Christianity As Science-Starter: Galileo

Continuing from Wednesday's post, here's what Nancy Pearcey had to say in Saving Leonardo about the effect the Christian worldview had on Galileo's scientific advances:

Galileo shared Kepler's conviction that God created the world with a mathematical structure. But not everyone did. This was the question at the heart of the famous Galileo controversy. The typical story is that Galileo was persecuted because he championed the heliocentric theory of Copernicus. But the truth is that no one at the time objected to Copernicanism—as long as it was used merely as a calculating device. There was not enough empirical data yet to decide between an earth-centered and a sun-centered system. Both systems worked equally well for navigation, which was the main practical use of astronomy at the time. Most people were willing to use whichever astronomical theory worked best, without worrying about whether it was physically true.

Galileo attracted controversy because he insisted that the Copernican system was not just a useful calculating tool but physically true. The central question at stake was thus the status of mathematical truth: Does mathematics tell us what is true in the physical world? This was a philosophical question, not a theological one. And Galileo's main opponents were not churchmen but the Aristotelian philosophers in the universities. For them, mathematics was not high on the list of what makes the world what it is. The essential feature of Aristotle's universe was not quantity but quality—hot and cold, wet and dry, soft and hard. In the universities, mathematics ranked much lower than physics. A mere mathematician was not supposed to dictate to the physicists what theory they could hold.

We get a fascinating glimpse into [the] mindset of the time from the words of one of Galileo's opponents, a philosophy professor at the University of Pisa. "How far from the truth are those who wish to prove natural facts by means of mathematical reasoning," he wrote indignantly. "Anyone who thinks he can prove natural properties with mathematical arguments is simply demented, for the two sciences are very different"....

Today it seems obvious that science is about explaining nature using mathematical formulas. Not so in Galileo's day. When he declared that the book of nature is written by God in the language of mathematics, those were fighting words—a declaration of war on Aristotelian philosophy….

Galileo's victory was the triumph of the idea that nature is constructed on a mathematical blueprint.

Christians were aware that God had created the universe out of nothing, and yet they still held on to ingrained cultural ideas that grew out of a previous worldview—a worldview opposed to their Christian beliefs, containing an eternal universe, where matter wouldn't necessarily conform to the ideals of mathematics. Once again, this speaks of 1) the enduring power a worldview has over a culture, and 2) our limited ability as faulty human beings to recognize what is influencing us and submit all of our beliefs and practices to what we know to be true.

People ask, if Christianity was responsible for the development of science, why didn't science develop earlier? This is why.

(See also Part 1: Kepler and Part 3: Newton.)

Amy K. Hall