Early history of science

Richard Carrier

Historians of science tend to neglect the ancient period. There is an attitude that science really didn’t happen before four centuries ago. And promoted by others. Christian apologists promote that attitude claiming, for example, that the Christian religion was a necessary requirement for the scientific revolution.

This chauvinistic claim is easily discounted by the real history of science during the times of the ancient Greeks and the Roman empire. And also by the fact that Christianity existed for a millennium before the scientific revolution without any clear attempt on its part to revive the science of the ancients.

Historian and philosopher Richard Carrier has specialised in the history of science during the ancient period. he has also studied the attitude of early Christianity towards science. He is a very clear writer and speaker.

Recently videos of two of his lectures have become available. I have watched them and recommend them to anyone with an interest in the history of science and the region/science conflict. These are:

From Robots to the Moon which describes ancient science and technology, and

Ancient Christian Hostility to Science which describes how the church fathers of the first three centuries reacted to all that science and technology.

I have embedded the first parts of these videos below together with links to the complete playlists.

Complete playlist for Richard Carrier on Ancient Science

Richard Carrier on Early Christian Hostility to Science

Complete playlist for Richard Carrier on Early Christian Hostility to Science.

via Richard Carrier Blogs: New Podcast & Vids.

Carrier is working on a book about the science of the ancients and I am sure it will go a long way to fill this gap in history. Some idea of his findings were presented in his chapter of the book The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Failsedited by John Loftus and Dan Barker. The Chapter is appropriately titled “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science.” I commented on this chapter in my review of the book (see Some pesky delusions).

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35 responses to “Early history of science

  1. Damnit Ken, I haven’t finished either of the other two books and now you’ve gone and ruined my productivity with video’s as well.

    So much to learn, so little time.

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  2. I’m sorry but what Carrier is selling is not history of science but warped propaganda for his own twisted prejudices.

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  3. Hey Tony,

    Care to elaborate?

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  4. Thony, can you be specific? Otherwise this sounds like an ideologically-based knee jerk reaction.

    I am interested in the true history of science not an apologetics revision

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  5. Daniel Schealler

    Just commenting to get email notifications for the comments of this post.

    I’m interested in Thony’s response.

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  6. Me too Daniel – but I think Thony is in Europe so probably nothing will come till tomorrow. However Thony’s twitter said:

    “Richard Carrier has an agenda he claims that Christianity is responsible for the decline of culture in antiquity! It’s crap!”

    That is a misrepresentatioin as Carrier does not claim that at all.
    But that’s how myths get launched.

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  7. Rebekah has also been unable to provide any specifics.

    I must draw my own conclusions. Will probably comment in a post in a few days.

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  8. Is this stuff available somewhere besides youtube? I m blocked at work from youtube and almost never have time to download or find stuff at home.

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  9. Sorry about the delay but I have been busy doing overdue tax returns (just don’t ask which year!) which have a somewhat higher priority that Inteernet blog debates!

    In order to explain every thing that is wrong with the claims of Richard Carrier would require the contents of a three year university course in the history of science and the comments column of a blog is not the place for that so I will confine my comments to a few relevant points and recommend some reading matter from historians who really know what they are talking about. To guide my comments I shall use the first two paragraphs of your post, which are based on the statements of Richard Carrier.

    Historians of science tend to neglect the ancient period. There is an attitude that science really didn’t happen before four centuries ago. And promoted by others. Christian apologists promote that attitude claiming, for example, that the Christian religion was a necessary requirement for the scientific revolution.
    This chauvinistic claim is easily discounted by the real history of science during the times of the ancient Greeks and the Roman empire. And also by the fact that Christianity existed for a millennium before the scientific revolution without any clear attempt on its part to revive the science of the ancients.

    The first sentence is pure crap! There is a whole library full of books and papers by historians of science devoted to the history of the ancient period. A book that is probably the best university level general introduction to the subject David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A. D. 1450 (which I heartily recommend you read if you really want to learn something about the early history of European science) has 60 that is sixty pages of bibliography! Yep! Highly neglected! I know of no historian of science who thinks, “that science really didn’t happen before four centuries ago”. I have alone read at least 10 000 pages on the development of science between 1200 CE and 1600 CE (one of my special interests) and that by no means exhausts the standard literature. This says nothing about my reading of standard literature on Islamic, Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese science going back to 3000 BCE and beyond. All of this study is fairly standard fare for any serious historian of science.
    There is a historical theory that a certain area of Christian theological metaphysics in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance played a central role in the change of perception of the natural world that led to what is called the scientific revolution, this theory was developed by historian of science and not by Christian apologists. I will concede that it is misinterpreted and misused by modern Christian fundamentalist but this misuse does not invalidate the truth potential of the original hypothesis. However this Renaissance perception of the world, that the world is rational in its structure, that it is possible to decipher that structure and that God (the Christian God that is) wishes us to do so, whilst propagated by Christian thinkers of the period has its roots not in Christianity but in Platonic philosophy.
    Carrier implies more that once in his statements that the adoption of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century was responsible for the decline in scientific thought in antiquity (which he grossly misrepresents by the way). This is again complete crap as the scientific tradition in the Roman Empire had gone into steep and rapid decline starting in the middle of the 2nd century AD two centuries before Christian thought had any real effect on the social and cultural developments in the Empire. The collapse of science was part of a general collapse of culture within the Empire as it went into political tailspin. It should be remembered that Constantine abandoned the Western Empire to its fate not long after adopting Christianity on grounds of political expediency.
    One of the great ironies of Carrier’s arguments is that as Europe slid into what for good reasons used to be called the Dark Ages the only institutions that preserved literacy, book knowledge and at least the concept of a scientific understanding of the world were the Christian monasteries.
    You write, “And also by the fact that Christianity existed for a millennium before the scientific revolution without any clear attempt on its part to revive the science of the ancients.” Christianity as an organised force came into being in the 4th century CE as the Roman Empire was collapsing and with it the urbanised European civilisation. What followed in the Early Middle Ages was a time of massive social and political upheaval as wave after wave of Germanic tribes from central Asia poured into Europe not exactly the condition necessary for a revival of science. Science is the product of advance urban civilisations and this just did not exist in Europe between 400 CE and 750 CE. The beginnings of a return to an urban society first takes place under Karl the Great (Charlemagne) and the Franks who succeeded in uniting most of Europe under one ruler and instilling the beginnings of what we would regard as civilisation. Interestingly we see the first scientific renaissance (the Carolingian Renaissance) under Karl led and instigated by a Christian scholar Alcuin of York. They even established a “university” in Aachen! Following Karl’s death there was again a period of turmoil and wars of succession but by the 11th century CE the re-urbanisation of Europe was in full swing and with it came the second scientific renaissance and the establishment of the European universities by Christian scholars. Naturally almost all of the of the knowledge of science from antiquity had been lost in the period following the collapse of the Roman Empire but the new intellectuals were aware of their comparative ignorance and set out to recover this knowledge from their neighbours in the Islamic Empire. This was the time of the translators, again Christian scholars, who travelled to Spain and Sicily and copied and translated into Latin all of the major works of both Greek and Islamic science and brought them back to the European centres of learning in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Now the Europeans were in possession of the fruits of eight hundred years worth of Greek science from Thales in the 6th century BCE to Ptolemaeus and Galen in the 2nd century CE as well as four hundred years worth of Islamic additions, modifications and advances, which they had to consume and digest. This they did with gusto leading to advances made by the Oxford Calculatores and the Paris Physicists in the 14th century amongst others (all Christian scholars by the way). The Black Death in the 14th century with estimates of between 30% and 60% loss of the total population set them back quite a lot but by 1500 CE the European scholars had surpassed both the Greeks and the Arabs in their scientific knowledge and it is from about here that the process known as the scientific revolution starts to unfold.
    The causes of this intellectual development are manifold and are still being researched and the jury is still largely out. However the previously mentioned change in Christian metaphysics in the Renaissance certainly played a role when if, in my opinion a minor one. I personally think that socio-economical and socio-political factors played the major role but that is the result of ten years worth of research and study that I don’t intend to start unpacking here and now. I hope in my brief outline that I could show that Christian scholars did make a highly significant contribution to the recovery and advancement of science in the Middle Ages and were by no means so inactive as your statement would imply.
    I could go on for pages about the errors in Carrier’s presentations but I will close with just one comment. In the opening to one of the videos embedded above he says, and I’m paraphrasing, that science in antiquity consisted of a mixture of good science and complete rubbish; this is of course true viewed from our standpoint. He then goes on to say that in the scientific revolution they kept the good bits and threw the rubbish out. I would suggest the he should go and read the works of some of the major figures of the scientific revolution, Kepler and Newton for example, which he has obviously never done and he will discover that they contain just as much complete rubbish, again viewed from our standpoint, as the works of the Greeks.
    As you are obviously fairly ignorant of the history of European science otherwise you would not swallow the inaccurate generalisations and propaganda of Richard Carrier I would suggest that if you wish to educate yourself you start with Lindberg’s book. On the preservation of a literate culture in the monasteries in the Early Middle Ages I would recommend Stephan C. McCluskey’s Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. For a deeper look at the revival and advancement of scientific knowledge in the High Middle Ages I would recommend Edward Grant’s The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages. If and when you have finished those I shall be quite happy to provide further recommendations.
    On a personal note, from experience I know that one or other atheist fanatic is likely to deny all that I have written and accuse me of being a Christian apologist. I will just point out that I was a radical atheist before Richard Carrier was born and will remain one until I die but unlike him I do not allow my personal views to prejudice and warp my historical research.

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  10. Wow, that was quite an elaboration. Nicely put. I think you make some excellent points but I’m admittedly far from a science historian.

    How ever little I want to agree, I think I must agree that Carrier’s arguments seem a little… biased.

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  11. Richard Christie

    Thanks Thony, your summary above seems in accord with my layman understanding of European history, nevertheless I’m interested in your viewpoint/summary on the issue of the Church actively suppressing various lines of scientific enquiry over the past two thousand years, especially when they challenged established theological dogma.

    I also can’t help but think Ken and you are on the same page but the hyperbole of debate underlies the differences.

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  12. Thony, thanks for some specifics at last.

    I find you are still misrepresenting Carrier (I had expected quotes of what you considered his mistakes) so I will respond with a post, probably tomorrow, quoting (in Carrier’s words) his conclusions you misrepresent.

    However, at this stage a few points:
    1: You say of yourself “I do not allow my personal views to prejudice and warp my historical research.” But your anger and disparaging tone suggests that is not so. To use words like “crap” and call me “obviously fairly ignorant” is hardly objective. It suggests to me that you have an emotional reaction to Carrier – which is also evidenced by your inability to provide specifics – quotes of his that prove what you claim. A phenomenon which is unfortunately not completely unknown amongst professionals.

    2: You claim that the first two paras of mine are “based on the statements of Richard Carrier” is just wrong. They are mine as are its mistakes. And of course the first sentence of mine is obviously stupid – if you ignore (as you choose to – the word “tend”.

    As a retired scientist I have quite an interest in the history of science (and philosophy of science). It frustrates me that many popular descriptions portray the impression that science began with the scientific revolution four centuries ago (and the religious apologist myths on this area, together with their influence on other historians, are an added annoyance). It is for this reason I find Carrier’s work valuable because of the amount of authoritative information he presents on his period of speciality. And yes I would love to read more on the medieval Islamic period and the ancient Indian, Chinese, Babylonian, etc., contributions. I am also aware of the positive role played by some elements of Christianity (as you suggest the preservation of manuscripts, for example) – all this interests me. And I am well aware that reality is never simple.

    3: You claim – “Carrier implies more that once in his statements that the adoption of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century was responsible for the decline in scientific thought in antiquity (which he grossly misrepresents by the way).” Well why not provide specifics? A quote or something? That should be easy if you claim is true.

    I believe you are misrepresenting Carrier specifically on this – you are for some reason reacting emotionally to him. That is why I wish to provide Carrier’s own words in a forthcoming post.

    4: You say that carrier claimed in his lecture:
    “that science in antiquity consisted of a mixture of good science and complete rubbish; this is of course true viewed from our standpoint. He then goes on to say that in the scientific revolution they kept the good bits and threw the rubbish out. I would suggest the he should go and read the works of some of the major figures of the scientific revolution, Kepler and Newton for example, which he has obviously never done and he will discover that they contain just as much complete rubbish, again viewed from our standpoint, as the works of the Greeks.”

    Pity you didn’t watch the full lecture because Carrier makes specifically that point – that the great scientists of that period also had ideas which were complete rubbish. (To suggest Carrier has never read any of these works is a symptom of you anger rather than simple charity or understanding of how historians work). However, it was this ability to strengthen the empirical basis of knowledge vs simple desires, teaching and revelation, which are stressed by people like Galileo, and became more prevalent subsequently, which was an important component of the scientific revolution.

    It is a pit that this is not Carrier’s period of expertise as I would like to see him develop that idea further (especially with his philosophical skills). I have picked up from my readings of scientific history and philosophy that the scientific revolution really required a break with the old philosophy, and especially religious philosophy. That has certainly largely been achieved in today’s modern science and is one reason it is so powerful.

    5: Thanks for you book recommendations – I have added them to my list (which is rather long – especially for this stage of life – but thank goodness for retirement).

    I have stressed that your arguments against Carrier do not convince me – but I am always willing to learn. That is why I asked you for specifics.

    Personally I find Carrier’s work really interesting. However, I am always ready to learn so please provide me with some reliable quotes to back you claims if you can. I am all ears, or in this case eyes.

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  13. nude0007 – I suggest you just do a internet search for alternatives. Carrier has a blog (Richard Carrier Blogs) and his Official Website. These will porobably provide you with plenty of links to other videos and written material.

    He also has several books in the pipeline, inclouding one specifically on the science of the Ancient Greek and Roman periods. That may be a year off though.

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  14. Yes, Richard. I agree with you comment “I also can’t help but think Ken and you are on the same page but the hyperbole of debate underlies the differences.”

    The difference seems purely in interpretation if what Carrier says. That is why I specifically ask for quotes. Thony’s interpretation is not backed up by anything of substance I can see. But as always evidence will change my mind. Neither Carrier or Thony have any emotional claim on me.

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  15. Pingback: Clarifying some myths in the history of science | Open Parachute

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  17. If Thony does return here, my quotes from Carrier which show how hew has misrepresented Carrier ar at Clarifying some myths in the history of science.

    I hope he does respoind as I would like to clarify just why Thony is making the claim he is.

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  18. Ken I find your answer to my post fascinating for a number of reasons. First of all you claim that I am not being objective and your evidence for this claim is that I use the word crap and I state that you are obviously fairly ignorant.

    1) The statement I called crap is inaccurate, a ridiculous generalisation and completely false or put very simply crap. I then go on to explain in detail why this is so, being very objective. I did not call you obviously fairly ignorant as you claim but actually said that you are obviously fairly ignorant of the history of science, which given the statement written by you in your own post on your own blog is in my opinion as a practicing historian of science a perfectly objective judgement. Ignorance is the state of possessing a limited amount or no knowledge of a given area, which as far as I can see is your situation relative the history of science. I am quite happy to admit that in this world there are infinitely more areas of knowledge of which I am ignorant than those of which I am knowledgeable.

    2) The statement that I, in my opinion correctly called crap has now changed from historian of science tend to neglect the ancient period, which I have already said is an indefensible falsehood, to the authors of some popular books on the history of science that I have read tend etc, which is a completely different claim and one that I would not necessarily criticise. Most popular books on the history of science are not written by historian of science but by professional writers of popular books. They tend to write about the scientific revolution because it is something that they can jazz up and sell. Books about Greek science just don’t have the charisma of the nth largely mythical retelling of the life and trials of Galileo or the equally mythical solitary genius of Newton. And writing a fairy tail about how the scientific revolution started as Copernicus received the first copy of his book on his deathbed in May 1543 and was completed when Newton published the greatest science book ever in 1687 is a lot more fun that explaining that we don’t actually know anything at all about Aristarchus of Samos and we only have a second-hand two hundred word account of his main work so we don’t actually know what he said.

    There was not a positive role played by some elements of Christianity; Christianity was 100% responsible for the revival of science between the 8th and 17th centuries. I should add not surprisingly as this was the only literate culture in Europe in this period.

    4) I have picked up from my readings of scientific history and philosophy that the scientific revolution really required a break with the old philosophy, and especially religious philosophy.

    This statement, which is a popular presentation of the so-called scientific revolution, contains one claim that is half true and one that is a complete myth. There was a change in the philosophy underlying the practice of science which is characteristic for the period but which in fact started long before Galileo came on the scene but it was as much a change of emphasis of other aspects of already existing Greek philosophies as the adoption of new ones. The work of both William Harvey and Isaac Newton, two leading figures of the new science in the 17th century, is very strongly Aristotelian in its philosophical structures but it is a very different Aristotelianism to that say of Nicolas Oresme in the 14th century.

    The supposed break with religious philosophy is I’m afraid a complete myth and this break did not really take place in science until the 19th century and even there only gradually. True religious free science first appears in the 20th century. In the 17th century almost all of the great scientists were driven in their scientific work by their deep religious beliefs. Although because of the religious schisms that characterised the period they all tended to believe in different gods, they were all convinced that they were revealing their god’s creation through their scientific researches. Newton actually believed that he had been specially chosen by his god to rediscover the truths of creation that had been known to the first generations of mankind and had been lost through the corruptions of humanity. Both Kepler and Newton who I regard as the two most important scientists of the 17th century were, even by the deeply religious standards of their own times, religious fanatics in the true sense of the word. The Leibniz – Clarke Correspondence, one of the most important scientific exchanges at the beginning of the 18th century, which contains the first elements of the theory of relativity, is actually almost wholly a theological debate. It is a myth that religion was removed from science in the 17th century.

    I await with interest your presentation of the thoughts of Mr Carrier and despite your claims to the contrary I shall approach them with an open and unprejudiced mind as I do any statements on the history of science.

    P.S. I am aware that the debate has moved on and will comment again soon!

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  19. Richard, great family name by the way, you asked me the following question:

    I’m interested in your viewpoint/summary on the issue of the Church actively suppressing various lines of scientific enquiry over the past two thousand years, especially when they challenged established theological dogma.

    Could you please be more specific as I, and the following statement will almost certainly surprise you, know of no case where the Church succeeded in suppressing a line of scientific inquiry. I’m assuming by the Church you mean THe Holy Roman Catholic Church.

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  20. Richard Christie

    [Given the surname's likely etymology it's not a name that still applies. ]

    Thony, there is a difference between “actively suppressed” with “successfully suppressed”.
    How about starting with inclusion of Kepler in the Librorum Prohibitorum.

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  21. Richard Christie

    oh and,

    I’m assuming by the Church you mean THe Holy Roman Catholic Church.

    yes, they’re probably the most obvious subject, for the time being we may as well leave the Greek Orthodox, Coptic and others out of it the discussion.

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  22. Rebekah Higgitt

    Some further suggested reading for anyone who is interested in understanding the complexity of the relationship between science in the medieval and early modern world and the Catholic Church:

    David C. Lindberg, “The Medieval Church Encounters the Classical Tradition: Saint Augustine, Roger Bacon, and the Handmaiden Metaphor”, in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, ed. When Science & Christianity Meet, (Chicago: University of Chicago Pr., 2003); Mordechai Feingold, Jesuit Science and the Republic of Letters (MIT Press, 2002); Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (1996), and much, much more.

    A more popular work, James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Icon, 2009), which won a prize from the Royal Society and has been fairly well received by academic historians of science. Try also the Wikipedia page on Medieval Science, and check out the references and bibliography.

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  23. Thony has clarified that he was mistaken in his accusation of Carrier’s postion (see Clarifying some myths in the history of science). I really think that should be the end of it – although it does point to the problem of reacting emnotionally to people.

    I think, Thony, you are just being contrary. It is naive to claim “Christianity was 100% responsible for the revival of science between the 8th and 17th centuries.” The revival of science was far more complex than that, and involved, eg, medieval Islam, as well as some sections of christianity. Restricting your vision to “between the 8th and 17th centuries” is a way of avoiding the whole truth.

    Similarly you are obscuring the nature of sceintific epistemology which is at root necessary for the success of science. This required a break with the theology and old philosophy. Sure Newton and Kepler, and many others, could be described as relgious fanatics. But that ignores the fact that in doing their science often they were using materialist methopds. It is this that has survived and grown as a result of the scientific revolution.

    You yourself are mythmaking to imply I think “that religion was removed from science in the 17th century.” I hav enever claimed that – reality is far more complex and hsotry needs to be studied in its development – not as a mechanical cut and dried phenomenon.

    No sensible scientist today would ever drag their god into their everyday scientific work in the way that kepler and Newton (and Galileo) did.

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  24. I think, Thony, you are just being contrary. It is naive to claim “Christianity was 100% responsible for the revival of science between the 8th and 17th centuries.” The revival of science was far more complex than that, and involved, eg, medieval Islam, as well as some sections of christianity.

    I was of course refering to Western Europe which is what I have been discussing the whole time and in fact in my previous post I gave a clear and succinct outline of the European appropriating of science from Islamic sources at the beginning of the High Middle Ages. My statement is however factually wrong as I forgot the maybe 1% of Jewish scientist who contributed to the revival os science in the Middle ages. The revival of science was very much carried out by main stream Christianity and not “some sections” as you would wish. Many of the mediaeval European scientists were high level church officials including bishops, archbishops, cardinals and at least one pope.

    Restricting your vision to “between the 8th and 17th centuries” is a way of avoiding the whole truth.

    I don’t have a vision but have been outlining the real history of science in Western Europe in the 1000years following the collapse of the Roman Empire, which is the topic under discussion so I really don’t understand what you are accusing me of.

    Similarly you are obscuring the nature of sceintific epistemology which is at root necessary for the success of science. This required a break with the theology and old philosophy. Sure Newton and Kepler, and many others, could be described as relgious fanatics. But that ignores the fact that in doing their science often they were using materialist methopds. It is this that has survived and grown as a result of the scientific revolution.

    Here you are indulging in what is known in history as presentism. You are only interested in those aspects of the evolution of science in the 17th century that you can recognised reflexted in current scientific practice. This has nothing to do with the history of science or how science evolved historically and is a rather sterile and pointless exercise. I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘materialist methods’ it’s not a term usually used in either the history or philosophy of science but assuming you mean empirical, experimental science, the methodology for that was developed long before the so called scientific revolution. As to the 17th century scientists, religion played a very central role in their ‘scientific epistemology’.

    Ken I: I have picked up from my readings of scientific history and philosophy that the scientific revolution really required a break with the old philosophy, and especially religious philosophy.

    Ken II: You yourself are mythmaking to imply I think “that religion was removed from science in the 17th century.”

    I wonder if Ken i and Ken II are related?

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  25. Richard, I’m sorry about the delay but real life intervened, my thoughts on your question can now be read here

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  26. Richard Christie

    Thony thank you for the reply.
    On first reading I found interesting and informative detail in it and appreciate the effort you went to.
    As a general observation, your reply makes a case for reasons for suppression, at least in the particular case of Kepler by association with Galileo, but theological justifications for an action do not unmake the reality of the action itself i.e that the works were listed as prohibited.
    Moreover, I never find convincing arguments that argue in hindsight without, in scientific terms a control for comparison, i.e. that the prohibition had little effect on amount of science practiced. This is impossible to gauge. Even your reply included examples of the suppression in action, (Descartes and Italians who had the frighteners put on them).
    But primarily it’s my first objection. The works were suppressed by your argument for ultimately theological, not scientific objections, i.e. the practice of the science generated action that threatened theological disruption, it is not enough or justified to argue that the theology would have caught up with the science in due course regardless.
    I’m a layman, not a historian nor a scientist, although I have active interest in both fields and medieval history has long been an interest.
    An interesting argument but not at present, enough to sway conclusions to the contrary. I will, however, give it a second read. Thanks again

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  27. I might respond to Thony’s article l;ater in the week. While not disagreeing with the factual content I have objections to the specific tone.
    1: It paints the church out as the victim – manouvered into making a fool of itself by the evil person Galileo. There seems to be a trend these days to blame the victim in these sorts of analyses. It’s like blaming Sakharov for his persecution by the Soviet Party and state.

    I don’t think it’s acceptable today to “make excuses” for the Soviet communist Party of the 70s just because they felt threatend by Sakharov’s stand on human rights. Not do I accept the idea we should make excuses for the Inquisition because of their crooked understanding of truth.

    2: People try to transfer the reasons from scientific to theological – usually not explaining what the theorlogical issues were. Its worth actually examining what Galileo did say that could be seen as theological. And asking what difference the church saw between what we see as scientific and what they saw as theology. I suspect the supporters of the Church are rather embarassed at the theological issues behind Galileo’s treatment.

    3: Its worth actually looking at the documents and the sentence in particular – these do make clear that what we understand as scientific issues are involved.

    4: The distinction in those discussions between hypothesis and fact is something that we just wouldn’t understand today in scientific discussions. We can clealry see when a hypothesis is an hypothesis but so what?

    However, we have to see this in the context where the “facts,” the “Truth” was given by scripture. Until natural philosophers could conivnce the slow moving church to change their interpretation of scriptures. (change their “Truth”) any idea which conflicted was an hypothesis – only allowed if no one argued it actually described reality.

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  28. Pingback: An interesting question. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  29. Daniel Schealler

    I don’t think that Thony is painting the church as the victim.

    I do think Thony is blaming Galileo: He’s arguing that Galileo was foolish to offer a theological reconciliation between scripture and heliocentric theory, because the Church would only react harshly against anything that undermined its power base.

    But that’s not the same as making the Church the victim. Galileo is still portrayed as the one who was punished and censored. The Church is still portrayed as wrong for punishing and censoring Galileo.

    The difference between what Thony is saying and what I’m used to hearing is that he blames Galileo. He argues that Galileo set up initial conditions that could only result in his own punishment. This isn’t an argument that the punishment was just, only that it could have easily been avoided had Galileo kept his nose out of theology.

    I’m not convinced of this argument. I don’t know enough about history to evaluate Thony’s argument critically. But he has caused me to doubt what I thought I knew, which is the most anyone can really hope for.

    That said Ken, I like your other points. Was Galileo’s argument really as big a threat to the power base of the Church as Thony claims it was? Was it genuinely a ‘sound’ theological argument that would have embarrassed the Church had it been accepted? What was his theological argument?

    Or as Richard says: Even if we accept all this, it still remains true that the Church, for theological/political reasons, censored and punished Galileo for the audacity of disagreeing with them and providing an alternate explanation to their own.

    One of the core values of science is the free and open criticism of ideas. If the Church responded to a theological argument they didn’t like with censorship and punishment, then they were showing themselves to be hostile to one of the values of science.

    It doesn’t matter whether Galileo’s argument was scientific or theological. The Church suppressed it all the same.

    That is the larger point we’re discussing. It’s very easy to get bogged down in the examples… It pays to point back to the original topic every once in a while.

    Hmm, I think I can almost make Thony’s argument work.

    If Thony argues that the Church suppressed Galileo for political reasons rather than religious ones, then he might be getting closer to the point. In that scenario it would be true that theocracy is hostile to science – but theocracy is not a synonym for religion.

    If that line of argument is successful Galileo could still be used as an example where theocracy was hostile to science. But I would have to stop using him as an example where religion was hostile to science.

    Of course, this wouldn’t cause me to abandon the position that religion is hostile to science. My position there never relied on Galileo in the first place, he was just a nice example.

    I could possibly be persuaded to stop using Galileo as such an example if the ‘politics, not religion’ argument could be made persuasively….

    But I’m not there yet. This reading of Thony’s recent post is extremely generous. Thony’s emphasis on theology keeps the waters between ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ persistently muddied throughout his argument… In its current form I can’t draw a clear line between what part of that motivation is religious and what part is political.

    Hope I’m being fair to everyone. I’m enjoying the exchange.

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  30. Daniel Schealler

    Note:

    In hindsight, I may have read things out of order.

    I read ‘An Interesting Question’ first, then came here and then read Ken’s reply.

    I realize I may have gotten the order of those out of sequence – sorry if that led me down a wrong path.

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  31. Yes, Daniel, I must admit to sarcasm. How could a powerful organization like the Church, it’s Inquisition or the Soviet Party and state actually be the victim. More to the point, their apologists easily fall into the habit of blaming the real victims. The Galileos and Sakharovs.

    I see such strong parallels between the Church and the Soviet Party/state in such questions.

    Rather than see those powerful institutions as being maneuvered into such stupid mistakes by those they victimized we should analyze what it was about those institutions which made them so foolish.

    I would love to see clarification of what Galileo’s theological crimes were. In my reading I see his “theological” comments as highly relevant to the scientific revolution. They are in effect a request that scientific method be recognized for its true value. While he expressed these ideas as a faithful Catholic they are in effect an argument for a change of status. That science should no longer be treated as the handmaiden of religion.

    The fact that the Church saw his philosophical arguments as only “theological” and therefore something he wasn’t permitted to ponder (reminds me of the theist criticisms of Dawkins book) is an illustration of the problem.

    This is why I suggest that the Christianity was certainly not a necessary condition for the scientific revolution. The necessary condition was in fact the independence if science – it’s break with the old religious philosophy. Herein lies the real science-religion conflict – their different epistemologies.

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  32. Pingback: Galileo’s revolutionary contribution | Open Parachute

  33. Pingback: Who gets to say what’s Science? « The Call of Troythulu

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