« Engaging the Abortion Discussion | Main | Sinners Unaware »

January 25, 2012


So what?

It doesnt make Christianity true or accurate.

Perhaps...but it sure blows anything else man hsd come up with clear out of the water by comparison....

Hi Jumper... You are right. Amy's comment doesn't make Christianity "true" but then I doubt she ever intended that to be the thrust of her argument anyway.
I am unsure what "accurate" means. Even if Christianity is "untrue", its powerful and pervasive impact on our (and other) cultures remains undeniable. Further, I think that one can make a strong argument that the ethical and moral teachings of Christ (even just as a historical person) remains the best ever offered in history. So, even without any of the supernatural mumbo jumbo Christianity stands as a huge, powerful cultural force.

BUt, if the controversial story of Christianity is True... well, thats the crux of the matter after which everything changes. But, some people don't like change... especially when the change shifts one's focus from the Self (its all about me - life as a function of the survival of the fittest) to God (its all about Him)... this shift chaffs and apparently abuses our freedom; it is an affront to our dignity and natural human rights (which, in themselves, seem to make up a relatively unexpected legal artifact).. But, after all the posturing, it always seems to come down to a quote by either Shakespeare or Sinatra (OK.. maybe not always :). In this case the theme is obvious: "I did it my way!" Exactly Frank, and thats the problem. Quite radically, Christianity offers a solution.

Amy’s post concerns a fascinating topic, and for that I am grateful that it has been brought up. There are some problems I have with it, but I hope that my comments don’t come across as too harsh.

Posts like this bring many things to mind, for me at least. Some of the things that come to mind are areas of agreement. I agree that many of our most intelligent philosophers and scientists have been Christians. I also have no problem with the idea that Christianity was instrumental in certain respects in ushering in the Scientific Revolution.

But now to the disagreements.

The first thing that strikes me is the sheer frequency with which we are reminded that science arose in a Christian context. Why the regular repetition? I think it is an attempt to compensate for the fact that conservative evangelicals are known by many to be amongst the most suspicious of the deliverances of our best theories concerning the development of biological species and the authorship and development of the biblical texts. Evolutionary biology and biblical criticism are the very bugaboos that keep some conservative evangelical apologists in business, after all. Conservative evangelicals, therefore, haven’t exactly developed a reputation for being lovers of our best scientific theories, and neither should they. By regularly calling attention to the Christian context in which the Scientific Revolution arose, the hope seems to be that folks will forget that the contemporary conservative evangelical is often the most suspicious of our best scientific theories and the most willing to confidently contradict the experts despite having no competency in the field.

The second thing that struck me about this post is the sheer historical oversimplification that it rests on. One gets the impression from this post that Platonism held science back, while Kepler, because of his Christianity, pushed it forward. What one does not learn from this post, however, is that Kepler was a Platonist, that Kepler’s Platonism influenced his science, and that Platonism experienced a revival in Kepler’s time! I knew this based on a series of lectures by Lawrence Principe on the history of science, but since I cannot reproduce those lectures, I will quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Kepler. Behold:

Especially where Kepler deals with the geometrical structure of the cosmos, he always returns to his Platonic and Neoplatonic framework of thought. Thus, the polyhedral hypothesis (see Section 3 below) he postulated for the first time in his MC represents a kind of “formal cause” constituting the foundational structure of the universe.

And again,

A further source of historically decisive importance is the fact that the five regular polyhedra are treated in Euclid's Elements of Geometry, a work that for Kepler, especially in the Platonic approach of Proclus, has a central position. At the very beginning of HM Kepler complains about the fact that the modern philosophical and mathematical school of Peter Ramus (1515–1572) had not been able to understand the architectonic structure of the Elements, which are crowned with the treatment of the five regular polyhedra. In addition, a revival of Platonic philosophy was taking place in Kepler's time and inspired not only philosophers and mathematicians but also architects, artists and illustrators (see Field 1997).

Clearly, therefore, the suggestion that Platonism held science back while Kepler pushed it forward, thereby abandoning Platonism, is a blatant historical oversimplification if not an outright falsehood.

The third thing that this post brought to my mind was the fact that Newton is so often appealed to as an example of a Christian scientist. Now, this post does not explicitly do that, although it hints that comments concerning Newton will be forthcoming. What never fails to be humorous about all of this is that Newton, by any conservative evangelical measure, was not a Christian! Newton, after all, denied the doctrine of the Trinity. I quote again from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

And even in theology, there is Newton the anti-Trinitarian mild heretic who was not that much more radical in his departures from Roman and Anglican Christianity than many others at the time, and Newton, the wild religious zealot predicting the end of the Earth, who did not emerge to public view until quite recently.

If Newton were around today and went around calling himself a Christian, conservative evangelicals would throw him under the bus more forcefully than they ever did to Rob Bell. And yet when it is useful for defending themselves against the charge of being amongst the most suspicious of science, conservative evangelicals are suddenly a bit enthusiastic about enlisting Newton as a fellow believer. Well, he was not. A theist he was; a Christian he was not.

Another interesting fact about Newton is the frequency with which he appealed to God’s miraculous activity in order to solve scientific puzzles. In his Opticks, for instance, Newton suggests that God has to periodically miraculously restore the planets to order. In that respect, Newton resembles the contemporary miracle-mongers who insist on miraculous interposition to solve puzzles in biology. Leibniz famously had nothing but contempt for this stuff, and history has vindicated Leibniz over Newton with respect to this issue, since we now know that Newton was mistaken about the occurrence of regular planetary miracles.

In some very significant respects, therefore, posts like these are at best oversimplified and misleading.

Another very good piece, Amy.

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.
It also blinds us to the fact that today we are not seeing the applications that will be easily seen in the future.

The first thing that strikes me is the sheer frequency with which we are reminded that science arose in a Christian context. Why the regular repetition?
I think it is because of the lie that was popularized over a century ago that the Church has been at war with science and knowledge throughout its history. It was a lie perpetrated to break the power and authority of the Church and the talking points have existed in popular culture ever since.

"at best oversimplified and misleading".
No, at worst they are oversimplified and misleading. And by the least gracious readings of them, at that.

Malebranche, this post is specifically about how a Christian idea, that was in opposition to the Platonist idea, moved science forward because it was true and represented reality. It's not a blanket praise of Kepler. Whatever other things he believed may or may not have affected his other work.

But if you'd like to propose some Platonist ideas that actually advanced the development of modern science, I'm interested in hearing them. Otherwise, the fact that Platonism had a revival in those times isn't really relevant.

As for Newton, whether he was a Trinitarian or not is not the issue. One wouldn't even need to be a Christian to be influenced by the Christian worldview and believe parts of it. My point isn't to say that Christians are the best and most scientific. My point is to say that the ideas in the Christian worldview advanced science. (Actually, my overarching point over the next few days is what Daron just quoted and said. But I have many reasons for posting this, and not all of them are explicitly stated.)

Newton was influenced by a part of the Christian worldview, and it was belief in that part of the Christian worldview that led to his discovery. (That post will go up on Saturday, and you will see that his anti-Trinitarian stance was irrelevant to this issue.)

Whoops--Daron posted while I was writing. I was referring to his comment about the power of culture to blind us to the application of truth.

But if you'd like to propose some Platonist ideas that actually advanced the development of modern science, I'm interested in hearing them.

Great. I think the best place to look for Platonic influence is in Kepler’s geometric understanding of nature, a feature of his thought that is clearly present in his laws (e.g., the equal areas in equal time law).

As readers of Plato know, Plato believed that mathematics undergirded the fabric of reality. He was especially interested in geometry, as is evident from the exchange between Socrates and the slave in his Meno as well as his remarks in the Timaeus. I will focus on the latter. One of the most important features of Plato’s Timaeus is that it accounts for phenomena mathematically, and especially geometrically. Consider, for instance, the following bizarre passage:

In the first place, then, as is evident to all, fire and earth and water and air are bodies. And every sort of body possesses solidity, and every solid must necessarily be contained in planes; and every plane rectilinear figure is composed of triangles; and all triangles are originally of two kinds, both of which are made up of one right and two acute angles; one of them has at either end of the base the half of a divided right angle, having equal sides, while in the other the right angle is divided into unequal parts, having unequal sides. These, then, proceeding by a combination of probability with demonstration, we assume to be the original elements of fire and the other bodies.

Strange as this passage may be, it is clear that Plato elevated a geometrical understanding of bodies. It is true that Plato regarded the physical world as an imperfect copy of an ideal mathematical realm. However, what is crucial for folks like Kepler is not so much that it is an imperfect copy of a mathematical realm, but rather that it is an imperfect copy of a mathematical realm. Despite the imperfect nature of the copy, the fact that Plato regarded the physical world as a copy of a mathematical realm is what lead to the belief that the best way to understand nature is geometrically. It was this feature of Plato’s thought that Kepler would later appeal to in order to justify his mathematical approach to nature, as opposed to the qualitative approach of the scholastics that Descartes famously rejected, writing

“If you find it strange that in explaining these elements I do not use the qualities called ‘heat’, ‘cold’, ‘moisture’ and ‘dryness’—as the philosophers do—I shall say to you that these qualities themselves seem to me to need explanation. Indeed, unless I am mistaken, not only these four qualities but all the others as well, including even the forms of inanimate bodies, can be explained without the need to suppose anything in their matter other than the motion, size, shape, and arrangement of its parts” (CSM I.89).

As Barbra Sattler, professor of ancient philosophy at Yale, has written:

However, it is not only this new emphasis on its compatibility with Genesis that made the Timaeus a significant book for the Renaissance. It is also its combination of mathematics and physics that made it attractive for the newly reawakened sciences. Accordingly, Johannes Kepler uses the Timaeus to justify his own merging of mathematics and physics in his astronomy which is a central point in his Astronomia nova. (from http://www.library.illinois.edu/rbx/exhibitions/Plato/Pages/Reception.html)

Quoting again from the entry on Kepler in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Today Kepler is remembered in the history of sciences above all for his three planetary laws, which he produced in very specific contexts and at different times. While it is questionable whether he would have understood these scientific statements as “laws”—and it is even arguable that he used this term with a different meaning than we do today—it seems to be clear that all three laws (as a linguistic convention, we may continue to use the term) suppose some fundamentals of Kepler's philosophy: (a) realism, (b) causality, (c) the geometric structure of the cosmos.

Notice that Kepler’s laws were motivated in part by his philosophy of the geometrical structure of the cosmos. This is clearly inherited from the Timaeus, a book Kepler regarded as “a kind of commentary on the first chapter of Genesis, or the first book of Moses, converting it to the Pythagorean philosophy.”

In summary, Kepler’s geometrical approach to nature was inherited from Plato, and that feature of his thought is clearly evident in the laws for which he is so famous.

Malebranche, nobody denies that geometry came from the Greeks--in fact, that's acknowledged in the first quoted paragraph. Are you denying the distinction that made the difference as described in the second quote?

Oh, Science and Christianity...



I certainly was not trying to merely make the obvious claim that the Greeks made advances in geometry. Rather, what I am trying to say is something that is not so well-known. Science was not always as mathematically quantitative as it is now and was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We take it for granted that science just is a study of nature that extensively employs mathematics, but this was not always the way folks thought about it. Aristotelian natural philosophy traded frequently in qualities such as hot, dry, wet, and cold, and treated them as primitives not further reducible to other qualities. One of the differences that we see in Descartes is his insistence on reducing these qualities to the modes of extension, that is, geometrical properties. That, and not the mere discovery of geometry, is what I was trying to discuss. For the sake of clarity I will reproduce the Descartes quote again, since it is relevant to this topic:

“If you find it strange that in explaining these elements I do not use the qualities called ‘heat’, ‘cold’, ‘moisture’ and ‘dryness’—as the philosophers do—I shall say to you that these qualities themselves seem to me to need explanation. Indeed, unless I am mistaken, not only these four qualities but all the others as well, including even the forms of inanimate bodies, can be explained without the need to suppose anything in their matter other than the motion, size, shape, and arrangement of its parts” (CSM I.89).

Notice here that Descartes takes himself to be doing something new, something that “the philosophers” (that is, the Medieval scholastics) were not doing. Descartes is not chastising the scholastics for not knowing about geometry, which would be absurd. Rather, he is chastising them for not approaching qualities like heat, cold, and dryness in his geometrical way, according to which these qualities should not be treated as primitives but must be explained in terms of geometrical notions.

So, although you are right that geometry was no new thing, I am also right that folks like Descartes were approaching nature geometrically in a novel and interesting way. This project is referred to by historians of science as “the mechanical philosophy.”

Ok, back to Kepler. What I intended to say is that in many respects Kepler also approached nature geometrically. Again, I hope the discussion concerning Descartes shows that this approach to understanding nature was not necessarily as old as geometry itself, since this approach was controversial at a time when geometry was not. Furthermore, Kepler found inspiration in Plato’s Timaeus for trying to understand nature as the mathematically harmonious workmanship of a grand geometer. It was his Platonism that motivated him to search for an a priori method of discovering truths about astronomy, and he looked to none other than geometry as an aid to this a priori approach, especially the five Platonic solids. It is therefore a well-known historical fact that Kepler, even as astronomer, was motivated by Platonic convictions. That is not to say, of course, that he was not also motivated by Christian convictions, since many Christians during that time were Platonists of sorts.

Anyway, I say all of this only to say this. It is a gross oversimplification to say, “Platonism retarded science,” and leave it at that, since although there are certainly ways in which that is true, there are also many ways in which it isn’t. Kepler himself, after all, was among the most outstanding of modern scientists and was very explicit about his Platonist motivations. Saying, “Platonism retarded science” is just as oversimplified as saying Christianity retarded science. The first paragraph you quote in your original post, though not explicitly asserting this oversimplification, to my eye comes close enough to be misleading.

To be fair, I didn't say "Platonism retarded science." I (and the quote) said that their view of the nature of the universe as being eternal matter that had "inherent, independent properties" that didn't necessarily follow the Platonic ideals is what held them back. And Kepler's view of the universe as created by God motivated him to match up the math with the physical matter precisely.

It's very specific.

Here’s a good Kepler quote:

God, in creating the universe and regulating the order of the cosmos, had in view the five regular solids of geometry, as known since the days of Pythagoras and Plato.

Concerning this passage, Lawrence Principe, a historian of science, says, “Here is clear evidence of a return to the ideals of Plato’s Timaeus. Remember, Plato’s Timaeus has the demiurge creating the universe looking at mathematical models, looking at the ideals. The whole universe is orderly and harmonious, and here Kepler is showing the same kind of thing. As he says, nothing is fashioned by God without a plan” (quoted from lecture 28d from a series provided by the Teaching Company).


Well we can agree that no one in your original post explicitly said that Platonism retarded science, as I indicated in my comment above. Good. No disagreement there.

I'll just say that the historical facts that I have mentioned are important ones to keep in mind in order to prevent anyone, on the basis of reading the quotes in your original post, from mistakenly believing that Platonism had a uniformly retarding effect on science while Christianity had a uniformly advancing effect on it. It looks like we both agree that that is an oversimplification.

I also agree with you that the original quote focused on the Greek notion of pre-existing matter and the troubles for science that may pose. What raised red flags for me is that it is easy to get the impression from the quotes that by treating nature geometrically and mathematically, Kepler was departing from "the Greeks," when actually he was fully embracing the Platonic framework he so firmly operated within, modified of course by Christian convictions.

Yes, that would be an oversimplification. But again, that's not what I said, and I'm not even really sure how someone could come up with that from what I said since the argument was so specific.

The whole point is that it was the modification that made a difference.


Well good, then it appears there is no substantive disagreement here. I guess when I read the original post, I got the impression that Kepler was being portrayed as largely rejecting Greek thought. Perhaps the following passage threw me:

Had Kepler retained the Greek mentality, he would have shrugged off such a minor aberration.

What threw me was the phrase “the Greek mentality,” which sounds quite general, as though it referred to the broad contours of Greek thought. But in the context it is referring to a particular view about circular orbits, so I probably misread it.

Oh well. At least the misreading gave us an opportunity to highlight both the Christian and the Platonist aspects of Kepler’s scientific and philosophical thought. I’ll leave you with a quote from Plato concerning “creation” that you might enjoy:

Now surely it’s clear to all that it was the eternal model he [God] looked at, for, of all the things that have come to be, our universe is the most beautiful, and of causes the craftsman is the most excellent. This, then, is how it has come to be: it is a work of craft, modeled after that which is changeless and is grasped by a rational account, that is, by wisdom. (Timaeus 29a)

Thanks for working that out with me, Malebranche. :-)

Oh any time. Wouldn't want to let the heat amidst the disagreement prevent the discussion from happening, since the exchanges (in my opinion, at least) usually bring to the fore substantive issues that get the heart of the problem. Or at least I hope we're getting to the heart of the problems!

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.


Try thinking of it this way and see if it doesn't make more sense.

Tycho Brahe collected the first data precise and voluminous enough to falsify a circular Martian orbit. Brahe's observations a triumph of technology and finance in their own right.

Kepler was the first person to see that data who was also qualified to recognize from it that the circle was out and to know enough to try it with the ellipse.

Kepler knew that a circle is a special case of an ellipse as a result his study of math not his study of theology.


The comments to this entry are closed.