A first: guest-post time! liberti collingswood fella Carlos Bovell has written this really interesting piece about the 16th century Protestant Reformation and its relationship to science. Enjoy!
“The Scientific Revolution and the Reformation”
Sometimes the Reformation is presented as being all about theology, but it is important to understand that theology was not the only catalyst for reform. There were several factors that contributed to the Reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One factor in particular is not discussed enough and that’s the role that science played.
Collapse of the medieval system
The collapse of the medieval system was a long time in-the-making. In many ways, it was only a matter of time before the growing ethos of unrest would result in a revolution, fundamentally changing modern Europe’s social and religious landscapes. The fading social order gave rise to a new sense of national consciousness, and with this, the ecclesial unity provided for by the Roman Catholic Church became harder to sustain.
Add to this factors stemming from within the Catholic Church itself, including the moral decline of some Roman clergyman and a perceived ignorance amongst the Catholic priests. There were also factors stemming from outside the Church, such as the advent of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century.
To this developing picture, science can be added as playing an important role.
Copernicus in Antiquity?
It may come as a surprise, but the notion that the sun is the center of the universe is not a modern, scientific view but rather an ancient one that the ancient Greeks advanced. Aristarchus of Samos (b. 310 BCE), for example, proposed what intellectual historian Bertrand Russell called “the complete Copernican hypothesis,” including the idea that all planets revolved in circles around the sun.
However, the theory was rejected in antiquity for several reasons. The main reason was its incompatibility with Greek mechanics. A second reason had to do with the religious and philosophical assumption that the corruptible matter of the earth could not be the same as that of celestial bodies, for they were incorruptible. So although the heliocentric model had been proposed in antiquity, the ancient Greeks were not at the time disposed to accept it.
Eventually, the Christian Church, forming its self-understanding within a Judeo-Hellenistic framework, synthesized the Gospel with a geocentric model and accepted this as the biblical cosmology.
Science and Certainty
What impact did the scientific revolution have on the European Reformations? At least two suggestions come to mind. The first is what intellectuals uncritically began to expect from a “science.” Second, and related to this, is what opinions intellectuals began to form of the Roman Church when its scientific authority (its teaching college) failed to meet those expectations.
For Aristotle, “a science is a deductively ordered body of knowledge about a definite genus or domain of nature.” By the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas felt it right to insist that sacred doctrine qualified as a science. Although “science” could refer to any “body of knowledge,” in philosophy it began to refer to knowledge of a very specific kind, that is, knowledge gained through an understanding of the cause. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the “sciences” involved not only discerning the causes but also the attainment of full certitude as a result.
In other words, both thinkers who pursued natural philosophy and those contemplating first philosophy (during the Renaissance, of course, these would have been the same people) were far less conditioned than their twenty-first century counterparts to be willing to suspend judgment on the subjects they investigated.
This is a subtle but important point. It was not that researchers could not suspend judgment nor that they did not suspend judgment, but rather that, as a matter of principle, “Aristotelian science” was now synonymous with the prospect of full certitude, especially with regard to results obtained from a field of study.
Copernicus and the Renaissance
It would take us too far afield to suggest how specific Reformers responded to the circulation of the Copernican view. There is only space here to make a general observation.
We saw above that a heliocentric theory of the heavens had already been proposed in antiquity. Some medieval thinkers, too, thought to try to read the Bible with the express understanding that the earth rotated on its axis. In the 14th century, for example, Nicole Oresme argued that when in Josh 10.12-14 scripture mentions that the sun stopped moving, the meaning should not be taken literally because it is not the sun that moves, but the earth.
Although he could not prove it, he argued that the earth would have had to have stopped spinning, and not the sun stopped moving. He was forced to drop his theory, however. His reading seemed irreconcilable with scripture and his proposal could not achieve exact certitude. A workable hypothesis was not sufficient; the academic culture of the time required that science be certain of its results to count as science.
Copernicus and the Reformation
Given the expectation for certainty, it’s not hard to see that it might pose a problem for the Roman Catholic Church if it could not establish certainty for the matters on which it taught, particularly in the areas of polity and doctrine. The sentiment of animosity that developed against the Roman Catholic Church (i.e., against the status quo) was surely fueled at points by the very idea that the Church could be in error on such a fundamental tenet as the place of the earth (and humankind?) in the cosmos.
Although Copernicus’ work was not formally published until the year of his death (1543), his ideas had already been disseminated during his lifetime via personal correspondence, a private manuscript, and by word of mouth. Given the cultural context, the theological and ecclesiastical landscape was one where a lack of certainty on doctrinal and philosophical matters could be seized upon by Reformers as a rhetorical opportunity for pushing an agenda of reform.
The prospect of rival authorities in polemics and dogmatics to the one established by the Catholic Church was not acceptable (a consideration the Reformers also had to guard against). Rhetoric, polemic, and disputation, all used to great effect in the Reformation, depended on giving an appearance of utter certainty. In a way, the Reformers had their work cut out for them.
From one standpoint, they had to demonstrate with certainty that the Roman Catholic Church traditions were contingent and not certain. By way of alternative, the Reformers pointed to Scripture as being, at least theoretically, the only real source of certainty.
At first, the Copernican revolution was officially espoused by a mere ten academicians. Unofficially, though, various forms of Copernicanism were entertained in the wider culture and indirectly worked as conduits for cultural and ecclesiastical reform. Even if different Reformers focused on different political and theological problems, the idea that the universe is structured in a way contrary to what the Roman Catholic Church officially taught played a role in unraveling the hegemony of the Catholic Church. This helped to pave the way for Christian groups to organize independently as ecclesial communities, some being started by the magisterial Reformers.
By introducing another aspect of uncertainty to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the Copernican model indirectly contributed to the success of the Reformation. The proposal and acceptance of the “new” Copernican astronomy may not have been the main reason behind the Reformation; but it would be just as unfair to say that the Reformation, even in its earliest moments, was not really affected by such a major development in the history of science.
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