Was the Medieval Church Anti-Science?

The popular myth says science and Christianity have always been at each other’s throats. Now – despite the fact that many people today promote that narrative – the truth of the matter is quite different. And historically speaking, the war thesis is simply a myth. The myth supposes that it was early scientists who represented unbiased scientific objectivity, while the Medieval Catholic church stood for ignorance and superstition.

Here’s an example of the statement of this myth:

“[The Catholic Church had been] torturing scholars to the point of madness for merely speculating about the nature of the stars.”[1]

This quote, and many others like it, conjures up the picture of theologians resisting the early scientists as they urge them to look thru a telescope at the stars. The myth says – Christianity was anti-science, anti-progress and very aggressive.

Well – it is true that the Medieval Church did incredibly cruel and un-Christ like things to people who promoted anti-Christian doctrines from within the ranks of the church. An example of this is seen in the life of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600. His crime wasn’t a scientific one, however. It was a theological one. He tried to turn the church towards pantheism.

So what evidence exists that the Medieval Church was not anti-intellectual and anti-science? A proper look at what happened in the life of Galileo Galilei shows us that science and Christianity were viewed as complementary fields in discussion with each other. Not at war.

Who Was Galileo?

He was a well respected church official who loved God and cared deeply about the Bible. He was also passionate about astronomy. Through his telescope, he found the moon surface was not, “perfectly smooth, free from inequalities and exactly spherical (as a large school of philosophers believes concerning both the moon and the other heavenly bodies).”[2] This discovery overturned centuries of Greek Aristotelian thought. He also observed Jupiter’s moons.

Galileo was a convinced heliocentrist. That meant he subscribed to the ideas of Copernicus, who said the earth was not at the horrible bottom of the universe. Rather, it was an elevated planet in the solar system. Further, the other planets did not orbit earth, but rather they orbited a stationary sun at the centre of the solar system. Galileo was convinced of these ideas.

How Did the Church React to Galileo’s Ideas?

Was the church scared and aggressive to these ideas? Not at all. This is part of the myth that Sam Harris has fallen for. Why do we know the church was open to cosmology in the Middle Ages?

1 – Tychonic Cosmology Already Existed

At that time, Tycho Brae’s Tychonic system of cosmology competed with Galileo’s favourite Copernican system. Tycho’s observational science resulted in a cosmology that was subscribed to by the Jesuit astronomers of the Roman College. In general, the church felt Tycho’s scientific system was more likely to be consistent with observations, the statements of scripture, and long standing Greek ideas which involved a static Earth rather than the Copernican idea of a static Sun. In short – the church was onboard with the scientific discussion of the time.

 

2 – The Inquisition Was Potentially Open to Copernicanism

The head of the feared Inquisition, Bellarmine, was interested in the competition between the Tychonic and Copernican cosmologies. It was unclear to Ballarmine that a Copernican system was provable, but without this uncertainty, Ballarmine would have gone with Copernicus, and this shows he was not anti-scientific progress.[3] His uncertainty eventually led to the church deciding that Copernicanism was “altogether contrary to Holy Scripture,”[4] but was not heresy. The door was open to rethinking these ideas. But Bellarmine instructed Galileo not to pursue Copernicanism, but stay with the Tychonic system and it’s apparent consistency with their understanding of scripture.

 

YET – history records that Galileo was put thru a trial by the church. Why did that happen? The myth says it was because of Galileo’s scientific ideas. As we have found, this is clearly not the case because the church was open to and interacted with different scientific ideas. So why did Galileo face the Inquisition?

 

What Led to Galileo’s Trial?

1 – Galileo sought the Pope’s permission to write a book engaging Copernican ideas, and the Pope agreed.

2 – In his book, Galileo proceeded to insult the Pope by putting his favourite anti-Copernican arguments into the mouth of his character Simplico, meaning simpleton, who was ill informed and rude. The Pope, who was facing political turmoil in a contracting Holy Roman Empire, saw Galileo’s book as a betrayal and so Galileo was called to trial.

3 – Galileo was not tortured or put in prison before or after the trial, showing the respect that the church maintained for him.[5] He lived a comfortable existence under house arrest in his home environment overlooking Florence.

4 – During the trial, Galileo admitted to Bellarmine’s warnings not to hold or defend Copernicanism. He failed to convince the court his book did not attempt to defend or refute Copernicanism. This led to a plea bargain. “They promised not to press the most serious charge (violation of the special injunction) if Galileo would plead guilty to [a] lesser charge (transgression of the warning not to defend Copernicanism).”[6] Galileo agreed and he was found guilty of a lesser, “vehement suspicion of heresy.”[7]

5 – After his conviction, Galileo proceeded to write further important scientific works unhindered.

 

The Church Was Not Anti-Science

So – does the Galileo incident give evidence of a Medieval war between religion and science? Not at all. The church was very much engaged with scientific cosmological ideas. This incident speaks not of a war between church and science, but a battle of ideas between church tradition, and dual cosmologies, Copernican and Tychonic. Galileo’s rude and pushy insistence on the Copernican one in spite of general uncertainty, put him in conflict with the church. They required a conservative approach, leaning towards the Tychonic cosmological system. Galileo chose instead to both pursue Copernicanism, and insult the Pontiff. This led to his trial and his humiliating defeat.

The Medieval church was not anti-science. But it did violently punish some heretics within its ranks.

 

 

[1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), 105 quoted in

[2] Galileo Galilei, “Neither Known Nor Observed by Anyone Before,” in Dennis Richard Danielson, ed, the book of the cosmos, (Perseus Publishing, 2000), 147.

[3] Michael Newton Keas, Unbelievable 7 Myths about the History and Future of Science and Religion, (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2019), 81.

[4] Keas, 82.

[5] Keas, 84.

[6] Finocchiaro, “That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism,” 7, quoted in Keas, 85.

[7] Ibid.

Surviving Philosophy Class

So – it’s the first day of your new Philosophy 101 class. Now, this is not a subject you know too much about, so you are a bit nervous. But – at the same time – you want to learn as much as you can from this class. So – you select a seat on the front row, and you sit down.

The professor greets the class and he says, “Here are five common Philosophical statements that you’ll hear regularly in our culture.” He starts writing…

 

  1. There is no God.
  2. You do not have free will.
  3. You do not know that you exist.
  4. You do not know that other people exist.
  5. You will not escape the death of your body.

 

He turns to face the class. “Sound familiar?”

You review the list and, for sure, numbers 1, 2 and 5 ring a bell for you! But what about 3 and 4? Actually – he’s made an interesting point. How DO I know that I exist…not to mention the other students in the room…and the professor himself?

The professor speaks again. I’m going to show you in a couple of minutes now how we are going to address each of these common philosophical statements in this class. And – by the way – I think all five of these statements are WRONG. Here’s why:”

 

1. We can argue that GOD EXISTS.

The Kalam Cosmological argument points to the universe and says this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

 

2. You DO have Free Will

Studies on human consciousness and how we engage in the world as conscious beings give us overwhelming evidence that we do possess free will. And – frankly – we live each day of our lives assuming that fact. Besides – there is no good reason to suppose that you and I do not possess free will.

 

3. You DO Know that You Exist

Descartes in the 16th century said, “I think, therefore I am.” By this he meant that, because I am thinking, I can know that I exist. If I ponder my existence and attempt to convince myself that I do NOT exist, I am therefore engaging in conscious thought what proves that I do in fact exist.

 

4. You CAN Trust Your Senses and Know that Other People Exist

Think about the people that matter most to you. Now, it seems to me we have a choice of three actions we can take here:

  1. Truth neither our reason nor our senses and dismiss everything. But this seems pointless.
  2. Trust our reason but not our senses. But why would we do that? It seems wholly inconsistent.
  3. Trust our reason and our senses and believe in the external world, and therefore the people who live there.

Philosopher Thomas Reid concluded, our reasoning faculties as, “all fitted by Nature to produce belief in the human mind, some of them in the highest degree, which we call certainty, others in various degrees according to circumstances.”[1]

5. You Have A Soul

People all have a strong intuition that they are disembodiable. In other words, we sense that we could still exist even if our bodies did not. Now we may dismiss that intuition with our reason…but the intuition remains all the same. Well – this is the idea that we HAVE bodies, but we are not “one and the same” with out bodies.

There is evidence that this is how the world works. Consider your parents or grandparents. Their bodies have grown old, but they have the sense that they as persons have not. The professor scratches his head. “I can’t believe I’m 51,” he exclaims, “but you’re as old as you feel…right?

Also, your body is divisible, but you aren’t. Imagine you are involved in an accident and you lose one of your fingers. Are you any less a person as a result? Sure, your capacity for achieving intricate actions with your hands may be impaired, so your actions and your approaches to life might be affected. But have you lost a bit of yourself by losing a finger? How about a leg? No – you are still you. You just need to adjust to living life in a slightly different way.

What about your brain? Sure, brain states have physical properties. But you also have mental states that do not have physical properties. Areas of the brain fire when exposed to stimuli. But you can’t scan the brain and find evidence of the red unicorn you were just thinking about. This suggests two different things. Your brain states are caused by the firing of neurons in the brain. And this is linked in a mysterious way to mental states, experiences in your soul. Hey – there are many things in life that we know to exist, but cannot see. Is the soul that much different from those?

Conclusion

The professor puts down the pen and eyes the class. “Right,” he says. “Any questions?”

Adapted from Philosophy 101 You are Wrong About Everything, https://thedailyapologist.com/philosophy-101-you-are-wrong-about-everything/

[1] Cuneo, Terence, and René van Woudenberg. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid. Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 150.

Why Empathy Can’t Ground Morality

 Showing empathy to another person is a highly moral thing to do. But can empathy ground morality itself? Is the following meme right?

I think the point being made here is that human morality is actually best grounded on the ability of people to empathise with others, to put oneself in their shoes and to sense where they are coming from. So, differentiating right from wrong simply requires empathy. And – by the way – religion is irrelevant. (of course)

Here’s a more rigorous version of this kind of argument proposed by Michael Stolte:

  1. We can come to know the warmth or coldness of an agent’s motives by empathy.
  2. Moral goodness or virtue consists in being a warm-hearted person, a badness or vice in being cold-hearted toward others.
  3. So, we can come to know the virtue or vice of others by empathy.[1]

I’m totally a fan of empathy. We need more of it in the world today! There would be less conflict if we took time to understand the other’s position. I myself have made it a priority to practice empathy wherever and whenever I can. I’ve not been as good as I could have – I need to improve. But – I want to.

Here’s the problem, tho. To suggest that human morality can be defined as our ability to sense where the other person is warm or cold hearted? Or to choose our moral actions solely on the basis of the other person’s cold or warm heartedness? It just doesn’t make sense.

 

#1 – Behaving Morally is not about being Warm Hearted

I can very easily seem to be doing the right thing, when inside I am not. Look, to be honest I can leave the house and speak to people very warmly all evening, all the while knowing that before I left I had an argument with my wife and I said some pretty unkind things that will need to be apologized for. Warm heartedness is good for building relationships with people, but it says nothing about my own virtuous state.

Personal morality is about showing virtue.

Surely a virtuous person is someone who shows courage. When they face undeserved accusation or persecution, they seek to courageously find a solution to the problem. They don’t just run away or hit back randomly. They exercise courage…and add to that patience and wisdom too. These are measures of virtue.

What about honesty? You don’t need to be particularly warm hearted to be honest. If you are the Finance Director of your company, honesty will pay dividends and may ensure the survival of the company, while empathy may help whilst chatting with your colleagues over lunch. Honesty is a truly virtuous character trait.

So – warm heartedness is great, but it doesn’t get you to becoming a moral, virtuous person.

 

#2 – Being Too Empathic Could Lead to Immoral Decisions

I think there are scenarios where relying too much on empathy could lead us to make immoral choices. What do I mean?

Here’s a terrible and extreme example. Imagine there is another 9-11 style terror attack. You, as a commander in the US Air Force, suddenly find yourself with two F19’s tailing a full Boeing 777 which is heading towards Manhattan. On board, the terrorists have stated their intention to recreate the horrific events of that previous tragedy. Also on board are over 460 passengers and crew members. Looking at the manifest – you have families on board. What do you do?

Well, if the moral action is dictated solely by empathy, you are going to be in a pickle. You will feel for all the thousands of people and fire crews working in Manhattan. But you will also feel for all the innocent people on board the plane! So, on empathy alone, are you going to make the tough and tragic call to shoot down the plane? You’ll probably be left stumbling over the right thing to do. And surely waiting too long, will result in bad consequences that could have been avoided. Surely an immoral choice?

You might say, well we need to consider the number of people involved here in this situation. There are fewer people on the plane…so fewer lives would be lost and many more would be saved. In this case, you are making a moral argument for the action based on practical factors, a sort of utilitarian approach. Well – that is fine, but you may have had to detach yourself from your empathy to make that clear headed decision? At the very least, empathy has failed in allowing you to choose right from wrong. So you’ve had to switch to something else – utility.

 

#3 Morality Isn’t About How Anyone Feels

What I mean is that, while people’s feelings are important, morality is about something different. One way of defining morality is like this. Acting morally is about being disposed to actively praise or blame someone based on a baseline expectation that everyone shares the same disposition you do.[2]

So, as a shop keeper, when you see the young kid come in, pick up a 6 pack of beer, and walk out of the shop, you are justified in actively responding to this situation. You run after him. You expect that everyone knows you should NOT steal. It is immoral. Sure, it’s also illegal. But first, its morally wrong. And knowing that everyone is on board with that perspective, you don’t just wave at him as he leaves. You chase him to get the beers back. Even if no human beings existed to steal beers from your shop…stealing would still be morally wrong.

Now – if you are a moral relativist you will have some issues with me there. (!) But my main point here is that empathy played no part at all in the situation I described. An overly empathic shop keeper might have let the kid get away with it. But he would not be doing that kid any good – he would be harming him morally. That kid needs to know there are consequences, right? If he doesn’t learn consequences, he might sear the moral capacity within him so badly that he grows up to think he can do whatever he likes.

Morality isn’t about how people feel. Rather, it’s about knowing that everyone knows there’s just some things that you don’t do, and others that you can do.

 

#4 There Is a Grounding for Objective Morality – God

To determine what is objectively right from wrong – you need an absolute standard to measure against. We do this all the time in many walks of life, and also in moral issues. When someone steals my beer, they are doing something that’s objectively wrong. And so – I will rightly challenge them. When something is objectively wrong or objectively right, it means that the moral status of that action is independent of people. Even if there are no people, the moral law stands.

So – if there are no people to ground this moral law on, where is it grounded from? It’s not religion, because religions are a human expression. Religions involve humans, if there are no humans then no religion. So how do we ground this moral law?

The Moral Law sure has power over us in life. People are always taking moral stands on one thing or another, whether it’s racism, the rights of the unborn child or poverty. Where does this powerful law that affects everyone – come from? It can’t come from people? Surely the only one capable of grounding such a thing is the creator of the universe?

[1] M. Slote, Moral Sentimentalism, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), quoted in Antii Kauppinen, “Empathy as the Moral Sense,” Philosophia (2017) 45:867-879.

[2] Antii Kauppinen, Empathy as the Moral Sense, Philosophia (2017) 45:867-879.

String Theory, Beauty and God

Do you remember the movie “A Beautiful Mind” from a few years ago? Russell Crow played John Nash, a highly intelligent person who could almost see mathematical formulae as he looked at the world. Well – in his book The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene has laid out the fascinating ideas behind String Theory and its bigger cousin M-Theory. He’s no John Nash – he’s fun and engaging. He explains complex ideas in such a compelling and interesting way! This sure isn’t a dull and boring physics book. It is a joy to read, and only gets tough to chew on in the latter portions of the book.

Greene starts with Einstein and the Special Theory of Relativity. Light speed is constant (Han Solo did know that…it was his navi-computer that made the Falcon fast), and space and time are interwoven, motion is relative between observer and observed. Even more bizarrely, as we speed up, our clock ticks slower from the perspective of a stationary observer. The General Theory of Relativity builds on this and Newton’s law of gravity. Now, Greene points out that Newton only described what gravity did. Einstein’s genius is that he manged to work out how it may work! Mass warps space. Imagine a bowling ball placed on a rubber sheet pulled tight. The sheet dips around the ball, right? Well that is kinda what mass does to space and time. So when planets move into the vicinity, their motion is affected, as they dip into the valley, they orbit the bowling ball. The sun. Greene explains all these mind expanding ideas in such an accessible way.

Well – what about the small stuff? What happens when we look at the universe really closely? Well – weirdness abounds and Greene describes all this in an interesting way. Quantum Mechanics describes the probabilistic nature of electrons, protons and neutrons. You cant predict exactly where these tiny particles will be – they are unpredictable and – tend to suddenly tunnel from one side to another unexpectedly. Weird! Greene points out that its worse than weird. Relativity is incompatible with Quantum Mechanics. So – what are physicists going to do? They don’t like it when their two best theories contradict each other.

Enter Superstring Theory! Spoiler alert – but the theory is named that way because it proposes that elemental particles in nature (electrons, etc) aren’t particles at all. Rather, they are tiny one dimensional strings vibrating at different frequencies. The thing is – when physicists view nature this way, they seem to be able to understand and predict what nature will do. From black holes to the big bang – String Theory is very descriptive of nature.

But – there’s a problem. There seems to be no experimental way to prove String Theory. Further, they don’t really understand the equations that define it, and it seems to need 6 additional spatial dimensions. Yikes. Now, Greene is most comfortable when he tells you how wonderful the theory is. He is less confident pointing out the fast that – unfortunately – its just a theory and has not been evidentially confirmed…yet. Greene’s book came out 15 years ago or so…before the CERN Large Hadron Collider LHC particle accelerator was switched on. It’s the biggest in the world. He had high hopes it would prove String Theory. I’m not sure the Higgs Boson has verified Superstring theory.

Greene’s brilliant description of all these things – leaves me with some questions.

1. Is it Provable?

Einstein’s theories are beautifully supported by evidence from nature. So, we would expect any additional theory to have evidence too. The problem is the strings themselves are so small, they are not directly detectable. Greene observes that we would need a particle accelerator “the size of the galaxy to see individual strings,”[1] which are “17 orders of magnitude smaller than we can currently access.”[2] We aren’t going to directly prove Superstring Theory any time soon.

 

2. Is It Science?

Greene admits that only approximations to the ST equations are known, and even those have not been fully solved.[3] Also, the theory did not come from a scientific inference to the best explanation of a natural observation. Rather, a two hundred year old mathematical formula was accidently found to describe the interactions between particles. When the particles were replaced with the idea of tiny vibrating strings, nuclear force was also described. This seems like serendipity combined with creativity rather than rigorous and methodical scientific method?

 

3. Might it Point to God?

Are Superstring physicists guided by the beauty of the theory more than its scientific merit, and does this have theistic implications? Greene concedes the math is so complex that approximations are substituted. Couple this with a lack of experimental confirmation, and it seems they are driven by a theory with “elegance and beauty of structure on par with the world we experience.”[4]

But doesn’t our expectation of beauty in nature, and our experience of and appreciation of natural beauty, challenge a purely naturalistic understanding to nature? How odd that a purely natural, randomly formed system with no guiding intelligence has formed beings who love to find beauty in the randomly formed universe they inhabit?

I wonder whether the scope of science and our love of the beautiful point to the activity of a divine creator?

[1] Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe Superstrings, Hidden dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003), 215.

[2] Ibid

[3] Greene, 19.

[4] Greene, 167.

Challenging the “Dark Ages”

Science populariser Neil deGrasse Tyson, like Carl Sagan before him, makes much of the claim that Christianity held back science in the Middle Ages, marking it a dark time for enlightened and critical thinking.

“Ancient Greece – inferred the Earth’s shadow during Lunar Eclipses. But it was lost to the Dark Ages.”[1]

“Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend non-existent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centred on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition.”[2]

The problem with all this is – these claims are evidentially false. The notion that Christianity held back science, causing a time of darkness for humanity, does not square with the evidence from history. The Dark Ages is simply a recent myth, suggested in the last hundred years or so.

Going all the way back to the first few centuries, the early Christians happily accepted elements of the Greek natural philosophy and built upon it. They realised all truth was God’s truth, and so natural observations were seen as a “handmaiden” to observations about God.

Tertullian (155 – 220) harmonised natural philosophy with Christian theology and promoted the science of medicine.

Boethius (477 – 524) identified the laws of nature in poetry, which are foundational to science.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) said that “knowledge of nature acquires value in so far as it serves a higher purpose.”[3] In his commentary on Genesis, he applied Greek thinking about cosmology and nature in his understanding of the meaning of the Bible text. His influence on later medieval scholars was massive, and Augustine transmitted a “rich source of cosmological, physical and biblical knowledge,”[4] about the earth, its shape, its relation to the cosmos and so much more.

Development of the Academy

Critical to the development of science were the first universities. They started with Bologna in 1088 and by 1450, over fifty universities existed. The Catholic church resourced and supported the formation of the academy, giving those who worked there special privileges. The church didn’t oppose learning, it cherished it. “If the medieval church had intended to … suppress science, it made a mistake … supporting the university … [where] science found a home.”[5] The universities were self-governing and set their own syllabus. Greek and Arabic science texts were translated into Latin and taught. The church supported the development of the sciences financially, giving “more financial and social support to the study of astronomy [and the other scientific fields] for six centuries … more than any other medieval institution.”[6]

Medieval Flat Earthers?

But what about Columbus? Didn’t he prove to the narrow minded church that the earth was round and not flat? No – the spherical shape of the earth was argued by the Greeks long before the church, and the first Christian scholars carried this argumentation forward. It was not seriously challenged by anyone, taught consistently, and part of common literature from the 13th century. Medieval Christianity did not teach a flat earth. The issue for Columbus wasn’t battling narrow minded Christian theologians. And it’s a myth that the crew feared falling off the edge of the earth. Rather, they were concerned about how large the earth was, and the size of the ocean in comparison to the land.

Conclusion

The assumption that Christianity held back the development of science during the supposed Dark Ages is – a modern mis-retelling of history. Probably propagated to mischaracterise modern Christian believers as anti-intellectual. The truth is the opposite.

 

 

 

[1] https://twitter.com/neiltyson/status/692939759593865216.

[2] Carl Sagan, Cosmos, (New York: Random House, 1980), 332, quoted in Michael Newton Keas, “Unbelievable 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion,” (Wilmington: ISI Booke, 2019), 27.

[3] Gary B. Fengren, editor, Science & Religion A Historical Introduction, second edition, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 41.

[4] Fengren, 42.

[5] Keas, 37.

[6] Keas, 38.