioned. 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. Galileo biographies also leave the impression that Galileo's science was the only important science of the time. This is far from true (see Galileo's Contemporaries).

Galileo's Vatican Suite

A Second Look

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. Modern Science presents the theme that intelligent discussions of church and science must start with intelligent discussions of modern science. Pages on modern scientists such as Gregor Mendel and Alfred Wegener follow on this theme. Galileo's Battle for the Heavens presents several of the "missing bits" from most discussions of the Galileo Affair. Finally, The Real da Vinci Code might explain how so much magical thinking about the church and science has survived so long. Early historians of science had a strong anti-church and anti-religious bias and were able to censor historians whose work didn't fit with that bias.

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.