Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Bede's Journal

Bede's Journal refers to a recent debate on the website of The Guardian.

A.C. Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, had recently laid down a challenge:

"According to Madeleine Bunting, Christianity has fostered learning and science in Europe for hundreds of years. Really?

The impression of confusion is heightened by Ms Bunting's version of history, which she opposed to mine by name. She tells us that Christianity has "fostered learning and science" in Europe for "hundreds of years".

I challenge her to name one - even one small - contribution to science made by Christianity in its two thousand years; just one."

The "debate" can be followed at 2007/01/bunting_on_science_and_history.html

It is fair to say that Grayling lost his challenge as you might expect.

However, two of the responses, one by the author of Bede`s Journal, usefully set out shortly, cogently and in a civilised manner the response to the type of challenge now being faced. The challenge is to face the argument that somehow people who are Christians, and in particular, Catholics, are somehow unable to reconcile themselves to science, and that Science and Christianity are irreconciliable.

There are other responses, of course. But the following two rest on historical fact and are difficult to refute:

"peterNW1 Comment No. 401923:
January 29 16:36

A.C Grayling writes ...

"I challenge her to name one - even one small - contribution to science made by Christianity in its two thousand years; just one"

May I take up the challenge on Madeleine's behalf?

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), who first proposed the heliocentric universe, was a Polish Catholic priest.

Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was an Austrian Catholic monk.

The Jesuit astronomer Christopher Scheiner (1575-1650) discovered sunspots before Galileo.

Jesuit Pietro Angelo Secchi (1818-1878) discovered 4,000 new stars. His system for star classification is the basis of the Harvard system.

In fact there are no fewer than 35 craters on the moon named after Jesuit scientists alone.

The Big Bang Theory was proposed in 1927 by Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966), a Belgian Catholic priest.

The Jesuit Giambattista Riccioli was the first person to determine the rate of acceleration of a free-falling body, and the first to make a pendulum that was so accurate he was able to calculate the gravitational constant.

Another Jesuit priest, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, discovered the diffraction of light. Grimaldi's discovery led to hypotheses on the wavelike character of light and to Isaac Newton's interest in optics.

The lightning rod was invented by a Norbertine priest named Procopius Divisch (1698-1765).

French Catholic priest Rene-Just Haey (1743-1822) was the father of modern crystallography.

But why just list priests? Some scientists who were laymen and convinced and practicing Catholics ...

The founder of bacteriology, Louis Pasteur. Andre Ampere. Alessandra Volta. Charles Coulomb.

How about mathematician Blaise Pascal, who when he wasn't inventing calculators was writing the Pensees, a defence of Catholicism?

I am amazed that A.C Grayling has landed himself a job as Professor of Philosophy if he is able to ask such a dumb question.

JamesHannam:Comment No. 401878:
January 29 16:19

Heliocentricism was finally accepted not due to Galileo`s advocacy, but thanks to the stunning success that Kepler`s Rudolphine tables saved the planetary movements. Kepler, of course, was driven to his elliptical orbits precisely by his belief in a God who didn`t get the orbit of Mars wrong by a few minutes. All his science was informed and inspired by his religious belief. So, Professor Grayling asks for one contribution to science made by Christianity. I offer Kepler`s laws.

There are many other possibilities. Taxonomy is directly descended from the scientific studies of Noah`s Arc in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The need to determine the number of animals led to the concept of a member of one species as something that couldn`t reproduce with a member of another. Likewise, very many early taxonomies were attempts to count how many animals were on the arc and how big it had to be.

An even more surprising connection is the way that concerns about grace spread into the mathematics of change. Fourteenth century scholars wanted to understand how the Holy Spirit imparted grace to individuals. Quite quickly, the techniques they had adopted were turned to thinking about other kinds of change. They also moved on to motion and cracked the problem of uniformly accelerated motion over two centuries before Galileo.

In fact, as I have found, Christianity had an important impact on every step of the road to modern science. Let me now summarise exactly what they were:

The preservation of literacy in the Dark Ages

Because it is a literary religion based on sacred texts and informed by the writings of the early church fathers, Christianity was exclusively responsible for the preservation of literacy and learning after the fall of the Western Empire. This meant not only that the Latin classics were preserved but also that their were sufficient men of learning to take Greek thought forward when it was rediscovered.

The doctrine of the lawfulness of nature

As they believed in a law abiding creator God, even before the rediscovery of Greek thought, twelfth century Christians felt they could investigate the natural world for secondary causes rather than put everything down to fate (like the ancients) or the will of Allah (like Moslems). Although we see a respect for the powers of reason by Arab scholars they did not seem to make the step of looking for universal laws of nature.

The need to examine the real world rather than rely on pure reason

Christians insisted that God could have created the world any way he like and so Aristotle's insistence that the world was the way it was because it had to be was successfully challenged. This meant that his ideas started to be tested and abandoned if they did not measure up.

The belief that science was a sacred duty

This is not so much covered in this essay, but features again and again in scientific writing. The early modern scientists were inspired by their faith to make their discoveries and saw studying the creation of God as a form of worship. This led to a respect for nature and the attempt to find simple, economical solutions to problems. Hence Copernicus felt he could propose a heliocentric model for no better reason that it seemed more elegant.

Not all these factors were unique to Christianity but they all came together in Western Europe to give the world its only case of scientific take off which has since seen its ideas spread to the rest of the world. "