Category Archives: religion

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ÖSTERREICHISCHE NATIONALBIBLIOTHEK

Personally, I see no contest between a belief in the existence of a deity and the study of science. Indeed, many of our greatest scientists have been strongly religious (Aristotle, Einstein, Newton, et cetera). Nonetheless, the world-wide conflict between the two rages on. Here I present an excerpt from an essay published in Nature about the very birth of science and it’s seemingly automatic perception as challenging religious faith.

“[William of Conches] argued that natural phenomena arise from forces that, although created by God, act under their own agency. William insisted, echoing Plato, that the divine system of nature is coherent and consistent, and therefore comprehensible: if we ask questions of nature, we can expect to get answers, and to be able to understand them.

That is a necessary belief for one even to imagine conducting science. If everything is subject to the whim of God, there is no guarantee that a phenomenon will happen tomorrow as it does today, therefore there is then no point in seeking any consistency in nature. But William of Conches could not countenance a Creator who was constantly intervening in the world. He saw the Universe as a divinely wrought mechanism: God simply set the wheels in motion. It is in the twelfth century that the first references to the Universe as machina begin to appear.

Some conservative theologians denounced this attempt to develop a Christian platonic natural philosophy. They felt that taking too strong an interest in nature as a physical entity was tantamount to second-guessing God’s plans. As everything was surely determined moment to moment by the will of God, it was futile and impious, they believed, to seek anything akin to what we now regard as physical law. The quest for laws of nature was also condemned because it seemed to limit God’s omnipotence. As the eleventh-century Italian cleric Peter Damian insisted, one could not know anything for certain, as God could alter it all in an instant.

Opposition to medieval rationalism was motivated in part by valid concerns about the dangers of bringing science into scripture. When, for example, William of Conches was denounced for seeking physical explanations for the creation of Eve from one of Adam’s ribs, conservatives were right to voice dismay at this apparent transformation of the Bible into a work of science. Read as a kind of moral mythology, holy books may have some social value. Deeming them sources of natural facts must lead to the absurdities of today’s creationism.

By making God a natural phenomenon, the medieval rationalists turned Him into an explicatory contingency for which there has since seemed ever less need. By degrees, such secular learning was found to have so much explanatory power that it rivalled, rather than rationalized, theology itself. The consequent rift between faith and reason has now left traditional religions so compromised they are susceptible to displacement by more naive and dogmatic varieties.”

from Triumph of the medieval mind by Philip Ball (Nature 452, 816-818 (17 April 2008) | doi:10.1038/452816a)