Catholicism and Science

Catholicism and Science: Renaissance Painting with Galileo

‘Effectively, Catholicism lost its moral authority the minute it mixed epistemic and pisteic belief — breaking the link between holy and the profane.’ —writes Nassim Nicholas Taleb, on Medium in his article On Christianity. I think that there is enough space here for some nuances.

Modern science did not appear from anywhere but was itself the result of Catholicism’s ‘pisteic belief:’ shall we remember that one of the forms of the ontological argument deals with the perfection of this world, which in the Christian religion was seen as the second ‘book’ of revelation of God (the first being the Bible)?

Modern science emerged slowly at the end of the Middle Ages when some of the main principles of mechanics exposed by Newton were developed.

Catholicism did not choose the epistemic arguments at a certain ‘minute,’ but science or knowledge, in general, was always a part of Christian values.

Since the world was thought of as the Creation of a perfect God, it could always be seen as a mirror of the unknowable God that can be known indirectly through the results of His acts. Therefore, rational knowledge of this world — which later transformed into modern science — could contribute a lot to strengthening religious belief.

This world, with its bright and dark aspects, was always a challenge to Christian theologians and believers because they had to unite something that rationally could not be united. Of course, other religions have a different understanding of this world.

Theology — be it Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant — cannot ignore what people know about this world (of course, if we leave aside Gnosticism, that thought of this world as being the creation of an evil deity); therefore, it cannot neglect science and its results.

God is not thought of (usually) in these religions as ignoring His Own Creation. In other words, speaking of God cannot happen in a void without any reference to the world. As much as we can know about an absolutely unknown Deus Absconditus is through His Own Self-revelation.

Is God a loving god? Who could dare to say anything about such an infinite possible entity based only on human reason and logic? But once you confess that you are a Christian, you cannot think of Him otherwise than being Love. And as far as the world is seen as the other means of His revelation, Catholicism — that inherited much of the ordering propensity of the ancient Rom, and especially of the constraint of thinking logically, because an empire cannot be controlled whimsically — had to grant a necessary positive value to this world.

For a better understanding of the necessary positive value of science for the Christian religion in general, we also must touch on the issue of sin and the evil character of the world.

According to the Bible, the world has been created as being perfect. It lost its perfection due to the sin of our ancestors, Adam and Eve. However, it could not lose it completely because, since it continued to exist, it carried the mark of divinity.

Where was that mark hidden in this world of corruption? In those aspects that could still be seen as undying, namely the laws of nature. These laws were the real essence of the world, its true substance. Decay and corruption were only the improper forms into which God’s Creation got through the sin of the first humans.

Thus theology and science had to study the traces of God’s perfection and timelessness in this temporal world. This is why Catholicism not only did not suppress science and scientific knowledge, but it promoted as much as it could (at least until the beginning of Modernity).

In those times, science could and really did nourish epistemic belief. And Catholicism was, in those times, the highest ‘moral authority.’

Now religion certainly has many heterogeneous elements that support it. One of them is tradition. And Aristotelian philosophy and science were a part of the Catholic tradition. The development of modern science and scientific observation clashed with that part of this tradition.

When Galileo was condemned for his claims that the Earth revolves around the Sun, this condemnation tried to hinder the collapse of a whole worldview, of an entire way of living — a collapse that those claims seemed to entail.

It’s hard nowadays to imagine the difficulty in which the Catholic Church was put at that time. On the one hand, this Church openly promoted science and scientific research. On the other hand, no one could have expected the clash of the scientific results with the traditional and religious worldview.

If the Bible, for example, was wrong in asserting that the Sun revolves around the Earth, then the whole Bible, as the ultimate warrant of truth, the place where you can find the most certain answers to all of your questions, the support of a millenary tradition and way of thinking, was jeopardized.

This crisis is the source of the new Catholic dogma that was issued in those days, namely the dogma of the two kinds of truth: the scientific truth and the religious truth. We still live more or less in the framework of that dogma, and it seems that Nassim Nicholas Taleb strongly embraces it when he claims that trying to find epistemic arguments for religious belief have discredited Catholicism.

However, this view was not always the accepted view of the Christian Church, and even Orthodox Theology — considered, indeed, more prone toward the mystical, i.e., non-rational way of thinking — always borrowed mundane elements to support its theological discourse. Its luck was that it did not come to promote modern science as much as Catholicism, and therefore, it did not collide so severely with science.

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