January 14, 2005

The leaven...

Orrin links to a great article, The Galileo Legend, by Thomas Lessl, that demolishes the urban legend that "the Catholic Church killed all those scientists..." Nonsense of course, it never killed any scientists (Giordano Bruno was no scientist, and his execution had nothing to do with his Copernican speculations.) The stories of brave truth-seekers crushed by an obscurantist church are historical rubbish, pushed by people who push science as a sort of modernist religion. (And who shed tears and eloquence over Galileo being placed under house-arrest, but have nary a tear for the thousands of scientists killed or imprisoned by socialists.)

...It is not an accident that such complicating factors as this are never discussed in popular scientific accounts. Clearly those who tell this story have strong ideological interests which make the maligning of the Christian Church attractive. A big part of this seems to be the belief shared by such storytellers that the scientific way of life would operate best in a world untroubled by religious belief. In fact one of the main themes of the Galileo legend seems to be the idea that Christianity is an anti-scientific monster, now safely caged, that sought to devour science at the moment of its birth. This in fact is how the story is presented in what is perhaps the most popular treatment of science ever published, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time:
Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science. His renowned conflict with the Catholic Church was central to his philosophy, for Galileo was one of the first to argue that man could hope to understand how the world works, and, moreover, that we could do this by observing the real world.
Since the author of this passage is often compared with Einstein and Newton in the popular press, his readers, (approximately nine million to date), are likely to assume that he is simply telling it like it is. But that conclusion would be wrong. Hawking's genius as a mathematician and theoretical physicist does not make him an historian of any kind. Neither does it lessen the temptation to succumb to a romantic legend that seems to lend itself to his preconceptions...

Hawking's giving us pure bunk as history. But read the whole article, it's worth it...

...A broader reading of scientific history shows that Galileo's mistreatment by his ecclesiastical bosses was an anomaly, a momentary break in an otherwise harmonious relationship. In fact a more complete understanding of the relationship between Christianity and science has suggested to some scholars that Christian belief may have been the leaven that made the development of modern science possible. Modern science, after all, emerged in a most unlikely place, in an adolescent European culture that was only a few hundred years removed from barbarism. Nothing so revolutionary ever developed in the great civilizations of the Middle or Far East, despite their considerable antiquity and sophistication. The reason for this should be quite clear. The founding assumptions of modern science, its belief in a universe that is highly ordered and in a human mind that was created to reach beyond its finitude to grasp the mystery of this order, are premises that are secure only where monotheism has taken root.

Posted by John Weidner at January 14, 2005 9:28 PM
Weblog by John Weidner