Saturday, May 16, 2009

Science and the Roman Catholic Church

I have heard someone or other is making the usual noise about how the Roman Catholic Church "hates" Science. Speaking as a Chestertonian, and as a student of Jaki, and even simply as someone who has been a scientist almost as long as he has been a Catholic, I find that hilarious, since it is so plainly false. I won't attempt to summarize an argument here; I merely point to my recent Lenten study of some Catholic scientists, to the work of S. L. Jaki, and to The Duhem Society for more details.

However it may be that you'd like a somewhat more penetrating argument - and I am happy to supply it. It is not mine, but Chesterton's...

Just to set the stage, Mr. Turnbull, an atheist and MacIan, a Roman Catholic are arguing as they walk along...
"I begin to understand one or two of your dogmas, Mr. Turnbull," MacIan said emphatically as they ploughed heavily up a wooded hill. "And every one that I understand I deny. Take any one of them you like. You hold that your heretics and sceptics have helped the world forward and handed on a lamp of progress. I deny it. Nothing is plainer from real history than that each of your heretics invented a complete cosmos of his own which the next heretic smashed entirely to pieces. Who knows now exactly what Nestorius taught? Who cares? There are only two things that we know for certain about it. The first is that Nestorius, as a heretic, taught something quite opposite to the teaching of Arius, the heretic who came before him, and something quite useless to James Turnbull, the heretic who comes after. I defy you to go back to the Free-thinkers of the past and find any habitation for yourself at all. I defy you to read Godwin or Shelley or the deists of the eighteenth century or the nature-worshipping humanists of the Renaissance, without discovering that you differ from them twice as much as you differ from the Pope. You are a nineteenth-century sceptic, and you are always telling me that I ignore the cruelty of nature. If you had been an eighteenth-century sceptic you would have told me that I ignore the kindness and benevolence of nature. You are an atheist, and you praise the deists of the eighteenth century. Read them instead of praising them, and you will find that their whole universe stands or falls with the deity. You are a materialist, and you think Bruno a scientific hero. See what he said and you will think him an insane mystic. No, the great Freethinker, with his genuine ability and honesty, does not in practice destroy Christianity. What he does destroy is the Free-thinker who went before. Free-thought may be suggestive, it may be inspiriting, it may have as much as you please of the merits that come from vivacity and variety. But there is one thing Free-thought can never be by any possibility - Free-thought can never be progressive It can never be progressive because it will accept nothing from the past; it begins every time again from the beginning; and it goes every time in a different direction. All the rational philosophers have gone along different roads, so it is impossible to say which has gone farthest. Who can discuss whether Emerson was a better optimist than Schopenhauer was pessimist? It is like asking if this corn is as yellow as that hill is steep. No; there are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority. They may be progressing uphill or down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church."
"Physical science and the Catholic Church!" said Turnbull sarcastically; "and no doubt the first owes a great deal to the second."
"If you pressed that point I might reply that it was very probable," answered MacIan calmly. "I often fancy that your historical generalizations rest frequently on random instances; I should not be surprised if your vague notions of the Church as the persecutor of science was a generalization from Galileo. I should not be at all surprised if, when you counted the scientific investigations and discoveries since the fall of Rome, you found that a great mass of them had been made by monks. But the matter is irrelevant to my meaning. I say that if you want an example of anything which has progressed in the moral world by the same method as science in the material world, by continually adding to without unsettling what was there before, then I say that there is only one example of it. And that is Us."
[GKC The Ball and the Cross]


At 20 May, 2009 15:31, Blogger Maureen said...

Just because I bet you like him too, I thought I'd let you know that Professor Julius Sumner Miller, the guy who used to do those physics and chemistry educational shows for kids that were on public TV in the daytime, has some very Chestertonian quotes.

There are some more on this page, which is how I found the other:

I was a little young for his shows when I last saw them, and I only saw them when I was sick at home. But he was a very striking personality, and what I learned from him really stuck.


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