Gospel & Universe

Summa Post Theologica

This page outlines some of the scientific advances in fact and methodology that eventually provided a realistic (rather than mythic or theoretical) explanation for human life.

The Accumulation of Facts - The Possibility of an Explanation

The Accumulation of Facts

During the late Medieval period -- the days of Aquinas, Dante, and Chaucer -- the scientific method wasn't yet in vogue. Roger Bacon introduced this method in 1267 (in his Opus Majus or Greater Work), yet this was an opening salvo, very much ahead of its time. And while Bacon's Greater Work articulates a scientific methodology, it's infused with a religious sensibility: Bacon was a Franciscan friar, he sent Opus Majus to the pope, he urged close study of the languages of the Bible, and he was at pains to subordinate science to the sacred science of Holy Scripture. 

In Aquinas' day scholarly works promoted Christianity, and had done so for a thousand years. People debated the most intricate theological points -- reduced by detractors to the debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Yet the most basic facts of science were far from clear. As a result, the degree to which science could offer a competing explanation was not the subject of much debate.

For starters, no one understood the way the body worked. Leonardo da Vinci had yet to stretch out cadavers on the 16th-century tables of Italy. Even if the doctors in Aquinas' day had stretched the bodies out, the doctors lacked the microscopes to see deeply into what they were looking at. They couldn't, for instance, see the brain's astounding neurological complexity. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that Santiago Ramón y Cajal identified the neuron, the building block of our brains and nervous systems. 

Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of the structure of the brain.

Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of the structure of the brain.

The four temperaments as depicted in an 18th century woodcut: phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine and melancholic. -- from Wikipedia

The four temperaments as depicted in an 18th century woodcut: phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine and melancholic. -- from Wikipedia

From Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BC) to the Early Modern Age, the four humours (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) dominated medical understanding. Basic things like red and white blood cells were unheard of. Red blood cells, for instance, were only discovered in 1658 by Jan Swammerdam. 

The operation of gravity was a complete mystery -- an even  bigger mystery than it is now. The laws of motion and gravity in Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687) were so ground-breaking that Alexander Pope likened them to God's Creation: Nature and Nature's Law lay hid in Night; / God said, "Let Newton Be!" and all was Light

Until the 17th century there were no geological studies to show that the earth was older than the Bible's six thousand years. People didn't know that the earth was moving around the sun, much less that the fixed heavens -- that seemed so far away -- weren't fixed at all. As late as the 19th Century it was hard for astronomers to conceive just how far away the distant stars were. Geometrical measurements of parallax worked for nearby stars, but the minute angles created by distant stars made these stars impossible to measure.

Astronomers could barely conceive of the enormous distances required to make sense of other galaxies. They could only start to analyze the electromagnetic waves coming from stars after Henry Draper's invention of the spectrograph in 1876. Spectrography, combined with Edwin Hubble's use of the new 100-inch Hooker telescope, lead in 1923 to the verification of Andromeda, the nearest galaxy to our Milky Way. From then, further refinements in technology lead to the understanding that the Milky Way and Andromeda were only a tiny portion of the universe. Scientists were to learn that these two galaxies were enormous systems containing billions of stars, and that these two galaxies were themselves surrounded by an almost inconceivably big universe that contained billions of such galaxies.

Only in the 20th century did we start to understand the facts of the body -- with its DNA sequencing our reality -- and the facts of our infinitesimal place in the universe. One can hardly blame Aquinas, back in the 13th, for keeping to the logic of Aristotle and to the history of the Bible. Whatever scientific explanation there was back then simply didn't explain much.

 

The Possibility of an Explanation

To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible. 

Looking again at this aphorism (which I started with in Aquinas & Dante), we can see that while the first part still holds true, the second half has been drastically altered.

For people of faith, scientific explanation still isn't necessary. Even if there were a perfect explanation, even if all the pieces fit together undeniably, many believers would still ignore it, rather than cast doubt on their beliefs. Even if believers accepted everything science can verify, they would still believe that the core of life is spiritual essence rather than material existence. The existential notion of existence before essence isn't nearly as old as the notion of essence before existence. Scientists can prove whatever they like about physics and material things, yet this doesn't prove anything about God or the spirit, which are (according to essentialists) metaphysical and beyond any thing. 

The second half of the statement is less solid. Indeed, the quality of scientific explanation has almost made it obsolete. Almost.

Lens telescopes and microscopes, geology, evolutionary theory, genetics, DNA, electron microscopes, large array telescopes, particle accelerators, etc. have made the scientific explanation more than just possible. The solidity of the scientific method and the conglomeration of interconnected and verified facts has made the explanation so powerful and compelling that believers who ignore it resemble ostriches with their heads in the sand. One may doubt the outcome of the search for a Grand Unified Theory in physics, but physics itself isn't in question. On the other hand, the days of a Summa Theologica aren't likely to return. 

I repeat that the second half of the aphorism is almost obsolete. For the category of those without faith has split into at least two categories -- agnostics and atheists. Atheists believe that science necessarily leads to positivism -- that is, to the doctrine whereby only things that can be verified scientifically are true -- while agnostics believe that science probably leads to doubt. The atheist believes that a rational or scientific explanation is both necessary and possible, whereas the agnostic believes that a rational or scientific explanation is desirable but neither necessary nor at this moment possible. For agnostics, the second half of the aphorism makes a certain degree of sense, yet not in the way Aquinas would have meant it. 

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Next: 3. Agnosticism: A Playhouse on the Fence  ❧ The Problem with Explanations 

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