Did the Catholic Church Give Birth to Science?

Linnaea Mallette (Public Domain pictures)

Historically, the creation of ideas has been a messy process. Knowledge has not usually been delivered as an immaculate gem, but as a needle in a grubby haystack of wrong ideas. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we are able to differentiate between our ancestors’ mistakes and their genuine discoveries. It may therefore be a mistake to reject a tradition altogether, even if some of its pillars seem absurd in light of our modern scientific and moral theories. We should instead cherish the good ideas that our ancestors did deliver. One culture in particular, though it offers a false account of reality, may have contained the knowledge required to give birth to modern science. That culture is the Catholic Church.

We have all heard about Galileo’s tragic confrontation with the church in the seventeenth century. However, as Cardinal Newman noted centuries ago, it is telling that this is almost the only example that comes to mind when arguing that the Church was at odds with science.

The historical evidence reveals a far more complex picture. Historian of science John L. Heilbron has noted that the Roman Catholic Church, “gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other institutions.” The university system, too, was essentially an invention of the Catholic Church. As author Thomas Woods writes, “Historians have marveled at the extent to which intellectual debate in those universities was free and unfettered. The exaltation of human reason and its capabilities, a commitment to rigorous and rational debate, a promotion of intellectual inquiry and scholarly exchange — all sponsored by the Church — provided the framework for the Scientific Revolution.”

Entire scientific fields owe their genesis to Catholic scientists. Geology and Egyptology were founded by Father Nicholas Steno and Father Athanasius Kircher, respectively. Eighteenth-century polymath Father Roger Boscovich developed ideas that presage modern atomic theory. Jesuits contributed so much to the science of seismology that it was often regarded as the Jesuit science. Even economics — far from beginning with Adam Smith — was founded by fourteenth-century Catholic thinkers, such as Jean Buridan and Nicolas Oresme.

A common counterargument is that the Catholic Church was the only game in town during the Middle Ages and early Enlightenment and so, of course, its adherents were the only ones who could develop science. There may be some truth to this. But this still doesn’t tell us why they were engaged in such intellectual pursuits in the first place, nor why they were so successful in such a wide array of fields. The answer may be that needle in the haystack of ideas that is the Catholic tradition: that God created an orderly, rational universe. As physicist and historian of science Father Stanley Jaki writes, “The world, being the handiwork of a supremely reasonable Person, is endowed with lawfulness and purpose.” Wisdom 11:21 of the Bible states that God, “ordered all things by measure, number, weight.” In Ecclesiasticus 42:21, it is written that “He has imposed an order on the magnificent works of his wisdom.” Thus, Catholic scientists had faith that God had created an explainable, quantifiable universe. Investigation into the workings of reality was thus a spiritual endeavor.

The concept of a consistent, explicable world is crucial to scientific progress, and — although it may seem obvious to us now — it has by no means been a given throughout history. Most ancient cultures held ideas that inhibited the growth of scientific knowledge (see Jaki’s book, Science and Creation, for an extended discussion of this). Polytheism and animism lent themselves to a philosophy in which the world was subject to the whims of intervening gods. In such a milieu, conceiving of a universe that conformed to regular laws and patterns would have been difficult.

In modern science, the idea that the world is comprehensible is elegantly expressed as a physical law of nature called the Church-Turing-Deutsch principle. Roughly speaking, this means that any phenomenon in nature can be simulated by a computer. As Michael Nielsen puts it, “the CTD Principle amounts to the belief that a limited physical system, like the human brain, ought to be capable of simulating the behavior of an arbitrary physical system … This is a very appealing proposition to most scientists … we would like the world to be comprehensible.”

The Catholic tradition did not have the philosophical and scientific tools to formulate anything close to the modern CTD principle. Yet, to the extent that its adherents had faith that God’s world could be understood by rational investigation, this deep principle was very much in their minds.

Because the comprehensibility of the world was rooted in their religion, Catholic thinkers were often zealously compelled to study God’s creation. The twelfth-century cathedral School of Chartres is a prime example of this phenomenon. Under the leadership of a Catholic polymath named Fulbert, the institution glorified a myriad of intellectual pursuits. Thinkers at the School believed that, by studying arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy — collectively known as the quadrivium — they could come closer to understanding God’s elegant design of the world. The cathedral boasted sculptures of historical thinkers like Aristotle, Euclid and Pythagoras. One student, Abelard of Bath, writes, “It is through reason that we are men. For if we turned our backs on the amazing beauty of the universe we live in we should indeed deserve to be driven therefrom … we must listen to the very limits of human knowledge and only when this utterly breaks down should we refer things to God.”

Another philosopher of Chartres, named Thierry, flirted with the idea that celestial objects might be composed of ordinary matter. He contended that the behavior of the stars should be understood as conforming to physical laws, rather than godly ordinance. Historian of science Thomas Goldstein believes that “Thierry will probably be recognized as one of the true founders of Western science.”

About the School of Chartres itself, Goldstein writes, “in a period of fifteen to twenty years, around the middle of the twelfth century, a handful of men were consciously striving to launch the evolution of Western science, and undertook every major step that was needed to achieve that end.”

The intellectual spirit of Chartres was no flash in the pan. A century later, Franciscan friar Roger Bacon took a giant leap forward in the philosophy of science with his short work, Opus Maius, in which he argues for the necessity of experimental testing. Bacon also writes about how progress may be impeded by faulty cultural norms, such as accepting ideas merely due to their popularity. Around the same time, Dominican saint and prolific naturalist Albert the Great was gathering data for his work on botany, physiology, and astronomy. His writings reveal many of the characteristics of a modern scientific mind: an emphasis on empirical evidence, a refusal to accept assertions on authority, and an appreciation that regularities in nature have definite causes. Robert Grosseteste, the thirteenth-century bishop of Lincoln, is perhaps the first person to have written an entire manual explaining how to execute a scientific experiment.

The Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius Loyola in the sixteenth century, contained a number of impressive priest-scientists. According to Olufemi Emanuel Dokun Babalola, the Jesuits “contributed to … scientific fields as various as magnetism, optics and electricity. They theorized about the circulation of the blood … the theoretical possibility of flight, the way the moon affected the tides, and the wave-like nature of light … Star maps … symbolic logic … all were typical Jesuit achievements, and scientists as influential as Fermat, Huygens, Leibniz and Newton were not alone in counting Jesuits among their most prized correspondents.”

Jesuits gathered vast swathes of data in encyclopedias, helping scholars to share their work with each other and make further progress. In 1651, Father Riccioli published the Almagestum Novum, a compendium of astronomical data, pictures, text and tables. He was also the first man to ascertain the rate at which a falling object accelerates.

The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not emerge in a vacuum. Thinkers of the Middle Ages set the scene for Kepler, Descartes, Hooke, Newton and all the other scientists and philosophers who ushered in the modern scientific frame of mind. The Catholic Church helped to establish the infrastructure that allowed for scientific communication, open discourse and the interrogation of nature through telescopes, microscopes and experimentation. Catholicism lent itself to a notion of reality as comprehensible, to the idea that God’s creation could be understood by man. As a result, many of its adherents regarded the investigation of nature as a way of glorifying god.

Of course, dogma and tyranny often thwarted scientific progress. But, for the majority of human history, failure to improve our understanding of the world was the norm. The interesting question is not why scientific progress did not occur in most societies, but how and why thinkers were able to make the advances that lead to the scientific revolution. The Catholic Church may have given scientists of the Middle Ages the tools that they needed: the CTD principle, clothed in religious garb. This belief in a comprehensible world was a stroke of extremely good fortune. For, if Catholic thinkers of the Middle Ages had not had faith in God’s orderly universe, the scientific revolution might never have happened, and all of the wonders of modern civilization might have remained a distant dream.

Note — this was originally published with Areo magazine and can be found here.

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