Monday, January 20, 2014

Good Science Is Good Religion

Everybody knows that Copernicus figured out that the earth moves around the sun, that Galieo proved him right by looking through a telescope, and that the Roman Catholic Church tried to shut Galileo down because it believed, for theological reasons, that Copernicus could not be correct.

Right?  Isn't that what everybody knows?

Probably, more or less -- but if so, this is one more instance in which what everybody "knows" is not true.

An article in the current Scientific American* neatly summarizes a much more complex story.  In fact, as Dennis Danielson and Christopher Graney show, the ideas that Copernicus proposed in his 1543 De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium -- although eventually proven to be true -- did not fit with the best experimental evidence available to the scientific community of his time.

In addition to the problem of how something as large as the Earth could move, a matter that would not be fully explicable before Newton's Laws of Motion, would-be Copernicans were troubled by the absence of a measurable annual stellar parallax, which suggested that the diameter of Earth's still-hypothetical orbit around the sun was, when compared to  its distance from the stars, far smaller than previously believed.  There was also serious question about the size of the stars in a Copernican system, since their (apparently, but not really) fixed width would make them vastly larger than anbody had reason to imagine.

The heliocentric model of Copernicus was directly challenged by another brilliant and heavily-funded astronomer, Tycho Brahe.  Tycho proposed a"geoheliocentric" model, in which the sun, moon and stars orbit an immobile earth, while the planets circle the sun.  He attempted to reconcile the elegance of Copernicus' calculations with the other evidence, such as it was.

Galileo's subsequent observations, such as the existence of Jupiter's moons, disproved the Ptolemaic cosmology -- but were compatible with Brahe's system.  In other words, Galileo's oservations "were not  .. understood [by contemporary astronomers] as  proof that Earth revolves around the sun."

The upshot is that it took roughly 200 years for the question of heliocentrism to be settled among scientists.  In addition to Kepler and Newton, the contributions of Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis were required.  It was not until 1838 that Friedrich Bessel measured the annual stellar parallax and George Airy "produced the first full theoretical explanation for why stars appear to be wider than they are."  So, although by the late 17th century a growing majority of scientists accepted the Copernican model, they did so, as Danielson and Graney observe, "in the face of scientific difficulties."

Danielson and Graney are interested in the large historical question of how the scientific community is,  often and rightly, reluctant to embrace radically new ideas before a significant body of observational data can be adduced to support them:
Back in [Galileo's day], those opposed to Copernicanism had some quite respectable, coherent, observationally based science on their side.  They were eventually proved wrong, but that did not make them bad scientists.  In fact, rigorously disproving the strong arguments of other was part of the challenge, as well as part of the fun, of doing science.
True, by all means.  We at the Egg have another thread to pick at in this story, though, which is the oft-misrepresented role of religion in the history of cosmology.

We have often observed that, despite the weird mythologies of Fundamentalism and Dawkinsism alike, historic Christianity has never been profoundly hostile to the natural sciences.  More often than not, the Church has been deeply and seriously engaged in reading "the book of nature," seeing in it a revelation of God's will that is comparable in majesty to, if different in kind from, the revelation offered in the Bible.  Especially in the Renaissance, the Church was an active and generous patron of science.  Galileo himself worked for the pope, and popes up to the present day have continued to employ court astronomers.

So it is no surprise that, as the models of celestial motion were debated in the 16th and 17th centuries, churchmen would take an interest in the discussion.  And this is where Danielson and Graney observe an interesting irony:
Rather than give up their theory in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence, Copernicans were forced to appeal to divine omnipotence.
They cite a Copernican named Christoph Rothmann, writing to Brahe, and arguing that in fact stellar distances could be as large as the Copernicans estimated on the grounds that God was a great king who deserved a great palace.

(Side note:  Rothmann eventually visited Denmark, studied the stars and argued cosmology with Brahe, then disappeared to his hometown to publish some now-lost theological treatises.  [He had studied theology at Wittenberg.] Brahe's famous assistant, Johannes Kepler, seems to have viewed astronomy as a largely religious undertaking.  Clearly, Newton was not the only early astronomer to be an amateur theologian.  Sadly, we know that Newton was a crackpot, and are inclined to suspect the same of Rothmann and Kepler.  Perhaps not incidentally, they were all Protestants.)

In response to the Copernicans, it was Giovanni Battista Riccioli -- both an astronomer and a Jesuit priest -- who argued, in effect, that God should be left out of the cosmological question:  "Even if this falsehood [i.e., the claim that the stars were far away to satisfy God's dignity] cannot be refuted, it cannot satisfy the more prudent men."  Again, he was defending the wrong model -- but please note this representative of a zealous religious order, and younger contemporary of Galileo, attempting to ague that scientific questions should not be resolved by an appeal to theology.

Our point here, and it is one that can never be made too often by and among people with a commitment to traditional Christianity, is that the Church is not and never has been opposed to good science, because good science -- like good religion -- is an honest inquiry into the nature of reality.  No matter what anybody tells you, there is no war between science and religion, at least from the perspective of religion.  And while the story of Galileo is very complicated, taking place in the midst of tumultuous century, it is not fair to say that the Roman Catholic Church, much less all of Christianity, and far less "religion" in the abstract, is its villain.

*Dennis Danielson and Christopher M.Graney, "The Case Aginst Copernicus," in Scientific American, Jan. 2014, 72-77.  The web version is behind a paywall at this writing.

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