Christianity As Science-Starter: Kepler

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 01/25/2012

In Nancy Pearcey’s excellent book, Saving Leonardo, she explains why Greek thought didn’t create modern science:

[T]he ancient Greeks are often given credit for the origin of modern science. But that is a mistake. The Greeks locked up mathematical truths in a kind of Platonic heaven of ideal forms—a realm of mental blueprints or templates for all the objects in the material world. The problem was that these blueprints did not match their objects except in a rough and approximate way. Why not? Because the Greeks regarded matter as eternal, not created. Therefore matter had its own inherent, independent properties, which did not necessarily line up with the blueprints in the ideal realm.

It was their view of the nature of the universe that held them back from scientific discovery, and it was Kepler’s Christian view of the creation of the universe that drove him on towards science:

[H]ow did Johann Kepler discover that the planetary orbits are ellipses? Ever since antiquity, people had thought the planets moved in circular orbits. The idea went back to Aristotle. He had reasoned that the heavens are “perfect,” and the circle is the “perfect” shape, ergo the heavenly bodies must move in circles. (This was an example of the Greeks’ deductive approach to science.) How did Kepler succeed in breaking through a settled belief in circular orbits that had held sway for two thousand years?

It began when he had difficulty plotting the orbit of Mars. The most accurate circle he could construct based on observations was slightly wobbly. Had Kepler retained the Greek mentality, he would have shrugged off such a minor aberration. His thinking would have been that objects correspond to geometrical ideals, after all, only approximately. But Kepler was a devout Lutheran. He was convinced that if God wanted a line to form a circle, it would be exactly a circle. And if it was not exactly a circle, it must be exactly something else. It would not be merely an arbitrary departure from the ideal. This theological conviction sustained Kepler through six years of intellectual struggle and thousands of pages of scientific calculations before he finally hit upon the idea of ellipses.

Kepler later spoke gratefully of the minor mismatch in Mars’ orbit as a “gift from God” because it spurred his greatest scientific breakthrough. The chief aim of science, he said, is “to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics.”

One aspect of this I find interesting is the fact that it took so very long for the ideas of Christianity to overcome previously held cultural ideas left over from the Greeks. As was the case in the moral realm (as I discussed yesterday), the Christian worldview in reference to the physical realm was slowly working its way through Western culture. No culture turns quickly, and God has a very long-term view of progress, working within the human limitations that make it difficult for a massive group of people to change an entrenched, accepted paradigm.

I think we underestimate the power culture has over our view of the world, and this often causes unfair scorn of those in the past who couldn’t see the applications of truths that we easily see today. This underestimation also leads to accusations against God for not completely remaking human culture when He gave the Israelites the Law. But the truth is, human society can be dangerously fractured by radical, abrupt, imposed change, and God wisely chose to work through the centuries in as stable a way as possible. It’s amazing to think how far we must still have to go.