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January 28, 2012

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Although I’m fascinated by these topics and this period of history, I have to say that I found this post rather disappointing. It appears that yet again we have a depiction of historical events, told at the service of Christian apologetic aims, that selectively attends to the influences behind the advances discussed in order to give the reader the impression that the Bible is the good guy and Greek philosophy is the bad guy. Is that ever explicitly claimed? No. But there has been hardly any acknowledgement of the positive influence of Greek philosophy on folks like Kepler and Galileo, while the positive influence of the Bible has been trumpeted frequently in the series, sometimes (like in this post) in ways that strain credulity. After reading this series one would never understand why Alexandre Koyre, in his article “Galileo and Plato,” would write the following:

It is obvious that for the disciples of Galileo just as for his contemporaries and elders mathematicism means Platonism. Therefore when Torricelli tells us “that among the liberal disciplines geometry alone exercises and sharpens the mind and renders it able to be an ornament of the City in time of peace and to defend it in time of war,” and that “ceteris paribus, a mind trained in geometrical gymnastics is endowed with a quite particular and virile strength,” not only does he show himself an authentic disciple of Plato, he acknowledges and proclaims himself to be one. And in doing it he remains a faithful disciple of his master Galileo, who in his Response to the Philosophical Exercitations of Antonio Rocco addresses himself to the latter, asking him to judge for himself the value of the two rival methods, i.e., the purely physical and empirical method and the mathematical one, adding: “and decide at the same time who reasoned better, Plato, who said that without mathematics one could not learn philosophy, or Aristotle, who reproached this same Plato for having too much studied Geometry.” I have just called Galileo a Platonist. And I believe that nobody will doubt that he is one. Moreover, he says so himself ( pp. 424-425; Alexandre Koyre. “Galileo and Plato” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 4 No. 4 (Oct. 1943)).

So what about the distinction between celestial and terrestrial matter? Again, this distinction is part of Aristotelian physics. According to that perspective, positing a fifth element was necessary to explain the fact that the natural motion of the superlunary bodies is circular. Since neither air, fire, water, nor earth naturally strive to move in circles, a fifth element was posited to explain the motion of the planets. The superlunary realm, moreover, was regarded as an unchanging realm.

So what explains the demise of this idea? Well it certainly had lost its luster before Newton ever hit the scene. Descartes, for instance, regarded the nature of all matter as extension, thereby contradicting the doctrine that celestial and terrestrial matter were essentially different. Part of the explanation for the distinction’s demise was Galileo himself. In 1623, Galileo published The Assayer, and argued that comets are superlunary phenomena. This idea, together with his observation of sunspots and of mountains on the moon, convinced him that the “celestial region” was not a perfect, unchanging region. The greatest blow to the celestial/terrestrial distinction was not more careful quiet time with the Bible, but rather more careful empirical observation assisted by Galileo’s telescope.

But like the Platonic influences of Kepler and Galileo, Nancy Pearcey (at least in these quotes) says nothing of Descartes or Galileo in explaining Newton’s rejection of the celestial/terrestrial distinction. She also says nothing of the fact that Newton was not a Christian. “But he was still influenced by Christianity,” one might protest. No doubt he was. But what of it? Is the suggestion that he rejected this distinction because of the influence of Christianity? Why not rather believe that he rejected it merely because it was in his day increasingly clear that the distinction held little empirical merit, thanks to the work of previous scientists? “But those previous scientists were influenced by Christianity,” one might insist. No doubt they were. But what of it? Their approach to nature was influenced by many things, not least among them a sympathy for Platonist convictions over Aristotelian ones, a sympathy which has largely gone unrecognized (and unchallenged) in this series. It is certainly clear that the connection between “creation” and the mathematical approach to nature is far clearer in the Timaeus than it is in the Bible, where I suspect that connection is never made. If folks today find a natural connection between theism and the mathematical approach to nature, that is certainly not because they are careful readers of the Bible, but rather because they are the unwitting inheritors of Platonic ideas articulated in the Timaeus and revived by the scientific revolutionaries.

Things really go off the rails with the remarks concerning Newton trying to live consistently as a Christian, since, by conservative evangelical standards at least, Newton was not a Christian at all. Whatever Amy had in mind when writing those comments is unclear to me.

Things really go off the rails with the remarks concerning Newton trying to live consistently as a Christian, since, by conservative evangelical standards at least

Fair enough. I shouldn't have used the word "Christian" to refer to someone steeped in the Christian worldview, rather than for someone who specifically believes--and has faith in--the Christian God, because that's confusing, I agree. If he was anti-Trinitarian, he wasn't a Christian. I've made an adjustment.

The greatest blow to the celestial/terrestrial distinction was not more careful quiet time with the Bible, but rather more careful empirical observation assisted by Galileo’s telescope.

Pearcey's not suggesting it was "quiet time with the Bible," nor that Newton's work was done in a vacuum, apart from everyone else. Rather, she's taking the bigger picture of the ideas that were behind the movement that was happening as people began to study nature in a different way. I think you're missing the overall point, which is the power of culture. Is it as simple as "they just started observing nature and discovered things"? I don't think so, because there are reasons why they started observing nature this way in the first place--cultural reasons that were informed by the Bible, which affected the intellectual air that was breathed in. In other words, it wasn't because one man studied the Bible, it was because of the worldview that was developing, as informed by the Bible.

Obviously a bog post (let alone a single quote within a blog post) isn't going to cover everything. But if you can't condense ideas that people can look into and fill out later, then there is no starting point for learning. A blog post can only ever give the big picture.


Amy,

I think it’s fair to say that my remarks aren’t really addressed at the “power of culture” theme of these posts. That’s probably because, being rather curmudgeonly, I gravitate toward areas of disagreement, and I’m in full agreement with you about the power of culture.

In some respects it may be that our “disagreement” is more a disagreement of emphasis rather than historical content. You have emphasized the Christian nature of the perspective within which Galileo and Kepler operated, while I have emphasized particular Platonic influences that helped advance the Scientific Revolution. Since preferences for emphases are not claims, I can’t very well disagree with your emphases. But decisions regarding emphases can certainly give rise to mistaken impressions, and therein lies my primary concern. At least when I read this series, I consistently got the impression that the message is that while Greek philosophy was a force inimical to the Scientific Revolution, Christianity and even the Bible was a boon in its favor. I don’t think that is adequate to capture the complexity of the historical situation, and although I agree that blog posts must simplify in order to communicate, that simplification struck me as misleading in important ways, and misleading in exactly the direction that would favor the apologetic aims of folks like Pearcey. The apologetic slant of the misleading notion reminds me of a criticism Nietzsche raised against philosophers in Beyond Good and Evil. He writes,

They all pose as though their real opinions had been discovered and attained through the self-evolving of a cold, pure, divinely indifferent dialectic…whereas, in fact, a prejudiced proposition, idea, or “suggestion,” which is generally their heart’s desire abstracted and refined, is defended by them with arguments sought out after the event. They are all lawyers who do not wish to be regarded as such…

He goes on to say,

Indeed, to understand how the abstrusest metaphysical assertions of a philosopher have been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to first ask oneself: “What morality to do they (or does he) aim at?”

The worry Nietzsche had about philosophers is similar to my worry about Pearcey’s book. I’m not sure whether Pearcey is trying to communicate a balanced, accurate history of the Scientific Revolution, or whether she is trying to write a hagiography of the scientific revolutionaries the lesson of which is something like “Christianity is awesome.”

But perhaps that misleading impression I have thus far discussed is peculiar to me and the series hasn’t occasioned such an impression in the minds of most readers.

Thanks, by the way, for noting the adjustment you made; that will save me from appearing to have engaged in distortion.

I should probably add that I haven't even read any of Pearcey's book, so my misgivings are due not to a thorough reading of her book, but a brief scanning of the quotes Amy has provided us.

The foundation of the modern physics and engineering is Newton. Even though he may not have been what we would define as a conventional christian, it is said he wrote more on theology than science. In my opinion, he was more influential than Darwin.

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