One of my favorite college courses was The History and Philosophy of Science. Hi Phi Sci for short. It began with the ancient Greeks from Socrates and followed the revelation of truth up to modern times. Many years later, a rabbi informed me that the first scientist was my namesake, Daniel. Not for befriending lions, but for an experiment he undertook in the Old Testament book named for him. While in captivity, he asked his guards to feed a certain group differently and notice how their appearance might be affected. Writing about the results for posterity to consider made it the first known experiment with recorded results, even if it wasn’t actually committed to papyrus until centuries later, around 500 BC.
That was around the time when Socrates approached the concept of truth as being interwoven with virtue and goodness in a single ideal that we naturally strive to attain. His student Aristotle discerned truth through his senses. Everything that he actually saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. His recording of species classifications still forms the foundation of today’s zoology, and his theory of a geocentric universe revolving around the earth formed the basis of science for almost two thousand years. Processing his experienced truths, Aristotle reasoned that a “prime mover” must have set it all in motion.
More than a millennium later, St. Thomas Aquinas found truth as a confluence of Scripture and science. Rather than in conflict, he saw faith and reason as different revelations of the same truth, explaining that “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.” Hundreds of years before the scientific method, he followed a Socratic method of considering and disproving false theories in order to arrive at the truth.
Aquinas was writing near the end of the medieval period when humanity’s quest for truth traveled most fruitfully through the Islamic world. Mathematics and medicine advanced in the Persian Empire, where pestilence and political instability were not smothering human progress. Advanced mathematics are necessary for any scientific endeavor, especially the astronomy that dominated science in that era. Society’s smartest minds were noticing incongruities with Aristotle’s geocentric model, which was supported by some Scriptural references to the earth being immovable.
Studying in Bologna, Italy in 1500, Nicolaus Copernicus recalculated those incongruities to determine that our universe revolved around the sun. Humbled by his achievement, he initially kept it to himself and fellow astronomers. He matriculated to Germany to pursue medicine, which was a subcategory of astronomy then. Anyone who drives in New York City during a full moon can understand the connection. The jack of all trades even expounded on the currency debasement afflicting his native Poland. Most consequential were his calculations defining his heliocentric theory of the universe revolving around the sun. Fortunately, he took advantage of the advancements in printing in Wittenberg, Germany, and published his findings for all to consider and debate. Disseminating such important revelations for widespread consumption marked the dawn of the Scientific Revolution.
It was the beginning of the Renaissance when art and science flourished in an age of great human awakening. Martin Luther also took advantage of Wittenberg’s printing presses in 1517, publishing his Ninety-Five Theses criticizing Church practices and igniting the Protestant Reformation. As revolutionary as he was, Luther agreed with the Church in rejecting Copernicus’ heliocentric theory because of its Scriptural opposition.
The conflict erupted when Galileo Galilei innovated a telescope that enabled him to observe the moons of Jupiter well enough to prove Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, although limited to just our solar system. He presumed that various star clusters must be very far away. Sharing his knowledge would lead to trouble, but in history’s greatest act of speaking truth to power, he published Starry Messenger in 1610.
Even though his friend and patron had become Pope Urban VIII, Galileo was summoned before the Roman Inquisition, charged as a heretic and facing life in prison. He defended himself by pointing out that Copernicus was a Catholic Bishop and his theory had never been declared a heresy. He quoted the Great Church fathers in explaining that if the Holy Spirit meant to reveal the truth of the cosmos in Scripture, it would have been made clear. He quoted one saying, “That the intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”
He was declared guilty and sentenced to house arrest in exile. After being forced to sign a formal renunciation of his work, it is said that Galileo mumbled “and yet it moves.” He knew the truth that he discovered, regardless of what the authorities of his day wanted to believe.
In January 1642, Galileo died in exile as a martyr for science, and later that year Isaac Newton began what would become a hugely consequential life. Walking in his mother’s garden one day, he wondered why an apple falls from its tree directly to the ground in a straight line. Something so basic and common captured Newton’s imagination and he had to determine why. He buried himself in studies of all the scholastic disciplines. Confined at home when his University was shut down during the plague of 1666, Newton built on the work of his predecessors and discovered mathematical relationships that explained the planetary alignment. His development of calculus was only one of the fruits of his “annus mirabilis,” and established Newton as the world’s leading mathematician.
The thoroughness of his Principia Mathematica published in 1687 inspired the great Enlightenment philosophers who found a new authority in science rather than Scripture as the path to knowledge and truth. No longer did humans need a specious God to answer life’s mysteries. Newton’s prickly personality probably brought out sceptics who couldn’t disprove his theory of gravity, but criticized his concept of force without a source as something of the occult. What the best minds couldn’t understand, they called witchcraft. In the centuries since, Newtonian physics have been proven in every human endeavor, from buildings and bridges to space travel.
Only by publishing his findings were they able to be challenged and proven true or false. Newton hated theories, preferring to deal only in facts, and his method of proving those facts has driven human advancement ever since. The Scientific Method that he pioneered was articulated decades earlier by Francis Bacon, a British philosopher who described stages where theories are presented, experiments are conducted to challenge their validity, resulting in laws if they cannot be disproven.
Charles Darwin brought that method to his observations of unique animal characteristics in the Galapagos Islands. Publishing On the Origin of Species in 1859 challenged the Book of Genesis and still meets opposition to this day. Darwin’s theory of evolution has forced theologians to see the creation story through a more allegorical lens. Science has proven that the universe, earth and life thereon were not created in seven days, but a day for God is obviously not the same as a single revolution of the earth. The entire earth, or even our galaxy or universe, could be God’s Garden of Eden. Scientists have yet to find remains of the predecessor to humans, even though evolution has been proven in other species. Humanity now possesses deep knowledge of how the universe, earth and life thereon came into being, and there is still much for us to learn. Proving Aquinas’ confluence of science and Scripture, we know Genesis got the order of creation correct. It would have been counterintuitive for ancient thinkers to see the heavens being created before the earth, and oceans before land. So the Holy Spirit apparently wanted us to know “how heaven goes” when the writer of that original tale was inspired to reveal the counterintuitive truth, millennia before science caught up.
Albert Einstein found the source of gravity along with some falsities in Newtonian physics which he sought to correct in 1905. He too published for his peers to challenge, but his theory of relativity requires interstellar travel to prove or disprove. Humanity has yet to advance that far. Science and the quest for knowledge have come a long way since Scripture was the sole source of truth.
With the goal of fostering a fruitful concord between science and faith, one of the early acts of Pope John Paul II was appointing a commission to study how Galileo was prosecuted for the truth he discovered. When he announced the Church’s pardon of Galileo’s conviction in 1992, he cited St. Augustine saying when Scripture conflicts with observed facts, it is because the theologians have misinterpreted their texts. Galileo understood this better than his persecutors.
Rather than seeing faith and reason in opposition, John Paul saw them like Aquinas did, as distinct methodologies that reveal separate aspects of reality. He describes the scientific mode of development, including culture and technology, as the “horizontal” aspect of mankind and creation. To achieve our full human actualization, he says we also need “vertical” development concerning what is deepest inside us, transcending this world to give meaning to our being and actions. “The scientist who is conscious of this twofold development and takes it into account contributes to the restoration of harmony.” Joining the spiritual component to four centuries of Enlightenment Humanism is among many reasons St. John Paul II is considered one of only four “Great Popes” and the first in a thousand years.
John Paul can also be seen as marking the end of an era. His successor’s eulogy decried the “dictatorship of relativism” that has infected developed societies since the end of the 20th century. Truth is no longer seen as unassailable facts, but a construct of the beholder. People speak of your truth, or their truth, while rejecting the premise of the truth.
Two years after a mysterious virus simultaneously silenced human civilization, we need the scientific method more than ever. Like in medieval times, today’s scientists must conform to the desires of their sponsor. That usually means the US federal government funding the vast medical industrial complex accounting for almost a fifth of our economy, with tentacles reaching into media, finance and most economic sectors. An enlightened exchange of ideas threatens too many people who are making too much money from the trillions allocated to combat covid.
Instead of challenging and disproving false theories, today’s heretics are silenced and canceled. When the esteemed scientists of the Great Barrington Declaration took issue with covid policies in 2020, the leaders of the government research bureaucracy subjected them to a “devastating take down.” Almost a million other scientists have signed their declaration. Emails revealed researchers who privately suspected the virus to be engineered subsequently declared it to be commensurate with natural evolution in a public research journal. Months later, they were rewarded with multi-million dollar government research grants. Having squandered their credibility, the “conspiracy theories” they derided have now become accepted wisdom.
After two years, no major medical institution has devised a treatment protocol for covid, even as private doctors risk their careers by sharing information about low cost and effective therapies. Information platforms ban any discussion not conforming to the government narrative focused on expensive new drugs and vaccines. Any objections are ignored as millions of lives are uprooted because people don’t want to take experimental vaccines that have proven ineffective against infection and transmission. It’s like clinging to the authoritative view that the sun revolves around the earth.
If the scientific method applied to political science, we would re-embrace the truth that a free exchange of ideas leads to optimal results. Instead of firing essential workers, maybe we should answer why there have been more covid deaths since the vaccines became available than before.
The emerging election season is swinging the political sword against those trying to silence science. Ineffective policies are finally being reversed as politicians prepare to face their exhausted voters. Citizens throughout the world are forcing their leaders to acknowledge obvious truths relating to lockdowns, facemasks, vaccines, and natural immunity. Quoting a famous poet, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”