|EXPLORING CHRISTIANITY - SCIENCE||
LIFE AFTER DEATHChristianity's Hope & Challenge.
Christian foundations - 1st to 14th centuries
There still exist strongly entrenched stereotypes of the medieval period as authoritarian, obscurantist, dominated by a reactionary, corrupt, anti-scientific Catholic Church from which the later Greek-inspired Renaissance and then modern science set us free! In the English-speaking world, perhaps the first person to publicly query this view was the philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, of Harvard University. In public lectures in 1925, entitled Science and the Modern World, he declared that "the approach to the scientific mentality which had been attained by the Greeks" was "absolutely in ruins" by the sixth century, and that the "Middle Ages formed one long training in the intellect...in the sense of order", i.e. of rationality in creation. But more than this: science also needs a confidence "in the intelligible rationality of a personal being", which is "an unconscious derivative from medieval theology." One can imagine the startled silence at such a politically incorrect suggestion. Worse still, the book containing the lectures sold over a million copies in about a decade.
A generation earlier, the French physicist, philosopher and historian of science, Pierre Duhem, had set out these ideas with massive erudition. However, he was boycotted by the French scientific establishment because he was a Catholic, and he is still little known in the English-speaking world. But he stands at the beginning of the new discipline of the history of science.
It may be helpful at this point to give a very brief synopsis of some key thinkers in the first fifteen centuries of Christian history.
Clement of Rome
Clement of Rome (end of first century) accepted a good deal of Greek mathematics and astronomy, including belief that the earth was spherical. Unlike Aristotle, however, for him the earth was not eternal and it was sharply distinguished from the divine. Both the heavens and the earth were created and they were orderly: "the sun, the moon and the dancing stars...circle in harmony within the bounds assigned to them." The whole creation was under the command of one God, and it was a blessing from him.
Origen (185-254), an immensely influential Egyptian theological teacher, was emphatic in seeing the created material world as good, despite its ugly aspects. It was created out of nothing by an eternal, rational God who gave it a systematic order that enabled us to comprehend it. Though he attempted to incorporate the Greek beliefs that the sun, moon and stars were endowed with life and intelligence, they were, for him, created beings and underwent changes like other earthly things.
Basil "the Great"
Basil "the Great", a Greek theologian in the fourth century, in contrast to Aristotle, believed the heavens and the earth were made up of the same materials: earth, air, fire and water. He also questioned the Aristotelian view that divine spirits in the heavenly bodies must continue imparting motion directly to everything that moves. By analogy with a child's top, he spoke of the heavenly bodies, "which after the first impulse, continue their revolutions, turning upon themselves when once fixed in their centre; thus nature, receiving the impulse of this first command, follows without interruption the course of the ages". Basil's spinning top provides an early formulation of the idea of impetus. His views on creation allow for the principle of the conservation of momentum, or of inertia, that appeared repeatedly in Christian thinkers over the next twelve centuries.
Augustine (354-430) was the dominant thinker of the first thousand years of Christian history. For him, the universe, being the creation of God, was not eternal but finite in space and time. Time itself had its created beginning. He developed a great philosophy of history which served God's ultimate purposes. This affirmation of historical time provided a most influential basis for later science. The Greek notion of cyclic returns was ridiculous, and eliminated the possibility of happiness.
His other great contribution was to affirm of the world that "a good God made it good." He said, "I must admit, I am unable to see why mice and frogs have been created, or flies and worms for that matter. I see, however, that all things, in their own way are beautiful...I cannot look at the body...of any living creature without finding measure, number and order...The [supreme] craftsman... arranged everything according to measure, number and weight." The last part of this quote is from the Hebrew Book of Wisdom, chapter 11, verse 20, which is said to be the most quoted biblical verse in the Middle Ages. Nature is mathematically structured; it is ordered in this particular rational way.
Augustine was unsure whether the stars were alive or not. If they were, they might influence natural phenomena such as the tides and the seasons. However, through observation of the different lives of twins, he rejected the influence of the stars over humans, as in astrology.
All these views were gathered up and confirmed by one man in the first half of the sixth century: John Philoponus. He has been almost unknown in discussions of the history of science, but he is perhaps the outstanding figure between the Council of Chalcedon (451) and Galileo. Individual scholars, however, have been discovering Philoponus; and in 1983, seventy-five Philoponus scholars, from many disciplines, met in conference in London.
Philoponus was a Greek Christian, a first-class lay scholar, professor in the school of philosophy in Alexandria at the heart of Graeco-Roman culture. He was one of the greatest exponents of Aristotle in antiquity, with commentaries on almost all his works. While he adopted much of Aristotle's system for the orderly classification of nature, he was the first to mount a devastating critique of the deductive method and much of the content of Aristotle's physics and cosmology. There was no rival to its thoroughness until Galileo. For him, heavenly bodies were not animated beings, but were made of the same stuff as this world. The light from the stars was the same as that of glow-worms and luminescent fish. Astrology was rejected as pagan. Similarly, the heavenly bodies were not perfect. They did not move with regularity in the perfect shape of the circle - a simple matter of observation. The apparent changelessness of the universe did not mean that it is eternal. It had a beginning and will have an end. Without the acceptance of these facts about the heavenly regions there can be no real scientific study of them.
In the area of physics, Philoponus rejected Aristotle's view that heavier bodies fall faster than lighter ones (a thousand years before Galileo!). He declared, "Our view may be corroborated by actual observation more effectively than by any sort of verbal argument." His theories on motion were the forerunner of the later theories of inertia and momentum that are embedded in Newton's first law of motion.
As regards nature, he stated that God, having finished the creation of the universe, "hands over to nature the generation of the elements one out of another, and the generation of the rest out of the elements." That sounds like a summary of the evolution of the universe from basic materials that modern science would identify with. The relative autonomy of nature, with its own order and laws, is basic to science, and these early Christian thinkers were laying the foundations.
Guidelines for the University of Paris - 1277
An event of note in the thirteenth century was a promulgation of 219 propositions related to Greek science, primarily as guidelines for the University of Paris. This was initiated by the Pope and dealt with most of the matters that had exercised the Christian thinkers of the previous twelve centuries. The list included the following: rejection of the eternity of the world and of the cyclic recurrence of its life every 36,000 years; the natural world was uniform in its constitution and laws, and stood in a contingent relation to its Creator; rejection of the heavenly bodies being animated and incorruptible, and of the influence of the stars upon human lives; and acceptance of the possibility of linear motion for the heavenly bodies, instead of the circular movement obligatory in Greek science. Pierre Duhem went so far as to say that "modern science was born" on the day these decrees were promulgated by the Bishop of Paris - in 1277!
Others in these centuries critiqued the dominant Greek cosmology. Thomas Bradwardine (died 1349), the mathematician, is worth noting. His contribution lay in expressing the behaviour of both earthly and heavenly bodies in the same mathematical terms, so developing the essential place of mathematics in defining the laws of nature.
Since the 1930s there has been a wealth of research on Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages. The purpose of giving these examples is to demonstrate that there was much more continuity between the Middle Ages, indeed, between the first centuries of Christianity, and the scientific revolution that followed than our popular stereotype allows for. Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and the other sixteenth century pioneers of modern science knew, and drew upon, most of the medieval figures we can name; and it now transpires that Galileo knew the key work of Philoponus, from a thousand years earlier.
Christian foundations - 1st to 14th centuries