Saturday, July 27, 2019

"These things that pass for knowledge...."

PBS is advertising a "history of science" which seems to include the old canard that the Church opposed the discoveries leading to modern cosmology.  The truth, as ever, is too complicated for even a PBS show.

It's a long article at New Advent, the article titled "History of Physics," but it eliminates the simple dichotomy of religion v. science, superstition v. reason, whatever black/white, good/bad cleavage you want to apply.  The same people who claim religion has been at war with science since the Middle Ages overlook the fact Gregor Mendel was a monk, a Jesuit posited the Big Bang Theory, and that up until the Enlightenment most of the praised scientists from the Medieval era to the Protestant Reformation (and many beyond that period), were Catholics.

Take this one line, for example, from the New Advent article:

Kepler himself admitted that in his first attempts along the line of celestial mechanics he was under the influence of Nicholas of Cusa and Gilbert.

I pluck that sentence because this article incorporates into the "History of Physics" the school of Paris; Aristotle; Plato and Pythagoras; Leonardo da Vinci; the Great Western Schism; Ptolemy, and Nicholas of Cusa.

How many of those have your heard of, and what do you know about them?  How many of them do you think will be mentioned in a one-hour PBS show?

Christian science, the article says, took root in C.E. 325, with Origen in Alexandria.  Most of the sources for information about the physical world soon rested heavily on the work of Plato and Pythagoras.  Aristotle wasn't known to the Western world until the 13th century, so you have to wait about 1000 years to get him.  By the way, Aristotle was convinced the planets and stars, and the Sun, rotated around the earth.  It was the only way that made sense to him.

The Ptolemaic system came to the knowledge of Christian scholars (I hesitate to call them "scientists;" the word is an anachronism much before the late 19th century) around 1134.  Jumping around history peripatetically (there's a joke in there somewhere), Averroism arose "which consisted in a superstitious respect for the word of Aristotle and his commentator."  Curiously, there's something important in that:

Averroism had rendered scientific progress impossible, but fortunately in Latin Christendom it was to meet with two powerful enemies: the unhampered curiosity of human reason, and the authority of the Church.
Here, let me finish off that paragraph, and introduce the "School of Paris" at the same time:

Encouraged by the certainty resulting from experiments, astronomers rudely shook off the yoke which Peripatetic physics had imposed upon them. The School of Paris in particular was remarkable for its critical views and its freedom of attitude towards the argument of authority. In 1290 William of Saint-Cloud determined with wonderful accuracy the obliquity of the ecliptic and the time of the vernal equinox, and his observations led him to recognize the inaccuracies that marred the "Tables of Toledo", drawn up by Al-Zarkali. The theory of the precession of the equinoxes, conceived by the astronomers of Alfonso X of Castile, and the "Alphonsine Tables" set up in accordance with this theory, gave rise in the first half of the fourteenth century to the observations, calculations, and critical discussions of Parisian astronomers, especially of Jean des Linières and his pupil John of Saxonia or Connaught. 

Coming back to the motion of the spheres, and giving us a taste of the kind of discussions that were going on (again, that you'll never hear in a popular history of science in the "Dark Ages"):

The University of Paris was very uneasy because of the antagonism existing between Christian dogmas and certain Peripatetic doctrines, and on several occasions it combatted Aristotelean influence. In 1277 Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, acting on the advice of the theologians of the Sorbonne, condemned a great number of errors, some of which emanated from the astrology, and others from the philosophy of the Peripatetics. Among these errors considered dangerous to faith were several which might have impeded the progress of physical science, and hence it was that the theologians of Paris declared erroneous the opinion maintaining that God Himself could not give the entire universe a rectilinear motion, as the universe would then leave a vacuum behind it, and also declared false the notion that God could not create several worlds. These condemnations destroyed certain essential foundations of Peripatetic physics; because, although, in Aristotle's system, such propositions were ridiculously untenable, belief in Divine Omnipotence sanctioned them as possible, whilst waiting for science to confirm them as true. For instance, Aristotle's physics treated the existence of an empty space as a pure absurdity; in virtue of the "Articles of Paris" Richard of Middletown (about 1280) and, after him, many masters at Paris and Oxford admitted that the laws of nature are certainly opposed to the production of empty space, but that the realization of such a space is not, in itself, contrary to reason; thus, without any absurdity, one could argue on vacuum and on motion in a vacuum. Next, in order that such arguments might be legitimatized, it was necessary to create that branch of mechanical science known as dynamics.
The articles of Paris made a vacuum conceivable, replacing (eventually) the "ether" which Aristotle argued for, and which was the accepted understanding until at least the late 13th century.  And what does that have to do with the Church?

Aristotle maintained that the first heaven (the firmament) moved with a uniform rotary motion, and that the Earth was absolutely stationary, and as these two propositions necessarily resulted from the first principles relative to time and place, it would have been absurd to deny them. However, by declaring that God could endow the World with a rectilinear motion, the theologians of the Sorbonne acknowledged that these two Aristotelean propositions could not be imposed as a logical necessity and thenceforth, whilst continuing to admit that, as a fact, the Earth was immovable and that the heavens moved with a rotary diurnal motion, Richard of Middletown and Duns Scotus (about 1275-1308) began to formulate hypotheses to the effect that these bodies were animated by other motions, and the entire school of Paris adopted the same opinion. Soon, however, the Earth's motion was taught in the School of Paris, not as a possibility, but as a reality. In fact, in the specific setting forth of certain information given by Aristotle and Simplicius, a principle was formulated which for three centuries was to play a great rôle in statics, viz. that every heavy body tends to unite its centre of gravity with the centre of the Earth.
Funny, but the School of Paris didn't upset anyone in the Church hierarchy.  Something else interesting here:

Aristotle maintained the simultaneous existence of several worlds to be an absurdity, his principal argument being drawn from his theory of gravity, whence he concluded that two distinct worlds could not coexist and be each surrounded by its elements; therefore it would be ridiculous to compare each of the planets to an earth similar to ours. In 1277 the theologians of Paris condemned this doctrine as a denial of the creative omnipotence of God; Richard of Middletown and Henry of Ghent (who wrote about 1280), Guillaume Varon (who wrote a commentary on the "Sentences" about 1300), and, towards 1320, Jean de Bassols, William of Occam (d. after 1347), and Walter Burley (d. about 1348) did not hesitate to declare that God could create other worlds similar to ours. This doctrine, adopted by several Parisian masters, exacted that the theory of gravity and natural place developed by Aristotle be thoroughly changed; in fact, the following theory was substituted for it. If some part of the elements forming a world be detached from it and driven far away, its tendency will be to move towards the world to which it belongs and from which it was separated; the elements of each world are inclined so to arrange themselves that the heaviest will be in the centre and the lightest on the surface. This theory of gravity appeared in the writings of Jean Buridan of Béthune, who became rector of the University of Paris in 1327, teaching at that institution until about 1360; and in 1377 this same theory was formally proposed by Oresme. It was also destined to be adopted by Copernicus and his first followers, and to be maintained by Galileo, William Gilbert, and Otto von Guericke. 

This is impossible, of course, because religion is unitary and unchangeable, and only science changes when observation affects theory, ultimately altering it.  Right?  Oh, and back to Aristotle and that notion of "ether":

If the School of Paris completely transformed the Peripatetic theory of gravity, it was equally responsible for the overthrow of Aristotelean dynamics. Convinced that, in all motion, the mover should be directly contiguous to the body moved, Aristotle had proposed a strange theory of the motion of projectiles. He held that the projectile was moved by the fluid medium, whether air or water, through which it passed and this, by virtue of the vibration brought about in the fluid at the moment of throwing, and spread through it. 

The dynamics written of here allowed us to begin to better understand the universe as it is, rather than as we might reason it to be.  Oh, and finally, we catch up to Nicholas of Cusa:

About the time that Paola of Venice was teaching at Padua [15th century], Nicholas of Cusa came there to take his doctorate in law. Whether it was then that the latter became initiated in the physics of the School of Paris matters little, as in any event it was from Parisian physics that he adopted those doctrines that smacked least of Peripateticism. He became thoroughly conversant with the dynamics of impetus and, like Buridan and Albert of Saxony, attributed the motion of the celestial spheres to the impetus which God had communicated to them in creating them, and which was perpetuated because, in these spheres, there was no element of destruction. He admitted that the Earth moved incessantly, and that its motion might be the cause of the precession of the equinoxes. In a note discovered long after his death, he went so far as to attribute to the Earth a daily rotation. He imagined that the sun, the moon, and the planets were so many systems, each of which contained an earth and elements analogous to our Earth and elements, and to account for the action of gravity in each of these systems he followed closely the theory of gravity advanced by Oresme.
These ideas had a clear influence on da Vinci.

Eventually you get to Copernicus, but I don't find any mention of his posthumously published masterpiece causing a stir in the Church, or being labeled as heresy by the Holy Father or the Bishops

Granted, this is one article from a distinctive point of view, but it is the work of scholars, and does not simplify the history of ideas, even as it presents only major thought and ideas over the course of centuries.  It necessarily reduces and traduces, but it is an encyclopedia article, not a definitive history.  Yet, for all that, it includes more history and validated information than the commonly accepted "The Church fought the science and the science won" presentation.  The idea that is the true version of history rests on gross oversimplifications, most especially on the idea that  religious notions are fixed and immovable, especially about the physical universe, and scientific ideas are fluid and changeable as nature's truth is revealed through its discipline.  Except that is not a truth, but an idee fixe of non-historians and other benighted souls who take their information from what "everybody knows" and what "some people say."  In this discussion, the only idea fixed and immovable, is that one that has no basis in history or reality.

Ironic, no?


  1. I should have read this before writing my morning rants. PBS is about as trustworthy as the Discover Channel when it's not as trustworthy as A&E. Or at least my memory of those from the brief period I had cable TV. I think America might be somewhat in about the same place if the Republicans had succeeded in killing PBS, it killed itself as it was supposed to be.

    I'll have to read that article. I'd imagine that they won't talk about Copernicus pointing to the encouragement that bishops, cardinals and a pope or two gave to his work, nor Galileo pointing that out in his famous letter defending the compatibility of his work with the hierarchy of the Church. I imagine it will be full of BBC style distortion and misrepresentation. I wonder if they'll rehash the atheist mythology of the Huxley-Wilberforce encounter, based entirely in the self-interested, decades after claims by Huxley's camp. I doubt they'll point out that Wilberforce was a member of the Royal Society at the time.

    I loathe PBS.

  2. Popular science is largely based on mythology.