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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Physicist Discusses the Amazing Synergism Between Science & Christianity

There is an incredible synergism between what is discovered when you study nature and what is discovered when you study God!  Professor Jonathan Feng, PhD, makes this point in his interview on Purpose Nation Podcast Episode #3 (published on August 14, 2017). Professor Feng is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at University of California, Irvine.  He holds degrees from Harvard, Cambridge, and Stanford and he is a committed Christian!

Here is Professor Feng’s bio:

Here are some of the points he made in the interview:

1.     Most of the controversy between science and religion comes from extremists who over sell one side of the argument. For example, the majority of scientists think Richard Dawkins does a disservice to science; his extremist views actually hurt the discipline.
2.     The natural world is put together in such an elegant and wonderful way!  You can’t study science without wondering why is it like that.” Christianity can answer that question.
3.     You also cannot work in the sciences with wondering why is it that we can figure this stuff out?  Christianity also has the answer to that question!
4.     Since God created our universe and since we are created in God’s image and since he wants us to investigate nature, we should not be surprised that the universe is intelligible to us.
5.     All scientists believe that there is a single truth that exists; there is an ultimate truth and you can go and find it!  None believe that everyone has their own version of the truth. When scientists think they have found the truth, they try to convince everyone that reality is this one truth.
6.     Dr. Feng has not personally experienced the animosity toward religion that many speak about and he doesn’t think Christians are as absent from academia as people think. He believes that most of the antagonism is from the media and the public; he has not seen it from his scientific colleagues.
7.     He looks to the examples of Michael Faraday & James Clerk Maxwell; both devout Christians. He related the story of when Faraday was asked to be the president of the Royal Society, he turned it down by saying that “it was not what God wanted him to do.”

I have several blog entries on the incredible synergism between science and Christianity: