Monday, December 11, 2017

Mechanical Philosophy of Matter was a Christian Triumph

"In the second half of the seventeenth century, a new philosophy of nature came into prominence. Although it was presented in many forms by the likes of Rene Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, and Robert Boyle, in all forms it treated matter as lifeless and inert, without any properties of its own. It also suggested that all natural phenomena could be explained by the mechanical interactions of matter in motion. This "mechanical philosophy" as it came to be called, was in strong contrast to the picture presented by the traditional philosophies, such as Aristotlelianism..."[1]

“The acceptance of the mechanical philosophy played a major role in the events that we collectively call “the Scientific Revolution.”[2]

“…the proponents of a mechanical universe were driven by religious concerns, the debate between different forms of the mechanical philosophy was waged on religious grounds, and the success of the mechanical philosophy was hailed as a Christian triumph.”[3]

“Newton, Boyle, Descartes, and Gassendi all subscribed to some version of the mechanical philosophy. They also believed in an all-wise, all-powerful God who had once created and still preserved this universe of matter in motion. None of these natural philosophers saw any conflict between the two beliefs; in fact, one might go so far as to say that they found these two creeds, Christianity and the mechanical philosophy, inseparable and equally necessary.”[4]


[1] William B. Ashworth Jr., When Science & Christianity Meet, Lindberg & Numbers, editors, University of Chicago Press, 2003, page 61
[2] ibid, page 61
[3] ibid, page 61
[4] ibid, page 84

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Galileo: NOT A Conflict Between Science & Christianity

This blog is a summary of Chapter Two of When Science and Christianity Meet by David C. Lindberg.[1]

The Galileo affair has become a tale of combat to the death between the voices of scientific freedom and the forces of theological intolerance. This view is seriously deficient as history. The event was not a battle between science and Christianity. Every one of the combatants – including Galileo - was Christian. The conflict was within the church, between opposing theories of biblical interpretation and within science between alternative cosmologies. What was really at stake was the certain meaning of certain biblical passages but also the larger question of who had the right to determine cosmological truth.  This event was about cosmological and theological beliefs but also was powerfully shaped by local circumstances and personal interests.
Galileo’s trial must be judged by the standards and behavior of the early seventeenth century. The freedom to express dangerous ideas was as unlikely to be defended in Protestant Geneva as in Catholic Rome.  The idea that a stable society could be built on general principles of free speech was defended by nobody at the time.  Examined in 17th century terms, the outcome of the Galileo trial was a product not of dogmatism or intolerance beyond the norm, but a combination of standard bureaucratic procedure, plausible political judgement, and a familiar array of human foibles and failings.
Following the views of Aristotle and then Ptolemy, Western cosmologies had been geocentric since at least the fourth century. Heliocentric systems were merely curiosities until Copernicus in 1543. Copernicus’ book was highly technical and written for a very small audience of mathematically proficient astronomers, so as a result it was little known and less read. There was almost no reaction from the Catholic church and nobody judged Copernicus as dangerous or a threat. In other words, scientists writing about and publishing books on heliocentrism were not the issue.
In the 16th century, there was little evidence in support of a heliocentric model being physically true. Putting the earth in motion represented a massive violation of common sense. Removal of the earth from the center of the cosmos represented a destructive attack on Aristotle’s physics – the only comprehensive system of physics in existence. To put the earth in motion was to put it in the heavens, thereby destroying the dichotomy between the heavens and the earth, which had served as a fundamental cosmological premise wherever Aristotelian philosophy prevailed for the previous 2000 years. The absence of stellar parallax also offered powerful empirical evidence against heliocentrism. Astronomers and natural philosophers who rejected heliocentrism did so not because of blind conservatism or religious intolerance, but because of their commitment to widely held scientific principles and theories.
Galileo brought data and arguments for geocentrism. Using a telescope, Galileo observed that the moon was similar in structure to the earth; arguing that since the moon was rocky like the earth and moved through space that the earth could also. He saw Venus passing through a complete set of phases, just like the moon does. This observation was in contradiction with Ptolemy, but could be explained – and actually had been predicted - by the geocentric model of Tycho Brahe. Galileo observed that Jupiter and Saturn had “satellites”; arguing that the moon could therefore be a satellite of the moving earth. His observation of sunspots struck at the Aristotelian idea of the heavens being “perfect.”
It is tempting from a modern perspective to propose that the leading theologians of the church ought to have modified their interpretation of the relevant biblical texts in order to get into step with the scientific opinion. But we must keep in mind that the position adopted by the inquisition was in step with the majority, if not the latest, scientific opinion. And it would have been a most remarkable event had its members taken elaborate measures to abandon their own deeply held principles of biblical interpretation, as well as traditional cosmological opinions of the church fathers, while simultaneously rejecting the majority opinion of qualified astronomers.
The fact of the recent reformation played a large part in the Galileo event.  The church had just lost half of Europe as a result of what could be construed as a relaxed policy toward dissent and controversy.  The church bureaucracy since the Council of Trent was more worried about controversy than the medieval church had been.  It took a much stricter view of biblical interpretation, moving toward literalism, and refused to embrace any interpretation not sanctioned by church tradition or the church fathers.  Ironic, since the church fathers, Augustine and Aquinas, encouraged an interplay between science and scripture.
The reformation and counter-reformation did serve to entrench Aristotle’s physics and cosmology more deeply and inflexibly than ever before.  The fascinating and significant anti-Aristotelian alternatives so enthusiastically discussed in the fourteenth century were now ignored and often forgotten.  Protestants and Catholics alike clung tenaciously to Aristotle’s cosmology while vigorously denouncing Copernicus.  Only in the 17th century did heliocentric supplant Aristotle’s cosmology and only then did the physical consequences derived from the assumed daily and annual motion of the earth destroy Aristotle’s physics as well.[2]
Galileo actually argued for the same thing as Augustine and Aquinas; stating that the literal biblical text is necessary for salvation and those things that surpass human reason, but when matters are addressed that are within the reach of sensory experience and rational knowledge, God does not expect us to abandon these abilities of observation and rational thought.
Galileo was at first accused of adopting rash and heretical principles of exegesis. In other words, the Church was at first upset with Galileo interpreting scripture. When the inquisition formally censured heliocentrism in 1616, Galileo faced no personal danger and was not punished nor declared a heretic.  He was simply ordered to not teach or defend it in any way.
Urban VIII became pope in 1621. He was a friend of Galileo and was considered to be an intellectual, a man of vision, and a moderate on the topic of heliocentrism. From his discussions with the pope, Galileo came to understand that he was now free to write about heliocentrism, so long as he treated it as mere hypothesis.
Galileo’s Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems came out in 1632. It was a discussion between Salviati, who gave the arguments in favor of heliocentrism, and Simplicio, who argued for geocentrism.  Galileo’s mistake was in making Simplicio seem to be a slow-witted, Aristotelian laughing stock that resembled Pope Urban; such flagrant insubordination could not go unpunished. As the second trial unfolded, it proved to be only indirectly about biblical interpretation and cosmological theories and more about disobedience and flagrant insubordination.
Galileo’s punishment was simply house arrest which allowed Galileo to turn to other scientific problems. Galileo’s mechanics as described in Discourse on Two New Sciences served to overturn the Aristotelian view of the world. We needed an entire new system of physics before we could get rid of Aristotle and geocentrism; one could argue that the punishment imposed by the Catholic Church actually advanced science and heliocentrism more than if they had left Galileo unpunished.

David C Lindberg’s conclusions are as follows:
1.     Personal interest and political ambition are as important as ideology and observation. If Galileo had paid more attention to diplomacy, the outcome may have been different.
2.     The Galileo affair was powerfully influenced by local circumstances:  the Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, the power of the papacy being threatened by the Spanish, and the criticism of Pope Urban for favoring Protestant King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden all played a part in how Galileo was dealt with.
3.     This was not a battle between science and Christianity. Every one of the combatants – including Galileo - was Christian. The conflict was within the church, between opposing theories of biblical interpretation and within science between alternative cosmologies.





[1] David C. Linberg, When Science and Christianity Meet, University of Chicago Press, 2003
[2] Edward Grant, Physical Science in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 1977

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Christianity & Science – A Synergetic Relationship Throughout History

A person can be a God-fearing Christian on Sunday and a working scientist come Monday morning, without ever having to account for the partition that seems to have erected itself in his head while he slept.[1]

The above quote from Sam Harris represents the popular belief that Christianity and science are always at odds with each other. This “partition” between science and Christianity has existed, but historically the separation has been far from the norm. (See previous articles on the synergism between science & Christianity) Not only are science and Christianity not in conflict, they actually are very much connected, and have been throughout history.
It is correct that in the Middle Ages, as most people believe, some of the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, & Galen (the “Classical tradition”) caused suspicion, hostility, and condemnation from the church.  But more often, critical reflection about the nature of the world was tolerated and even encouraged by medieval religious leaders. Many of the church fathers had been educated in the classical tradition before converting to Christianity and had acquired habits of rational inquiry. They used these tools to help develop Christian doctrine and to help defend the faith against detractors.[2] For example, Aristotle’s philosophy could be used to rationally argue the existence of God.
The “unmoved mover” (whether it is only one or a multiplicity), whose existence Aristotle tries to demonstrate in the XIIth book of his Metaphysics (i. e. in the so called “Aristotelian theology”), has an infinite power, because – as Aristotle explicitly affirms – it has the capacity of moving the heaven for an infinite time (1073 a 8-9); it is transcendent respect to every other being, because it is the only unmovable being, while all the others beings are moved (1071 b 17-20); and it is intelligent, because it thinks (the act of thinking is its self being, it is its self essence) and it wills (as it is proved by the fact that, according to Aristotle, it is happy). It has also the capacity of acting, because -as I tried to demonstrate in many writings - it is not only a final cause, but also an efficient cause of the movement of the heavens. Therefore, according to Aristotle, “he” - now we can use the personal pronoun, because we are speaking of a person - is a God, and this is a consequence of the fact that he is eternal and happy (these are the characters that ancient Greeks attributed to gods), even if the is not a creator God (1072 b 26-30).[3]

Consequently, many of the church fathers expressed at least limited approval of the classical tradition.  For example, the second and third century writers Athenagoras, Clement, and Origen all found Greek philosophy a useful tool in the defense of Christianity.  Athenagoras marshaled the authority of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics in favor of monotheism.  Clement attacked the earliest Greek philosophers for their atheism. But he [Clement] also acknowledged that certain philosophers and poets bore testimony to the truth, and that within the philosophical tradition there is a “slender spark, capable of being fanned into flame, a trace of wisdom and an impulse from God.” Tertullian himself viewed Christian religion as the fulfillment of Greek rationality, and he both advocated and engaged in philosophical activity.[4]
Medieval Scholastics deeply valued Aristotle and his writings and believed that his teachings on reason could be incorporated into church theology.  Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine), one of the most important Christian church fathers during the 4th and 5th century, wrote at length about the connection between the Genesis account in the Bible and the natural sciences contained in the classical tradition. Augustine had no problem using natural science to help interpret scripture.  Roger Bacon agreed with Augustine. 
His goal was to demonstrate that the pagan learning of the classical tradition was a vital resource, capable of offering essential services to theology and the church; and moreover that it posed no insuperable religious threat, that suitably disciplined and purged of error, it would serve as a faithful handmaiden of religion and the church.[5]
Thomas Aquina’s writings in the 13th century were the culmination of this thought; combining the theological principles of faith with Aristotle’s philosophical principles of reason.
Thomas Aquinas as biblical exegete, metaphysician, and philosopher of nature offers us a rich array of insights for contemporary discourse on the relationship among sacred texts, the natural sciences, and philosophy. He can help us to avoid the whirlpool of a reductionist materialism as well as the stumbling block of biblical literalism. His principles continue to serve as an anchor of intelligibility in a sea of confusing claims.[6]
Augustine also wanted Christians to be knowledgeable about the natural world and use it as a handmaiden of theology and religion. He worried about Christians talking nonsense about science and how that would hurt the religion.
Augustine made it clear that although scriptural knowledge is vastly superior to knowledge gained through the senses, the latter is inestimably superior to ignorance. Moreover, he worried that Christians, naively interpreting scripture, might express absurd opinions on cosmological issues, this provoking ridicule among better informed pagans and bringing the Christian faith into disrepute.[7]
Taking a quick, but relevant digression, Augustine’s warning to Christians is still relevant today.  Bernard Ramm in the 1950’s observed this exact thing and gave a similar warning.
It is impossible to settle the complex problems of Bible-and-science, theological and empirical fact without a well-developed Christian theism and philosophy of science. For example, the idea of creation is rather complex. Evangelicals were not always aware of the great deal of thought put into this matter by Augustine and Aquinas. As a result, evangelicals posed the problems of modern science as resolving down to : (i) fiat, instantaneous creationism; or (ii) atheistic developmentalism. This is certainly a gross over-simplification, not a genuine probing, of the entire concept of creation.[8]
This way of thinking has resulted in science being taught with absolute disregard of biblical statements and Christian perspectives. Science mostly is done with no interest as to what the Bible says on the subject and is now developed and controlled by people who do not believe in the scientific credibility of the Bible. Both science and theology are hurt when we operate as if the divide between them exists.
Back to the Middle Ages, Augustine wanted the interpretation of scripture to stay consistent with the cosmology and physics of the classical tradition and used the natural sciences in his role as a theologian and bible interpreter. Christians should think of Scripture and Creation as two “books” that should be read together for understanding of the fullness of God’s self-revelation; science is a God-given tool for discerning the handiwork of God in Creation and is fully compatible with God’s Word revealed in Scripture.
Article 2 of the Belgic Confession of 1561 states: We know God by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: God’s eternal power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are enough to convict humans and to leave them without excuse. Second, God makes himself known to us more clearly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for God’s glory and for our salvation.
Science and Christianity have historically complemented each other. Christians see God as a Lawgiver, as a rational mind, and as the Creator. Because of this, the world must be rational, must follow prescribed laws, and must have a reason for its existence. Science is the way we study the world, the laws, and the reasons. Christian theology also teaches that man was created in the image of God, so we also have the ability to comprehend God’s laws and reasons. Therefore, science arose only once: In Christian Western Europe in the 17th century.
Christianity depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as His personal creation, thus having a rational stable structure, awaiting human comprehension. Christians developed science because they believed it could be done and they thought it should be done.[9]
Since they believed it could be done, the vast majority of initial thinkers in science were Christians who did their investigations because of the Christian ideas they had about the universe. Nicolaus Copernicus was a church deacon who did astronomy in his spare time. Robert Boyle, father of modern chemistry, set up Christian apologetics lectures. Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was a Christian monk. Isaac Newton, discoverer of the universal laws of gravitation, finishes his Principia with:
This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being...This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God.[10]
Johannes Kepler, discoverer of the laws of planetary motion, wrote:
The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.[11]
Arno Penzias, Nobel Laureate and co-discoverer of the cosmic background radiation, says of Kepler’s philosophy:
That really goes back to the triumph, not of Copernicus, but really the triumph of Kepler. That's because, after all, the notion of epicycles and so forth goes back to days when scientists were swapping opinions. All this went along until we had a true believer and this was Kepler. Kepler, after all, was the Old Testament Christian. Right? He really believed in God the Lawgiver. And so he demanded that the same God who spoke in single words and created the universe is not going to have a universe with 35 epicycles in it. And he said there's got to be something simpler and more powerful. Now he was lucky or maybe there was something deeper, but Kepler's faith was rewarded with his laws of nature. And so from that day on, it's been an awful struggle, but over long centuries, we find that very simple laws of nature actually do apply. And so that expectation is still with scientists. And it comes essentially from Kepler, and Kepler got it out of his belief in the Bible, as far as I can tell. This passionate belief turned out to be right. And he gave us his laws of motion, the first real laws of nature we ever had. And so nature turned out to redeem the expectations he had based on his faith. And scientists have adopted Kepler's faith, without the cause.[12]
One common charge against Christianity is that it “hinders scientific progress.” Any commonly accepted idea could hinder science—not just ones that Christians hold. The best example was the dogmatic adherence to Aristotle that hindered scientific progress for over 2000 years. One of the first people to disagree with Aristotle was a Christian, Nicolaus Copernicus. And it was Galileo, also a Christian, who challenged the prevailing scientific view of the universe in the name of science. Most people at the time, including secular scientists, held the Aristotelian idea that the earth was at the center of the solar system and heavenly bodies moved in perfect circles. It was Kepler who showed planetary orbits to be ellipses. Christians were the ones actually pushing science forward in an age of scientific stagnation.
Another example of this was Louis Pasteur, a devout Christian credited with the discovery of germ theory. The prevailing view in Pasteur’s time was that microbes could spontaneously appear from chemicals and this was the cause of illness. Spontaneous generation disagrees with the Christian Doctrine of Creation, so Pasteur set out, with obvious success, to show that life appearing from non-life could not be correct. Based on his Christian beliefs, Pasteur was motivated to test a prevailing scientific theory to the benefit of mankind.
A current example of a theory holding back science is the belief that our DNA contains a vast amount of “junk” that has no function. Scientists held to this belief because it was one of the evidences for evolutionary theory and this “held back” science for 30 years. We are now discovering all kinds of function in “junk DNA” that we never bothered to look for earlier because of a dogmatic adherence to evolutionary theory. Christianity is no more guilty of “holding back science” than any other commonly held idea that society sees as correct.
Christianity and science are not at odds, nor should they be at war.  Some of the hostility comes from a perceived limit of each domain; the assumption that science deals only in facts and answers the “how” questions, while Christianity is limited to faith questions and only can answer the “why” questions. These are artificially imposed limits that neither area actually restricts itself to. I believe most of the hostility comes from a misunderstanding of how each area operates.
Because humans make mistakes, it is the interpretation of nature (science) and the interpretation of scripture (theology) that can be in conflict. In fact, both domains can work together, support each other, and learn from each other. When interpreted correctly, Christian scripture and nature should be in harmony. God created the universe and inspired the Bible, so both should agree. Science is constantly changing based on new evidence and our interpretation of scripture should be open for evaluation as well.
As it did with the early scientists, Christianity can provide inspiration for scientists; giving them a reason for their work. Discovering how the universe began or deciphering the ultimate nature of matter is a much richer activity when you can pair it with the knowledge of the One who created it all. Christianity may even provide some direction for investigation like it did with Kepler and Pasteur.
Conversely, Christians should not be afraid of “good” science; that is models and theories that honestly are based on evidence. For example, Christians should not simply dismiss evolutionary theory, nor should we assume we have to rethink our interpretation of the Bible to fit evolutionary theory. Instead, we should learn the current evidence for the theory and evaluate it based on this evidence; it is not persuasive to argue against a scientific theory by using passages of scripture. We shouldn’t be upset when a discipline that looks only at the natural world has a theory that leaves God out. What we can do is show how the same evidence used to support evolutionary theory can be used to support the doctrine of creation.
The physical world and God both constantly surprise us and as we probe deeper they both stretch our intellect in unimaginable ways. The more I study God and the more I study science, the more I see an intimate connection between the two.

What I see the current generation of apologists doing, is moving heavily into philosophy—I think that's a good thing. I mean, what I notice is that, philosophers are becoming more and more predominantly Christian as time goes on, but I'd like to encourage balance, that we'd also be encouraging young Christian scholars to go into theological apologetics and scientific apologetics, and the latter's where I see the greatest need. Too many churches are discouraging their young people from pursuing scientific disciplines. They kind of look at science as the enemy of the Christian faith… At Reasons to Believe we emphasize the opposite: science is the ally of the Christian faith, and we need to be sending an army of young people into the top scientific institutions, to get advanced degrees and to use those advanced degrees to develop new reasons to believe and to show people that we can integrate new science, philosophy and theology to find the truth that God wants us all to understand.[13]





[1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith, Norton, New York, 2004, page 15
[2] David C. Linderg, When Science and Christianity Meet, University of Chicago Press, 2003
[3] Enrico Berti, Science, Religion, and Aristotelian Theology, http://inters.org/Berti-Science-Religion-Theology
[4] David C. Linderg, When Science and Christianity Meet, University of Chicago Press, 2003, page 12
[5] ibid, page 24
[6] https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/science/faith-and-science/creation-evolution-and-thomas-aquinas.html
[7] ibid, page 14
[8] Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, William B Eerdmans Publishing, 1954, page 19
[9] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, Princeton University Press, 2003, page 147
[10] Isaac Newton, Principia, 1687
[11] Johannes Kepler, Astronomia nova, 1609
[12] Michael Bumbulis, Christianity and the Birth of Science, http://www.ldolphin.org/bumbulis/