Is Gravity There Without Newton’s God?

Continuing the train of thought re: selective memory and ideology, here’s a selection from Noah Berlatsky’s piece for the Pacific Standard, “Would Science Exist Without Religion?” (ht Mockingbird). Here Berlatsky reviews Lawrence Lipking’s new book, What Galileo Saw: Imagining the Scientific Revolution and drives home how the metanarrative (correct sense of the word) of science vs. religion is a modern construct and, well, a bogus one. Berlatsky highlights how the scientific establishment would like to pretend it’s simple to sift Kepler’s and Newton’s theology from the theoretical contributions they’ve made but in reality such a critical extraction just doesn’t work. Turns out it’s pretty difficult to disentangle a person’s output from that which guides their methodology and outlook. Huh! Well, when the past isn’t convenient, you can always just skirt around those awkward bits and pretend they don’t exist, right? After all, who wants to remember the defeaters of their own propaganda? What an annoying aporia in atheistic historiography of the scientific endeavor: you mean to say Christian piety occasionally isn’t soul-stifling and brain-decaying? We’ll have to fix that one in the rewrites, I guess. There’s no room for the image of religion as intellectual graveyard here: religious belief provided the framework and the enthusiasm for the imaginative leaps each made in re-describing the marvelously peculiar universe we inhabit. Dispassionate rationality wasn’t the order of the day, nor is it today- that’s modern prejudice talking, not the history of the discipline itself.

The pop culture account of science is, as Lipking, a Northwestern University emeritus professor of English, notes, one of continuous advancement and ever-clearer sight—or, alternately, one of ever-encroaching spiritual death, as cold technology alienates us from our true selves. But both narratives of progress and those of apocalypse erase the extent to which the scientific revolution was fired by religious fervor. Galileo, forced to recant his heliocentrism by the Church, nobly refused “to be swayed by myths or orthodoxies,” and boldly declared, “Nevertheless it moves.” Except, there’s no record that he said that; the rejection of myths and orthodoxies is itself a myth—one of the founding stories of modernity’s science code.

Along the same lines, Descartes’ famous mental experiment, in which he stripped the world down to what can be rationally known, was, it turns out, inspired by a series of vivid dreams, in which, Descartes believed, God had called him to a great work. Kepler introduced his epochal Third Law explaining planetary motion by declaring, “It is my pleasure to yield to inspired frenzy, it is my pleasure to taunt mortal men with the candid acknowledgement that I am stealing the golden vessels of the Egyptians to build a tabernacle to my God.” As Lipking writes, “the brilliant mathematician in whose clockwork universe mankind still lives also pays homage to ancient wisdom and astrological charts.”

The fact that the early scientific greats had numerous loopy ideas isn’t usually seen as that much of a problem. Kepler’s record as both an astronomer and an astrologer can be dismissed with mutterings about the superstitions of the time. The astrology is jettisoned, and the pure science is preserved.

Disaggregating isn’t necessarily always that easy, though. For example, Francesco Sizzi, one of Galileo’s critics, looked through the spyglass too—and where Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter, Sizzi saw nothing. Was this because he had poor eyes, or a bad telescope? Maybe, Lipking writes, “students of vision have repeatedly demonstrated [that] seeing something involves the mind as well as the eyes.” Based on what we know now about science, Sizzi failed to see because he lacked a theory that would put those moons into context.

Galileo, on the other hand, could see because he had the right theory. Evidence does not lead to theory; theory provides the context for evidence. Which means that Galileo’s discoveries came not just from a dispassionate evaluation of what he saw, but from his imagination. And if he imagined those moons of Jupiter, are we still imagining them with him?

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