This is the second of a four-part series of blogs offering my historical and philosophical story of the interaction of science and religion in Western culture and, eventually, my sense of the implications of that interaction for the future of the Christian faith and society. The first installment can be found here.
There I suggested that pre-Modern or Classical culture exhibited an “artichoke” view of the world, one in which there was a clear distinction between the appearance of a thing (like the petals of an artichoke) and its essential core (the artichoke’s heart). I also proposed that the relations between Aristotle’s metaphysics and natural philosophy, Ptolemy’s cosmic geometric model, and Christian theology became so tightly interwoven that it was virtually impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. The upshot was that any challenge to Aristotelian natural philosophy (the science) of the day, as in Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmology, would shake the prevailing religious orthodoxy as well.
An initial observation: it is probably important to say that cultural epics are not completely successive. They tend to overlap one another. They often begin slowly, reach a peak of social authority, and then have a long denouement. How many people read their horoscope in the newspaper (among those who still read newspapers)? This is a vestige of the Classical period. Though astrology as a practice has had its historical ups and downs it has hung on in popular thought for the vast majority of people today without its former personal and social authority.
That said, in this blog I’m going to tell the story the rise of Modern culture; in particular, the Copernican/Galilean revolution, its implications for two seminal western philosophers, Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant, and how their writings taken together set the foundations for a powerful cultural dualism, one that has had far-reaching consequences for Western culture.
Rending the fabric
While much has been written about the Copernican/Galilean controversy, it is important to recognize that neither for Copernicus (1473-1543) nor for Galileo (1564-1642), who actually bore the brunt of the controversy, was there any theological issue involved. Copernicus was a Polish Roman Catholic who, though it is unclear if he was ordained a priest, did hold a church position under his uncle, the Prince-Bishop of Warmia. He escaped the controversies that were to surround his work because he received the first copy of his “revolutionary” treatise near the time of his death.
It is important to understand that Copernicus straddled two intellectual worlds: the Classical world and the neo-natal Modern world of which he was unintentionally a midwife. His “revolution” was prompted by a Classical commitment to the physical perfection of the heavens; namely, that motion there was regular and circular. But its impact was to break the hegemony of Aristotelian natural philosophy and Christian religious authority in the realm of science.
In order to make his geometric model of the universe match astronomical observations, Ptolemy had introduced a feature in his system known as the equant. Without going into detail about this element of geometry, for Copernicus the equant introduced irregularity into the heavens.
At the same time, Copernicus was aware that Classical Pythagoreans had proposed a cosmology in which the Earth revolved around a central fire, which some identified with the Sun. He discovered that, when he made this geometric shift in the Ptolemeic model, the need for the equant disappeared. Yet he retained Ptolemy’s circular orbits, geometric epicycles, and eccentrics. It was not until Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) discovered that Mars’ orbit was an ellipse (as well as that of the other planets) that the epicycles and eccentrics disappeared from the heliocentric cosmic model.It is also worth noting that Copernicus was not eager to publish his new cosmology. This apprehension was apparently not fear of religious criticism but rather concern for critiques from mathematicians and astronomers because he thought his argument was too incomprehensible. He did share a “commentary” containing his basic ideas with a number of his intellectual peers and it was received with interest even by some who held ecclesiastical office like the Archbishop of Capua.
But the ultimate publication of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (1543) was due to the urging of Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514-1574), a Lutheran mathematician who studied for two years with the Roman Catholic Copernicus even though this was in the early days of the Protestant Reformation. This is one example of how scientific interest can lead to collaboration and transcend divisions related to other cultural areas.
Though Rheticus began the publishing process he handed overseeing the task to the Lutheran theologian, Andreas Osiander (1498-1552). It was Osiander who added an anonymous and unauthorized preface to the book. With it he sought to stave off theological controversy by claiming that the work only represented a more efficient means of making astronomical calculations and that the contents “need not be true or even probable.” The potency of this caveat was diminished, however, by the contemporary application of “Ockham’s Razor” (i.e., “the simplest explanation is the best”) and a revival of Pythagoreanism in which number (including geometry) described the actual world.
Unlike the Polish Copernicus, Galileo Galilei was Italian, was closer to the center of Roman Catholic authority, and was living deeply in the midst of the Protestant Reformation/Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. However, the controversy over heliocentrism, in which he was eventually embroiled, was more a product of broader social struggles over authority (political, cultural and religious) than as consequence of any dispute between science and religion.
Galileo was a passionate advocate of Copernicus’ geometry of the cosmos. But he held it intuitively largely on aesthetic grounds. Unlike what is often claimed, he did not come to this position because of what he saw through his telescope.
Galileo was something of an entrepreneur. He acquired a telescope design from the Netherlands, improved upon it (from 3x to 9x magnification), built his own, and marketed it to Venetian merchants. He then increased the magnification to 30x, turned it on the heavens, and saw what no human being had ever seen: craters on the moon, four moons of Jupiter, and the phases of Venus. (Currently, we know of 79 moons of Jupiter. But we have the advantage of close-up observation.) The first two of these discoveries he published in Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger) in March 1610.
These observations added to Galileo’s skepticism about Aristotle’s physics. However, his skepticism had begun much earlier. His storied experiment dropping two balls from the tower in Pisa to demonstrate that they fell at the same rate may be more legend than fact (it may have been a demonstration for students or even a thought experiment). That very experiment had actually been performed in Holland years earlier by two Dutch scientists. Nevertheless, it showed that there was something very wrong with Aristotle’s physics. Interestingly, Galileo’s astronomical colleagues among the Jesuits were intrigued by his telescopic observations and his ideas about physics. It is ironic that Galileo’s passion for his own views led him to criticize his fellow scientists with such a caustic, scornful wit that eventually it led the Jesuits to abandon him.
The controversy over Copernicus’ heliocentrism has become an icon in Western culture for a purported inherent conflict between science and religion. However, it is clear that Galileo did not think so. When Christina, the Grand Duchess of Florence, raise Biblical objections to the hypothesis, Galileo responded in a 40-page letter arguing that the Bible was an authority on faith and morals but not science. This was a longstanding principle regarding the interpretation of the Bible dating back at least to the 4th century CE. But for Galileo, in his day it was not natural philosophers but clergy who had the authority to make such a distinction.
It is important to understand that at this time the Copernican hypothesis had tenuous scientific status. The Jesuit, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), who had been appointed by the Pope as Cardinal Inquisitor for the Roman Inquisition, wrote in 1515 that heliocentrism could not be defended without “a true physical demonstration that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun.” Galileo mistakenly thought he had such a demonstration in the actions of the tides and continued to advocate for Copernicanism.In 1616, in consonance with an Inquisitional commission that found the Copernican hypothesis to be “foolish and absurd” as well as contrary to the Bible, Cardinal Bellarmine summoned Galileo to Rome and instructed him that he was “to abandon completely … the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the Earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.” Although he remained silent on the matter for a decade and a half Galileo finally could not restrain his conviction about the truth of the hypothesis.
In 1623 Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was elected as Pope Urban VIII. For many years the Cardinal had been a great admirer of Galileo and his scientific work. A prominent patron of the arts, reformer within the Roman Church, and militant expander of papal territories, he was also serving in the midst of the Reformation controversies over authority in the culture, as well as, in the church. He himself had written in opposition to Copernicanism although he had opposed Bellarmines injunction against Galileo.
Perhaps it was Galileo’s earlier relationship with the Pope that led him to write a major work on heliocentrism. In 1632 he had published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. It was styled as a conversation between three persons: Sagredo, a kind of everyman who was initially neutral; Salvati, who argued in favor heliocentrism; and an ardent advocate of Ptolemy’s Aristotelian system, Simplicio. In the polemical heat of the argument in which Simplicio was portrayed as well-named, Galileo placed the words of Pope Urban in Simplicio’s mouth. There is no doubt that the book favored the Copernican position.
To use an anachronistic colloquialism, the book “sold like hot cakes.” It also infuriated the Pope and prompted Galileo’s trial before the Roman Inquisition. The result of which was his recantation of heliocentrism having been shown the instruments of torture, house arrest for the remainder of his life, and the banning of the Dialogue and any of his previous or future publications. Arguably his most important scientific book, Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Science, on kinematics (the motion of objects) and strength of materials, was written during his house arrest and sent for publication in Holland (1638).
It is important to recognize that the skepticism of the Jesuit astronomers over heliocentrism was well founded. First, Copernicus’ cosmic model did not yield any significantly better prediction for the movements of the planets and stars than did Ptolemy’s. Second, they asked Galileo for some empirical, observational evidence that the Earth had a two-fold motion. The best he could come up with was a theory based on the movement of the tides but it really did not wash, no pun intended.It is worth noting that this skepticism was not limited to Roman Catholics. Both Luther and Calvin dismissed Copernicanism. They did so neither on Biblical nor philosophical grounds but on the basis of simple observation and common sense. If the Earth rotated on its axis then surely things on the surface would be flung into space. And besides one could see with one’s own eyes the Sun travel across the sky from east to west.
It was not until 1727, 184 years after the publication of the Revolutions, that there was actual empirical evidence that the Earth traveled around the Sun. It came when James Bradley (1692-1762) reported on his observations of the “aberration of light.”
Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding heliocentrism plus Galileo’s pioneering of an observational and experimental scientific method marked a shift in cosmic vision. It was a shift away from organic models emphasizing final causality toward mathematical and geometric models emphasizing efficient (or mechanical) causality. It helped initiate an era in which the organic cosmic philosophical-scientific-religious synthesis of the Classical world was torn apart.
One of the primary actors in this rending was René Descartes (1596-1650). In 1619, Descartes had a profound experience in a series of dreams that he felt “called” him to develop a new rational “universal science,” one to replace the authoritarian metaphysics of medieval scholasticism (with its strong Aristotelian bias). In so doing, however, he also helped initiate a fundamental split in the cosmic vision of Western culture.
For Descartes, reality was divided into two radically different domains: that of matter and that of mind (or spirit). The sciences proper were concerned with the former and developed rational mathematical and mechanical models to account for the behavior of entities in the material domain. The domain of mind or spirit, on the other hand, was fundamentally different from that of matter. It was the domain in which divine revelation and theological authority prevailed. As a result of this division, the foundation of a dualistic worldview began to be laid in the Western cultural psyche.
In 1633 Descartes was ready to publish a major work, Le Monde, which essentially expressed his full philosophical perspective from methodology to metaphysics to physics to biology. The Copernican cosmology was a foundation for the work. However, Descartes learned of Galileo’s trial and house arrest and withdrew the manuscript from the publisher. This was not because he doubted its truthfulness or had fear of retribution if it was published. He was living in Protestant Holland at the time. His reluctance to publish stemmed from his sensitivity to his primary intellectual audience, the French Jesuits, and he hoped that in time Galileo’s position on heliocentrism would be accepted.
Descartes’ particular philosophical proposals for a mechanistic physics were largely abandoned in favor of Isaac Newton‘s (1642-1727) later mathematical system described in his major work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687). Yet Descartes’ broader cosmological dualism prevailed as one foundation for the new worldview. It was a divided world in which there was acquired knowledge and revealed knowledge, body and mind, matter and spirit, where the “and” was disjunctive rather than conjunctive.
For example, in what may be an apocryphal exchange, Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), the French polymath who refined Newtonian celestial mechanics, was asked by Napoleon to indicate the place of God in his astronomical system. Laplace is said to have remarked, “I had no need of that particular hypothesis.” Efficient or mechanical causality had become the sufficient means to explain the material world. Reference to God or the realm of the spirit was superfluous.
It is worth noting that Descartes, himself, was not satisfied with this divided cosmos. At least with respect to mind and body he sought some material point for their connection. His proposed connector was the pineal gland.
Kant’s revolutionary critiques
The second defining characteristic of the Modern Era, which contributed to the division of the world, was the rise of “critical” thought. The origin of this movement is usually associated with the philosophical works of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).
Over the centuries a major philosophical problem had centered on the question, “What is knowing?” This was the philosophical area known as epistemology (“the study of knowledge”). In the past this question had been asked largely in terms of how the mind (an immaterial entity) could conform itself to objects in the world (material entities).
John Locke (1632-1704), as an empiricist, had held that all knowledge of things was derived from sensations which imprinted on the tabula rasa (“clean slate”) of the mind. This was a realist view. It was challenged by the idealist Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753), who held that what was known in experience was only sensations, not things but ideas. The Scot, David Hume (1711-1776), extended this position one logical step further and argued that the only responsible position one could take with regard to knowledge was a position of moderate skepticism. He held that we do not know the world as such at all, but only our ideas of the world and it is clear that our ideas can be mistaken.
Kant, however, was not satisfied with Hume’s recourse to skepticism. Instead, he proposed what he called his own “Copernican revolution” in thinking about the source of knowledge; he began by asking not how the mind conformed itself to the world but how the world conformed itself to the mind.
Kant divided the realm of knowledge into two fundamentally separate domains: that of the “phenomena” and that of the “noumena.” The former was the domain of empirical knowledge. According to Kant, knowledge proper was formed through the interaction of two elements: our experience of the world through our senses and the a priori (given) structure of our minds. Knowledge was not a direct mirror of the world but rather a product of the interaction of our senses and the ordering structure and processes of our minds. As a consequence, one could not properly speak of knowing “things-in-themselves.”
However, this meant that only phenomena could be known. Within the domain of the noumena were those things of which, in principle, no sensory experience was possible: for example, the universe as a causal whole, the human self as a free agent, and God. Thus, for Kant, there could be no proper knowledge of these noumenal entities.
Yet, in order for there to be science at all, it was necessary to believe that the world was a causal whole. In order for human activity to be held accountable to moral standards, it was necessary to assume the existence of a freely acting self. In order for the world to be more than a mere aggregate of disparate objects and causal chains, it was necessary to affirm a perfect unifying principle for all existence; namely, God.
Therefore, though Kant denied knowledge of the world as a whole, of the self, and of God, he argued that faith in these things was absolutely necessary for practical reasons. Thus, as Descartes had divided reality into the realms of matter and of mind, Kant divided it into the realms of pure and practical reason, of knowledge and faith, of facts and values, and so, of science and religion.
This cosmic and epistemological dualism has been, I believe, the hallmark of Modern culture up to our present time. It has come to be manifest in a variety of philosophical forms, sometimes very ironically. For example, the Logical Positivist movement in the early part of the 20th century implicitly accepted this dualism. But they then denied the meaningfulness of the non-empirical, non-scientific, noumenal side.
A. J. Ayer (1910-1989) wrote in 1936, “Our object is to show that philosophy, as a genuine branch of knowledge, must be distinguished from metaphysics. Metaphysical sentences are nonsensical; only tautologies and empirical hypotheses are significant propositions. Our task is to show how such mistakes come about.” Of course, such a claim is neither a tautology nor empirical hypothesis.
Reductionists like Ludwig Feurbach (1804-1872), Karl Marx (1818-1883), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) sought to explain religious phenomena in exclusively materialist and scientific terms.In contrast, the Existentialist movement with people like Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), while also implicitly accepting the dualism, invested all significant meaning on the side of faith, moral action and the religious. In doing so there was a tendency to ignore science and technology as distractions from the profound matters of existence.
There were a variety of theological responses to this broad cultural shift. At the turn of the 19th century, the Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who had diligently studied Kant’s works, expressed the conviction that religion was primarily a matter of feeling. As such it dealt primarily with the inner rather than the outer life and was subjective rather than objective.Protestant Neo-orthodox and Roman Catholic Neo-Thomist theologies, like those of Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Karl Rahner (1904-1984) respectively, were developed in critical opposition to theological liberalism like that of Schleiermacher. At the same time, these “new orthodoxies” were greatly influenced by existential and Kantian thought. Again, they have also tended to accept a division of knowledge between that derived through empirical observation (natural knowledge) and that received through divine revelation (supernatural knowledge).
I can reasonably claim that this Modern worldview continues to form the dominant perspective in contemporary Western and Christian culture. It is found in the popular understanding, often promoted by scientists and clergy, of science as an impersonal, detached, and objective search for the facts of nature. Religion, on the other hand, is seen as the personal and engaging pursuit of the ultimate values by which we ought to live. Paradigmatic examples of this position are found in Pope John Paul II’s message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on evolution in October 1996 and Stephen Jay Gould’s response to the public reception of that message in a March 1997 article in Natural History magazine. In the article Gould coined the phrase “non-overlapping magisterial” to describe the separated domains of science and religion.
Drilling for the core
To summarize, in Modern culture, the essentialist assumption of the artichoke view of the world, though transformed from the Classical metaphysical understanding, is largely retained. For example:
- Physicists look for the fundamental, most essential, particle(s).
- Some biologists seek to explain all biological phenomena, from cells to human culture, in terms of the essential particle of biology, the gene.
- Modern Christian theologians hold that there is an essential Gospel despite the variety of Christian communities.
The chief features of the Modern world are, I would suggest, as follows:
- Knowledge is attained by reducing things to their essential elements and analyzing those elements.
- The truth of things is acquired through the application of reason and modeled logically and mathematically.
- The primary form of causality is efficient or mechanical causality (essential elements pushing each other around like billiard balls).
- The world is divided into mutually exclusive domains: matter/mind, facts/values, knowledge/faith.
- Metaphysics is rejected as nonsense.
Yet I am also going to assert that Modern culture, and the Christian theologies to which it gave rise, are on the wane. This decline can be seen practically in the decreasing memberships of major Christian denominations, particularly the difficulties they are having retaining younger generations, who are less tolerant of the inherent cognitive dissonance of Modern cultural dualism. This decline has been prompted, I believe, by developments within the sciences themselves. Moving beyond this decline, I believe, depends upon philosophical and theological efforts that have been developing in relation to these scientific discoveries. The Emerging cultural era may be far from midday, but it is well past dawn.
In my next essay, I’ll identify major developments in science that have prompted the emergence of this new cultural era and what appear to be its distinguishing features.