A theological blog 6-ii-19. The Protestantization of Science

The Protestantization of Science

The trial of Galileo killed Catholic science.  Catholic scientists now became terrified of being burnt alive by the Inquisition which had already burnt Giordano Bruno and would undoubtedly have incinerated Galileo had he not been the most famous scientist in Europe and recanted (albeit muttering ‘but it moves’ under his breath, as he has supposed to have done). As a consequence, that first great flowering of scientific thought that had taken place in Italy withered and died.  This first European science had developed almost unconsciously, with no questions begged, within the orbit of the Catholic understanding of the relation of God to the universe.  Catholic thought is essentially sacramental.  God is not outside the universe but within it.  Material things are not so much the creation as the expression of God, the containing vessels of God.  Matter is alive because it is deeply animated by God.  But not directly, in the thinking of the group of Italian and Christian neo-Platonic Renaissance philosophers to which Galileo belonged.  The first of God’s creations, they believed, was beauty itself, Sancta Sophia, the Holy Wisdom of the Bible – “I was with him when he drew a circle on the face of the deep” – and it was through Wisdom that all else was created.  They saw this original creative force as both beautiful and mathematical – a sophisticated belief expressed in its most memorable form in Botticelli’s highly mathematically complex Birth of Venus and Primavera.

 As a consequence of the trial, science now moved to the Protestant north and came within the orbit of a very different way of thinking.  To say that God was contained in matter was, to Protestants, the worst and most blasphemous form of idolatry.  God is no longer pictured as within the universe but outside it.  Matter is no longer alive but simply lumps of dead stuff, composed of even smaller residual lumps of dead stuff these scientists called corpuscles.  These corpuscles were not moved from within but directed from without by abstract laws of nature that God had imposed on the universe.  Mathematics was no longer itself a creative force but simply a descriptive language.  Beauty was no longer an intrinsic part of scientific understanding, which was now understood as wholly intellectual.  Beauty was appreciated not by intellect but by sentiment, belonging to the completely different department of art and poetry.  Intellect and feeling became sharply separated.

God has long gone from the explanations of contemporary scientists, but the ways of thinking, the containing cognitive frameworks, that Boyle and the great seventeenth century Protestant scientists bequeathed to them remain.


(To be continued under the title “The anything but neutral neutrality of Bacon’s scientific method”)


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