2) Science

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.

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Nietzsche, an atheist, is quoted as saying, “Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as science without presuppositions…a philosophy, a ‘faith’ must always be there first, so that science can acquire from it a direction, a meaning, a limit, a method, a right to exist…It is still a metaphysical faith that underlies our faith in science.”  He was right.  But our modern assumptions are so deeply ingrained that we don’t recognize them as being assumptions.  You don’t realize it, but your preconceived notions about the universe, the same ones that made the scientific method possible, came from the Catholic Church.

Certain assumptions had to be made in order for modern science to be born.  We had to assume:

  • The universe follows laws
  • The universe had a beginning
  • The universe could have been different than it is

These ideas were uniquely held and promoted by the Catholic Church.  No other philosophy, not even atheism, came to these conclusions.

Mayan Zodiac Circle

Image by theilr via Flickr

Most ancient civilizations were pantheistic, meaning they thought god and the universe were the same thing.  The ancient Chinese, Egyptians, Hindus, Mayans, and Babylonians thought the universe was “alive”, so to speak.  Thus the Mayans engaged in ritual sacrifices to keep the universe from “choosing” to descend into chaos.  The ancient Greeks thought matter was animated somehow, which is why they theorized that stones fell to the ground because they had an “affection” for the center of the earth.  The philosophy of these civilizations didn’t allow for a universe of laws, only heavenly bodies with capricious wills.

Abell 2125: Chandra Catches Early Phase of Cos...

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Monotheism doesn’t necessarily lead to a universe of laws either.  Islam inherited science when it conquered Syria and Egypt, (highly advanced civilizations that had been Christian for hundreds of years), but eventually science would die in the Muslim world because to believe in “laws of nature” is an insult Allah’s arbitrary will.

You can’t have empirical science unless the universe is ordered, predictable, and bound by laws and this was only believed in Christian civilization. Contrary to myths about the “Dark Ages”, science flourished in Western Europe during the Middle Ages because Catholics believed that God is rational and orderly, therefore the universe he created reflects his reasonable nature.  That nature follows laws seems obvious to us, but  no other advanced civilization believed it.

The Pyramids of Giza

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This is not to demean the brilliant scientific accomplishments of ancient cultures: the Mayans’ astronomy, the Egyptians’ engineering, etc. but none of these achievements provided the foundations of the modern scientific method.  Gathering facts is not the same thing as a methodology.   I can give you a watch or a calendar or a pyramid, but that will never lead you to quantum physics.

This illustration shows abstracted

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Christians believe the universe had a specific beginning, therefore the motion of the planets had to begin at some time.  A 14th century Catholic priest, Jean Buridan, held the Catholic assumption that God imparted motion to the universe at the beginning of time and concluded that, because of a lack of friction, the heavenly bodies have been moving ever since.  This led Buridan to conceive of the idea of “impetus”, what would later evolve into the ideas of inertia and momentum, without which modern physics would be impossible.  The pagan world could never reach this conclusion because they assumed that the universe was eternal and cyclical, that it always did and always would exist.  Even Einstein believed that the universe was infinite (the Steady State Theory), but he finally had to agree with Catholic priest/physicist/astronomer Fr. Georges Lemaitre, creator of the Big Bang Theory, that the universe had a beginning and was expanding. The Church knew thousands of years before Einstein that time and space were finite.

Other civilizations presumed that the universe had to be a certain way, which is why Aristotle made false assumptions based on reason alone, for example, that a heavier stone would fall faster than a lighter one.  Christians believe that God could have created any type of universe he wanted, therefore the only way to understand the universe he did create was by observation, experiment, experience.  Experiment is how we know that, contrary to Aristotle’s assumption, rocks of unequal weight fall at the same rate.

Chartres Cathedral

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Contrary to the modern impression that the Church is hostile to science, it was the university system, an invention of the Catholic Church, that produced  history’s greatest scientific minds.  Universities, such as the famous cathedral school of Chartres, provided an education based on the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) to help students find science, and the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) to help them express it.  All of the best of ancient philosophy was taught there.  It’s ironic that universities will now expel you for being Catholic.  The original Catholic universities taught their students Greek logic, how to be consistent and non-contradictory, and that reasoned arguments are necessary and productive to arrive at truth.  I doubt today’s Women’s Studies classes would allow such probing.

It is the Church, its philosophy, its institutions, and its sponsorship that produced such great Catholic scientists as:

  • Robert Grosseteste, Bishop (1175–1253)  1st to write steps to perform experiments
  • St. Albert the Great (1200’s)  Authority on physics, biology, psychology, mineralogy, geography, astronomy, chemistry, zoology, and physiology
  • Roger Bacon, Franciscan friar (1214–1294) Mathematician, astronomer, early proponent of experimental science
  • Nicole Oresme, Bishop of Lisieux (1323–1382)  Mathematician, economic theorist, invented graphs
  • George Agricola (1494-1555) Father of mineralogy
  • Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)  Founder of the study of human anatomy
  • Gabriello Fallopio (1523-1562) Anatomist – Can you guess what tubes were named after him?
  • Hieronymus Fabricius (1537-1619) Father of embryology
  • Fr. Christopher Clavius (1538-1612) Created Gregorian Calendar we follow today
  • Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598-1671) Produced massive encyclopedia of astronomy, first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body
  • Fr. Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680)  Chemist, debunked alchemy, founder of Egyptology, discovered that microbes cause disease
  • Fr. Francesco Grimaldi (1618-1663) First to accurately observe diffraction of light
  • Blaise Pascal (1623- 1662)  Probability theory, mathematics, geometry
  • Fr. Nicolas Steno (1638-1686) – Father of geology, first to suggest fossils could unlock history of time
  • Fr. Roger Boscovich (1711-1787) – Atomic theory
  • Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) Discovered electrical basis of nerve impulses (first to do that experiment from biology class where electricity makes a dead frog twitch)
  • Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) Father of modern chemistry
  • Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) Invented the battery (rated in “volts”)
  • Pierre-Andre Latreille (1762-1833) Father of entomology
  • André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836) Discoverer of electromagnetism, unit of electric current “ampere” named after him
  • Augustin-Louis Cauchy (1789 –1857)  Laid foundations of Calculus
  • Urbain Le Verrier (1811-1877) Mathematically predicted the existence of Neptune
  • Fr. Angelo Secchi (1818-1878) Father of Astrophysics
  • Gregor Mendel, Augustinian monk (1822-1884) Father of genetics
  • Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) Invented pasteurization, rabies vaccine
  • Henri Becquerel (1852-1908)  Co-discoverer of radioactivity
  • Sir Alexander Flemming (1881-1955) Discovered Penicillin
  • Fr. Georges Lemaitre (1896-1965) Proposed Big Bang theory
  • Fr. Stanley Jaki (1924-2009)  Physicist and theologian.  First to suggest that Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem is relevant to the Theory of Everything.

There are many more.  If the Church is against science, or feels it undermines faith, why would she patronize these scientists?  If the Catholic faith contradicts science, how is it that Catholic priests and devout Catholic laymen are among the greatest scientific minds, have done so much groundbreaking work, and established unique fields of study that we take for granted today?  Aren’t we behaving like intellectual adolescents if we presume these great minds were superstitious fools?

Exterior of Vatican Observatory in Winter

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The best observatories in the world were built inside cathedrals in Rome, Paris, Bologna, and Florence.  The oldest observatory in the world that is still in use is in the Vatican. Thirty-five craters on the moon are named after the Jesuit priest/astronomers who discovered them.  The Catholic Church has contributed more money and man-power to astronomy that any other institution in the world.

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, painting...

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It seems the only scientific stick to beat Catholics with is Galileo.  Contrary to public assumption, the Church never declared heliocentrism a heresy. The Church said, “Hey, you have no proof and all the other scientists say you’re wrong.”  If the Church was “warring against science”, so were scientists.  Galileo was wrong about a lot of things he claimed:  the tides are not caused by the rotation of the earth, planetary orbits are elliptical not circular, and the sun is not the center of the universe (like Einstein said, the universe has no hitching post).  This atheist explains the “Galileo affair” more clearly than I, and points out that the Church’s philosophical “Condemnations of 1277”, which sound so offensive to our modern ears, were the turning point that accelerated our journey to the modern scientific method.

Published in 1962, Silent Spring was one of th...

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We moderns tend to believe that all scientists are pure of intent and follow the scientific method scrupulously and are bound to come to reasonable conclusions, but that is not the lesson of history.  Rachael Carlson has caused the deaths of millions of Africans with her conclusions in Silent SpringMargaret Mead was duped in her study of the Samoans and passed the dupe on to us with serious social implications.  Alfred Kinsey altered our social landscape based on faulty research, but he was telling people what they wanted to hear, so his methods (including child abuse) went unscrutinized.  Eugenics was taught in high school textbooks as sound science until Hitler took the idea to its logical conclusion.  Faulty science can have serious social consequences which is why the Church acts with prudence before reaching scientific conclusions.

It is the Church’s moral prudence that causes people to accuse her of being “against science”.  Even today the Church is often accused of being anti-technology for its stance against the destruction of human embryos for stem cell research, but after years of experimentation, this is where the scientific tally stands:

Adult stems cells =  many many many many treatments

Embryonic stem cells = 0

As a matter of fact, not only do embryonic stem cells produce no cures, their lack of differentiation produces cancer-like tumors.  The news media obfuscates the difference between embryonic and adult stem cells based on politics, not facts.  But what is more important to the  the Church than any scientific “progress” is the protection human life.  From a purely scientific perspective, that human embryo is an individual homo sapien with unique DNA from the moment of conception. If that zygote could commit a crime, the DNA would point to him, not his mother.  Stem cell research is just one more instance where the Church is not only on the side of life, but what is successful.  

Black Holes May Shape Galaxies (NASA, Chandra,...

Image by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via Flickr

We moderns are chronological snobs.  We think because we have airplanes and antibiotics that we are all, by birthright, smarter than our predecessors.  Even I have harbored the vague impression that modern science alone seeks facts, and that religion is all about blind, irrational faith.   I have found this to be so contrary to fact that I’m a bit embarrassed.   Science can’t avoid starting from unprovable philosophical assumptions.  Freud’s approach to the mind assumed atheism, and many biologists assume the unprovable philosophy of Materialism.  Likewise, the Church assumed a created universe and a law-giving God, and these assumptions incubated what would later be born as the modern scientific method.  What many atheistic scientists don’t realize is that without the Catholic Church their fields of study might not exist and that they they are, in essence, standing on the shoulders of priests.

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One Comment to “2) Science”

  1. I’m putting together a one-man show on Fr. Stanley Jaki. Sounds as if you’re read him!

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