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Post Science, Religion, and the Republic of Letters
Created by John Eipper on 12/31/17 7:36 AM

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Science, Religion, and the Republic of Letters (A. J. Cave, USA, 12/31/17 7:36 am)

The backstory to whatever I write on religion and science is in my book An Idol-worshiper's Guide to God-stan. The challenge in discussing one, the other or both is losing context.

One of the most influential periods in the Western history is a period wedged between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, loosely referred to as "The Republic of Letters." It is typically bundled with the end of the Renaissance and the beginning the Enlightenment. I think it is impossible to discuss religion and science without knowing a little or a lot about the citizens of the Republic of Letters which provides the proper context for the discussions.

Here is a little I pulled from the book:

Between the 1500s and late 1600s, astronomy become the father of the Scientific Revolution, along with the mathematics and physics needed to interpret astronomical data. The credit goes to the likes of the brilliant Polish Nicolaus Copernicus [Mikołaj Kopernik, 1473-1543], the Florentine Galileo Galilei [1564-1642], the German Johannes Kepler [1571-1630] and the English Sir Isaac Newton [1642-1727].

On the heels of the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther that had split the Christian Church, Copernicus, a Christian and a mathematician, arrived at the simple but radical solution to fix calendric problems that were throwing the old Roman calendar out of alignment with the planets: helio-centricity. It was the earth that circled the sun. His idea was contradictory to the biblical texts, so he had waited until 1543 when he was a breath away from death to publish his revolutionary book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) that was dedicated to Pope Paul III and presented as an abstraction. All the same, his book was banned and forbidden from 1616 to 1835.

Kepler tweaked the circular orbits of Copernicus with elliptical orbits and had come up with the laws of planetary motion. To popularize science and explain the rotation of the earth, Kepler wrote the first science-fiction story called the Somnium, meaning "the Dream." His travelers journeyed to the moon and stood on her face, watching the earth slowly move.

Galileo, armed with Copernicus, a sharp wit and a newly invented telescope, watched the skies and the movement of the planets and wrote about them in The Starry Messenger in 1610. He combined abstract mathematics with actual observations of planet Venus and seconded the Copernican sun-centered model of the universe, which put him on a collision course with the Catholic Church.

In a letter to Christina di Medici, the dowager Duchess of Tuscany in 1615, Galileo defended himself:

"It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be understood by the ignorant, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth... but nature, on the other hand, is inevitable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men."

He was swiftly summoned to Rome to do some explaining. The trial of the elderly Galileo by the Holy Inquisition had shocked Europe. In a romanticized story, he had willfully defied the Church and stomped his foot insisting:  "Eppur si muove." But it does move! The globe certainly did but Galileo had recanted in order to continue his astral work under house arrest. His last book, Dialogo dei due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue on the Two Main World Systems) was smuggled out of Catholic Italy and was published in Protestant Holland in 1638. His soul was consigned to hell and his Dialogue was banned from bookstores.

We don't know what happened to the soul of Galileo, but his scientific work was saved from loss thanks to a Frenchman whose name is all but forgotten: Nicholas Claude Fabri de Peiresc [1580-1637]. He was among the formidable Men of the Republic of Letters who were building a bridge to the future through massive corresponding and networking.

As it turned out, the earth actually does revolve around the sun, so in 1979 Pope John Paul II finally proposed to reverse the 346-year old condemnation of Galileo by the Holy Inquisition.

The Englishman Sir Francis Bacon [1561-1626], called the father of the scientific method, proposed that knowledge should proceed by orderly and systematic experimentation, and by deductions based on data. But science had to remain compatible and complementary to the Bible. It was a high-wire balancing act between faith & reason, convention & conviction, and tradition & innovation.

Newton was supposedly obsessive, secretive, vindictive, a virgin and one of the most brilliant minds of all times. He was amazingly modest about his own achievements. According to his memoir:

"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

JE comments:  Newton's seashell analogy is priceless, especially (for me) because just one week ago Aldona and I spent hours on Varadero Beach looking for the prettiest shells.  Scientific research at its most visceral level.  Unsurprisingly, in this two-person contest I came in second.

A great essay, A. J.  I'm intrigued by the international character of the Copernican scientific revolution, with contributions from Poland, Italy, German, France, and England.


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